Talking ROMEO AND/OR JULIET with Ryan North
You might have heard of Ryan North before, if you like things that are good and funny and cool. He wrote for Adventure Time, created Dinosaur Comics, and, I don’t know, writes THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL, only one of the best comics being serialized at the moment. He also wrote an amazing Shakespearean choose-your-own-adventure book based on Hamlet called To Be or Not To Be, and in June, he’s publishing a NEW choose-your-own-adventure book called Romeo and/or Juliet. We’re all very excited about this over here at Panels, and I had the chance to do a quick interview with him about the new book, working with the dreamy Erica Henderson, and whether or not everybody in Canada knows each other.
Hilary Lawlor: Hi Ryan! First of all, you are awesome. Second of all, congratulations on how fantastic your new Shakespearean choosable-path adventure book, Romeo and/or Juliet, is!
Ryan North: Thank you!
HL: I picked Juliet and immediately stabbed Count Paris to death and was thrown from a cliff.
RN: You had a good run.
HL: It was perfect. Okay, so Shakespeare plays and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books are each individually super great, and only more great when combined, as we saw with To Be or Not To Be. But what made you move in the direction of that combination in the first place?
RN: Well, actually, this is a good story, because it makes me sound really smart. I was driving home to see my parents and listening to the radio and they had an actor on talking about how when people go to auditions nowadays, they’re usually auditioning off the text. But 50 years ago, every actor would have monologues memorized that they would perform to show what a good actor they were. And I was thinking, “What monologues do I have memorized?” Not that I’m an actor, but if I was, what could I talk about? And the one I had was the “to be, or not to be” speech from Hamlet. So I was going over that in my head, the bit that I knew, you know, “To be, or not to be / That is the question.” And I realized that it’s sort of set up like a choice, like he’s choosing to be OR not to be, like a choice in the old choose-your-own-adventures OH MY GOD I NEED TO WRITE THIS. So, that was my thought process. And the idea sort of suggests everything: you think, a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, okay, well, wouldn’t it be great if you could play as more than one character? And wouldn’t it be great if, instead of a play within a play, you have a book within a book? And all that stuff sort of fell out on the ride home, and my brother was driving in the car behind me, and we had walkie-talkies, and I was like, “I have the greatest idea!” And he was like, “Tell me about it, over!”
Then I got home and started writing it and realized I hadn’t read Hamlet since high school. I didn’t even remember how it started, so I had to reread it and take it from there. Also, I started writing Ophelia, and I had remembered her as being super awesome, and in rereading the play, she’s not really that awesome.
HL: No, she’s really weak, kind of!
RN: Yeah, she falls in love and dies! So I was like, well, whatever, I’m putting my Ophelia in, the one I want to write about. I sort of re-contextualized it. And it was the same with Juliet in this new book. Romeo was an easy guy to get a handle on, because he’s the guy who loves the idea of love. Done. He wants a girlfriend. He likes being in love. Super. Nailed it. But Juliet was a little trickier, because she’s more subtle. A lot of her best lines are reading letters that Romeo wrote to her. She’s a more subtle character to get a hold on. But once I realized, wait, this is a woman whose parents have controlled her life up to now, and Romeo’s not just the first guy she fell in love with, but the first guy she’s ever even met outside of her parents and the people she’s introduced to by her parents, that made her click. And then giving her muscles, that was a lot of fun. I’d never seen a ripped Juliet! She’s at home all day, what else is she going to do? It gave her a fun part to play with, because she’s strong, where Romeo can speak really well, and so, there are some problems you can talk your way out of, and some problems you can muscle your way out of. Just like in real life.
HL: By the way, I loved your choosable-path adventure in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #7!
RN: Oh, thank you! That was a lot of fun. Erica (Henderson) knocked it out of the park, I thought.
HL: Yeah! Just… squirreling away that mode of writing into every aspect of your art, eh?
RN: Well, they’re very different, right? In the book, when you make a choice and it says, “turn to 33,” you get to see just that page. But in the comic, it’s really more like a fun flow chart, where you can see the options not taken. There are places in the comic where I sort of play with the idea that you know, as a reader, that you’re not going to be able to do everything, but you’re also still kind of aware of what you didn’t do, because you can see it happening out of the corner of your eye. So it was a lot of fun to play with that, knowing that the reader had full knowledge of the options they didn’t choose at the same time that they’re reading what they actually chose, which you don’t get in a prose format, unless you go back and reread. Which hopefully you do. Hopefully you don’t just read the book once, die, and just go, “Well, that’s done!”
HL: Yeah, I ended up using all of my fingers as bookmarks to go back to different sections of Romeo and/or Juliet and make different choices. So, from what I can recall, most choosable-path adventure books I read growing up didn’t offer multiple perspectives from different characters as an option. What made you decide to write adventures within the books from the points of view of multiple characters, as opposed to just the main or title characters?
RN: Well, it seemed like more fun. And from a structural point of view, especially with Romeo and Juliet – Romeo is out of the play for a section when he gets banished to Mantua, and Juliet spends 42 hours unconscious. So both are removed for a bit, so if you were sticking with just one of those characters, you would miss a lot. So it gave me a way to sort of explore the full text, both with Hamlet and with Romeo. The other part is that there’s a sense, when you’re reading a book where you make choices, that you’re breaking the rules. Like, “This isn’t a real book. Real books don’t let you do this. Adult texts don’t let you do this, but here I am doing it.” So, playing as a character who normally doesn’t get to make choices – who’s one of the main characters, but not one you get to control – would be a lot of fun. Did you unlock Rosaline?
HL: No, I didn’t get to that part yet! She’s available?
RN: She is! She’s a secret unlockable character. If you go through the Shakespeare path all the way to the end, the narrator’s so impressed with how Juliet kills herself – she does it way better than Romeo does – that he’s like, “Wow, that was great! Here’s a bonus: you can play as Rosaline.” And he gives you instructions for how to unlock her in the book. So the idea is, instead of just saying, “Oh, Rosaline’s on page 33, turn there,” he says, “Look for an option where you have these two choices, and instead of turning to those pages, add the numbers up, divide by two, take the square root, whatever, and turn to that page instead.”
HL: Ooh, it’s like a secret code!
RN: It’s a secret code! And I love the idea of knowledge from a previous place in the book informing you on a current place. So, not only are you reading the book, but the book is changing YOUR space, and using you to keep track of information to unlock something new in the text. And I had a lot of fun thinking about playing with the structure.
HL: Well, that’s just one of the reasons I’ll have to go through and do literally every single option in the book.
RN: That’s a lot to read. You’re going to read a lot of words.
HL: I’m stoked. Okay, so, although your interpretations of the actual events of the play are hilarious, they also show a lot of insight and comprehension into the language of the play and the relationships between the characters. What was your research process like for this book, and for To Be Or Not To Be?
RN: Well, as I was saying, first I had to read the plays, which I hadn’t done in a while. A lot of it is just taking a very close look at the text, and making sure you know everything. There are a lot of very smart people who know a lot about Shakespeare, so I didn’t want to make any mistakes. But I was doing my best to make sure I knew what I was talking about. It also came in handy that, in both books, whenever you have a famous soliloquy where Shakespeare used really beautiful language, I tried to put it in more modern language, like in point form or a rap or something. I didn’t want to remove the language, because it’s part of the joy of those plays, the beautiful words, but it was also fun to transform that into a different format. There’s one where Juliet makes a PowerPoint presentation about her feelings. She’s like, “Here’s how I feel!” And goes into the slides, and it’s a point form of one of her soliloquies. So, it’s fun. I think nowadays, a lot of people think of Shakespeare as work, something you get assigned in high school to read. It’s homework. But these plays were written as entertainment! They’re meant to be fun. And there’s a lot of fun to be had, playing with these characters and playing in this world. So that’s what I tried to do, I tried to make the books lots of fun and very entertaining. I didn’t want it to feel like work.
HL: To Be or Not To Be has an incredible roster of artists, as does Romeo And/Or Juliet. What was the process for soliciting their collaboration back when To Be or Not To Be was just a twinkle in your eye?
RN: (Laughs) I like it. I mean, emailed them. I’ve done Dinosaur Comics for 13 years, so I have a lot of friends who work in the arts. And I really admire and respect what they do, because I can’t draw at all. I’m horrible at it. And seeing them take my characters – well, mine and Shakespeare’s characters, I suppose – and render them was just incredible. And so, for this book, I emailed them again and said “Hey, do you want to come back?” And I had more endings, so I emailed a bunch of new people, and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you want to do this, but here’s this crazy book I wrote, and I’m looking for illustrations for it.” And the way I did it was, I sat down with Katie (Kate Beaton) and we came up with the character designs together. And she’s SO good. She’s so good! And she also has such incredible knowledge of the time period, so the clothes that Romeo, Juliet, and Rosaline are wearing are things that make sense for the time period they’re taking place in, but also look distinctively like them. So, we had these characters, and we could say, hey, artists, I know normally for illustrations you just get requests like, “I want to see a picture of a monkey riding a spaceship.” And that sounds like a great picture. But it’s very easy to describe. But for me, it was like, “I’m going to send you your ending, but I’m also going to send you all this text that leads you to that ending, so you have the full context of how you got there. Or at least, one of the possible paths that would get you to that ending.” So, it was a bit more work for the artists, I’m sure, but the results are amazing. I’m consistently stunned by how good these pictures are. I mean, normally with choose-your-own-adventure, if you get to an ending where you die, it kind of sucks right? Like, you just messed up at reading a book. You read a book so poorly that you died. But putting the pictures in makes it so that you get an art reward that you can unlock, so there’s something that’s rewarding you for reaching that ending, rather than saying, “Sorry, you’re dead. Try again later.”
HL: Is there any artist in particular you’d love to work with, but haven’t been able to yet?
RN: I was fantasizing about emailing Alex Ross. He does these photo-realistic pictures, and he normally works with superheroes, and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do this super-realistic, wrinkles-in-the-fabric, ripped Romeo and Juliet? But, he doesn’t answer emails from strangers about crazy books. Which is fine! I don’t think he should! Also, all of the artists were my first choices. It wasn’t like, “Oh, Alex Ross can’t do it, guess I’ll fall back on all my friends instead!” That didn’t happen.
HL: Erica Henderson and her art are so dreamy.
RN: I agree.
HL: What has that collaboration been like for you? What was the process of taking Unbeatable Squirrel Girl from what she was – a Marvel superhero that almost no one had heard of – to what she is now (the best, obviously)?
So, Marvel was the one who hooked us up and said, “Hey Ryan, do you want to write Squirrel Girl?” And, “Hey Erica, do you want to draw it?” And they didn’t actually introduce us to each other. They just told me that Erica was going to be on art, and told Erica that I was going to be writing it. So we emailed each other, saying, “Hey, did you get this email too? It’s so exciting!” So, that was great. And I was thinking that I wanted to write a Squirrel Girl comic that was all-ages, and super-accessible. I didn’t want people to have to know a bunch of Marvel history to read it, because I didn’t know a bunch of Marvel history. I didn’t want to have to plow my way through that. So, she sent over some sketches that she did, just to show various ways that the character could appear. And they had such personality to them that when I was writing the drafts for the first issue, I had those pictures up on another monitor, and I’d reference them sometimes, like, “What would this character do, this Squirrel Girl that Erica drew?”
HL: So the art informed her personality?
RN: Absolutely! It was like getting a cheat sheet, I thought. Whenever I was stuck writing this comic, I’d just look at the sketches and be like, “Oh, there she is! There’s Doreen. I got this.” So, it was great. It’s been collaborative from the beginning. And the best part of being a comics writer is, you write a script, and you think you’ve done a pretty good job, and you send it over to the artist, and you get back these pencils that are better than what you imagined when you were drawing it. Which is incredible. That’s the best feeling in the world.
HL: So, listen: you, Kate Beaton, Kate Leth, Emily Carroll, a million more awesome comics creators that I can’t even think of right now – all Canadian. What is it about being Canadian that makes people so good at comics? What I really mean is, what is the comics community like up there, and how is it similar to or different from what you’ve seen in the states?
RN: Well, a lot of it, at least for me, is online now, so, you interact with people and make friends on the internet, which is great, because you have more friends who happen to live in your city. But Toronto, in particular, has a lot of great cartoonists who happen to live here. I mean, Kate just moved away, but there are still a lot of great people around, and it felt like we could all go hang out together, because we’re pals in real life even before comics. And it was always fun on Twitter when someone would find out that, oh, you know, Ryan and Katie and Joey (Comeau) are all friends and hang out, and they’re like, “Does everyone? Are you guys all pals?”
HL: Oh man, so it’s true, all Canadian comics creators know each other!
RN: Yeah, it’s one big igloo and we all just hang out.
HL: Last question: if you could hang out with your favorite comics character of all time for an hour, who would it be and what would you guys do?
RN: Anyone in comics? I want to say Batman, but I feel like that’s a selfish choice, because I’d just have a good time. But this is like Aladdin’s three wishes, right? And what if he had wished for infinite wishes, world peace, entropy to be reversible, and a cure for all diseases? You’d kind of be mad at Aladdin for not doing that. I’m sure there’s a Marvel or DC cosmic character who has these abilities, so I could spend an hour cajoling them into giving up those prizes. I feel like that’s the responsible choice: someone at the cosmic tier who can, you know, reverse entropy, and invent clean power, and solve all of these other great problems. So, I guess that’s what I’d do. Someone like Galactus. And then maybe, at the end, be like, “Alright, alright, now let’s hang out with Batman.”