Ryan North, Christopher Hastings And Anthony Clark Launch ShiftyLook’s ‘DigDug’ Comic [Interview]
Back in 2012, Namco launched ShiftyLook with an eye on turning older video game franchises like Bravoman and Rolling Thunder into webcomics, and they’ve done a good job of it, too. Galaga, in which Ryan North, Christopher Hastings and Anthony Clark reimagined space combat as the story of two teenage girls building spaceships out of giant pixels and blasting off to defend Earth alongside a two-fisted President, was one of ComicsAlliance’s best comics of 2013, and now, they’re giving the team a second chance at capturing that magic.
Today, North, Clark and Hastings launched DigDug, a short story based on the classic 1982 arcade game. I spoke to the three creators to find out more about how they adapt an 8-bit game into a character-based story, where they find time to take on an additional project and whether they’ve officially named their team.
ComicsAlliance: I am almost completely unfamiliar with DigDug.
Christopher Hastings: That’s fair. Arcades don’t exist anymore.
CA: I was never much of an arcade gamer to begin with, so I really missed out on it. Is all there is to it digging?
CH: The basic gist of the game is that DigDug is a fellow who has a drill and a harpoon-like balloon pump. It’s completely 2D, you dig down or sideways. There are monsters down there, and you pump them up with air to explode them, and then by exploding them you get points. Then, once they’re all dead, you move on to the next stage and do it again and again and again.
Ryan North: If my recollection of the DigDug Wikipedia page is correct, the genesis of the game was the idea of doing Pac-Man, but you make your own maze. So by digging through the ground, you make a path for these creatures to follow you.
CH: Yeah, except that they can turn into ghosts and follow you anyway.
RN: Yeah, well. It had some wrinkles.
CA: I would say that’s kind of a thin premise to base a comic on, if you guys hadn’t done Galaga, which is an equally thin premise.
CH: I’d say thinner.
RN: Yeah, Galaga is super thin. There wasn’t even a name for… anything, except that the game is called Galaga.
CH: Things happen in sequels, I think. They might start naming enemies or whatever, but yeah. That just meant that you could make up whatever you wanted! “Write a story about a spaceship that is piloted to shoot bugs in space.” They’re not even attacking Earth in the game! We made that up!
RN: They’re just there and we’re shooting them, because what else are you going to do in space?
CA: Is that liberating, to do an adaptation that only has three things you need to make sure are in there?
CH: I think it’s super fun. A lot of the fun that we’ve had with Galaga and with DigDug is taking these game mechanics and justifying it into a story.
RN: For sure. I think I mentioned this when we talked about Galaga, but I go back to the example of the Battleship movie, where they don’t have the phrase “You sunk my Battleship!” in the movie.
CH: So dumb.
RN: It’s so dumb! If you’re going to be adapting something across media, you should at least have the moves that people want you to hit, and that you want to hit. Having spaceships and teaming up with a duplicate of yourself, that’s stuff that we did with Galaga because it’s in the game and we wanted to include those parts. With DigDug, there are elements in the game that we don’t want to ignore, because that’s where the fun is. Otherwise you’re just doing something that’s… not… good. I’m a professional writer, by the way.
Anthony Clark: “Not good.”
CA: So you’ve got an underground maze, blowing up enemies like balloons. Once you hit those, where do you go after that? I guess that’s the same question of what do you do with Galaga once the enemies move down.
CH: Well, honestly, this is a much shorter comic than Galaga.
CA: So there’s a defined length?
CH: Yeah. Galaga‘s a hundred pages.
RN: Around there. Four seasons of about 25 pages each.
CH: DigDug‘s going to be eighteen, I think.
CA: So it’s basically a DigDug one-shot.
RN: Yeah, which is fun, because we did a DigDug strip in 2012 for DigDug‘s 30th Anniversary. A bunch of creators did comics, and this same creative team did one for DigDug about the kill screen, where he goes and hangs out with Pac-Man for a bit. I got special dispensation to use Pac-Man, it was pretty cool.
CA: Ryan, you mentioned you’re a professional writer. You’ve won “prizes.”
RN: Yes, I’ve won prizes for putting words on a computer.
CA: When you’re working on Galaga, you’ve got Hastings, who’s a cartoonist who’s done Dr. McNinja and written at Marvel, Anthony’s a cartoonist with the very popular Nedroid. So how much collaboration comes in with the writing? As a guy who’s used to writing Dinosaur Comics by yourself for so long, do you just knock out a script and send it to these guys or is there some back-and-forth involved?
RN: With Galaga, Chris and I had a couple of phone conversations where we sort of figured out what the book was going to look like and how we could draw it. I think it was Chris’s idea to have the cubes be a major factor in how Galaga played out, which was great, because it says “written by Ryan North,” not “written by Chris Hastings and Ryan North.” I get the credit for that, but it was his idea.
CH: It was.
RN: But with DigDug, I didn’t really have any ideas. I was completely tapped. They said “Do you want DigDug,” and I said “Yes, but I don’t know what to do.” So I emailed Chris and said “do you have any ideas?” and he came back with this premise that was really cool. So for DigDug, we split the writing. Should I say which parts we wrote?
CH: No, I think it’s fun to see which parts people think we each wrote.
RN: We divvied up the writing. It’ll be a surprise who wrote what, but the good parts are probably… all good parts.
CA: Anthony, do you ever get in on that?
AC: No, I was not involved in the writing. I’m mostly in this interview just to make sure nobody’s talking bad about me.
CH: Anthony works with me on character design stuff. We worked together to make the Galaga bugs, and I forgot we had to design monsters for DigDug until it was time to draw the comic. That one was a little less back-and-forth.
CA: That makes sense, though, because there’s a lot of color to them. They really pop on those pages.
RN: Yeah, the colors are awesome in Galaga and DigDug, and I think it makes the comic… look… better than it is? Which sounds bad, because it makes it sound like the comic looks bad, but it looks amazing.
AC: What you’re trying to say is that it’s the most important part, right?
CH: You do handle the lasers.
RN: Yeah, and the lasers are the best part of the comic by far.
CH: I think Anthony actually does a little more work than most colorists do in a typical coloring process. Usually, a penciller and an inker team draw everything, but when I work with Anthony, I’ll just say “Anthony, can you put a moon in? And maybe make a laser happen here?” There’s stuff that it doesn’t make sense for me to draw in black and white that’ll look better if Anthony does it.
CA: Along those lines, Dr. McNinja is going three days a week, Galaga is once a week, Dinosaur Comics every day, Nedroid updates frequently, Adventure Time and Midas Flesh are monthly, Chris just came off of Longshot for Marvel, which I assume was done a while back —
CH: Actually, I had to do a lot of little things on it right up until a couple weeks before the last one got printed, just because of dialogue matching up with the art, and bits where I realized nobody actually explained what they were doing. It said so in the panel descriptions, but not in the dialogue, so there were a lot of little fixes to do.
CA: Do you end up having to do that a lot in your own work? There’s an alt text gag early on in Doc about writing an outline and leaving it up to your future self.
CH: Oh yeah. Yup. I don’t really have to rewrite my own stuff, because as I’m drawing it, I can see instantly if something’s working or not, whereas if I’m writing something for someone else, it can be a while, a month or more, before writing it out on paper and seeing what it actually looks like.
CA: All that stuff is really time-consuming. I’ve done interviews with Ryan before about his process and the time it takes to write Dinosaur Comics and Adventure Time, but when they come to you and they want you to do something else on top of all that, at what point does it seem like it’s too much? Is there always room to take on a new project, especially when it’s short like this?
RN: For me, since I’m just doing writing, which I think objectively is the easiest job in comics, it’s not a huge time sink. It takes time to write, but I’m pretty much done, and Chris and Anthony do all this hard work to make the comic good! There’s always a finite amount of hours in the day, but especially when you’re doing a one-season strip…
CH: Yeah, we wrote the whole script over the course of last weekend. That wasn’t bad.
CA: So it doesn’t tax your schedule at all?
RN: I had some plans to play some more Super Mario 3D Land that day, but I just shifted that to today.
CA: [Laughs] I like how easy you make it sound. “I was going to play some video games but instead I won these Eisners.”
RN: It worked out well! Man, those Eisners come up a lot. We should mention it.
CA: It’s good for the résumé. Put it on your business cards.
RN: I guess I’ll just have to move “New York Times Bestseller” out of the way.
RN: This is why it’s hard to talk about winning awards. You can’t do it without sounding like a tool.
CA: Leave it to me, then.
RN: Be sure to mention that I’m two meters tall.
CH: Tall people have a better chance of dying younger.
RN: Is that true?!
CH: Uh oh! Ryan, you should look into that.
RN: Is it legitimately true?
RN: I made it to 33 and no one told me…
CA: I can’t believe how super vicious this got, and also that you actually just gave Ryan surprising information about his possible death.
RN: We’re talking about maybe 1% or 2%, right? It’s not 90% or anything?
CH: Oh, I never had to worry about it. I’m only 5’10”, so I haven’t really researched it.
RN: Oh… well, when we’re done with this, I’ll do some research.
CH: Hey, best of luck to you, buddy.
CA: Do you think there’s a chance that you’ll die before the completion of DigDug?
RN: Well, it’s written already, so I could die tomorrow and Chris and Anthony could handle whatever’s left.
CH: Absolutely. Oh, I’d be sad. I’d definitely be sad.
RN: I’d be a little sad too, but if I die from being a little too tall, my legacy is secure in DigDug.
CA: Assuming that you survive, which I hope you do, all three of you, are there plans to work together again after Galaga and DigDug?
RN: Well there aren’t plans not to, right?
CH: Yeah, no plans not to. DigDug is going to be running until March, so that’s the rest of our winter scheduled out. That’s enough planning in advance for me.
RN: If I could give a little “real talk” for a bit, I truly like working with these two guys, and I’d love to do it again. I feel like they’re both really talented, great writers and artists of our generation, and I say that with all sincerity.
CH: Thank you, Ryan. I feel the same way towards the two of you.
CA: Anthony, anything to say?
CH: Have we lost Anthony?
AC: No, I’m here.
CH: Sweet jokes, Anthony. Sweet jokes.
AC: No, I like our team. It’s a good team. I think we need a team name.
CH: Like a studio, right?
RN: Like “Chucklehugs Studio?”
AC: This was actually something that Chris said years and years ago in an interview that always stuck with me as just a nice phrase, if we could be “Team Nice Wizard.”
CH: I forgot about that! Yeah. There you go, done. Team Nice Wizard. I’ll register that domain.
CA: I know you guys all know each other through doing webcomics and being part of Topatoco, and obviously Chris and Anthony have been working together for almost five years on Dr. McNinja. Was that a natural extension of your friendship, working on a big thing together?
CH: The first thing we did together was that first DigDug comic. I was staying over at Ryan’s house for TCAF, and I think you just showed me the script for some reason? And I was just like “Can I draw this? I like it!”
RN: We need a better origin story that has more drama, because that’s exactly it.
CH: I had to find Jim Zubkavich to ask him for permission, too, so that happened. He said yeah, it wasn’t an issue. And I really like working with Anthony all the time, so I asked him to do it. What happened with Galaga after that?
RN: I think they said “do you want to do a Galaga comic?” and I said “Yeah, if I can do it with Chris and Anthony” and that was it.
CH: Oh. Great.
CA: I’m glad Team Nice Wizard has such a pleasant and efficient origin.
CH: I’m worried that when this is typed out, you’re not going to be able to hear the joy that’s in our voices. It’s just going to lie flat on the page and we’re going to look like jerks.
RN: Luckily, sentences such as these will alert the attentive reader to our true intentions.
CH: Ryan, that was exactly my idea.
RN: Chris, will it be a problem for you if I start saying things like “Anthony: I love Ryan!”
CA: So Galaga is getting pretty close to an ending, and with DigDug only being 18 pages, are there plans to collect them in print?
RN: I can mysteriously say that things are in the works.
CA: With DigDug, You start off with a guy falling down a hole, which is always a good way to start a story. In the way that you took Galaga and made it the story of two best friends and the President fighting an alien invasion, what do you add to DigDug?
CH: I think we decided to approach it like a survival horror. The protagonist, Doug, is sort of like a goofy space miner, and then he’s put in this horrific situation that he can’t escape, and it begins to wear on his sanity and he has to kill these really terrible alien monsters. He can’t figure out how to get out of the mines.
CA: [Laughs] So does it get very graphic with the blowing up like balloons and exploding? Is there body horror involved?
CH: Yes. I remember we had a chat with editorial over alien blood, because we wanted to have bloody, gutty exploding monsters, and they said “oh, just make sure that it’s a different color than red, so that it doesn’t appear to be too horrifically violent.”
CA: I was kind of kidding, but now I’m getting excited about that.
CH: Cool. No, it’s a big part of it. They’re not just empty inside.
RN: I think the horror aspect was the brilliant part of the idea. Suddenly you get to see a story told through that lens, and it makes the idea of DigDug really interesting. There’s meat on those bones. If I’d had that idea, I wouldn’t have needed Chris, but I didn’t.
CH: That’s true. It was my idea. But also, one thing that was really cool about it was that I don’t think I’ve ever co-written anything before. Teaming up with Ryan, he solved problems that I knew were there and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do about them. He just put in cool stuff that I would’ve never thought of. The character Mary, for example, was completely missing from my draft until she popped up in Ryan’s draft.
CA: Anthony, what was the final decision on subterranean creature blood?
AC: I think we just replaced it with Nickelodeon Gak™. We didn’t get the license, so we can’t officially call it that, but it’s Nickelodeon Gak™.
RN: That’s the Pantone color name, I’m pretty sure.
CH: And that’s 100% Anthony. That’s how we’ve always done it with Dr. McNinja, anytime there’s blood, I just say “Anthony, please put blood here. Lots of blood.”
RN: Do you get back pages with blood where there was not supposed to be blood?
CH: No, never. Anytime it shows up, it’s appropriate.
CA: So, survival horror DigDug, twice a week on ShiftyLook.
CH: Tuesdays and Saturdays.