John Ridley made ‘The Ministry of Compliance’ for character studies and sword fights

John Ridley believes in his audience.

“I’ve written for a long time,” he said during a recent Zoom call. “I assume and believe that people are smart. You know, I go to a movie and I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I have capacities to go, ‘Oh, OK , I get where the creators are going. I get where the story wants to be. I get the nuance. I appreciate that.’ I appreciate being able to lean in.”

But as a writer of everything from novels to films and, more recently, Eisner-nominated comic books, he knows it’s a sentiment not alway shared by other industry folks.

“I will say, and I don’t say this just to bag on Hollywood, but I’ve been in too many meetings — and there are more and more of them — where honestly the assumption is that the audience isn’t that smart,” he said. “Where you’ve got to game things out for the least clever in the audience. I mean this sincerely: I think all audiences are a lot smarter than we ‘in Hollywood’ give the audience credit for.”

And a lot of his work — be it 12 Years a Slave or The Other History of the DC Universe — banks on that very savviness. But you could say that’s especially true of The Ministry of Compliance, his new IDW ongoing with artist Stefano Raffaele, letterer Ariana Maher, and colorist Brad Simpson. (Ridley, Raffaele, and Simpson previously collaborated on GCPD: The Blue Wall.) In a world where an alien enterprise called Devolution has come to Earth, there are 13 ministries — from finance to entertainment — shaping and influencing global culture to prime our planet for the coming invasion. We follow Avigail Senna, head of the book’s titular ministry, as “things begin to go terribly wrong, and a conspiracy among the ministries breaks out that Avigail must deal with head-on.”

And, sure, that heady concept is certainty undercut by some decidedly badass moments/tendencies. (As Ridley explains, “The resolution to a lot of these questions [in the book], administrative compliance, usually revolves around decapitation.”) But there’s so much more under the surface, and something that is both engaging to readers while assuming they can properly follow along.

Case in point: at a very basic level, it’s Ridley trying to work through his earliest influences and how they help forge a kind of foundation.

“For me, with The Ministry of Compliance, there’s certainly elements of science fiction and of conspiracy theories in terms of why are we the way we are and are we being manipulated,”he said. “Those speak to classic alien invasion [stories]. But those kinds of things that I grew up with where you go, ‘Oh, OK, this is interesting to me. This is a little paranoia, a little sci-fi, certainly elements of action.’ But there are things in this story, or at least the canvas of the story, that for me are very fundamental when we deal with aspects of the prevailing culture.”

Main cover by Stefano Raffaele. Courtesy of IDW.

And while there’s other elements at work here — Ridley mentioned colonialism as among the “very familiar elements that I can pull together” — this remixing, as it were, is ultimately about asking even bigger, more personally resonant questions.

“I do think for me, at my age and having had the opportunity, as you say, to tell stories for a long period of time, what are those things that I’m really drawing from?,” he said. “And some of them are going way back in the day when I was growing up — martial arts films and science fiction.” Ridley added that “some of them are definitely about representation.”

In a lot of ways, the kinds of questions Ridley is inherently interested are fully aligned with Avigail. After a lifetime of doing a thing, like our Minister of Compliance, you start to wonder what happens next when things change and move all around you.

“But they’re also, you know, maybe similar to me after doing the same job for a long time: you kind of look at yourself and go, ‘What was it all about? And what did I serve and who did I serve and did I serve them very well?,’ he said. “And I think in a lot of spaces, as proud as you are of the work, you’ve just got to ask yourself, ‘What was it all about?’ And for me with these three, it’s an opportunity to really examine where folks are at a certain period in their life, and the family that becomes work.”

But when Ridley asks these sorts of questions, he still has to make them compelling enough for consumption.

“But there are those larger questions, larger issues, and trying to find a way to put them in a story that’s got franchise, that’s got its own personal velocity,” said Ridley. “And more than anything, for me as a writer, does the fun and the exuberance that I have when I’m putting it together hopefully come through on the page?”

And so when the book was coming together, Ridley used his rather diverse experience to make sure all of that energy and joy resonated accordingly. He said there were “three buckets that I [wanted] to make sure that I’m filling” that could make this book work in the most meaningful way imaginable.

The first such “bucket” is what he calls the “canvas.”

“What is any narrative set against,” said Ridley. “And with that, it’s this concept of when we look at society in 2023 or 2024, there’s that sense of, ‘OK, how did the world get this loopy?’ We’re not that dumb. We may not all be that bright, but we’re not that dumb, and so how do we get here? So there’s that canvas of the storytelling, and that becomes this alien invasion part.”

Then, of course, comes the proper storyline.

“There’s the plot of it all, which I hope and believe, as you’ll see in this double-sized first issue, those become the machinations,” said Ridley. “These alien invaders who think they’re so smart and they got it all together and they got it all gamed. And about halfway through they realize, ‘Oh, OK, well, this ain’t going the way we planned. And how do we deal with that?’ And, like in television, that’s what they call the franchise of the show. It’s a cop show, a lawyer show, a police show — it’s the bread and butter of television. What is that one thing? What are those plot points that carry you through?”

Lastly, perhaps the most important element of them all.

“And then the third point, this kind of comes to your initial question, and that to me is just the story,” said Ridley. “And that’s really the character vibe and how much time you could take with those moments that really define these individuals as people. They’re not ‘human,’ but they’re people. They have their wants, needs, expectations, foibles, and idiosyncrasies.”

Variant cover by Ryan Sook. Courtesy of IDW.

It’s no wonder, then, that this book is so character-driven. It’s not just Avigail, either, that Ridley is so interested in exploring. There’s Quinn, her pseudo-partner in the Ministry of Compliance, and even a new recruit in Kingsley.

“For me, more than anything, it was like, ‘Hey, if I could have a handful of characters — and Avigail and Quinn and Kingsley were just that three people — I really wanted to spend a lot of time around them,” said Ridley. “They are complicated. They are raw. They are dry in their wit and their sensibilities. We have some real story beats, but at the same time, it really is about these characters. And that’s what I really enjoyed — spending time with these characters.”

It’s through this trio that Ridley continues to not only ask some rather big questions but also make a book that feels as real to us as any proper relationship.

“I want them to be fun,” said Ridley. “And I think Quinn definitely is just dry and funny right up until he pulls out his gats. And with Kingsley, I mean, here’s this young individual who’s a believer. And I think it’s like a lot of people — you come into the world and it’s like, ‘Oh, I believe this. I have this mindset. I want to do this.’ Whether it’s going into banking or the medical profession or public service. And then you get into it, you realize, ‘Oh, now that I see how the sausage is made, and I think I’m going to become a vegetarian.’ She is fresh to this journey, but saying to herself, ‘OK, I thought that I wanted this, but I don’t really know what it is that I think that I want anymore.’”

He added, “She’s finding value in her journey, but also reminding Avigail of what her journey has been about, because sometimes you get to the point where you forget. ‘I was young, I was fresh-faced, I was wide-eyed. What does it mean to get back to that place where I’ve always wanted to be?’ And now that you have this individual, how does that change Avigail’s perspective on the job that she’s doing?”

With these layers and levels, it’s not always an easy read (even with plenty of truly epic sword fights). And so Ridley’s work is to grapple with that while still very much respecting the capabilities of his audience.

“I get it that, as a writer, sometimes you do need to repeat some things two or three times to help the audience out, and remind them where they are and remind them where they’re going,” he said. “But I’ve been on too many calls where there’ve been too many executives, and I don’t want to put it all on the executives. I work with great executives, but just too many…where they say, ‘Not everybody in the audience is as smart as everybody on this call.’”

The goal, then, is to give everyone what they want — visual razzle dazzle and more substance — and assume they can balance it all accordingly.

“So I do think that in The Ministry of Compliance, there is space for some maturity, and I don’t just mean dirty words and hacking people up, but real mature storytelling,” said Ridley. “And I think for me, that’s the attraction — it’s the fun of being able to do things that are larger in some regards and globetrotting and see the world and have some amazing backdrops.”

Courtesy of IDW.

He added, “But at the same time, you know, I started writing as a novelist and to be able to return to a space where there’s patience and there is intelligence, at least on the audience’s side. I hope there’s intelligence on my side, but there’s an audience that demonstrates intelligence and curiosity, particularly for sci-fi and fantasy. You know, they’re used to wanting big concepts. So I hope in this space, to your point, that there is room for patience and there is reception on the audience side for patient storytelling as well. The trick with The Ministry of Compliance is you want to find that balance between the fun, the action, that drive, and asking questions that feel fully formed, but not getting bogged down in the lament. You do have to ask those questions on the move and on the fly and really wonder, ‘Are the things that I’m fighting for, am I fighting for the right thing?’”

And for someone who has spent years writing some rather heavy films and other projects, it’s a nice change of pace for Ridley to boot.

“I don’t want to write something that has absolutely no consequence to it,” he said. “But I do want to write something that, by page two of this book, when you really see what [Avigail’s] all about, it’s an opportunity for the audience to go, ‘OK, I’m in.’ But in this, again, I don’t want to say that there’s nothing behind it, but I like the pace of it. I like the move. I like the drive. I like what’s going on. And I love, love, love hanging out with Avigail.”

With all the talk of balancing flash and substance, it’s still worth noting that The Ministry of Compliance isn’t just smart for it’s take on a terrifying near-future, or it’s ability to build these rich, organic characters. It’s also that Ridley is making a rather specific statement, or series of statements, with this project.

Perhaps the most obvious is that, among his fair but pointed critiques of the modern film industry, Ridley’s seen a rather worrisome trend emerge. A trend that somebody needs to recognize if not outright rectify.

“Whether it’s a little bit of fatigue, whether they’ve become tropes, or whether they’ve become elements of story that we see all the time, however you want to contextualize it, I do think we’ve arrived to a world where there’s a bigness and a bit of sameness,” he said. “It becomes the CGI porn at the end of the movie that tends to disappoint now because it doesn’t quite get there. It becomes, ‘We’ve got to close the portal.” It becomes fighting the army of bots because we just need something big at the end. You know, when done well, it’s great. When it’s done a lot, does it become more of a challenge to tell those kinds of stories? I think so.”

He added, “You have to have these things, unfortunately. I don’t want to say ‘have to’ as an absolute because I do believe a well-told story can travel and play anywhere. But in the world that we find ourselves in Hollywood, unfortunately, there is this self-fulfilling prophecy of, ‘Oh, it’s got to be big, and it’s got to play big.’ That’s the only thing people around the world understand is big, big, big.”

Courtesy of IDW.

The other big thing is actually related to that Hollywood-esque “sameness.” It’s perhaps reflective of what happens when there’s homogeneity in culture, and the kind of fear or doubt that it can sow.

“I like to think that I’m well-read. I like to think that I’m fairly well-educated. But those things — being well-read and being educated — are different than being someone who is truly open,” said Ridley. “And I think one of the things that frustrates me, and this is not about one side or the other, politically speaking, but it’s folks who go around saying, ‘Well, I’m super open-minded. I’m the most open-minded person.’

He added, “Look, we’re being influenced in some regard, that’s a fact. And you can say, ‘Well, it’s those folks in another country, or it’s folks here, or it’s the liberal media, or it’s the conservative media.’ But at the same time, for any of us to be able to say, ‘Well, I am open-minded,’ there’s the opportunity to go out and get perspective and not just take one story from any one person. And yet we’re still where we are. So for me, this was just an exploration…of where we are in society.”

And so perhaps that’s why The Ministry of Compliance makes the most sense as a comic project, and why the very medium is helping Ridley and company achieve a lot of his core visions and editorial mission.

For one, it’s a decidedly less risky business model (in comparison), with Ridley explaining that “this isn’t a $200 million project. So let’s say I screwed up my job. I did it all poorly. The damage isn’t as severe.” Still, it’s not just cost, either; comics seem to be a place for vital collaboration.

“I will say, however, when you’re working with executives and working with editors and working with individuals in the graphic novel space, I don’t care whether it’s IDW, Marvel, or DC, my experiences working with those individuals have always been better — just flat out better,” said Ridley. “Because ultimately, these are individuals who love the art form and love their jobs and love what they’re doing and love being around it — a lot more than your typical executive in Hollywood. And it’s when you’re working with people who care, the notes they give make the story better.”

It’s part of the reason he’s put so much faith and trust into his collaborators. It’s part of a lifelong lesson, of sorts, about the importance of these creative partnerships. And as far as Ridley is concerned, he lucked out across the board.

“I cannot say enough about this entire team,” he said. “From editorial to the artistry, it’s been absolutely phenomenal. Stefano, I call him this hyper-maximalized minimalist. Everything on the page is exactly what you need and not a thing more. The acting that he creates with the characters is phenomenal. Brad’s work — he’s just lush, but very distinct in the spaces. Moody, but not moody to the point that it’s just morose.”

Courtesy of IDW.

The secret, he said, is to try and get out of the team’s way whenever entirely possible.

“For me, working in film and television hopefully is a good transition,” said Ridley. “You work with department heads on a film: your D.P., your A.D., production designer, wardrobe, and makeup. All these individuals who come on board because they’re experts.”

He added, “A ‘vision’ may sound a little too self-aggrandizing, but you’ve got to be able to explain, ‘Hey, this is what I want from this location. This is how I want things to look. This is the palette that we’re going with. This is how this scene is designed.’ But ultimately, you’re working with people who they know what they’re doing. They’re department heads for a reason. I hope and believe that I allow for their creativity. I hope and believe that when they feel empowered, they to do their best work. And when people are empowered to do their best work and they feel like they are listened to and appreciated…they’re energetic, they’re enthusiastic, they bring their best ideas.”

But it’s not just that comics means having an entire team to work alongside. For Ridley, the medium is perfect because it’s made to address some of his big concerns/interests, like having smart fans who can handle a multifaceted story.

“What I think is nice about the graphic novel space where, yes, there’s still an expectation of bigness, and there’s still an expectation of some action and some drive,” he said. “You know, comic book fans are fans for a reason. And I think they’re longtime fans because they appreciate storytelling. They appreciate character. What can you do with Batman or Black Panther or Superman or Wonder Woman or Wolverine for the 80th time? Well, it really depends on excellent storytelling.”

So what makes for this “excellent storytelling,” then? For Ridley, it’s characters that capture and reflect a very specific moment in time — while always being a pure blast to read.

“You know, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, — they all came from very particular times in society,” he said. “Whether it was war or whether it was the [Great] Depression, it was that wish fulfillment. ‘I wish things were different. I wish there was someone out there who was dealing with this’ So, in some ways, I think as a writer you’re a creator; it all comes back to that. What is my environment? What is around me? What do I want to say about it in the most heavy or the most insightful way? Or in a way that says, ‘OK, we understand that we’re all in the same boat, here’s a nod to the reason why.’ And then how do we have fun with that?”

Courtesy of IDW.

And it’s Ridley’s hope that, above everything else, The Ministry of Compliance can be that same kind of thing. Something that will speak to a moment for readers who are more than capable of handling such a powerful and poignant book.

“So I would definitely say The Ministry of Compliance is a child of the environment that I’m in, but it’s…an extension of that feeling of both specificity and generality that comes when you read Superman,” said Ridley. “It’s like, ‘OK, this is most definitely an immigrant story.’ Whether they’re a true immigrant, or whether they feel like they’re just outside of the prevailing culture, you go, ‘I get it. I get what Clark is about. I get what Bruce is about. I get what Diana is about. It’s answered in the [book], but if I were going to riff on where we are now and who is a ‘hero’ for our times, that’s most definitely Avigail and that’s the environment she’s operating [from] in this story.”

Issue #1 of The Ministry of Compliance is due out November 15 via IDW.

Join the AIPT Patreon

Want to take our relationship to the next level? Become a patron today to gain access to exclusive perks, such as:

  • ❌ Remove all ads on the website
  • 💬 Join our Discord community, where we chat about the latest news and releases from everything we cover on AIPT
  • 📗 Access to our monthly book club
  • 📦 Get a physical trade paperback shipped to you every month
  • 💥 And more!

Sign up today

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.