Ryan Browne Talks God Hates Astronauts

Brilliant comic artist Ryan Browne discusses God Hates Astronauts, The Manhattan Projects, and more.

In the tradition of the great bootstrap puller-uppers like Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Disney and Tony Danza, Ryan Browne is a self-made man. His dominion? Funny books; and after seven years of starts and stops, a Kickstarter funded hardcover trade and a softcover trade through Image Comics, Browne is on the cusp of releasing the first issue of his new God Hates Astronauts ongoing series.

In our exclusive interview with Browne, we talk about his changed process and storytelling approach, making GHA accessible to new readers, the guiding hand of Jonathan Hickman, whether he is afraid of Carl Winslow from Family Matters, and how Image doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Den of Geek: How did the God Hates Astronauts ongoing series come to be? I know you went from Kickstarter to the softcover release with Image — was it just a case of the sales being what Image was looking for or was there a little more to it?

Ryan Browne: I think it was [that] they believed in the property, somewhat. It was this weird thing, I did the hardcover and I did the Kickstarter, and from that I got the job working on Bedlam with Nick Spencer and it wasn’t until I was working on Bedlam that Ron Richards introduced himself to me — Ron is one of the main guys over at Image. I said hey, “here’s my other book, God Hates Astronauts, here’s the Kickstarter, this is how well it did and I’m looking for someone to put out a softcover and then maybe continue a series with them.” And he said, “Well, Image really doesn’t do Kickstarters, but we’ll take a look at it,” and they loved it.

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And then it was based on the sales on that, whether or not it could be an ongoing series, so that was a little stressful. Just trying to drum up some business for the book. Also trying to… and they were aware that I had sold well over 2,000 copies of the hardcover, so those people weren’t going to be buying the soft cover as well. All in all, I was a little nervous over whether or not it would keep going but they seemed pretty confident in the property from the get-go.

When you pushed the softcover to them, were there discussions about where you wanted to take the project (as a series) or has that evolved over time since the softcover came out back in October?

You know, they’re extremely hands off, which is really exciting for someone like me since I like to do everything myself. Like, I don’t really work in a traditional manner — I don’t write scripts for the book, so it would be difficult for me to work with an editor on the book. Right now, as I’m drawing pages, I’m changing it. Like, while I’m working on the finals for the art on the boards I’m like, “Well what if this happened instead?” That’s a nice freedom that Image provides. Honestly, they don’t know anything about what I’m doing. (Laughs)

You know, when the book comes out I’ll hopefully have at least three issues in the can and I’ll just, you know, turn them in and the proofreader will read them and hopefully I’m not totally off base with what I’m doing.

I know when we spoke back in September, you had said that the way it works with Jonathan Hickman is, you send him the art and then he comes back with the script. When you’re working on your own, are you doing the art first and then filling in the words as it goes along, or do you have some kind of story written down? I know you said that you don’t have a script, but do you have an outline that you’re working off of, at least?

Yeah, I have an outline. With the original series, there wasn’t much of a plot. It was much more scenes and character moments and jokes. So I decided on this ongoing series that I wanted to really put it together and have it be cohesive and have a plot and have, you know, action and climaxes and jokes. Just everything all together, and make it work. Not like a web-comic that you’re reading in a book, you know?

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So yeah, I did outlines. I wrote for a long time, coming up with ideas and where it was going to go. And then, I basically started with an outline of what happens in each issue and then I broke it down to what happens on each page, with like  a sentence on every page. And then I just went straight to thumbnails and drawing the pages and then after I’m done drawing them, I sit down and write a script for what happens — what people are saying in each balloon. While I’m drawing it, I’m thinking about, “What’s this guy saying?” but I’m never writing a full script.

You said that you’re hoping to have three issues in the can when this debuts, where are you now and how long does it take you to put together an issue?

You know, I’m not sure and that’s the other thing that makes this all kind of scary. I’ve drawn monthly books, but I’ve never written, drawn, and put together a monthly book. I’m working with a letterer (Chris Crank) now for the first time, which is different for me because I’m used to lettering it myself.

When I’m just drawing, I can draw like a page and a half in a day, but then I’ve got to write the script to send him. He letters it and now we have an agreement where he letters it and instead of me giving him edits, he’s actually sending me the lettered files and I’m editing it over his letters and like changing my script. Because I’m just such a visual person that I realized that when he gave me the pages all lettered, the comedy wasn’t working as well as I wanted it to, so now he’s just giving me the lettered files back and I’m editing over his work and hopefully not screwing it up too much to kind of make it crisp and make it all work. So again, this is like a total learning process right now and hopefully everything will be kind of streamlined and smoothed out by the time that the series launches. Jordan Boyd will be on colors.

It seems like you’re changing your approach to where it’s a little bit less off the cuff and a little more scripted and pre-planned, is there any worry that that change in creative direction might be something that people won’t love when they read the book?

No, I had that fear when I was plotting it all out. Reading through the five issue synopsis of what happens in the first story arc is not very funny, I guess. I mean, it’s kind of funny.

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Well the best parts are in the margins with that book, I think.

Right, I was getting a little concerned when I was putting it together, that the comedy might not be translating because I’m working too hard to make everything so seamless. Then, as I started drawing the book… I just don’t have any filter to tell me that any ideas I’m doing are stupid, so I’m just putting in every joke that I have. The sound effects are getting really ridiculous. Like, just yesterday, I was like “Well, this scene is missing a beat” and I went back and added a page in between pages and it’s a totally ridiculous page. Now it’s like, “How did I ever think that this would work without that page?”, but again it’s like, I don’t have anyone to answer to, so if I decide, “Oh, I need another page in there”, then another page goes in there.

Issue 1 right now is 26 pages and a typical issue is 20 pages, so again, I’m going to have to figure how to not do this the way that I’m doing this because I can’t do 26 pages every month. But yeah, it’s really organic and I was afraid that it was going to be kind of sterile and locked down, but as I’m doing it I’m coming up with funny jokes, like off-the-cuff just while I’m thinking about drawing it and then that changes what I need to be drawing on the next page. So I have the framework — it’s like I’m building a house with a blueprint and then I’m like why don’t I just have a porch over here and then a swimming pool? I have the idea of what it’s going to be and the pacing and then as it’s going on I’m just like why not? Why not do this? Why not do that?

Do you find this easier, harder, better, worse than what you were doing before? Because I know with the web comic, you had put it down for awhile and then gone back to it, I think a period of years at one point before the Kickstarter, correct? Yeah.Is this better or worse or is it just different? It’s different. I think now is kind of the right time for me to be doing this book because I have a level of confidence in my storytelling and my ideas. For years, I didn’t write anything. I would always be on the lookout for writers to write something for me so I could draw and then God Hates Astronauts was me finally being like, “Alright, I’m just going to try it myself” and then it was just, I don’t know… it’s so broken and fragmented. The older I’ve gotten, the more confident I’ve gotten. I’ve started thinking a lot about story and character, themes and pacing.

So yeah, I think now is the perfect time for me to do this because it will be so much better than it would have been had Image picked this book up six years ago when I was doing the initial issues — that would have been a stressful mess. This, I’m pretty confident… the book is really good. I think it’s really funny. You know, I’ve had a few people read the outlines and everyone is kind of on-board with this, this all makes sense and this is really tight and it could be a lot of fun.

When you break out issue 1, how much responsibility to do you feel to recap what has gone on before or do you just have faith that the core has read the soft cover and that they are up to date and they know what has gone on?

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I thought about that a lot because I didn’t want to throw it out completely, but I also knew that if everyone who had bought the first collection bought the first issue, it would end up being kind of a disappointment sales wise, but I also didn’t want to start over. So basically, there is a two page synopsis of the first series — just the important parts — in the first issue. The first issue has a narrator to it and he breaks in with a little bit of the back story of what’s going on, but it’s almost entirely new reader friendly. You can go back and read why Stargrass has this ghost cow head or you can just accept it and read this new story. Reginald VelJohnson is in the book, of course. Have you ever met him? Does he know that he is your muse?

No.Are you afraid of him?

A little bit. I’m sure he’s a gentle man.

Yeah, he’s a gentle man. He seems to have a sense of humor.

And he hasn’t fired his gun in a long time…

(Laughs) Yeah, right? I’ve put him in everything that I’ve ever done with the exception of The Manhattan Projects and that’s because there was no way for me to put him in there. Like, I drew Oppenheimer’s that are fat cops (laughs) and that’s about as close as I could get. But when every character that you are drawing has to be Oppenheimer, then there is no room to put him in there.

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But yeah, everything that I’ve drawn in my entire professional career, he’s been in. It’s kind of this recurring joke for myself, so with God Hates Astronauts, when it was a webcomic, I didn’t really worry about him being annoyed by it, but then as… it’s now an Image series, I’ve kind of pushed it farther away from it actually being him. You know, my drawings aren’t very accurate anyways, but you know, it’s firmly a parody of him and I’m sure he would have a really good sense of humor about it, especially because he’s constantly the voice of — not total reason, but he’s a little bit more level headed than other characters, but yeah. I half want him to read it and then love it and I’m half afraid of him reading it and then being annoyed and telling me to stop.

Well Ryan, I’ve got a surprise for you. He’s on the call!

(Laughs) That would be awesome. That would have been a great moment. It would have been great for my career. (Laughs) Yeah.

Um, you mention Manhattan Projects, it seems like with a monthly schedule that it would be impossible or really hard for you to still do other work — is that the case or are you still going to be able to squeeze out other work?

I think my time on Manhattan Projects is done, unfortunately. I drew issue 21, which is a Lika story and that will be coming out in June and then I think that’s it. We had talked about me doing another issue, and it’s just… Hickman is really a big backer of God Hates Astronauts and it’s awesome and he understands that this is really important for me to get the book in order, not blowing my schedule, and so if I have time for another issue of Manhattan Projects, I’ll do it. But if I don’t, which is probably the case, 21 will be my final issue.

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What have you taken from working with him, specifically with regard to design? Because he’s such a skilled graphic designer, Pax Romana, some of his indie stuff that he did earlier in his career and Manhattan Projects as well. What have you learned from him in terms of that?

The importance of branding your book. Figuring out ahead of time, a consistent look and a consistent feel for every aspect of what I’m doing and I think that that’s becoming popular in the more successful Image titles. I mean, Saga definitely has that going on. You know, a couple of other ones, definitely. Bedlam also had that feel, where you’re really making a complete experience. Yeah, Jonathan is really inspirational in that way and he’s also a really good sounding board for making me figure out how this all works. Him and Tim Seeley are the two people who, when I need to know how something works at Image, those are the guys that I call and they’ve been really, really great.

How long can God Hates Astronauts go?

As far as I’m concerned, this is all I want to do and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I think I’ve built a world where anything can happen, obviously. And the way that it gets left at the end of issue 5 leads straight into an even bigger story. The second arc. It all depends on what the sales are like and whether its sustainable and if the trades sell well and if single issue sales don’t drop too far and I’m still making enough to stay alive every month, I’d love to do it forever.

You know, I know that it’s not super realistic and it’s very rare for a series to get to do that, so my goal right now is… I’m on a typical Image schedule, so I’ll be doing ten issues a year and two trade paperbacks will come out. So, I’ll have a trade paperback month after issue five and after issue ten, so that will be the full year. My goal is to not be late for at least the first year. Actually, I don’t know how sustainable that will be, but that’s my goal and so hopefully, I’d be over the moon if I got through issue 15, like that would be awesome. That seems unreal to me. But yeah, we’ll see, I’m planting a lot of seeds in the story to continue it for quite awhile.

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