Ryan North Talks ‘Adventure Time’ Comic: “The Zombies Represent Friendship” [Interview]
To say that we here at ComicsAlliance are fans of Cartoon Network's Adventure Time is understating things almost as much as saying that we're fans of Dinosaur Comics creator Ryan North. They're like chocolate and peanut butter for us, which is why were were all thrilled at the announcement that North would be writing the all-new Adventure Time comic that's coming out in February from Boom! Studios.
That's why today, we've sat down with North for an interview about his first foray into writing a licensed comic, whether or not he's going to adapt his signature Dinosaur Comics style to the adventures of Finn and Jake, and how friendship is like a zombie outbreak.ComicsAlliance: How did they approach you to write for the Adventure Time comic? It seems like the creators of the show follow at least a few webcomics -- there was an episode where the Ice King hid inside an animated version of Kate Beaton's Fat Pony -- so were they already fans of your work?
Ryan North: Yep! The editors knew me through Dinosaur Comics and floated the idea of me writing the comic to [Adventure Time creator] Pen Ward, and he said "sounds great!" (actually I don't know his words so I can only ASSUME he said something equally enthusiastic) and then here we are! Pen is a great guy and a lot of us know him already, so it's easy and fun to make things work out like this.
CA: How did you know the editors that you were interested in writing the comic? Were you already a fan of the show?
RN: I don't know how they came up with my name, but I hope it was because they thought it would be TOTALLY SWEET PAIRING?
I was already a fan of Adventure Time from way back when the pilot short was released on YouTube, yeah! That was super convenient, because it made a) knowing the characters I was agreeing to write for easy and b) the whole project super exciting for me. If it were any other show I'd probably say no just because I'd have to watch days of television to catch up and know what's going on, but come on, Adventure Time? I am ALL OVER that.
CA: What was it about the show that you found so appealing?
RN: I was talking to a friend the other night and trying to put it into words. I landed on something like: there's this freewheeling adventure in the show, but there's also always calamity lurking at the edges. Like, Princess Bubblegum tries to have a plan B for her kingdom and creates Lemongrab, who just SCREAMS NONSTOP when he's created. Or Jake and Finn make a deal with Peppermint Butler to go into the Land of the Dead, and PB says they'll work out the payment later, and then the episode ends with this piece of peppermint candy in a butler's uniform demanding their skin and saying he'll take it when they sleep. It's just terrific. There's consequences to every action, but there's still high adventure and awesome things happening 24/7. It's a great combination, and one I've never seen anywhere else.
I think it helps that the show is so smart and shares the same love affair with language that I do. Finn and Jake's slang and way they speak is fascinating!
CA: I'm particularly fond of the fact that they used "Oh my glob" as a stand-in for "Oh my God," then eventually got around to the fact that in the Candy Kingdom, people actually do go to church and worship an entity named "Glob" that embraces them in the afterlife.
RN: Yeah! It's great. That's the best way to use continuity, too: it makes watching the show long-term pay off... with JOKES.
CA: Do you plan on doing something like that in the comics? I'm guessing that you have to do stand-alone stuff that exists outside the show, but do you plan on building your own recurring themes and gags?
RN: Pen and I talked about this and we agreed it would be cool if the comics world could do its own thing and not have to be 100% tied to the show, which is liberating. But at the same time, I want you to feel like you're just reading this really well-done storyboard for an episode you didn't get to see, only THIS storyboard has explosions and stuff in it too.
I'd hate to get a detail wrong though. Like, for example, the Tree Fort has an internal layout and I'm not going to go changing that unless there's a story reason showing it happening. Because if I do change it -- have Finn's bedroom on the roof or something -- and there's no reason for it to be that way, then man, it just comes across as laziness. It rips you out of the comic and tells you that you're not reading a REAL adventure, because on the REAL adventures Finn's bedroom is above the living room and it's always been that way. I say this as a guy who knows more about Star Trek than is healthy and has had this experience before!
All this is a long way of saying, yeah, there's going to be new stuff in the comics that you've never seen before, but there's also going to be tons of the characters you already know and love and want to have over for dinner sometime!
CA: Did they give you a Show Bible or anything to work from? Things seem to change often, like how the definitive layout of the Ice King's palace would have to be adjusted to allow for a secret ninja room.
RN: Nope! But I talked to Pen about a few things which was way better, as he is the Walking Talking Show Bible. He said there was a written one at the beginning, but it's now totally out of date. Now everyone just watches the show and takes it from there!
CA: It sounds like that's a pretty big level of freedom, especially with a licensed property. Do you just get to use whomever and whatever you want?
RN: Pretty much! The closest I've had is in this story is where I made up a new character, and Pen suggested I use an existing character instead, and I was like, huh, yes, that would work better actually! Both Pen and kaBOOM! get to sign off on the script, and that's what they've been doing! Nobody's said anything like "Oh no you can't use this character" or "Oh no if we print that it's too awesome and heads will explode" which is really liberating.
CA: So which characters are we going to be seeing? Will you be fleshing out the untold story of Lumpy Space Princess's adventures on the road as a hobo?
RN: I want to have it be a surprise for as long as possible! But by the time the story is over I'm pretty sure you'll have seen tons of people / magical dogs / living candy / princesses / immortal vampire queens.
CA: How tempting was it for you to just make one six-panel page of of Finn, Princess Bubblegum and Jake, with Finn stomping on a house and a tiny princess, and use it for every single page of the comic?
RN: Well, I want them to let me write more than one issue, so it went from ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY, I'VE ALREADY DRAWN UP THE PICTURES to I GUESS I DON'T HAVE TO RUIN THIS COMIC... THIS TIME.
CA: Ha! I was hoping for at least a one-page backup in each issue. Was it a big adjustment, though? You've been doing Dinosaur Comics in its pretty distinctive format for almost 9 years, and while you've written other things (like your contributions to the the Machine of Death books), this is the only longer-form comic story, right?
RN: Actually, no! I'm working with John Keogh on a SECRET PROJECT that should launch in 2012, and that's a long-form comic that I've been writing for over a year! So I'd already had experience writing longer-form stories and working through all the differences that entails.
It's also been great to have all these friends I've made through comics. I can call up guys like Chris Hastings (The Adventures Of Dr. McNinja) and say, "Hey I'm having trouble with this layout here, what do you think?" and hash things out with him. I can send Joey Comeau (A Softer World) the first issue of the script and we go over it together, line-by-line. That's amazing and a huge privilege. What I'm saying is, if you don't like me, these other professionals sure are great huh? THEIR INFLUENCES ARE HERE TOO.
CA: It's a very character-driven show, so in a lot of ways, it's defined by the characters' relationships. Finn and Jake, Finn and Princess Bubblegum, Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, the Ice King and various princesses. How do you think about the way those characters interact with each other?
RN: I kinda don't want to say TOO much here, because one way the show is great is in how it establishes these relationships but lets the viewer fill in so many of the blanks, and I'm worried that whatever I say will come across as "I AM THE COMICS GOD AND I SAY NOW THAT WHATEVER YOU HAVE IMAGINED IN YOUR HEAD IS WRONG".
It's like, Back to the Future begins with Marty showing up at Doc Brown's lab early in the morning, just to say hi on his way to school. The whole film trilogy is built around these two characters and the fact that they're best friends, and it totally works. You buy it. Of course Doc Brown and Marty are friends! They're great together! And only if you think about it do you realize, hey, the movies never tell us why they're friends or how they met or how this 60-year-old man and teenager in high school managed to become so close. And the brilliance is, they don't need to. Bob Gale will tell you that in HIS head, Marty got hired by Doc to do odd jobs and they bonded over time -- but that's entirely irrelevant and not in the films at all. I don't care how they met and with all respect to the filmmakers, maybe in my head they met a different way, in some secret way that I personally think is way better.
Or maybe it's like a zombie movie, where no explanation to where the zombies came from (here, the zombies represent FRIENDSHIP) is ever going to really satisfy. The best zombie movies don't spend 30 minutes explaining to the audience how it actually makes TOTAL SENSE that the undead are now running around; they give it a line of explanation (meteors! disease!), or none at all, and get on with the story. And that's what you want, because then everyone can imagine their own origin if they feel like they need one, and it'll satisfy. You say just enough to get the story going and our imaginations will, almost involuntarily, start making assumptions, connecting dots as we see them, and filling in the blanks.
I feel like Finn and Jake have the same thing going on. There's been hints at a backstory and the friendship they share has an element of brotherhood to it too, but I love that you can sit down and watch the show and say "Oh yeah, these guys are bros and that's awesome; I know all that I need to know to enjoy watching these two friends hang out."
So that is several paragraphs on Finn and Jake! For the remainder I think Finn/Princess Bubblegum is cute, Princess Bubblegum/Marceline is awesome, and Ice King/princesses has this element of tragedy and loneliness to it that is undercut by the fact he's, you know, trying to kidnap women so they'll marry him and that is horrible. The episode last week that gave his origins really brought that to the forefront.
(PS: I recognize that here they're doing the opposite of what I'm talking about and actually making things explicit, but it works because a) it's a way more awesome origin than I think any of us were expecting and b) it raises tons of questions where we can start filling in the blanks in our imaginations there instead. So to continue the "analogies to other franchises" theme, this is more of a Zelda series model, where you tell more of the story each time but still leave lots of the larger things unanswered and open to speculation.)
CA: I was really surprised that the Ice King origin seemed to be hitting on that weird post-apocalyptic element of the show that they've played with a few times over the last season. There was that joke about how "rocketships haven't been re-invented yet," and Finn's occasional questioning about how he seems to be the last human. It's funny, but it seems like a weird springboard to use to launch into jokes for kids.
RN: I don't think it's weird! It's a hook that gets the imagination going, right? I don't think you need to shave down all the sharp edges just because it's something kids can enjoy too. You do that and you end up with, I don't know, Teletubbies? I never actually watched Teletubbies. Maybe I missed out.
CA: So here's an obvious one since we've been talking about characters: Who's your favorite?
RN: I think my favourite character is BMO: I love how it's so powerful and yet so cute and friendly, and the voice it has on the show: SO GOOD. BMO is basically the best ever. After that it's Jake, I think, but BMO pushes him out of first place through sheer cuteness.
CA: Ha, BMO is not an answer I was expecting! Is he going to be playing a role in any of your stories?
RN: Careful! BMO's never been established as he OR she, and in "Fionna and Cake," it was the only character unchanged, so I'm pretty sure BMO is genderless/genderfree? But BMO will be there in the story: not a major role so far, but I'm not going to write a story and not have BMO in it somewhere!
CA: So if you could tell existing Adventure Time fans why they should pick up the comic, how would you sell them on it? And how about for Dinosaur Comics fans that might not be into the show?
RN: I'd love to think there's a 1:1 overlap between the two, but JUST IN CASE:
I'm really hoping to make this comic as great as the show. It'll read like this wonderfully-rendered storyboard for an episode you didn't get to see. It'll be funny and insane and amazing. And if you've never seen Adventure Time, I'd tell you to imagine the most awesome adventures a magical dog and a boy could go on, and then I'd say WHY ARE YOU WASTING YOUR TIME IT'S ON TV RIGHT NOW, and then I'd say IT'S ACTUALLY ONLY ON TV A FEW TIMES A WEEK BUT NOW THERE'S A COMIC TO FILL IN THOSE OTHER TIMES, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY PICK IT UP SOON, OKAY?
CA: You seem very excited.
RN: I'd hate to be writing Adventure Time comics and not be excited about it.