Comic Watch’s own Nicholas Osborn recently got the special opportunity to catch up with writer and co-founder of Zenescope comics, Ralph Tedesco. With his new series Unbound on shelves now and a lot of exciting projects in the works at Zenescope, there was a lot of to dive into! Check out the full interview below to get closer insight into the creative process at Zenescope, how Unbound is different from anything else you’ve seen, and what to expect in the future!
Comic Watch: First off, thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at Comic Watch about your new series and more with Zenescope. Let’s dive right in, UNBOUND is violent and action-packed, but also a well thought out story, so what can you tell us how this series came together?
Ralph Tedesco: Yeah, I suppose I can. I’m trying to think. We have a story conference, I don’t know how much you know about Zenescope, but my business partner Joe [Brusha] and I started the company about 14 years ago. We used to write and create most of our content ourselves, over the years we’ve expanded and brought other writers in. We usually do a story conference a few times a year and bring our ideas that we want to either write ourselves or hire other writers to write during that story conference. So, this was just an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while. It was originally going to all take place in the real world and kind of be about something similar but had a much different vibe to it. It kind of hit me one night that it would be a great way to play with this idea, that how much video games are becoming more and more realistic and how easy they are to get addicted in some ways to it and applying that to sort of this idea that sort of a killer being loose inside of a game. Where we’ve probably seen other iterations of that over the years but I don’t think it’s been done quite this way. So, I thought it was a cool original idea we could go with so I pitched it to the guys at the story conference and they all seemed to dig it. So I went for it.
CW: The Ether is a remarkable place, but I personally really appreciated all the horror elements that are woven into the story of UNBOUND, so were there any major inspirations for how you wanted to approach the writing process of this series?
RT: Yeah, I guess for me, I wanted it to feel a little different. I always try to challenge myself as a comic book writer. It’s tough because people who don’t read Zenescope look at our covers and some of the alternate covers and the sexy variants we do and they kind of just dismiss us as just cheesecake. They probably think we are just doing some sort of cheesecake interiors with cheesecake stories with no depth to them. I understand that misconception because I feel like if people are not reading the books and they are just looking at covers I can get that. But honestly, for us as a company, we always want to evolve our stories and continue to try to put out unique content. It’s not always successful, you know, there’s no formula to it. But I haven’t written anything like this before and for me, I’m such a fan of the Matrix which is probably my favorite sci-fi movie of all time. Probably the best sci-fi movie of all time. I get the Star Wars comparisons, like most people would say Star Wars. But I just feel like the Matrix was one of those game changing movies and you can see the parallels. You can see the influence from movies such as the Matrix and I guess a little bit of Ready Player One which was a great book. When I was coming up with the idea, I didn’t want to set out to do those. I didn’t want to make the same things as those were, they are already great movies and books. So for me it was a challenge of how is this going to be different from stuff I love while paying homage to some of those things. I really wanted to tie in the horror elements and make it feel scarier than we’ve seen in any of those types of films. Obviously, Matrix and Ready Player One aren’t scary by any means. So this for me, was let’s tie in that horror and also get a little deeper with my characterizations and as you read the series you’ll really start to get insight into Lukas the main character, you’ll get insight into Marna and you’ll get insight into these young adults who are trying to track a murderer. It becomes a sort of mash up between genres, which was interesting to me.
CW: We really get that mash up as a reader because ultimately it was how well the story is told and the execution of the visuals that create the world of Ether and pull you in.
RT: Oh yeah, our artist Oliver [Borges] is so good. My editor sent me a bunch of different artists, so we had about five different artists to choose from and I was just drawn to his stuff immediately. There were a couple of guys I was torn between, but his stuff kept calling to me and I had a very specific vision for Unbound. When you’re a writer and you’re not an artist, sometimes it’s hard that you don’t even know, that lives in a different part of the world, to understand what’s going on in your head and what you’re visualizing. I can send somebody references that I find on Google, but the fact that he kind of had such a clear grasp on what I wanted was amazing because it doesn’t happen that often.
CW: Definitely. Even the colors really help to set the series apart.
RT: Oh yeah, I don’t want to sell the colors short because they have been amazing. Again, it starts with a reference, but I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve sent so many references and sometimes it just doesn’t click the way you hoped. That’s understandable because no one can go inside your head and see what you’re thinking about. But the art team has brought this to life and without these guys this is a totally different book.
CW: I agree. It’s really eye-opening to see how much the artwork built this world up and sucked you in.
RT: Yeah and it’s a really unique world of like I don’t want just steampunk, I don’t want just cyberpunk. I want this sort of blend to it and them getting that was very important.
CW: So, UNBOUND is currently listed as a five-issue miniseries. Is this a world you would like to possibly return to after this series concludes?
RT: I do. I have plans for the endgame and it definitely sets up more. It’s all about getting those readers, getting those people to dive into the book and pick it up because that allows us to justify doing more. It doesn’t always work out that way, but for this series I have a lot left I want to do. It’s been so much fun creating these characters, I want to see where they go and what they end up doing and that’s rare. It doesn’t always work like that but for this it’s been great.
CW: From a larger perspective, what is it specifically about Zenescope that you believe keeps fans coming back?
RT: Hmm, I don’t know. I think one thing is clearly the shared universe we have. How many independent comic book companies out there have shared universes? Obviously, Image is a company that does great stuff and puts out great creator owned content with some really talented creators, but they are not a company that has a shared universe because they can’t. Same goes for IDW and all these other companies that are all good publishers with good sales, and some of them have great licenses like Dark Horse and IDW has been doing it forever. But for us, we’ve created the shared universe and we’ve expanded on the shared universe over the years and we have a ton of stuff that interconnects. I think fans dig that, especially fans that have read our stuff for a while now feel invested in it. We’ve also done it with a lot of female protagonists and we have a big female fan base now. I keep coming back to the cover stuff and that’s always going to be a stigma we carry. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care because you know, it’s not that big of a deal. At the end of the day we know the stories we are telling and when people read our books they can get that this company has more depth to it. Clearly in a competitive market, like comic books, where there is a lot of competition and not as big of pool of readers, you need to do things to be able to sell books. So that’s just a part of what we do.
CW: There aren’t many publishers who are featuring as many women in comics, could you talk more about Zenescope’s emphasis on women in their current lineup?
RT: Well here’s the thing, to be as candid as I can be, we started the company in 2005. The concept was very simple back then, we were two guys who were struggling screenwriters who weren’t comic book guys. I didn’t know that much about comics, I had read a few over the years but I was necessarily a huge comic book fan at the time. My business partner was, he knew a ton more than I did. But we had a simple idea about let’s do a fairy tale series where we take the original fairy tale series and make them for adults. It’s like Twilight Zone meets the fairy tales, we’ll go back to the original fairy tales which were super dark anyway. That’s why we started writing female characters because all these fairy tales were based on them. We have princesses and such who are all being the protagonists of the stories. As that caught on, the idea was always like if we do a sexy cover, we’ll sell more books. Especially in 2005, where you didn’t think too much of it. We never did porn. We never set out to say we’re going to be the next Hustler or Playboy of comic books. It was just if you do a sexy cover, you’ll sell that many more covers. But we want the stories to be regular grounded horror stories or regular grounded genre stories, we didn’t care about showing T&A inside the comic book. But it was funny because as we grew, a lot of artists we hired, especially international artists, thought that’s all we wanted. We would hire artists and they would draw these interiors with girls with their boobs hanging out every page and we would have to pull them back and tell them “we’re not doing that”. In different countries it’s not as taboo as it is here, people don’t care. Even in London, when we go the UK people don’t care. They don’t care. If we have a sexy girl on the cover they’re just like cool!
CW: Yes, people tend to care about that type of thing here.
RT: People care, and people pretend to care. Which is also a thing. We have a lot of comic book guys who pretend they give a crap. That’s the thing that cracks me up the most, like don’t be fake. Who are you trying to impress? Let’s be honest, I’m sure you’ve seen worse and I’m sure you’ve watched worse than what we put out. But it evolved as we have all these strong female characters and we started seeing a lot of female readers coming out at events like Comic Con and, again this is the mid-2000’s so there weren’t a ton of female readers back then. It started growing as we were growing and we felt, we’re starting to get a ton of female readers and we’re responsible for this now. We were just a couple guys who started this company and we didn’t really think that you know, we’re going to have all these cool female protagonists who are pretty badass in their own rights. Then it was like, how do you find more female creators? It was a little easier to find female artists at times, especially female cover artists. It wasn’t easy, it was just easier than finding female writers at the time. But we’re telling female stories and we can’t just write them all ourselves, especially our Grimm Universe stuff which is all female-centric. So, over the years we’ve made an effort to hire more and more female writers for our books. There’s always the issue of finding female writers who aren’t already like “oh my god, you guys are Zenoscope, you hate women” or something. We’re always like no we don’t, we don’t. That’s just what people say to fit their narrative about us because they don’t read our books. But most of the time a lot of the women writers we find don’t care. They’re just like cool, I’ll write something. So that’s how it happened. It happened kind of by accident and then we wanted to do stuff that was different. We didn’t want to come out and do superhero comics that everyone else was doing. We knew there wasn’t a lot of female content. How many big female superheroes were there in the mid-2000’s that everybody knew and were reading aside from the main ones like Wonder Woman obviously. There were a few here and there that have been done, but we wanted that aspect to be the forefront. It kind of happened organically then we just kept going with it.
CW: You are currently the VP of Film & Television with Zenescope if I’m not mistaken, so can you talk more about that division of Zenescope? Are there any projects outside of comics that you can shed some light on for us?
Yeah, so Joe and I started the company in 2005 and I was the Editor in Chief for the first eleven year. And then, about four years ago I decided being an Editor in Chief of the company was never really my goal. It was just a necessity to do because we were just a small operation. As we expanded and we got a TV series on the air called Van Helsing which is on the SyFy channel. When that happened, we had other stuff in development over the years, if you’re familiar you’ve heard I’m sure of the development horror stories. I wouldn’t say horror stories, but just like how things fall apart easily in Hollywood. You hear these announcements then things never come to fruition. So we had a lot of that, a ton of that, while Joe and I were running day to day out of our offices in [the] Philadelphia area. Then when the show finally went and it wasn’t really the vision we would have taken for the show, to be honest. It was a cool concept that we changed once we sold the rights to SyFy, they were kind of like we love this character, but we want to change a lot the backstory and all of that. We were fine with it because we were like it’s something on air and we need something on air to take us to the next level. The reason we wouldn’t have went that way is because obviously the closer to the comic book the better for the company. It wasn’t that this is a bad idea, we hate it, it was more it’s great that we’re getting this bump but it’s not similar to the comics so people aren’t going to make the connection very well. So that was the drawback to having the show be so different from the comic book, although it still allowed us to have a fun, cool TV series on the SyFy channel with a character that we created. Once that happened it kind of made sense for me to make the move to Los Angeles about four years ago. I had lived here before anyway so I just wanted to start learning more about the film and TV industry and figuring out ways that we can have a bigger hand in the art development of our IP. It’s taken a while. We have a lot of stuff in development, a lot of stuff going on, we’re self-producing a few things as features. We’re working on a couple TV series, potentially, but still there is nothing imminent as far as we have this TV series coming out next month. Nothing like that yet, but we have a lot of irons in the fire. We’ve had a lot more control over development than we used to, where back 10 years ago it was always like well we sold something, have fun. Hopefully it’s a good TV show when it comes out. Now we are really producing and we’re not messing around as far as learning this side of the business. Which is really the way the way to take your company to the next level. If you’ve seen The Walking Dead obviously everyone’s seen The Walking Dead, but when it first came out no one knew what that was going to be. It transformed [Image] and launched Kirkman’s career by far, so now he does whatever he wants to do. So that’s the way, if you want your comic company to succeed you need to hit those mainstream home runs because otherwise it’s going to be tough.
CW: It sounds like there is some pretty exciting stuff happening for Zenescope, so it is a good time to be a fan right now.
RT: Yeah it’s always an uphill battle in this industry. The sad thing about this industry is there are not a lot of companies that are supportive of each other. I don’t know if it’s jealousy or what it is, but sometimes I feel like we need to be more supportive of the community as a whole rather than having this feeling that it’s us against them. At the same time, I get it. I get how human nature comes up and your competing over a certain amount of readers and there’s not enough comic book readers still. That’s the hard part, how do we keep getting more readers, how do we expand that readership so everybody can sell books and not feel like they are being squeezed.
CW: Lastly, is there anything you can tell us about what’s coming up in UNBOUND or at Zenescope that we as fans should definitely be getting excited for?
RT: Yeah, I don’t know if I can say, but we have this one series called Conspiracy. The first volume launched about a year ago. Each volume takes a different conspiracy theory. So volume one dealt with the Illuminati and the New World Order and that whole conspiracy and each issue had a different theme. Then volume two is coming out in February or March and that’s going to deal with Aliens. We have a really cool writer on it and I don’t know if I can announce it, but he’s a big TV writer that’s come aboard and we’re really excited to have him. That series has been really great for us and we’re trying to develop that for TV as well. Then my business partner Joe just came out with a series called Monster Planet, people seem to dig. Which is just this fun homage to action-packed series about monsters. It’s like a freaking badass 90’s throwback series which he loves writing, it’s like his sweet spot. We have more stuff coming, our end of the year story conference is coming up so we will have a bunch of new ideas. Obviously, stuff like the Grimm Universe that’s always coming out, with all our different Grimm Universe characters and we always come out with a new Grimm Universe series. Then we always announce two or three original horror or genre series we come up with.
There it is folks! If you want to follow along with all the latest news and releases with Zenescope be sure to stay tuned to Comic Watch. Unbound #1 and #2 are on shelves now, so be sure to get your copies today and be on the lookout for more great titles from Zenescope in the future!
Badass in their Own Right: An Interview With Zenescope's Ralph Tedesco
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