A True Kickstarter: Cartoonist Ryan North Raises Half A Million For 'Hamlet' Comic

Ryan North launched his own choose your own adventure through Hamlet's Ryan North had one of those big ideas: What if he put together a comic book based on famous speeches, like Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy, from William Shakpespeare's 1603 play, and allowed readers to determine the story's ending in a choose-your-own-adventure format?

But there was one problem: He couldn't draw. And North, 32, a Canadian comic book writer, didn't have the money to hire an illustrator. "After the idea, I asked myself, now what?" In the past, most people would probably have thrown up their hands and forgotten about their idea -- but that was pre-2009, before Kickstarter was founded.

Kickstarter, which has become a popular resource for members of generations X and Y who are looking to launch creative, entrepreneurial endeavors. The New York-based enterprise's pitch is simple -- Kickstarter will promote your project through its website to attract "backers," essentially benefactors who will donate funds without expecting anything in return. Unlike other investors, people who contribute through Kickstarter don't take any equity in the projects.

Kickstarter's model of "crowdfunding" has helped many thousands of entrepreneurs get their projects off the ground; some 3 million people have pledged $450 million in funding for more than 35,000 for-profit ventures, according to Kickstarter. The initiatives have run the gamut, from a small Vermont movie theater looking to buy digital equipment to a filmmaker looking for funds to produce a documentary about relief efforts in Haiti. (The website, though, says it will not help efforts that are simply "charities" or "causes.")

North posted his project on the Kickstarter website on Nov. 21, calling it, "To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure," with what he thought were grand ambitions: To raise $20,000 to help with publication costs, including the hiring of professional illustrators. In less than four hours, he'd met that entire goal. Within a month, North's project was backed by 15,352 people, who pledged a record-breaking total of $580,905, the most that a Kickstarter project had ever received.

With the half a million raised, North says he will now create a sequel and prequel in full-color, hire some 60 artists and donate hundreds of books to libraries and universities. His goal is to have his first book printed in May. (He says he will use all the extra money to publish sequels, with extra illustrations created by a staff of about 60 artists, according to an interview he gave the Toronto Star.)

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Why was his project able to attract so much money? "I would love to say the [online] community was just starving to have some Shakespeare in their lives," he said. "I don't think that's it. I really believe ... the best projects are ones you write for yourself, that amuse yourself and make yourself laugh." He adds that the experience of having people react to his idea in such a manner was "humbling ... it's basically the best thing that can happen to an author: to have an audience be so excited about the words coming out of your computer."

The use of crowdfunding to launch pet projects is becoming increasingly common in the digital age. Other crowdfunding sites include RocketHub and WeFunder. In fact, a 2012 report found that the crowdfunding market has exploded, growing from a $32 million market to a $123 million market in two years. Some see crowdfunding as a way to level the playing field, enabling ordinary people to realize their artistic and entrepreneurial visions without benefit of connections. "A lot of times, creators are stifled by the demands of the market," Kickstarter spokesman Justin Kazmark told AOL Jobs. "But here, people can be creators on their own terms and interact directly with backers. And what we've seen is that there's a longing for community of individuals who are emotionally invested in bringing a project to life."

%VIRTUAL-hiringNow-topCity%North was hardly a novice when it came to launching creative projects, which may help explain why there was so much enthusiasm for his project. A 2002 grad of the University of Toronto, North created a 2003 Web comic series, Dinosaur Comics, which now has 80,000 subscribers. He's also released other comic books, including Adventure Time Vol. 1, which follows the characters from the animated TV series in another choose-your-version format. (He says he's able to make a living from his comic books, which are supported online by ads. In addition, he has over the years supplemented his income through freelance computer programming gigs.)

For his "Hamlet" series, he's working with the Cambridge, Mass.-based publisher Breadpig. If it's successful, North says that he likely will try the same format for other Shakespeare plays including "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth." Returning to 17th Century English texts for the first time since his teenage years has allowed North to take in the lessons of Shakespeare.

"Revenge normally doesn't go that well," he says, dryly. "You should not be vengeful."

Indeed, his advice for anyone contemplating a project for Kickstarter is to always try to keep the online community engaged with the creative process. After all, they are "people and not wallets," he says.

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