“All the world’s a stage…”
That's how the saying goes, but The Backstagers' co-creators James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh are shining their spotlight on the stage crew in a new creator-owned series from BOOM!'s BOOM! Box imprint. Scheduled to debut in August, The Backstagers focuses a diverse cast of characters that manage the theatre stage of an all boys school.
Newsarama talked to Tynion and Sygh about The Backstagers and how they pulled from life experiences to construct the basis of the story, the cast of players involved, and how this differs from anything else that BOOM! Box has put out in the past.
Newsarama: James, Rian, so looking at your cast and theme for The Backstagers, it brings me back to working on the tech crew at my high school. You guys mentioned on Twitter you had similar experiences and that was sort of the foundation here, can you talk about that?
James Tynion IV: I remember the first few weeks of my freshman year of high school. I was terrified. I’d just moved from a school that I’d attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. At the end of my eighth grade year, I’d come out to a group of friends and it hadn’t gone particularly well. I knew nobody at this all boys Catholic high school that I was about to attend, and I was convinced that telling anyone what was going on with me personally was going to end up with me alone and friendless for all four years of school. Around that time, an ex-boyfriend of my step-sister found me crying outside the school one day before pick up and offered me a ride home. He told me that he was going to be on Stage Crew that semester, and that I should join.
You want to know the best thing about Stage Crew? Nobody really cared about who you were. We were the outcast weirdos of the school. Some strange middle ground between the “Freak” and the “Geek”. We would give each other ridiculous nicknames (mine was “Monkey”), and write fan fiction about each other, and play pranks with power tools that in retrospect were probably pretty dangerous. It felt like we had our own little clubhouse, our own little world. If the actor kids were kind of side-eyed from the rest of the school, we were the ones the actors side-eyed, and we loved it. It was a real home for me, a place I could be myself utterly with no compromises. The Stage Crew kids were the first kids I came out to in high school and nobody cared! It was magnificent. Everyone was a bit “different” but we all came together and we were a family. A weird family that made fun of each other constantly.
I’ve wanted to try and capture that weird blend of feeling disconnected to everyone around you, but also finding a real home, a real community in people who feel exactly the same way. That was the heart of the original Backstagers concept. A book that captures the oddball blend of characters, blended together with my interests from that time. It felt like there was a real magic to building a set, putting all the pieces together, a magic that the actors and other students never really understood. We were the ones with the keys to all of these strange back passageways and tunnels under the school. With that, we saw way more of the history of our high school than most of our peers.
With The Backstagers, Rian and I are literalizing that… There is a whole unseen world of magic and strangeness under St. Genesius Preparatory High School. To an outsider, it would seem insane and impossible, but to these kids, this is what they do after school. This is where they feel safe. This is where they can be themselves. It’s dangerous and scary sometimes, but the sense of home backstage is what brings them together. Come together and be a weirdo with us in this book that I wish to god I could have put in the hands of the James Tynion IV that hadn’t found Stage Crew just yet.
Rian Sygh: I know James was a part of his school's stage crew, but to be completely honest - I went into Backstagers completely new to anything stage- or theatre-related. I had a lot of friends into it, but I never had a lot of time back then for extracurriculars. All throughout my school days, my family moved around a lot. It wasn't until high school that I even attempted making friends, I managed a cool three years in the same place even though we moved around the city every year. It was the first opportunity I ever had to actually carve out a social group and keep them for awhile but it was hard. I spent a lot of 9th grade bouncing between groups and struggling to make more than one or two friends. Although I never did attend Stage Crew myself, I found that a lot of my closest friends did. James is right in that the Stage Crew kids were excessively open and unaffected by my weirdness. I eventually did make some incredible friends (most of whom at least casually were a part of the theatre!) who really saw me for me. I still consider them my closest pals, even though we may not talk as much anymore. To me, the people I found then were lifesavers, and it wasn't until reflecting on that time through this project I realised the very real connection that had with my school's theatre and Stage Crew.
Nrama: Let's talk about the cast of characters here. Do you see yourself in any particular one or maybe a mix of them?
Tynion: Honestly, there’s a little bit of me in each of them. I don’t really know how to create characters that aren’t a little bit me. I will say that Hunter is definitely the me that I wish I was in high school. Still a bigger guy, but more confident, more willing to take charge, and a bit flirtier. (Also he has a sparkly pink electric drill that I mean, come on, we all want a sparkly pink electric drill). Aziz and Sasha are two sides of the coin… Aziz is our cynic, the one who sees exactly how dangerous everything is around his friends, particularly his best friend Sasha, who is the embodiment of blind enthusiasm and love towards everyone with very little common sense and absolutely NO sense of the danger around him. Beckett is a bit of control-freak, and the lighting expert of the team, he’s our mad scientist, definitely a bit smarter than the rest of them, and the quickest to get frustrated when they can’t keep up. And Jory is the new kid, our entry point into the team, and the one most anxious about fitting in anywhere, who finds a real home among our little crew of weirdos.
I’ve been each of these characters at different points at my life and sometimes all at once. Honestly, this ensemble came to me more or less fully formed, and when Rian brought them to life, I can’t express how much magic I felt. He realized them perfectly from the start. I haven’t had that experience on pretty much any of the books I’ve worked on.
Sygh: I think it's hard for an artist (or writer!) to say that they don't see themselves in any particular character they create, I add little bits and pieces of myself to everyone! I grew up with an extreme range of experiences so I feel like I can relate to most of the Backstagers in one way or another. If I had to choose just one, it would be Jory.
Jory is the anxious newbie, someone I can relate to at a base level. I've been nursing an anxiety disorder since eighth grade and a lot of Jory's hesitation is pulled from that experience. I was also always the new kid, I was constantly trying to play social catch-up with the people around me and that really added to my issues with getting along. The thing about Jory though, is that even though he struggles with the anxiety of new things, it doesn't stop him from seeking out new experiences (perhaps not without a little gentle nudging). Jory shows the kind of curiosity that I wish I had in school. I feel like I missed out on a lot of things because I was too nervous to go for it, and while Jory too shares my anxieties, he's surrounded by people who will support him and walk him through the hardest parts, and in turn we can see Jory overcome a lot of his issues and really carve out his place with the rest of the Backstagers.
Nrama: You guys really went all out here, even designing the blueprints for the stage. Why was something like that important to convey?
Tynion: Hah! I remember the little doodle I drew for Rian right at the start, which he extrapolated into something that actually made sense. The original stage breakdown was based, roughly, on the stage of my own high school theater. Honestly, figuring out the map was a practical concern. In my head, I understood perfectly how a stage and backstage fit together, but it’s really different at every school, and when Rian asked for some guidance, it suddenly occurred to me that all the entrances and exits are really crucial to nail down for blocking. I have to say, more than anything, that this has been an utterly phenomenal working relationship from the beginning. Rian and I had met a few times before last year, but it was a few conventions in a row where we really got a chance to spend time together and get to know each other that made me realize that this kernel of an idea of a Stage Crew book could only be drawn by Rian. His art was the perfect complement to my vision.
I remember my first conversation with Shannon Watters, telling her that the person I wanted to work with was Rian, and sighing with relief as Shannon responded excitedly that she’d been trying to find the perfect book to launch Rian on. I sat down with him at HeroesCon last year and explained the concept, and I just remember the electricity from the start. We had both wanted a book like this growing up, we had the same priorities and the same vision. I knew we had something special, and I knew we could make something great.
Sygh: Aw, James is making me blush! Well, I initially made the lay-out map because I was having a difficult time following the scene transitions in James' script. Like I said, I had no previous experience in a theatre or behind the scenes of one, so It was much easier to lay out the way everything in the setting would look before jumping into drawing. If I hadn't, you can bet there would be a lot less backgrounds in some pages, ha!
Really though, I remember that string of emails, I was constantly second guessing myself thinking "I don't know anything about a theatre, what if they chose the wrong guy to do this project?”. James was so constantly patient with me playing catch-up, he's a pretty great guy, ya'know! That one year at HeroesCon where James asked me to do this book with him I literally fell out of my chair (and rolled around a bit). After having really started collaborating Backstagers has gone from an idea he approached me with to a very real co-creatorship. This book is so much of the both of us now that I cannot see it happening any other way.
Nrama: With such a large cast, is there a primary character that will have more of the story focus or is it more of an ensemble number?
Tynion: This is absolutely an ensemble book, but the core of the larger story we’re setting out to tell over the eight issues centers on Jory. Jory is the new kid, as anxious as I was about trying to fit in at a new school where you don’t know anybody. He tries to join the Drama Club, but finds that as alienating as anyplace else. It’s not until he’s sent on a mission to retrieve something from backstage that he stumbles into this whole impossible world of imagination, and really finds his home. Being the new kid, he’s also way more concerned with what this place is and how it works… Those questions are going to drive the mystery between the issues that shape our run here.
Sygh: The book focuses on finding a place to belong, once Jory realises his place is with the Backstagers, we're able to branch out into the other kids' lives and motivations- but it's Jory more than anyone else wants to know more about the Backstage and solve the overarching mysteries about what lies underneath the school, or if it's even underneath the school at all!
Nrama: Will the story itself be confined to the school or will it be more open to other parts of this world?
Tynion: This is definitely a contained story...we'll be sticking mostly to the theater, and the sprawling subterranean magical world that is the Backstage. We might occasionally see other parts of the school, seeing how they connect to the backstage, but it's all to serve that part of the story. Early on, I made the decision that I didn't want to meet our character's parents, and that I didn't want to see them sitting in math class or in the lunchroom. That might change in time, but this is a story about after school activities. I remember in high school the way that those few hours after school every day were more important to me than the entire day of school, it seemed like my whole life happened in that time. So I wanted to reflect that here.
Sygh: The Backstage world is magical and enormous. It's going to be the focus for our boy's adventures, and to be honest it's a lot more interesting than the "real world". Our story doesn't explore the monotony of the school and the city so much as focus on these boy's lives in relation to this amazing thing they take part in.
Nrama: What stories are you both wanting to tell? Are you keeping things pretty grounded or are going to shoot for more outlandish angles?
Tynion: It's definitely not a grounded comic. The emotions will stay grounded, for sure, but this is a story about a literally magical backstage world full of impossible tunnels and corridors, and the adventures the Stage Crew Kids go on in order to build the sets they need to build. We didn't want to just do High School drama via the theater program. We wanted spooky mice creatures with wrenches for tails, and giant spiders with microphones for eyes. We wanted a real sense of adventure in the lives of the Backstagers that the actors around them will never fully appreciate or understand.
Rian: Backstagers is a story that doesn't really need to be "grounded." I feel like the entire premise tends to turn the characters and the reader's expectations on their heads time and time again. Our boy's are just as unsure of what the Backstage is as the reader and I think it lends itself to a lot of mutual " ha!" moments for both. The major things you can expect from Backstagers is our boys finding adventure, decoding mysteries, and staring deep into the unknown with a sense of excitement. Maybe a little innocent romance?
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about the plot behind the play Les Terribles that the boys are looking to put on?
Tynion: Hah, Les Terribles is one of my favorite pieces to play with in the whole book. I was a theater geek first and foremost, so when we put on the shows, I was always at least mostly familiar with the piece and the kind of set we'd have to build. But a lot of the crew members didn't know much about them and would be slowly piecing together a strange version of the plot based on the sets we'd build. My high school put on an intense performance of Les Miserables, and I wanted to capture the baffled looks on the faces of the crew kids when they would build a barricade after building the pieces for a church. Les Terribles doesn't have a plot so much as it has something to do with clowns, and every time we mention a set piece, I want the show to sound more and more ridiculous and confusing.
Sygh: It's awful and apparently about clowns and James if you make me draw scary clowns I will never forgive you.
Nrama: What do you think Backstagers will give to fans as to separate itself from what's being published by BOOM! Box?
Tynion: I mean, there are some easy things to point to from the start. I don’t think there’s any all ages book out there that has so many different types of male queerness on display from the beginning. I didn’t want to play with any standard “type," and with an ensemble cast you get the chance to make everyone utterly unique. Nobody has to embody an entire sexuality or gender identity, we get to explore so much more than that. There’s also the strange fact that despite there being a lot of ex-theater kids in the comics industry, there aren’t a lot of books that actually go into the life of a theater kid, which is a really unique experience… I also think that Rian and I have a very strange blend of influences, with a real impact from shojo manga that both of us grew up reading. But encompassing all of that, is the fact that this is a personal story that only Rian and I could tell. I think all of the BOOM! Box titles are pretty unique visions, that really could only come from a passion of seeing yourself represented on the page. There are so many amazing books coming from BOOM! Box, but none of them are the pure expression of what Rian and I would do to tell our story. When thinking about the book that both of us needed more than anything when we were kids and young teens, the book that actually reflected the kind of people we were and that we wanted to become, what we developed is a book that could only come from us. I couldn’t be prouder of it.
Sygh: The thing I love about Backstagers is that it's 100% James and I. We poured so so much of ourselves and our lives into this book that no matter what it would not be the same book without us working together. It's such an incredible partnership and I honestly believe we're making a book that would not exist otherwise. James and I set out on the onset of Backstagers with a very clear goal in mind: to make the kind of book we needed when we were lost and scared and trying to find ourselves in high school. I think what sets it apart from everything else is that it's made by us for the kids like us. It's weird and queer and filling a very specific, yet relatable, hole that I'm hoping the kids who most need to see it will find.