Riley Rossmo is many things. Talented. Prolific. Diverse. Hard-Working. Imaginative. And he also happens to be a righteously friendly guy, too. Arguably the hardest working man in comics, Riley was kind enough to take a break from his duties on Batman/The Shadow and chat with me about his career, artistic influences, and the secret to his incredible output levels.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Riley, how have you been?
I’m great! The past year has been amazing; I’m so fortunate I get to make comics and work from home. Our daughter is 16 months old. When I take breaks, I can go for a walk or get coffee with her and my wife.
One of the underappreciated aspects of the profession, congrats! I first discovered your work on Proof, which you did in collaboration with Alex Grecian. How did you land that gig, and were you working in comics before Proof?
Alex and I did an OGN at AiT/Planet Lar before Proof called Sevens Sons. AiT/Planet Lar did some other books Alex and I liked so we pitched it there. Seven Sons was a good portfolio piece to show publishers as evidence we could do the work. We did an 8-page Proof story in Negative Burn and then did a whole issue of Proof (people often only do five or six pages of finished art) for our pitch to Image. Image liked the first issue and greenlit the series.
Let’s roll back for a second and talk about your roots. You went to the Albert College of Art and Design, was that always with the goal of being a comic artist? When did you fall in love with comics and what books inspired you in your early fandom?
I’ve loved comics most of my life. My mom thinks they saved me academically. Until 5th grade or so they were the only thing I was interested in reading. They were a gateway to a lifelong love of literature. The first comic I can remember getting was a Tales of G.I. Joe #3. I had read comics before that, but that one cemented my love for the medium. I read all kinds of comics. My local store “six for a dollar” bins, so I read mostly older books. At the time I could get one new X-men or Spider-Man for a dollar or six older books. I liked G.I. Joe and Action Force (the British version of G.I. Joe), Spider-Man (Ross Andru era), X-men (John Byrne), Tomb of Dracula (Gene Colan), Conan, and the New Mutants (Bill Sienkiewicz).
I’d find something I liked and would go back every week and comb through the bins looking for more of a run. They all made me think about drawing. The first comic image I remember trying to emulate was the cover to Wolverine #1 (from the Frank Miller mini-series).
For a while, in college, I thought I’d only be able to make comics for fun. I didn’t know if I‘d be able to make a career of comics and for a long time, I didn’t. I started doing commercial illustration while in college; including editorial illustration for magazines, advertising stuff, storyboards, and some graphic design. All the while I was doing samples and making mini comics. Once I graduated, I was doing all kinds of illustration and working full-time. The Art College taught me to be disciplined enough and gave me the time management skills to continue making comics for myself until making them professionally was possible.
It’s not uncommon for an artist’s style to evolve over time, but I think you’re on an entirely different level when it comes to artistic evolution. It seems to me you’ve altered your style to suit the work, much more so than most cartoonists working today. Is that a conscious choice? And does that take a level of fearlessness?
Ha! That’s a good question; I think every project has specific needs. Sometimes what I do doesn’t fit the project, so I evolve to try to make illustrations that suit whatever I’m doing. I like to try new tools and techniques, so I give myself specific constraints for each project or issue to work within. Sometimes I limit myself by what tools I can use, or what colors, or what kind of layouts I create. I think it forces me to be bold and keeps me a little outside of my comfort zone, which forces me to grow.
Not only are you the most adaptable and – by proxy – surprising artist I know, but you’re also astoundingly prolific. In an industry where most illustrators struggle to draw 22 pages on a monthly schedule, how are you able to handle such a heavy workload?
I think I used to be a little more reckless with my image making. Anytime I had an idea, or someone pitched me something interesting I’d say “Yes that sounds awesome!” and just draw until it was done. Once I agreed to do a project I’d be on the hook for it and have to do it regardless of what else I had on my plate. To make deadlines I’ve had to be regimented about my work schedule. I start working at 7 a.m. and work until 4 or 5 whether I feel good, bad, inspired or not. I do 8 hours of drawing a day. Four or five years ago, I would work longer days, 5-7 days a week. Drawing three or four covers and 30 interior pages was the norm. Since our daughter was born, I’ve slowed down a little, and I think my work is better for it. The anatomy is better, the page design is better, and the storytelling is better.
You go back and forth between “for-hire” work and creator-owned projects, do you have a preference? What are the pros and cons of each?
I like both. The kid in me likes doing work for hire. Being able to draw an interpretation of iconic characters is fun. With established characters, there’s always going to be some editorial input which can be constraining, but it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off. The freedom of creator-owned books is great, but the financial ups and downs can be stressful. When things are good, they’re really good but when you’re 3/4 into a series and sales are down it’s tough.
I think it’s important for creators to speak about the realities of creator-owned work because all too often we focus on the success stories as evidence that EVERY creator should abandon licensed, paying gigs to do their own IP. Can you elaborate on what kind of sales levels you need to see in order for the creator-owned decision to make sense?
Creator-owned books can be tricky. Initial orders on titles give you a good idea how a series will perform. But there are multiple factors to take into account. If you write, draw and color a book you can survive on lower sales than something with a big creative team. Most books atrophy as they progress. However, if initial sales are high enough by the time single issue sales drop too low to sustain the creators the trade sales can make up the difference and allow a book to continue.
You also have to factor in media rights. A good studio option can help out a lot financially. The tricky thing is figuring out how long to stay on a book hoping one of the aforementioned factors allows you to keep making a book. I think the decision to continue or end a series depends so much on the individual and the deal the creator has with a publisher. But when a creator-owned book does well, it does REALLY well. Sometimes I think of it as an artistic form of gambling. It’s hard to quit something you love and believe in, even when sales definitely indicate you should wrap it up. I think if a book’s expenses outweigh the income it’s time to wrap it up.
Any chance we’ll see a re-solicit of that complete Proof collection that was solicited a year or two back?
Alex and I would really like a Proof HC. The proof fan base was small but super loyal. Maybe we’ll revisit it in a few years.
As you know, I’m a passionate original art collector and sometimes wish digital illustration never happened, haha, but I do realize the value it brings to artists. What are your thoughts about digital and how are you incorporating it into your process?
Haha, I agree there are a few artists I wish I could get pages from that are all digital, too. I think digital tools are helpful but they are just tools and they can get gimmicky. My process is complicated right now.
- Start with tiny layouts with a 0.3 pencil
- Scan and move stuff around
- Sometimes scale up or down in Photoshop
- Print out at 7×10
- Pencil the figures again
- Scan and draw any environments I haven’t already drawn in Manga Studio on top of pencils
- Output all of that on 11×17 Bristol and ink
- Scan the inks
- Add halftone digitally
So basically I’m doing all the steps I used to do on a light table, photocopier and zipatone digitally instead of analog.
You’re also an original art collector. Tell me about your favorite pieces, or grails? Do you have a Sienkiewicz? Are you able to trade your art for pieces from other creators (if so, I’m jealous!)
I have a little bit of a collection. I’m always flattered when another creator wants to trade. It’s hard to pick a favorite page. I have a few Nathan Fox pages I love, a few Geoff Darrow drawings, a Sienkiewicz New Mutants page (on duo-tone board), a small James Jean drawing, a Jose Garcia-Lopez Deadman sketch, and Tony DeZuniga Jonah Hex sketch, and an amazing Barron Storey piece. The most recent piece I acquired is a Paul Pope cover. If money were no option and I could find one I’d love a John Buscema/Alfredo Alcala Savage Sword of Conan page, a Gene Colan Tomb of Dracula page, a Joe Kubert Enemy Ace piece and a Bernie Wrightson Swamp-Thing. Of more modern stuff, I’m still looking for a nice Eduardo Risso 100 Bullets page. I’d like a Dave Cooper piece and if I could ever find one a Rand Holmes page.
To look at your schedule, one would think you never have time for commissions, yet I know from personal experience you not only do commissions, but they’re mind-blowingly great. Talk to me about commissions and the best/worst things about them? Are they stressful? Do you enjoy them beyond the supplemental income they generate?
I take a day or two before a convention and do a handful of commissions. While I’m thinking about doing them, they stress me out! I try to think of each one as a cover and not just a figure on a page. I like to have some design element or narrative element that’s unique to each commission.
Once I have a thumbnail drawn, and I’m painting them or inking it’s relaxing. Commissions, for me, are less about the income and more about getting to interpret different characters.
You’ve collaborated with so many writers, without naming names, talk a bit about what makes a great writing partner? Do you prefer working “Marvel Method” or full script, or is it not about the structure but more about the creative freedom and respect they afford you?
Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has worked with me because they really are into what I do and as such write to my strengths. The more freedom to interpret a page I’m afforded the more interesting the compositions. I prefer a script process that straddles the Marvel Method and full script. The writers I most enjoy describe important story points but then will have sections where they say, “do a fight for next four pages” or “it’s two-page spread, make it cool.”
You’ve done some writing, including Drumhellar, is that something we can expect to see more from you in the future? Do you aspire to write stories that someone else illustrates?
I’d like to write more. I enjoy the conceptualizing phase of projects: figuring out the big moments, design elements, major themes, etc. I think I’d like always to be involved in the look of books I’m making. If I were writing for someone else, I’d still want to collaborate on the character designs and graphic design elements of whatever we’re doing.
If you could impart one piece of advice to aspiring freelancers, what would it be? Are there mistakes you made in your career that you want others to avoid?
Wow, that’s a tough question. The best thing I’ve done in the past four years is finding a peer group of illustrators whose work I respect and receiving honest, constructive criticism from them. It’s helped me get better as an artist. Working in a vacuum can be hard and sometimes I need an outside perspective to tell me if I’m getting repetitive or lazy.
Whenever possible, collaborate on something short at first before you commit to the long term. Smooth and test out the kinks in your workflow to ensure a smooth collaboration.
What other creators, past, and present, inspire you? What else do you draw inspiration from?
There are too many to name. My greatest influence of all time is Bill Sienkiewicz. Everything about his work resonates with me. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by Kelley Jones, Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, Will Eisner, Eduardo Risso, Bernie Wrightson, Taiyō Matsumoto, Paul Pope, Nathan Fox, José Antonio Muñoz, Joe Kubert, James Jean, George Pratt, and many more. I also love art nouveau artist/illustrators like Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Aubry Beardsley. Some artists from other movements that inspire me: William Blake, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Ralph Bakshi.
Authors I love include Rudyard Kipling, especially The Jungle Book, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jim Thompson, Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Letham, and Bram Stoker.
How important are conventions for you both as a means of income and a networking tool?
I enjoy visiting new places; they’re good for both networking and income. It’s good to meet all the people I work with face to face. I correspond with most the people I work with through email, so it’s nice to have a real world interaction.
Felix Lu (FelixComicArt), one of my favorite people in the art business, reps you. How valuable is it to have a rep who “gets it?”
Felix is the best. He has really helped with the original art side of my job. I’m so focused on making comics I don’t have the ability or desire to keep the original art side of things under control. It’s nice to have someone you can trust who knows the market.
Drawing comics can be an insular process. What do you do to quell the loneliness? Or do you embrace it?
It’s hard to make stuff in a vacuum some days. I have a group of friends that work together on Skype that talk most days. I also listen to podcasts and audiobooks.
What podcasts do you dig?
You mean, aside from 11 O’Clock Comics? I listen to the Felix Comic Art Podcast, Astonishing Legends, Mysterious Universe, Spirits, The Unexplained, The Paranormal Podcast, Rune Soup, Skeptiko, Serial, S-Town, and Radiolab.
And we appreciate your love of podcasts, haha! How was c2e2 (we missed the show this year) and what conventions are you attending in 2017?
C2E2 was awesome, thanks! It was really well organized. A great-sized show. NYCC is the only other show on my schedule this year.
You’re kicking ass on Batman/The Shadow right now, but it’s a six-issue mini-series. Can you tell us what you’ve got coming up next?
Sorry, it’s top secret.
Fair enough! Be sure to let us know when you’re out from under the embargo. In the meantime, where can our readers and listeners keep up with your work and appearances online?
Thanks so much Riley, congratulations on all the well-deserved success. We’ll see you in October in New York.