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Crowd Funding Watch: Ryan North Remixes A Shakespeare Classic With ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ [Interview]

The cross section of webcomics creators and crowd-sourced funding is logically large. Having bucked the traditional route of starting their project with a publisher, creators of webcomics have often needed to find new ways of raising funds in order to keep releasing their art to a wider audience. Perhaps no other collective of artists embody this D.I.Y. spirit than the friends and colleagues connected to the online merchandise company TopatoCo.

Started by Overcompensating creator Jeffrey Rowland, the company has drawn-in the talents of people like Wondermark!‘s David Malki and Dinosaur Comics‘ Ryan North. A favorite of this site, North has gathered some of the finest independent artists for a new Kickstarter campaign for an illustrated, choseable-path book based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, titled To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure. The campaign has already wildly surpassed its original funding goal, but because the project looks so appealing we’re still going to talk to Ryan North What It Is, How Much It Will Cost, What You Get, When You’ll Get It, and Why You Should Care.

What It Is: Over 100 different endings and death scenes illustrated by creators like Randall Munroe (XKCD), Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant), Jeph Jacques (Questionable Content) Anthony Clark (Nedroid), Aaron Diaz (Desden Codak), Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie), Chris Hastings (Dr. McNinja), Jess Fink (Chester 5000 XYV), David Malki! (Wondermark) Ray Fawkes (One Soul), Emily Carroll (The Prince and The Sea), and many, many others. Think of a popular webcomic artist; they are probably doing an illustration in this book.

How Much It Will Cost: $20,000, but that doesn’t matter because the project has already raised over $100,000 and there’s still two weeks left in the campaign. This book is being made. In fact, North has already pledged to write a sequel. If the project raises over $200,000, then there’s a hint that North will try to take the project to stage.

What You Get: A reasonable $20 will get you a physical copy and digital download of the book. $50 will snag you the hardcover (worth it), and if you’re really into the project, $5,001 will get you a painting of dinosaur along with you’re own adventure story pamphlet and a ton of other stuff like posters, temporary tattoos, and a soul-searching conversation with North (intense emotional revelations not guaranteed).

When You’ll Get It: May 2013, which is pretty quick considering all of the different artists involved and the complexity of the plot, which North has already plotted out.

Why You Should Care: If you don’t want to see a tremendous cast of webcomics creators that have a history of delivering quality, independent books contribute to a choose-your-own-path remix of Shakespeare’s Halmet, which has already been promised a sequel, then I don’t know what I could write that would convince you otherwise.

Wanting to know more about this expansive project, I reached out to North with a few questions.

ComicsAlliance: Did you expect to raise this much money?

Ryan North: Hah! No. No, I did not. When we launched I put stretch goals out to $100k, thinking, “Well, at least worst case I’ll be prepared.” Four days later I had to write stretch goals out to $200k because we’d blown past all my previous ones, and two of those new ones have already been met, too. To say that the response has been “amazing and incredible” would almost be underselling it. I’m humbled and grateful! And it’s exciting, because each of these goals has made the book better. It’s going to be a really cool book.

CA: Are you sharing the funds with the other artists, or are they being paid a flat rate for their work, or did they donate to your book?

RN: Before the Kickstarter launched I contacted the artists involved saying “Hey, here’s a book I wrote, here’s a copy of it for you to read, and I’m planning to launch this with a Kickstarter. Would you be willing to do an illustration at fair-rate, and if so, would you be willing to let me mention your involvement on the Kickstarter page?” Everyone who said yes also said I could mention them on the Kickstarter, which was super exciting. And when they submitted the illustrations they got paid, even before the Kickstarter launched.

That’s actually one of the reasons it launched with just 30 illustrations: that was the limit of what I could personally afford. I wanted to ensure that even if the project failed, the artists would still get paid.

It’s funny — after we launched I got an email from one of the artists I’d emailed saying “So hey, am I in or not?” It turns out I thought I’d never heard back from them, but they’d actually written back to my email within 10 minutes of my message saying yes and I’d somehow never seen it. I felt like such a jerk. I added them to the Kickstarter page as soon as I could, and yes, I sent out a thousand apologies to them.

CA: You’ve hinted at a staged performance of this if you raise enough money. Do you have any experience in theatre? How would a choose-your-own-path play work?

RN: I don’t, but I have friends who do! I don’t want to give too much away, but one element would be to livestream the performance and let people vote for choices online. It might be insane.

CA: You’ve committed to a sequel at this point — a sequel of Hamlet?! Plus, a prequel about Yorick. Can you tell us more?

RN: Well it probably won’t be a sequel to To Be Or Not To Be, because there’s so many different endings to choose from. More likely it’ll be another Shakespeare book in the same “choose your own path” format. I haven’t settled on a book yet (because it was that $100k goal which was “I will write a sequel” and I did not expect us to reach it), but there’s been a few that seem really exciting. I’m looking for something with a few characters that can run through the plot, and if one of them’s female, so much the better. But, nothing’s set in stone yet!

For Yorick, the idea would be to have a mini adventure set years before Hamlet. Yorick as a character shows up in the play as the dead guy’s skull that Hamlet muses about for a bit. He’s got literally one line of character description:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? (Hamlet, V.i)

So all we know is that he’s got a fellow of infinite jest, he carried Hamlet on his back a bunch, and they kissed each other on the lips all the time. Those are some great details: there’s lots of detail to fill in, but still interesting enough specifics that we feel like we know the guy. Anyway, the prequel (I haven’t written it yet) is called Poor Yorick, and you’re playing as Yorick, who’s broke! To make money he takes a job at the royal court, entertaining Kid Hamlet. I think part of the fun will be flipping the usual adventure-book paradigm: instead of being destined for greatness, you’re destined to die. The universe needs you dead. The death endings will be the good ones, and the ending where you survive will cause a universe-altering paradox. That’s where I’m at with it.

CA: Out of all the webcomics creators, you and your colleagues around the TopatoCo online store seem to be reasonably successful. Do you feel that way? If so, what do you attribute to your success? How does this Kickstarter compare to the success of Dinosaur Comics and Machine of Death?

RN: Oh, there’s tons of people doing awesome things with comics online — I’m just one dude! I think with most things online, if you treat your audience like friends instead of like Impressions and Clickthrough Percentages and Returns On Investment, then you’re off to a great start.

I’m not really sure how to compare this Kickstarter to Dinosaur Comics and Machine of Death; they’re all very different beasts. But, the sudden, unexpected enthusiasm is the same with this and Machine of Death, I think. With Machine of Death, we became the #1 bestselling book on Amazon in a single day. That feeling of, “Oh my gosh, is this really happening?” I’ve got that now.

CA: How many distinct audio books will you have to do now? Who will do the voice work?

RN: For the voice work, no idea! That’s all still being worked out. I’m hoping to come up with a clever way to make the audiobook interactive too, but there’ll still be straight MP3s for people who want them. If we do every possible path, there will be infinite audiobooks, because you can loop in To Be Or Not To Be. So, to answer your question: infinity. There will be infinity audio books.

CA:Why Hamlet?

RN: A few reasons: I love it, and there’s this really clear goal that drives the action from almost the very start: Kill Claudius. Plus, I felt there was a lot I could do with Ophelia, and the fact that Hamlet is insane (maybe) the whole time means working in the crazy choices that people make during a choose-your-own-path book is a bit easier. But, honestly, the format and title came to me first while I was driving — “To be or not to be! It’s structured like a choice, almost like a choose-your-own-ad OH MY GOSH I HAVE TO DO THIS!” — and then I had a minute or so of all the possibilities exploding in front of my mind’s eye. I started writing it as soon as I got home.

The fact that there’s a play-within-a-play in Hamlet is also awesome, because it means I got to write an entirely separate choose-your-own-path book within a choose-your-own-path book. You play as Claudius reading this book, trying not to reveal himself as a murderer. It’s super fun!

You can learn more about To Be Or Not To Be and its rewards at the official Kickstarter project page.

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