Getting the 411 on Comic Books 101

The vast world of superhero comic books may be daunting to someone just finding their way in the big four-colored multiverse. While many fans can recite the history of their favorite superhero down to the issue number, new readers looking to learn about the characters and the industry that spawned them are met with a very steep learning curve. That is where "Comic Books 101" steps in.

Written by Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton, "Comic Books 101" goes back to the beginning to discuss the history behind the comic strip and the superhero's rise to predominance in the comic book industry. The book also includes the histories of some of today's most popular characters including Spider-Man, Superman, Batman and Captain America, alongside personal stories by some of the biggest names in in the genre.

Of course, Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton are no strangers to the realm of comic books. Ryall is the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief at IDW Publishing, which is celebrating its tenth year in style, now the third-largest comic book publisher. Tipton, better known as Professor Scott Tipton to comics101.com readers, has written such titles as "Angel" and "Star Trek" for IDW.

The inspiration to bring "Comics 101" from the internet to the printed page came from what would seem an unlikely source, writer and public speaker Tom Morris ("What If Aristotle Ran General Motors?"). Through the "Comics 101" website Ryall and Tipton got to know Morris, who one day approached them with an interesting proposition. "[He] first asked us to contribute to a book he was editing, 'Superheroes and Philosophy," Ryall told CBR. "We wrote a chapter for that, and got to talking about other writing ventures. He got us talking to his literary agent at the time, and we initially settled on pitching a 'Comic Books for Dummies' book. We put together a proposal, and as we kept fleshing it out, especially with the help of our new literary agent who ultimately sold the book to Impact, it kept changing and becoming something much better beyond what we first envisioned."

The initial idea was just to reprint those "Comics 101" columns in one bound collection, but that was soon to change. "We quickly realized that we could do so much more with the book," Tipton said. "It would be a lost opportunity if we restricted ourselves to just the material from the site. There's still plenty of material from the original columns, but they've been rewritten and refocused to such a degree that it's really all-new material. And we think the book is better for it."

Tipton and Ryall collaborated on all of the entries in the book. "The nice way about how this was structured was that each of us took initial passes at some chapters, and then sent over to the other person to add to, trim or otherwise edit," Ryall explained. "So we both got to handle everything we were passionate about. And by putting in the personal little sidebars/reflections throughout the book, we could each have our say even if the other person did the heavy lifting for a particular chapter."

While "Comic Boos 101" does work as an introduction to comics, Tipton notes there is something in the book for everyone, including the hardcore fans who may think they know it all. "There's bound to be a topic or two that we shed some light on. And even if you know it all already, I think the two of us manage to express it all in an entertaining, funny fashion. Not to mention some great sidebars by everyone from Clive Barker to Gene Simmons to Mark Waid, and some fantastic artwork to enjoy, both from classic comics and all-new cartoons by Nick Roche, David Messina and Mark Engblom."

Also included in these "guest lecturer" spots are Paul Dini, Marv Wolfman, and CBR's own RE-TALES columnist Jud Meyers. "Everyone we asked was so generous with their time and provided us with such great reminiscences -- they're all fantastic," Tipton said.

Those sidebars are some of Tipton and Ryall's favorite parts of "Comic Books 101," specifically the two pieces written by Stan Lee and Harlan Ellison. "It was really nice having the amount of people contribute sidebars to the book throughout, but having the book open with Stan and close with Harlan, two legendary writers and personal inspirations definitely ranks as my favorite part of the book," Ryall said.

"Those two writers were such an influence on me as a kid," Tipton added. "I checked their books out of the library so often that eventually the librarians took pity on me and just gave them to me. If you were to tell my younger self that someday he'd write a book with contributions from Lee and Ellison, he'd never believe it."

"I initially asked [Ellison] to just do a short Q&A for a sidebar," Ryall said. "And instead, he turned in this great, touching, 1,500-word Bradbury-esque reflection on the first comic book he ever read -- which he still owns, incidentally. I've seen it and his entire childhood collection preserved in great shape at his house. I have no idea how... I read the hell out of the comics I had when I was a kid. I still have them but they're mostly thrashed from repeated readings."

Unfortunately, with so many great characters and storylines, there had to be some things that were left on the cutting room. Recently, some of these deleted scenes have appeared on the "Comics 101" website, include entries on Dr. Strange and Geoff Johns. "We both hoped we'd been able to keep everything, but we do understand page counts and word counts," Ryall said. "I mean, our first draft of the book was probably double the word count we were given, so some things had to be trimmed. We decided on them by trying to separate how much we liked some of the material we cut from what best fit the theme of a '101' book. So chapters on 'Crisis,' and the convoluted history of Hawkman, likely didn't make as much sense for a first book as the material that remained. We did do a write-up on basically every publisher ever that had to come out --for me, that's probably the thing I most wish we'd been able to keep."

As for what made it into the book and what didn't, the team decided to stick with the basics. "We went with the '101' approach here," Ryall said. "What major characters form the basis of the industry? So Superman, Spider-Man, characters like that, earned entries here, while personal and goofy favorites like Nova and Rom, Spaceknight have to wait their turn for a potential '201' book."

Yes, you heard that right, the authors are already looking at the possibility of a sequel to "Comic Books 101." "We're both definitely ready to jump back in for a second volume," Tipton said. "It was a long time in the making, but I'm incredibly proud of it."

Fans of Scott Tipton won't have to wait long for more work by the writer. Outside of "Astro Boy: Underground" and "Angel: Not Fade Away," currently on stands, Tipton has a few other projects coming up. "Later this year will be an issue of 'Star Trek: Alien Spotlight' focusing on Q, with my frequent co-writer David Tipton and artist Elena Casagrande, and a new Trek miniseries, 'Spock: Reflections,' with David and artist David Messina. My brother and I will reunite once more in the fall for the official comics adaptation of the 'Astro Boy' film, with art by E.J. Su, and following that will be another 'Angel' mini with Elena Casagrande."

Chris Ryall won't be resting on his laurels either. Outside of his work as Editor In Chief of IDW Publishing, he has also written a hardcover picture book aimed at young readers called "I Am Optimus Prime." "Beyond that, 'Groom Lake' is finishing up. Issue #4 is out in July, and then the TPB with an intro from Whitley Strieber and an outro from Bob Lazar will be out in October. And I have a new Zombies vs Robots series, 'Zombies Vs Robots Adventure,' with Ashley Wood, starting in July, too."

"Comic Books 101" is in bookstores and comics shops now. If you are in Southern California, Ryall and Tipton will attend two signings to celebrate the release of the book. The first will be at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on June 13 and they will follow that up with a stop at Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks on June 20.

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