Trying to summarize Danger and Other Unknown Risks is tricky. It’s truly one of those stories that has everything: Magic, time travel, Y2k, the apocalypse, a chosen hero. But to artist Erica Henderson and writer Ryan North, who joined Polygon on a recent Zoom call in anticipation of the graphic novel’s release, the most important thing might have been the dog.
“Every time we came up with a story idea, you were like And also there’s a talking dog,” Henderson told North over video chat, when I asked about how the book came to be. “And I was like, OK, none of these stories work with a talking dog. Let’s make one that does.”
“I have no memory of that,” North admitted, “but it absolutely sounds like something I would be doing.”
North and Henderson, who made their name with the wildly and unexpectedly successful Unbeatable Squirrel Girl at Marvel Comics, have firmly entered their post-Squirrel era. The graphic novel is their first independent, creator-owned tale made together — which should interest any Squirrel Girl fans who appreciated the way in which that comic boldly and lovingly diverged from standard Marvel Comics fare in tone, story, and art. And from Squirrel Girl’s emphasis on the power of connection and friendship, fans might also appreciate that Danger didn’t start with any particular idea or pitch.
“It started with Erica saying, Hey, let’s do a book. What do we do a book about?” North said. “And I was like, Yes, let’s do a book, what should it be about?”
A conversation between the Canadian North and the American Henderson about the U.S.’ obsession with chosen-one narratives eventually turned into the colorful, magical post-apocalypse of Danger and Other Unknown Risks.
After waxing on about the strange American impulse to reject the divine right of kings but also love a story about someone destined from birth for greatness, North hesitated. “This also makes it sound like the book is very serious [...] but it’s also a book about a young woman and her talking dog going on an adventure. That’s the heart of it.”
“It is about friendship and adventure,” Henderson jumped in. “And also about rejecting the idea that there’s nothing you can do about an impossible future.”
But for the immediate future, Polygon is excited to present our readers a sneak peek of 12 pages of gorgeous art and intriguing adventure from Danger, with Henderson and North’s commentary.
Henderson: This is basically a “going from place to place” adventure, and we decided to excise the Tolkien part and just arrive at each place at the start of each chapter. Which was one, fun, because you don’t have a lot of the walking. But also it also allows us to have every chapter be completely different. You’re just somewhere else now, and we’re in a magic world, so all the colors are different.
I don’t have a color version of the book yet, but I feel like you could open it to any part and based on the colors you’re seeing, know what chapter you’re in. And that makes me very happy. It pleases me on a aesthetic level.
Polygon: This book is less dialogue heavy and more relaxed in its format than Squirrel Girl, is that an evolution in your own processes, or a specific decision for Danger?
North: I think this is like a Marshall McLuhan “Medium is the message” thing. When you’re doing a monthly comic, it’s four bucks plus per month. It’s a very expensive thing to read comics on a monthly basis. I purposely was trying to be like, Can we cram as many jokes in here as possible? Let’s make it as dense a read as we can. While with this, it felt like we had room to expand a bit and to not have to make it as dense as it had been in Squirrel Girl.
So it’s got a lot of the same flavor, but we have room to let moments breathe that you can’t really do in a superhero comic coming out once a month, when you’re stuck to those 20 pages, and you want to get to a beat that makes it feel like it was worth your four or five bucks that month. Putting it in the graphic novel format gave us space to not feel like we’re rushing towards the finish line all the time.
Henderson: We spent a long time talking about what kind of dog [Daisy] would be.
North: Yeah, we had a lot discussion about small or big dog. We were just throwing around breeds. I think the final decision was yours, Erica, right? Of what would be the most fun to draw?
Henderson: Yeah, small vs. big involved a lot of storytelling choices because you can do different things with small or big dogs. So we had figured that part out, and then later on I just picked a chow, partly because they’re fun, partly because they’re a breed has that instinctive — they’re guard dogs, right? They’re protective and they really, really latch on to one person.
I think around the time we were trying to figure it out, Daisy, a friend of mine who studied archaeology, was talking about another friend of hers who had spent time in Mongolia, and just talked about how there are these villages where the chow chows are — they’re not feral, but they don’t belong to anyone and they just move around the village eating scraps, but also fighting off predators. And I was like, That’s a cool dog. That’s a big, floofy boy that is cool.
Do you have a favorite dog drawing in the book?
Henderson: Actually the page we’re looking at, 68, where he’s all scrunched down on the ground staring at the frog.
North: The premise of the book is that on January 1st 2000, [the day after] New Year’s Eve 1999, magic comes back to the world suddenly and catastrophically. One reason magic [is in the story] is I liked this idea of everyone getting ready for Y2K.
I was there, I was working for emergency preparedness in Canada; I was a teenager traveling across the country, updating computers, and being so prepared for this date rollover. Having something completely unexpected be way more catastrophic than what a date bug was going to be; I thought that was a fun little kernel to start the story and build the world from that.
Henderson: There’s all these stories about how people deal with major changes — chaotic changes, civilization-destroying changes. And they’re always like, Well, everyone’s gonna beat each other up and eat each other. And we’ve [had castastrophes] a lot in human history, and we didn’t all beat each other up and end things. We’re here now because people kept rebuilding. And that was a big thing [I wanted to have in the book]. I’m tired of Oh, things went bad, so now we’re all just murderers.
North: Marguerite is a young woman who has been trained from birth to go on this quest to save the world. So for her, this is gonna be great, this is what she’s been ready for. This is the grand adventure. And here at this giant big box store, she meets Jacin who is this — you know, dead-end security job working at a Walmart-type place on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Nobody wants to do that; bottom of the totem pole; she’s not super thrilled with how her life is going or what the world has been giving her.
Seeing this impossible woman and this talking dog show up, that’s a spark of magic that she’s big into; a window to escape into a world that for her has always been fictional. It’s like the world of games and stories and D&D and stuff; for her it’s like a capital A adventure, This is going to be great. For Marguerite it’s more like Yeah, it’s gonna be an adventure, but it’s also like, you know, fate of the world. There’s some serious stuff here, never forget that.
Henderson: And we have Daisy, who’s just very loyal.
North: Oh, yes, Daisy, I can’t forget Daisy. Daisy the dog. Very loyal, very sensible. Good dog.
North: [Danger and Other Unknown Risks] feels like if you take the Squirrel Girl team and you say “If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?” And then you get this book out the other end of it. I’m really proud of it, and I don’t normally say that about books that I’m involved with, because it feels egotistical to be like, Yeah, you know what, it is pretty good!
But I had that experience when I did the Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five adaptation to graphic novel, because Albert drew it, Vonnegut wrote it, I just adapted it. It felt like I wasn’t a big person there, I [just] had a part of it. And because Erica and I collaborated so closely on this, it feels like it’s this work of this entity called “Erica and Ryan” that is somehow different from Ryan North and Erica Henderson.
Henderson: I would agree with that last part especially — I mean, I’m also proud of it [laughs] — I really feel like the completely insane way we wrote this, where, literally, we were just going over each other’s scripts and crossing out chunks and putting in different stuff. It could only work because we trust each other so much.
North: Oh, yeah, you couldn’t do that with someone you didn’t trust.
Henderson: That’s not a thing I would do with most people. You have to trust someone completely.
So if you’re a fan of Squirrel Girl, it’s as if these two creators that collaborated to make this thing you really like, have Voltron-ed even harder together.
North: [laughs] That’s the line, exactly.
Henderson: It’s very Blade, in the sense that we really tried to negate each other’s worst instincts. It’s like, all of their strengths, none of their weaknesses. [both laugh]
North: That’s what we should put on the book, “All of the strengths, none of the weaknesses.”
Danger and Other Unknown Risks will hit shelves on April 4.