Riley Rossmo’s Eclectic Signature

by Matthew Derman

12 September 2014

“Momentum” is a good word for Rossmo’s work in general. If there’s one thing that ties together his eclectically vast projects, it’s the kinetic energy his art contains.

Not every comicbook artist is going to be right for every project, no matter how talented they may be. Some stories just won’t mesh with certain artistic styles; a gritty noir tale doesn’t want the goofy brightness of a kids comic, just as a kids book isn’t looking for the detailed gore and looming darkness of horror, and so on. Each narrative will call for its own level of detail and specific visual atmosphere, so the best artists possess a certain amount of flexibility, able to adapt their work to fit each new story. If nothing else, Riley Rossmo exemplifies this approach, displaying a vast range even as he draws consistently in a signature style. Rossmo’s art has enough in common from one title to the next for it all to be recognizably his, yet each book is given its own tailored touches so that they’re distinct from one another, too. Looking back on his career thus far, it appears Rossmo intentionally tries to stretch his skills as often as he can and in every direction, culminating in an impressive body of work that’s varied yet singular.

One of Rossmo’s first high-profile series was Proof, which he co-created with writer/letterer Alex Grecian. Proof centered on a sasquatch working for the government with a human partner, tracking down and containing other cryptids in various secret missions. It was effectively a police procedural, but one full of fantasy creatures, so even in his early days Rossmo was blending genres. His work on that series was often very dark, with heavy lines and pitch-black shadows, matching the series’ more serious take on its subject matter. But Proof also had fun with the wide array of myths and magical critters around which its narratives were built, and Rossmo had his own fun bringing those things to life. He made each new beastie as animated and unique as any actual living thing, making even the most outrageous among them feel believable through the detail and energy of their designs. Even background characters or individual members of large groups had their own personalities and physicalities, and anytime a new category of cryptid was introduced, Rossmo made sure to set it apart from the others while still folding it into the larger reality of the series. This meant that Proof regularly involved exciting and amusing discoveries for the audience as we got to share in Rossmo’s delighted, uninhibited experimentation, and that in turn added a layer of easy enjoyment to reading the comic overall, even at its gloomiest.

It’s something you can find in the bulk of Rossmo’s output, this balance between the heaviness of the story content and the lighthearted, unabashed joy he takes in the act of artistic creation. He walks that tightrope well, which is a big part of why his art goes so nicely with so many different kinds of stories. Whether the narrative calls more for comedy or drama, Rossmo is going to deliver both, always able to highlight the little shreds of beauty in every pile of ugliness and vice versa. He can make blood-and-guts violence look appealing, depression seem comfortable, and amusement appear downright scary. He understands the possibilities of the comics medium, so rather than only playing up the most prominent elements of a given script, he’ll sometimes push a little in the opposite direction, too, mixing in some things that would be out of place if they weren’t so deliberately constructed to fit right in.

Rossmo primarily works on creator-owned comicbooks, no doubt in part because they tend to allow for a bit more freedom and are more open to non-traditional art styles. Though he always works with a writer (and more often than not, with letterer Kelly Tindal), in recent years it has become more common for the books Rossmo is working on to be his own original ideas, born in his mind and developed with his collaborators. In these cases, Rossmo’s desire to be always challenging himself becomes all the more obvious, most notably in last year’s Dia de Los Muertos. A three-issue oversized mini-series, each installment featured several short stories, all scripted by different writers, will the art handled entirely by Rossmo. For each tale, he modified his style to match the mood of the story and the voice of the storyteller, so that they all had individualized aesthetics clearly distinguishing them from each other, despite being drawn by the same hand. In some ways, it was a showcase of the many faces of Rossmo, but the book’s primary goal seemed to be celebrating the many kinds of stories we as humans tell and the many ways we tell them. Romance, murder, childhood, mortality, the cultural details that separate or unite us, the human potential for good and/or evil…all of these and more are a part of Dia de Los Muertos, and Rossmo handles each new theme or twist on an old theme with evenhanded care, skill, and attention. And I think that’s what he wanted from that comic, a chance to explore as many facets of life as he could and do so as quickly as possible, not to show off to us as readers, but for the sake of keeping himself sharp, focused, and flexible.

His latest book, Drumhellar, has some similar challenges built into its core concept, though in a different way than Dia de Los Muertos, which simply called for a new style with each new narrative. Drumhellar is an ongoing series, the same story and characters continuing from one issue to the next, so Rossmo’s foundational style for the title stays relatively the same throughout. However, the main character of Drumhellar, appropriately named Drum Hellar, takes hallucinogenic drugs pretty much every issue, and the things he sees on these drugs are a big part of what propels the narrative forward. Drum is a private detective of sorts, but one who uses his drug-induced visions to determine what to investigate, rather than having clients who hire him. The universe is his client, and it speaks to him through his hallucinations, providing valuable clues and insights every time he trips.

What this means for Rossmo is having to regularly draw Drum’s hallucinations without letting them grow repetitive over time, and being sure to include important details about present or future plotlines that can be deciphered by the reader (and Drum) without giving anything completely away. So far, so good in that respect, with Rossmo once again blending wonder and terror in different ratios for each new mental journey Drum takes, and peppering them with hints of things to come, so that their full importance isn’t clear until later. This invites readers to study the hallucinations closely and try to hold onto the myriad details, engaging with Rossmo’s art intimately. It also demands that he always be thinking ahead and finding new ways of displaying Drum’s experiences, keeping the comic’s momentum up narratively and visually.

“Momentum” is a good word for Rossmo’s work in general. If there’s one thing that ties together all his projects, it’s the kinetic energy his art contains. Sometimes it’s almost overwhelming, with jittery borders around everything and stray lines populating every panel. Even when he goes cleaner or crisper, though, there’s an undeniable liveliness to what he does, a strong sense of motion. Usually it comes from the characters, but if they are calm or still or (most often) dead, Rossmo infuses that mobility into the world around them. His art doesn’t just grab the eyes, it pulls them along with its own enthusiasm for the story. Rossmo’s stuff can’t sit still, and that’s what unifies it across all the many looks he’s worked in over time.

One final bit to note about Rossmo is that he basically always inks himself (I’m not aware of any instances where he hasn’t), and does his own coloring much of the time as well. I point this out not to try and elevate him, because there’s nothing inherently better or worse about an artist who inks and/or colors himself than one who does not. I mention it only because by tackling the inks and colors as well as the pencils, Rossmo gives himself as many possible methods as he can to play with his style. I imagine, therefore, that doing this top-to-bottom artwork is important to Rossmo, not due to some weird possessiveness of his own work, but because changing up the look and feel of his art is what he’s all about. So it’s significant that this urge to diversify doesn’t stop at penciling, nor even at linework, that Rossmo commonly covers every stage of the process and brings such as much imagination and variety to them all. Indeed, his coloring is usually harder to spot, less consistent from book to book even than his pencil-and-ink work. From the muted greens and sepias of Green Wake to the Day-Glo psychedelia of Drumhellar, Rossmo’s palette is large and acrobatic.

Riley Rossmo is obviously a favorite of mine, and not just among current artists. His versatility is a rare thing, and so is his insistence on visiting all of its borders. He’s a rewarding creator to follow, because the freshness is baked right in—his next comic will be what is, as far as I know, his very first foray into historical fiction, as he and Alex Grecian re-team for Rasputin. It’s hard to know just what to expect from Rossmo on that book, or from Grecian for that matter, and the not knowing is what draws me in. The not knowing is what made me a fan of Rossmo’s in the first place, and it continues to be the best thing about his art.


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