|JAMES TYNION IV
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DF Interview: Young outcasts discover brave new worlds, find community in James Tynion IV’s The Backstagers
By Byron Brewer
Writer James Tynion IV (Batman Eternal, The Woods) teams up with artist Rian Sygh (Munchkin, Stolen Forest) for an incredible yet earnest story about finding a place to fit in when you’re kinda an outcast.
When Jory transfers to the private, all-boys school St. Genesius, he figures joining the stage crew would involve a lot of just fetching props and getting splinters. To his pleasant surprise, he discovers there’s a door backstage that leads to different worlds, and all of the stagehands know about it! All the world’s a stage ... but what happens behind the curtain is pure magic!
Like you, Dynamic Forces wanted to know more about this imaginative entry from BOOM! Studios’ BOOM! Box imprint, so we sat down for a chat with James Tynion IV.
Dynamic Forces: James, please tell us how this book came about. Was The Backstagers something you yourself pitched to BOOM! Studios?
James Tynion IV: I think it was sometime late in the spring of 2015 that I sent [Editor] Shannon Watters an email saying that I wanted to develop an all-ages property for the BOOM! Box line. Frankly, it was an email that I’d been wanting to send for months, but certain elements just started clicking together and I saw what kind of story I wanted to tell. That’s where it all started. I knew I wanted to do something involving Stage Crew, because frankly there was no other organization in my life that has ever shaped me more than my time working backstage at my all-boys high school. I also saw a bit of an opportunity out there, the fact that BOOM! Box was running full speed ahead with open queer representation in its books, but I still didn’t see the queer boys I went to high school with in those titles. Or even the straight kids I went to high school with, to be honest. There are whole new breeds of millennial outcast archetypes in the world to play with, and I wanted to play with the themes of friendship and unity that come from being part of a group that nobody really respects. Because that was the fun of Stage Crew. Nobody gave us a second look, a second thought, but we had this whole magical backstage world of paint rooms and dressing rooms and prop closets that ran through tunnels deep under the high school that nobody else would ever know about. Stage Crew kids had the keys to take secret shortcuts, and eat lunch in hidden corners of our school ... We had this whole secret magical life, but to everybody else we were the weirdos. But for the most part, we didn’t care, we LIKED being the weirdos. We LIKED having our secret world. And that’s where the whole concept came together, and what I wanted to bring to BOOM! Studios. The all-ages book that captures how I finally found a sense of community for the first time.
DF: Tell us more. You obviously have a strong connection to this book.
James Tynion IV: I think it’s fair to say that all my characters in all my books are a little piece of me, just through a filter, or twisted slightly. I’ve said in the past that in The Woods, I just let the different parts of my brain argue with each other, and it’s similar here. The benefit with The Backstagers, though, is that I get to build a friendlier world, something more irreverent and idealistic. Like I said before, I wanted to capture the magical feeling of being Backstage, but in this book it’s literally magical. The tunnels and hallways that lead out from the Stage Crew office move and change directions constantly. You might open a room and see a bunch of Blob Monsters playing dress-up, or you might find a magical open field where the flowers are glowing stage lights. Beyond that, though, the other benefit is getting to explore a more positive set of friendships. I remember showing up at high school as a young queer kid, thinking I would never find a place in the world, thinking I was doomed to be alone forever, and in Stage Crew, I found a bunch of people who felt just as outcast from the rest of the school, but had found community in each other. There was a real sense of, “Other people suck, but I really like you guys,” which frankly, we needed. And I think a lot of people need to see that there are places for them, even if they might not be the obvious places. So I get to do a fun book with silly characters on goofy adventures and push them to places where they’re out of their depths, but I get to pull them back together and make it all about finding your place in the world.
DF: Tell us about your cast of characters.
James Tynion IV: Our lead character in the ensemble is a young, bisexual, black kid named Jory. He’s a ball of anxiety, a new transfer to this all boys’ school, whose mother has just informed him that he needs to join an after-school activity, despite the fact that he’s completely sure that there’s no place for him here. Jory just wants to sit in a corner and sketch in his sketchbook and avoid the world. Out of necessity, he tries to join the Drama Club, where he feels even MORE like an outcast, and even less at home. But it’s through that experience that he stumbles across The Backstagers for the first time. The Backstage weirdos he didn’t even know existed before now. There’s the fabulous and fearless Hunter, with his sparkly pink power drill, who can build anything in his imagination if he has enough two-by-fours. There’s the high-strung mad scientist of the group, Beckett, a trans kid who took over the light and sound booth in his first week at the school and can wire anything to anything (particularly if it’s not supposed to have wires attached to it). There’s the bundle of joy and energy, Sasha, who has never really grown up nor ever really intends to, and who is most likely to go charging into danger to hug a monster. And there’s Aziz, Sasha’s cynical best friend, who does everything he can to keep Sasha from hugging those monsters. Together, they’re a weird little family, brought to life by Rian Sygh’s incredible artwork and I love our babies so much.
DF: Diversity is a key issue in comics today and real life as well. How do you feel comic books in general are handling this issue?
James Tynion IV: Better than they were when I was a kid, that’s for damn sure. I remember being a young queer kid in the early 2000s, and most of the time when I saw a character like myself in a comic book it was a homophobic joke. And seriously, I would CLING to those issues, because even though it was insulting in such a base way, it was the one thing that PROVED that gay people existed in the same world as Batman, Superman, or the X-Men. I needed that, but I was starved for it. And now, you see queer characters all over the place. Honestly, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to get to where I am in my career, where I not only get to do queer-dominated creator owned comics like everything I’ve built for BOOM! Studios, but I’m also the writer of Detective Comics with Batwoman as co-lead. Queer characters are all around, and that’s mostly due to the fact that there are more openly queer creators in comics than there ever have been in the past.
I think it’s the worst-kept secret in the industry that most of the creators under 30 are at least a little bit queer, and their comics are starting to reflect it. It’s wonderful. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough, particularly when it comes to transgender and racial representation both in the comics and behind the scenes. There’s still a lot of work to do, and a lot of gatekeepers, most of whom don’t see themselves as holding anyone back, but everyone is more likely to give a job to someone they know, and most people know people who look like them. That’s why it’s so thrilling as a young queer dude, to be co-creating this book with another young queer dude, and filling the book to the brim with awesome young queer dudes. ESPECIALLY an all-ages book, because in the modern age, it’s still kids and teenagers who use media to try to define the rules of the world. If they don’t see themselves in the books they’re reading, or the shows they’re watching, they think they are alone and that they’ll never find anybody else who feels the way they do. The best thing about a queer-led, all-ages book is that it’ll get into the hands of people who need to see it. And hopefully those kids grow up and make their own comics, and this industry will be forever changed. But for now, there’s still a lot of work to do.
DF: Can you tell us, as a writer, the difference between handling a BOOM! Box property as opposed to straight mainline comics? I guess I am asking, is there a necessary tone, a lightheartedness that must be maintained?
James Tynion IV: I mean, I wasn’t handed a list of rules or anything when I started talking to them. Nobody has been saying, “You can’t do this! This is a BOOM! Box book!” But I went to BOOM! Box specifically for this story because they’ve been publishing the kinds of books that I see as being The Backstagers’ ideological siblings. BOOM! Box stands for diverse, all-ages comics, fun monthly books jam-packed with adventures and friendship. I wouldn’t go to them and pitch my horror book. But in the same way, mainline BOOM! Studios is where I do my more mature work, to the YA Adventure series like The Woods and Ufology, to my sci-fi apocalypse stories Cognetic and Memetic. When I developed the idea of The Backstagers, I knew it wasn’t a mainline BOOM! title, because people know where to go within the auspices of BOOM! for the content they want to see. So I was happy to take the trip over to the BOOM! Box aisle for a little bit.
DF: Why is artist Rian Sygh a good fit for this series?
James Tynion IV: Rian is, frankly, the only artist I ever considered working with on this book. Rian is just getting started in his career, but he’s going to be a dominant force in this corner of the industry for years to come. I remember seeing some of his work, right when I was starting to get to know him, and I thought right then on the spot that I needed to do a book with him. When I talked to Shannon Watters about developing The Backstagers, and said that I wanted Rian to be my co-creator, her first response was excitement, because she had been trying to find Rian a home within BOOM! Box for a while at that point, and was worried someone was going to steal him away. When he turned in the first character sketches, I knew we were completely on the same page, and that this was going to be a special book. I really think we’re a great pair, and I’m excited for EVERYONE to see what we’re doing together. And HECK, we’ve also got an INCREDIBLE colorist on the book, Walter Baiamonte, who makes every single page magical. Like, seriously, I think we’ve got a bit of a dream team here. I think you should all be jealous.
DF: James, what are some other projects current or in the near-future you can tell us about?
James Tynion IV: Between The Backstagers, The Woods, and two issues of Detective Comics a month, my schedule is pretty jam-packed! If you’re not checking out The Woods, it’s about a high school transported into the middle of an alien forest and all of the kids trying to survive and figure out how to get home. We’re just digging into the third year now, and there are a bunch of trades to pick up that you totally should! There will be new announcements about 2017 later, but for now, this is my writing slate, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank James Tynion IV for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. The Backstagers #1 from BOOM! Studios’ BOOM! Box imprint hits stores Aug. 17th!
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