James Tynion IV And Rian Sygh Go Behind The Scenes With ‘The Backstagers’ [Interview]
Earlier this week, Boom Studios announced The Backstagers, a brand new young adult series by James Tynion IV and Rian Sygh that delves into the mystical and magical world that lives behind the theater curtain, and stars the stage crew of a private boys school. As the play comes together around them, no-one else knows how weird and wacky things can get backstage, and not even the crew themselves know what they'll stumble onto next.
ComicsAlliance caught up with Tynion and Sygh to talk about the world of The Backstagers, creating all-ages fiction for people that need it, and teen romance. Also, we've got a ton of early development sketches by Sygh, and three covers to The Backstagers #1 by Veronica Fish, Bridget Underwood and Rob Guillory!
ComicsAlliance: Boom Box is one of the most exciting imprints in comics at the moment. How did you both find yourselves there and working on The Backstagers?
James Tynion IV: I’ve been working with Boom Studios for upwards of three years at this point, so I definitely feel like I’ve become part of the family. When The Woods launched in 2014, I had wanted to bring a YA-style book to the market. I wanted to explore a lot of my own personal issues, which stem back to high school, and when I started pitching the series around, people weren’t all that responsive. They didn’t feel like YA titles had a place in the direct market, particularly a darker YA, with real death and real human problems up front and center.
But when I sat down with Matt Gagnon, the EiC of Boom, he got it immediately. He saw the value in the kind of story I was looking to tell, and despite the fact that I was a real nobody at that point (I only had some backup Batman stories, and the Talon series to my name), he said he wanted to go all in. During the year-long build-up to the release of the The Woods, I heard rumblings of another corner of Boom revving into action. I’d loved the work coming out of Kaboom, particularly the Adventure Time comics, and I saw that they were diving into original all-ages title and launching a new imprint, Boom Box.
Lumberjanes and The Woods launched within a month of each other… A progressive, diverse all ages title, and a progressive diverse YA title coming forward at a moment when I think it’s fair to say that the industry would have scoffed about there even being a market for those kinds of books. And here we are, two years later, and both of us are still standing.
It’s the fact that Boom gave me a stage in comics to do the weird books I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do them, that definitely instilled some loyalty in me. I did UFOlogy, Cognetic, and Memetic with them in the last few years, getting to explore all of the kinds of stories I don’t get to try my hand at writing for the Big Two.
But the real thing itching in the back of my head during all of that time was the potential to write something for the all-ages market. I had known, going into The Woods, that quality creator-owned work requires real passion and a need to express something deep inside of you… But what Boom Box did that was really impressive was show that there was a monthly audience for the all-ages take. The Woods was created to fill this gap because growing up, as a young queer kid, there was nothing that represented my issues with depression and insecurity. I wanted to see what I dealt with on the page.
The all-ages take kind of takes that one step further… It means getting to a younger audience, before those insecurities settle in, and it gives them a home. It was the realization that I could do something representational that was the kind of book that a younger James, a middle school James, could have read and seen that, no matter what kind of person you are, you can find community and you can find friends. It would mean that that little James would have seen himself. So that was the real goal here, more than anything. I started talking to Shannon [Watters, editor at Boom who oversees KaBoom and Boom Box] around this time last year about pulling something together for 2016.
The concept itself was something really personal to me, Stage Crew was the place I really found myself in High School. It was the place the weirdest weirdos of the school gathered together and formed a kind of family that didn’t care what anybody else thought of them. I was attending an all-boys school, and knew nobody, but Stage Crew gave me a real home. I’ve wanted to tell that story for years, wrapping it up in high concept, and I knew this was the fertile ground to work off of.
But the project would only work with the perfect co-creator, and it was getting to know Rian Sygh that really brought it all to life. When I saw his work, I knew I needed to work with him on a project. I remember I was so nervous at Heroescon last year, I pulled him aside for a lunch to talk through the rough story idea. I was worried it wouldn’t connect, that this wasn’t the kind of vehicle he wanted to build with me, but when he said yes, and we started talking characters, it all came together
Rian Sygh: I had been out of High School for a few years and found myself spinning my wheels, I wasn’t able to go to college for a variety of reasons and having that option taken away from me left me realizing that I hadn’t made a plan. So, while working various retail jobs, I started posting my art online and really heavily started attempting to get a foot in the door art-wise. I figured if I couldn’t get into school, i’d just go to work. Eventually, I caught the eye of Shannon Watters and found myself thrown into the industry one job at a time.
After a while I met James at Heroescon, and the following year he asked me to do this book with him. At the time I couldn’t even believe it! I literally fell out of my chair! This cool Batman writer wanted my help bringing one of his passion projects to life. How could I say no? After listening to the pitch, I was hooked, and we immediately started sharing ideas. I think it was one of the easiest times I’ve ever had, not only collaborating on a series but really feeling like I was putting in half the story too.
CA: Can you tell us a little bit about the theater crew and where we find them at the beginning of the book?
JT: The story starts with the closest thing our series has to a protagonist, Jory, during his first week at a new all-boys high school. He doesn’t have any friends, and he doesn’t think there’s really anywhere in the world he fits in. His mom can’t pick him up right after school, though, so he has to choose something, and he gives theater a try…
But in this series, the actors kind of play the role of the Jocks in a standard high school fare. They’re set in their ways, and very particular about what everyone’s place might be, and they aren’t sure Jory has one. That’s what sends him down into the mysterious backstage corridors, to retrieve a prop for the actors, and introduces him to the bizarre, impossible world that exists right under the feet of his peers. Because the Backstage in our book isn’t just an ordinary place, it’s an impossible and wonderful tangle of hallways and rooms full of impossible creatures, and lurking dangers.
That’s where he meets the rest of the cast, our Backstagers. We have Hunter, a confident, charming dude with a big sparkly pink drill, who can build anything you can think of in a couple of minutes. We have Beckett, the tightly wound tech-guy who knows how to run any lighting board, our very own mad scientist type. Then there’s Sasha, a clueless but lovable bundle of enthusiasm and energy that can’t help but terrify his best friend, and our stoic cynic of the group, Aziz, as he stumbles into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. They’ve found a home in the midst of the insane world behind the curtain, and Jory can’t help but be enthralled.
Jory didn’t think there was any place he could fit in, but this little band of weirdos makes him feel right at home. With them, he’ll find a chance to be himself unabashedly among a group of very different people who really love and care about each other more than anybody else. And more than that, there’s the mystery of why the backstage is the way is it, and how deep do the mysteries go? Those questions will propel our series as it moves forward, and we watch our little Backstagers go on adventure after adventure.
RS: That’s basically what I would have said except a lot better sounding. Ha ha! There is a reason James is the writer and I draw the pictures.
CA: What was the process like when it came to creating the designs of The Backstagers' crew? Was their much back-and-forth or did their personalities end up dictating how they ended up looking?
JT: Right after that initial conversation with Rian had gone so well at Heroes, I got so crazy pumped about the series, and the fact that Rian was onboard that I looped Shannon and Rian together into an email labeled “LETS MAKE A SUPER GAY STAGE CREW BOOK!!” --- I’m looking at it right now, and it’s like a crazy five page document of an email, with all of my ideas and everything that I had talked about.
I had a rough idea in my mind about what the characters would be (some of that is what we had talked through in the food court that day). It was literally Sunday of Heroes and I should have been talking to everyone who was passing by my table, but I was just writing word after word into this email… The character section was pretty rudimentary… I knew the shapes of the characters, but I didn’t know them inside and out just yet…
The character list was:
“BOY KITTY PRYDE” - That was the character who would become Jory, I knew he was African-American, bisexual and that he would be the new kid who joined the Stage Crew in our first issue.
“MR. FIX IT” was our fearless and fabulous Hunter, I knew he was going to be a bit overweight, gay, and that he was the best construction guy in the cast, always wielding his pink, sparkly drill.
“OUR GADGET GUY” would become Beckett, our high strung, transgender mad scientist of a character who runs the light board for the show.
“OUR MOMIJI” would become Sasha, a character where I wanted to play with the Manga trope of the wide eyed clueless lovable character (like Momiji from Fruits Basket).
“CIS STRAIGHT GUY” would become Aziz, the counterpoint to Sasha, the cynical voice of reason to Sasha’s beaming enthusiasm. Those were just the shapes though… They were rough, they didn’t have names, their personalities hadn’t entirely taken shape.
But then Rian’s sketches started coming in and it all came together.
RS: When I got the initial character descriptions I just knew the book was going to be perfect. I wasn’t bored by a single one and I think I shot back character sketches within a few hours. Actually, the characters didn’t even go through a drastic level of revision. We talked out a few more story points and they all kind of fell into place really easily. The biggest hurdle in the character design track was coming up with a style we felt reflected the tone of the book --- which also fell into place pretty quick. Ha ha! I guess James and I just work together pretty well!
We wanted our cast to be diverse, both racially and orientation-wise. I think what we ended up with was a great group of kids who find themselves together despite their differences, and all play off of one another really well --- both visually and in-story. By the time I had finalized the designs, James and I had talked story with one another enough that we had settled relatively well on personalities --- which I think got fine-tuned after we started working on issue one.
CA: High school is a key time in a teen’s life for first crushes and smooching. How much of that is going to be featured in the book?
JT: I think there is definitely opportunity for some smoochin’, but it won’t happen right out of the gate. Honestly, I just have more fun writing crushes and flirting and being confused about flirting and not knowing why you have a crush on somebody. There are so many emotions that come with being a teenager, and all of those emotions breed so much story. I’m not sure we’re going to resolve that to full on make-outs, but I bet there will be a chaste kiss or two before the end of this run. But the key is to make the readers so invested in who exactly might be sharing those lil’ kisses, that they need to pick up every issue to see what happens next. Overall, this is more of a story of adventure and friendship than romance, but that doesn’t mean romance won’t play its part!
RS: Look, I’m just sayin’, I am all down for drawing some cute smooches! In the meantime of said smooching, I’m trying to really capture the awkward flirting as accurately as possible with my line-art. In Backstagers, I’m really focused on the character-acting and expressions, trying to really push the art to reflect these subtle (and mostly unsubtle) emotions. The crushes are pretty apparent when they happen, but I trust James to write the relationships with weight and delicacy. I’m just the guy that tries not to pull a silly face on every panel. (There will be some excellently silly faces.)
CA: In the world of The Backstagers, behind-the-scenes is literally a magical wonderland. How much of that is inspired by your own history and love of the stage?
JT: All of it, honestly. I can’t really overstate the impact that being a theater kid had on my life. In middle school, I dabbled a bit in stage crew, but I was mostly an on stage kid. When I came to High School, though, I had just lost most of my friends in the process of trying to come out for the first time, and I was racked with depressed and really didn’t have the confidence to walk into the theater program with my head held high. There was a day I was outside on a bench crying after school, early in my freshman year, I felt so isolated and alone at this all-boys school. I felt like the secret of my queerness was just a ticking time-bomb, ready to go off, and that it would take me with it.
But right around then, an ex-boyfriend of my step-sister came up to me and told me that I should join Stage Crew. That’s when everything started turning around. I found a real home, full of weirdos just like me, who felt just as disconnected to everyone around us, but they didn’t care. It seemed magical to me. It seemed like this other dimension I could come to after school every day where the weight of the world didn’t matter, all that mattered was spending time with my friends and doing the work.
And the work itself was its own kind of magic. They say there’s a magic to theater, the way the audience suspends disbelief and let’s them get sucked into a whole different world that needs no special effects… But with Stage Crew, the job is to build that world. And we’d build it in these strange hallways and corridors under the school that no other student had access to. We basically had no supervision, our faculty advisor trusted us not to get into too much trouble, so we would just have full reign in this whole shadow world of high school underneath the hallways the students walked through every day.
I remember mapping out those corridors in my head and feeling like they didn’t make sense, you’d go one way and find yourself in a locker room you’d never seen before in your life, you’d go another and find yourself in the kiln room for the pottery class, decked out with all of these bizarre half-formed objects on the shelves. There was a real magic to the fact that nobody else understood that this world existed, and nobody really cared but us.
That’s where the heart of the book comes from, we literalize that magic. The hallways don’t connect the way they should, and they’re not always in the same place. When you need to get a prop or a costume, you have to go on a real and dangerous mission into the unknown with your friends, and face impossible things, but when you come back and hand the actors what they were looking at, they can’t even begin to understand what you’ve been through. Furthermore, they don’t really care. That’s what brings our boys together, and bonds them. They are the only witnesses of the strange and magical backstage world, and they’re the only ones who can fully understand or appreciate its power.
RS: Well, unlike James, I never got the chance to really dig into theater. I’ve been to a handful of Broadway plays, but that’s about it. What I can bring is my unyielding love for comics and cartoons/anime --- which I feel plays off of James’s more theater-centric parts. There’s a lot of overlap when thinking visually between theater and comics or animation. The “Magic” is the same while the vehicle may change. It’s about telling a story in the most effective way possible and to sweep your audience into a character’s point-of-view.
The Backstagers takes all of the influences I have and distills them into what I can only hope will be an engaging, thoughtful, and heartwarming experience for readers. Between James and I, I feel like we’re at a point where we can really play off of each other ideas. We know what we’re going for without necessarily having to say it out-loud. It’s pretty nice to be on the same page as your collaborator. Ha ha!
CA: How is the collaboration growing and evolving as the book grows and takes shape?
JT: Like I said before, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Rian was an artist I was desperate to work with. In all honesty, I think he is going to be one of the greats, and getting a chance to work with him before he rises up and takes over the industry is a pretty cool feeling. He’s also one of the most passionate, genuine people I’ve ever met in my life. We hit it off pretty instantly over a series of conventions, and really bonded starting at MOCCA last year. Rian’s a few years younger than me and I see a lot of the passion I had right at the start in him, which fires me up.
I have a big responsibility here! This is Rian’s first big creator-owned title, and I knew I had to bring everything I had to the table in order to do it right, and make a series that would make both of us proud. The collaboration has been pretty intrinsic at every step of the way, from that first email onward, we’ve talked through every plot beat. Rian gives his own round of notes before the scripts are finalized. Honestly, this has been one of the most thoroughly collaborative projects I’ve ever worked on, which feels amazing.
RS: Oh wow, way to make a guy teary!
Collaborating with James has been incredible, I constantly ask myself if I’m still dreaming. I feel like I’m gonna wake up from a coma because I hit my head on the floor that first meeting we had when he asked me to join this book. I could not have asked for a better partner. I’m learning so much from James doing this series and It’s an opportunity I never would have thought I could get this early in my career! James has been so receptive to my ideas and feedback while I make sure to pay extra attention to his comments and advice.
To be honest, I was hesitant to collaborate like this before meeting James because I can be kind of a control freak, but James and I have constantly been on the same-page as far as story and art that at no point in the development of Backstagers did I feel like we weren’t jelling. This story has become such a big part of me and I think you can really tell that James and I are both pouring our hearts into it together.
JT: I also want to give a shout out to the amazing Walter Baiamonte who is coloring this book, because holy cow you guys these pages! He’s bringing the magic to life in such a vibrant, incredible way, and I can’t overstate how good his work’s been so far. We’ve just started working together, but it’s been amazing.
We’ve also got the phenomenal, magical Veronica Fish doing the main covers on the series. I’ve been absolutely adoring her work on Archie, so having her as a part of this team is just freaking incredible. Just look at that cover! That cover is so good! And Rian and I have seen the next few covers and they are also so good!
The IRL Backstagers crew is made of magic and I love all of them. I can’t wait to hold the finished package in my hands, because I think it’s really going to be something special.
CA: Each arc revolves around the production of a specific play, will we see snippets of these fictional pastiches of real-life productions?
JT: Oh, we’re having some real fun with it. The first production they’re working on is kind of fictional take on Les Miserables, called Les Terribles, that is apparently about clowns in some way shape or form. Every issue when we address it, I try to level up the weirdness, throwing in some strange incongruous details that will be funny regardless whether or not you’re familiar with the musical, but there might be a little extra layer for my fellow musical theater nerds out there.
RS: I just want to state for the record that I loathed drawing that clown poster.
JT: <3 <3 <3
RS: Don’t <3 me BRO