Taking critiques and getting rejections as a comic creator is never easy. Recently, I just wrapped up a pitch with long-time friend of Panel Bound Skuds McKinley. While I’ve received a ton of good feedback from publishers and editors, most of it has come attached to a “thanks, but no thanks” rejection letter. Needless to say sometimes every creator needs to know that they aren’t the only one who has excitedly opened an email just to have their hopes dashed. It was fortunate then that I was able to speak with comic artist and writer Riley Rossmo. Riley has been illustrating for years now and, like any aspiring comic creator, faced more than a few rejections. His seasoned advice is not only helpful and thoughtful, but something I needed to hear.
Riley is the artist and co-creator of one of the best horror comics of 2012–Rebel Blood. In addition to that, he is working with the extremely talented Kurtis J Wiebe on Image Comic titles Green Wake, and Debris. Riley’s illustrations show a masterful understanding of what makes a good horror story truly, well, horrifying. I caught up with Riley over the phone to talk about getting rejections, what makes a good horror comic, and animal carcasses.
How did you first get into comics?
I was going to be a chef actually, when I finished high school. I didn’t really know that you could have a job making comics, to be honest. I was on a trip to see some friends in Calgary and Todd McFarlane is from there. So, I was up at the art college and I found out that there is all these people that make comics that are from Calgary. So, I was like ‘wow, you can actually have a job making stuff’ and I started doing submissions…. this is kind of a wandering answer to that question.
No, not at all, so artists like Todd McFarlane inspired you?
Yeah, it was never really a choice; it was just something I did. I never actively remember deciding to do it. I knew for a while when I started making money doing advertising and doing other types of illustrations, I was still sending submissions to Marvel and DC and Dark Horse when they took unsolicited submissions. So, even though I was doing commercial illustration I didn’t like it.
The goal was to do comics instead of commercial illustration?
Yeah, even though I was making ends meet drawing doing commercial work, I still wanted to hold my dream that I could make comics somehow.
What was the first professional comic job you ever had?
I went to San Diego a bunch of times and got tons of rejection and critiques and then I met Brian Wood there and he was really nice to me and then I liked “Channel Zero” so much I was like ‘well, I want to get published wherever he gets published.’ So, my first book “Seven Sons” I did with Alex Grecian that I did my first book with Image also and we teamed up and did this folk tale and we pitched it to Larry at AiT –he was the editor. We had forty pages of a graphic novel and we pitched it to him and he said ‘if you finish it, I might publish it.’ So, we finished it and we did 120 pages and pitched it to him again and he published it.
When pitching a story, do you think creators should have a full book done or do you think that a five-page script pitch still works?
That’s tricky, I think that whatever happens in the first seven pages should be the essence of your comic. Like, when you are working on a pitch, and I look at a lot of cool pitches that friends do or people I know from social media send me, and say your book is about dragons, if I don’t see a dragon in the first six pages, I think that pitch is a failure. If your book is about zombies and I don’t see a zombie until the 12th page, I don’t know if that pitch is doing the right thing. That being said, I think a full 20 pages is a nice pitch.
You mentioned that you had gotten a lot of rejections at SDCC, as an artist and creator, how do you deal with those rejections?
I just make stuff; it’s in me to keep making things. So, I was going to do it one way or the other. Even with all the pages I probably did–for Marvel 15 different Wolverine and Daredevil samples and for DC I probably did nine or ten Batman ones and for each one, they would be like six pages and for Dark Horse I did Ghost ones. At first it is disheartening but after a bit, an editor will say ‘hey, this is okay’ but after three years you have to hold onto that tiny bit of goodness.
As an artist, what makes you want to work on someone else’s book versus just doing your own comics?
It takes me a really long time to write and Rebel Blood was the first thing that I went that direction with. It takes me six months to do four issues, which is ridiculous. Six months to write four issues is crazy. So, there is a time problem. I just read a script and see if there is something that sparks something inside of me. Kurtis (Wiebe) pitched me; I don’t know how many things, maybe five things before I was like ‘yeah, that’s the one.’ There is just something in it that I relate to.
What made you land on the specific style in Rebel Blood of the unique looking zombie-like creatures?
I really like horror movies. I wanted to make monsters that were grotesque but grotesque in kind of a new way. For something like mutants or zombies that have been done so much, something a little more, I kept on thinking of cysts, like cancerous growths. Tetsuo’s arm in Akira was a really big inspiration for me. John Carpenter’s The Thing too, weird images in that, cottage cheese and cellulite were inspiration. My wife is a nurse as well and she tells me crazy shit. You know how they do liposuction surgery and someone is walking down the hall with a garbage bag full of fat. So I just applied all that and at my cabin, my family has a cabin up north, in the garbage dump there sometimes, hunters will out carcasses so they’ll strip apart a bear carcass or a deer and just leave bits and pieces and that is a good helpful visual.
What is the key to drawing and pacing a really good horror comic?
I’ve thought about this a lot because the medium isn’t very conducive to horror because you can’t do something like music build and a big reveal or that shock moment. I think you really have to come up with images that stick with you. So, big splash pages that are so visceral and fucked up that it just stays with you, that you finish the book and that one haunting image just sticks in your head. Like with Rebel Blood I think I succeeded with that cover of the stag man, I think that image has lasting power. I think the real key to a horror comic is one to two really unsettling images per issue.
Is there a limit to that? Can people take it over the limit? Like Crossed, every single image of that book is fucked up.
Yeah, every image is this horrible atrocity and I really liked the first Crossed, the Garth Ennis mini. But, when everything is so horrible there is no calm spot to balance out that brain-eating depravity that is going on nonstop and nothing really sticks out in it.
For aspiring writers and artists looking to get into comics, what advice do you have?
I teach post secondary; it is like a third year illustration class. Usually by the fourth class I tell them to quit if they can do something else. I say ‘if you can do something else don’t be an artist’ because it is hard, it is hard to be motivated when things are shitty, but if you need to make thing then just keep making things. Don’t talk about making things. If you want to be a writer then write and write and write and show people what you are writing and show people you don’t know and you’ll get rejection but just keep doing it. Don’t do four pages and think ‘I did four pages that’s enough’ do four pages and then do another four pages and if those projects don’t fly do another thing, don’t get stuck on the same thing just keep trying until you find your voice. I think that for anyone who wants to make comics there is some kind of venue it is just not what you might expect. I always thought that if I make enough comics I would be able to do Daredevil and Spiderman but instead I just made enough comics and started working at Image and doing more and more books at Image and eventually Marvel called me. But if I didn’t have a voice then it wouldn’t have happened. I don’t know if it still works like this but people in my generation, everyone wants to be Jim Lee but there is only one Jim Lee. So, instead of trying emulating Jim Lee try and do something different.
The hardest thing for me is when I see somebody who wants to make comics and they keep doing the same story. Like, it’ll be the first book they’ve ever done and instead of trying new ideas they’ll keep on working on the same Sci-Fi comic for like three years. You can always go back to it but if it’s not resonating with anybody, just do something else.