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June 4, 2016

CR Sunday Interview: Rich Tommaso



imageRich Tommaso was one of the cartoonists that came out of the second great wave of alternative cartoonists, and for a few years joined people like Jeremy Eaton, Al Columbia, Jess Johnson, Ellen Forney, Jim Woodring, Jim Blanchard, JR Williams and a cast of hundreds in the then-comics town of the period, Seattle. Tommaso did an Eros title (Cannibal Porn), a stand-alone graphic novel when that was a choice worth noting (Clover Honey) and a Fantagraphics series (Rollercoaster) in those initial years, series like The Horror Of Collier County and various stand-alone books including one of the Hyperion/CCS series to close out that period and to fill the years since. He has been everything from an ambitious self-publisher to a colorist for hire.

Tommaso has recently been most closely affiliated with Image Comics. His Dark Corridor series just concluded and hot on its heels comes the next: She-Wolf. I always like talking with Rich about comics and life. I greatly enjoy several things about the way this new series looks, and hope that it finds an audience appropriate to Tommaso's talent. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: Rich, there's always been an element of horror in your work, or at least it's one of the many genres in which you've shown a consistent interest.. Can you talk about the media through which you've experienced horror? Am I right in thinking you're a cinematic horror fan first and foremost? What are some of the works that made you stand up and pay attention?

RICH TOMMASO: Rosemary's Baby would have to be my number one inspiration for doing horror material. It has sparked story ideas in me for many years. The concept behind my 1998 series, The Horror Of Collier County came directly from re watching that movie and flipping it around so that Christians were the threat to the main character. A lot of She Wolf's early ideas were also inspired by that film.

There are two points that hit home with me in Rosemary's Baby: 1) The Catholic guilt angle--the indelible mark Catholicism has left on Rosemary's psyche from childhood -- I can relate to that. Although I am not a religious person, I still have fears, guilt, and doubts over things that were instilled in me through my family's Roman Catholic beliefs -- from childhood. 2) Rosemary's belief that she has been ostracized by every single person around her -- or -- her paranoia that this is what's happening I also relate to on a high level. I don't have a lot of friends that I see in person very often, but the ones I do hang out with, I sometimes feel are pulling something over on me. I have many arguments with folks that I fabricate in my mind. This is a common thing to do, I've heard a lot of people say the same thing and It most likely comes from working alone for many hours a day, week in, week out. But it's those personal little fears and hangups that spawn these story ideas for me.

My crime story ideas come from the same place. I've read a few horror novels, but yeah, it's mostly movies like Carnival Of Souls, Spider Baby, The Exorcist, Don't Look Now, Halloween, Alien, Phantasm, The Hunger, Near Dark, An American Werewolf In London, Let The Right One In... that truly inspire my horror comics work. Those and the comics of Charles Burns.

imageSPURGEON: One thing that connects past straight-up horror you've done with this new project is that it seems like your more stylized work gets done in this genre. Your character designs are more out there, your page structures are a bit more loose, and with this one it seems like you're going with a very specific coloring strategy? Is that a fair assessment? What feels different to you in terms of the nuts and bolts of making a comic like this new one?

TOMMASO: I was looking through some old sketchbooks and I would occasionally run into these odd, "elongated" figure drawings. They reminded me a little of Gustav Klimt's figure drawings. I thought, "These tall and lanky characters would be perfect for a werewolf comic." In every werewolf flick, there's always a lot of stretching of body parts going on, you know? American Werewolf is the perfect example-- his hands are stretching, his torso, his snout. So, I bought a few Klimt books and just sat around copying his paintings in pencil form. After sketching out some character ideas for about a week or so, I eventually came up with Gabrielle and her family. Even the chubbier members of her family looked interesting propped onto very long legs.

I was tired of the classic, '50s-style comic art I had been using for Dark Corridor and I thought since Dark Corridor was received so poorly with Image readers, it couldn't hurt to completely shift gears with my next series. I also get very bored drawing in the same style from comic to comic. The six different titles I was doing under my Recoil comics label just before working at Image were also very close to the drawing style of those seven issues of Dark Corridor.

I also decided that since I was going for as natural a watercolor look as possible, I would delete some of the black line art that wasn't necessary -- where the light was caught -- and that would be where the color could fill in. I tend to favor the Creepy and Eerie artwork of folks like Steve Ditko -- who constructed their comics pages wholly as a painting, as opposed to those who inked their comics like they normally would and then filled-in their line art with gray colors afterwards.

SPURGEON: That's the first time I've talked to you about developing a project. Tell me more. Do you do designs? Do you sketch things out? Is there writing beforehand? How much material related to a projects exists before you start working on an issue #1? If I asked you to turn over your notes for #1, what would I get?

TOMMASO: You'd get a mess. [Spurgeon laughs] This thing started out as a werewolf story set in a medieval time period. I simply wanted to do a werewolf comic of some kind, I'd always wanted to do something significant with werewolves. The script for that first version was typed-out and then I did sketches of characters and scenes of the story.

Then, I worried about whether or not that kind of stuff sells in comics anymore. You see, I never thought about that stuff in the past, but working with Image, I figure, if I don't ever think about sales, why the hell even work for a publisher like Image? In the past, I was always just doing whatever the hell I wanted and screw everybody out there if they don't like it. But, working with certain publishers became a "one and done" situation, leaving my newer works in progress homeless. If I don't [think] about this stuff, worry about decent sales in order for it to be practical to keep working at Image, then I might as well just go back to self-publishing and forget about making any money whatsoever for my efforts. Anyway, I still do what I want, but I try to keep in mind what's selling and what isn't out there.

So, a week later, I scrapped that version and then wrote a demonic possession horror script about a girl who became evil on her 18th birthday, as witnessed by her younger sister. That led to the idea of the girl being a werewolf who instead becomes cognizant of this evil change on her 18th birthday and is haunted by it. At that point, the "chubby" girl from the medieval version didn't seem right for the part, so I redesigned the character.

About a week later, after I had written all four issues and thumb nailed issue one for the first "season" of the story, a surreal film played in my head of a different story. It was a jumbling of some elements from that original issue #1 script, but it was more a totally different take on the story altogether. I had experimented with this kind of writing many times over the past 25 years or so, but had always failed at it. Something always seemed forced about the intention to write in a surrealist vein -- either that -- or it would just read like a poor version of a David Lynch movie. But this time, I just let these strange images flow and guide my writing without worrying about whether or not they would make a coherent story in the end.

The next morning I was surprised to find that it actually made sense (to me, anyway) so I decided to toss out those four scripts and move into a different direction once again. At that point, I again, thumb nailed the issue out entirely, to make sure it would all fit in the pages it need to. Hopefully it all works out well. I feel like Image is the perfect place to do a comic like this because many of their comics are strange and mystifying from issue to issue. I'm often reading titles and asking myself, " What the fuck is going on in this comic?"


SPURGEON: [laughs] Is there anything about your enjoyment of horror that you think breaks with what's being done right now? Are there conceptual differences, do you think, in the way you approach such material and the way most people do? I think this is Image's third or fourth Werewolf book of the last 12 months: how does your break with others?

TOMMASO: I'm not sure. I imagine my story is set apart from the others by its lack of a heavy plot. As always, my story is more character-based and conceptual than directed by the plot of the story alone. I do worry that there's too much going on conceptually and not enough of monsters ripping people apart in it. There's some action--and a lot of werewolf transformation, but those scenes are abrupt and jarring -- they happen in unexpected places and don't last long enough for her to do any damage to anyone.

I also worry about competing with the more detail driven artwork of those other comics. My art -- no matter how much I change it up -- always remains pretty simplistic in nature. I started out thinking I should draw this one like Bryan Hitch or someone like that, but for one thing, I'm not very good at drawing in a realistic style and two, I'd need a ton of lead time for something like that to be released on a monthly basis. I had to pitch this series immediately after wrapping up Dark Corridor to avoid a major income gap.

I hope this slightly new style appeals to people outside of the usual indie crowd. Some artists can do that and I don't know how. There are very simplistic cartoonists who are embraced by a large audience. Maybe I needed to have drawn a favorable run on Batman years ago.

imageSPURGEON: Are there connections, do you think, in your enjoyment of horror and your enjoyment of crime? They both tend towards the conflicted execution of a heroic narrative, and tend to comment on alienation due to the outsider nature of their casts. Is there something to which you personally respond in one or the other? Are you a monster or a criminal, Rich?

TOMMASO: It's easier for me to come up with crime story ideas. Maybe that's due to the fact that I've read a ton of crime novels and have probably seen many more crime films than horror films. If I can't pin point a way to talk about some deep dark fear I have, a horror concept will linger in my mind for many years before it develops into a fully-formed story. But, with the crime stuff, I'm always coming up with fully formed ideas, so yeah, maybe my financial crises haunt me more than my personal demons.

Crime comics don't seem to have a big audience right now. I mean, Sin City will always sell, but I believe that's based on the fame of Frank Miller and not so much on people's interest in the genre. I'm waiting here with piles of notebooks for the day crime comics to come back into style.

SPURGEON: Rich, can you go back and contextualize the publishing decisions you're making right now, as a creator? You wrapped up Dark Corridor, and now you're starting this one. Talk to me about how you got to this new series, how you decide what series to do at any one time.

TOMMASO: Dark Corridor took a sharp nose dive in sales from one issue to the next. It got great reviews, Image did a great job promoting it, so I figured it must be that crime comics -- or at least, my crime comics -- were not selling at the moment. I realized the comics that did sell well over at Image were of the Sci-Fi and Horror variety. Since I'd worked on horror concepts before, it seemed like the next logical step for me.

My goal was to make it look, feel, read as though it was not produced by the person who made Dark Corridor. In fact, after I had prepared all of my imagery and story concepts for She Wolf, I pitched it to Eric Stephenson who liked the idea, but asked, "How can we make this as unique as possible? I really want this to look different, so people don't think of it as just being Dark Corridor part two or anything like that." That was the best thing I could've heard, since I had already accomplished just that.

I hope this one does well enough for me to continue working with Image, because I now have a fully-formed Science Fiction story that I desperately want to get to next.

SPURGEON: I know that you've influenced some cartoonists, which might be a weird position in which to find yourself if you feel like you're still seeking out your audience. Do you see yourself in others' work? Do you think your fellow cartoonists get your work on a level that maybe a broader audience doesn't? Do they like different things?

TOMMASO: Huh. I don't see my influence in other people's work. I do continue to see other cartoonists influence in my work, often times to an embarrassing, irritating degree, but not so much the other way around. Most of the younger generation seems to be heavily influenced by obscure Marvel and DC artists of the '70s, '80s, and even '90s era.

I have found that even though I've made this shift from semi-autobiographical to mainstream genre comics, my audience has remained the same. It's really grown as well, just being published with Image, but people who've read my Fantagraphics and Alternative Comics material still like what I'm doing over at Image. I think audiences today have a broader acceptance of comics across the board. In the early '90s it seemed like there was such a divided crowd, you either read art comics -- for lack of a better term; "alternative" was the buzz word back then -- or you read mainstream action/fantasy comics. That's what my experience was like, anyway.

I like that that line or separation is disappearing. It makes it much easier for me, that's for sure. If there are people out there who are going to analyze, critique and argue for the artistic merits of Rob Liefeld's work, then there's hope for me. I don't even mean that as a slam on Liefeld, It truly gives me hope to see that the tide can turn on how people view an artist's body of work. My comic art isn't as hated on as his -- just Google "Rob Liefeld" and you'll get more trash talking about his artwork than anyone's. But, after feeling totally obscured, irrelevant, and practically "invisible" working within the confines of the indie comics world, it's inspiring to me that I can break out of that obscurity because of publishers like Image and the fact that there are intelligent people out there who value comics beyond the ones that are trying to be the next great American novel. Because I'm never going to write that novel. I tried for a long time to be that cartoonist and I'm just not any good at it. For the longest time I felt that giving up writing reality-based comics was to give up on the comics form entirely. But, most people chill the fuck out when they get older. I still love what I do and I've discovered I enjoy doing genre comics much more than I ever enjoyed doing comics about real life experiences.


SPURGEON: I really enjoy the physicality that you put on display in this first issue. Your wolves are lanky to a ridiculous degree, almost like old medieval dragons or worm-like lizards. Can you talk about those designs, what you wanted to communicate there?

TOMMASO: The super-gummy, elongated werewolves were designed to set my wolves apart from others. Drawing them traditionally looked so boring to me, so I just worked on finding something different. I think the furry dragon in Spirited Away was lurking in my mind somewhere. When I come to these horror themes, I'm aware that they've all been done to death, so I'm always trying to come up with some way to do them just a little bit differently.

SPURGEON: Your protagonist is also a fascinating design: she's oversized relative to her classmates, with an extended quality that matches the wolves. Can you talk a little bit about that teenaged physicality you're going for there? Can you talk about the idea of werewolves as a kind of avatar for physical grace more generally?

TOMMASO: I knew that Gabrielle would be a girl shunned by her classmates -- either shunned or just plain invisible to them. Making her very tall and wolf-like in her human form was a decent trade-off for the chubby girl I had designed previously. I know that tall girls -- like the friends I had back when I was in high school -- can have a tough time in that social sphere -- just as tough as dorky little guys who read comic books.


SPURGEON: I found the Mr. Cullen scene unexpected, because it's a second kind of supernatural permutation introduced very early on in your story. Why did you add that element; how was that scene kind of designed on the page, with the split visual?

TOMMASO: That scene was visually depicted very close to how I had imagined it when I wrote the script. It took a lot of passes to get there, though. I tried to think of drawing the split character in different drawing styles, or maybe drawing one of them on an overlay which I could later turn into an all-color line drawing. I ripped up a lot of pages before I came to the "negative" form idea for that character.

That's also an important scene for me personally. There's a big difference in what a teacher or principal is supposed to say to a student who's become a problem and what they'd LIKE to say to that student. I wasn't a very good student, not particularly smart or excelled in any specific academic field, but -- even as a child -- I could always read when an adult was feeding me a line of bullshit. Maybe my Italian family lineage doesn't really stem from Calabria, but Sicily.

SPURGEON: [laughs] There are a lot of visual flourishes in this first issue, but the most striking is your approach to color, I think. You talked a bit about this, but can you basically identify for me what you're doing here, because like a lot of readers I can be super-unsophisticated about techniques. It's sort of like you have the vibrancy of washes but the sharp distinctions of flat comic-book color. Is this something you developed on your own?

TOMMASO: I've always wanted to do a watercolored comic book, but doing it with actual wet media on paper seemed crazy -- especially for a monthly series. Once I acquired some great Photoshop brushes that could mimic the look of paint brushes fairly well, I knew I could finally try it out. But, yeah, the Warren stuff -- I love the gray wash work of Steve Ditko, Gray Morrow, Russ Heath and Gene Colan in those old publications.

I feel like that look in She Wolf turned into something else along the way, as I stopped staring at those Eerie comics while working on my pages. I think I shifted away from that look because I was afraid to do it strictly in one color or tone. So it becomes more of a full-color comic about halfway through. Part of that decision was again, me worrying about how a one or two-tone comic book would sell. I love old horror comics -- I adore the work of Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, Graham Ingels and Wally Wood. If I could draw and paint like those old EC and Creepy artists I would, but I'm not sure how many people out there want to see that kind of comic book these days. So, I tried to branch out the look of the color art along the way.


SPURGEON: Is the town you've depicted, are the people you're depicting, drawn from a particular setting or group of folks? There's something specifically odd about the setting that makes me think it may have a real-life counterpart.

TOMMASO: It's based on my hometown of Sparta, New Jersey. Which was a very boring, suburban small town to grow up in. Parts of it look like Anytown, USA, but then there are other neighborhoods where the architecture was designed in a faux-traditional Swiss style. I haven't really exploited those parts yet, but maybe in later issues. Seems like it would fit perfectly with the story's themes.

Sparta High School was where I attended school in 1985-1989. There was a killing that occurred in my senior year that was very brutal. A classmate of mine was stabbed repeatedly at a party one night. The guy was from another town but was dating this girl who went to Sparta High. He'd stabbed her in the leg and my friend ran over to help her. After killing him, he hauled his girlfriend into his car, tried to make a run for the Mexican border, and -- don't ask me how -- but this kid nearly made it there before the police finally captured him. He was tried and convicted of manslaughter. The incident lingered over the school for the rest of that year and I do remember that most of us had a bad feeling towards that girl from then on. She was involved, but innocent in the whole event.

Without my realizing it at first, her situation and how people somehow partially blamed her for it, myself included, I have to admit, made it into the story with Gabrielle and the incident her ex-boyfriend. I lived in Sparta from age 5 to 21, and over that time, a lot of creepy things have happened. Many in the form of urban legends (or suburban legends), but all of which have lingered with me nonetheless. Anyway, these personal experiences and real-life character inspirations really help to flesh-out a story that would otherwise be just a simplistic, merely imagination-fueled concept.


SPURGEON: This is a year with a lot of death in it, and your comics tend towards a high body count, usually in a way where the killing is a violation of social order while retaining a kind of high-energy cinematic quality to them. Is there an element at all in your work that's processing through your own feelings of violence as a break with social norms? Is that something that's haunted your life.

TOMMASO: The violence going on -- not only in this country, but around the world -- has definitely had a big effect on me, just as I imagine it has on everyone else in the world. How it finds itself in my work is not so easy to say. I don't consciously think about what's going on in the country when I'm writing a story, but subconsciously I'm sure I'm working something out by putting it in there.

Violence is something I've always written around with past works, but I'd decided I was going to throw myself into it directly when I began work on Dark Corridor. I wanted to see how a high-level of violence would play itself out in my unconventional style of comics stories. While working on pages that had a lot of violence going on, it made me feel like I was working on a dumb '80s action movie. But, when I go back and read an issue of DC through, there still seems to be a lot more going on with the characters internally than someone you'd find running around in a Rambo movie. I can't help but put more in there -- but I do start out with a dumb, simplistic idea of what that comic should be. This is because, in the past, I would have these multi-layered, grandiose plans for what my stories should aspire to and those big themes would never be met. There would be too many high goals to achieve and the comic book, in total, would end up reading as a collection of unfinished, undefined, and incongruous ideas. The more I pen myself in creatively, the more I'll try to expand beyond those simple barriers.

imageSPURGEON: You were close to Jess Johnson, the very talented and relatively little-known cartoonist who passed away earlier this year. What is it like to have a friendship that comes at a time when you're both trying to develop as artists? It doesn't seem like Jess' work is a direct influence, but all those discussions, that close proximity -- what do you pick up as an artist from a friendship like that?

TOMMASO: Jess always helped me strive to do better: to think more deeply, to read more extensively, to look for more answers in life. I'm not sure if he knew that he did that, but after talking with him about projects he was working on, new artistic heights he was shooting for, I felt like I needed to do more.

I always felt like a fake-artist in his presence -- here I am, doing these comic book trifles and worrying about money all of the time, where he was purely following his dreams and nightmares, turning them into whatever art he felt best communicated those ideas. A painting, a piece of written text, a sculpture, you know? He didn't need to define the medium or make art to appeal to a specified "market" or audience. He was operating on a much higher plane as an artist -- I know this is going to make me sound like a pompous ass, but I'm sorry, I just felt that to be true. A true artist is only concerned with making art, nothing else. And Jess has left behind a massive amount of incredible work in the form of writings, paintings, sculptures, all kinds of art, comics, essay self-published material, sketchbooks, comics, illustrations... it's staggering. But it's also a shame that most people haven't seen this stuff. But -- we have mutual friends that know folks in the art community, around the country, who are going to help get some of this work shown in the near future.

I miss him everyday and I wish I could still talk about our projects together and what's great to watch on TV lately, what movies we need to both see, we had a lot in common -- which is why we were friends for over 20 years. My hope now is to get more people to see all of the work he's done these past 15 years, many of which, hasn't been seen before.

SPURGEON: What would be ideal for you, Rich? Say you write down in a notebook what you want your life to look like, and it happens. What would you have written?

TOMMASO: I'm living in California or Miami -- somewhere near a beach. I'm making a good living writing and drawing crime comics. There's no want or need for me to do anything else, apart from the occasional high-profile freelance piece. That's about it.


She Wolf, monthly series, Rich Tommaso, Image Comics, $3.99.


* cover to #1.
* photo of Rich Tommaso by Tom Spurgeon; 2014 HeroesCon
* horror-influenced panel from the Recoil comic King Blood
* two panels of one of the featured wolves in She Wolf #1
* from Dark Corridor #21
* the heroine and the wolf, both creatures of length
* Mr. Cullen is of two minds
* one of the evocative depictions of place in the series
* violence in She Wolf
* 2015 drawing by the late Jess Johnson
* panel showing the tall heroine of She Wolf (below)



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