Ever since the U.S. government issued the official explanation that the unidentified flying object that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 was but a weather balloon, the curious incident has become fodder for countless conspiracy theories. Believers were quick to set their sites on the government facility where the wreckage of the downed craft was purported to have gone, a location just off Groom Lake in Nevada and one of the U.S. government's worst-kept secrets: Area 51.
IDW Publishing's Chris Ryall has a longstanding interest in the UFO phenomenon, and has been toying with the idea of writing an Area 51 story for just as long. That dream has finally come to fruition with IDW's four-issue miniseries "Groom Lake," and Ryall has recruited a superstar collaborator in the person of Ben Templesmith to help him bring it to life.
The story begins when average-joe Karl Bauer's abducted father is suddenly and inexplicably returned. "Karl's not all that bright and yet he just might end up saving, or dooming, mankind," Ryall told CBR.
In "Groom Lake," the day-to-day business of keeping the American public in the dark about the UFO phenomenon falls to a division called Project Blue Book, headed by a government agent called Leticia Pope. "Leticia is a bad-ass, hard changing agent who's responsible for maintaining the biggest secret in the world, which hasn't endeared her to many," Ryall explained.
The alien star of "Groom Lake," a mysterious, six-fingered being called Archibald, was originally named Ng Hudson in homage to sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. "I changed his name to just 'Archibald' -- a name that holds some good mystique for people who really know about all of the Area 51 and Dreamland rumors," Ryall said. "I can also tell you he's sort of the ultimate tourist in this book, so he's enamored of the more foolish things humans do, smoking and such. He's also the leader of a certain team that I'll keep under wraps to maintain some mystery in the series."
Should Leticia or Project Blue Book flounder in their mission of obfuscation, Project Black Book is tasked with eliminating any and all outstanding evidence -- along with any civilians who might have been privy to it.
Ryall is familiar enough with UFO lore to not believe all the Area 51 hype: the truth in "Groom Lake," he says, goes deeper than that. That said, the secret underground base that does appear in the series certainly bears resemblance to Area 51, and for base workers like Roberta Lazar, the country's biggest secrets have become old hat. "Roberta's seen a bit too much in her time and through her indifference allows these secrets to possibly spill into the real world," Ryall said.
In the years that the story has been germinating in Ryall's head, "Groom Lake" has run the gamut from a serious drama to a comedy, but the one thing Ryall knew he didn't want it to be was a re-tread of old Area 51 stories. "It's funny and dark and in places goofy and in others deathly serious, but under it all is a hell of a lot of research and little details that really show the amount of time I've spent reading up on the subject.
"I haven't read too many of the other Area 51 comics since this is something I'd been wanting to do without being influenced, even subconsciously, by those," Ryall continued. "But I know that when someone mentions Area 51 now, there's a tendency to groan since there have been an array of other stories set there. I feel like I've found a unique take on the whole thing. I wouldn't poke fun at the lore, but I twist it and take many known stories and turn them on their side and spun a story out of all of that."
Some of Ryall's research comes from first-hand experience. Thanks in equal parts to "Silence of the Lambs" and Joseph Wambaugh, Ryall briefly considered a career in the FBI. Ryall's father was a cop, and Ryall befriended a senior FBI agent in Los Angeles. "I met a couple other folks on a weekend trip to Arizona with this agent, and they showed me a crazy thing that really made it hard for me to stay overly skeptical about all of this," Ryall revealed.
The story morphed into something new entirely when Ryall secured Ben Templesmith to draw it. Templesmith was a fan of Ryall's "Zombies vs. Robots," and expressed an interest in collaborating with the writer. When Ryall pitched "Groom Lake," Templesmith was not only excited about the project, he encouraged Ryall to take the concept even further. "My first pass was a bit more straightforward, with nary a crotch mutilation in sight -- unlike the current pass," Ryall explained. "I tried my best to imbue the story with enough wicked humor bits to justify Templesmith's involvement. If I'm going to take Ben away from 'Wormwood' or other such things for four months, I better be damned sure the story's worth it."
The fact that Templesmith only had a small window in his busy schedule helped force Ryall to iron out the remaining kinks in the plot. "That slacker Templesmith still has yet to draw page one," Ryall laughed. "He's evidently been busy with 'Doctor Who' and his Presidents book and some 'Wormwood' collections and multiple other covers and traveling to signings and cons and a dozen other things and hasn't yet put pencil to paper on this one."
That said, Ryall has little doubt that Templesmith's pages will turn out even better than the writer's envisioned them. "Ben's art is perfect for the otherworldly feel some of this will call for," he said.
Chris Ryall's years working as an editor has influenced the caliber and frequency of his writing. He forces himself to write scripts far in advance of his deadline, not only because his writing time is so limited, but also to hold himself to the same standards he expects from the writers who work for him. "Even if other writers we hire never know it, I know it and I make it a point to practice what I preach, try to lead by an example no one will ever see," Ryall said. "Which likely means I've just gone batshit crazy that I even think this way."
Ryall has had the privilege of editing countless great comics writers, and he can't help but improve his own craft through osmosis. "Working with so many talented writers like I have, it's not only got me learning from them and playing with the form and the structure of the stories more than I ever did before, but it also means I want whatever I do to earn my spot alongside their books."
Ryall said that "Groom Lake" stands alone, but that the possibility for further exploration of the secrets depicted in the miniseries definitely exists. "There's always another crotch to mutilate," Ryall joked.
"Groom Lake" #1 hits stands March 25 from IDW Publishing.