The question Scott McCloud poses in his work Understanding Comics is this: How much information do you need for a proper definition of comics? What counts as comics, anyway? Scott likes to go all the way back to ancient Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphics to trace the history of comics, and while that’s a little too grandiose for my tastes, his larger point is still agreeable: the definition of comics is pretty flexible, and one way to be unique is to push the limits on what it means for something to be a comic.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, to me, represents an attempt to do that. It’s overly simplistic and text heavy, but it’s funny and, ironically enough, imaginative.
The thing about Dinosaur Comics is, each and every panel is exactly the same, and has been since the comic started in February 2007. No change whatsoever. The only difference is the text. With that kind of variety it would be pretty reasonable to expect it to burn out after maybe a few months, but somehow North has managed to keep it going. Most obviously, the writing is the reason for this success, because if we judged it on art alone there wouldn’t be much to say. Each strip is its own conversation, but it’s not like North is just copy-pasting IM conversations and calling it a day. Most of the time he deals with some pretty high brow stuff, actually, and can be informative as well as funny. T-Rex, Utahraptor, Dromiceiomimus and God are all recurring characters with their own personalities set in stone- T-Rex is kind of an excitable idiot but he at least kind of grasps philosophical and scientific topics, Utahraptor is his logical foil and the other two characters interject from time to time to provide dialogue and direction.
It’s pretty funny to watch dinosaurs have conversations about whether or not gravity is a particle, or whether it’s a good idea to date your roommate, especially since (well for me anyway) it’s inevitable to hear T-Rex in a deep monster kind of voice which makes his lines goofy while Utahraptor just has a more level pitched voice. I think the only thing you have to worry about with the writing is the potential for massive word clouds and some flat jokes here and there, but nothing major. Sometimes the imagination comes up with some odd things, but there’s more funny than boring material here.
The art consists of the same six panels done over and over again with no variation at all, with pixelated dinosaurs stomping on houses or paused mid-screech. It’s a comic made more for writing, but the visuals are still amusing when taken in context. When I say it’s got imagination, I refer to the fact that it’s up to the writer to figure out how to fit the jokes into a single re-usable frame, and he’s done it enough to make the art a justified choice. Even if it’s not difficult, doing it a couple thousand times and keeping it fresh is an achievement I think he’s made.
Considering how simple it is, you might not call it a good comic, or even a comic at all, but rather just a backdrop for creative writing. That’s fine. If you ask me it’s something along the lines of TheOatmeal, in that it’s one of the more popular and occasionally high-brow comics that isn’t necessarily known for a high-quality art style as it is for its topics and iconic status. So I’m fine with it. If you like the writing, you’ll enjoy it. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to like it.
Also Ryan North was behind the creation of Machine of Death so you should check that out too. It’s good, and not just because Glenn Beck complained about it.
TL;DR: Dinosaur Comics is a simple and easily digestible piece of work, but funny and creative. I recommend it wholeheartedly.