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Chris Ryall talks aliens and obsessions in 'Groom Lake: Grey Skies Above'

Comic Books

Chris Ryall talks aliens and obsessions in ‘Groom Lake: Grey Skies Above’

The follow-up to the 2009 series is currently crowdfunding via Zoop.

Way back in 2009, writer Chris Ryall (also former head of IDW) launched Groom Lake. The mad-cap story followed a man, Karl Bauer, as he uncovered a secret alien research base (under the titular dry lakebed in the Nevada desert). With the promise of “abductions and probings, conspiracies and secrets,” the book was a weird and wild story of family, community, and just what the search for truth ultimately does to us all.

Now, Ryall, alongside artist Nelson Daniel, is set to return to that very same universe with Groom Lake: Grey Skies Above. The standalone graphic novel follows the grey alien Archibald, who in the first book escaped the Groom Lake facility. Now, though, he’s got to tackle with the “Majestic 13 abductees” and a movie production about Groom Lake that promises “devastating consequences for Archie and his handlers.” The book is currently being crowdfunded via Zoop, and the campaign officially launched earlier this week.

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Ahead of all that, we caught up with Ryall via email. We discussed the story’s development, Archibald as a great protagonist, our love of alien stories, and much, much more.

Groom Lake

AIPT: What’s the elevator pitch for Groom Lake?

Chris Ryall: How many floors can this elevator have?

If the first book introduced us to the grey alien Archibald and additional otherworldly types housed in a secret base under Groom Lake and then detailed their attempts to escape that confinement, then Grey Skies Above explores the idea that not even aliens can escape their past; and for those around them — in this case, Karl Bauer (the son of an alien abductee) and Roberta Lazar (Archibald’s former base worker/minder) — they find out the hard way that there’s no such thing as a normal life in a world where many of the alien conspiracy theories are actually true.

We also introduce a new group of human abductees, the Majestic 13, who are returned to Earth far different than they left it; meet some lethal new aliens and the even more deadly Women in Black (Shorts); and learn the truth behind Archibald’s existence.

It’s a road picture kind of story, involving roads both on Earth and off; it’s a domestic comedy (for a few pages, and even then, co-starring a grey alien); it’s a suspense film on paper; it’s action-comedy; and ultimately, it’s got some real tragic elements, too. Much like the way UFO conspiracy theories get all tangled up with one another, this one is a tangle of moods and set pieces and different alien races.

AIPT: What was the collaborative process like overall?

CR: Between Nelson Daniel and I? Nelson’s an artist I’ve worked with before as artist/colorist, on both books I wrote (String Divers, Stephen King & Joe Hill’s Throttle) and other books aside (Judge Dredd, TMNT); and even before that, Nelson colored titles like Wild Blue Yonder and Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland. So I’ve had a great working relationship with him for years, and we’ve been trying to find ways to work together again.

Nelson does things with color that are unlike anyone else working now, and I just adore his art, too. This story at least begins with a lighter touch than the first Groom Lake book, and he brings just the right level of humor and quirk to those early sequences with the grey alien Archibald and others. And then when things get dark and ugly, well, in Nelson’s hands, I know even those sequences will be beautiful, too.

AIPT: Press says that the boom doesn’t “ask nor expect you to know anything about this world but is very happy to welcome you into it.” Still, what are some things that might help for the uninitiated?

CR: Groom Lake revolves around a grey alien called Archibald who started out like the ultimate tourist to our world—he loves things like cigarettes (he smokes two at a time since they have no ill effects on his alien physiognomy) and is endlessly amused by humanity’s foibles. He was kept housed in a base under Groom Lake, along with other aliens of varying type; and all was fine until he met an outsider to the base, Karl Bauer. Karl was the son of an abductee and his appearance at the base was the catalyst for all kinds of hell, and aliens, to break loose.

At the end of it all, Archibald, Karl, and Archie’s minder, a jaded base worker named Roberta Lazar, escaped into the night.

As we’ll find out, the abductee program is still going strong, and helped along by some nefarious human types, too. So there are new aliens, new conspiracy theories, and dire new circumstances to come.

AIPT: What kinds of other series influenced the look and/or feel of this? There’s just so much alien content out there, and some of it’s pretty hit or miss.

CR: I guess I’d say our influences were the hits and not the misses…

No, honestly, the look and feel comes from comfort and familiarity — me with Nelson Daniel and his skills, the same way I had comfort and faith that Ben Templesmith would make the first book work so well (and he definitely did); and also my familiarity with Archibald. That nutty alien goofball has lived in my head since 2009, so the only real influence I went for here was trying to tell a story that is true to Archibald. It’s been a while since I told stories with him, so I damned well wanted to make sure I didn’t disappoint him. Or the readers.

As for other alien content out there, I kind of love all of it. James Tynion IV and Mike Oeming doing stories based on “real” alien experiences? Yes, please. Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly mixing alien lore and politics in Saucer Country? You bet. Gimme more!

AIPT: I feel like Archibald is such a dynamic presence. Why is his whole personality such a vital part of the book’s appeal and overall momentum?

CR: I feel like his outsider status can sort of boil down the essence of any given situation in ways that humans might hold back on; he doesn’t know any better, he just tells it like he sees it. Which isn’t always the way humans see things, and there’s a bit of… not exactly coldness to him, but certainly he doesn’t experience empathy in the same way as humans do.

Groom Lake

Unlettered art by Nelson Daniel.

And his sort of jocular-alien approach is not only fun to play with but also a good signifier as the story goes along that if he’s having fun, then maybe the stakes aren’t that high in that moment. But when he does turn serious—or when something I kind of hate myself for subjecting him to in this new book happens—you can be sure that the moment matches his mood.

AIPT: There’s obviously references to conspiracies and whatnot. Is that fun to play around with, or do you hesitate at all given the state of misinformation and like, especially here stateside.

CR: It’s weird now (I mean, hell, everything is weird now, that’s not exactly a revelation) — conspiracy theories, at least the alien kind, used to be just fun. It was mostly all fantastical stuff — and while pretty much all conspiracy theories work their way around to the idea that “you are not in control of your life” or “the shadow government hast your worst interests at heart” — UFO lore was fun because of the outlandishness of it all that nevertheless had tiny kernels of, “Mmmmaybe” baked in.

Now, though, modern conspiracy theories seem to really be damaging peoples’ lives, and I don’t want any part of that in this book. So I keep the conspiracies rooted in the familiar UFO stuff — the black mailbox and underground bases and men in black and so on — although I did incorporate in bits of the more modern UFO stories (tic-tac crafts and so on). But all of it is just background or fun reference points for people who follow that stuff; I pull from the same “real” stories and people that JTIV and Oeming are referencing, but only ever in service to the story, or as little Easter eggs for people who’re into this stuff, too. Even the name “Archibald” is steeped in UFO lore — that was supposedly the name of a “real” grey alien who helped the humans at Area 51. Do you need to know that coming into this? Not in the least. But if any of this strikes a familiar chord with the UFO devotees, well, that’s an added bonus.

AIPT: What’s the continued fascination with aliens? Is it just to do with exploring the unknown, or is there something bigger here?

CR: There’s such a wildly expansive answer here but it all comes down to the individual and where their head is at. Some (you know, completely rational people and scientists) are convinced it’s all just natural phenomena. Some are convinced of, or at least open to, the idea that aliens visited our planet; some go the route of proclaiming them to be angels or other-dimensional beings or future-humans who time-traveled back here or every other possible combination.

The why is trickier. Is it just that the idea of such things makes life seem less mundane, more magical? The idea that it’s impossible that the endless cosmos only had one science experiment go right and yield humans on our planet alone? Or religion or lack of religion or a need to feel part of something bigger than the smallness so many people feel or just that we’ve all read too many comics and seen too many movies for the fantastic to be all fiction?

Chris Ryall talks aliens and obsessions in 'Groom Lake: Grey Skies Above'

Unlettered art by Nelson Daniel.

I like to think it’s just that, mostly, we don’t want to be alone in the universe and want to think our meager efforts at keeping this planet going is worth the attention of other lifeforms out there; that all of our war and disease and strife and nonsense we see every day might someday melt away in the face of us witnessing something bigger than all of us.

At this DeepFake stage of our existence, it doesn’t really matter if anyone ever came here or not, a large degree of people wouldn’t believe it if they saw it. So as long as people are convinced that it’s all stories, well then, we might as well keep telling new stories.

AIPT: Is there a future for Archibald and more alien weirdness?

CR: The answer is both yes (another book is already plotted out) but also that Archibald has no future. And I can’t elaborate on that any further without spoiling “Grey Skies Above.”

AIPT: Why should anyone pick this up?

CR: Because Archibald makes all stories better. And because I finally get to use Archibald’s pet blob in a way I’ve been aching to use since the first book ended; and because when people see the “Majestic 13” abductees in this book, they’re going to be truly horrified but hopefully also amused; and to learn what Project: Serpo is; because I’ve not written a scarier pair than the Women in Black (Shorts) in this one; because Nelson Daniel is doing amazing things with the art and colors here; and because, not to sound too grandiose, but we deliver the final word on alien stories. So after this one (and maybe a sequel), there won’t ever be the need for any more. Sorry, everyone else, but it’s true, this is the last alien story anyone will ever need to read.

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