Monday, November 2, 2015

Five-Q with Chris Ryall, IDW

G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers – some of the most popular, iconic entertainment franchises ever.

What do they have in common? They've all been made into fantastic comic book series, courtesy of IDW Publishing, one of the premier publishers of comics based on licensed properties. From legendary TV series like the X-Files to modern hits like Orphan Black, IDW has been bringing the best of the entertainment world into comics since 1999.

One of the central figures at the helm is Chris Ryall, Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief at IDW. We chatted about his role in the company, what it takes to make it in comics, and his views on diversity in the industry.

Chris Ryall, Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief at IDW
Aaron David Harris: Describe what you do at IDW exactly. What kinds of cool things does the job allow you to do?

Chris Ryall: I oversee a team of editors and all the different titles we publish. So that entails brainstorming over what we’ll publish and when, what form the stories take, what sorts of attention-getting things we can do with our existing titles, which creators fit on which books, and number of other related things. This also means a fair amount of press contact and interviews; attending conventions for panels and meetings; occasionally speaking at schools or to writing clubs; and generally getting to spend much of my weeks working with creative people and interesting stories and artwork every week.

It also means contending with all the drama, lateness, blown deadlines, and financial realities of doing upwards of 60 titles per month, and all the associated stresses of those things, but still, I wouldn’t trade it all for anything.

ADH: Every comics publisher has an identity that distinguishes it from other comics publishers. What would you say is the identity of IDW today?

CR: The thing we’ve always sought to do was offer an alternative to superhero comics. Trying to compete directly on superhero titles with Marvel and DC, both of who have beloved superhero characters that are over a half-century old, always seemed like folly to us. So instead, we offer alternatives to those in any number of ways: if you want comics based on beloved licensed properties (movies, games, novels, toys, etc.), we’re probably the foremost publisher of those now; if you want deluxe newspaper strip or classic comic reprints, we have an entire line of those; art books; children’s comics sold in new formats we’ve pioneered; adult coloring books; and other such things, then we’ve got something for you.

ADH: Was working in a leadership role in the comics industry a goal of yours, or was it something you fell into?

CR: I’d always been a comic reader, and had aspirations to write comics, but I never had any inkling about how one could break into comics and working on the publishing side. So it was an inner goal that I backed into through some extracurricular work I’d done and relationships I’d made with people in the business. It’s one of those things where everyone who works in comics has a different story about how they got in, but much of it involves timing and relationships and just being positioned for things should they arise. The bad part about comics is there’s no set path to breaking in: no process of, say, going to law school, taking the bar exam, and then becoming a lawyer. But that’s also the good thing: now, you can enter the industry in just about every way possible, so while there still aren’t an over-abundance of jobs in the industry, there’s also not the geographical limitations or other barriers to entry there used to be in a pre-internet world. And if you want to make comics, you can now certainly do that and get them seen and spread around without having to rely on others, if that’s the route you choose to go.

ADH: We can find all sorts of advice about how to break into comics as a writer/artist/creator. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

CR: A big part of it—and it always sounds trite but is true—is to write, or draw, all the time, if that’s what you want to do. It’s a hard business to break in to where you can maybe make a living just doing comics—even top creators at Marvel and DC spent a decade or more toiling away before really making a noticeable mark. But getting comics done and seen is the first way to make that mark. Blind submissions to publishers now often go nowhere. There’s just no way to keep up and properly evaluate them all in raw form. But caring enough about making comics to actually get them written and drawn and spread around, that really shows a lot and is how many people get noticed now. Coming to all of us can be a long, hard, frustrating road. But making us want to hire you by creating good comics, that’s a great way to do it.

Like any entertainment field, though, it takes patience, a thick skin, a willingness to do things for little to no pay until you get noticed, and other such efforts that just aren’t for everyone. But if it’s your calling, and you really want to do that, tell stories or create art, you’ll work at it and keep working at it. There are the very rare overnight success stories but for the most part, everyone in the business will tell you that grinding it out and working your way up is really the only course. Which is the same thing with writing prose, making commercials or movies, and so on down the line.

ADH: What are your thoughts on diversity in the comics industry?

CR: I think comics has long had a diversity problem, but I also think not all of it is comics’ fault. Deliberately avoiding creators who aren’t like you is a huge problem and has been for a long time; but many submissions I see come to me through e-mail or online; and I judge those works on the work itself—I have no idea of the person’s gender, religion, color, or any other proclivity. The work is what speaks for itself.

That said, like I mentioned before, comics and entertainment in general has long been too exclusive. And maybe part of the reason there haven’t been more submissions from people of color or female or all around the sexual spectrum is that there haven’t been enough examples of those kinds of creators to inspire others to want to even make comics. Like, if you think comics isn’t inclusive, you’re certainly less inclined to think you have a fair chance to break in. I get that. And I love that social media has really become this revolution of calling on people to change their outdated, established ways of doing things. And maybe being much more aware of the shape and color of the world in 2015.

Comics can be slow to fully come around, but it’s also nimble enough to make quicker changes than, say, movies. And it’s been great to see that we’re swiftly moving away from dated comic-book portrayals of people, and also being much more proactive about hiring people with diverse voices. I also love that some comics are getting in the news for portraying, say, a black Captain America and frustrating a certain segment of the population who hates change. They can hate it all they want but change is needed, necessary, and more importantly, upon us all. I want the comics industry to be a place where anyone and everyone feels welcome to come tell their stories and make their art, and we’re really moving toward that place at a necessary speed now.

ADH (bonus): How can people keep up with you and with IDW (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

CR: I’m on all the usual places: Twitter as @chris_ryall, on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. I’m easy to find and as accessible as my schedule allows me to be. So thanks for the chat, and I hope to someday read comics from lots of your students.