When IDW Publishing picked up the comic rights to Joss Whedon's "Angel" six years ago, things were much different than they are now for both the franchise and the comics industry. The original run of the "Angel" TV series – itself a spinoff of Whedon's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" – was over, adaptation comics for both Whedon's work and other TV properties were steady but unspectacular performers in the marketplace, and picking up the license to a Whedon property no longer on TV was not a sure-fire path to comic success.
Six years have made a big difference. Since then, Whedon's characters and work have proven to be one of pop culture's more durable 21st century franchises, and that popularity has been spurred on in no small part by the creator's continued involvement with comics based on his work. For IDW, that meant working with Whedon on "Angel: After The Fall" – a 17-part series that continued the story of the vampire hero and his Los Angeles-based partners after the apocalyptic cliffhanger ending of their TV series. Aside from that highlight co-written by Brian Lynch, the publisher's various "Angel" series have included talents including Peter David, Bill Willingham, David Tischman, Scott Tipton and more, and have expanded out the world of Angel and his enemy-turned-ally Spike.
With this week's "Angel" #44 marking the last part of IDW's regular series (an issue of "Spike" and a farewell "Angel Yearbook" follow in the weeks ahead) before the characters merge back with Buffy and company for Dark Horse's incoming "Season 9," CBR News spoke with IDW Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall about what the Angel franchise has meant for the publisher, how the creators held the books up both with and without Whedon's direct involvement, what canonicity has meant to him and the fans and how the experience informs the future of IDW's licensed comics line.
CBR News: Chris, I get the feeling that a few years ago when "Angel" and "Buffy" were ending on TV, a lot of people were expecting the properties to kind of fade away, but with so many comics in the Buffyverse, it feels as though the interest in those properties is strong than ever. What was your sense of how many people were looking for more Angel material when IDW first got the license?
Chris Ryall: I started in July of '04, and the "Angel" license just predates me. The initial conversations started with Jeff Mariotte here, who was Editor-in-Chief before me. Jeff had been a novelist and had written some of the Buffy novels, so he was a huge booster of the show even before it was off the air. Right when I came on board, our first Angel comic we did was one of the first things I worked on: "Angel: The Curse," which Jeff was the writer on. At the time, we worked with this new Italian artist we'd never worked with before – David Messina, who over the last seven years has become a very important part of many of our books.
But at the time, the show was ending. "Buffy" was still on the air, but there wasn't a huge interest in things. I think the way the show ended with Angel and company in the alley, nobody thought we were going to be able to pick right up from there and go, "Let's show what happened next!" It would be kind of like doing a "Sopranos" comic and showing what happened after that last scene. [Laughter] So there was definitely some interesting in the comic then, but we kind of had to cheat in how we did things. We did a story that took place with Angel back in Romania so he wasn't in LA. In the next story, we kind of alluded to the fact that this took place post-Season 5. LA was drawn a little bit seedy, and Gunn had an eyepatch. After this catastrophic, apocalyptic fight in the alleyway...maybe Gunn just hurt his eye? [Laughs] It was kind of funny in that we cheated it to be interpreted both ways, but nobody was really under the illusion that this was the Season 6 story being told. It was our way of trying to keep it as nebulous as we could while also trying to draw in some of the "Angel" fans that wanted to see what happened next.
What was your interaction with the readership like initially? It feels as though these comics in general draw people who haven't bought comics regularly before. Did that hold true from your experience?
I think you're right. Most of the people buying "Angel" – and I think Dark Horse would say the same about their "Buffy" comics – were Buffy fans. Most of them didn't read our other stuff. We were doing "30 Days of Night" comics at the time, and even fans who liked the vampire aspect of "Buffy" weren't also attracted to that. They just wanted more Buffy and more Angel.
So it continued on like that for a while until what really started to change things was when we brought on Brian Lynch. He's a screenwriter I know and a really big fan of the series. He did the first Spike book – "Spike: Asylum" – which just captured people and captured the voice of the series in a way that the other books hadn't to a certain degree. I think they were still successful. Jeff did a good job as did Peter David and Scott Tipton, who had written some of the books. All of them did a fine job with Angel and the characters, but there was something about the way Brian nailed things that had the most "Whedon-esque" feel to it. And it was his book that caught Joss' eye too. Joss read "Asylum" because Brian just happened to meet him the day before the book came out. He just happened to run into him at a restaurant in LA, and he said, "Hey, Joss. I write Spike comics, and I'm really proud of what I did. I hope you like it." And Joss said he normally stays away from the tie-in stuff because not only is it hard to go back and look at other people writing your creations, but he also said it would immerse him back in a world that he wasn't prepared to get back into. He had other projects going on at that point.
But Joss did end up reading "Spike: Asylum," and he said that the way Brian captured the characters' voices made him realize there was finally somebody out there who could help him tell the Season 6 story and really pick things up from there. That was probably two and a half years into having the license and doing comics.
Who was the first person that told you Joss wanted to be involved, and what was your immediate reaction to the news?
I'd traded a couple e-mails with Joss before that, so he dropped me a line and said, "Hey, I could see myself doing Season 6 with this guy." So I asked Brian, and he said, "Absolutely not." [Laughter] Kidding! But as soon as Joss said that, it was kind of a scene in a "Rocky" movie where he doesn't feel like he's got what it takes to fight in the big fight, and then his wife goes, "Go kick some ass!" As soon as Joss said, "I want to do this" we were like "Game on! Let's do this thing!" So Brian and Joss got together and discussed the master plan for where Joss was going to take things if the show was going to continue. From there, Brian typed up his plan, and Joss tweaked it and added some things in and took some away. They worked the story back and forth with each other, and we were off and running.
In a way, "After The Fall" legitimized the Angel comics because Joss' involvement was him de facto saying, "It's okay to like these things"...
Oh man! The readership doubled, and it was at that time our biggest selling book ever. Before that, I think "Metal Gear Solid" had hit in the 35,000 range, but the first printing of "Angel: After The Fall" was around 50,000, and we went back to press. Joss' name on a book is about the surest thing you're going to get in comics as far as bringing readers to a book. It instantly added credibility, it instantly added readers, and it instantly added I guess what you'd call "canon." That was always a big thing on message boards and everywhere else. "This book is fine, and we like it, but it's not canon because Joss didn't write it or because it's not a TV episode." Everyone had their differing degrees of what canon was. To my mind, that's kind of a dumb argument. Canon to me is stories that I like. There have been a ton of terrible Spider-Man comics over the years, and those are the ones I choose to not acknowledge. I don't need the stories where Gwen Stacey and Norman Osborn were getting it on. So to me, it's all fictional stories. Joss didn't write every episode of the TV show, so there was always a little bit of frustration there. Brian was doing great stuff on the books, so if you liked them – and everyone said they did – why would it matter if it's "canon" to whatever degree you define that to be.
But I do get fandom being that passionate about the books. I like that when it's used for good, and it really was Joss coming down and anointing the book as a real thing that made people go, "Okay, this is canon. This where the show would have gone in Season 6." It was exactly like you say; Joss saying "This is the real story."
And it feels like that series really changed how the rest of the work on "Angel" at IDW went. Even though it was a limited run, I got the sense that having Joss come in at all gave you guys license to move things forward in other ways to where it feels like everything that happened since then right up to David Tishchman's last issue this week fit a different mold. Did you feel more confident with where you could take the characters after the big arc happened?
Definitely. And it was also just a comfort level of "Now we know what this world is. Now we don't have to hedge our bets and tell stories set in the past or imply that maybe this big fight went on." Instead it was "This is the story. This is our direction coming out of 'After The Fall.'" Even the stuff post-"After The Fall" that Joss wasn't directly involved in was still set in that world. And once we started on our final "Spike" series that we've been doing with Brian, we started coordinating with Dark Horse and what they were doing in their "Buffy" comic, and it linked it all together in a way we weren't previously able to do.
And it was a really tough thing to follow a Joss story, especially "After The Fall" which had turned into this 17-issue epic. It was really hard for Kelly Armstrong, who came on after with a five-issue run. The fans weren't all that forgiving because to them we were going from Joss to "not Joss." It didn't matter who it was going to be, and it was going to suffer by comparison. To make another old reference, it's kind of like when Frank Miller did "Daredevil: Born Again." That really became the last Daredevil book you'd ever need to read. So the next guy coming on for another issue was doomed. There's no way to measure up in the eyes of the fans. It's impossible. That's what "After The Fall" was. It was the culmination of everything "Angel" was supposed to be in comics, and Kelly took the story in different directions and tried all she could to reestablish things and move away from that so she wasn't just copying what had come before. But it's a tough thing. So when Brian came back on, he had this familial connection of sorts to Joss, and the fans loved his stuff from the beginning anyway. It was an easier time for them to absorb more stories by him.
The franchise has done a weird möbius strip turn where everything "Angel" has now returned to "Buffy." As you reach the IDW end of these comics, what do you take from the whole experience in terms of how you approach all the licensed and TV comics you do?
Yeah. From the start, IDW's approach and my approach to licensed comics has been the same. I've been reading comics a long time, as you can tell by some of the dated references I'm dropping here, and I've seen a ton of good licensed comics, but I've also seen a lot more bad ones. In the past, it always felt like the licensed comics were the step-child of whatever publisher was doing them. Dark Horse has done great things with "Aliens" and the Buffy comics, but prior to that, licensed comics were the place where they'd say "Put the C-Team on it. Put the guys who aren't good enough for Batman or X-Men on these books." We've always set out to do the best teams approach and directly tie things into the show or property with all our licensed books. I think "Angel" after Joss, it made everyone want to step up their game more. And when we do things like the "Star Trek" movie tie-ins, we worked directly with the screenwriters to tie "Countdown" right in with the movie. These just keep your game raised so you're always trying to deliver the kind of experience you did for the "Angel" fans.
And the fans have the entire time been not only great, but very vocal. The stuff they don't like they explain just as much as the stuff they do like, so you learn a lot from them reading the message boards and not so much tailoring things to what they want so much as making sure you're not disappointing them. Whether it's "Transformers" or "Godzilla" or whatever else we're doing, we try to find the best teams and tie their work into whatever book/movie/game we're working with.
Well, with the last issues of IDW's run hitting, is there anything you'd want to share with the readers who have been here over the run?
A couple things come to mind. For one, this is our last issue of "Angel" the ongoing hitting this week, but there's still one more issue of "Spike" which ties directly into Spike's reappearance in "Buffy." That hits next week, and then the week after is "Angel Yearbook" which is our final note with all these characters in the Whedonverse. I do a little two-page story that's essentially a goodbye and thank you to everybody. And what I'd leave you with here is just a huge appreciation for the fan base. These are a lot of people who haven't read comics regularly, and they are going to the shop every week and talking on message boards. That kind of passion and loyalty is really hard to get, and it's something you want to live up to. As we've done "Angel" for the last six years, the best I can hope for is that people are sad it's going away. I know fans will follow the characters to Dark Horse and their stories will continue, but the fact that there are a lot of people who have said they'll have a really hard time going on after us speaks a lot to their passion and loyalty for what we were doing. That's hugely appreciated on our part and made this really fun to do.
"Angel" #44 is in stores now. And keep an eye out for "Spike" #8 and "Angel Yearbook" in the weeks ahead from IDW.