I Choose Comics
Stepping into the mind of Chris Ryall
Chief Creative Officer & Editor-in-Chief, IDW Comics
Illustration by Popularium. Original Art by Jack Kirby
Letter from our guest editor
When Popularium co-founder Rob Maigret and I first met, we bonded over a shared love of comic books. Comics informed our childhoods, kept us amused and enthralled through adolescence, and provided entertainment into adulthood.
As we age, comics — like music, like movies, like every pleasant diversion — become one more thing we slot into the open cracks of free time where we can find them. Gone are the days when it was possible to just sit and read for hours without anything on our minds besides What Happens Next? But memories of those times linger. We look for ways to recapture them when and where we can. For an increasing number of us, that means devouring comic book-based movies, video games, and the shared experience of attending one of the many comic book conventions.
The stories in the digital pages of Popularium are all about that same recapturing. About the moments we reserve to experience our favorite art, media, and products — and the momentous life events that are indelibly marked by those things we love.
Twenty years ago the country’s largest gathering of comic fans, San Diego Comic-Con, wasn’t quite the explosion of all channels of pop culture that it is now. But even then, it played host to nearly 100,000 fans packed into a convention hall, geeking out on all their favorite things and meeting beloved creators and entertainers.
By 1997 Stan Lee had already been working in comics for over 40 years, his public persona a well-honed phenomenon. Stan has always been a master at making us Marvel fans feel like part of the club. Hell, he influenced fellow kids of my generation more than some parents. He certainly loomed large in my life, so when I had a chance to first meet him at that ’97 Comic-Con, I was struck by just how much he looked like, well, STAN LEE. Like a comic character come to life.
Some years after that first meeting, I got to know Stan a bit. I found a way to combine my childhood and — let’s be honest — adulthood obsessions by joining a comic book publisher, IDW, as their Editor-in-Chief (same title carried, by the way, by Spider-Man’s work nemesis J. Jonah Jameson and Superman’s more benevolent boss, Perry White!). I’m now their Chief Creative Officer. But it was that fateful moment in 1997, that first Comic-Con I ever attended — where I bought a copy of the first issue of the first series I ever read, Fantastic Four, for Stan to sign — that really set me on my path.
I’m thrilled that it’s here on Popularium that I get to tell this story for the first time. I can’t think of another group of people that could possibly understand the way comics changed my life like they do.
ISSUE 1 PAGE 1
PANEL 1: ESTABLISHING PANEL OF 5-YEAR-OLD CHRIS RYALL’S HOUSE IN LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA FROM AN OVERHEAD ANGLE. THE LOOK IS AS FADED AND WASHED OUT AS AN OLD PHOTO. CHRIS SITS ON THE PORCH, READING A STOLEN FANTASTIC FOUR COMIC BOOK. HIS FACE SHOWS HE’S TRANSPORTED TO SOMEWHERE FAR MORE COOL THAN HIS DRAB LOWER-MIDDLE SURROUNDINGS.
THERE’S A SINGLE THOUGHT BALLOON AS HE READS:
CHRIS CAPTIONHow can I live in this 4-color world every day?!
ISSUE 2 PAGE 1
PANEL 1: WE PICK UP THE STORY FROM LAST ISSUE’S CLIFFHANGER: CHRIS HOLDS HIS COPY OF FANTASTIC FOUR #1 NOW SIGNED BY STAN LEE. BUT A CAREER IN COMICS STILL SEEMS AS EPHEMERAL AS THE SCENT OF STAN’S SHARPIE.
THE LOOK ON CHRIS’S FACE HERE SAYS IT ALL:
CHRIS CAPTIONIs making it in comics even possible or should I just abandon the childhood dream and finally grow up?
Some Things I've Had A Hand In
Zombies vs Robots
The first graphic novel series I ever co-created (with artist/designer Ashley Wood) is, frankly, kinda stupid. It pairs flesh-and-brain-eating zombies with no-flesh-or-brain-having robots and ponders that age-old comic question, “Who would win in a fight?” The these two great comic book tastes, the walking dead and the sentient ‘bots, have no business interacting in a story. It makes no good sense. Which is the starting point Ashley and I wanted in crafting a series of graphic novels that begins at the end: no human characters left in a dead world (well, one, but it’s an infant with no dialogue); no character arcs or growth for the cast; no hope. We loved the premise of removing all the things that are supposedly needed to make a good story and then seeing if we could do something interesting anyway.
Ash and I both tend to embrace the ridiculous in the comics we produce, and maybe never more so than here. The comic we set out to make just for us, something that didn’t have any Hollywood-esque bits, nevertheless caught Hollywood’s eye and is in development as a major motion picture at Sony.
This is the most stream of consciousness comic we could possibly make, and the idea of the craziness in our heads exploding onto theater screens at some point is just one more wonderfully absurd twist in the story.
Locke & Key
Sometimes when you make comics, all the elements align and create true pieces of magic. Locke & Key isn’t a comic I wrote but it’s one I developed with creators Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, and managed through its entire run of six volumes (plus a few assorted one-offs).
The material itself strikes that perfect blend of horror, familial drama, dark humor, and the right touch of the fantastic. The art doesn’t strive for photo-reality — you can see that every line is hand-drawn by a master craftsman of such skill that the characters become real almost immediately. Their faces age visually; the looks of terror and love and sadness emanate from the page.
But as special as the story is — fans have called it as important as Sandman or Preacher as 21st century graphic novel wonderments go — it was the relationship with the creators that took this from a good story on the page to something that will forever define my experiences in comics for me. The creators, Joe and Gabriel, have become such dear friends and creative partners that as much as the fans who loved the series, I never wanted this one to end. I had a front-row seat to witness their immense talents only grow stronger over time; by the end, they were finishing each other’s sentences and creative visions in an almost telepathic way. Locke & Key’s contributions to the world of comics are exceeded only by its positive impact on my own life.
Working in the comics industry feels like a constant chance to not only advance the medium I love, but also to show respect to the comics and creators I loved as a kid. One of those comics was a small title published by Marvel during my childhood. It was called Rom, Spaceknight, and it was a comic based on a pretty silly toy.
The toy, an alien cyborg who hunted evil aliens, was one of the first LED toys, yes, but it had strange proportions, little articulation, and held no real appeal for kids (me included. I never even owned one until adulthood). Not exactly the stuff great comics are made of. Which is why the comic was such a revelation back in the day. It was dark and creepy — for a comic aimed at kids and produced by a populist superhero publisher like Marvel — and it sure read more like a print version of a paranoid thriller like Invasion of the Body Snatchers more than it did a standard superhero book. It had real stakes, was genuinely unsettling in places, and lasted a half-dozen years before disappearing, seemingly forever.
So when we began working with Hasbro on other comics, I started my quest to bring back Rom. The character had been absent from comics for decades — in the intervening years Hasbro acquired the company that made the toy and there it sat, untouched. As with many properties from back in the days of less legally-precise contracts, there were seemingly unsolvable issues that precluded the character’s return.
I stayed with it. It took more than 10 years of asking, researching, cajoling, hoping, and otherwise pushing for the rights to get untangled to a point where we could return the character to comics. In those years, I’d gotten to know the brother of the original writer, Bill Mantlo (who suffered a terribly debilitating accident and has required constant care ever since); and gotten to be very friendly with the original artist, a beloved Marvel bullpen talent named Sal Buscema. I’ve worked with Sal on a relaunch of the comic and been able to help call attention and funds to benefit Bill Mantlo while finally getting Rom back out into the comic world once again. Sometimes, the 9-year-old inside you wins the day.
Some Stories I Recommend
I haven’t watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer in years. I rarely take time for gaming. Yet I know that these things, along with so many other cultural touchstones, are there to help me when I need them. To save me. The stories that follow aren’t mine, but they kinda are. I quickly come to know the storytellers via their words and experiences; I share their frustrations and exaltations. And I keep moving forward as they do, never forgetting the characters I met along the way. I recognize myself in their disparate tales.
I think you’ll see yourself here, too.
There are simple truths found in the things we love. Words put on a page by a stranger can reach across the decades and touch us at our core. Games comprised of digital bits and bytes can sometimes reveal things about us that real life cannot. B.E. Howard found that his Titan was ready, if only he was ready to really receive it.
We’re all pursued by demons and monsters. Not the horrific, fanged things we see in our nightmares but the all-too-real kind that keep coming at you. They don’t die easily. They can’t die. For every beast you take down, five more take their place. Armed with only raging hormones and whatever weapons she could muster, Buffy Summers battled valiantly through those terrible, wonderful teenage years. She led an army of friends, of strangers, of viewers into battle and showed them it could be done. Tonya fought alongside Buffy and lived to tell her tale.
Captain Theones rode his horse hard across the landscape of Azeroth, raising his sword in the name of good, helping those in need, and generally being the hero Arka hoped he’d be. Which was good because even as this digital warrior battled against his nemeses, his all-too-human avatar Arka experienced menaces of another kind. The sort of terrible opponents that only reality can throw at you. And yet both continued to fight against long odds…
Stuff I Like
I once considered tracing my DNA to see which ancestral family members were branches on the world-tree of my life. But there’s no need: who I am isn’t strangers with whom I share a bloodline. Who I am is what I like. The things that add layers to my foundation. Throwaway movies, disposable pop songs, and casually skimmed books aren’t just pop-culture paraphernalia: they’re the sediment deposited on the shore of your island. If we all are, as Carl Sagan claimed, made of starstuff, here is just a bit of my stuff.
I’m not a motorcycle rider — that’s never been my way of getting the adrenaline pumping. But I am someone who firmly ascribes to the thinking that anything worth doing is best done with loud, throbbing rock ‘n roll in your ears. Martyn might have been moving faster on two wheels than I usually do on four but we all in ways that suit us…featured in Don’t Feed The Monkeys by
Batman: A Death in the Family
When I was a kid, comic readers could cast a vote to decide Batman’s sidekick Robin’s fate. Just get your parents to authorize the fee for a 1-900 call and press 1 if you want Robin to die in an upcoming storyline. A decision typically left to Roman emperors was now given over to empowered comic fans who didn’t like Dick Grayson’s replacement in the first place. Results were typical, yet totally unexpected, as Josh and so many others found out…featured in Death Of My Bronze Age by
When I grew up, mustaches were the epitome of cool. Magnum P.I. had a notable one, so too did pitcher Rollie Fingers and cartoonist Sergio Aragonés. But no one rocked the ‘stache or better exemplified late-’70s badassery than mustachioed actor, Burt Reynolds. As the Bandit, sporting that upper-lip hair and careening down the highway in a Trans-Am, a small-town Smokey on his tail, well, movies would never again know this level of unforced cool.featured in Burt Reynolds Is My Spirit Guide by
Stranger Things effectively preys on our love of nostalgia. And we succumb, happily and willingly, eager for the familiar references and childhood touchstones. But there’s an unexpected Demogorgon looming within, as Julie discovered: sometimes, unbidden memories of youth can thrust you deeper into your own personal Upside-Down, forcing you to reconcile past damages to have any hope of avoiding poor Barb’s fate…
I originally bought Fantastic Four #1 in part to have a real reason to go meet and talk to Stan Lee. I figured that might be my only chance to shake his hand and thank him for the years of entertainment and inspiration.
It had never occurred to me that it would become a major milestone in my own origin story — a story I’m happy to share here. In multiple serialized parts, of course.
What good would any comic book adventure be without chapters ending with the time-honored story mechanism of “To Be Continued…”?
Hope you enjoy, and that perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your own story about the comics that changed your life — I’d love to read it. If you have an idea, you can send your pitch to Popularium.