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Producer, writer, and director Che Grayson is already an established filmmaker and comic book creator. In fact, she uses both platforms as a way to spark conversations about marginalized voices in genre, as she did in her 2017 TED talk on superheroes. Recently, Grayson has penned stories for Bitch Planet, DC's horror anthology Secrets of Sinister House, and her creator-owned work Rigamo, all while simultaneously raising money for her horror pilot Magic Hour.
Grayson first discovered her love of filmmaking while working on a college English screenwriting project, but her interest in comics followed soon after, when she was introduced to the medium in grad school at NYU. What followed for Grayson was a crash course in comics from local NY comic book shops to conventions like Bronx Heroes Comic Con.
Grayson's self-education led to a Kickstarter campaign for Rigamo, but more importantly, it established that she could produce. With an actual book in hand, she quickly went from attending conventions to vending at them. Her work helped to garner attention and support from comic and animation veterans like David Walker, LeSean Thomas, and Bitch Planet co-creators Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. A huge horror and science fiction fan, all of her work reflects her love of genre storytelling. In the midst of yet another project, Grayson sat down with SYFY WIRE to discuss her journey as a comic writer, her goals as a filmmaker, and how each medium helps inform the kinds of stories she wants to tell.
You've racked up an impressive resume in comics thus far. And though filmmaking was how you initially wanted to express yourself. What was the draw to this medium?
Comics represent a level of freedom to me that I don't think any of the other forms of mainstream media has quite tapped into. For someone like me who is black, feminine, and queer, the kind of stories I want to tell are not easily digestible to a TV or film executive. But when I pitch these stories in a comic way, I have people who just get it right away. I get to tell my story without it fitting into a box of what kind of black story I can present to an audience.
So going back a bit, after your "ah-ha!" moment as an undergrad where you discovered your love for storytelling, how did you prepare yourself from there?
I was already doing photography and photojournalism. So the idea of writing and visuals being applied to one medium really attracted me. I went straight from undergrad to NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I was in the MFA program as one of their writer-directors. During that time I wrote, produced, and directed half a dozen short films and spec commercials. I also worked and shadowed other directors on their sets. Which gave me the opportunity to work under legends like Spike Lee and Kasi Lemmons during my formative years at Tisch.
What how did you discover comics as an avenue for expression?
I met an artist, Sharon Dela Cruz, who also went to NYU but within a different program at Tisch. We basically decided that we wanted to learn how to make comics. My comics knowledge was very limited. So we spent a long time just doing the homework. We would go to [New York local comic book shop] Forbidden Planet, asking for suggestions. We gravitated to Y: The Last Man, Sweet Tooth, and Locke & Key. They were the first books we were introduced to me. I discovered I'm really deep into indie comics more so than the big two.
Once you got up to speed, what was your first comic?
We did a Kickstarter to fund our first self-published comic called Rigamo. It's the story of a young girl who discovers that her tears bring people back to life. But every time she uses the power, it makes her age. Her mind doesn't mature, but her body physically ages. That story was a really good jumping-off point.
You have had an impressive set of mentors both in the film industry as well as among comic book veterans.
Yes, there have been really great people who have really looked out for me. They've told me what's what and gotten my name around in the business. I'm so appreciative of big creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick, John Jennings, and David Walker who have always had my back and made sure that if someone asks them, they do bring up my name.
Was Kelly Sue the reason you got a shot at Bitch Planet?
We met the co-creator of Bitch Planet, Valentine De Landro, on a panel. He saw our work and asked if we wanted to get paid to write comics. Our answer was basically "Yes please!" A year later we get an email asking us to be a part of this upcoming anthology. So this short story became my first published work in the Bitch Planet world for Image. It was incredible because it got me the opportunity to pitch further and work on other comic projects.
Like your recent project for DC Comics.
Exactly, It's funny. Kelly Sue liked what I did with my Bitch Planet short, and she suggested me to editors Alex Antone and Dave Wielgosz for the Secrets of Sinister House horror anthology story for DC. I get an email from them asking if I wanted to pitch a story. Of course, I said yes! Then they said, "Can you get something to us in 48 hours?" I said yes, even though this all happened while I'm at San Diego Comic-Con.
That's more than a little crazy.
Exactly. Fortunately, I was staying with my editor, Desiree Rodriguez, who is a huge DC nerd and I'm a huge horror fan, so that helped me [create the story]. I credit both Desiree and Vita Ayala for helping me land on Green Lantern. They knew Jessica Cruz was a character I could really play with and that Aliens was my favorite movie. So with their help, I came up with this space horror story. Alex and Dave liked the pitch, and two weeks later I had the script turned in. Everything happened so fast.
That's comic books in a nutshell. So you're working hard to build your resume in comics while still working in film, correct?
During the con where I got the DC assignment, I was still trying to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter for a TV pilot.
How are you able to balance both comics and filmmaking?
I'm always juggling both mediums. Sometimes when I find myself in a lull with one is usually when I'm making advances within another. I essentially realized that the medium of filmmaking is expensive. And I wanted to be able to keep creating my stories without breaking the bank.
So there are pros and cons to each medium?
Yes. What I love about filmmaking is that it really does combine a lot of elements of storytelling that I love, from music to art direction to working with talent. Even though it's a collaborative process, I get to have something in my head realized almost exactly how I imagined it. With comics, the artist tells the story as much as I do. It's a 50-50 split. I'm going to write something and you're going to draw the best version of that. I personally love that you don't need a budget in comics. As far as big scenes and worldbuilding in your comics go, the sky's the limit. Your imagination is the limit.
In the meantime, what can we look forward to from you in the coming year?
I'll be a part of the Power and Magic anthology with Steenz, which should be out in June. There's a project that I'm working on with Desiree that I need to keep under wraps for now. In the meantime I'm still working on the pilot I mentioned earlier called Magic Hour. Which is basically The Twilight Zone, but black and queer.