The Dream Factory Part 1: PopMatters’ Exclusive with BOOM! CEO Ross Richie

“It’s dialing into outer space,” Ross says, doing a pretty good impression of a punchline from comic Louis C. K.’s standup routine. Our phone connection had gone down and just as we picked it up again, Ross retells the joke about Louis C. K.’s confusion at why people get annoyed at cellphones taking so long to work properly sometimes. It’s dialing into space.

Ross is Ross Richie, CEO of BOOM! Studios, and front man for an unexpected, but hardly improbable success story. With this year seeing the company’s sixth anniversary, BOOM! has racked up a string of successes. Not least of which is securing deals with as diverse a group of partners as Disney, Jim Henson’s Workshop, Pixar, Electric Sheep Productions (the current owners of sci-fi legened Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Peanuts (yes that Peanuts) and industry giant Stan Lee.

The success, as I’ve come to discover, was unexpected. Ross himself had not plotted this course for his life. But the success was also hardly improbable. What I found in talking to BOOM! is a concerted and focused work ethic by all involved. But mostly what I found is Ross. Passionate and accessible, personable and a fan of popculture at heart, Ross is brings a bright-eyed optimism to comics.

Pop culture should be the culture that finds you, and at BOOM! Studios, hard work is put in everyday to be the publisher that brings you that culture on demand. Unexpectedly, Ross finds himself in the position of steward of pop culture. He’s charting a new course for the fictions that defined our imaginative lives when we were younger, and he’s creating the environment that will bring new ones into this world.

In this three-part PopMatters exclusive with Ross Richie, the Iconographies looks at what it means to build stories and settings that will give dreams long after their own time. For traditional modes of transmission of pop culture, the stakes have never been higher. But with Ross, and with the culture he’s building at BOOM!, the answer is always to build something that will sustain your interest.

In this edition, Act One.

The Dream Factory, Act One: Friends on Facebook

“You friended me, first. That was strange to see a CEO so accessible, so personable, I begin by referencing the frenetic back-and-forth on both Twitter and Facebook around the time of Clive Barker’s surprising return to his signature popcultural work, Hellraiser. The conversation played out between myself and BOOM!, and ultimately between myself and Ross. Before getting a chance to friend, my handheld buzzed with an alert. Ross Richie wanted to be my friend.

It was a shock. Friending publishers and CEOs held a different dynamic to friending creators. And deep down, it’s sometimes hard to forego the cynicism. Was this simply a functional friending… out of a sense of professional necessity?

What ever cynicism might have exploited the opportunity cracked after my L.A. morning-long conversation with Ross. What began as an interview ended up as an honest exchange. There was a sense of shared values, a deep-held belief in significance of popculture as a formative influence. And ultimately, there was a sense of optimism for the comics medium itself.

When Ross responds to my observation, it comes from that grounded cheerfulness that makes him easy to interact with, approachable.

“Chip (Mosher, BOOM!’s Marketing Director) and I were just talking about this just yesterday,” Ross says in a way that’s hard to not imagine him smiling. “I was certainly unaware of this. I’ve certainly never been a CEO before, and I never published a comicbook before his, and never edited one. And I started of not even knowing what to do. But it’s really just my nascent personality. But also in the comicbook business people are super-passionate and also, people can get really negative. Especially on the Net. I love comics, I’ve loved them since I was seven years old when I bought Fantastic Four #178. It seems that reaching out to people is the way ensure that comics culture thrives.”

There’s a kind of raw openness to Ross’ response. An non-jaded honesty. Comics is something to navigate life by, in part because of the confusing, garish nature of their stories that require the kind of work by young readers that fosters psychological fortitude. A first comicbook is a milestone. And the opportunity to ask Ross about his milestone proves too much of a siren song to resist. Could he speak about that issue of Fantastic Four?

There’s a booming chuckle on the other end of the line. It was actually part of an Easter basket Ross had gotten when he was seven. “Inside the Easter basket was a copy of Captain America from (Jack) Kirby’s run, the second time, in the late ’70s. And I’m probably going to get this wrong, but it was 207 or 208, somewhere around there. And the Fantastic Four, it was #178. It was a real interesting duality between the two. I’m a huge Kirby fan… back then I was not. And the artwork… Jack is so dynamic, especially back then. There’s these really bold lines. Kirby’s almost has this systemic where his heroes are almost built up of stone. They’re these towering figures, and to a little kid’s sensibilities, it’s just a huge punch in the face.”

Even now decades later, Ross’ emotions run high, and it’s hard to tell when he’s taking a breath. “In this issue Cap was fighting Nazis there’s a sequence with these Nazis where they take him prisoner and put him in a room that’s basically a gigantic oven. I was just so horrified at the notion of taking human beings and putting them in ovens… And of course Jack is making a holocaust reference. But for a little kid who didn’t know anything about that, it’s so horrifying. Meanwhile with Fantastic Four….”

Ross pauses. More to drawn up a memory than to draw breath. It’s clear we’ve hit a point where some thought is moving beneath the surface. Something profound. Something deeply meaningful and personal.

“If that had been the only comic in that Easter basket…,” I know where’s he’s going but Ross doesn’t finish the sentence. With the sheer human horror on parade in that issue of Captain America, it might have been hard to get into comics. “That Fantastic Four was the first entry-point… if you’re ever concerned about a first reader-friendly comicbook this is the one. It was right in the middle of a gigantic Counter-Earth saga that had the Frightful Five in it, it had Tigra and it had Reed Richards from Counter-Earth who’s actually The Brute. It couldn’t get any more confusing. Not only do you have Reed Richards the hero, but you have Reed Richards, who’s called Reed Richards and whose name is Reed Richards… he’s just the evil Reed Richards. He’s basically the evil twin. This was all just confusing, but I was not confused at all. I understood everything. And I just really got the evil twin stuff. And the parallel universe, and I got all these characters with bright costumes and science fiction which I loved. I had loved it as a little kid even before then, since the age of four.

“And I never wanted to go home.”

It’s that last line that hits from left field. There’s more at work here than just sharing a personal story. Its a deep and working knowledge of what it means to grow up wrapped in the safety of something older than ourselves, larger than ourselves. Something we had to decode for by our own hand before we could see how the pieces work together.

Decades ago Ross closes the book and looks at the front cover again. He looks at the corner box and sees #178. “It’s such a sharp memory,” Ross continues, “it’s so vivid to me even still. I remember thinking: ‘That actually means there’s a 177 before this… I have to have every single one.'”

In a large part, the story of BOOM! Studios is Ross’s story. It’s the story of our he’s managed to surround himself with talented individuals and properties that reach back into time. But it’s also the story of a kid just a little more curious than terrified. A kid who had the fortitude to pull together disparate fragments and form a cohesive story.

And when we read a medium that is fractionated, as comics is, that relies on each of us to sew together image-sequence with text-sequence and make our own unique vision of the moment-to-moment that comics depicts for us, then that kid is each of us.

If BOOM! is riding the crest of a publishing wave right now, it’s because Ross’s story has leaked into every part of the company’s ethic. ‘Build this ourselves’ easily translates into both success and joy. It’s a simple equation. If BOOM! is successful, it’s because we are. It’s because BOOM! has tapped that primary human impulse to construct safety for the self, rather than simply anticipate it will appear.

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The Dream Factory, PopMatters’ exclusive interview with BOOM! Studios CEO Ross Richie, continues in an upcoming edition of the Iconographies.