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Ryan North on kindness, comics and the appeal of superheroes

Ryan North on kindness, comics and the appeal of superheroes

In the first episode of this new series, Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to comic book writer Ryan North. 01/12/2021

Ryan North is a writer for television, video games, and especially comic books. Some of his most recent projects include ‘How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller’, a graphic novel adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse–Five’, and the ‘Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’, which he wrote for Marvel Comics for five years. He also writes, as he has done since his early 20s, Dinosaur Comics, which is a daily webcomic using the same images with different words every day.

Ryan speaks about his childhood as a nerdy kid in rural Canada, his route to becoming a professional comic writer even though he can’t draw, navigating gender in comics and graphic novels, and why human beings are so drawn to this idea of superheroes.

Each episode in this series includes an additional reflection from Elizabeth at the end, so keep listening if you’d like to. We are also publishing full transcripts of each episode so scroll down on this page if you’re a reader rather than a listener. 

Follow us on Twitter @sacred_podcast 

 

You can read a full transcript of the episode here:

Elizabeth
Hello, and welcome to the brand new series of The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast in which I speak to people with some kind of public voice about their deepest values, how we could navigate our deep differences and how we can build more empathy and understanding in our public conversations. I am so looking forward to finally getting to share this series with you. We have been having such interesting conversations about character and virtue, comics, the psychology of superheroes, the role of nursing and care and its status in our society, feminism, race, filter bubbles, the climate emergency and more. You’ll hear from New York Times columnist David Brooks, tech activist and entrepreneur Eli Pariser who coined the term filter bubble, psychologist Stuart Ritchie, author and nurse Christie Watson, New Statesman columnist Louise Perry, and others. So hit Subscribe now, if you haven’t already.

I hope as you listen, you’ll feel like you’ve learned some stuff, that you might feel a bit cleverer. We’re used to podcasts doing that for us. But frankly, more importantly, what we aspire to, is that you will go away with an insight into a complex human person, who by the magic of deep listening might just transform from a type, or a position, or a demographic or a professional group, all of which you’ve got a bundle of associations about, and they can transform from that set of associations positive or negative, into a precious, multilayered individual.

You’ll notice that we don’t currently have adverts on this podcast, but we are doing a bit of research into Patreon. We’d love to hear what you think. Would you sign up for that? What would you love to engage with us about, what kind of community would you like us to build? Do you support other podcasts? What works? What doesn’t? Please do feedback to us, it would be massively helpful. You can find me on Twitter at @ESOldfield, @sacred_podcast, or you can stand up for the written word and write to us in long form. If you need more than 240 characters, you can send us an email – yep, email still exists – we’re at thesacredpodcast@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, there is a key way you can support us. And you know by now that you can leave us a rating, particularly on iTunes, you can write us a review, they really do warm my heart. But the way I’m just gonna ask you to consider today, because it benefits us but hopefully builds some good in the world, is to take an episode and send it to a friend with a line. Something like, I’d really like to talk to you about this. We are all about inspiring better, deeper, more human, more honest conversations, to get us beyond the surface level. So why not use a Sacred episode as a prompt, and I would love to hear how it goes, please, feedback.

Today, you are going to hear a conversation I had with comic writer and author, Ryan North. And one of the things that is different about this series is I’m recording some reflections at the end after the main interview, which is a space really, a container for all the thoughts about that particular guest that have been sparked in me because listening back to the edit often clarifies what I think some of the key points are. So keep listening at the end if you’d like to hear that. Meanwhile, our guest today is Ryan North. He’s a writer for television, video games, and especially comic books. Some of his most recent projects include ‘How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller’, a graphic novel adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse–Five’, and the ‘Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’, which he wrote for Marvel Comics for five years. He also writes, as he has done since his early 20s, Dinosaur Comics, which is a daily webcomic using the same images with different words every day.

We spoke about his childhood as a nerdy kid in rural Canada, his route to becoming a professional comic writer, even though he can’t draw, navigating gender in comic books and graphic novels, and why human beings are so drawn to this idea of superheroes. I really hope you enjoy listening

Elizabeth
Ryan, some people start with asking their guests what they had for breakfast, I’m going to ask you instead about your deepest moral commitments, the principles you live by. I frame it around what do you hold sacred, just because it’s a slightly less overused word. And one of the ways of thinking about that is if someone offered you money to compromise on this principle, you would at the very least feel a bit compromised – you might still take the money, but you would have an internal wrestle about it.

Ryan
So I will confess, I thought about this a bit. So if I have an answer that sounds flippant, it has the power of having been thought of behind it. And I think the answer I could give you is the principle of kindness. I think if someone paid me money not to be kind I would feel bad taking the money. I remember I read once about, maybe it happened in Toronto where I lived, there was as part of like first year psychology students, they – the assignment was to go out and break social norms. So like, take a seat from a pregnant woman and not give it up and that sort of stuff. And the result is you know, how deeply uncomfortable it feels to do these things. And that obviously conflates kindness with society, but I feel like if everyone was kind that would be good, if nobody was kind that would be bad, and that feels like, breaking it down to first principles, a pretty useful way to sort of tease apart what I hold to be important.

Elizabeth
I always give myself a little gold star when I correctly guess what the guest’s sacred value is going to be.

Ryan
Oh I’m predictable!

Elizabeth
No you’re not actually because it was nothing in your – not that you’re not kind in your writing or comedy or elsewhere, but it’s actually because you’ve at least twice quoted, and I realised as I was preparing this that I don’t know how to say his surname, because I’ve only ever read it and not said it out loud. Kurt Vonnegut – how’d you say it?

Ryan
Vonnegut is how I say it. “God dammit, babies, you’ve got to be kind”.

Elizabeth 
“God dammit, babies, you’ve got to be kind.” And when you see someone quote something more than once you’re like, OK, that’s more of a life motto. And I think the power of it is he’s saying this thing ‘be kind’ which is so hard to say in words which don’t sound like an Instagram rainbow cliché meme. But he’s saying it in his inimitable style as a writer who is not…he’s not fluffy, right?

Ryan
No, he’s direct.

Elizabeth
I’d love to talk more about that tension or that combination –how we think about kindness in stories that are gritty, or in lives that are hard, and not as something soft and easy, but with power to it. And so I’m going to put a pin in here, see if we can find a way to circle back to it. Tell me about your childhood. I’d love to locate you in your story, paint me a picture…

Ryan
I grew up in a small village called Osgood and then in middle school we moved away to outside of Osgood, so became even more rural then the first. Just after we moved into this house, we had a knock at the door and it’s this farmer who’s like, “I’m looking for one of my cows. Have you seen my cow?” We are like oh, we have really moved rural at this point. This is where farmers are looking for their cows territory.

Elizabeth
Were there any big ideas around or kind of lingering…formative experiences that you think have shaped you today, whether there was kind of politics around or religion in the air or a particular philosophical approach to life? I think we all find this hard because our childhood is just our childhood. But even asking the question can be quite fruitful.

Ryan
Well, for religion, my parents were both raised Catholic, and they were not a huge fan of it. So there wasn’t a tonne of religion. I read a lot of – I still read a lot of science fiction. At the time, I read it more seriously in the sense that I remember a small sense of betrayal where I grew up and realised that you know, writing Star Trek they didn’t have it planned out. They weren’t trying to show a realistic and credible vision of tomorrow, they were doing scripts once a week, and just tearing through and devouring input. And it wasn’t… the way I was treating it which is here is the best minds on the planet, trying to show us what the future might be like. It was people trying to make a TV show for profit. And it’s that sort of idea that made me realise I was really putting a lot of weight into the science fiction stories I was reading where I thought, if you look hard enough, and you think about it hard enough, you can come up with a credible vision of what the future will be like. And – but like that was what was so interesting about it to me was that here’s a way to get a peek at the future. Why wouldn’t you be reading sci fi stuff? This is amazing. This is reading a few pages ahead in the book.

Elizabeth
Yeah, it sounds like you were almost treating it like sacred texts, like this is meaningful.

Ryan
This idea of really connecting with either a piece of fiction or genre of fiction, and pouring yourself into it, like I see it today, where people are super connected with, I don’t know Tony Stark. I love Tony Stark. I think about Tony Stark all the time. Tony Stark is important to me. And like I get it. I felt the same way about Spock. You pour so much of yourself into it. And usually I think the text doesn’t collapse, it can support itself because you’re actually doing most of the supporting. And so like, yeah, it’s really important to me in this sense that I wonder if it’s because I was so young, I was a kid and I was watching Star Trek. And now I am a 40 year old man and still loving Star Trek

Elizabeth
For our Non Marvel Universe, obsessive listeners, Tony Stark is iron man who is one of the Marvel superheroes. Have I got that right as a very much amateur?

Ryan
Yes, and I love that you don’t know – It feels like I’m in a world where everyone knows who Tony Stark is. It’s so refreshing. Yes…

Elizabeth
I guarantee that not everyone will know.

Ryan
I love it. ‘Iron man?’ Thank you.

Elizabeth
And I think it’s fair to say that you were – and this is true of a huge amount of people – maybe a little bit lonely or a bit unpopular at school or scared of being unpopular. Is that a fair characterization? I don’t want to label you or shame you in any way.

Ryan
No, you’ve cut to the quick. My mum told me a story when I was in grade one or two, where every day she asked me how my day of school was and I would say fine. And then one day she gets a call from a teacher, the principal saying “hey, just saying how little grade one Ryan was beat up by a grade four kid and hung against the fence by his jacket and shook.” And my mom was like, “Oh my God” and she goes to me, I remember none of this, by the way. She goes to me in her story and she says “Ryan, why didn’t you tell me about this?” And my response was “I only wanted you to hear about the good stuff.” Which is super cute. But also like, I can kind of see it. So I wasn’t like…I have a memory of my best friend, who was also probably my only real friend, of being home sick from school one day. And I would walk the length of the school. And I remember trailing my hand on the brick wall to count how many bricks there were with my eyes closed, because that would take about the 15 minutes we had at recess. So it’s not like I was, I think, like horribly depressed and lonely. But I had one or two friends. And when those friends were away I had no friends.

Elizabeth
You’ve said before that you wanted to be like Doc Brown from Back to the Future when you grow up, which I just find the most fabulous and adorable image. But you’ve also said about that time you realised later that you don’t have to be popular to be good. I just wanted you to unpack that a bit for me because it’s a really interesting line.

Ryan
Yeah. I think when you are young and unpopular, you’re thinking, well if I was a better person, then people would like me more. And as you age, I think you see a lot of things that are popular and bad. And that sort of lets you tease those two apart. I’m like, I remember being in high school, or being before high school so grade eight. And I had sort of built in my head my identity around being smart. So I was in the gifted programme, and I enjoyed science fiction, which clearly only smart people do. I had all these prejudices built in my head of how I was a clever, smart young man. And then I got to high school. And there were people in my grade who were way nerdier than me, way smarter than me who were like reading research math papers for fun, or so they claim. And I sort of had this mini crisis where I was like, I can’t be the smart one anymore, because I’m not the smartest guy in this grade. What am I if I’m not the smart one? And sort of a lot of high school was figuring that out and making friends and realising like you don’t have to be the best at x to still have value. And also, being the best at x doesn’t necessarily imbue you with any value besides that I’m skilled at x.

Elizabeth
Tell me about the very first encounter that you had with comic books. And full disclosure, I am not a regular reader. I have gone and read some in preparation for today but feel very much like a babe in the woods. What was it about that medium that drew you so sufficiently that it’s become a kind of core thread of your life?

Ryan
Yeah. So like I said, growing up in rural Ontario there was no comic book store. And so I had only this idea of comics that was abstract, like I thought I liked comics in the same way, you know, I thought I would probably enjoy, I don’t know, having sex. It seems cool, I’d like to know more about it. And so I got a job and I got access to a car. And with my first paycheck, I walked into a comic store completely cold, and just picked out three comics. And two of them are stone sold classics, I would say – Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Superman: Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross. And I just enjoyed the way that words and pictures can do things together that they can’t do on their own. The thing that I also find interesting about the medium is that it is a young medium. And so in that way, it’s got a lot, a lot of connections with video games where the definition of a great game for me and for a lot of people, it’s not just it’s fun, and it’s exciting, and it’s beautiful and entertaining. But most truly great games do something that games had not done before. Like, it pushes the medium forward. And there’s comics that do that – every time I read a comic book by Jason Shiga, I’m seeing something that I haven’t seen done within the medium before. And that’s exceptional, right? Like it’s very rare to read something like a novel, which is a 100 year old medium, and read a novel and say, you know, that was a great novel, but it didn’t really push the form forward. So it can’t truly be great because like, we have seen, I feel maybe I’m wrong, but we’ve seen a lot of what novels can do. And there’s so much more unexplored territory in comics. So it’s the joy of words and pictures together plus the sense of potential and the sense of if you are lucky and you work hard, you can do something or see something that you haven’t seen before that no one’s seen before. That I think is really exciting for me.

Elizabeth
It’s one of the words that kept coming back to me when I was preparing for this about you is curiosity, that kind of like interest and a hunger for knowledge and novelty as motivation.

Ryan
That’s very kind, thank you.

Elizabeth
So you went and studied computational linguistics at university and I guess there was a fork in the road where you’re like, I’m going to go and make my money in computing, or I’m going to take this webcomic that I’ve been running on the side called Dinosaur Comics and kind of see if I can make that work. How easy was that decision, that turn? Did it feel like a hobby to you at the time that you then had to – or was it like, this is the thing, I just don’t know if I can make it bear the weight of my living?

Ryan
Yeah. So I started dinosaur comics in my last year of undergrad, and interesting you mentioned curiosity, because that’s a very flattering way to put it. There’s a negative side to it, where I can be too interested in originality, where if something has been done before, I won’t want to do it. And with Dinosaur Comics, my idea was, I can’t draw but I’ll reuse the same six panels and put different words in every day. That’s never been done before, I’ll do something new with comics. And I was six months into it when I found out that director David Lynch, when he was in school, did a comic called The Angriest Dog in the World where he used the same three pictures and changed the words and had I known that I would absolutely have never started Dinosaur Comics, I’d be like, that’s been done, I can’t do it. But I didn’t know that. And so I started and, you know, changed the course of my life, put on hold for career because of it, but if I had held tight to that sense of it has to be truly original, it would have really hurt me and held me back. So yes, I started the comic in undergrad and then did grad school, did a degree in computational linguistics, and then graduated. And like you said, there was a fork in the road, do I get a job with this expensive education I have? Or do I continue doing comics for free on the internet and make my money by selling t shirts and merchandise and stuff? And the thing with the comics was that it was at the point where it was just about to be supporting me – not rich, but like I could keep up my fabulous student lifestyle, cheap apartment macaroni and cheese for dinner. That’s what I love. And so all I had to do to become a full time cartoonist, once I graduated, was fail to get a job. And it’s super easy to fail to get a job. I applied only to Google. And they asked for my transcript. And I was like, Well, I don’t have a transcript, who has the time for that. And I mean, I can admit now that I feel like I always wanted to do the comics. But I also would have loved for Google to say yeah, we’ll offer you a job and be like, you know what, hash, no thanks Google. I didn’t get that chance as they rejected me first, they can’t fire me I quit didn’t work out. And so that was – it was very easy, in a sense, because usually becoming a full time artist requires you to take this leap of faith, to quit your job, to invest the time in yourself. And I didn’t have to do that I just didn’t get a job and sort of slipped into it really easily. I didn’t actually announce that I was a full time and therefore a professional cartoonist until a year into doing it because I was concerned, like legitimately, because I was afraid that other cartoonists would hate me. Because here I am achieving that dream while, not technically, actually being a cartoonist. I don’t draw. And I’d made it a long way in comics without realising that comics’ writer was a job you could have. I read a tonne of indie stuff where it was people writing and drawing their own thing. And I didn’t realise that there was this world where you could simply write and other people would draw it for you. And it’s, you know, I still say that it’s an amazing job because drawing is absolutely the hard part. It’s way more labour intensive. And it always feels like a magic trick. I imagine the comics page in my head when I read it. And then I see what the artist does. And it’s always better. Because of course it will be – these are visual artists or visual thinkers, they are going to do a better job than what I can imagine. And it always feels like I’m getting away with something which I think, if you can find a job where you feel like you’re getting away with something every day, that’s a pretty good place to be.

Elizabeth
And what are some key themes that comics deal with? From what I understand of sci–fi, as you explained, that the dominant question in sci fi is what kind of world do we want to live in? And how do we build it? Very, very idealistic philosophical utopian fantasies. Is that also true in comics? Are there other key things, like the archetypes, that come up a lot?

Ryan
Yeah, well, the distinction I always draw is that comics is a medium, not a genre. So in theory, like you can have cookbook comics, you can have all sorts of anything, any storytelling in comics. In practice, there are a lot at least in North America, there’s a lot of superhero comics, which if they’re not sci fi, they’re at least sci fi adjacents. And this lets you tell stories where you can have, you know, a character literally symbolising hope, beating up a character literally symbolizing…

Elizabeth
Evil.

Ryan
Anything you want – evil. Anything. And so that does tend towards these stories that are about larger things, like they’re about what we owe to each other, what it means to be a person, how to be a good person, what a good society would look like, what are problems, how to encounter these problems, you can find how to fix them. So I think they also reflect the interests of readers, which are usually pretty close, of like, I want to be a better person. What should I do to be a good human being? Like that sort of stuff is very, if it’s not on the surface it’s just beneath the surface of a ton of comics. Look at Superman the most famous comic character in the world. This is a guy who has a ton of power, and uses it to do good. Always. Like, his stories are about what you can do if you make the right choices and have the means to fulfil them.

Elizabeth
It’s deeply theological, right? It feels like in Greek mythology… we’ve, we’ve always yearned to be better than we are and to have someone be better than we are and more just and more present, but then often… I observe in these stories, that there’s always a flaw, there’s always a kind of – we can’t quite, you know, Superman has to have kryptonite. Someone has to have that like the dark side. We can’t just – or maybe it’s just the purely good character is boring?

Ryan
I don’t think so. Like, people have made that argument of Superman. Like he’s too powerful and that he’s boring. But I think the fact that he is – here’s this character who, in the end will always do the right thing is super primal. That goes back way, way far in human civilization. And the fact that he is so powerful, like there’s not very many Superman stories where he’s just yawning his way through fights. He’s struggling. And because he’s so powerful, his obstacles are just as powerful if not more powerful, so that just heightens everything. Like, I feel like if you look at Superman, you’re looking at superhero comics as a genre, and everything that he’s doing, has influenced everything else. It’s very – I guess the word is seminal, but seminal is kind of a gross word, is there a different word for seminal that doesn’t have its roots in semen?

Elizabeth
Ovunal – something egg based?

Ryan
Yeah, I wanted to just move this out of the realm of sexual reproduction. Important, I guess that’s the closest word. Yeah.

Elizabeth
It’s a great pivot for me though, because I wanted to pick up on gender. And your very helpful teeing up of the two doors of She Hulk, and the porn store, because I…so one of the things I do in these interviews is I talk to people from tribes that are very different from mine that I know nothing about, and just want to learn and listen and just create kind of interesting insights into worlds that the listeners might not know about. And as I’m preparing it always, I’m always trying to be really aware of like, the prejudices within me and the, what I’m nervous about, or what I’m feeling maybe prickly about as I’m encountering this person, whether they’re kind of a communist or government minister, or what. And the thing that kept coming out as I was reading around comics, but also around coding was this… The way a lot of these tribes are coded very, very male. And I wrote down three C’s, coding, comedy and comics, and the sort of cousins of skepticism and sarcasm and Reddit and sci fi, and kind of tech bros. And the kind of constellation which I created in my mind, I’m sure just from prejudices but seems certainly from a distance to be interrelated, and incredibly male. And then I went and I was doing some reading around Marvel Comics. And you know, when you put in an image search Marvel female characters, there’s just a lot of breasts, a lot of breasts, and a lot of thighs and a lot of women looking over their shoulder so they can show a really good view of their gluteus maximus.

Ryan
There’s a famous comics pose where you have this impossible spine twist where you can see the butt and the breasts and the face.

Elizabeth
I mean, let’s put it all on display. But you write Squirrel Girl, which is, as from my minor knowledge, not that. She is a kind of reasonably normal looking female character. She’s also very perky and friendly and empathetic. You’ve thought about this – talk to me about gender in comics and what you’re trying to do with your writing.

Ryan
Yeah, so you’re right in that comics’ history, especially superhero comics, in North America has been traditionally a very male dominated space. And it to such an extent that it can be aggressively pushing out anyone who is not sharing that heterosexual male gaze. And that sucks. You’re starting by pushing away more than half population with all women. And then going even further, like just usually straight white men. And for someone – like if you love comics, you love the medium of comics and you want to share that with people and you want to have it feel like a space that is not aggressively pushing people out. So I think it’s been changing. I mean, like any change, it’s hard, there are movements in comics that are dedicated entirely towards making comics the way they used to be, back when they were you know, apolitical, and there was just about straight white men fighting other straight white men, and then kissing breasty women and that’s all it has to be. And so part of what Squirrel Girl, part of the desire there was let’s make a comic that is more inclusive, and I’m obviously not alone in this. I’m not like – I’m neither alone in this nor am I a trailblazer. But I feel like it’s important to have comics that a) won’t push people away but b) like you can give them to children, because a lot of comics have grown up with the readers who then become creators. There’s a lot of stuff in comics that you should not be giving probably to a child and I wanted to have to do this comic that is all ages, so adults can enjoy it, kids can enjoy it. And also not to be pushing people out of it. And so yeah, Squirrel Girl, she’s got a physique that makes it incredible that she could as a superhero like pin down a bad guy and hold him in place, she’s not wasting, she’s strong, she’s got muscles. And she’s living in this world that hopefully a lot of people can see themselves reflected in, and the nice thing was that we weren’t intending it to be explicitly for children but a lot of kids have been reading it, enjoying it and we get these letters from parents showing their kids dressed up as Squirrel Girl and letting us know like this is their first comic which is you know, such an honour to be someone’s first exposure to the medium. And the book ran for five years and we like – we could watch readers growing up in the letters pages over those five years. Like learning to read so they can enjoy this comic and then reading it until it’s done and they’re five years older, it’s something really special I think.

Elizabeth
How much control do you have as the writer over the visuals, how much – I want to sort of poke my way into whatever the creative meeting is that happens when you get together the team for comics and you’re setting out a vision. Whose is – is this one person in control? Are you able to say this is what I want this to be, go draw it or is it much more of a conversation?

Ryan
It’s a collaborative medium. So I for example, for Squirrel Girl, the artist was Erica Henderson. And I pitched the comics, I sort of described here’s what I want it to be. Let’s make it all ages, let’s make it inclusive. Let’s make it funny. And then from that description, Erica drew, I think 15 different sketches of what Squirrel Girl could look like. Ranging began. And I looked at those and I was like, wow, there’s such personality here. And I like where she had the acorn earrings like this and where she has the squirrel headband, the bomber jacket. Can we combine them all into making this different sort of character? And Erica did more sketches. And then when I was writing that first issue, I had up on a different monitor the sketches she had done, because when I was trying to find the voice of this character I would look at this woman and be like, well, what would she do in this situation? And so it’s my pitch informing her sketch informing my outline, and informing how her voice comes out so it’s a collaboration and we were always both on the same page, and Erica told me later the first question she asked Marvel when they brought her on for Squirrel Girl was, Can I redesign the character? Can I make her? Because before this point, she was typically drawn as a taller supermodel physique and we wanted to not have that.

Elizabeth
So this is a conflict within me. She’s, she’s quite, she’s quite kind. She’s perky and optimistic and upbeat. Am I right? And she defeats people by understanding them deeply.

Ryan
Yeah, this is this is what sets her apart, is that most superheroes solve their problems in fights and it’s amazing. But I conceived of Squirrel Girl as being this… Not unlike myself, computer science major. And she’s also very clever. And it felt untrue to have a clever person resorting to fistfights all the time, because like in my life, when I disagree, I don’t think I get into fistfights. Yeah. So if you’re going to be writing this smart woman, and you’re going to be true to that, you can’t have her throwing hands every time she gets into obstacle. And so what she tends to do is be very empathic and realise that the root of these characters problems, so at first appearance she comes up against Kraven the hunter who is this hunter of man, who’d like to kill humans, and Kraven’s trying to attack her. And she realises by talking to him and stalling him, realising what his core problem is, that he doesn’t actually want to want to kill her. He’s just frustrated with a different problem in his life. And she helps him solve that. And it’s like in saying this out loud, in a normal story, that sounds like what a reasonable person would do. But in the genre of comics, where that doesn’t happen, it feels a little bit more revolutionary and fun and like, you’re not sure where this is gonna go. And so that’s been very interesting, I think, for me and, and for readers. Plus the fact that up to us writing this comic, the joke with Squirrel Girl was that she was unbeatable, she would always defeat these people outside her weight class, usually off panel, so you’d cut away, cut back and then like they are lying at her feet knocked out. And he’s like, how does she do this. And as an ongoing comic, I can’t use that joke more than once, it’s not satisfying to always cut away when the best part of the story is happening. So I had to come up with a way where she could credibly defeat these people who are physically stronger than her. And for me the solution is well, she talks to them, what their problem is, she helps them solve their problems, without needing to throw hands all the time.

Elizabeth
I feel ridiculously conflicted about this. I’m just gonna make you listen to my internal conflict, which is 70% yes! Traditionally, feminine coded skills are a superpower. Emotional intelligence can save the world. Yes, kindness is at the root of all things. And…

Ryan
Why is it a woman who has to do these things?

Elizabeth
Yeah, are we not just perpetuating it? And, and therefore that becomes a thing that’s suitable for children. And she hasn’t got her own film because maybe that – maybe like the bleak or the dark, or the cynical or the twisted or the – all of the traditional things are…we’re so trained to expect those to be interesting. And it comes back to this question about kindness and Kurt and goodness, and the stories that we tell and how we make stories of kindness and goodness captivating and compelling and interesting in the long term. This is me saying keep doing that, keep doing that more in other places.

Ryan
Yeah, I mean, my answer to that would be yes, she uses these traditionally female coding skills to solve problems. But she doesn’t have to rely on them like she is canonically the strongest character in the Marvel Universe, she can wreck you, ruin your day. But she chooses not to. And I feel like that idea of being physically strong, being able to just destroy anyone who stands in your way, is traditionally the male coded thing, the male power fantasy, but she doesn’t, she has that option and refuses it. And I think that is, for me, that I think is so important. I see this all the time, like I look at social media, Facebook, Twitter, here are sites that are actively doing damage to the world. And they can choose not to do that, but they don’t because it’s profitable. And this idea of being able to do something that would benefit you and maybe even would be easy, and then not doing it, I think is something that – I would say that’s sacred to me, this idea that there are points, there should absolutely be points in your life where you do something, or you don’t do something, not to benefit you, but to do the larger benefit for the world. And seeing for me seeing, seeing a character like Squirrel Girl do that, to know that she could destroy this person. But instead she’s going to help them, which is going to be harder, always going to be harder, because she’s so powerful, she could end them in a heartbeat that I think is both inspirational and aspirational. And something that I think is important. So I, I hear what you’re saying, when you’re like, oh, why does the woman character have to be the nice one? Why can’t she be powerful like the guys?

Elizabeth
We want to be evil too!

Ryan
Yeah, like she, there’s actually there’s a there’s a standalone graphic novel called Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe where she gets an evil clone that destroys every one of us, she has to talk down her evil clone and figure that out. So I think, hopefully, that’s a long winded answer to sort of give you a way that we’re trying to have her cake and eat it too. And not just have her be the nice one. But she’s also the one you should fear if she wasn’t the nice one.

Elizabeth
Again, deeply theological. I – you’ve very clearly someone with a strong and instinctive moral and ethical sense. Are their practices, or communities, or sources of solace, and wisdom? I’m so aware of the long withdrawing roar of religion as someone who is a Christian, most of my generation, most of the people I know, that’s not where they look for their sources of goodness for their, for their steers on what does it mean to live well, and be a good person now? So I’m always intrigued where else are people finding them? Where does this moral code come from? And how do you keep it alive?

Ryan
Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. As an aside, like I do have a friend who goes to church, but she does it for the community, more than the religious teaching part of it. She likes the people at the church. She likes likeminded people who are at this church. I think that’s really sweet. I’m not sure I can answer your question. I feel like I remember making a choice, probably, in undergrad where I was trying to figure out like, Okay, so what is the best way to live a life? How do you be a good person? What is the moral and ethical framework around that? And the conclusion I reached was, I don’t know what the right answer is, like I don’t, I’m not able to solve 2000 years of philosophy in this high school course, or whatever. But the best thing I can do is write my little story. And hopefully, they’ll be entertaining or diverting, for someone smarter than me who can figure this out. So that is a good I can put in the world, I cannot solve these major issues with the human condition. But I can at least hopefully, maybe make it slightly easier for someone else to, and it’s kind of a dodge, but it’s all I’ve got…So the golden rule is ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, which is good. And it beats the iron rule, which is ‘Do unto others before they can do to you first’. But if you change the centering, so it’s ‘Do unto others as they would want done on to them’. So you’re no longer centering the world around your wants and beliefs, but having to empathise with them and seeing what they would want. When I first heard about this idea, I was like, Oh, yes, you can beat the golden rule, a level higher. And obviously, there’s limits to any philosophy, especially one, you know, summed up in a couple words, but treating people as they would want to be treated I feel like is the core of a lot of what I would say is important.

Elizabeth
Thank you so much for speaking to me on the sacred. That was delightful.

Ryan
My pleasure. Thank you.

Elizabeth
Well, what an interesting guy. I have been swatting up on great interviewers during breaks between series and I was listening to Ira Glass who is host of This American Life. It’s sort of the granddaddy of podcasts, really he’s, you know, the elder statesman of interviewers, and I think of him as quite a hard headed journalist. But he said, he knows it’s been a really good interview when he ends up feeling love for the people that he’s been listening to, which was such a relief to hear, because I often feel very warm towards the people that I’ve spent an hour listening to. And Ryan was no exception. 

My main reflection was just how much thought and care is going into – and maybe this is true of all of these forms of entertainment, which we think of maybe as a bit shallow, maybe we’re culturally snobby about art forms like comic books, or until quite recently, television, other forms that we compare to high art, which basically means mediums that have been around for a lot longer. The sense of the kind of richness and the vision and the variety of comic books was really coming through. I also remembered that that’s one of the really charming features of nerd culture. It’s the unashamed love for something. It’s just pure enthusiasm without much irony and distance, which I sort of think we need more of in the world. It’s just really delightful to listen to. When I was a teenager, I read a book called Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller, and it has a quote on the back which has always stuck with me. He says “I didn’t like jazz because jazz doesn’t resolve. And I didn’t like God because God doesn’t resolve. But sometimes you have to watch someone love something to understand it.” And I still don’t really understand the mechanism of this, but Ryan’s unabashed delight around comic books means that I will get a really different feeling when I walk past a comic book shop now.

I love the psychodrama of the stories that he described, you know, that quote about a character literally symbolising hope, beating up a character literally symbolising evil. And the way it laid bare the deep theological questions just beneath the surface of these brightly coloured panels. I am still troubled by the challenges of telling stories of goodness and kindness in ways that are gripping. Iris Murdoch says it should be possible. I believe it should be. But it’s the big wrestle obviously, that CS Lewis and Tolkien went through. How do you express the full variety of experience in the world that includes darkness and disappointment and corruption and grief, and the very worst of human beings, and yet hold a centre in which good is still attractive and compelling, and powerful? It was telling I think, at the end, when I asked about what practices and communities or stories Ryan uses to scaffold this search for the good life, and there was a sense actually, he doesn’t really know where to go for that, except through doing good work, which is, of course, no bad thing. Much to ponder. Thank you for listening. See you next time.


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 1 December 2021

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