Interview With an Author: Ryan North

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Ryan North and his latest book, How to Take Over the World
Author Ryan North and his latest book, How to Take Over the World. Ryan North photo by Connie Tsang

Ryan North is a New York Times—bestselling author whose books include How to Invent Everything, Romeo and/or Juliet, and To Be or Not To Be. He’s the creator of Dinosaur Comics and the Eisner Award–winning writer of Adventure Time, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl for Marvel Comics, and he has a master’s in computational linguistics from the University of Toronto. Ryan lives in Toronto with his wife, Jenn. His latest book is How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for How to Take Over the World?

I really like books that have fun premises, books that say "okay, this is going to be non-fiction but that doesn't mean it can't be hilarious and meaningful and urgent. My last book, How To Invent Everything, used the fictional premise of "this is a repair guide for a time machine that tells you how to rebuild civilization from scratch" as the base, and I wanted to do something along those lines—a fictional candy coating around the non-fiction core. The premise of "I am a comic writer and, as part of my job coming up with plots for super villains, have actually figured out how to pull off their plots in the real world" seemed like a fun fiction—and it's not that far from the truth, either! The truth is figuring out how to build things like a floating base or starting your own country, or ensuring you're the last thing that survives to the end of the universe—that took a lot of research. But it was also a ton of fun!

How did the book evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any subjects, topics, or evil plans that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The book actually stayed pretty close to its original vision! The only thing that really changed was in 2019 I was planning to have a chapter on pandemics and how easy it would be for one to cross the world today, but then 2020 came and I thought, okay, well, I feel like people don't need a book to tell them that anymore.

The final chapter, about ensuring information about you can last as long as possible, did evolve a bit, though. Originally it was going to be on "how to build a giant statue of yourself that'll last as long as possible", but as I was researching that I found more and more ways to get information to survive, and before you knew it the scope had grown from "a few hundred years" to "the heat death of the universe."

I’m guessing you had to do quite a bit of research on the wide ranging topics you address in How to Take Over the World. What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Oh, they're all in the book! I'm not gonna discover something fascinating and not share it, you know? But overall I think one thing that surprised me was how hopeful the whole process is. Yes it's a book called How to Take Over the World, and yes we do go through these various supervillain plots and how you can actually accomplish them—but by the end we see over and over how much more we can accomplish when working together! It really shows how the way forward for us as a civilization is not to put our hope in individuals—no matter how charismatic they are, no matter how much they promise—and to instead work towards building better systems, better ways for all of us to come together and pull in the same direction. Maybe not the standard moral you'd expect from a book on world domination, but it was one I was pleased to discover during my research.

That, and how astonishingly possible building a floating nuclear-powered base is—once you account for all your henchpeople getting sad and weird from being isolated from the rest of society for so long.

Marvel or DC (or do you have another favorite)?

I love them both and have done writing for both (check out the Kid Constantine middle grade comic me and Derek Charm made at DC! Check out the new Fantastic Four comics me and Iban Coello are doing at Marvel! Check out the classic Squirrel Girl comics me and Erica Henderson have done at Marvel too!) so to me they're just about tied. DC's characters are larger than life, in a way that works so well at the symbolic level, and Marvel's are more relatable, so it really depends on what mood I'm in. That said, the best supervillain of all time is definitely Doctor Doom.

Do you have a favorite superhero? A favorite supervillain?

Doctor Doom, of course! For Doom Conquers All. As far as heroes, I think Batman is my favourite, because he's so "flexible". You can tell serious stories or funny ones. You can have him be a lone vigilante or part of a whole bat-family. It's amazing that a character that can be seen in so many different ways even feels like he has a core, but Batman definitely does—plus his rogues gallery is second to none. I love Batman so much.

Do you have a favorite comic book/graphic novel writer? A favorite artist?

So many! That's the joy of being a comic writer: you get to work with so many talented artists all the time. I would never be able to commission people like Erica Henderson or Derek Charm or Iban Coelle or Alex Ross (he's doing covers on my new Fantastic Four book) personally, but we can still come together as a team and produce something amazing. I always feel like I'm getting away with something doing this job, sneaking in the back door into a party filled with people far more talented than I am.

For writers, the funny part is a lot of them have become friends, so please don't tell people like Chip Zdarsky and Marguerite Bennett and Al Ewing and Kieron Gillen that I think they're amazing. It might make things weird.

Do you have a favorite comic book pastiche, television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

This is a fascinating question, and one I've thought a lot about, because I did recently do an adaptation of my own, turning Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five into a graphic novel with Albert Monteys. Where I landed was that an adaptation should argue for its own existence: it's not enough to simply copy the old medium and paste it into the new one, you should be doing something for the story in that new medium that simply couldn't be done in the old one. Make it sing. Make it so that someone who's never experienced the source material can experience your adaptation and say "what a great comic / movie / show / whatever" and not just "what a great adaptation", you know?

The motion picture version of Watchmen was incredibly faithful to the comic—so much so that I think it doesn't really add much, so by my metric it's less successful than the tv show adaptation/sequel of Watchmen, which added a ton. But I'd also say my metric is a very personal one, and I'm really glad the movie version of Watchmen exists, because up to that point I'd never seen someone TRY to adapt a comic into a film so faithfully. It has value by that measure alone.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Immortality. Great for you, bad for the rest of society (as explored in the immortality chapter in How to Take Over the World)—but as long as it was non-medical and voluntary, I really think I could have some fun with it. And do some good too, I Guess.

Would you like to monologue a bit before we continue the interview?

What is an interview but an extended monologue?? Fools! I've been monologuing this whole time!!

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how comic books and graphic novels have grown from being considered disposable/transitory entertainment to the cultural juggernaut they currently are within our culture?

I have a couple—one being that SFX got to the point where movies made based on supercomics could look amazing instead of cheesy—but I'll go with the self-serving theory. It's this: 30 years ago, the only place you could really read comics was in a specialty store. They were no longer at newsstands, so you had to go into a comic store to get them, and that's a hard sell. I hate going to get my car serviced because I feel like a pretender in a car store—I don't know as much as everyone else, and I'm pretty sure I look like an idiot. Comic stores could feel the same way.

But then the internet comes along, and hey presto, people are putting comics online! I got my start writing a webcomic (that celebrated its 20th anniversary this February 1st! That's so long!!), and I used to get emails not infrequently from people saying, "I don't like comics, but I like your comic." And I would reply surprise, you like comics! Comics can just do more than what you thought they could do because you never had the opportunity to read them.

So yes, movies have shown general audiences a bit of what we've loved for so long, and that's terrific, but I think the larger culture has also shifted to being more welcoming to words-with-pictures than they used to be.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

So many books. I'm re-reading It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood and it's just an amazing graphic novel.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Sure can't! There's so many, and I've never made a proper list. Off the top of my head, Vonnegut and Asimov for sci-fi, Atwood and Thomas King for storytelling, and Stephen Leacock for humour with heart.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I really liked The Monster At The End of This Book—it's a Grover story where he pleads with you not to turn the pages, and reacts to you as you do. I didn't know a book could do that! And you can see echoes of that in my own work—taking the idea of "okay, this book exists in your hands, but how can we play with that to make it something more, something better?"

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, they let me read whatever I wanted and never checked on what I was taking out from the library! If I read something I really liked, I might recommend it to my dad, actually.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I don't… think so? I never did it in school because they test you on those books, and I never really was in a position to fake reading anywhere else. Oh! I did once pretend to see an episode of a TV show I didn't, but then I asked a question that someone who saw the show would know, so I was caught immediately. After that, the benefits of lying to friends about cultural consumption didn't seem that alluring any more, you know? Besides, when a friend hasn't seen or read something you have, that's great! That means you get to experience it again with them!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

So many. I only started reading comics in university, and I knew nothing, so I just went into the comics store on payday and bought books at random. Superman: Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross is one that stands out. It's a beautiful Superman story, one of my favourites, and I 100% bought it because of the cover.

Is there a book that changed your life?

All of them, right? In one way or another. I like the theory that fiction is an empathy machine that lets us test out doing things without having to suffer the consequences. I'm sure there's tons of stuff I would've tried if I hadn't seen how poorly it could've gone in a story. That said, I think Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was the right book at the right time for me. I wanted comics to do more than what I thought they could do—and of course they already were and had been for years before I showed up—but that was the first I read that showed me these things were possible, were going on, and had tons of potential to do even more. Jason Shiga's Hello World is another example: I didn't even know books could DO what that book did (which is to say, cut the pages in half lengthwise to allow a more complex control of state in an interactive story, including an inventory.) Just incredible stuff.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Honestly, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a go-to answer, but I really think it holds up. Scott's so enthusiastic about the medium as he walks you through just what comics do that makes them so special, and his enthusiasm is contagious. If you're not sure comics are for you, give that book a try, and you'll come away not just with a great understanding of the medium but also a bunch of new comics to seek out.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Monster at the End of This Book. I'd love to know what my reaction was the first time I read it. (in this scenario I am a kid again, temporarily, naturally. Then I get to be an adult again, but now with a memory of reading that book for the first time.)

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The last movie I got really excited about was Baz Luhrmann's Elvis. I know he's not everyone's favourite director, but I really love how he is just SO into movies—into doing things that you can do in film that you can't do anywhere else. A novelization of most movies can survive on its own without losing too much, but a novelization of a Lurhmann film? Forget it. So much of what he's saying isn't being said with words, but with images in motion, with crosscutting and match cuts and montage and all the rest. For me, he brings back the people doing Soviet Montage back at the beginning of film: people who don't see rules, who want to experiment to find out what they can say in THIS medium that they can't say anywhere else.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My dog Chompsky passed away last year, and we had 11 wonderful years together before he got sick. A perfect day would be to have him back, to snuggle with him once more before going to the park to play. (Sorry for the sad answer, but it's the truth.)

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

The question is, "Where did you bury the diamonds?" and the answer is, "You'll Never Get Me to Talk!!!"

What are you working on now?

Actually, a bunch of projects just wrapped up, so I'm in that nice position where I'm thinking about what comes next. I love writing those nonfiction books with fictional candy coatings we talked about at the start of this, and I'd love to do it again. So I guess I'm going to soon be taking a lot of walks where I think about what books I'd love to read but which don't exist yet, and then thinking "Man, that IS a cool book! Well, I guess I gotta go write it now."

Book cover for How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain
How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain
North, Ryan