An Interview With Ryan North

slaughterhouse five

GdM – Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

Hi, I’m Ryan!  If I were to drop in a bio about myself here, it’d PROBABLY say something like “Ryan North is the New York Times-bestselling and Eisner-winning writer whose recent work includes the non-fiction How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller, the semi-fictional graphic novel adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and the so-far-fictional Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series for Marvel. He’s also twice collaborated with William Shakespeare on choose-your-own-path versions of his plays. He lives in Toronto, where he writes for video games, television, and his long-running webcomic Dinosaur Comics, and he once messed up walking his dog so badly it made the news.” Probably that’s what it’d say.

GdM – Your most recent work is a graphic novel adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. What was your reaction to being asked to adapt Vonnegut, of all people?

Fear, mainly!  I’m a huge fan of him and absolutely did not want to mess it up.  You don’t want to be the guy who ruined Vonnegut.  But once I got into the project the fear went away and was replaced with “okay, what’s the best way to make this work and solve all the little story problems that crop up when moving from one medium to another.”  I basically imagined that I was an editor and I’d hired Vonnegut to write a comic called “SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE” and he’d turned in the prose novel instead!  So clearly it’s a great book, but it’s entirely unsuitable for comics, and my job was now to fix it and cover for him. What surprised me is how well that worked. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE slid so well into the new medium, and there’s lots of what Kurt does in the prose that works even better in comics.  The way he describes the Tralfamadorian book, for example – paragraphs each describing a single urgent image, which, when taken together, form an image of life that is beautiful and deep – hey, that’s comics right there.

GdM – Vonnegut has a very tragicomic sensibility. Your own work tends to be more upbeat. What was it like adapting something with such a different tone to it?

It wasn’t that hard at all!  I wouldn’t be the first writer to confess that, after reading Vonnegut, having to be careful what I write, because his style is so great and so infectious that you start sounding like him, start ripping him off.  And normally you have to guard against that, but when doing an adaptation you can lean into it!  There were places in the comic where I had to write things that weren’t in the book, places where the prose novel describes a conversation but doesn’t tell you what’s actually said.  This works great in prose but less well in comics, so it was like a little prank Vonnegut was playing on me – and as much as you have to condense things to work in comics, I had to flesh these out some.   I’m pleased when people tell me they can’t pick those segments out.  I passed as Vonnegut!

To be or not to be by Ryan NorthGdM – What was it like working with Albert Monteys? What were some of his suggestions for the book that you felt worked well?

He’s been great, and the book is great because of him.  He’s so insanely talented.  Just off the top of my head, one of the things he did with colour was have the characters change to orange once they tasted the orange syrup that they’d stolen.  It’s such a simple, beautiful, instantly-intuitive way of showing what was going on in the narrative, how this syrup was affecting them – and he told that story entirely with colour.  Gorgeous.

GdM – The Tramalfadorian notion of time feels like it was perfectly meant for comics, and it was pulled off brilliantly. Were there other elements of Slaugherhouse-Five that fit perfectly into comics? What did you and Albert Monteys do to use the medium to its fullest in this adaptation?

One of the biggest changes we made was to turn Kilgore Trout from a failed scifi novelist into a failed cartoonist.  I liked it for the meta-joke: comics used to be seen as a juvenile, degenerate medium – especially at the time(s) the story takes place – so it let us humiliate this poor guy even more.  But it also let us illustrate his stories as if they were these classic comic adventures (which Albert knocked out of the park, incidentally: even his colouring there matches the style at the time).  And it works so well that it’s like they were meant to be seen that way.  It was a little change – an easy one that I think anyone would make, given the circumstances – and it felt so natural and intentional.  It was a very pleasant surprise!