Ryan North, whose credits include an award-winning runs of Adventure Time, Jughead, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl recently wrote a middle grade graphic novel featuring John Constantine, one of my favorite DC Comics characters, and I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about it.
MUF: I’m Mimi. I write for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, a blog for people who love middle-grade books (parents, teachers, librarians, kids, writers, etc.). It’s an honor to be able to interview you. (My husband is also a fan. He’s the one who introduced me to Dinosaur Comics). And congratulations on the Eisner nomination this year.
Ryan North: Aw thank you, Mimi! That’s very kind. I’m excited about it! And say hi to your husband for me. 🙂
MUF: So, tell us about The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher?
Ryan North: The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is a middle-grade graphic novel about a younger version of Constantine – Johnny Constantine, but he prefers you call him “Kid”. Kid Constantine has to escape from the UK to the United States after one of his capers involving ghosts and demons goes wrong. When he arrives at his new boarding school in America, he discovers his spells don’t work as well as they used to, so he’s left scrambling, faking it till he makes it – but luckily he soon discovers he’s not the only magical kid there. And he’s going to need all the help he can get when one of his new teachers seems to have it out for him personally, and might be a real-life witch…
It’s a stand-alone graphic novel, so you can read it knowing nothing of the character (or even DC Comics!) but if you do, there’s some fun little secrets you might pick up on.
MUF: I’ve gotta admit, Constantine is one of my favorite DC characters, but he’s not exactly kid-friendly, why did you choose Constantine for this project?
Ryan North: Right? He’s basically the last DC character you’d ever expect to be in a middle grade graphic novel. I was working with DC on another project that got bogged down unfortunately, and when they said “Hey, what about Kid Constantine?” I laughed at the idea – always a good sign! And I quickly realized that he actually transforms into a 13-year-old version of himself very easily. That idea of trying to cover for what you don’t know, trying to act like you’re super cool and in control even though you have no idea what’s going on – it’s something that I think feels pretty universal to most of us, and to both Adult and Kid Constantine. So there weren’t actually a lot of changes I had to make! The adult version has a lot of bad habits that we altered (instead of smoking, Kid has a lollipop sticking out of his mouth at the start of the book) but beyond that there really wasn’t a lot to change, to adapt for younger readers. So I loved that the idea sounded so wild, and really wanted to see if we could pull it off.
MUF: You do a great job of capturing Constantine’s wit in a way that’s accessible for kids. Was writing young Johnny difficult?
Ryan North: No, it was actually pretty familiar! Like I mentioned before, Constantine goes through some pretty relatable stuff, so all I had to do was remember what it felt like being the new kid, being somewhere where I don’t know anyone, and I could tap into that pretty easily for Constantine. And while some of the fun is seeing him cover for what he doesn’t know, he’s also a really clever guy, and it’s always fun to write clever characters. They get in the best zingers.
It’s funny – if you look at the Wikipedia article for John Constantine, there’s a section called “In real life“, where several (several!) of the authors who have written Constantine claim to have met him in real life. I kept my eye out for any young kids in a trenchcoat while I was writing – it would’ve been way easier to write the book if I could just ask Kid Constantine what he’d say and do in particular situations! – but unfortunately I never spotted him. So far, anyway…
MUF: I love that you included Etrigan as a “young” demon and that his rhyming is forced. It’s such a cool nod to his lore. What other Easter eggs can eagle-eyed fans catch?
Ryan North: Haha, thank you! Etrigan was the hardest character to write because he speaks in rhymes. It would always slow me down when I got to him, until I finally started writing placeholder dialogue for him: it had what I wanted him to say, but didn’t rhyme, and then I got to go back and spend an afternoon composing poetry that said what I needed it to say.
Beyond the lollipop visual reference I mentioned earlier, there’s also elements in what Constantine and his new friend Anna wear that references the costumes they wear as adults. The artist of the book, Derek Charm, told me that the challenge in designing the characters was that we wanted them to look like their adult versions, but still look credible as kids: their outfits had to be something a 13-year-old would wear. Constantine wants to look cool all the time, so it’s no surprise to me that he’d have a t-shirt printed with a design that makes it looks like he’s wearing a tie. I wanted a shirt like that when I was a kid. Still do, really!
MUF: Also, was it hard coming up with all of those rhymes and/or was it difficult to make them sound stilted?
Ryan North: Hah – well, the secret is that it’s never hard to make a rhyme sound stilted, so that was good at least! As hard as Young Etrigan was to write, Adult Etrigan would be even harder, because there he’s got his rhymes down pat. I tried to use iambic pentameter for his rhymes at the start until I realized Etrigan is speaking a second language here, and he’s definitely not as good at it as his adult version is, so that became a bit less precise in his speech. But honestly, I just went for walks and tried to think of different ways to say what he wanted to say until I came up with one that worked! I like to think out loud when doing character voice writing, so my Secret Writing Technique is to wear a headset with a mic on it when I’m walking. That way, passers-by think I’m a very important businessperson on a very important call and not a random guy trying to make a demon in his head have better rhymes.
MUF: In the book, Constantine and Anna have a few tricks up their sleeve, what do you wish that you had a magic spell for?
Ryan North: Kid Constantine mentions at one point having an anti-blushing spell, and for most of my life before 20 I would’ve loved to have that power. But these days I’d love a spell that would let me learn faster. Every time I try something new there’s such a gulf between what you want and what you can accomplish, and yes it just takes practice, but that means you make a lot of just okay cookies before you unlock the really good stuff. So that’s a shortcut I’d gladly take, thanks magic!
MUF: And similarly, if you were able to sneak into an otherworldly candy shop, what would be your go-to snack?
My favourite food is ice cream, so if I could find a ghost who’s spent their entire afterlife perfecting the art and craft of ice cream production, unlocking levels of flavour and delight that simply aren’t reachable or teachable within a standard-issue human lifetime… I would be there in a heartbeat.
MUF: I read in your bio that you studied Computer Science. How do you go from Computer Science major to creating award-winning graphic novels?
Ryan North: I always kinda did both at the same time! I started my webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, in 2003, when I was in undergrad. (It’s still running today – you can read it at qwantz.com!) Then I kept up the comic through grad school (I studied computational linguistics) and then when I graduated I faced a choice: keep doing comics, or get a real job. And it was really easy to keep doing comics, because all I had to do was fail to get a real job! Super easy. So since then I’ve used my CS knowledge to develop different services that help comic creators, and get to live the best of both worlds. It’s an unusual career path but it’s one that I recommend! All of us have lots of interests and I don’t think you should have to pigeonhole yourself so early in your life – do different things! If you can, do different things simultaneously!
MUF: What were your favorite books and/or comics as a kid? Who were your influences?
Ryan North: The earliest book I can remember loving is The Monster At The End of This Book
by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin. If you haven’t read it, it’s a great Little Golden Book where the fourth wall doesn’t exist, and Grover is afraid because he knows there’s a monster at the end of the book. He does all he can to stop you from turning the pages of the book – building walls that you smash through with your mighty page-turning strength, and so on, until you reach the end, and he finds out the monster… is him, loveable ol’ Grover! And then he’s really embarrassed. It just blew my mind that books could do that, that you could have this object in your hands that was physically like all the other books but told a story in a different way. I still love that, and lots of my projects involve playing with the potential of the form like that. That’s actually one of the things I love about comics: it’s still a young medium and there’s still discoveries about the basic form being made. You can do things in comics that haven’t been done before, and I think that’s really incredible!
MUF: What advice do you have for someone wanting to write comics or videogames or basically just be like you?
Ryan North: The greatest advice I have for someone looking to do writing is to start doing it, keep doing it, and put that work online. This has two benefits: it makes your commitment public, so now you have to keep writing to keep that commitment up (this is why a webcomic works so well: if you say you’re going to every day, you’ve got to do it!) and of course the more you write the better you get at it, even if you’re not trying to improve. There’s no way you can spend a few years writing a comic and not get better at writing comics, it’s just how our brains work. The other thing putting your work online can get you is an audience: people who like your work and want to support it. This helps you in a bunch of ways, but one of the first things it does is make you realize you’re not alone and people are interested in hearing what you have to say. For an early writer, that was really big for me. It made me feel like there was a purpose to it, that it wasn’t just me talking to myself! And of course, when your work is online people can see it and maybe, on day, say “hey, I really like the writing that person did, I wonder if I could hire them to write for me?” and that’s literally how I went from writing a webcomic for free to being paid to write comics for other people too.
MUF: What would fans be surprised to find out about you?
Ryan North: I’m really tall, but also, taller than you think even if you think I’m really tall. I’m that tall. Other than that I don’t think I have that many secrets! Unless of course this is a ruse to get people off the trail of my many startling secrets!
MUF: What are you working on now?
Ryan North: I’m working on a few unannounced projects I can’t really talk about, but I will say that Derek Charm and I have been trying to do more books together for a while and hopefully some of those will bear fruit soon! I’m also working on something that’s sort of a spiritual successor to my first nonfiction book, which was called “How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller”. (That book has also found a lot of middle-grade readers: turns out we’re all kinda interested in seeing if we can rebuild civilization from scratch if we ever get sent back in time!)
MUF: How can people follow you on social media?
Ryan North: I’m not really active anywhere but Twitter, where I’m @ryanqnorth ! I’m also @qwantz on Instagram, where I sometimes post pictures of my dog, Noam Chompsky.
MUF: And, that’s all I’ve got. Thank you for your time, and the opportunity to interview you.
Ryan North: Thanks Mimi! These were really thoughtful questions – I appreciate it!
The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher is out now! And I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who is interested in spooky, mysterious adventure comics with smart, sarcastic heroes, as well as anyone who is a fan of the grown-up Constantine comics.