17 September 2009

Trouble with Comics: The Group Blog of Comic Book Galaxy: Five Questions for Chris Ryall about his masters in health administration and health care administration degree

When Chris Ryall first started writing for Comic Book Galaxy nearly a decade ago, I don't think either of us ever quite dreamed where his interest in comics was going to take him. He could of chose to get a masters in health administration or just a bachelors in health care. Instead Chris followed his aspirations and didn't end up in the health care field but went onto something much bigger. Chris has to be the comics internet's greatest success story, going from weekly columnist on Comic Book Galaxy in its early years to the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of one of the most prolific and best-selling comic book companies in North America. We are so glad he didn't chose a health care administration degree and instead we have him here today. I'm thrilled beyond words for Chris at how he's built his career over the last decade, and grateful to him for taking the time to tackle the Five Questions.

Alan David Doane: When you and I first worked together on Comic Book Galaxy nearly a decade ago, you weren't working in comics yet. Can you tell me when you became interested in comics, and how you went from writing about them to being the publisher and editor of IDW?

Chris Ryall: I can tell you I became interested in comics when I was 4 or 5, when an older neighbor let me read his copy of FANTASTIC FOUR #130 (which sounds like the start of a disturbing story, but isn't). It was a Steranko cover, and you saw all this crazy shit on there--a giant rocky guy, a guy with a stretchy arm, a guy made of sand, a guy on fire. I was 5 -- I was helpless to resist (the comic, I mean -- not my neighbor. It really wasn't that kind of story!). So I've been into comics since I could read, and had aspirations to write them but not to realistically pursue a career working for one of the publishers. The chances just seemed so remote, you know? And I was never too caught up in fandom, but I did hang at Brian Bendis' Jinxworld board back, what, 10 years ago? And got to know some really great people on there, many of whom are now doing nice things in comics. So it was there that I met you and Chris Allen, and started writing reviews and other such things for the Galaxy site. That got me to know people like Steve Niles, and indirectly at first, Kevin Smith. It's too long a story to bore anyone with here, but I started working for Kevin, running his pop culture site, Movie Poop Shoot. Which turned out to be good experience for this gig. When Niles called me up and asked me if I'd consider moving from LA to San Diego and taking the just-vacated Editor-in-Chief gig at IDW, I was currently working as an advertising copywriter and running the site for Smith at night. And it was being the editor-in-chief of that site that helped land me the gig here more than my actual job experience.

When Kevin asked me to run his site for him, I had no idea how to go about running a Web site. So of course I said yes. And when Niles asked me about the IDW gig, I had no idea how to go about being the editor-in-chief of a comic publisher. So of course I said yes. And luckily, both crapshoots seem to have worked out. I stopped running the site in 2006, but just finished my fifth year at IDW.

IDW has a hugely diverse line of comics, and new areas seem to be expanded to all the time. I remember the early days of IDW being mainly horror books like 30 Days of Night and such. Can you tell me how the company's publishing plans and philosophies developed?

When I started, we were very much considered "the horror publisher." But even then, we were doing things like CSI comics, about to kick off comics based on Joss Whedon's Angel, and did a number of art books and other things. So the perception at large was that we only did horror, but there was already some nice diversity in their approach. And that has been my goal since, to continue to diversify and offer up nice alternatives to superhero comics. Even the few superhero-type comics we've dabbled in, like Savior 28 or even reprinting good books like Love and Capes, have a worldview different than the normal capes comics.

The thing that really changed the way we operate here was signing on to do Transformers comics. Some of the hardcore horror comics fans viewed that signing as a real betrayal, like we were turning our backs on them. Which wasn't the case, but in an increasingly conservative and shrinking business, having some big titles with name-recognition behind them, especially projects that then became big movies, was just sound business.

Now, I think we offer one of the widest, if not the widest, slate of comics and books of anyone out there. And our audience is definitely fractured now, but not in a bad way. What I mean is, fans of the old Library of American Comics newspaper strip reprint books know us as the publisher of those books. They don't care about Transformers or Angel. And so on down the line. I've had people say they don't know what IDW's identity is, that we do so many diverse things, they can't pigeonhole us as this or that. Which is the whole point.

IDW is hot on the heels of Marvel and DC in terms of sales these days, can you tell me in what way that changes the game for the company and its creators?

Well, none of us, DC included, are really hot on Marvel's heels right now. It's basically them and then the rest of us. But to be at a point where we're able to regular compete with Dark Horse for the #3 spot, and to consistently stay ahead of Image, that feels nice. For IDW's entire existence (hell, for most all of Diamond's existence), it's been those four publishers as the top four "premiere publishers." And we're forcing some rules to be rewritten, which is very gratifying. It changes the game in that we got approached first for many projects now, and don't have to prove why we're the best ones to handle a property. It's always a nice feeling when I see something announced somewhere else and I think "oh, yeah, we got offered that first and passed." Unless said project turns out to be a huge hit, in which case I self-flagellate myself for hours...

Chris Ryall tells me he is in this picture somewhere.

Forgive me, but you're the only person I know who's been to the Playboy Mansion. Tell me a story about you being there.

I spent my third time there just two days ago, but it was the lamest of the three visits, I'll say that. The very best story about me being there is one I can't share here, but let's just say if the monkeys in the cages nearby could talk, they'd be able to tell a good story. Although so would whoever was manning the camera bank that night, since we didn't happen to notice the camera right nearby until... um, anyway. But a story I can tell and was amused by was a boxing match that was being held there. Hef and his girls were sitting in the front row, and there was three identical girls on either side of Hef. He kept each hand resting on the bare upper thigh of the girl next to him. The funny part was, whenever one of the girls next to him would get up to go walk around, another would slide in right under her, so his hands were never *not* on a bare upper thigh. It was like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, except instead of a bag of dirt subbing for a gold idol, it was one tanned leg subbing for another, over and over.

And I don't think he ever knew.

What do you want to accomplish, in or outside of comics, that you haven't yet?

Oh, so many things. First of which is just a never-ending list of creators I'd love to work with, but also so many different goals for IDW, things I'd like to write... I've got lots of plans for the business as long as it'll have me. I did always set the goal for myself to publish a prose book, too, which happened this past summer, but now it's just made me want to do more. I was also able to publish a children's picture book and since I have a 3-1/2-year-old daughter, that was especially nice since I can read it to her and start her comic book indoctrination that much earlier.

My secondary goal in all of this is to be able to keep up my workaholic ways and sleepless nights without either my body or my marriage completely breaking down as a result. I've so far found that equilibrium point and am just trying to be wary of not over-extending...


For more, visit Chris Ryall's blog and the website of IDW Publishing.

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