Alumni Spotlight: Ellie Pyle (’01)
When Ellie Pyle (’01) picked up the phone, she was in the middle of reading Cass Morris (’03)’s debut novel From Unseen Fire. After talking to her, this doesn’t surprise me at all. She places a high value both on creating and supporting and enjoying the creative output of others. That’s much of what led her through a career in theater and comics to her current role as the comics product owner for Riot Games.
What does her job entail? “I’m the lead editor for all of the comics we produce,” Ellie explains. “I also do all of the comics business strategy planning and put together the team. Since Riot is a video game company, we’ve built our comic-production process from the ground up, which has been really interesting and a lot of fun.”
Riot’s biggest product is the worldwide smash hit game League of Legends. “We’re trying to make the characters feel like they’re part of a bigger world that’s more lived-in and cohesive than it’s been in the past,” she says of her team’s work. It brings together two of what she’s learned are her greatest strengths: telling stories and managing creative people. So how did she get there? Well, first there was GSGIS.
Ellie was very involved with theater while she was at Governor’s School. “We were doing the one-act festival, we were doing Elizabethan Rout, we were doing a show a year. There was always something going on. The Brief Shakespeare stuff we used to do for Fall Festival was one of my favorite things,” she remembers. “Governor’s School was incredibly unique in the fact that everyone was so smart and everyone was so uniquely themselves. I got used to having so much creativity around me just within my circle of friends, while also having friends who are brilliant about things I still don’t understand.”
“The way that Governor’s School taught us to think and the people I met there were so foundational. The way Bear O’Bryan taught us—I still talk about him on a regular basis. I had four years of classes with Chris Shannon, who really pushed us. We got so much amazing stuff out of that. So much of it was laying the groundwork for teaching us how to think. Plus, I don’t know that I would have gotten my job at Riot if Hampton Smith (’03) and Thomas Cunningham (’01) hadn’t made me play video games so that we could stay in touch in college!”
After GSGIS, Ellie went to Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she joined a small program for playwriting and screenwriting. She then got a master’s in media & performing arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design with the idea of working as an artistic director. She ended up with what she thought would be a dream job running a theater for city government in Savannah, but the job turned out to be less than dreamy.
Knowing that Ellie was unhappy with her job, one of her friends from college, Tom, threw her resume in a stack at Marvel, where he was working. “Tom was one of the six people in my program that I graduated with. I met him at freshmen orientation and we’ve been friends ever since. That just goes to show how much meeting people along the way who trust you and will vouch for you matters. I got an email one day saying, ‘Hi, we’re Marvel Comics. Please make notes on this script so we can decide if we want to interview you.’ I interviewed at Marvel and didn’t get the job that first time. Later, when Tom got promoted, I ended up with Tom’s old job by coincidence! That’s when I left Savannah and moved to New York.” So began her career in comics.
Ellie spent four years at Marvel, where she worked on series like Daredevil, Spider-Man, Fearless Defenders, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dr. Strange. “I was the assistant editor on Daredevil, while Mark Waid was doing career-defining work. When my boss left the company, Mark made sure I was got to edit on Daredevil, not just because he liked me but because he trusted me.”
She left Marvel after four years to work for DC Comics, where she worked on projects like the Lucifer series (based on Neil Gaiman’s concept of Lucifer in Sandman). She also worked on creator-owned books. “That was all about building an audience for something new as opposed to Marvel’s built in 50-year history,” she explains.
After two years at DC, she was ready for something else. Mark Waid, was doing consulting work at Riot and worked to bring Ellie on as an editor there. “I’m fortunate that I had a mentor who believed in me and went to bat for me. Every step in my career has been because I won the trust of someone who could put in a word for me or who could give me a job.”
At Riot, she’s well-positioned to do work that she both enjoys and that plays to her strengths. “One of the things that was so appealing about Riot was that they have all these characters and a global audience but lots of those stories haven’t been told,” she explains. “I have little interest in building a world or an audience from scratch, it turns out. I love taking expectations that audiences already have and either meeting or subverting them.”
Then, there’s the management aspect. “So much of being a comic book editor is managing people,” she says. “It’s telling adults to turn in their homework in such a way that they know that you still love them.”
She credits her time in theater with helping her develop the skills that serve her so well now. “Theater is still how I approach everything that I do,” she says. “What both jobs have in common is that you have to get creative people to put creative work out into the world. They have to buy into the idea that we’re a team, and we’re making a thing together. The more you can have people feel like they’re working hand in hand, the better. I also learned in community theater that everyone needs to be treated as equally important to the process.”
I asked Ellie what she would tell a high school student who is interested in having a career like hers. She summed up what she’s learned in five lessons:
Lesson #1: Your career isn’t necessarily going to be a straight line. When I was 11, I wanted nothing more than to make comic books, but I couldn’t draw, so I didn’t think about it again until I was 27. The trick is to identify the core skill sets that you have and then be ready to apply them in unexpected ways. I learned while doing theater that while I love acting and writing, my skills as a producer are a lot more unique: managing people while telling a story has served me well in three mediums, so far.
Lesson #2: Just because something doesn’t work out the first time doesn’t mean it’s never going to. I didn’t get the theater job in Savannah right off the bat, and I didn’t get the Marvel job initially, either. They both ended up working out down the road.
Lesson #3: Whether your relationships are social or professional, forming trusting relationships with people who want to have you on your team is the most valuable piece of networking you can do. Quality over quantity.
Lesson #4: Never lose sight of what it is you love about what you’re doing, though all jobs will feel like jobs at some point.
Lesson #5: The way you make your money and the thing you’re most passionate about don’t have to be the same thing. I love my job, but I still sit down and write plays in my spare time. Just because I’m not getting paid to do theater doesn’t mean I don’t love theater. Sometimes having a job you love, but that isn’t your greatest creative passion allows you to maintain the professional objectivity to do it well.