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Eric: State of the Web(Cartoonist): Ryan North

Dinosaur Comics!
The Webcartoonist: Ryan North

Current Webcomics: Dinosaur Comics, Whispered Apologies

You May Remember Him From Such Webcomics Related Technologies As: Project Wonderful, Oh No Robot, RSSpect, God knows what else....

Enthusiasm: Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again

How Frequently Read: Regularly Checked

Some of these are a little weird to write. For example, this one.

Ryan North is brilliant. He really is. I've read at least one of his theses and it was amazing. He is probably one of the top two best friends Webcomics have ever had -- certainly, he has done as much or more to value add to other peoples' webcomics as anyone I can think of. He's been the major force (though not the solo force, always) behind two innovations that quite honestly make webcomics in general better: Ohnorobot.com, which is an embeddable search engine for webcomics which creators can either use themselves to make dialogue searchable, or something they can let their fanbase take point on in getting dialogue in place; and Project Wonderful, which absolutely takes website advertising and makes it simple for both webmasters and advertisers. You'll notice I use Project Wonderful myself -- it has garnered me significantly more coin than Google ads ever did (by a significant factor), and while my ad rates aren't anywhere near the top tier, Project Wonderful is way better than being slapped in the face by fish. Right up until gasoline prices went pear-shaped, Project Wonderful could generally fund of the full tanks of gas I needed to get to Ottawa to see the woman I'm going to marry in a couple of weeks.

Okay, that's fun to type, even if it has nothing to do with Ryan North.

North's brilliance was further brought forth -- and initially spread among our community -- through the award winning Dinosaur Comics, once called Daily Dinosaur Comics. For those who aren't familiar, Dinosaur Comics has taken a moderately simple and rough looking clip art comic strip featuring a few dinosaurs, one of whom stomps on buildings and people, and made it downright sublime through static art comics. A static art comic, as the name implies, is a comic strip where the art doesn't ever change. It's the same clip art every day, and only the words change. This was done a few times before North -- most (in)famously by director David Lynch in his comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran in various newspapers from 1983 to 1992. (North tipped his pen to Lynch in a strip that encapsulated the entire run of The Angriest Dog in the World into Dinosaur Comics). And Dinosaur Comics, through its fresh, inventive (and most of all funny) writing burned through our consciousness like a wildfire, devastating the infrastructure and calling out the National Guard. FOR FUN!

It's also worth noting that North didn't just embrace static art comics -- he also raised the bar on them. Lynch did nine years of static art strips, but he didn't dive into multiple characters, continuity, or for the most part even relevance. Most of the off-panel comments were near non-sequitors. Very few if any had anything to do with the dog in question. Folks who've jumped into static art since then have either varied what static panel they use from day to day (more properly making them the broader realm of constrained comics), or don't have multiple characters -- aping Lynch more than North. I know from what I speak -- for a while I did my own static art strip in conscious emulation of North. It was the Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark, and it was about a possessed statue who bitched about Ethan Allen and his wife, made breast jokes about Peggy Shippen, had adroit commentary on the politics of his time and ours, and had a total man-crush on Ice Cube. But as my strip was, by definition, a monologue, I was free to expound however I wished. (And it's worth noting, said strip didn't last nearly as long).

But Ryan North has multiple characters. He has interaction, and a supporting cast, and he has continuity from one strip to the next. North isn't just doing a static art comic strip -- he's doing a static art comic strip, with an expanding (and increasingly off-panel) cast of divinities and disturbing mammals. He has T-Rex, Utahraptor, and all the rest interacting and expounding, trying to mostly match the recurrent art. And he's done vastly better with it than anyone could have expected. It's got a strong readership of devoted fans. It gets referenced. (For a couple of years, David Willis referenced it in the Shortpacked April Fools Day strips, which I can't link to because of catastrophic failures of their electrical infrastructure. Man, they're not having a good weekend.) North's significance and influence is clear and broad.

And, if you look at the last few Daily Dinosaur comics, they continue to be wacky fun. T-Rex continues to be somewhat innocent with the selfishness of innocence. Utahraptor is a good friend though sometimes he has to be the wiser counsel. Dromiceiomius is still... um... occasionally speaking in the third panel. God talks every so often. It's fun!

Fun!

Fun.

Yeah.

Okay, here's the dirty truth. The big problem with static comics? Are they're static. And Ryan North has pushed his comic in incredible directions given that. But... North has written 1,234 (hey! 1-2-3-4!) comics as of this writing. Honestly, they're not blowing my mind any more. They seem... really... the same. Day in, and day out. It's not that there hasn't been evolution -- there has. But there's just so far that North can go in any direction, because tomorrow Utahraptor and Dromiceiomius are still showing up in a few panels and T-Rex is still stomping on that building, and there's no way to focus on another character for a while. It's got to be T-Rex. He's in all the panels!

Look, I like Dinosaur Comics. I really do. Heck, I did a Reader Art strip for it once. North is funny and smart, and may be conquering North America. Heck, he already got it named after him -- like in a merger! But... it's....

I've seen it. Not just the art, but the strip. The patter. The rhythm. All too often the joke.

It's... well, getting kinda dull.

This reminds me a little bit of my comments on Perry Bible Fellowship -- it's much the same reaction, really. It's not that North has lost some of his skills. It's that we've done this often enough that the impact has become dilute.

I have this on "Why Do I Read This Webcomic Again" not because I dislike it, mind. I do like it. It's just... when I ask myself that question, I don't really have an answer. Why do I read Dinosaur Comics? If I end up having to ponder it and not really coming up with an answer, it's pretty much got to go in this category.

At the same time, I don't really plan on stopping reading it, so it might better belong in the Hoi Polloi instead. I dunno.

Right. Let's do the metrics before I become a mass of wish crossed to wash.

Strengths

North is consistent. The writing tends to be solid, the characters are well defined and well distinguished, the updates happen with the regularity one would hope they do, and the layout of the web page is clear.

I mentioned how far North has pushed the boundaries of Static Art. That's not nothing, to use a Sorkinesque construction. He really has done amazing things with the static art form. He tries his best to change up the formula and disrupt our expectations. The fact that he's gone so far with the number of posted strips is a testament to that.

The breadth of topic that the strip addresses and expounds upon are amazing, as are his carefully considered positions.

In other words, North is, in fact, a good writer.

Weaknesses

As said before, we're pushing 1,300 strips and he's running out of wiggle room. All too often, we can often predict where things are going to go. With no real room to move other cast members forward, there's no way to give T-Rex a rest for a while without compromising the basic device being used. I mean, even Hagar the Horrible doesn't have Hagar in every strip doing most of the talking. That's not an enviable position for anyone.

On the Whole

Ryan North is a mad scientist who has mostly used his powers for good. He is clever and wise and very creative, and I like his comic strip very much. But... it may be time to consider something radical... like a new page of clip art -- maybe something that can be alternated or switched between. Otherwise, fatigue is going to slowly weed out readers.

Of course, by then he'll have built a new content distribution system, found a way to project force beams from CRTs, compiled a natural language parser for search engines that doesn't suck and found a way to make hydrogen cell cars affordable. He's like that.

Sorry this took a bit, I got sidetracked with about half a rememberance which then had stuff I need to look out. Also work and eBay auctions, which are going great. More stuff up soon, for people who want to buy! With luck, the next one of these tomorrow... which might be an interesting one to do.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at June 2, 2008 12:06 PM

Comments

Comment from: Andrew [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 2, 2008 3:35 PM

Has anyone actually been slapped in the face with a fish? And why hasn't this been put to use in a webcomic? Huh?

Maybe it's just me, but I've never gotten Dinosaur Comics. Although, really, if there was such a thing as a Webcomic Hall of Fame, North would be on the first ballot merely on the merits of Project Wonderful alone.

Project Wonderful is also a wonderful way to gage a webcomic's popularity. For instance, a typical ad on Questionable Content is running anywhere from $20-$40 a slot, routinely. I guess it would be the King Salmon of Webcomic World?

Comment from: Ununnilium [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 2, 2008 3:44 PM

Well, I just gotta disagree - I don't feel the same sense of fatigue or dullness at all. And... um... yeah. Still good. >>

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 2, 2008 5:10 PM

For my part I'm always happy when static webcomics do good. And clipart webcomics. Especially static clipart webcomics.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 2, 2008 7:17 PM

Andrew: I believe it was John Cleese who was originally slapped in the face with a fish, six times in fifteen seconds, with accompanying polka music, on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Since then, innumerous Spamalot extras have received the same dubious honor.

I'm not the best person to comment on the strip in question, since I only started reading it last month. It took nearly two weeks for me to get through the archives, even though I was averaging about two hours per day just reading the archives. So it's relatively new to me, and therefore unsurprising that I'm not feeling much staleness.

On the other hand... I read that comic about two hours a day, for about two weeks. I averaged eighty-eight comics per day for fourteen days, and when I was all done? I read it the next day, and laughed. I had Dinosaur Comics coming out the ears at that point, and I was still coming back for more. So either North still Has Got It or there's something terribly wrong with me. And even if there is something terribly wrong with me, I still maintain that Dinosaur Comics is still damn good.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 2, 2008 11:20 PM

I'm just curious: Is this a coincidence, or have you just decided to blow through all the most popular, well-known webcomics to tie a bow on this project? Because I think I had only heard of two or three webcomics you had covered in your first stint and you just blew through three straight webcomics for which I'd be surprised if ANYONE with any familiarity with webcomics hadn't heard of them. I'm not being critical if that's the case, it's just, you know.

Comment from: Nate [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 12:01 AM

Two other slightly relevant Ryan North facts:

Ryan North is a really nice guy. I've met him and hung out with him at MoCCA the last two years (which I won't be able to make this year, what with the moving and everything :( )

Ryan North is really tall. Like, ginormously tall.

This is apparently the only pic I have of him standing up, with former comicker and law student Steve Carey, on the Brooklyn bridge. Coulda sworn I had a group shot from MoCCA 2006, but I guess not. Drat.

Comment from: VetEpiGirl [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 8:36 AM

I was informed by an English friend, who's favorite phrase is "better than being slapped in the face by a wet fish", is that a wet fish is London slang for male genitalia. Just so you know . . .

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 9:21 AM

Morgan -- this is what the random rolls have given me for the last few. There's quite a ways to go before we're done.

Comment from: Johnny Assay [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 11:48 AM

When Ryan gets that natural language parser working, we'll have to feed it the sentence "I got sidetracked with about half a rememberance which then had stuff I need to look out" and see what happens.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 12:01 PM

Oh, like that sentence can be considered "natural."

Comment from: Pooga [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 3, 2008 1:05 PM

I'm like Doug, minus the archive trawl. I've known about Dinosaur Comics for years, but it wasn't until the April Fools crossover/mindwarp with xkcd and Questionable Content that I started reading regularly.

I think the relative staticisity is what allowed me to get into it without feeling I was missing something by not reading 5 years of archives. I just don't seem to have the endurance and/or attention span for a multi-day archive crawl these days. That's the main reason there are several strips I know of, and am fairly certain I would enjoy, but have more or less avoided. In order to really appreciate them, I need to read archives going back half a decade or more. While I have that option with Dinosaur Comics, it's not compulsory to enjoy it.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 5, 2008 2:26 AM

Okay. Look.

I know you have an interest in weeding out spam. I know you probably don't want to be badgered on a regular basis. I know this post is probably going to be promptly deleted. I don't know if this post is even going to be seen by an actual human being or if some computer goes through and weeds out spam on a regular basis.

But still... are you completely against people trying to introduce their webcomics to you?

It doesn't look to be so from the FAQ:

Q: I'm an webcartoonist, and I'd like your feedback. Will you give it to me?
A:Glad to! No promises on how quickly we can get back to you, though!

Not publicizing an e-mail address and deleting posts that point out a webcomic's existence to you without a response suggests otherwise.

I'm sure there are people, presumably ones without webcomics, who will say all that is perfectly fine and reasonable, and I'm the one that is being unreasonable, and that I can certainly bring the strip to your attention by advertising on the sidebar, which I will admit, is remarkably cheap most of the time and I will certainly entertain doing exactly that, if I had a source of any income at all at the moment.

I'm just sayin', is all. And I'm probably already regretting this comment as I'm posting it. Screw it, I'm putting it up anyway. Yeah.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 5, 2008 8:50 AM

Morgan -- I hate to say it, but I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. I haven't deleted any comments from you, and I don't think Weds has either. Certainly, I'd never delete a comment offering up a webcomic for my perusal -- even if I don't get to it very fast, other people might.

Glancing at your history, I see thirteen comments by you, none of which particularly advertise something.

(For the record, looking at this comment, it looks like you malformed the html advertising your strip by not putting the address in quotes, meaning clicking on it won't send folks to it. I've hopefully got that fixed in this one.)

Also for the record, my e-mail address is listed in the bottommost FAQ entry listed in the sidebar, and has been since, oh, 2004. ;)

All this should be understood that while I do still like getting links to folks's webcomics, it is going to be a long time before I follow up on them, as I warn in the entry.

Comment from: Merus [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 5, 2008 9:52 PM

Hmm.

Eric needs to update his FAQ, as honestly I doubt he has the time for solicited critiques, considering his inconsistency with the unsolicited ones.

But after finding your webcomic buried deep within your personal website linked from your blog which you've linked as your profile, I would suggest that most anyone could give you a useful critique. There's no way to put this nicely, so I'll just be blunt: you have no readers because your webcomic is bad. There really are no saving graces here, and I'd advise you to think long and hard about what you're trying to achieve with a webcomic before you junk it and start again with some actual art, a premise and some proper characters. If you are merely looking for internet celebrity, I'd probably forget about it. It's way too much effort to be famous on the Internet, especially when you can be famous in the real world for very little indeed.

I'm sorry to do it this way, but I figured a direct email would be figured for hatemail, and you do seem to want feedback which I guess is better than blind hubris.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 6, 2008 12:36 AM

I'm pretty sure I've made at least three comments that linked to my strip that all got deleted - as in, I posted, saw the comment with the other comments, came back and it was gone. One of them was little more than listing a bunch of webcomics that had done Gary Gygax tributes and I just happened to slip my own strip in there, with full disclosure that I was linking to my own strip.

Merus: The lack of "actual art" (I'm not sure what you're referring to here; if you're referring to the lack of any stylistic decisionmaking on my part, the lack of any putting pen to paper to design the characters, I don't see how you explain Dinosaur Comics, which appears to be made out of clipart, and certainly with the entire pantheon of sprite comics; if you refer to the lack of background, I refer you to Dinosaur Comics again, as well as Garfield; if you refer to the use of basic shapes to create the characters, I suggest you take it up with Order of the Stick and its brethren; and if you refer to the fact that the strip never changes its art from panel to panel, you likely haven't seen The Angriest Dog in the World; if you refer to all of the above, point taken and I admit my strip can be wordy at times, but trust me, my attempt at art makes Eric's look good), "a premise" (and I'd advise you read more than one strip, especially outside the current week of strips, before saying that), and "proper characters" (yes, they don't have names, but they do have distinct personalities, at least as they relate to each other) is part of the point.

I know that sounds artsy, but it's true. And I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm eagerly awaiting the day I get torn a new one by Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad if only because that means they noticed me and it's a new link for people to latch onto the strip if they disagree. :)

I admit that there are days when I consider shutting down the strip sometime next year. I have other avenues through which I can pursue "internet celebrity". :) Besides, it's "internet celebrity" I intend to channel to a good cause. Stay tuned.

P.S. My one other piece of feedback I've gotten so far says "I think it is a good strip seeing as it only started earlier this year. It is one of the only webcomics that I have read which actually made me laugh out loud at a strip. Please continue to update everyday as I like comics that are regularly updated and I believe, in a few months Sandsday can become an even better comic." So there. Nyahh. (Of course, it's entirely possible that's the sort of person who likes Ctrl+Alt+Del and other strips the Internet loves to hate.)

P.P.S. I do have one or two other webcomic ideas that you may find more interesting. Neither one of them is anywhere near ready for prime time yet, however.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 6, 2008 1:04 AM

Well, perhaps Movable Type (or whatever you're using now) has overly agressive anti-spam measures. I know I've seen at least one comment not by me trying to attract your attention to some other comic strip that seems to have disappeared. And I wrote a long, rambling post, mostly parrying Merus' criticisms (I'm only looking for ways to improve the writing and the jokes, just about everything else is set), and was told it needed to be "approved", which I hadn't needed to do before for any comment on this site, except maybe my first one or two.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 6, 2008 9:21 AM

When you have more than three links (I think three is the magic number) in your post, it needs approval before it can be seen by the good people of Earth.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 6, 2008 5:16 PM

@ Morgan Wick:

I'd have to agree with Merus here. It could be that your webcomic just isn't my taste- I find endlessly self-referential humor tiring, and I prefer punchlines at the end of my comics, although that's not always necessary. But the central conceit- two generic guys on a couch- is tired beyond belief. And despite your insistence that the two protagonists have separate personalities, I could not find anything that distinguished them as individual characters in my admittedly brief archive trawl.

It's true that their are comics that forego interesting art and are funny, comics that use stick figures and are engaging, comics that break the fourth wall multiple times and remain surprising, and comics that reference video games, comic books, and other aspects of "nerd culture" and manage to stay fresh. However, I did not feel that your strip succeeded on any of these points. The success of strips like Dinosaur Comics, xkcd, Order of the Stick, and other strips with limited artistic detail is due to their good writing, clever insights, and intelligent ideas- all of which I found your strip to be deficient in.

Let me cite a specific random comic as an example- May 19, 2008. The punchline of this strip, where you compare groups in an MMORPG to cliques in high school, is promising. But you cut yourself off at the knees by starting the comparison in the second panel, so by the time the reader arrives at the punchline, he has already been alerted to the similarities of online groups and high school cliques, and the punchline is no longer a clever twist, but instead a reiteration. Also, there are many ways to make the punchline funnier by making it more specific- to which MMORPG are you referring? What is one way that different MMO groups appear to act like high school cliques? Do they behave like jocks/goths/preppies etc? Do they make you dress your character a certain way? Do they "initiate" your character into their group by stealing one of your characters' magic items and passing it among themselves? Your punchline is too generic, and would be better served by being the setup. You seem to have sensed this, but rather than change the punchline, you basically made the setup and punchline the same, which destroys any chance of getting a laugh from any halfway intelligent reader, who will have arrived at your strip's punchline before your strip did.

I'm not trying to beat up on you here. I just think that if you're going to make a comic, you may wish to put more effort into it. Saying your art sucks is no excuse for abandoning any attempt to improve it. Hell, look how much Jeph Jaques improved Questionable Content's art in just 100 strips. The limitations you're placing on yourself don't make the better parts of your comic strip stand out- they cripple it, and seem to suggest you'd prefer to not try rather than try and fail. You can do that, I guess- but don't expect to gain much in the way of popularity unless you make a serious attempt to overhaul your art and writing.

Good luck with getting that readership.

Comment from: Merus [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 7, 2008 1:51 AM

Morgan: You can get away with ignoring the fundamentals if the rest of your comic is pitch-perfect. For instance, Dinosaur Comics is not much, but it gets by on the novelty of the exact same image being used for 1000-odd comics, and on the excellent characterisation and writing. That is to say, the characters are characters, and respond to events differently. Your two dudes on a couch are pretty much indistinguishable mouthpieces -

There's another comic, I believe it's called Arthur in Time and Space, which retells the King Arthur story in about twenty or so different time periods. The art's done in Paint, and is competent but nothing special. Once again, the premise and the characters (leaning on an established mythology, but not relying on it - the various Arthurs in the storylines deviate from the legends and each other in particular ways) elevates it.

On the other end of the scale, Dresden Codak is frequently a mess from a technical standpoint, with terrible panel layout and pseudo-intellectual wankery combined with fanservice. On the other hand, it's got an interesting premise and ideas, a diverse and relatively interesting set of characters and it's really, really pretty, and also contains fanservice.

Regarding the writing, Doug pretty much nailed it, better than I would have. I will let the recent strip in which I feature as an angry reader go without comment.

(Except to suggest that the punchline here is 'characters do a week of get-the-word-out strips and their result is an angry letter telling them to go away'. The problem is that you pretty much reuse it as the premise - the key to humour is surprise, so you have to take us somewhere new. From the premise, then, how would the characters react? They've gone 'hey guys, look at my stuff' and the only attention they've gotten is negative attention. What if you transplant that into another setting? I can imagine Nintendo decided not to translate Mother 3 for the West because your characters nagged them. Perhaps they used to work at McDonald's (or still do), and every time they asked a customer if they wanted to upsize the customer changed their order to a small.)

(And to apologise to Eric for stealing his 'no comment' shtick.)

So I guess the only other thing I noticed was that the strip was buried down in your website when it'd be better if it was given more prominent placement or a big picture link on the front page to entice people to read it, something like Order of the Stick does.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 7, 2008 2:45 AM

I don't get the "my strip isn't prominently featured on the front page" thing. My strip appears on my front page's sidebar, albeit as "webcomic". GiantITP.com's front page includes a news section talking almost exclusively about OOTS, but the main link to the comic itself is in a "Comics" section on the sidebar. Yes, the "Comics" section is significantly bigger than my "webcomic" link, but OOTS and Erfworld effectively share equal billing there. I don't call that a "big picture link on the front page".

I am getting some useful comments now - apparently I subscribe to the Ctrl+Alt+Del Punchline Telegram Service (and the Ctrl+Alt+Del School of an Author Who Acts Like an Annoying Prick), the characters - to the extent that they have character (I have made attempts at prose fiction and I find characterization to be my weakest suit, which is probably a bad sign) - are indistinguishable enough that you can effectively treat them as a group (part of the problem may be that one of them is starting to acquire traits I had reserved for the other, simply because I had conceived him as too much of a blithering idiot for me to be able to say anything useful with him), and my decision not to name any specific games the characters are playing robs me of punchline opportunities.

I try to work off a buffer for strips, but I think Merus would find today's strip rather interesting, as would everyone in this discussion. But if you're going to go archive trawling, make sure you have cookies on because my hit counter sucks.

But we're derailing the comments on this post, which is supposed to be about Dinosaur Comics, so let's keep future comments in my own blog or contact me by e-mail.

Comment from: Morgan Wick [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 7, 2008 2:50 AM

Oh, and: Remember, remember, the 23rd of June. Okay, that didn't turn out quite right.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at June 7, 2008 9:28 PM

Saying your art sucks is no excuse for abandoning any attempt to improve it.

Yes, it is. It totally is.

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