Image Comics: Alex, what drew you to Riley's art? How did you two get connected?
Alex Grecian: Riley and I met at Comic-Con in San Diego. It's probably been more than a decade ago now. At the time, I was trying to draw my own comics because I didn't really know a lot of artists, but I was lousy at the illustration end of it and I wanted to concentrate on just writing. I sort of accidentally saw Riley's portfolio over his shoulder while he was showing it to someone else, and it didn't look like anything anybody else was doing, but there was an energy in his work that I loved. I've always been drawn to artists with unique styles and I felt like he was something special, he was just going to take off at some point.
We talked a little and kinda hit it off, and I pitched him a couple of ideas. Right away we made a graphic novel together and enjoyed working together enough that we wanted to do a continuing series, so we pitched PROOF to Image. We didn't get an answer about it right away, so we just started making the book and sending each issue to Image because we really didn't want to do that book anywhere else. We didn't even try to send it anywhere else. Eventually we found out we'd been given a green light months earlier and hadn't realized it, so we were already way ahead of schedule on the book. Persistence won out.
Riley was there at the very beginning of my career. Our partnership and faith in each others' abilities launched us both, and I still tend to think in his style when I'm writing comic book scripts. Even for other artists.
IC: Riley, what attracted you to this project?
Riley Rossmo: Alex and I started our careers together in comics in 2006, so getting back together after almost 6-7 years to do another book was the biggest draw to the project. We've both matured a ton as storytellers since working on PROOF, and to get back together again with a better skill-set to make a comic with Alex was very appealing. I'm a big fan of his prose work (The Yard, etc.), which is historical fiction, and when Alex mentioned the idea of doing something with a historical starting point I was immediately interested.
Alex pitched the idea of a likable Rasputin, which I thought was interesting. The typical depiction of Rasputin in popular culture has always been of the "mad monk," but I liked the idea of our Rasputin being charming, charismatic, and kind at times, and building up reasons for his madness. Making Rasputin more than just a scheming evil charlatan.
IC: Riley, what's your character design process like? You sent over a few design sheets and headshots, and it's interesting to see you working out what a character looks like bit-by-bit.
RR: I start every project off with a handful of head drawings and cover ideas. I draw the protagonist till I feel like I've got that about right, then go straight to doing a cover. After the first cover is done I start developing the rest of the cast. My biggest concern when designing characters is that the main character is distinct from the supporting cast.
Rasputin is the only person in this book with long hair, so even when I'm drawing tiny panels, all the reader needs to know is that Rasputin is the tiny shape with long black hair. And because the cast of Rasputin is so small, everyone has a unique hair color. It gives the reader a fast way to differentiate characters. (I borrowed that idea from Archie comics.)
I also try to make sure all the cast members have unique body shapes, like the cast of The Incredibles did. RASPUTIN has a giant muscular character, a heroic-looking character, one who's thin, one pear-shaped, one hourglass, one covered in icicles, etc. The only body shape I repeated was the heroic form, since Oswald Rayner and Rasputin both have sort of athletic heroic builds.
After I work out the cast's basic look, I put them all in a police-style lineup and make sure none of them repeats shapes or could be confused with any of the others. The only character I retooled at that point was the Tzarina. Her initial design was a little more like Cersei from Game of Thrones, but I felt her look was too far removed from the real historical Tzarina.
IC: Ivan Plascencia does colors for RASPUTIN. What's your relationship with him like? Do you discuss mood and tone ahead of time? What do you like about what he brings to the table?
RR: An old friend of mine had worked with Ivan and thought he might be a good fit for me. We try not to give Ivan too many notes. Alex will make a note in the script that a scene needs to feel cold or warm or have a different look from the rest of the book, and that's about it. Once in a while I mock up a blood guide to show him how much blood I'd like to see, or how open a panel should look, but after Ivan turned in the first issue I was really confident in his ability and trusted him to run with it.
The thing I appreciate most about what Ivan does is he gets what I mean with all the little lines I sometimes drop in. Whether a triangular shape I put at the end of someones arm in a tiny panel is supposed to be a gun or an empty hand, or if a line on a face is a gesture mark or if I'm delineating a plane of the face. Ivan will use color holds to add depth to my inks, which would otherwise read as just random patterns.
AG: Ivan (and Tom Mauer, who does our lettering) helps make the whole process so smooth and so much fun I can't even imagine what we'd have done without him. He's just always on the same page we are, in terms of the effects we're trying for and the look we want this book to have.
I do drop occasional notes for him into the script, but not often and usually only bare-bones stuff like: "Ivan, this scene is set in the Winter Kingdom, so everything needs to look like it's made of ice and snow." He doesn't need much and when he surprises us with a color scheme or effect we hadn't considered, it's always dead-on, the right choice and better than anything we were thinking.
These guys are a dream to work with.
IC: Your artwork is notable in part because of how varied it is. You use zipatone and smudges well enough to where I'm never sure whether you're working digitally or with pen and paper or both. How do you describe your style to people? Are there certain marks you feel you have to hit for it to look like "A Riley Rossmo Drawing?"
RR: I use what ever feels right on a given day. I prefer to do as much analog work as possible, but where I'm working or what I want to achieve is sometimes expedited by the computer.
I have such a hard time describing my style. I draw how I draw because I can't do it any other way. I struggled for a long time trying to build my work from a linear basis, but the more I do, the more I realize that I'm comfortable using shape and value to build figures as opposed to lines. I guess, for me, a Riley Rossmo drawing is about composition and energy. It's about the idea of the drawing, not the precision.
IC: You sent over a layout for RASPUTIN that's fascinating to me. You render the characters with sketchy grey lines, but then outline furniture and other things with a hot pink. Can you describe how you put together a page for us?
RR: I'm still trying to figure out the best way to do a layout. Lately I start by reading the script, and as I read it I make notes or do super fast layouts. If something in my Post-It-size layout feels right to me, I'll continue to develop it at 2x3 inches, but not all the panels or figures might be working. If some of them are, I scan the tiny drawing and blow it up and place it in a 7x10 page in Manga Studio or Photoshop, then I'll digitally draw new backgrounds or figures in pink just to keep everything separate in my mind. Then I change it, turn the figures pink and the backgrounds cyan, and I print them on a board at 11x17. On the board I tighten up faces with a pencil, and then ink it all.
Lately I've been inking with a #2 round brush, a splatter screen, a stamp pad, white gel pen, and a small quill. Sometimes I cut into it with an X-Acto knife or I'll use a toothbrush to get an effect, then I scan the page again and add a digital halftone. But any of that can change any day, depending on how I feel. To date there've only been four pages in Rasputin that I've done all digitally and that was because I was traveling at the time and needed to streamline my process. Those pages come out looking about the same, but I feel they lack a little something.