"I Love This." John Ridley on Comics and 'The Ministry of Compliance'
We chat with the award-winning writer about his science fiction saga and why he loves the comics medium.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with John Ridley about The Ministry of Compliance. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
Nearly forty years ago, an alien invasion force arrived on Earth. They're the Devolution, and they've secretly steered humanity toward an eventual assimilation. However, unrest is brewing within our wannabe masters as their thirteen Ministries turn on each other. Avigail Senna was once tasked with keeping these various organizations in check, but now she's the insurrection's number one target. Heads will roll as long as she can keep hers on her shoulders.
The Ministry of Compliance by John Ridley and Stefano Raffaele premieres this week from IDW Publishing. It's a cleverly complicated science-fiction thriller that allows plenty of action and bloodshed. Avigail Senna wields Gray Matter, a sword with history and tremendous power. Those who find themselves on its opposing end know they should run even when they don't. We see the results of their stubbornness early on in the first issue, and it devilishly compels us through the rest of the comic as we anticipate its next unsheathing.
John Ridley joined us for a lengthy conversation about The Ministry of Compliance. The Eisner-nominated and Academy Award-winning author tells us why he cherishes his collaboration with Stefano Raffaele. He discusses what's new between them and how their partnership has evolved since discovering each other on GCPD: The Blue Wall. We also talk about comics as a medium and what they offer Ridley that no other art form does. And yeah, we must discuss that beautiful sword, too.
John Ridley, The Ministry of Compliance, and his Collaborators.
Brad: I'm so excited to have you and Stefano together again on a comic.
John Ridley: Well, thank you. I mean, it's sort of interesting. Well, interesting to me. We'll see how you feel, but there's so many artists out there who are talented, capable, and I really believe this. Graphic novels, I love the writing, but the imagery is so necessary, and honestly, you've probably been in a similar circumstance, you go into a comic book store, you pick up a comic book, maybe the script is great, but you look at three or four pages of the art and you go, "I got to have this. I got to read this." Stefano, I had never worked with before. We worked with each other on The Blue Wall. He came recommended by the editorial team at DC and they were absolutely right. He's phenomenal.
We were looking at artists for The Ministry of Compliance, and of course, there are a lot of people, as I say, out there, talented, they elevate the material, but you're looking for someone that's just the Goldilocks, not too much of this, not too much of that. They're just right. And Stefano's work kept coming in on Blue Wall, and I'm like, why am I looking for someone else? The talent is here. Stefano is great. He's an amazing partner. He truly elevates. He comes with ideas. It's wonderful working with him again. But to your point, as you say at the head of this interview, it's great to see you back together. I mean, here's two individuals had zero history together, and now we got a little band. And it's nice to hear that people who read, and people who read a lot, like yourself, find value in the pairing of both of us. So thank you very much.
Brad: Absolutely. I am curious, now that you have a little bit of a working relationship with Stefano, is there a difference in the collaboration that you have here on the The Ministry of Compliance versus what you had on The Blue Wall?
John Ridley: Well, it was interesting. On The Blue Wall, it's the first dance and you're feeling each other out. When I'm working in graphic novels or in film - the department head, so to speak, whether it's the DP, the production designer, in this case, definitely the artist, they're in charge of their department. So unless there's some radical departure from what I might be thinking or what I might be feeling, you want to leave it to the artist to give them the leeway to be their most creative selves, but that they're leading in that department.
It's the same thing with Brad Anderson, who came on as the colorist. The first time I worked with Brad was on Blue Wall, and when it came time to choose a colorist, we were really happy with his work, really happy with what he was doing. Same with Ariana [Maher] that was doing the lettering. So it really feels like a team effort. And no, I try not to just, "Oh, in my brain it was a little more like this than that. You got to change." You got to change as opposed to, "Oh, wow, that's an interesting take. That's additive." Let the artists, let everyone do their thing, because that's what they're there for, is to do their thing.
Brad: I love the way that this first issue starts off, the first two pages. The first page is four horizontal panels, and you're trying to figure out what's going on. You're being introduced to the inner monologue of the main character, and then you turn the page and it's a decapitation, and just the execution of that page turn is really satisfying.
John Ridley: Thank you. You look at it and hopefully for the reader, these things that feel fundamental, the things that there's that subtle enjoyment, the things where I think you're being gracious and assuming I have some greater inner knowledge of comic books, but that's the kind of thing, as much as I love graphic novel writing, when I really kind of got into it going on now, geez, about eight years ago with the second collection of The American Way, where it was like, okay, this isn't just something that I want to do because I love comic books, or I'm going to do on occasion, or I'm going to do because I'm doing better, or my work is more recognized in film and television. I want to do it. I really love to do it.
And in that sense you're getting where it's just laid out in a way that makes sense. There's a good solid introduction. You flip the page, there's that other turn of a card in the storytelling where you go from an inner monologue set up to, oh, this is the world that we're living in. It really has been a learning experience, and I appreciate that A, I'm still able to do it. So whatever I did in the past, whether it was pretty good or really good or great, it certainly was good enough that I get to be here with you. You are interested in my work. Out of all the people that you could talk to, you find value in what I do.
But they're these things that just feel holistic for the reader where you go, "Okay, I've learned," and the way I lay things out, it's not a mental lift anymore. You go, "Oh, this is what would be good for the story. This is what would be good for the character introduction. And most importantly, this is what can and should be good for the reader." And it just makes me feel... I love this. I love writing graphic novels, and when you arrive to a space where the things that have become second nature really do have value for the reader, particularly again, like yourself, someone who clearly reads a lot, it's satisfying and it's satisfying in a very, very particular way.
John Ridley, The Ministry of Compliance, and His Comic Book Passion.
Brad: I'm always excited when people travel between mediums. It's always interesting to see how people do. And what I really appreciate about your journey is that when you are talking about comics, and clearly when you're creating comics, it's evident there, too, but when you're talking about comics, I've been reading a few interviews of yours, you love comics for comics. What is it about this art form that gives you something that other art forms don't?
John Ridley: Every single thing, honestly, from the fans and their - as long as they're on the appropriate side of toxic, their passion, what they love about it, what they hate about it, why their hero or mythology is better than another person's hero, mythology, or that complete understanding of the character. So it starts with people who just have a really particular, not general fashion, not, well, it's Friday and the DC movie, the Marvel movie, love it or hate it, I'm just going to go, and that's great. We need casual fans as much as we need hardcore fans.
John Ridley: But those fans who are... they're there. They know that character, they know the mythology. They know that one particular artist-writer combo who really added to that storytelling. I love the editors, and the quote, unquote "executives". They love their work. And I will openly say, I've worked with great executives in film and television. I don't want to say they're not executives who are not passionate about their work, but by and large, are they passionate the way the folks at DC, the folks at Marvel, the folks at IDW, and the folks who travel in and among all those spaces, are they passionate the way those individuals are passionate? No. Did they grow up reading, watching film and television the way folks who work in graphic novels read and continue to read? No. The freedom of the art form, if you want an alien invasion and you want it full on every spaceship attacking whatever planet, you can do that aside from a 22-page book. And you come back and go, you know what? I really need 36 pages this week. You're probably going to get a no.
But even with Ministry, I mean, IDW was like, "Hey, you know what? This first book needs to be two books. The story is big enough, it sustains itself to really get the reader in." And that wasn't an ask. That was a give. And there was an issue where I really felt like I can get it done in the page count, but man, if I had two more pages, two more physical pages, four pages altogether, I could really tell the story and wouldn't have to cut back. They gave it to me. So all of those, from the fans, to the people you work with, you talk about Stefano, you talk about Brad, you talk about Ariana, all the partners that you have, the style of storytelling, the expectation where you really have to use your imagination.
These stories have been told and told and retold and retold, and you really got to dig within yourself. And again, with IDW this time around, they just push and not in a way where they're pushing you because they like beating you up. And that's the way it feels sometime in film and television, it's just, okay, you're giving a note to give a note. You feel like you got to say something. Here I really believe the notes are, it's not about ego, it's about making the story better because the expectation from the hardcore fans, it's hardcore for a reason. So everything, and I know that that is a broad-based answer, and I usually don't speak in absolutes to say this is the most, the absolute, it is the nth degree, but I feel that way about writing graphic novels. I really, really, really enjoy it and enjoy the process probably more than any other space. There are things I do enjoy about film and television, obviously, but no, I love writing graphic novels. Love it, love it, love it. All of it.
John Ridley, The Ministry of Compliance, and Gray Matter
Brad: I gotta go back to those first two-pages. If I wasn't already sold on the book with that first page-turn, I was absolutely sold when you introduced the concept of Gray Matter. You name the sword. I am a samurai fanatic. I love magical sword stories. I love swords with names, Usagi Yojimbo, I'm a big reader of. I, of course, like Arthurian Legends, Excalibur, all that stuff. Why do we have Gray Matter in this book?
John Ridley: You bring up something very interesting. The minute you have a weapon and a character, you have to elevate it. And I really have to give a lot of acknowledgement to everybody at IDW. I had the name of the sword. I had certain things that I loved about it, that the sheath is negative space. So the sword is about twice as long as the hilt, and there's something just very visually cool and just practical. Rather than walking around like Katana, where you got to have the Soultaker, and it works for her, 'cause that's part of it, taking the whole sword out of the whole sheath.
And this, it was like, well, from a style point, Abigail's not carrying around an entire sword. She's got to carry around something much shorter that she can slip in a pocket 'cause she and her crew are, I'm happy to say, she, Quinn and Kingsley are all fashionistas. So that's part of it. But the folks at IDW, they're like, "Oh, well, you got a sword and you got a name. You need more mythology." And that's one of those things where the editors really push you. So there are things in that final book, which you may not even have seen yet where she-
Brad: I have not. Only got the first issue.
John Ridley: There's a line in there where she talks about that it was the weapon that was laid down by the High Vixen Resa, when she swore that she would fight no more forever. There are just little drops of extra mythology that go with it. The fact that it was exactly 13 miles of forged and reforged metal that made this weapon. There's that space again where you have a weapon and you have a wielder, and you got to pump up the mythology a little bit. And again, as I said, it was working in collaboration with editors who really love the material and love it and say, "Hey, John, here's a note." This isn't a note for a note, but it's a note so that people like yourself will go, "Oh, this is why I love this."
The Gray Matter name is like - I love gray. I love that look. It's a nickname that I've used for some things in the past. And my oldest son just really pushed me. He is like, you love that nickname. Make it your sword. It's the solid gray, and it's worked out nicely. But it is one of those things that it's just, again, an extra layer of that fun of something that you're putting out there for the reader. And when you have readers like yourself where you're just... I appreciate everything you're saying, "About two pages in, I was loving it." Four pages in, there was something else you're digging on. And I certainly hope that continues three issues in, six issues in, that enjoyment that you're feeling is an expression of the enjoyment that I'm feeling that the entire creative team is feeling as these issues come in as we're doing the lettering, as we're putting it together and sending it out into the world.
John Ridley's The Ministry of Compliance hits shops Wednesday (11/15). To hear the rest of this conversation, join our Patreon.