Riley Rossmo, indie-comic creator and artist, talks about his series Rasputin from Image Comics as well as his shift to DC Comics and Constantine.
By G.D. KENNEDY
For the past decade, Riley Rossmo has been drawing and writing comics, primarily creator-owned books at Image Comics which include series like Proof with New York Times bestselling novelist Alex Grecian; (the criminally under-appreciated) Green Wake, with Kurtis Wiehe; and the haunting Bedlam, with Nick Spencer.
When looking at this body of work, a few things immediately jump to mind — Rossmo loves the weird, the occult, the horrifying and the macabre, but also has a sense of humor and appreciation for the absurd, as a distinct levity always permeates his work. Visually, Rossmo’s work is immediately identifiable; his line work has a frenetic and visceral feel to it, and the characters always are distinctly Rossmo creations.
Recently, he has expanded his craft, both artistically and professionally. On the creator-owned side, Rossmo reunited with Grecian for Rasputin, a 10-issue series that recently wrapped. The story is a mystical historical fiction about the titular mad monk of Russia and his journey into present-day American politics, but what has been maybe most impressive has been Rossmo’s art. In the series, Rossmo has tackled ambitious projects — broad, sweeping landscapes and giant two-page spreads — employing softer techniques rather than his often hard lines to create emotive, impeccably detailed scenes. In fact, many of the scripts in the book are thin on dialogue — the first issue has an extended silent sequence — forcing Rossmo to tell much the story almost entirely to through his art.
Professionally, while Rasputin was wrapping, Rossmo undertook what he calls a “bucket-list” project with DC Comics, penciling its recent relaunch of Constantine, written by Ming Doyle and James Tynion IV. It is hard to imagine a book more suited to Rossmo’s skills — it is dark and magical, filled with monsters and viscera, but with a protagonist who is snarky and biting at the same time. This, of course, has meant certain changes for Rossmo, shifting from creator-owned work to the larger machine of DC, while also balancing maintaining a longstanding and iconic character while also making the character his own.
On the first day of New York Comic Con, I met with Riley in Artist’s Alley near his booth. We ducked into a stairwell and chatted for a while about his creator-owned projects, his move to DC, and his evolution as an artist.
G.D. Kennedy: How has the show been so far?
Riley Rossmo: It’s been good. New York is overwhelming. It is dense. It’s a crazy place. I’m so West Coast and Canada is not at all — there is no density.
G.D.: I know you’ve been working on Rasputin, but that’s wrapping, right?
Riley: That was always the plan. The plan was eight issues, but Eric Stephenson [the publisher of Image Comics] thought it would be better as 10 so we would have two volumes then, since eight issues is a weird number for a trade. So we thought initially we would do it for a year, with breaks factored in, it ends up being 12 months or 14 months.
G.D.: You are doing this with Alex Grecian, who you also worked with on Proof. How did you two get hooked up in the first place?
Riley: We did our first book together. We broke into comics together in 2006, when we did a book called Seven Sons with Larry Young, who used to have a publishing company called AIT. He’s doing a book now at Image, Astronauts in Trouble. Then we did Proof for three years with Image. I look at Proof now and I’m like, “Ooof, I don’t know why anybody would have picked that up.” But we came up together doing that, and then Alex went and wrote novels for four years. And then he wanted to do another comic; we’re friends and we talk, and a year and a bit ago he was like, “Would you ever want to make a comic again with me?” And I was like, “Heck yeah, of course.”
G.D.: You said Proof is something that you look back at now and seem to have mixed feelings about —
Riley: I love the characters. I love the world. And I love some of the designs. But pretty much as soon as I finish something, I usually think it looks bad. I’m like, “I should have done this different,” or “That’s weird.” So looking back at Proof after all that time — it’s like, “Ooof, a lot I would do different.”
G.D.: That was the experience you were having with the What If? book [What if? Infinity — Inhumans #1] you were looking at a minute ago? [A fan had brought a copy by for Riley to sign just before we started the interview]
Riley: A little bit. It’s been in the can for eight months or something, and there’s just stuff I would do better now.
G.D.: Do you find your art evolving consistently? Are you trying new styles, or what is it that makes looking at past work so challenging?
Riley: Trying to slow down, mostly. The slower I go, the better the work turns out. For a long time, I would just do everything that came along and I’d do like 35 pages a month or 40 pages a month if I had to, and I was doing lots of advertising work — like other kinds of illustration. So for the past year and a bit, I’ve just been concentrating on one thing, and maybe do one other cover. So I would do my series cover, and maybe one other book or something. And I feel like the quality has come up.
Other pros and I have a small group on Skype that we use to work together. And everybody that works on it has a different skill set. Like Jay Leisten is on there. Ryan Stegman is on there. Nick Pitarra is. Brian Level. Daniel Warren Johnson. And all those people do different stuff. So, from spending time with those guys and getting critiques, I learn a lot. Like Nick, I learn a lot about environments and Stegman is amazing at understanding anatomy. Daniel Warren Johnson is really great at action, and all those things — you absorb that, right?
So you show them a page and say, “Does this look cool?” And they’ll say, “Well, maybe you could move up this arm or this leg,” or whatever.
G.D.: So is this you finish a page and show it and then do a critique, or is it in process?
Riley: It depends on how frustrating you want it to be. If you turn around and show somebody inks and they’ll be like, “Ohh. . . ehhhhhhh [Riley holds this for about five seconds] . . . You’re going to have to redraw some of that.” So there’s two parts of you. There’s the part that goes, “Nobody knows, nobody cares that reads it.” But then you’re like, “If I want to learn from this, I’ve got to do it.” So then you consider your deadline and decide if you make that change or not.
G.D.: Going back to Rasputin, one of the things that really stands out is how much of it is an art driven book. The first issue, there’s like 20 words. What does a script look like when you get that?
Riley: Alex is pretty — we have a good relationship. We made a lot of comics together already. I think Proof is 32 issues which, in modern comics, is a long run. So there’s a lot of trust. His scripts aren’t particularly dense. He doesn’t dictate shots to me or anything.
G.D.: It’s not the Alan Moore full-page descriptions?
Riley: No, definitely not. What he puts into it in a lot of ways is the background. The characters have motivations, even if you never find them, and even if it’s a throwaway thing, Alex knows what it means. He always has multiple references for environments and worlds or anything. Any world-building stuff, he’s like, “Czar’s winter palace — here’s a link. Look at this monastery — here’s a link.” Everybody does that, but he’ll put in a bunch, and he’ll tell you what’s important about that palace.
So the scripts are not bare bones, but it’s not dictatorship. It’s not an Alan Moore one where there’s an essay in there. But he’s definitely contributing a lot to it in the storytelling.
G.D.: It’s so dictated by your art. How is it for you telling the story so much from just your art?
Riley: It’s a lot of responsibility. And Alex will put that in the script, like, “Sorry about this. It’s all on you.” But the spreads were his idea and you can only do that on an Image book. Marvel or DC, you can’t say, “So we’re going to burn two out of our 20 pages on a frozen river.”
G.D.: What brought on the idea to do a fictional, non-fictional, fantasy-based Rasputin comic?
Riley: I was thinking about that, how me and Alex do that. He has an idea box in his office, a literal box. In his idea box — all of our books have come out of his idea box. And it will just be a line, like “What if Sasquatch worked for the FBI?” And we did it, it was Proof. So Rasputin started in the idea box, and at some point in time, Alex did some drawings for it. He says he can’t draw, but he can draw OK. He can draw like the guy who does Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud. So he had this idea and he had a few drawings, and he thought about it a little bit and he just asked what I liked, and I told him, mystical stuff and magic and whatever. And he had a little bit of a thought out — it was mostly a nugget of an idea, and then we talked about it, and he built the story around that. It wasn’t just, “Here’s my idea and go draw it.” It was, “Here’s my idea,” and I’lm like, “Here’s my part of the idea,” and then it grows out of that.
Sometimes, there’s stuff — like the fight in the first scene [of Issue #1] — Alex has always made sure if there is something I want to draw, he makes sure it gets in there. So there’s a fight in Issue 1, in the silent sequence in the middle where he fights the bear, Alex said, “Draw this fight for a page or two,” and then it was like six pages. But who cares, right?
G.D.: One of the amazing things about the first issue of the series is that there just was no dialogue through much of the book. And what I liked about it was that sometimes, where there is a lot of dialogue, you gloss over the artwork. When it went silent, it really drew you into the art.
Riley: It was a lot of responsibility. It was the death of Rasputin’s mom, and his dad dies in it too.
G.D.: So other Image work, is anything going to come of Drumheller again?
Riley: I don’t know. I get ideas once in a while and I have to do them, and then I do them as long as I can. And then I move to the next thing. I don’t need to dwell on it. I say what I need to say as best I can and then I’m ready for the next thing.
G.D.: You have Constantine coming, and Marvel work also. Is there anything else in the pipeline?
Riley: We’re — I don’t know if I should say this in an interview, but we’re having a baby in December, so I’m going to try — it’s nice to be at DC since it’s more regular financially. If it was a different book, I might not be so excited but for now, I always work on other stuff and have ideas percolating.
G.D.: How has the transition been to DC?
Riley: It’s interesting since really I’ve only worked at Image, or at least sort of. I’ve done a little bit at Boom! and a little bit at Marvel and at DC before, but when you’re only doing a 10-page story or a cover, it’s not the same. You’re not really working for someone. You don’t have editors you’re talking to. You just have to make an editor happy for a single image. They’re hiring you to do what you do. This is more of a relationship, and so far it’s been different but it’s good.
G.D.: How did you come to do Constantine, which seems like the perfect fit for your style?
Riley: It’s kind of like a synthesis of Rasputin and Bedlam or something, content wise. Somebody up there likes me. I don’t know. I did a Superman story for the digital-first stuff, but somebody entirely different contacted me. It just came out of nowhere.
G.D.: So you didn’t have to pitch for this or submit anything? You were just sitting home one day and got a call with someone saying, “Hey, you want to do Constantine?”
Riley: Yep. [Laughs.] I don’t know how it works. I don’t know if they have people who are actively searching. I have my own idea of how I imagine things happen, but I don’t know if that’s the way. I did a piece for the Mad Max art book they put out, and three weeks later they called by about Constantine. I don’t know if they’re connected. I have no idea.
G.D.: What’s going on with Constantine? What are you looking to do with the character?
Riley: Probably until I was 14 or 15, I was huge into Marvel Comics. This is probably weird, but I wasn’t huge into the big Marvel Comics, like McFarlane or Liefeld. We weren’t super poor, but I would buy 25-cent bin comics because I could buy one new Wolverine comic, or I could by 12 25-cent books. So I was big into John Byrne and ’70s and ’80s superhero stuff, and then I switched over to all Vertigo comics — once I was 15 and moody — so I like Hellblazer from that, Sandman became a staple.
So traditionally my thoughts around Hellblazer is that he swears all the time, is super-vicious when he needs to be. Even in some of those Vertigo issues, he’s more than a dick. People are sometimes like, “He’s wisecracking and he’s a dick,” but he does some mean fucking stuff. And ours isn’t that one. But it isn’t the New 52 one that is sort of safe for everyone to put on TV. So ours is somewhere between. It’s somewhat popular and a little more fun. He’s cynical but not to that hurt-your-feelings sort of cynical and aggressive.
I just got the script for Issue 7. Issue 6 is awesome. If you’re a Ghostbusters fan, there’s little easter eggs throughout.
G.D.: I love Ghostbusters. It’s one of those movies you appreciate more as you get older.
Riley: Yeah, there’s more layers, right? There’s some crazy stuff in there. Once you get the layers as you get older, it’s like, “Whoa! Whoaaa! Whoaaaaa!”
G.D.: Do you have some stuff coming up with Marvel as well?
Riley: I’m doing covers for a book called Illuminati that Josh Williamson is writing and Shawn Crystal is drawing. … I got to design the characters for the book, too. I started Constantine, and I talked to Josh — we’re good friends — and we wanted to do a book together. We thought, maybe we could make this work, but Constantine is a bucket-list thing for me, so I said, “Sorry,” but they still wanted me on covers, and to help with the look of the characters. So they invited me on to do character design too.
G.D.: Other than comics, do you have anything else going on?
Riley: Organizing our house, mostly. Baby-proofing. I’ve been painting a lot more recently. All the commissions I’ve been doing. My schedule has been so tight these days, that’s where I experiment and have fun. Before shows, I usually ramp up and do a bunch of commissions. But I got to do a bunch of paintings that started off as ink wash, but the last few were full acrylic paintings.
G.D.: I remember seeing in Drumheller a lot of the full-page spreads that were very atraditional for comics, almost more gallery pieces.
Riley: I have a degree in visual communications so when I finished school, I did a lot of editorial work for magazines, like tons and tons of editorial stuff and storyboards, and tons of magazines, local magazines and some international, too. Somebody would have an article about pirating music, and you’d have to think, “What do you do for an image with that?” There’s no photograph to go along with that, so I would have to come up with some conceptual way to show that.
G.D.: Maybe a quarter note with an eye patch?
Riley: Maybe that’s it. Maybe the angle is a gangster stealing records or something. But I think that was really good for developing covers later on. How people work on covers is really interesting. Do you show something that happens in the comic? I don’t know if this is true, but in The Walking Dead, I feel like whatever happens on the covers, is something that happens in the book, as opposed to something like a Sandman cover or a James Jean Fables cover, where there are elements and imagery from the book, but it might not be something that literally happens. Like if somebody’s heart’s broken, they might have a graphic heart smashed to pieces.