“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Spinner rack kid. Comics reviewer. Writer. Editor. Publisher. If you want a “30,000 feet up” perspective on the comics industry, look no further than IDW’s Chris Ryall. All the stops on his journey thus far have given him insight into both the creative and business sides of this field we all love.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): My current titles are President/Publisher and Chief Creative Officer at IDW, but I’ve also written 100+ comics, too.
Your home base: San Diego, CA
Bio image art by Tess Fowler
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I’ll hit you with the same big questions I have for each guest: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Chris Ryall: Comics have been a part of my entire life, and there’s just something about the combination of words, pictures, lettering, and sound effects that gives me a buzz like very little else. I mean, I love prose and other forms of writing, too, but it’s the combination, and the collaboration, that makes comics so special to me.
Or maybe it’s that talented artists can take my words and make them into something so much more special than how they were written...
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience. Can you think of a particular comic book story that had an impact on you as a young reader?
CR: The easy answer is the stories that hit weighty themes: the cancer-driven Death of Captain Marvel, the unexpected death of Guardian in Alpha Flight #12, Elektra getting shivved by Bullseye in Daredevil #181, or even the terminally ill “Kid Who Collected Spider-Man” in Amazing Spider-Man #248. All of those hit hard when I was a kid. As did books like Maus, like Alan Moore’s exploration of the human condition in Swamp Thing, or even traditional superhero fare touching on relationship issues, that feeling of not quite fitting in, on and on.
KS: Speaking of being a younger reader, I should specifically call out a character of whom you’re the biggest fan I know: When did you first encounter ROM?
CR: This was my childhood “buy every Marvel comic you can afford with your paper route” period, so I just grabbed it off the racks and took a shot with it. Since the big Marvel titles were so deep into their runs even then, a new #1 was always a thrill —and something about its paranoid and creepy feel just resonated with me.
KS: When did the idea of working in comics enter into your career thinking? Did you originally want to be a creator or a behind the scenes person?
CR: In my head as a kid, I had dreams of writing comics while also knowing it was impossible, since I was a dipshit kid in California and all the comic creators I’d ever heard of were talented adults in New York. It never occurred to me that maybe those creators started out as dipshit kids who maybe just worked at their craft and found their own way in so I maybe could, too.
So, I wanted it without pursuing it for too many years, opting for safer choices that allowed me to avoid rejection. That was dopey.
KS: What particular door opened that let you make the leap into the industry?
CR: I’d been writing comic reviews online as a way to try to get close to the industry, and got to know a few creators that way, which led to some possibilities that I leapt at, finally deciding that being rejected would be better than not trying. In specific, knowing Steve Niles and working on a side job for Kevin Smith [at the now-defunct Moviepoopshoot.com] really helped open those doors, and I’ll be forever grateful to those guys for helping me get in position to give it a real shot.
KS: Since you’ve now seen the business from the writer’s, editor’s, and publisher’s perspectives, what’s something you’ve learned about “making the sausage” when it comes to comics collaboration that maybe you didn’t know when you first got in?
CR: How hard it is! But also how gratifying. I mean, making comics on a monthly schedule, especially for the artists who do so much of the heavy lifting, is really a bit inhuman. But seeing those pages come in, these gorgeous artifacts that until the artist put pencil and pen to paper was nothing but a blank page, that still gives me satisfaction like nothing else.
KS: Going off of that, how did your time in a top editorial position, collaborating with other writers, inform the work you do as a writer yourself?
CR: In all cases, I liked to know what I was asking of people, so I’ve always been diligent about hitting my own deadlines on time every issue I’m involved in. Otherwise, it’s very hypocritical to tell other people to produce no matter what else is going on in their lives if I’m not striving to do the same. And I think it’s all given me a good sense of fair play to try to best ensure that both sides are taken care of as well as possible.
KS: Can you give readers a sense of the kinds of things that might fill your current IDW schedule on a typical day at work — assuming there is such a thing as “typical?”
CR: It’s pretty tough to do that at this point since I’ve never had the degree of diverse problems and headaches and challenges and opportunities and every other such term thrown at me on a daily basis. I will say that my current roles do involve more talk with lawyers and board members and conversations about numbers than in the past, but also plentiful conversations each day about new projects with co-workers, with creators, with licensors and prospective partners, and then with retailers and distributors and pretty much everyone else who contributes to all sides of this industry. There’s also now a kind of “guidance counselor/high school principal” aspect to the roles that ebbs and flows based on any given situation.
KS: One of the editorial/publishing maxims of the old days in comics, oft retold by creators who were around back then, was "Every issue is someone's first issue" and that creative teams should be aware of such when telling their stories. To what degree do you think that should still be considered by companies in the current marketplace?
CR: I think making sure that any comic is accessible to a reader is important, but I’ve never agreed with the need to treat every comic almost like it’s a newspaper strip, where so much of each issue is used to recap the previous. I find the old Jim Shooter rule at Marvel that every character must be named as soon as possible in every issue to be a bit restricting. Sometimes, the mystery is the thing that keeps a reader reading, or makes them want to dig into past issues, to get caught up.
Comics nowadays have been smarter than that, in offering recap pages before the story itself begins; that way, the information is there for any new reader, and not using valuable pages to recap things for readers who’re already familiar with what’s going on.
I’m a big fan of those, character guides, [and] any extra material that helps readers keep their bearings, I just don’t like to use the comic’s story pages themselves to do that if at all avoidable.
KS: There must be a long list of accomplishments you’re proud of from your tenure…
CR: [A] few real standouts to me are breaking new talent that goes on to do ever-bigger and -better things in this industry; getting to publish legends like Darwyn Cooke, John Byrne, and so many others who I loved before ever working in this business; bringing back Rom; working with Brian Lynch, Joss Whedon, and Franco Urru on post-series Angel comics; the entire Locke & Key experience and everything good that’s come from that, especially the lifelong friendships that resulted from it; meeting Congressman John Lewis; developing Zombies vs Robots with Ashley Wood; and recently, signing initiatives that really help further transform our business like the Smithsonian partnership and our coming North American Spanish-language initiative. And a hundred other things.
KS: IDW is known for their comics (and other products) featuring a variety of licensed characters. What kinds of factors are involved when working on outside properties?
CR: The good thing is, with very few exceptions, our licensing partners have been great: open, encouraging, creative, and innovative, so there are very few of the perceived approval problems. At times, with multiple layers of licensors involved at the bigger companies, approvals can move slower than suits the insane monthly pace of comics, but you do your best to build that into the schedule and adjust as needed. Mostly, it’s a great thrill to be able to manage these titles and characters that I’ve loved over the course of my pop-culture-consuming life.
KS: What’s one word that’s important for being successful in this business?
CR: Patience, probably. Talent plays a part; luck plays a big part; timing, certainly; but really, like with any creative pursuit, there are far more people who aspire to make things than the spaces have previously allowed, and it can be frustrating to wait for a proper shot.
The nice thing is, now there are so many options and outlets that legions of creators are no longer as reliant on getting that shot, and can blaze their own trails in all kinds of ways. As much as I love publishing good talents, I love even more that so many creators don’t need publishers in the same way they used to. More space and more outlets means more diversity of content and creators, which is only to this industry’s benefit and proper growth.
KS: To spread some love, what’s a comic or graphic novel that you look at as an example of the craft at its highest form?
CR: Once again, I could list a hundred titles and not hit all of them. Not sure I can even limit it to one but some that have really resonated, and that I re-visit regularly, are Watchmen, Sandman vol. 1, Persepolis, Will Eisner’s books but mostly A Contract with God, Daredevil: Born Again, The Cowboy Wally Show, Stray Bullets, Lone Wolf & Cub, Daytripper, DC: The New Frontier, Akira, and Batman: Year One.
KS: Finally, tell us what we should be on the lookout for in 2020.
CR: The final issue of my Rom: Dire Wraiths miniseries is out April 29. I was asked to contribute, with Ash Wood, to Heavy Metal’s 300th issue, too, and then have a couple longer-form things brewing after that.
And it’s fun to still play in the editorial trenches when I can, too. Which I’m doing on a few new Locke & Key projects to come this year and next.