Ryan North has been running Dinosaur Comics at qwantz.com since 2003. Digg's about a year-and-a-half younger. The internet's changed a whole lot in the last fifteen years, so Digg editor Mat Olson sat down with Ryan for a chat about the internet, making comics and how to cobble together a living in the wild world of online.
On The Pre-Internet
Mat Olson: Could you tell me about your earliest memory of going online?
Ryan North: I guess that depends on what you mean by "online." Taking the definition of Sierra Online from the '80s where it just meant "on a computer," I remember learning to read on a PC. I remember not being able to read. I wanted to play a game called "Troll's Tales" but I couldn't read, and I learned how to read to play that game.
Then after that was Bulletin Board Systems. There I was just looking for games. My first time on the internet would've been, gosh, pretty early. I remember it wasn't on a 2400 baud modem but it might've been one step up from that, just to see what's there — no, that's not true, sorry! I was on FreeNet, the National Capital FreeNet of Ottawa. It was free internet access, a way to connect to the internet as a whole, so I used that through a text-based web browser called Lynx. Yeah… been there for a while.
Mat: Wow, Canada getting ahead of the game with equitable internet access.
Ryan: Yeah, it was free! That was the amazing part. I still remember my log-in on FreeNet. The main thing I wanted at that point was an email address. This would give you a free email address, which for a while was a big deal. Now, nobody cares.
Mat: Would you count the BBSs you browsed as the first internet community you interacted with?
Ryan: I mean, technically I wouldn't because they weren't on the internet, but it was the first experience with an online community. They were very shallow communities and I mostly just downloaded stuff, I didn't contribute much. [Laughs] An early memory I have is, there was this one bulletin board where you had to upload and download in a ratio. The more people downloaded what you uploaded, the better credits you got. So my buddy and I uploaded some really bad shareware games but gave them really glowing descriptions of "incredibly rendered 3D graphics," "amazing sound that'll blow your SoundBlaster." In a few days we had all these download points until the owner of the BBS got us in trouble for uploading garbage.
So I guess that's early trolling? That's being a bad actor online for sure.
Ryan's First Sites
Mat: Let's move forward to when you're on the internet proper. Let's say late '90s or early '00s — right around you launching Dinosaur Comics. What were the websites you were visiting most regularly?
Ryan: I mean this is the thing that I think is worth talking about. The way we use the internet has changed for people. At that time I was visiting a lot of sites! I remember I liked the video game "Duke Nukem 3D," so I would visit [developer] 3D Realms' site every day. They'd update once a week, if that — but I'd still visit every day to see what was going on!
Mat: Maybe George Broussard has a blog post!
Ryan: Yeah! You're familiar with him?
Mat: Oh yeah, "Duke 3D" has been re-released enough times.
Ryan: In that time period, I had started — this is the nerdiest thing in the world — a fan page for "Duke Nukem 3D" action figures. The reason I did that was, it was my first time looking something up on the internet but not finding anything there. I wanted to know more about these action figures I'd bought, and there was no site for it. I was like "Well, I'll start my Duke Nukem action figure site." It's no longer online, so all that embarrassment is gone. I'd get emails from readers, which was really exciting.
In undergrad, they gave us some free web space — which again, was kind of a big deal at the time — and I set-up "Ryan's Page of Fun and Robot Erotica." I believe it's still up. The "Robot Erotica" was a single picture of two lady robots who were kissing, and the joke was I thought this was an extremely erotic photograph when it was just extremely bland. I mean, I describe it as a joke… I'm struggling to remember how it was funny.
Mat: I think that's probably true of a lot of early single-service websites at the time. Would you describe the photo of the robots kissing as more or less sexual than that one Aerosmith album cover [for "Just Push Play"]?
Ryan: Uh, it might be from that Aerosmith cover. Just looking it up now… at that time, if you downloaded a picture it took you a couple seconds if not a minute, so sourcing them was not great.
Oh my god! It's not that picture [of robots kissing] — that was a later update where I found that. The actual picture is just these two '50s boxy robots, and one's putting an arm on the other's shoulder.
Mat: [laughs] Okay, that's funny.
Ryan: Yeah, now it makes more sense.
Mat: So those were your first websites: "Duke Nukem 3D" action figures and Ryan's Page of Fun and Robot Erotica.
Ryan: There was one more, which was a fake news site in the early '90s mode of fake news, where it was like "The Onion." Some buddies of mine and I ran that in high school for a bit.
Mat: In that early age of internet hubs — "front pages" like Digg, pre-Digg — were you a frequent user of any of those?
Ryan: Yeah, I mean I have very clear memories of having a period free in lab and not having anything to do and just typing in random URLs to see what would happen. Bored.com had some stuff if you were bored, which was great. I think through that I found Fark, which still is a site run by a single guy. Later on you could contribute links. The issue with Fark was that it only updated, and I say "only," but it only updated forty times a day. During that hour where you were bored, you could run out of things to read on the internet, and sites weren't really designed to keep you coming back. I'd read Fark and I'd be done.
I'd read Slashdot sometimes, and that was all tech and nerd news, so it was a limited set of things you'd be talking about. I'd visit those few sites, and use Instant Messenger to hang out — but you'd be going to different sites and finding new sites to visit, to add them to your rotation.
On The Early Days Of Webcomics
Mat: You launched Dinosaur Comics in 2003. Would you consider that launch to have happened before, during or after the "webcomics boom," let's call it?
Ryan: I'd probably say during? I mean, when I launched it I thought I was going to be the second comic on the internet. I was reading Drew Fairweather's blog, and one day he linked to Achewood. I was like "wow, you can put comics online!"
So, I didn't have any culture knowledge of what was happening. I later found out there were sites like Penny Arcade that had been going since 1998. Very quickly you find out that there are other great comics — I met Joey [Comeau] of A Softer World a week in when he emailed to ask what I was going to do with my Nobel Prize money for comics. I was like "ooh, friend, hello, so flattered!"
After that there were comics everywhere. That was a huge time for sprite comics, which are very easy to make if you don't have any art talent.
Mat: I remember being a kid with access to MS Paint and trying my hand at making sprite comics…
Ryan: Yeah, anyone can do sprite comics! The thing I realized about a year into reading tons and tons of webcomics is that you're never going to read them all, and this low barrier to entry for webcomics means that anyone can do one. That has its pluses and minuses obviously. One of the minuses was that there was so much to sort through.
So I put up a "Links" page on my site linking to comics I liked. What I realized later on was that this curated recommendations thing that "Links" pages were doing would cement a friendship. It also worked in a sort-of internet-unique way. If you're a newspaper cartoonist, and you like and recommend another comic, there's a chance that some newspaper editor is going to replace you comic with theirs, and you're out of a job.
The way I always described [webcomics] back then was "it's free." If someone recommends my comic, that person is going to read two comics. There's no limitation there — the only limit is the time in a day to read comics in. It felt very free and open, which was nice.
Mat: After Dinosaur Comics you created OhNoRobot, a search engine for web comics.
Ryan: That was to solve a problem I had where I had all these Dinosaur Comics, and they all looked the same. Searching [for a strip] after a year or two of comics becomes hard. That was a way to, I guess now you'd call it "crowdsource," transcripts of comics for a database anyone can search.
Mat: And that was made available to other comics.
Ryan: Yeah, anyone could use it. Sign up with your comic and you're good to go.
Staying Original In A Static Layout
Mat: I'm sure this comparison's been brought up before to you, but David Lynch's single layout comic—
Ryan: The Angriest Dog in the World!
Mat: Yeah! I was curious to know — if not that one, had you encountered a single layout comic strip before you started Dinosaur Comics?
Ryan: If I had known about The Angriest Dog in the World, I would not have started Dinosaur Comics. The course of my life would be real different!
There's an idea that I've struggled with for a long time about originality. You want to do something completely original all of the time. How I came to [single layout] was, I had wanted to do a comic but couldn't draw, and I wanted to do one that was the same story but drawn different ways. I was like "well that's the exact wrong project for me to be doing, but if I flip that — same pictures with different stories — well that'll work, I'm gonna do it, nobody's done this."
The thing with originality is, Dinosaur Comics is obviously very different from The Angriest Dog in the World. It's like a three-panel strip, Dinosaur Comics is six… when I found out about the comic, I had T-Rex adopt a dog who was The Angriest Dog in the World.
Mat: Ah, I should've known about that!
Ryan: It's an early comic, but I retroactively folded in all of David Lynch's work into my universe by having T-Rex adopt a dog. [Lynch's comic] is fun, I enjoy it a lot.
Mat: Now it's looped back around to just a few months ago, when the American Chopper meme got really big, people were saying "that's just Dinosaur Comics!"
Ryan: I actually made an American Chopper meme saying that! Was the punchline "Lesbians!" with [Paul Teutul Sr.] holding his arms up like T-Rex?
Mat: I'm not sure — maybe someone took your meme without credit? I'll make sure to fact check myself on this. [Note: I'm pretty sure it was in fact Ryan's own meme I saw, but he was not the first to suggest the parallel]
Community And Controversy In Comics
Mat: I was a member of the Penny Arcade forum community from sometime in the mid-2000's to around 2010… when some things happened with that comic strip. I was about to go off to college and I was of the mind where I thought maybe I didn't need this internet forum anymore—
Ryan: It was a conscious uncoupling for you, like "I'm done, I'm on to the next thing?"
Mat: It was conscious, with a little bit of gradual drift away from the forums [before that]. I might say I made some of my first legitimate friends on that on forum. I still have friends who I met there while living in the Seattle area. There was a large community of forum members around there. I was the kid of the group, but we'd all hang out together IRL.
I don't know why my parents thought that was a good idea, but I still stay in touch with some of those folks. On the other hand, I made a hard break from the comic.
Ryan: That's funny, because we had a forum for Dinosaur Comics. I made friends on that forum who're still my friends today, which is crazy. That forum's actually still running — I drifted off long ago, and now when anything goes wrong with the forum they message me and say "hey, the database is down" and I go fix it. It's the same sort of "running on its own" that it has been since 2005.
I jumped in a few weeks ago to see what was going on. Still some faces I recognize, but weird to see it going on without [yourself].
Mat: I was reading Penny Arcade and PvP — I was coming at it from the comics-about-games sphere — and I remember all this stuff about Scott McCloud's theories of comics and newspaper versus webcomics rivalries. I don't want to rehash old controversies, but I'm curious how you feel about that since Dinosaur Comics has actually been syndicated in papers and you've moved on to do "Adventure Time" and "Squirrel Girl" in print.
Ryan: That whole debate I tended to stay out of, because it seemed to be like they were less debating this "print versus online" thing. It seemed more ego-based. Like "look at your tax return, you're not a cartoonist — you're a t-shirt sales person!" "You're not a cartoonist, you're a syndicate lackey!" Stuff like that. Just people shouting at each other.
Newspapers were struggling, web was the future and print was going to die. It was pitched as this battle. I think my first book for Dinosaur Comics came out around 2005; when you have a book come out, it's so obvious you can move between the two easily. You just print out the website and you've got a book, or you put the strip online and you've got a website. There's no conflict here. This idea that you're one or the other was a transitional idea that's pretty much gone away now.
Choosing A Path Other Than Comics
Ryan: As for Scott McCloud, he was big on micropayments. I don't think that system — the idea that you'd pay a fraction of a cent to read a comic — ever quite took off, but so many cartoonists now are supported through Patreon which is basically the same idea, scaled up. He was also big on the "infinite canvas": print comics are limited by the size of paper they're printed on, but online you can go as big as you want, which is true, but we've actually seen the opposite. We used to have these big, big comics online, and now much comics are slicing their strips up in tinier images so they'll be easy to read on a mobile device.
Mat: Funny how that worked out. At some point I read McCloud's book and found the idea interesting, and then later on in my "internet history" education I came across the cohort of artists who were very excited about hypertext novels with branching narratives. Like a purely text-based version of this expansive layout.
I want to pick your brain since you've released two full choose your own path Shakespeare books, "To Be Or Not To Be" and "Romeo and/or Juliet." In past interviews you've described the books as similar to an adventure game. This idea of a branching narrative versus Dinosaur Comics, with its static layout — do you see those as two different ways of telling a story, or do you think they share more in common for the kind of storytelling you do?
Ryan: With Scott McCloud and hypertext, it didn't quite work out in either case. No one was reading those hypertext novels… they never really caught on. When you translate that [idea] slightly, you're designing a game. You can have a small scale of that or a large scale of that, like three endings or three hundred endings, but these techniques developed for talking about and creating branching narratives found a use, just not the way we expected.
The choose your own path books I've done are very different from Dinosaur Comics in so many ways. [laughs] I tried to write one before I did a Shakespeare adaptation, and I couldn't go anywhere with it. I guess the metaphor I could use is, with Dinosaur Comics, I'm facing a blank comic every day but it's not a blank piece of paper. It has T-Rex and those characters, I know it's gonna be six panels long, T-Rex is gonna get excited on the second panel… there are restrictions I can work with. A choose your own path novel isn't just one blank piece of paper, it's an infinite number of branching series of blank pieces of paper that I need to fill.
On Improving As A Writer
Mat: So, you were at a loss trying to write a choose your own path story from zero, just as you'd be at a loss if you had to write tomorrow's Dinosaur Comic strip without the original layout. As someone who studied language and construction of language intensively, do you have any high level thoughts on how inspiration or how a starting point can inform the story that you're writing?
Ryan: I think anyone who writes — not even professionally, just often — has to understand that inspiration is kind of a fake idea? [laughs] I said that and "X is a fake idea" is from Achewood, bringing it back to early webcomics. This idea that you have to be inspired to write is… [pause] I never like it because it feels like you're mystifying creation, like "only this brilliant genius can sit down and write something," and it's not true. Like any skill, you can get better by doing it more often.
I look at my early Dinosaur Comics and I don't think they're good! I'm surprised that anyone read them. I think "I would not write this today like this. I'm glad you enjoyed them but I can do better now." You see the flaws of your work, and that just means you're becoming a better writer. The practice of writing when you're not "inspired," of being able to produce good work even when you don't feel like doing it, or you don't feel like you can do it, is a useful skill to have.
Part of what Dinosaur Comics taught me in creating a comic every day is you're creating a comic every day, even if you're like, "I'm out of comics, I've never had a good idea in my life."
On Making Money While Being Funny
Mat: Before we get into the changing business of webcomics, how did the internet's changing attitude around humor — towards decentralization coupled with the rise in popularity of memes — change the way you approach maintaining Dinosaur Comics?
Ryan: It's interesting. You look at Dinosaur Comics, and it's very word-heavy. I don't think you see very many things online with that many words in it anymore. [laughs] People are reading things more quickly. When I see a joke or tweet that's gone viral, and that person has four hundred followers or something, I always look to see what their next stuff is. I'm curious about what that experience is like for them! Sometimes it's that classic "Here's my Soundcloud link," other times it's "Oh! I got replies on this, what do I do now?
I think the main difference of things going viral on Twitter or Facebook now, is that's based entirely on the content of the thing you posted. We already talked about how this idea of attribution and authorship gets erased very quickly. You can't even tell, like, three revisions later what the provenance was.
It's a lot harder, I think, to launch a career by being funny on Twitter or online in general where things get re-posted and JPEG-compressed than it was in 2005 when you could visit my website if you liked my comic, and there were two hundred more to read. It was a lot easier to capture someone's imagination. I don't think, when you see a funny tweet, a person goes "Who is this person? Do they have a book to sell?"
Mat: Prior to 2005, when you had your first book come out, you were supporting yourself off of things like t-shirt sales. Now, you've got a Patreon page set up. How did you ride out the different ways you could have Dinosaur Comics (and comics in general) provide your income?
Ryan: When I started, I was a student. I was finishing grad school and, at the time, a lot of people asked "How did you become a full-time webcomics artist?" "How did you quit your day job?" My story sucked, because I didn't quit a day job. I just graduated and failed to get a real job, which was really easy to do.
The main thing was, I was initially selling shirts through CafePress. You wouldn't make that much money, like one or two bucks, but if I was selling screen printed shirts I'd make more money. I calculated that I needed to sell three shirts a day to keep up my fabulous student lifestyle — like living in an apartment with cockroaches. All I had to do was sell these three shirts a day, and it worked out. I'd try to imagine these people who were like "Topless no more! Today's the day I'm buying a shirt on the internet."
It was a good timing culturally, because people wore a lot more funny shirts in the early '00s. I was like "I can supply you with those!"
Mat: There was a period for me you could peek at on Facebook where it'd look like "Oh wow, Mat only owned shirts from Threadless. That's… an identity?"
Ryan: But they were funny shirts! I still like funny shirts.
The nice thing about webcomics — Rich Stevens of Diesel Sweeties once described it to me as, if you have 70,000 hits a day, that's like having 70,000 tiny bosses. You can get fired at any time from any job, but when you're being supported by the internet and your tiny bosses, you'd need 70,000 of them to fire you at once for it to be a catastrophe. That gave me the confidence to think Dinosaur Comics won't end tomorrow. If anything, it'll slowly decline as some of my tiny bosses go off and read something else.
The thing with it being a full-time gig is that it doesn't take that much time to make a Dinosaur Comic. It took me about three hours a day to write one — which is a lot for six panels and no drawing [laughs] — but even so, that's just half a day. The other half of the day was like a vacation the first couple weeks but then feeling horrible, like I'm wasting my life and doing nothing. That's when other projects like the comics search engine started.
Working On 'Adventure Time' And 'Squirrel Girl'
Ryan: The way "Adventure Time" started was, I think almost ten years after I started Dinosaur Comics, one of my readers had grown up and got a job at a comics producer called BOOM!, and they wanted a writer for their "Adventure Time" comics. They just went "Hey, let's ask the Dinosaur Comics guy if he's available." It's a boring "how'd you break into comics" story, but I thought I was doing a funny talking dinosaur strip when it was actually a visual resume that said "here's the kind of jokes this guy tells, here's proof he can meet a deadline, here's examples of his cartooning."
I'm lucky in that it turns out doing a website also works as a resume.
I started doing "Adventure Time" and "Squirrel Girl" on the side of that. It's hard to say what my full-time gig is now since there's so much stuff. "Squirrel Girl," the novels I write… everything sort of goes into a pot of "doing stuff." I still consider myself to be a web cartoonist. It's weird people know me through something else first. They go "Oh, you're also the Dinosaur Comics guy?" Or "you write 'Squirrel Girl'" and they know nothing else [I've done].
Mat: Well, you win a couple Eisner Awards and suddenly the scales tip.
This is interesting — in a past interview, you talked about the difference between folks who introduce themselves as writers versus cartoonists versus entrepreneurs, and you said the "entrepreneur" people are the worst of the three.
Ryan: This is the thing — if I'm at a party and I'm meeting someone, I kinda get to decide how interesting I want to be. If I want to talk to them more I'll tell them I'm a web cartoonist. If it's someone I don't want to talk to, I can fall back to "I'm a writer," or fall back to "I have a website," or fall back to "I'm a computer programmer" since that's what I studied for.
The thing with the entrepreneur thing is, I've always been a bit twitchy around labels, especially self-assigned labels. In my experience at the time, people who called themselves entrepreneurs usually were people who were into making money. There's more to life than that. I've since met some better entrepreneurs who're like "we can use capitalism to make the world a better place," and I'm like "let's work within the system." But I would never describe myself as an entrepreneur, because I feel like that suggests things that… I'm not. But I'll say "writer," "cartoonist," "guy who writes 'Squirrel Girl.'"
Reminiscing About RSS…
Mat: On the computer programmer point: in addition to OhNoRobot, you wrote a tool called RSSpect—
Ryan: R-S-S-P-E-C-T… if I spelled it out, it'd sound like the Aretha Franklin song.
Mat: So that was a tool that'd help people set up RSS feeds for their websites. Of course, RSS used to be a huge thing for internet discovery…
Ryan: Remember Digg Reader?
Mat: That's kind of what I'm getting to! Did you happen to use Digg Reader?
Ryan: I actually used — this dates myself — I used the LiveJournal RSS import.
Mat: Ah. Well, the decision to shut down Digg Reader didn't come lightly, but it's just the nature of what was happening with Digg. Running a free RSS reader with no ads is just expensive.
Ryan: You're fetching all those websites! Every feed requires a fetch, and with monitoring and the servers having to be up 24/7, there's a lot of invisible stuff for a service like this. I understand and hear the arguments of "why would you shut this down, I was using this and I liked it, why are you killing it?" But these things take work, and RSS is a system designed around having to pull to see if [the site's] been updated. For every feed, if you're gonna pull every ten minutes, that's a lot of requests.
RSSpect, the way that worked, was you could put some mark-up on your site to make an RSS feed automatically. It was a neat trick, but that also required visiting these sites to see if they'd been updated. That's tons of bandwidth!
Mat: Tons! I think a lot of people who lamented the sunsetting of Digg Reader understood that, technologically and cost-wise, there was a lot of upkeep.
On Making Peace With Other Platforms
Mat: You still maintain a Tumblr, and you distribute Dinosaur Comics not just through qwantz.com but through all these other means so that folks can encounter it in those channels. How do you feel about keeping up all those different modes of distributing your work, and how do you go about discovering new stuff online now? Do you miss the days of everyone being all-in on RSS, the days of a — for lack of a better term — more "curious" internet?
Ryan: Yeah, no — that's what I loved. With RSS, it's decentralized, [but] I still feel like its so important to have your stuff in a place that's yours.
I see people on YouTube being upset about the Adpocalypse, but that can't be unexpected when you're putting all your output on a single private platform that you don't control. Stuff like that is going to happen when you don't own what you're doing. I'm a big fan of people having their own website, having their own servers.
That said, people don't really visit websites any more. That's why the internet's changed — Facebook, especially, doesn't want you leaving Facebook. I think it's bad for people making stuff for sure, I think it's bad for the internet in general… but if you're not putting your stuff on Facebook and Twitter, you're kind of losing out on that audience.
I'm really of two minds on it. For the longest time, the Dinosaur Comics Twitter feed would just post a link to the comic with a little description of it. Twitter would fetch the Dinosaur Comics page and put a little image there as a preview, but the reality of the way Twitter's designed is that it's more convenient to have the pictures there already. So now I slice up the images into four so you can read on your phone, and it's a better way [for people] to read on Twitter for sure, but those are people who won't visit the website — who might not know the website exists.
Now I'm just like those people on YouTube where I'm posting this on a feed I don't control, the rules can change tomorrow and there's nothing I can do. I'm worried about it because, the more you're adapting to reach these audiences, the more you're playing by the rules of a large company who's never going to care about you personally. But there's not much I can do — I'm not going to get mad at readers for not reading the comic a different way. I'm not sure what the answer is.
Mat: Yeah, if the only way you make money is to get people to visit your website directly, you're probably toast. Unless you're the New York Times.
Ryan: Even then — do people visit the New York Times home page as much as they visit whatever the link people are mad about today is?
Mat: [laughs] Whatever today's op-ed column is?
Ryan: At the bottom of this now there's got to be someone who is submitting links to curated websites or who is curating stuff, but the more we rely on these networks to bubble up the stuff that's exciting today, the harder it is for the people making that stuff to survive.
If you take all the music from the '80s, and instead of exploring that era you listen to one greatest hits cassette and think "now I've covered that period" — you haven't! There's so much more out there. There are people who're fine with that, but there's more out there. The more we rely on these "greatest hits versions" of the internet, the more we'll lose that other stuff that does cost money to create and used to be supported by advertising or even by Patreon but which can't do that indefinitely if people aren't looking at it.
Mat: Especially if the quality of the curation is suspect because its algorithmically generated by a system whose creators weren't particularly thoughtful about what they were building. Or who want to maximize attention and polarization…
Ryan: But my greatest hits cassette is selected to be the ten songs that'll make you most outraged, and You Won't Believe Number Six! And instead of songs, it's news articles. You can start to see the problem.
Mat: No one wants the news roundup that's equivalent to a mixtape with "Mambo No. 5" on it.
On Being 'The Dinosaur Comics Guy'
Mat: I reached out to you for this interview primarily to talk about Dinosaur Comics since it's your longest-running project, but not everyone who has maintained a website for this long wants to be identified as the "insert-site-here person." From what I can tell, it seems like you still enjoy working on the comic and aren't quick to distance yourself from it — for instance, your new book ["How To Invent Everything"] is based on an old t-shirt and poster design of yours, correct?
Ryan: [laughs] Well, the idea initially found instantiation as a t-shirt, and now it's a book. Someone funny on Twitter said "I'm gonna look at your other t-shirts and find out what your book in 2020 is gonna be." That's a good joke/burn.
Mat: To me, that move doesn't seem cynical though. It doesn't seem like you've let Dinosaur Comics' long tenure on the internet turn it into something that exist purely to trade on people's nostalgia for it. It doesn't seem like you'd write a book based on a shirt if you didn't think there was more to that idea. For other webcomics artists it seems inevitable that their projects end up abandoned or in a slow decline. Do you think the internet ecosystem could be structured differently artists' interest in old ideas going?
Ryan: I'm super happy to be known as the Dinosaur Comics guy. I think it's a good strip and I still like making it!
I feel like if I was still doing Dinosaur Comics and only doing that, I'd be frustrated. There are things you can't do [in the Dinosaur Comics format] like a choose your own path story. The nice thing Dinosaur Comics has given me is that it's not a full-time job and I can do other stuff. Since Dinosaur Comics is a baseline for me with my tiny bosses, the other stuff doesn't need to succeed. It doesn't need to be a moneymaker, so I can take the risk and say "I'm gonna do a CYOA Shakespeare — I don't know if people will like that!"
I think the safety to take risks is important in any creative work because if you can't, you're not going to be as creative as you could be. Stuff like Patreon helps because it's reliable compared to a new shirt no one likes. Things like Kickstarter can help because they help you gauge interest before an idea exists, with the caveat [being] now you have to make the idea.
I will also say, I think stuff like Canada having a better social safety net when it comes to healthcare helps a lot. It's a lot easier to quit a job or to fail to get a job when you know you're not risking your long-term health to do it. That you can still walk into a hospital and get looked at for free because you live in a country with medicine. That's something you can work on.
But yeah, the more artists can be supported — the less risk they have to take to their financial and physical well-being — the more art you're going to get. That's hard, and I think it's getting harder with the way things are now, where you'll read a bunch of viral comics, you won't know who made them and you won't look for more because nothing's encouraged you to, the systems you're in are designed not to make you do that.
Mat: The internet is lauded for breaking down barriers for people to have their work seen, but at the same time it has devalued those people's work — and if folks confess to struggling in that system, they're told they're not working hard enough since it's ostensibly "easier" for them to live that life.
Ryan: I mean, people say "the greatest way to be an artist is to marry someone who has a full-time job." It makes sense, but that's not a business plan. That's a "hope I get lucky and fall in love with someone rich" sorta plan.
I don't have an answer that solves this problem, aside from knowing that myself and a lot of other people have adapted by having multiple income streams rather than one giant one. A whole bunch of stuff keeps my head above water; any one of those can fail, and it's not a catastrophe, because I've got these seven tiny jobs. It's hard to come up with a way that you can support artists or even just people doing interesting stuff online that makes it sustainable. It's harder when you can't get unmediated access to your audience.
When I post an update to Facebook for Dinosaur Comics, let's say 60,000 people have liked that page — 2,000 people see it. Facebook's there saying "you know, for five bucks you can reach a hundred more people…" this is horrible! You're literally holding an audience hostage so you can make money.
Mat: Well, if people want to see your comics they should go right to qwantz.com via the hyperlink I'll drop right there. The comics are right there! Unmediated access!
Mat: A few more tiny questions. First: where exactly did the dinosaur art come from. Is it actually clip art?
Ryan: It is from clip art! In the late '90s, there was a phase for about a year where you could buy these long strips of CD-ROMs — like ten in a folding array of CD slips — that was basically discount software. Some of them would be really good. One had "Space Quest 4," and a disc with, like, three hundred fonts. I was like "That's amazing, I'm in." It also had drawing software that had these dinosaurs in it, so when I wanted to start my comic I only had MS Paint and this software, which was already several years old at that point. I just copy-pasted these dinosaurs into MS Paint and made a comic out of that.
Mat: Are you still stuck with MS Paint?
Ryan: I am! I'm actually still stuck with the Windows XP version of MS Paint. The way the Windows XP version of MS Paint renders fonts — I use Lucida Console — is incorrect. There's a bug, and I can't get any other software to make the font look the same no matter what I do. So the XP version of Paint no longer saves reliably on Vista and above, so I have the modern version of MS Paint. I copy the layout into the classic version of Paint, layout the strip there, then copy that back into modern Paint so I can save it. I'll be running this on virtual machines real soon to keep that font rendering going. I tried without it and it just looks wrong. It changes the nature of the strip, so I'm stuck with 2003-era technology.
Mat: Running Dinosaur Comics or any of your other projects, did you ever experience the "Digg Effect?"
Ryan: I think so. I never had the greatest analytics, so I'd see a spike and go "Where is this coming from?" I'd visit sites I liked to see if it'd been posted anywhere. There were times it'd be on Digg.
I never got on Slashdot…
Mat: Are you a little sore you didn't get on there?
Ryan: No, because I had a submitted link get on there. I was "beating" Slashdot — I had a score 5 comment and a link that got posted and went "That's it! There's nothing else to do on Slashdot."
Mat: If you could pick one other long-time internet person who you'd like to see an interview like this with, a creator or someone who has run a community, who would you like that to be?
Ryan: I think you could have a really interesting discussing with the MetaFilter people. They've been around since the beginning, and they're one of the few forums that started good and stayed good? They didn't crash into the shoals of 4chan. I'd be really interested to hear how you keep a community healthy for decade-plus. They're in the content curation business with the "good comments" business, so that's an interview I want to read!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter here. His next book, "How To Invent Everything," will be released on September 18th. You can find out more about it right here. One time, he got stuck in a hole with his dog.