Monday, February 2, 2009


When Chris Ryall arrived at IDW Publishing, Mark Haynes and I had already taken a run at 24 with Jeff Mariotte, Chris’s predecessor as Editor-in-Chief, so we wondered who this new guy was. We knew his name from his online presence, but that was about it.

After seeing what the company had brilliantly they had made CSI: Crime Scene Investigation work as a comic (it didn’t hurt that the great Max Allan Collins was writing it), we had pitched Jeff and IDW’s big kahuna Ted Adams on the idea of bringing Jack Bauer to the printed page. Never mind that this was the company that published 30 Days of Night or any number of other cool things; we thought 24 needed to be a comic book. They actually agreed, and after some hits and misses they licensed the property.

When Chris came on board, he became our editor for our second one-shot and we pretty quickly got to know we liked working with him. At one point, after we’d submitted plots regarding experimental drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve almost immediately before similar real-world proposals hit the newspapers again and Chechen terrorists about six weeks before some of them blew up a school in Russia, Chris dropped us an email that said simply, “I want to go to Vegas with you guys.” So, yeah, he was okay by us.

But that’s the small view.

The big view is that in short order, as IDW continued to grow, Mr. Ryall found himself shepherding a line that included material as diverse as 30 Days of Night, Transformers, The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Popbot, and Angel, and that really is just only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The company published collections of Mike Grell’s Jon Sable, Freelance and John Ostrander and Tim Truman’s GrimJack, and a hardcover collection of Eric Shanower’s Oz graphic novels.

To their licensed line they added such properties as G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation and Doctor Who, while picking up varied additional titles as dissimilar as Ben Templesmith’s Singularity 7 and Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, Beau Smith’s Cobb: Off The Leash, and William Messner-Loebs’ Journey.

At the same time the company has published the various archival editions of Dean Mullaney’s ambitious project, The Library of American Comics, including The Complete Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, and The Complete Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray.

His collaboration with artist Ashley Wood, Zombies vs. Robots, found not only a home with IDW but an instant cult following as well. As IDW’s catalog has grown impressively – not everything has been a home run, to be sure, but virtually everything was worth trying – his list of personal writing credits has quietly expanded, too.

In the next few months, he has Groom Lake with Templesmith due out in March, Comic Books 101, a prose book about comics coming in May, I Am Optimus Prime, a hardcover children's picture book due that same month, and a new Zombies vs. Robots series, again with Wood, slated to kick off in June.

But that’s the future. Right now it’s time to kick off the 20 Questions:

JCV: What compels you to create?
Chris Ryall: I've always been taken with the written word. Words came easy to me (on paper, anyway), more than numbers or art, and since I was a kid, I always wanted to write. But even more of an answer than that is the fact that when I'm not doing some sort of writing, no matter what it is, I get restless and edgy and feel like I'm wasting time that could be better spent writing.

I think what it all really boils down to is a love of reading. I'd been reading books and comics since I can remember, and just became enamored with others' storytelling early on, which sort of set my course to whatever degree.

It always feels lofty talking about these things, but really, all I ever wanted to do was be a writer to whatever degree I could. I never even entertained the idea of making a career doing such a thing -- I came from a middle class background with a cop father who never put much stock in something like writing -- so instead, I dabbled on the side, writing stories for myself but never daring to think it would amount to anything lasting (ah, but hoping, there was plenty of that). The only real goal I ever had was writing for a magazine someday.

JCV: What was the first story you can remember coming up with or actually writing down?
Chris Ryall: It's funny, I actually found it recently. I had this little spiral notebook when I was 8, and I wrote this goofy serialized tale called "Dr. Messupp," about me hanging with a Doc Brown-type. It's not good, but it makes me chuckle to read it. Had some good attempts at 8-year-old humor, most of it likely cribbed from '70s Marvel comics.

JCV: When did you know that you wanted to pursue writing as your career?
Chris Ryall: It was really always a sideline thought more than something I thought would work out -- I was always pushed to major in Business, like that was somehow the answer to a directionless start at college. I snuck in creative writing classes to fill out my schedule until I realized that hell, my parents weren't paying for my college so they actually no longer got a vote as to what I did. My mom was always encouraging my writing compulsion but I was that kid who wanted to please his dad and thought "father knew best," so I took these interminably soul-crushing accounting and marketing classes and pined away for something more.

I got into a corporate advertising/marketing job for a car company in college and immediately started pushing to write whatever nonsense I could, corporate newsletters and brochures and what-not. I left there and went to an ad agency thinking I could be a copywriter... but my background was that of an account person, so I gave that a run, expecting to be able to move over. Which isn't allowed once you're tagged as a "suit."

I was doing some freelance writing at the time, other corporate newsletters and got my first fiction piece published in a magazine (a free LA mag that paid me $25 for the story. Which was awesome.). But again I found myself doing work I didn't like and hoping for more. I stopped hoping when I got recruited to be a corporate speechwriter at Honda. It wasn't glamorous but it was writing, and doing that sort of writing was a real challenge, mostly a good one. That's when I started to think that I should keep on pushing in this direction. It never felt right being a suit. Which is even more amusing that I actually returned to that ad agency a few years later as first a proofreader and then a copyrighter...

JCV: So your education was either no help or a hindrance to your writing?
Chris Ryall: It was no help at all, no. It really didn't help me land any of my jobs, it didn't open doors for me. It just frustrated me and put me in debt for a few years. I’m definitely not anti- formal education by any means, but I went to state school, and night school at that, working all the while, so my college experience wasn't all parties and binge-drinking and connections (although I did manage two of those three). It can certainly be a help when your goals and your educational pursuits line up, but when you're doing one thing and wanting another, it's not a great match.

JCV: I know you worked at Dick Clark Productions and on Kevin Smith's website. What were the various stops in your career prior to coming to IDW?
Chris Ryall: It was basically as mentioned above: ad/marketing gig, ad agency, Honda's corporate headquarters, Dick Clark's production company as a program director (writing and developing creative proposals for companies including Stan Lee Media), back to the ad agency as a proofreader and then copywriter (but a technical copywriter, so I was doing technical video scripts and brochure stuff, not the flashy billboards or whatever I thought was the pinnacle at the time). The Kevin Smith gig came along during the copywriting period (man, I had so much spare time then, it was great), and it was that job, the after-hours lark that actually led me to IDW. All of which, when I look back at the path and everything I've mentioned above, really shows me that the connections you do make are worth more than any education. At least in my experience.

JCV: You're a multi-hat guy. Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, writer. What is an average day like for you, or is there even such a thing in your life?
Chris Ryall: It sadly starts before I get out of bed... I wake up at 6 AM, check the e-mail on my phone to see if there's anything pressing, do an hour or so of work from home, contend with my 3-year-old for a while, then head into the office. None of the days' spent there are average in that different things, crises and deadline nightmares and press situations and so many other things, do their best to derail my plans for the day. Then it's home at 6 PM to spend whatever time I can with the wife and kid before doing another couple hours work and then trying to do some other kinds of writing (there's a book, a contracted screenplay, comics scripts and a couple other things all at various stages right now) before sacking out around 1-2 AM, and then doing it all again the next day. Which would be a lot if I didn't love most all of it.

JCV: One would guess that you probably don't get to spend a lot of your time at the office writing? Is that accurate? Do the publishing and editing duties keep you busy there?
Chris Ryall: Yeah, no writing at the office, just no time at all even if I wanted to. The actual disconcerting thing about it is that the publisher - EiC duties usually follow me home and require some good amounts of time at night, too. I try to use those nights for things like comic scripts but work often intrudes. And I try not to do too much while my wife's up because, you know, wives don't like being ignored all night. So that leaves the 11-1 hours for other writing. I somehow managed to co-write a book coming out this May, Comic Books 101, in the first 6 months of 2008, but it's all a bit of a blur how that came about. Luckily, I like typing on my laptop much more than I do sleeping...

JCV: IDW has had 30 Days of Night become a movie and lots of other Hollywood interest at various stages ranging from long, furtive glances to actual options. How has all this film and TV interest in your line and comics as a whole made the industry better?
Chris Ryall: It's made it better and it's made it worse. I mean, movies are great as a way to focus the uninitiated in on the fact that comics are not only great source material for inventive movies, but they also offer all kinds of different and sophisticated storytelling. Well-done comics movies have helped changed some peoples' perceptions about comics being just for kids.

That said... I never really cared if people that didn't get comics also didn't respect them. Like, if they thought so little of comics before, who needs them just because Road to Perdition or something made them notice that comics weren't just spandex and capes? And other than the one-off projects that draw in new readers (Watchmen, maybe Sin City or 300), comics don't usually see a big uptick when a movie comes out. Did Batman pick up new readers after The Dark Knight opened to such acclaim? Nah. New 30 Days comics didn't sell better after the movie. But movies do allow the chance to get graphic novels into places and hands that might be trying them for the first time, so that's good.

The reason movies have made comics worse in a way is sort of the larger impact of Comic-Con being treated as a kind of geek Sho-West now. Now some publishers get into comics only to sell properties as movies, and when that ends badly, as it has with places like Virgin or Platinum, it sort of puts a little stink on the whole industry. Some of us proudly publish comics and don't just aspire to create storyboards for studios. When it happens, it's a nice bit of capital for the company, and hopefully the creators, and it helps sell some comics. But we've always been a comic publisher first, so that other stuff isn't going to make or break us.

JCV: So, conversely, some of that attention and the dream of big money made us sloppy or short sighted in some instances?
Chris Ryall: Oh, yeah, which is the last point I was making above. Some people dream of the big payday and treat comics as nothing but their supposed short-cut to that. Which I think comics fans are aware of, and cynical of. If you don't get into comics for the love of comics and graphic storytelling, well, you usually get revealed as a straw man sooner or later (usually sooner). And too many novice creators get the idea that a movie option will lead to big bucks, big-screen movies and other such things. So they option their property for pennies and then lose all rights to the work for years all in hopes of a movie that never comes. Like I say, it's nice when it does, especially when it helps focus people in on worthy books like Oni's Scott Pilgrim, but if you aim for that, you're gonna miss the mark. Just make good comics because you want to make good comics and you'll never be disappointed by whatever else comes or doesn't come from there.

JCV: You got to go to the 30 Days of Night set, right? Coming from the company that publishes the comic, what was that like? Did the movie people dig you being a comic book guy or were you just one more outsider that had to be shown around the dog-and-pony show?
Chris Ryall: I spent a week in New Zealand with Ben Templesmith and for me, it was amazing to see what care the director, David Slade, took to match the look and feel of Ben's book. It was also great to see it through Ben's eyes as this little comic he did in 2002 was brought to fully three-dimensional life. And it was also really nice to see the cast and crew respecting Ben for his book, too. There was no dog/pony show on this set, we hung with the actors and director and set designers and they were all great about asking opinions and including us on everything. Which was really all a testament to Slade, who loved the comic when it first came out and worked hard to be true to it.

JCV: Even with the general economy being what it is, there still appears to be a lot of hunger in Hollywood for what we produce. Is that perception accurate? What’s the vibe really like out there?
Chris Ryall: I think there's interest still, sure, but between the writers' strike last year and the economy now, and likely after movies like The Spirit, there's definitely caution in what studios are looking for. I think everyone gets the appeal of comics as a visual show-piece to easily let producers see what a project could look like, but with comics and Hollywood, it always feels like a tenuous thing, like we're only one or two bad movies away from being kicked out of the club. Until the next one hits. There aren't that many big comic movies coming this summer (unless you count Transformers or G.I. Joe), so we'll see how the mood is when the net crop, Watchmen, Whiteout and Iron Man 2 and, uh, Jonah Hex or whatever arrive. It's projects like Whiteout that excite me because it's not your traditional superhero movie, so hopefully the source material gets some good attention. And then if someone tries Whiteout, it's a short road to Queen & Country to maybe Ed Brubaker's Criminal or something of ours, and then boom, someone new gets hooked. That's always the dream, anyway.

JCV: IDW has a wide mix of titles, licensed properties, creator-owned material, and even some company-owned titles. As an editor, what are the upsides and downsides of each?
Chris Ryall: I'd say all have their strengths and their challenges. Licensed books are a lot of fun because we tend to only pursue licenses we like. And from there, it's great to be able to do "your" version of something you read as a kid, Transformers or Joe. It's like when you sit in school with a bad teacher and think "if I'm ever a teacher, I'd do things differently." You rarely get that chance to actually back up those thoughts, and it's a lot of fun to take a license and figure out something new to do with it. Creator-owned titles are great because they don't have built-in history or brand sensitivity or large groups of people to approve them, they're undiluted visions from creators, and when they work to the degree of 30 Days of Night or Locke & Key, it's just magic. But they're also a harder sell in this marketplace -- same as it ever easy, really -- so it can be that much harder to take when a book you love and know people would like if they ever gave it a chance just dies on the vine. The company-owned titles are fun and challenging for that same reason, although they're easy as hell to get approved!

JCV: The production side of licensed titles is dependent on various approvals. I won’t put you on the spot and ask what the worst experience you’ve had along those lines was (unless, of course, you feel particularly like sharing and naming names), but what’s been the best experience you’ve had to date in the licensing realm?
Chris Ryall: You know, it sounds like blowing smoke, but overall, I've had a great experience with nearly every licensed book we do. There are always small annoyances (we once had a small movie project where the lead actor, an older guy who was never a leading man in his prime, complained that the likeness of the back of his head didn't look right. The back of his freakin' bald head. But we seem to partner with people who trust us and then we do our best to constantly deliver on that trust, so the big projects that seem like they could be nightmarish, Angel or Transformers, have just been a dream. Angel is the one I've worked on the longest while at IDW, and it's been an absolute dream the entire way.

I once did an adaptation of a movie after only being sent an old version of the script, one that was considerably different from the final version, which caused me and the artist a fair bit of anguish, but I don't know, after doing this for about five years now, I don't really seem to have the battle scars that you might expect. Either that or I've built up so much scar tissue, I no longer notice the new wounds.

JCV: You mentioned how hectic your work schedule is. When you do get time to write, what’s your approach? Do you plot and outline first, just go at it, or something in between?
Chris Ryall: I plot a lot of things out in my head, just working out the overall structure of a story, but as soon as a scene or line of dialogue hits me, I start putting it on paper. Usually random bullet points and ideas that I then tighten into issue breakdowns and then from there, I do a page-by-page outline, just figuring out breaks and beats and assigning page counts to the various bits in each issue. So by the time I go to actually script it, I usually have a good idea where things are going to go and it comes together a bit more quickly.

I do seem bad at ending stories where I originally intended, and often end up in a very different place from where I thought I'd be, but that's the fun of it all.

JCV: With writing time in your schedule being a precious commodity, has this improved your focus during the time you can actually spend writing or do you have a tougher time getting going than you did in earlier days?
Chris Ryall: Well, I've certainly learned I can focus through bad TV, conversations with my wife and other things, if that's any answer. I am actually bad at staying focused but good at living up to the deadlines I set in my head. And I've gotten better at getting a first draft done so I can then take more time on a second or third pass.

Incidentally, that's something I've noticed is a really bad habit of many comics writers, the tendency to send out scripts, proposals, e-mails, all of that, as soon as the last sentence is typed. The amount of first drafts I see is really dismaying. I understand that comics for most don't pay enough to be the sole source of income, and it's damned hard to find time to write multiple versions of scripts while doing other work, too, but you just have to. First drafts are unmistakable, and any kind of writing that's worth doing should really be done properly, not just as soon as possible. Writing is important but RE-writing is vital.

JCV: When you do a re-write of your own work, are there specific mistakes you know to look for, things you find yourself prone to do in early drafts, or is what you’re looking to improve more general?
Chris Ryall: I typically don't mess with the layouts after a first draft, unless an entire scene doesn't work. But I do obsess over dialogue. A first pass is usually what I want to say, then subsequent passes are massaging down the words to the bare minimum to work on the page and still get the point and the characterization across. And then a final pass once the art is done.

JCV: Sticking with the theme of re-writing, is there something specific or are there several specific things that you think creators should focus on before presenting their scripts or pitches to a publisher or editor?
Chris Ryall: One thing is pretty obvious--typos. Typos and formatting. Some scripts come in so sloppy, or formatted so roughly, that they just take almost a full rewrite/revise to clean it up. One good lesson for any freelance writer: do your best to minimize the reasons NOT to hire you again. There is no shortage of competent writers for the most part, so presentation and care does matter. If a good script takes hours of work to get it into legible shape, and a script that's equally on par is clean, easy to work with and shows that some care and thought was put into it, well, the latter person is getting the next call 9 times out of 10.

With proposals, they should be looked at sort of like dialogue: what's the shortest way I can communicate what the story is? Many/most proposals seem to opt for "more is better" at the start, which just ain't true. It's pretty difficult/nigh impossible to find time to read unsolicited proposals, and the longer ones are usually picked up, flipped through and seen as to long and mentally catalogued as "I'll read this later when I have more time." And then there is never more time. If a short pitch is good and intriguing, an editor will ask for more. So be short, concise and interesting at the start. Hook 'em with a short pitch, and realize that sending four full scripts in an initial pitch doesn't impress an editor, it depresses them, because they know they'll never have time to read it. One-page proposals, no problem. One-page proposals with typos, well...

The Internet and e-mail have helped the process because now people don't have to send through mail and include an S.A.S.E. and all of that, but they've also made things so informal as to lead to extreme sloppiness or unprofessionalism. It's still a query letter to try to get published, so while there's no need to send a formal letter on parchment paper, there should still be a level of professionalism in the submission.

JCV: What was the best advice you ever received about writing?
Chris Ryall: You know, not to name-drop, but Clive Barker and Harlan Ellison both have given me some really good words about writing, and we've talked at length about various things related to writing, but those conversations seem more private and not really broad comments that work to talk about here. So... this is where I'd love to have some clever answer that some teacher gave me something that stuck with me forever, but I really don't have that. I guess if I needed an answer here it would be a thing my old Business Writing professor used to say all the time, "write because you want to, not because you have to."

JCV: Did you ever get any writing advice that was well intentioned but actually derailed your work or became an impediment to it?
Chris Ryall: Not really, because like all advice, it's best to use what works and jettison what doesn't. Just because someone has a plan that works for them or tells you something that they believe doesn't mean it will work for you. So like all advice, it should be listened to, weighed and then you decide what's best for you.

JCV: As a comic book writer, is it frustrating not to be able to draw your own stories? What’s the best experience you’ve had, perhaps a time when you looked at a page of art and said “That’s what was in my head!” or something similar?
Chris Ryall: It's not frustrating, because it allows me to work with guys who are so much more inventive and talented and see totally different things in scripts than I saw in my head, and that collaborative process is just magic, like nothing any other kind of writing can deliver. If anything, I feel bad that at times I can spend 20 minutes writing a page that will then take an artist an entire day or more to draw. Like, writing "there's a big crowd scene" is much easier than actually drawing that crowd scene. But pretty much every time I've worked on a comic, the artist has made the script better and delivered beyond what was in my head.

Maybe the most in sync I've felt with someone is with Gabriel Rodriguez on The Great and Secret Show. But one nice thing about my job has been the chance to hand-pick artists on all these projects -- Zach Howard, Gabriel, Don Figueroa, Ashley Wood, Ben Templesmith... it's like a murderer's row of guys I was dying to work with, and luckily I was able to make that happen. I'd be happy if I never worked with anyone but that group for as long as I'm writing comics.

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