INTERVIEW: Chris Ryall chats GROOM LAKE: GREY SKIES ABOVE and close encounters of the third kind

Comic News

Groom Lake

Prepare yourself for a close encounter of the comic book kind… Archie! Today, the Zoop crowdfunding platform launched its newest comics crowdfunding campaign, Groom Lake – Gray Skies Above, a stand-alone sequel (it’s true!) to  IDW’s 2009 book, Groom Lake. From former EiC of IDW and writer Chris Ryall and illustrator Nelson Daniel, with additional art by Ben Templesmith and letters by Shawn Lee, this all-new tale about Archibald, a cigarette-smoking alien, and his indestructible (well, almost) blobby companion.

With Archibald back to his old tricks after a decade-long hiatus trying to live an everyday life (or trying to), he is back for a new adventure on our UFO-loving planet. Before the Zoop campaign launched, The Beat chatted with Chris Ryall about his fascination with UFOs, the lights he saw in the sky, and the campaign! Read on—and if you see an owl or strange dog, try not to get abducted before this book comes out.

This interview is edited for conciseness. Unfortunately, I had to cut our love letter to the theremin and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but oh well, watch it yourself (after reading Groom Lake, of course, because it will enhance your experience, trust me)!


REBECCA KAPLAN: What can Groom Lake, Vol. 1 fans expect from the second volume?

CHRIS RYALL: This story picks up ten years later. It’s been a decade since the original book, so I wanted to ensure this one did not rely on people’s knowledge of the first book. Archibald and his two handlers are trying to have a normal life, but of course, they quickly find out there is no normal life when you’re a grey alien who escaped from a government base.

So, [the second book] brings in new conspiracy theories and aliens: a team of alien-human hybrids is returned to earth, and other humans are taken into this exchange program. So, you find out the government has not stopped engaging with different aliens [after the first book’s conclusion] to humanity’s detriment despite its original base being destroyed. It becomes a chase story and plays off many current myths, mythologies, and stories like the government Tic-Tac videos. In this new world of entirely different conspiracy theories, it felt like the story would have some relevance in commenting on all of that.

KAPLAN: Why did you pick the name “Archibald”?

RYALL: I picked Archibald because I liked the name. There were stories back in the day of a grey alien working at the base under Groom Lake called “Archibald;” it’s one of these old conspiracy theory-type stories. I’m a bit of a UFO nerd. I don’t know how much I buy into the stories, but it’s fun to delve into them. So, for the initial book Ben Templesmith and I did, we used [UFO] stories, theories, and conspiracies as the underlying foundation for our story. Even when we opened the original book, it was playing off the Betty Hill and Barney Hill story about that couple driving through rural New Hampshire in the sixties that supposedly was abducted.

KAPLAN: How much did the Betty and Barney Hill description of an alien influence Archibald’s design?

RYALL: Very much. We went with the standard depiction of the grey alien: the big head, the small body, the sort of Sideshow Bob-sized feet. I threw in the contrives of six fingers, and I also liked the idea that he smoked a couple of cigarettes because cigarettes and things that harm humans had no ill effect on him. So, he was amused by all the ridiculous stuff humanity does to itself.

Groom Lake - Archiebald
I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.

KAPLAN: What is the history and mythos behind Groom Lake?

RYALL: Groom Lake is this dry lake bed out in Area 51 where there’s been every kind of possible rumor from that’s where the military tests high-tech jets that haven’t been made public or technology they don’t want people to know about to everybody claiming that that’s where the flying saucers that crashed in Roswell in 1947 were taken.

A guy named Robert Lazar has become this prominent figurehead for the UFO conspiracy world. He was the first guy that went public with claims of working at the base, claiming he worked on reverse engineering UFO technology. While doing the first book, I found my way to him through weird means. He’s not, at least at the time, he wasn’t the most accessible person, but I had a couple of conversations with him. I tried to get him to write the introduction for the first book, and he said, “Yes.” I sent it to him, and then he disappeared, and I never heard from him. I don’t know if the book rubbed him wrong, wasn’t accurate enough to his experiences, or if he didn’t want to be public that way.

Interviewer’s Note: Learn more about Robert Lazar, the whistleblower for Area 51 in 1989, in the documentary Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers (watch the trailer here).

But it’s fun; doing this put me in touch with many people. Whitley Strieber, the author of Communion, did the intro for me [for 2009’s Groom Lake]. I’ve had conversations with Tom DeLonge from Blink 182 and one of the guys helping get military videos released to the public. You scratch the surface, and you find out all kinds of people believe all sorts of things.

KAPLAN: I didn’t know Tom DeLonge was a believer.

RYALL: One of the reasons he left Blink 182 was to chase UFOs. Like he has this business now called To the Stars… Academy of Arts & Sciences to make public all the stuff he claims he’s seen and government officials have shown him. He’s been to the Pentagon and seen all kinds of things. So, he’s been one of the key people leading this drive to release all these videos from the military. It’s fascinating.

Monsters of California trailer:

KAPLAN: What is Area 51?

RYALL: This dead patch of desert with a few military buildings that people aren’t allowed to access. It’s fenced off, and there’s no trespassing under fear of being shot signs. It doesn’t look like anything, but it’s the stuff underground. I don’t know that the bedrock out there allows for underground bases, but I think part of the fun is imagining these mundane little single-story structures housing all kinds of otherworldly things. It adds to its mystique, or that’s where some people postulate because people aren’t allowed in or allowed to know, so they speculate that all kinds of things are going on inside. There have been enough lights in the sky or weird reports from people who have seen something to fuel the imagination. Janet Airlines supposedly flies base workers from Las Vegas out to Area 51.

But there’s Area 51, Area 52. There are a lot of different quadrants out there charting land area, so there’s nothing unique about that patch of land other than it’s very remote, and there’s the dry lakebed. If they were testing jets and things there, it lends itself to that. But of course, it also lends itself to stories about it not being jets but otherworldly technology.

KAPLAN: Does the book have a letterer yet?

RYALL: Yeah. So, Shawn Lee is going to letter, and Shawn’s the guy that does Locke & Key and all kinds of books. He lettered RAIN by David M. BooherZoe Thorogood, and Chris O’Halloran, the first book that I did through my Syzygy imprint at Image Comics. I think he’s great, he’s won an Eisner for his design work.

I like this kind of thing because then I can hand pick the people that are involved with it. For the most part, I tend to steer toward friends and people that I know what they’re capable of. Ben Templesmith, who was a co-creator of the series with me back in the day, is on board to do a new cover and some other things around the campaign. He couldn’t do the whole book, but I love that he’s still connected to it.

Groom Lake - Grey Skies Above
Welcome, Children of the Bright and Shining Saucer

KAPLAN: What research went into Groom Lake – Grey Skies Above?

RYALL: I pay a cursory level of attention to all this stuff. I’m not the kind who can sit through those three-hour YouTube videos with people ranting, showing charts, and scrolling text—amazingly, they have hundreds of thousands of views because who can watch this stuff? But I’ve read books and follow people who approach this stuff with a level of legitimacy, like military folk, “Why would they trade all of that for trying to cash in by telling stories? Or is there anything to these stories they’re telling?” I like when there’s at least a kernel of legitimacy to the storyteller because it gives more veracity to the things they’re saying, or at least you’re more apt to pay attention to what they’re saying.

KAPLAN: You said that some current research shaped your new story. I’m curious how everything leaked during Number 45’s term has shaped that.

RYALL: The weird thing to me is that he helped drive so much disinformation and nonsense into the world that when they released videos supposedly taken by military planes and stuff like that, people see them online, and their response is a shrug. When I was a kid, if there were official videos, even weird grainy things, showing you these Tic Tac-looking things zipping across the sky, I think people would’ve reacted to them more. But now, I don’t know. We’ve entered such a weird period where people only believe what their worldview is. And so, they tend to either dismiss stuff as fake, or people are just so blasé about it. Forty-five and all of that did so much damage to the world that nobody has room to entertain the idea of UFO videos.

I find it curious that there has been stuff. But it doesn’t approach the level of disclosure that people talk about, which is releasing information that without a doubt confirms the existence of [UFOs and aliens]. Some videos are hard to explain, and you’d think that even if people aren’t willing to buy into the fact that they’re from other planets or solar systems, they could admit they’re in the sky and could be impacting airplanes. I’m fascinated by the idea that people don’t care or that it’s only a news cycle story for a day. The news cycle churns so quickly now that this stuff doesn’t have resonance like there could be videos of an alien landing on the White House lawn, and I think a huge percentage of society would be like, “Nah, that’s fake.”

I don’t know what would ever actually get that story out in the world in a way that people would believe it. And would it matter? Would that change the religious segment of the population that they’ve always been so afraid of acknowledging the existence of life on other planets because that changes their worldview? Does that still happen in today’s world? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to pay attention to and use in the story without getting into the damaging conspiracy theories and the stuff that has made people inclined to do some disturbing things. I didn’t want to give any traction to any of that.

I just wanted to tell an escapist story from some of that, but it’s weird. We’re very much in a weird time where people don’t know what to believe or choose to believe whatever suits what they want to be the reality instead of what is.

Groom Lake
The truth is out there. But so are lies

KAPLAN: Since the first Groom Lake was released, some of the information on Roswell has changed, right?

RYALL: Yeah, there are always the confirmations, debunking, and counter confirmations. There’s a guy I talked to that I won’t name because he’s very controversial in the UFO world. He used to be a guy whose job was disinformation, and he admitted this: he would go to people who reported sightings and help destroy their credibility. Now, he’s turned to the other side and claims he’s seen things. And it’s a weird thing because it’s damaging to put that mark on somebody who just saw lights and didn’t know what they were looking at. But I have my skepticism hat on where it’s like are they cashing in on the trend and going where the money is? Or is there any reality behind what they’re saying?

KAPLAN: Then, my follow-up question is, where do you fall?

RYALL: I think it’s healthy to have a degree of skepticism. Still, I find it fun to engage with. I use it as a backdrop for the story, but I don’t know that I come down on it with the degree of certainty many people have. For example, there are rankings of aliens and classifications, and the UFO community accepts these things as fact. There are grey aliens, reptilians, and what they call the tall whites, the angel-looking figures. I’m like, none of this has been proven. So, it’s funny that everybody talks like it’s a known thing that happened.

I’ve seen a couple of things. Once when I was a kid, and then about five years ago, my wife and I were outside. It was the night before we moved. We live in San Diego, where there’s military testing and contrails in the sky; we saw these three lights like a pyramid shape going slowly across the sky. Then, all three split off in three different directions and disappeared. We’re like, “Well, that was weird,” but it was nothing more than that.

You see many things in the sky that you’re not entirely sure about. I’ve seen the trail of satellites going across the sky, and it’s interesting because anytime you see lights moving in formation across the sky, you’re like, “Well, that’s not something you often see.”

KAPLAN: Whitley Strieber wrote the intro for the first volume of Groom Lake. Does he still believe?

RYALL: He’s interesting. A lot of the people that are into this stuff are fascinating figures. He went from Communion, the story of his initial experiences claiming he was abducted and visited—it was even made into a movie starring Christopher Watkin as the lead character—but since then, many of his writings have delved into extra-dimensional beings and angels. It’s similar to different tiers of nerdiness. UFO believers go from aliens visiting us to other dimensional beings visiting us to time travelers and time-traveling humans from the future to angels. So, you find the area you’re willing to entertain. Some of that is far beyond what I can buy into, but Whitley believes or at least sounds convincing.

I once met him at a party. He said after one of his abductions, he had this thing in his ear, and he thought it was an alien installed something or other. He said he went to the doctor to get it removed. However, when the doctor made a tiny incision, the thing traveled from the top of his ear to the bottom. I’ll say he’s an excellent storyteller, so you get caught up in his stories.

KAPLAN: I knew Communion inspired The X-Files, but I didn’t realize that the ear device was a Strieber reference.

RYALL: Absolutely. Yeah. I’ve met Chris Carter through the course of publishing X-Files comics. We’ve had conversations, and he’s talked about things he’s seen and believes, which is fascinating. I find that kind of conspiracy theory fun to play with, especially in an era where conspiracy theories have gotten more damaging. I try to focus on the UFO conspiracy theories and avoid anything that gets overtly political.

Communion

KAPLAN: Can you tell The Beat anything about the Zoop campaign that readers may not know?

RYALL: We’re doing some cool stuff by offering artwork, some original pages from the original book by Ben Templesmith and the new book by Nelson Daniel. There’s a group in the book called the Majestic 13, which are these alien-human hybrids named to play off this old rumor of this government organization called the Majestic 12—but in the book, they are these alien-human hybrids. So, we’re offering people a chance to not only have those characters named after them, but they will appear as characters in the book. However, they will be a mutated alien-human hybrid version of the backers at a certain point.

I’ve overseen crowdfunding before, back at IDW, but I’ve never run a campaign for my own thing. I tried to bring in stuff I like doing when I support other campaigns. So, it’s stuff like people can be drawn into the book and participate more directly in the story; I think it is fun. I’ve got some specific and unique things like UFO props that we’re adding in – just trying to have fun with it.

Groom Lake Majestic 12
Here come the Majestic 12

KAPLAN: Can you tell me more about the Majestic 12?

RYALL: Well, they’re part of this human-alien swap. In the story, the first round of humans is kidnapped and handed to aliens for experimentation. But when the aliens are done with them and ready for the next group, various abductions start going on in the story’s background. That’s one of the things that Archibald and the people around him are trying to prevent because they realize how wrong that is to be trading humans for information. It’s them against the world, trying to stop the government while a couple of lethal people called the “Women in Black” stalk them. And it all blows up into this big mess involving secret organizations, aliens, and alien-human hybrids.

Interviewer’s Note: Learn more about the Majestic 12 at the FBI Records Vault.

KAPLAN: Is that a play on Men in Black?

RYALL: Oh yeah. Like, why do they always have to be men?

KAPLAN: Yeah! Why? Other than Tessa Thompson […] What kind of science fiction fand do you think will like Groom Lake?

RYALL: In the first book, we tried to tread the line between being humorous, but also, there was some real darkness in there. And so, it’s that sort of thing again. We tried to do a black comedy that doesn’t mock UFO culture or myths but uses it as an added layer for people into that; there will be elements that they recognize that maybe the casual reader wouldn’t. But it’s very much aimed at people who like to see fun, high adventure stories with unique and colorful characters

Archibald Groom Lake zoop campaign
Let’s free the aliens, storm Area 51

KAPLAN: Is there anything else you want to add?

RYALL: I’ve been doing comics through this imprint that we launched at Image Comics called Syzygy Publishing, and I’m very happy. The first book we did was an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story “Rain.” I think the adaptation they’ve done is amazing and touching, and it seems to have resonated with people. I love that we could tell a story that works for people to that degree. Then, we’re doing many other things through that imprint as well. So, it’s fun to be making comics directly once again. As I went along at IDW, I moved away from the things I like doing. I love bringing comics to life with creators, so trying to have fun again.

Hopefully, people will like this book too. Hopefully, it gives them something that they haven’t seen in other forms of UFO media.

KAPLAN: You should reprint the first one because it’s hard to find.

RYALL: I’m going to. When I left IDW, that was one of the books I could take. So now Ben and I, and Laura, have full rights to that book so that we can do all kinds of things with it. It’s a thing we’ll offer as part of the campaign, but I also want to get it back in print, and then eventually do a collection that has both the Groom Lake stories in one book.


The Zoop campaign for Groom Lake – Grey Skies Above is live now, and it runs until July 14, 2022.

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