Licensed comics. It’s the term for comic books created that are based on stories and concepts from another medium – say television or movies – wherein the owners “license” the rights to do comics on said story to a comics publisher. It’s been a part of the comics industry going back decades, at first doing adaptations of popular movies or prose novels and now growing into being a nearly-infinite playground to see popular movies, toys and television shows sprawl out their fictional universe.And one of the foremost publishers doing it in this day and age is San Diego-based IDW Publishing. Since it’s inception in 1999, it’s growth to be the fifth largest comics publisher in America – and thanks in no small part to the bevy of licensed books it puts out each month. It has entire lines for such varied properties as Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and is constantly bringing in new titles such as the recently announced X-Files license.
Since 2004, Chris Ryall has spearheaded IDW’s growth in this and other areas. With a background working for the likes of Honda, Suzuki and even TV impresario Dick Clark, Ryall charts the course for IDW as it’s long-time Editor-In-Chief and Chief Creative Officer. Newsarama spoke with Ryall about the ins and outs of doing licensed comics, from its effect on their larger publishing plans to rumors Dark Horse might lose the Star Wars license to Marvel, and even some projects he’s hoping to reel into IDW someday.
Newsarama: Chris, licensed books have been a big part of IDW since early on with books based on CSI and Speed Racer now through current major lines such as Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and others. Can you describe licensed books’ place at IDW in relation to other areas like creator-owned and company owned titles?
Chris Ryall: Well, they’ve come to occupy a major part of our publishing schedule. We don’t really rank the different things we do—licensed titles or original properties or strip book reprints or art books—but there’s no arguing they’re the bulk of what we do. They’re what allows us to take chances on smaller, worthwhile titles and projects, and they’re what keeps an awful lot of people employed, from IDW staff to hundreds of freelancers. And as I discuss a bit more below, they’re titles based on properties that we really love, so they’re a great source of fun for us, too.
Nrama: Although licensed books came early in IDW’s history, in the very beginning it was just creator-owned works like 30 Days Of Night and Popbot. You didn’t start with IDW until 2004, but can you tell us how the licensed picture for IDW evolved over the years?Ryall: The first licensed title IDW did was CSI—that one predates me, and was a surprise hit for a fledgling publisher who’d never done licensed comics, especially on a title that many didn’t think would work as a comic book. But it nicely expanded our readership and helped us start to grow into different areas. Angel was signed just before I started, thanks to former Editor-In-Chief Jeff Mariotte and IDW founder/CEO Ted Adams The one that really changed the company was one Ted and I worked on for a long time and talked about longer – Transformers. It’s completely trite and ridiculous to say a comic with that title transformed the company, but it did. To land that huge property—even without the new movies, it was a giant “get” for us—we competed with much bigger and more established publishers. When we won that one, it made people really take notice of us and see that we were becoming a player to reckon with. We fought hard for that one, and the nice thing has been that since we’ve done well with that title and so many others, we get approached quite often as peoples’ first choice to handle their property. Which is much easier on the stress level than clawing and fighting to win a license, and just as gratifying.
Nrama Why do you think Hasbro picked IDW over those other “bigger and more established” publishers to take over the Transformers comic license in 2004?
Ryall: Hard for me to speculate on their rationale, I'm just glad they did. I like to think it was at least in part due to the fact that for us, we could make Transformers a real priority. We didn't have a wide stable of our own properties to have as our main priority, we could really make something like this an important focus. That and perhaps our passion for the brand and direction we presented for the comics. But again, it's hard to know exactly what it was. It worked out nicely, though.Nrama: Fast-forwarding to today, a surprise success, for some comic fans at least, has been My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Can you tell us how you came to get this license, and how you went to capitalize on the potential of this even though it might be outside the usual purchasing habits of the stereotypical comic shop customer?
Ryall: Editor (and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles writer) Tom Waltz had been selling us on the virtues of a My Little Pony comic for years; it was likely when the new show, with the revised character designs and much-improved storytelling and characters, that we all started paying more attention to him. I loved the look (and I have a young daughter who agreed with me; it was a chance to make her proud of what her dad did in ways that doing Zombies vs Robots never did). And we’ve had a great relationship with Hasbro for years, so we’re always talking to them about other things we can do.
We also have been well aware of the Brony community for a while, too, and we thought this book could work well for multiple audiences. Especially when fantastic talents like Katie Cook and Andy Price signed on. But even then, the initial launch numbers were an amazing and gratifying surprise.
Nrama: So is identifying a large fanbase, in the case of the Brony community, part of your decision making in what licenses to go after?
Ryall: The larger the fanbase for any property, the more appealing it is to us. Like everyone, we want to sell comics to as many people as possible, so if there are passionate fanbases eager for such a thing, we're happy to try to give them what they want.Nrama: In your managing of IDW, I’ve seen you constantly be on top of refreshing and re-inventing the licensed books to keep them new. From the recent shift in G.I. Joe to the relaunch of Doctor Who on to the recent new era Transformers came into. How do you determine when it might be time to shake things up, and what are the conversations like with the licensors about doing this properly?
Ryall: It’s usually a combination of just feeling like a title has stagnated for whatever reason; or else it’s a natural outcropping out of where a storyline was headed; or a change of creative teams; or declining sales or fan enthusiasm; We meet and talk about this stuff a lot. The key to comics is finding new and fresh ways to keep people engaged, so we’re always looking to do that, whether it’s with a new issue 1, a new title altogether, or new creators.
Nrama: What are the key elements to a potentially good movie, television show or book to be a potentially great licensed comic?
Ryall: I think it all comes from a place of caring about it. That’s what drives our every decision to pursue a property—do we like it enough to have a relationship with it for years? If we do, then that care extends itself to finding the right take on a property, the right creators, the right publishing plan. Honestly, liking what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with is the key to happiness, in life and in working on these properties. Other intangibles factor in, like a creative team really meshing even better than expected, or a licensor’s willingness to really let us take chances, and just doing something that fans respond to, but those are all just outcroppings of the initial love of the property that drives our every decision.
There are always some that just don’t work the way you’d hope—that can happen no matter who is involved—but you just keep moving and try it again and keep finding that right combination.Nrama: You’re doing licensed comics, from megalithic corporations like HASBRO, Nickelodeon and 20th Century Fox to smaller ones such as Dave Steven’s Rocketeer. How do you generally approach seeking out a license?
Ryall: It starts with “do we like it?” Pretty much every title we’ve taken on here starts with someone here being a fan of it. We’ve thankfully never been in the position to just do a comic for mercenary reasons only. So that’s what starts our process, and it’s all driven forward from there.
Nrama: When I recently interviewed James O’Barr, he lauded you for your handling of The Crow. O’Barr is the character’s creator, but he no longer owns the rights but you were keen on making him a part of the planning for IDW’s Crow books. What are your thoughts, generally, on getting the original creators of a licensed book involved even though they may not be the owners anymore?
Ryall: Well, with something like The Crow, that’s such a product of one man’s vision that to exclude the man would be a huge mistake. Same with something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—we’re fans of the material because of the original creators, so if those creators are still willing to work on a new iteration of the property, I welcome them in pretty much all cases. It’s always our starting place, anyway, and then if they decline involvement, we head in other directions, but we always at least reach out and see what we can do.
Nrama: What’s one of the hardest parts of doing a licensed book?Ryall: There’s no real pat answer to this. There are challenges with just about any of them—how to do better than the source material or at least be unique compared to the source material; how to work past fan expectations; pairing the right creative team with the material; licensor expectations and allowances and approvals can vary wildly, although we’ve been very lucky in that regard. But really, just being true to the original material and producing something that we think deserves to be seen by fans of the material is the thing we strive for. Do a good job there and the rest falls into place.
Nrama: Publishing licensed books has its own unique set of rules, given how you’re doing comics based on properties someone else has known. We’ve all seen rumors that Disney might end Dark Horse’s long-running license on Star Wars. I’m not asking you to speak on that, but in general how does that thought that the licenses could end play into how you publish and plan at IDW?
Ryall: I’ll speak on that rumor to one degree—I saw some people at another publisher tweeting their ideas for Star Wars comics the day that rumor hit. I know it was all joking, but it struck me as really bad taste. That rumor carries with it the potential to cost a lot of people their jobs if the license does switch hands, so joking about it in a place people worried about their jobs could read it was pretty oft-putting to me.
I’ll admit I’m sensitive to that, since we did suffer through the same thing a few years back—Angel leaving here and going to Dark Horse was pretty unpleasant, especially the way we found out. We weren’t reliant on Angel to the anywhere near the same degree that Star Wars matters to Dark Horse, I don’t think, and no jobs (other than freelance creators) were lost. And we all know we’re just renting these properties, that this kind of thing can and will happen. Terms are locked down at the contract stage, so we always know what we’re in for. We do often re-up when everyone is happy on both sides, so there’re rarely surprises in that regard.
Nrama: Turning that question to look into the future before we end it - are there licenses out there that aren’t doing comics that you think could be major successes if done right in comics?
Ryall: Oh, most definitely. Some based on old toys (one of which people who know me are sick of me talking about), some based on big film franchises I’d take a license to kill to do, and others besides. Some I won’t mention just in case they come to pass but some of the big ones, like a comic-book visit to Hogwarts, are pretty universally sought after, I’m sure. Although I’m perfectly willing to leave 50 Shades of Chiaroscuro to someone else…