As IDW Publishing’s Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief, Chris Ryall oversees an enormous stable of comics bridging myriad genres, formats, and audiences. With projects as diverse as “Dungeons & Dragons” monthly comics, archival editions of classic “Flash Gordon” strips, acclaimed creator-owned series by the likes of Steve Niles and Joe Hill, prestige Artist Editions that reproduce original art from Dave Stevens’ “The Rocketeer” and Walter Simonson’s “Thor” at full size and more, IDW is juggling a lot of balls in the air at any moment, making Ryall an extremely busy figure and one with a unique vantage point on the comics industry and all that it can encompass.
Of course, while 2010 saw a big year of growth that brought the publisher to the premier level of industry-leading distributor Diamond, 2011 presents IDW with a much different (and much more difficult) publishing climate. With the economy continuing to struggle in the face of the recession and retail sales hitting lower levels than they have in years, making a splash with books outside the "big two" of DC and Marvel remains a challenge.
With all of this in mind, CBR News caught up with Ryall for a broad-reaching discussion of IDW’s comics, its digital practices, the potential effects of the DC Comics relaunch in September, and a wave of news on their incoming comics from the creative team on the new "30 Days of Night" ongoing to the relaunch of the "Transformers" franchise and from the future of "Locke & Key" to another "Infestation."
CBR News: Chris, I’d like to start off talking about some of IDW’s home-grown projects. After the “Infestation” miniseries, you now have a sort of IDW universe, with a couple new series launching...
Chris Ryall: Yeah, we’re not trying to develop a full on universe per se, but we are trying to expand what we’ve got, put some of the things we have together, all into one place. “Infestation” was a good place to start that. The CVO team, which was one of the first properties that IDW created, predates me, and I’ve been here now about seven years. And nothing’s really been done with it, so we thought, ok, if we can somehow make these characters interesting, and they’re kind of a superhero team--maybe that’s the basis for compiling these characters into one universe. This “Infestation” follow-up we’re doing called “Infestation: Outbreak” is basically those characters and characters from the “Groom Lake” miniseries that me and Ben Templesmith did. We’ll probably slowly build on it from there. In fact, we’re talking about a full-on sequel to “Infestation” for early 2012.
For the next “Infestation” event, will that be a crossover of licenses, as well?
Yeah. The last one, we kind of stayed away from the crossover part, but this one there is actually going to be interaction between different licensed characters and other characters we’ve pulled from different places. It’s not really anything I can go into detail, it’s going to take a lot of coordinating. But when we do this thing, it’s like all sequels, it has to be bigger and better, involve more characters and a bigger story. There will be a lot more interaction between characters people might never expect to see interacting.
When I first heard about “Infestation,” I was kind of blown away thinking about the kinds of behind the scenes things you must have had to go through to put this together.
[Laughs] It took a full year of that. The funniest thing is, some fan site out there did “The Real Origin of ‘Infestation,’” and it was this comic of me as a ten-year-old in the bath with an Optimus Prime toy and a Ghostbuster and Snake Eyes, and mashing them together, making them fight. At first, on the surface, it was like, “this is stupid”--we’re going to do a big event, but the characters never meet. But I think we found a unique way to make it work, and every title we did that was associated with it sold out. So I think it worked as well as it could have, I think we learned some things, and we’re setting some things up in this new “Infestation” miniseries that we’re doing now that will lead into something bigger. And it will allow us to do more with it next time. Like all of these things, once you’ve done something then you can go back to licensors or people who [have] creator-owned characters and show them what we did, and that makes it that much easier to sign on for the next one.
“Infestation” also had a “Pocket God” tie-in, which was digital-only, for iPad and iPhone. I thought that was interesting, as well, tying into a video game.
They actually reached out to us and wanted to do that. Again, Pocket Gods and zombies and everything we did in that event, on the surface didn’t really make sense, which I think is why we wanted to do it, because it was just something fun to do.
Talking about some of the digital things you’re doing, IDW was very early on the digital scene, getting a lot of content onto the PSP, multiple apps for iPhone, and so on. How do you feel your efforts in this arena are coming along?
I think it’s certainly rolled out great. It was nice that we were able to be small and nimble enough that we could experiment with different platforms and different ways of presenting comics digitally. There weren’t too many levels of approval to go through at that point, we could just try different things and see what worked best. Now, a couple years in, proportionally in size we’re huge in the digital space, and I think I’m happy with where we’ve gotten to so far. There are some things that have been done digitally, there are things we haven’t done, which is launch things that are exclusively developed for digital formats. Stuff that better takes advantage of what that format can offer, maybe tailoring the artwork and the stories to that format first rather than just converting print comics. I think there’s a lot of things still to be done, but I’m happy with where we are and I think we’ve got a lot of good plans going forward. In fact, probably at Comic-Con we’ll be announcing a couple new digital ventures and a couple digital-only things, and then a couple things to complement the print efforts and the digital efforts.
It’s an exciting but kind of mysterious time right now for digital, because it’s still in a lot of ways the Wild West--nobody’s quite sure what price point is working best, and is it day-and-date, or is it weeks after the print is out? It’s still a lot of experimenting, which I think is fun, and everybody’s trying to find the right way to do this and still maintain a good relationship with the comic retailers. I like that it’s sort of open ground for everybody to figure out what’s going to be the best thing for them.
Something I think is interesting is that you do so much with the digital comics, but you also have some very beautifully-produced print books, as well, like “Bloom County” and the Artist Editions. I know “Bloom County” is on iPad right now, but for something like an Artist Edition, is that something you’d be interested in doing digitally or would there be no point?
No, Artist Edition is only ever going to be a deluxe, high-end print book. I think we do things well in print, we make lasting, collectible formats, which is very important to me, that we don’t just do thrown-together books. The way to, not save print, but help print along, is to produce books that people want to have on their bookshelves. I think things like the “Deluxe Rocketeer” and the whole Library of American Comics and then the Artist Editions, that is stuff that is really unequalled in print. Even “Bloom County,” we’ve done the first half of the first book digitally, but it’s not going to be the same experience at all. [Monthly] comics on the iPad can be pretty similar to the print version, but some of these old strip books or, in the case of the Artist Editions, reproducing the artist’s art at full size, the whole point of that is to make it an artifact and really play up the beauty of the art. So yeah, we’ll only ever do those in print, and we’ll only do the one printing of them. Those are things we want to keep doing as really special, print-only projects.
Moving on to IDW’s licensed comics, then...
“Star Trek,” we announced last week, we’re finally going to be doing some new movie-related “Star Trek” properties which are tied in closely with the filmmakers, which are plotted and pushed forward through [Executive Producers Alex] Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci. It’s nice to be able to do the first stories to take place after the movie. We’re able to tell those kind of new stories, and I love the fact that the filmmakers are involved, too, because then we’re able to avoid things like--I always default back to the “Star Wars” comics from Marvel, where Han Solo was running around with Jaxxon, the Giant Green Rabbit. That had nothing to do with any of the other movies, and the second movie came along and kind of invalidated all that. Doing this in tandem with the filmmakers, you can really tell stories that fill the gap and are viable, canon projects that give give people the Star Trek movie universe before the next movie comes out. Mike Johnson’s writing that, who is also doing a book for the DC relaunch.
Speaking briefly on the subject of DC’s relaunch, how does a company like DC Comics releasing 52 #1 issues in a month affect IDW? Are there concerns about what this will do to your books in September?
Yeah, it certainly remains to be seen. It’s an immense number of titles, and retailers, in a business that’s a pretty small profit-margin business anyway, they’ve only got their pool of cash that they’ve got each month to order books. I think they allot a certain amount of money for IDW’s books, other companies’ books, but when something like this comes along they have no idea how to order 52. It really adds a lot more difficulty to retailers than it does to us, but it’ll be interesting when the orders come in in early July, to see what sort of impact that had. I like to think that the books that people are supporting from us, especially ongoing books like “Transformers” and things that we’re doing month after month, are going to keep going, because I don’t think that people are going to abandon that just to buy the first issue of “Supergirl.” But I think as far as the experimentation on retailers’ part, if they’re debating whether to try this new first issue of ours or do they want to try these new 52 issues, that could have some impact. We’ll see, it is a grand experiment on their part, there’s any number of ways it could go. I hope for all involved that it works. I hope it works for retailers, I hope the digital plans don’t affect the print retailers to the degree that people are worried. Hell, if it brings people into stores and gets more people reading comics, that’s a good thing.
As to other outside factors that might affect IDW, there’s the ongoing Borders bankruptcy saga. How has that affected you so far?
It is sort of a new world as far as print and bookstores go. I think we try to be very smart about the way we place our books and the way we produce books--like I say, things that I think people would like to have a print version of rather than finding it digitally--so in the larger scheme of things, we’re not worried, but you do keep an on this because there are only so many bookstore chains out there right now. Borders is certainly a loss, it’s not one that’s going to leave too big of a mark, but it’s one that’s going to be felt by everybody.
You mentioned “Transformers” briefly, and there was an announcement that those series will be released digitally, and of course you’re going biweekly through the end of the year. Is all set to coincide with the new movie?
No, we did a couple prequels that lead into the movie, but this is all just our ongoing “Transformers” universe stuff. This was all put into place by [former editor] Andy Schmidt, before he left a few weeks ago. But it’s basically building to big event called “Chaos,” which is the biweekly thing we’re doing through the end of the year, and then out of that is a relaunch of two new “Transformers” titles, and there’s very important reasons in the Transformers universe why these titles are becoming two, how they’re splitting and what’s going to happen from there. It’s a big that’s sort of rocking the whole Transformers status quo and shaking things up to a big degree. You know, I pay a lot of attention to the Transformers message boards, you see all levels of support and grousing. I think a lot of people who have been grousing about feeling things are going too slow, or not happy with the way things are going this way or that, they’re all going to be very happy with where things are heading, because it’s very much in line with what people are saying that they want but also in a way that they’re not going to see coming. It’s a really nice place where Andy left “Transformers,” I think it’s a really solid direction, and some new creators are coming in that are really going to give it some life that I’ve been wanting to see in there.
Speaking of Andy Schmidt, has a new editor been found to take his place?
We’re circling in on it, and the plan is to introduce the new person at Comic-Con. The announcement may happen before then, but Comic-Con will certainly be the coming out party for this person. Like how I’m keeping it all gender-nonspecific at this point?
Right. Speaking to some of the other licenses, another one under Andy’s purview was “G.I. Joe,” which was just recently relaunched into the “Cobra Civil War” arc. How has response been to that?
I think the “Cobra Civil War” thing’s been going over really well. Again, I hate to see Andy go, I liked him personally and professionally, but he left with the books really aimed in some nice directions on both of those titles. “Cobra Civil War” is off to a really good start and I think once fans see who the new Cobra Commander is and where things go from there, it’s sort of a multi-tiered approach to where we want to take “G.I. Joe.” Each time it sort of builds upon what’s gone before and makes it bigger and better, and I think the new Cobra Commander, when that all shakes out, that’s going to be a really exciting thing for people too.
We figured it’s time. We’ve done miniseries and one-shots here and there, and I’ve been wanting to get an ongoing going for a while now. It seemed like time to make people know what to expect every month--you do the miniseries, you can tell a lot of nice, close-ended stories, but you lose a lot of the nuanced storytelling where you set up subplots and you develop things and you build to different things. That’s what I love, and that’s why people read superhero comics for so many years. You’re able to do that sort of thing and seed storylines that happen eventually and organically instead of just the next big miniseries. That’s the stuff I want to do with “Ghostbusters.” Basically, this comes out of “Infestation,” where we brought back Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as a zombie, that caused some problems in the Ghostbusters universe that we will be taking in different directions. I like the idea of having a monthly book that we can do some big things with.
The September solicitations also announced that there will be a “30 Days of Night” ongoing beginning in October.
Yeah, we’re trying to get away from these miniseries and let people know every month what’s coming. I think the ongoing thing is helpful for retailers, because they can judge who’s interested month in and month out and then they know what’s important. In a lot of ways, we try to listen to fans and to retailers. Especially in these unsure times, it’s nice to let people know what to expect and base their ordering or their buying patterns off of that. And also I think we’ve finally found a good hook for “30 Days”--there’s been a good story to tell here or there, but there’s never been sort of an ongoing reason for the book to exist, and now we have that and we’re going to be developing good characters--which is another thing “30 Days” has needed--good ongoing characters that you can build a series around. Steve and Sam Kieth are working on that together and giving us that. It seemed like the right time to really make this thing work in a way that I would have liked to see it a while ago.
The new series is by Steve Niles and Sam Kieth?
Yeah. And then “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is launching in August, too, which is a thing we’re all excited about because it’s a real fun one and pretty much everybody in the office is a huge fan. Having Kevin Eastman back involved takes it from being a cool thing to, “wow, we’re working with Kevin Eastman!”
Whose idea was it to bring Kevin back into it?
I think it was everybody’s. Everybody was like, there’s no way we want to be doing a “Turtles” comic without Kevin involved if he wants to be involved. And he did. He’s been away from it long enough that he’s very excited about doing this thing, so I think that one’s going to be a lot of fun. The guy that’s co-writing it with him, Tom Waltz, writes really high-energy books and Kevin’s doing the layouts for Dan Duncan, the artist. It’s a nice way to give a nod to what’s come before, but I think Kevin and the other creators are making it something totally different. It really does have that “Ultimate Spider-Man” feel, where we can think about the stories that they were really flying by the seat of their pants, and really create a whole world around the Turtles and have it be a great ongoing thing, as well.
Yeah, he’s an editor and he’s also our senior staff writer. Right now he’s just written a children’s book but he’s also writing “Duke Nukem,” which is sort of amazing to me. He’s writing another video game-based property, and he and I are co-writing “Infestation: Outbreak.” He’s kept pretty much behind his keyboard all day.
Mariah Huehner is another editor who is doing a lot of writing for IDW, notably co-writing “True Blood.” Is there an effort to grow your in-house talent with people like Tom and Mariah?
I like to do it when it makes sense. I don’t want to ever just hand people books or write them myself if it means taking good work away from freelancers, but in a lot of these cases, there are properties that, for whatever reason--whether it’s NDAs with the licensor or a lot back and forth, behind the scenes stuff--it just almost makes it impossible to bring somebody else in and have them know what’s going on or what’s expected. When it makes sense to do it internally, I think there’s some really good writers here. So I like it for that reason. But I never default to it first. If there are freelancers we can go to, that’s always our first option. In the case of the “Infestation” thing, that was a story that Tom and I originally developed, and then using the “Groom Lake” characters, all of that made sense to keep it with us. I think it’s nice either way that we can go to good outside people or the talented people here, so if we need to do something like that, it really makes for a good book as well.
IDW has a ton of licenses – “Doctor Who” is one of my favorites, and “Godzilla” has been a lot of fun – and I don’t expect we’ll get to them all, but there’s one I want to ask about because it’s a bit of a mystery. There was a “Speed Racer” teaser image released this week, but there was no publisher mentioned. You’ve published “Speed Racer” before; is there a new “Speed Racer” series coming from IDW?
We did it a few years ago, around the time the Wachowski movie was out.
But the new image is not from you?
No, I haven’t even seen it. I guess we don’t have that license anymore! [Laughs]
I’d like to wrap up talking about a series that I know you are very big on, and that’s Joe Hill’s “Locke & Key,” along with his other miniseries “The Cape.”
With “Locke & Key,” we’re about to launch “Clockworks,” the first issue ships next month, which is technically the second-to-last storyline in the “Locke & Key” story Joe’s been telling. That’s six issues, and then after that there’s a six-issue story called “Omega.” But in the midst of putting that together, and especially doing this first issue of “Clockworks,” which is set in the past and explains a lot of things that have been developed from the start... it’s now got Joe thinking about a lot of other stories and offshoots. So “Omega” is the last “Locke & Key” story technically, but I feel very sure in saying that it probably won’t be the last “Locke & Key” story.
One note on the first “Clockworks” issue: like I said, it’s set in the past and answers a lot of questions and explains a lot of things that have been set up. And I know I’m biased, I’ve been working on this from the start, but it’s where it went from being a great series to one of those that feels like one of the special comics that only come around in a really great while. The way Joe weaved together all these things that he’s set up--and there were little things that were set up even in some of the backup features in the hardcovers, just little mentions of the keys and things like that--it tied things together in a way that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen in comics. It’s amazingly well thought-out. I read the issue and went, oh man, this thing just went from being great to something so unique and so special. It’s hard to put words to it without sounding like I’m just shilling for the book, but Joe proved that he is just a phenomenal plotter and storyteller with this issue especially. I’m sort of in awe with what he did with it and where it’s going from here. So I have no fear that it’s going to disappoint people when it ends. Because that’s always the thing, like with “Lost” or George Martin or what have you, you tell this great story but hope it doesn’t fall apart at the end. Knowing where it’s going and what Joe’s doing with it, I am one hundred percent confident that it is going to deliver from start to finish. I remain immensely excited about that book, and I’m happy as hell that I get to work on it from this side so I get to see this stuff first and help them tell this story that they’re telling.
“The Cape” we’re also doing as a four-issue miniseries, that will probably be the end of it, and with good reason after people see that series. It’s a dark book, man. [Laughs.] There’s a scene in the first issue of the new series, which picks up where the one-shot left off, it’s one of the darkest, funniest things that I’ve ever seen in comics. Or it’s at least a scene that I’ve never seen in comics before. It’s amusing and grim and gruesome, and makes me smile.
And there’s a lot of things Joe wants to do in between his novel writing and everything else he’s up to. I think there are many more things we’ll do together.
Something I’ve seen Joe joke about on Twitter – did the completely unrelated television series “The Cape” cause you any problems?
No. The show came and went without even a blip. At the time, it might have caused people a little bit of confusion, but I think not enough people cared about that show. It didn’t leave a lasting mark. So I think when people see this they’ll know exactly what it is and not think it’s something to do with that.
And the “Locke & Key” pilot is being shown at San Diego Comic-Con International, correct?
Yeah, we’re very happy about that. I just really wanted people to see that thing, because there was just such great talent in front and behind the camera. I know it didn’t work out on Fox, but I think people are going to like what they see and like what they did with it.
At this point, though, is it looking like the show’s not going forward?
It’s not going forward on Fox. Which is not to tease that it might be going forward elsewhere, because at this point it’s pretty much not happening. But, you know, it’s comics--sometimes things are dead, and then they come back, and sometimes they don’t. We’ll see if this thing is Uncle Ben or Bucky Barnes, you know?
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