The Space(man) Between PanelsInterview by Joshua Jabcuga
The publisher behind 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, GI JOE, STAR TREK, TRANSFORMERS, and Joss Whedon's ANGEL, IDW Publishing is celebrating its tenth year as a creative force in entertainment field. Iconoclast Clive Barker called Chris Ryall, IDW's editor-in-chief and publisher, "...a thoroughly decent human being who jus so happens to be brilliant."
Here Josh Jabcuga speaks with Ryall about what 3 1/2 years working for filmmaker Kevin Smith taught him, co-creating a new series with artist Ben Templesmith (GROOM LAKE, out this week!), opening the secret to Joe Hill's LOCKE & KEY, and the potential of a Chuck Palahniuk comic book.
Joshua Jabcuga: What, if anything, prepared you for a career in comics, as a writer, and in your role as publisher and editor-in-chief at IDW Publishing?
Chris Ryall: It's funny to think about, because when I look back at the last few writing gigs I had before joining IDW, they all seem like perfect preparation for this gig. And yet, I never had a conscious plan to lead me here.
I grew up as a comic book fan, but that was really the extent to which I ever figured I'd be involved with comics. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was ten -- I credit Stan Lee as well as my first read of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles at that point with fostering my imagination to the point where I wanted to tell stories, too.
Even still, writing for a living always felt like a pipe dream. After years of dabbling with writing on the side, I started writing articles for corporate newsletters and music reviews for local newspapers on a freelance basis, while working jobs that involved writing (ad copywriter, technical automotive writer, corporate speechwriter, entertainment proposal writer for Dick Clark Communications). And while I took pride in convincing myself that I was now finally making a living as a writer, putting together scripts for training videos was never quite the goal. So it was all good writing preparation, but it didn't prepare me for IDW, really.
What helped instead was working for filmmaker Kevin Smith. I turned his MoviePoopShoot.com parody site (from his film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) into a legitimate entertainment portal. That job helped me really get a handle on working with freelancers, developing new content and constantly working ahead of ever-approaching deadlines. When I started with Kevin, he simply said he wanted this new site updated every day. Which it was. Every single day I worked for him, every single day of the year for the 3-1/2 years I worked for him, the site featured new content. I think it was really then, giving up sleep and holidays and weekends in service to the gig, that I really started to get the practical experience that would benefit me the most at IDW.
I know there are many aspiring writers at this site, and I don't want to make it sound like all the normal jobs I held were worthless and that it was only the fortuitous timing of getting to know a celebrity that was my way into comics, either. That job and the connections I made helped, but it was more the practical experience that was the ultimate benefit.
What I learned through all of this is, in wanting to be a writer, I wrote everything I could, whenever I could: non-fiction, tech writing, music reviews, comic book reviews and interviews, everything I could get hired to do. And not hired to do: I wrote a lot for free online, too. I tried treating everything, even business letters and e-mails, as practice in the same way people do, like, kegels and consider it working out even while you're sitting...maybe that's not a great example.
So anyway, when I started at IDW in mid-2004, I was more ready to handle pressing deadlines and daily pressures and the constant need to develop new content, as well as writing ads, writing comics, hiring freelancers, and every other facet of the job. Even writing solicitation copy for the comics was something I honed on the MoviePoopShoot.com site by writing column teasers and news item teasers.
In all that time, I wrote every day. Sometimes -- often times -- it wasn't so great. But it was steady. It was practical experience. If it didn't get me the 10,000 hours of experience that Malcolm Gladwell says you need to become truly proficient at your job, it was damned close. Or, more likely, far beyond 10K.
I got to know Kevin in the most random of ways, and just leapt at the chance to run his site even though I had no clue how to go about doing so. Take chances, try anything, and even if it doesn't work out at the time, it can prepare you better for when something else does work.
JJ: How did you meet Kevin Smith?
CR: You know, it's a pretty ridiculous story. I once wrote an intro for some Kevin Smith messageboard book they produced for him where I talked a bit about it, and I reference that here because it makes a point I think he'd want made clear at his Web board; there's a disclaimer that people at his board should not try to get a job through the site because why would he ever hire anyone he met online? Which is a great point, and he's absolutely right...
...except that I got a job with him after we met online. It was a fluke thing, and I'm very aware that the timing then was a huge boon to it happening. I mean, in 2004, Kevin wasn't pulled in quite as many directions as he is now, so he had, or took, the time to contact people who reviewed his stuff in ways he didn't agree with. I can't imagine with the way his life has changed and the sheer glut of blogs and review sites up now that this would happen again. But in 2004, I was writing comic reviews for Comic Book Galaxy, and I reviewed his GREEN ARROW comic book. I didn't love it. He didn't love my review, and let me know. I defended what I said about it. And soon enough, he and I were trading these long, contentious e-mails debating the merits of my review and the merits of his comic. I would go home and tell my girlfriend "got another heated e-mail from Kevin Smith today," and she'd just look at my like I was a loon.
The conversations were defensive but not disrespectful. And along the way, they got a bit more conversational and friendly. To the point where the first Spider-Man movie was opening and Kevin dropped me a line about grabbing a mutual friend and going to see it. So we did, had a bite after, and I figured that was it. One thing we talked about was the upcoming TV show Birds of Prey, which I had an advance copy of and Kevin wanted to see. I brought it to his house soon after and we got to talking about work. At the end of the conversation, he brought up the site domain name he had, Movie Poop Shoot, and how he wanted to turn it into something real, and how he thought I would be a good guy to run it. I accepted the job offer on the spot, left his place, and then had a slight bout of panic in the car when I realized I had no idea how to go about running this site.
But thanks to the help of his Web guy Ming Chen, as well as some good friends and other freelancers I brought on, we pulled it off and had a nice run at the site.
JJ: Was there anything you took away from Kevin directly?
CR: I'd say he's great proof that you should write what you love, tell the stories you want to tell, and don't try to please some focus group somewhere. He's always proudly done his own thing and always encouraged the same when we ran the site. He knows who he is. He knew that using a site name like Movie Poop Shoot wasn't the easiest path to widespread media acceptance, and he didn't care. Like, do it your way and do it well and people will come around. And if they don't, screw it, you did what you wanted, and then you try something else.
JJ: Speaking of trying something else...early on IDW seemed to be tagged primarily as the company that published horror titles and left the super hero books to Marvel and DC. Today you handle everything from GI JOE to STAR TREK to BLOOM COUNTY to ideas hatched in-house, like GROOM LAKE and WELCOME TO HOXFORD. IDW was even the first company to publish a comic book about President Obama. Things have come a long way.
CR: When I first started, in July 2004, the company's fanbase was largely split into two camps: those who loved the horror comics and those who read the licensed titles like CSI. I liked the idea of a company that had built such a good niche for itself with the horror comics, and really revitalized horror comics. But I also saw that we needed to work toward moving beyond just that as well. Being typecast is never a great long-term idea. So we did branch out into other things; a crime comic like EASY WAY here, a western like DESPERADOES there, something altogether different like SMOKE. But it really was the Transformers that changed the complexion of the company. We knew it would, and it wasn't always easy, since the horror comic fans felt a bit betrayed, like we'd turned our back on them somehow. But it was a necessary thing. And now, four years later, we've got a pretty diverse line of books, from the creator-owned books like LOCKE & KEY and GROOM LAKE...and pardon the plug for my own title, but the first issue comes out this week and I'm excited about it...to all the licensed books to all the newspaper strip reprint books and our children's book line and more to come. But it really was Transformers that got us headed into new directions and really gave the company an infusion of new energy and widened our horizons.
JJ: What are the primary differences in your role as editor-in-chief and that of publisher?
CR: There's a lot of overlap in the two positions, really, so it's hard to exactly delineate the two. Basically, both can be boiled down to handling the publishing line at IDW. I suppose if I had to carve out different responsibilities for each title, the Publisher would entail working on the deal side of things, working with licensors and dealing with various other aspects of the business. The Editor-in-Chief role involves much more direct influence over the books we publish, assigning creative to the titles, working on the solicitations and other ad copy, doing interviews and promoting the books, all of that. But since there's so much overlap, I basically just feel like the two roles mean taking a comic from conception to completion. Working alongside our CEO/President and COO on the Publishing side, and my staff of editors on the Ed-in-Chief side.
JJ: Joe Hill was relatively unknown when you signed him to do a project for IDW. Joe went on to become a NY Times Best-Selling author with Heart-Shaped Box, and he and artist Gabe Rodriguez unleashed the brilliant LOCKE & KEY for IDW onto the world. As editor-in-chief and publisher, in some ways you were the catalyst.
CR: We discovered Joe through his short-story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. IDW's owner, Ted Adams, handed me the book and said that he thought this Hill guy was a solid new talent. I read the book and strongly agreed. So we reached out to him to see if he might be interested in writing a comic. Joe had a couple ideas that he ran by us. This one about a troubled family and magical keys really stood out. I wanted to get someone good on the art side of the book, and I instantly thought of Gabe. Really, whenever we have anything at all open, I think of Gabe.
Gabriel's been working with IDW longer than I have. He started out drawing CSI comics for us, and when I signed on to write the adaptation of George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, I tapped Gabe for that. And then he and I took on Cive Barker's The Great and Secret Show adaptation and Neil Gaiman/Roger Avary's Beowulf comic and by then, I was fully aware of what a phenomenal talent Gabriel is. So I showed him to Joe, Joe agreed, and along with colorist Jay Fotos, who worked with Gabe and I on those other projects too, we had our team.
And then a few weeks before issue 1 launched, Joe let us know he was going on Good Morning America to talk up his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. We watched it to see what it was all about, since I couldn't recall GMA often having on writers on that show. And I think it was right before that show aired that you actually let me know Joe's "secret," that he had a famous dad (author's note: pops is Stephen King). Which sort of blew me away, because it was so out of left field to us. It didn't affect anything, but it was a fun little thing that then ensured that places like GMA would help Joe sell some books. We didn't push the comics as anything but a new creation from author Joe Hill, so it sort of snuck up on people like good creator-owned titles can do. It's easily the best thing I think we've ever published, and it's an even nicer bonus that Joe and Gabriel are such great people on top of being talented, too. It's books like that that make it worth all the hours and deadline stresses and everything else. Books like LOCKE & KEY keep me getting up every morning and doing the job.
JJ: As you mentioned, the first issue of your new series, GROOM LAKE, hits comic shops this week. Tell me about that and what else you have in the pipeline.
CR: GROOM LAKE is a goofy little Area 51 story with a twist and hopefully a good, bleak sense of humor about it. And it's got Ben Templesmith's artwork (co-creator of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT) so no matter if the words fall flat or not, it's gonna look nice. It's something I've wanted to do in some way for a long time. I'm a bit of a voracious reader of UFO lore and it's nice to finally be able to do this thing as a comic. So there's that four-issue miniseries followed by a Transformers children's picture book in May and in June, an ongoing ZOMBIES VS ROBOTS series with Ashley Wood. I'm working on a proposal for a new licensed property we haven't announced yet, another thing I've been wanting to do for years. I expect that to get going this fall, and am looking to announce it during Comic-Con this summer. I also have my first non-IDW comic coming out next month, too. I wrote one of the Frazetta Comics issues that are being released by Image Comics. Mine tells a story based on his classic Neanderthal painting, and has art by Tim Vigil. I wrote it primarily as a silent issue, which was a nice challenge, too. Amazing how difficult writing a dialogue-free comic script can be. And it puts a lot on the artist, too, since there's no exposition to explain anything.
And then in May, my first prose book hits. It's a non-fiction book I co-wrote with Scott Tipton called Comic Books 101. It's a fun visual primer to everything about the comic book industry, and has nice sidebar contributions from guys like Joe Hill, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Gene Simmons and lots of others. And we managed to talk Stan Lee into doing the intro for the book, so it feels like a certain part of my life that began when I first read a neighbor's old copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #130 at age 5 has finally come full circle.
JJ: How do you approach writing your own stories versus editing someone else's?
CR: I try to make myself look better and make other writers suffer slightly by comparison. No, seriously, it all boils down to the story, telling the best possible story for the project. Writing my own projects, I tend to shepherd them through myself, with less editorial input from others. Which isn't necessarily always a good thin, having others to bounce ideas off and to tell you when you missed the mark is an essential part of being a good writer, I think.
With other writers, removing the artist component since I'm not actually scripting for anyone, the goal remains the same: to tell a good, interesting story with well-developed characters and proper pacing. Pacing is really tricky in comics, in ways that I haven't experienced in other mediums. The space between panels, the parts that a reader fills in for themselves as they read, is important to take into account, too, as goofy as that sounds. So I try to ensure that other scripts move properly, basically making the reader want to keep turning pages. After that, you look at things like dialogue and panel construction to make it all work well with the art itself. I tend to obsess over dialogue in my scripts, rewriting it four or five times before the artist sees the script and then again after the pages are drawn. So I scrutinize dialogue quite a bit, too.
JJ: This piece is for The Cult, which as you know, represents Chuck Palahniuk's rabid fanbase. Last year in an interview for Borders, Chuck praised the film adaptation of 30 Days of Night, which is based on an IDW comic book (co-created by GROOM LAKE's Ben Templesmith). You've mentioned working with talent like Clive Barker, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, so I've gotta ask you: Where's the Chuck Palahniuk comic book?
CR: You know, I would be all for that. I think Chuck's writing is perfect for comics, and his books work really well visually, too. I've tried reaching him a couple times through various sources and those didn't hit their mark, or maybe Chuck's got too many other things going on to have time for comics. But he's someone I've wanted to talk to about comics since being at IDW. Which has been one nice thing about the role I'm in, the chance to approach and work with people I've long admired. I've had a great working relationship with Clive Barker, to the point where we're co-creating an all-new property or two that we'll do as comics, and I'd love to foster the same sort of relationship with Chuck P. Maybe mentioning this at his own site will start that ball rolling properly...
(Full Disclosure: Joshua Jabcuga and Chris Ryall met in February 2003 while standing in line to purchase tickets for a Pearl Jam concert. They have collaborated professionally many times since and remain friends.)
Joshua Jabcuga is a freelance writer born and raised in Buffalo, NY. He is the author of two comic book miniseries, and is a regular contributor to ChuckPalahniuk.net and Comics101.com.