April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Choose-Your-Own-Path ‘Hamlet’ Comic Gets a Huge Boost via Kickstarter

Canadian cartoonist Ryan North (@ryanqnorth) launched a Kickstarter campaign on November 21 with the goal of raising $20,000 for his book in progress, a choose-your-own-path version of Hamlet featuring 100 possible endings and illustrated by a small army of acclaimed comic book artists.

North had already paid 30 artists to illustrate his 80,000-word book, To Be or Not to Be: That is the Adventure, to be published by Breadpig next spring. But he wanted to get more artists on board for the labyrinthine project and turned to Kickstarter in order to pay them up front for their work.

North, author of the critically acclaimed Dinosaur Comics and the Adventure Time comic book series, hit his $20,000 goal within three and a half hours.

Eleven days in, he’d raised more than $220,000.

How did this happen?

A mix of factors: An original idea; early press about his Kickstarter success; and a link to a charitable cause. Breadpig donates all profits to charities, in this case the Canadian Cancer Society.

As for the book. Why did North, also a computer programmer, decide to create a game within a physical book instead of just making a computer game?

“I’ve spent many a happy day playing games,” he says. But he wanted to “create an object that is unusual.” Besides, “reading is more fun.”

Taking inspiration from Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books he’d read as a kid, including The Cave of Time (Bantam, 1979) by Edward Packard and Space and Beyond by (Bantam, 1980) R. A. Montgomery (20 of whose titles were released last month as ebooks). North got to work work creating a version of Hamlet “like a play within a play”–make that 100 plays within a play–in which the reader chooses which Shakespearean character he or she wants to be, complete with comic avatar.

The CYOA line, launched in 1979, was Bantam’s first publishing endeavor for young people. Facing weak sales, Bantam gave away 100,000 CYOA books to libraries. Between 1979 and 2000, the books sold 250 million copes worldwide, according to the site.

North was also influenced by “the brilliant” author Jason Shiga, whose Meanwhile: Pick Any Path, 3,856 Story Possibilities (Amulet, 2010) is also a choose-your-own-route comic book, crafted from a complex algorithm. Shiga’s maze of possible narratives opens with the reader’s decision whether to select a chocolate or vanilla ice cream cone.

North used the open-source software Twine—which allows writers to compose their narratives graphically with a map, and re-arrange as they go—to keep track of his story lines. Readers can “jump between characters” and can expect to encounter up to 110 possible death scenes, he says.

The software “gives me a visual map of where the stories go and how they interact,” says North. “Twine lets you draw nodes and lines between those nodes. If you put text within each node, you have a map of what happens.”

One of those 100 story lines is Shakespeare’s original. “If you make a choice that Shakespeare made, you see a Yorick skull. So you can read through the play as Shakespeare intended it,” North says.

In the tradition of CYOA books, To Be or Nor to Be is “told in the second person. The narrator is telling you how you’re feeling,” North says. He also took the liberty of adding a pirate scene to the story.

The famously indecisive Hamlet informed his book structure. “I was thinking about the soliloquy ‘To Be or Not to Be.’ Hamlet’s talking to himself and he’s giving himself a choice,” says North, who had wanted to write a story about ghosts before hitting on the ghost-rich Hamlet tale.

Fortunately, “Hamlet is driven by a clear goal: Killing Claudius,” North says. “That is well-suited to a game book like this.”

As for the extra money, it will be plowed back into the book. In addition to featuring much more art, To Be or Not to Be will include a choose-your-own reversible dust jacket on a hardcover edition, plus a prequel, Poor Yorick, set 25 years earlier, in which a broke Yorick takes a job as a court jester.

On Kickstarter, North spelled out his plans for the funds as donations hit certain benchmarks. At $100,000: “What the heck, I will write a sequel book. You guys are crazy.” A choose-your-own-path Macbeth is one option, he says.

North requested that Breadpig give proceeds to the Canadian Cancer Society. “My original charity was going to be something that supported literacy,” he told SLJ. But after his wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year, he asked that the money go toward cancer research. As the Kickstarter campaign states, “By supporting this book, you’re also supporting research for a cure. That is really cool!”

His wife is responding well to treatment, he says.

The audience for To Be or Not to Be is “the same age that would read Hamlet,’ says North, noting that he really wrote it for himself, and “made sure everyone is keeping their clothes on.”

“I got my brother to proofread this,” North added. “I found out that all his life, he has been reading choose-your-own-adventure stories like regular books, from start to finish.”

Extra Helping header

This article was featured in our free Extra Helping enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a week.

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.