Chris Ryall Looks Forward with IDW

The first half of 2012 has seen IDW Publishing undertake several ambitious projects, from relaunching long-running series to adding new licenses to the fold, not to mention new creator-owned work. Two new "Transformers" ongoing series have breathed new life into the franchise, Roger Langridge's "Popeye" has proved an unexpected hit, new titles for "Godzilla," "The Crow," and "Mars Attacks" are on the horizon; on the indie side, flagship title "30 Days of Night" continues its ongoing reign of terror, Joe Hill's "Locke and Key" has wrapped its penultimate arc, and miniseries by Chris Roberson and Mike Costa have brought magic and fantasy to the line.

Heading into the summer and the undoubtedly big announcements that will come out of Comic-Con International in San Diego this July, CBR News caught up with IDW Chief Creative Officer and Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall to discuss the state of the publisher, the progress of its major series, and IDW's place in the current discussion of creator-owned comics and creator rights.

CBR News: Chris, I'd like to start with broad strokes -- how has 2012 treated IDW so far?

John Layman and John McCrea's "Mars Attacks" ongoing is just part of IDW's publishing slate for the remainder of 2012

Chris Ryall: I'd say the year's gone great. The way the economy was heading, no one was sure how things were going to net out. But so far, we've had great months. The direct market seems to be thriving. And we always take a pretty heavy inventory stance on our books when we print them and we've been selling out of a lot of different books, going back to press on a lot of different books, orders on just about everything are up in the direct market and digital is doing better than expected at this point, too. It's hard to know what to attribute that to, exactly. I think some of it is DC's New 52 initiative, I think that did get people into comic stores and I think our and other people's content is keeping them there. I think that people have come in with a desire to see what else is out there beyond what DC was doing. Whatever it is, it's been a very refreshing year so far, seeing everything doing well on both fronts [print and digital].

At this point, there's no reason for us to think digital is impacting negatively on print sales. Our print sales are up and digital is up. I think the comics-reading audience has just grown a bit.

Are digital sales still about 10% overall, or has that changed?

Yeah, it's about 10%. I expect that to change, the number to keep growing over the next year or two. But a year ago, it was probably 3%, so to have it get to 10% in just about a year's time is something in itself. It seems as more people get tablets and devices to read comics on, that just expanded the audience that much more.

IDW was one of the earliest publishers to offer digital comics on a bunch of different platforms. Now everybody has their own digital program. Has being one of the early adopters helped you, or are there lessons you would have preferred to let others learn?

We're never ones to sit back and let other people blaze the trail, if we can help it. In the case of digital, we are small enough and don't have shareholders and all these different corporate entities over us to prevent us or logjam us from trying new things, so we were a small and nimble enough place that we could try all these different providers, all these different formats, all these different devices, and really get a sense of what works. I've never been one to say, "let's see what other people do and then follow their lead." Let's try these different things ourselves. And you know, some of them worked to better effect than others, but that was the nice thing about getting out early -- we could try all these different things and see what works. See what format people most prefer, what device they want to read it on, and how best to format for that device. I like the fact that we were able to do a lot of experimentation. I think a lot of people tended to follow our lead, rather than the reverse.

Sounds like a smart way to adapt to the new. We'll touch on one more broad topic before we get into some of your specific books. There's been a lot of talk lately about creator-owned comics and creator rights. You do a lot of licensed books, but you also do a number of very successful creator-owned books. Have you seen any sort of reinvigoration of your indie talent as a result of the current climate and debates?

Yeah, it's funny. Some of the conversation about creator-owned comics, they're never the easiest sell in the direct market, so we tend to space them out a bit so we have a constant slate of creator-owned books going but balanced by our licensed books and other things retailers have an easier time knowing how to order. As far as creator rights, the company was sort of built on a creator-owned book, "30 Days of Night," and from there, again, we're small enough that we're able to be fully transparent about everything. People know what costs are being put against their books, what they're making, we get them royalty reports on time, every time. We're very creator-friendly and trying to be ever more so to keep projects coming in. I see a lot of what people complain about and have quit working for other companies over -- we're new enough that we don't have that kind of past behind us. We came out of the gate friendly with creators and I think since then we've just maintained that, and I think our reputation with just about anyone who's worked with us would echo that sentiment. Hopefully that keeps people thinking of us as a good option when they have those kinds of projects.

Not sure how much you'll be able to say about this, but seeing as how some others have been recklessly candid I'll go ahead and ask: have you seen any established creators showing new interest in working with IDW on creator-owned books as a result of the creator rights issues?

It's funny, one of the guys at the center of that controversy -- or at least it blew up into a controversy, I don't think he intended it that way but the internet has its own way of magnifying these things -- Chris Roberson was already doing work with us on a creator-owned book, "Memorial." And Roger Langridge, also, who made a public statement similar to Chris', was already doing work for us on "Popeye." I don't think there's been any slamming of doors in New York and pounding on our door saying "Let me in." I think we already have solid relationships with all kinds of people across this business. I haven't seen one leading directly to the other, but I'm open to having those conversations with anybody whether happy or unhappy with other places they may be working.

IDW's creator-friendly atmosphere brought Roger Langridge into the fold writing "Popeye"

Since you mention Roger Langridge, let's move into talking about some of IDW's current series starting with "Popeye." The first issue is one of the books going back to press, and I understand it's being extended into an ongoing series?

Yeah, we originally set it up as four issues, and we decided to add at least four more to that. So the plan is to keep it going as long as Roger [wants to do it] and as long as the book is performing well. It's funny, Roger and John Layman on "Mars Attacks" are these guys where you read them and think, "I can't imagine anybody more well-suited to this book." Roger's first few issues of "Popeye" that I've read, they're so in the spirit of [E.C.] Segar's work and so exactly what we wanted this "Popeye" book to be. It's one of these where we knew Roger and the artist working on it were a nice fit, but we really didn't know what to expect sales-wise. It's not something like "Transformers" that has a current, built-in audience. It's potentially an older audience. It's sold better than our projections, and the first issue sold out, and it's looking like issue #2 is heading toward a sell-out as well based on some of the reordering -- it's really gratifying to have a book that we knew was good that is also reaching people, and to a higher degree than we expected.

All right. Moving on to "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe," the Hasbro comics that make up a pretty good chunk of IDW's output. Since January, you've launched two new ongoing "Transformers" series plus the digital-only "Autocracy," and you're restarting the Marvel continuity, as well. What's the general strategy for these titles, or how have they done so far and what's your plan for them moving forward?

"Transformers" is another one of those titles where I'm really pleased with how 2012 has gone. We've been doing these "Transformers" comics since October of 2005, so here we are just about seven years in. Occasionally, seven years in on a license, or any title, interest can flag. We weren't sure where things were heading as far as fan interest, and with the relaunch, the two new books "More than Meets the Eye" and "Robots in Disguise" seem to have captured people across the board in ways that even our past "Transformers" efforts didn't. I look at the Transformers boards and look for negative comments, and I don't think I've seen such overwhelming positive responses and reviews and sales numbers on our "Transformers" books ever. So that's great to see.

The fact that we have those books, then alongside that Simon Furman coming back and working with Andrew Wildman again to revisit the older continuity, it feels like a golden time for "Transformers" right now. We have good new continuity and stories people like, and we're revisiting the old, beloved continuity, and people seem really excited about that. It's a nice, something-for-everyone period for "Transformers."

Fairly recently, CBR did a big interview with John Barber and James Roberts about the "Transformers" books, especially the world-building aspects. Do you see this as one of the things readers are really responding to, perhaps bringing in some new readers, as well?

I hope so. "Transformers" is a weird one, I never know if it does bring in new readers or if it's just got its established core fanbase. But I think the way the new books are structured was certainly designed to bring in new readers, especially with what James Roberts is doing, that really hits longtime fans and toy collectors right in their sweet spot, too. I think James and John both have this nice blend of stories that work for both audiences. Like I say, it's been great to see and hear all the positive feedback.

Great. On the "G.I. Joe" side, you've introduced a new Cobra Commander and had the direct crossover between the three titles. What does the shape of these books look like as we head into the second half of the year?

That's one I can't say too much about, because I know John [Barber's] been building towards something with all the creators on all the "Joe" books. It's building toward a new -- I don't want to say a new status quo, but something that's going to continue to change and shake things up a bit in the "G.I. Joe" world. Heading toward issue #18 and beyond, we'll start seeing some things that they've long been seeding in the comics.

I heard the line might be streamlining a bit -- will all three titles be continuing?

Yeah, they will. Dirk Wood, our marketing and PR VP, made a comment at C2E2 to the retailers. He said something, and it got misconstrued as "oh my God, they're pruning back their 'Joe' books!" Certainly not true at this point. If anything like that does happen somewhere down the line, that would be something that is in line with what we're headed with the direction of "G.I. Joe," but for the foreseeable future we're keeping the titles as-is.

Heading into the second "G.I. Joe" movie, then, what kind of planning goes into movie tie-in projects? [Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation's" release date being moved to March 2013.]

Well, we did a prequel comic that was set in between movies one and two. We didn't do an adaptation this time. Adaptations are kind of a weird thing now. When I was a kid and I was reading adaptations, that was the only way to revisit something like "Empire Strikes Back," because there were no video tapes, there was no ability to watch things over and over. So an adaptation was this cool thing where you could replay and relive the story. But now, I don't know that fans care about straight adaptations in these cases as much as they care about new content that expands or enhances the story. So we did a prequel, we're waiting to see how the new movie is received. The early word on it is it's certainly much better than the first one, but I'm also wary of having too many "G.I. Joe" books out there. Right now we have four. I don't know that we can force more than four monthly "G.I. Joe" books on people at this time. If there's enough outcry for movie-related comics that pick up after the movie, we'll talk about that. But we don't have immediate plans for that.

Since we're talking about movies a bit, let's move on to "Star Trek." Your ongoing series bridges the movies in the reboot continuity, picking up after the first J.J. Abrams film and keeping the story going until the next one. How has reception to the series been so far?

It's been good. The thing about that series, and I think it will be one where, when the movie gets closer, people will look back and want to re-read these or read them for the first time, because we've been coordinating this whole series with Roberto Orci, who is one of the screenwriters on the "Star Trek" movies. So he's been dropping in little things, seeding little things that will come back and factor into the movie. Certainly, as it gets closer, there will be more of that. This isn't just us -- again, I go back to my childhood and "Star Wars," where between the movies there were just these ridiculous story lines, they didn't know what was going on. In this case, everything is well planned out, thought ahead, and does tie in. Read all together, it does make a nice coherent storyline, leading into and out of each movie.

Plus, we have tribbles! We've been retelling some of the old episodes set in the new universe, and the tribbles episode, which was one of my favorites and I think one of everybody's favorites, we're revisiting soon, too.

James O'Barr's popular creation "The Crow" returns to comics in July

Another current series, "Star Trek/Doctor Who" is not set in the new continuity, it's "Next Generation" -- that one is a lot of fun. How did that project end up coming together?

That came together through a lot of dancing and pleading and sweating and all of that. "Doctor Who" had never done a crossover in any form, TV or prose or anything else, in their entire history. It's safe to say they were somewhat resistant to the idea at first. But this is a lot of what I do with my day. When people ask me what I do with my day, there's a lot of talking and convincing and showing, and planning of what we can do. Showing the BBC what a crossover could be and what we could do with it, how it could work and why it's a good idea to do something like this. That came about through a lot of conversations and planning sessions and so on. We thought it made sense to focus on the "Next Gen" not just because it's their anniversary this year, but because "Next Gen" seemed to play a bit better in the "Doctor Who" universe. I did find a way to work in a Fourth Doctor meeting the Original Series crew, which will happen in issue #3, but just as a flashback, which is a fun thing for the fans who have been wanting that. But I just thought "Next Gen" and "Doctor Who" were a more cohesive fit.

All right. In the last year or so you've brought back "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," and the new "Crow" series is debuting soon. "The Crow" is beginning with John Shirley, the screenwriter of the first movie, and you have series creator James O'Barr doing something later on.

Yeah, in fact, O'Barr just sent me the first ten pages from his new story in the mail last week. It's underway and he's having fun being back in that world again. John Shirley's book comes out first, and that's set in Japan. It takes the idea of "The Crow" and sets in a somewhat different direction, so it's not just transplanting the idea of "The Crow" to a different location. It's sort of changing what people have seen with the Crow before. And then James O'Barr has got something entirely different as well. I can't wait 'til people see it.

Is O'Barr writing and drawing?

He is, yeah.

These will be the first new "Crow" comics in ten years. What made you want to go after this property and bring it back?

It just one of those properties that just works well in comics, and it's one that I personally had been missing. I liked "The Crow" back when O'Barr first did his thing, and I enjoyed the movie, it just felt like something that hadn't been overdone, like something we could have some fun with that people would really enjoy.

You mentioned "Mars Attacks" earlier, which is something that's kicking up soon, as well. I'd like to touch a bit on your April Fool's joke--

[Laughs] That was a Topps April Fool's joke! It's funny that it did catch some people, they thought it was a real thing, which I guess is understandable since it was released before April Fool's Day. But yeah, no musical, just comics, and I think John Layman is much better suited to doing comics than musicals.

Advance copies will probably arrive at the office this week, it's already been approved and sent to print with those crazy 58 covers for #1. Layman's another one, as I say, I can't think of anyone better suited to writing "Mars Attacks." With John McCrea, too, it's been an absolute blast for me. They're four scripts in and it's so much fun. It's weird we're doing a licensed book where there's this level of death and destruction and carnage and craziness. Usually, you do a book like "Transformers" or "True Blood" and you've got to respect the characters to a point where you can't kill them arbitrarily. There is a lot of arbitrary killing in "Mars Attacks."

And are there any new details you can give about your upcoming "Judge Dredd" series?

At Comic-Con, we're going to doing a Dredd anniversary panel with the 2000 AD guys. They'll talk about their plans, we'll be releasing the "Dredd" creative team there and showing a bit of stuff. That's when it's all going to kick off. That's one that I'm really excited about, too, because I'm working directly on that and I'm really happy with the direction that we're going to go with it. I think people are really going to dig that one.

Finishing up talking about licenses a bit, are we looking at an "Infestation 3" coming up?

No. But we have something else in mind to take that "Infestation" slot. We were just having a planning session about that today. There is something else big in the works, but it won't necessarily take the form of an "Infestation" sequel. That will be aiming for January, for whatever reason I like that time of year to do this sort of thing.

joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's "Locke and Key" epic has one more miniseries to go before it wraps

I've also noticed you've done a couple historical books recently, with "Nevsky" by Ben McCool and Mario Guerra and "Secret Battles of Genghis Khan" by Daryl Gregory and Alan Robinson. Is this something you're looking to do more of, or did these two projects just happen to be really nice?

Yeah, we're not looking to do a whole historical line, but these were pet projects of people and they both worked nicely for different reasons. I'm directly working on the "Genghis Khan" book, and it's a blast. There's beheading, and boilings in oil, all kinds of stuff. Genghis Khan's one I didn't know a lot about other than the name, so it's fun to actually see what the real story was.

Great. Moving on to the Joe Hill stuff, another "Locke and Key" series wrapped up this month. We have got one more to go before the end of the main story, and there's another new "The Cape" series coming up. At this point, are you starting to line up new stuff with Joe?

Well, "Clockworks" ended and in August there's a one-shot called "Grindhouse." There will be a couple one-shots that space in amidst the final series. And then the final series will kick off late Fall or early Winter, that one is called "Omega" and will be a seven-part story that concludes the ongoing story that we've been telling but not necessarily the end of "Locke and Key." Joe and I are constantly talking about things he may want to do beyond that, but 2013 is going to be spent primarily on "Locke and Key" so I think it's a little premature to plan out beyond that, since he's also got his novels and everything else he does. His active Twitter feed, he's got to keep feeding the beast every day. But yeah, Joe is a guy I will be in business with for as long as he wants to be in business with us.

Along those lines, "The Cape: 1969" is another one I'm finalizing this week, it hits in June. That's a fun one, too. It tells the origin of the Cape but in an entirely different setting and tone and type of story. It's set in Vietnam, and it's really just a good, gritty war comic. It extended that story but takes it directions other than the usual prequel, "oh, he found a cape and now he can fly!" sort of thing.

Obviously, we haven't touched on IDW's entire publishing line, but at this point is there anything else you'd like to add about the company as a whole or any particular projects?

I guess I can't even hint about some of our other Comic-Con announcements, but we do have some other great left-field stuff lined up to talk about there. And John Byrne and I have been making big plans this week, too. He's currently working on "Trio" and we've been talking about all kinds of different things that could follow on from there. His "Next Men" book just ended -- the final issue ships in June, but we're finished with it so we're talking about what's next. He's got a lot of good plans.

Yeah, it's fun. It's a constant array of new and interesting things we're working on. Even eight years in to doing this, I'm still having a blast with it. I'm happy that so much of our stuff is so well-received and constantly grateful that fans dig what we're doing.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on IDW Publishing and its upcoming projects.

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Tags: transformers, star trek, idw publishing, hasbro, doctor who, gi joe, john barber, chris roberson, tmnt, judge dredd, john layman, chris ryall, the crow, james roberts, roger langridge, mars attacks, john mccrea, popeye, digital comics, memorial, nevs

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