Meet a Local Sequential Artist: A Chat with R.M. Rhodes
R.M. Rhodes is a local small press comic book creator from Alexandria, VA, who has moved into serializing his longer stories on the web, and then collecting them in print. Recently he's appeared in the DC Conspiracy's Magic Bullet anthology newspaper. Rhodes is the first interviewee to disagree with the label cartoonist–and I don't disagree with him, but there's still no other good shorthand term that people understand. Surprisingly, most of us who go to local cons have definitely seen him. Find out why in the interview.
Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?
R.M. Rhodes: I make high concept fumetti (i.e. photo comics) and mixed-media comics. I spend the majority of my time on Oceanus Procellarum, an original graphic novel series that has three published books and another two in draft. I also make one-off concept comics and submit small stories to the DC Conspiracy anthologies. I've got a couple of other things in the pipeline that don't have a proper home yet, so I don't feel like I can talk about them at this point.
WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?
RMR: I was born in 1973 in Portland, Ore. My parents didn't live there long, so I don't remember anything about the city.
WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?
RMR: I have lived in the D.C. metro area since I was in second grade. The only times I've been away were during college. Around here, that practically makes me a native. A lot of my family lives in the area and my wife and I both love it. We own a condo across the highway from Shirlington.
WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?
RMR: It's funny. I don't really consider what I do to be cartooning. I make sequential art and I think there's a difference.
Having said that, I have started to learn to do some basic cartooning, but I'm still very much a novice. I've read Mort Walker's Lexicon of Cartooning and I'm working my way through Jack Hamm's Cartooning the Head and Figure.
WCP: Who are your influences?
RMR: I've got a lot of writing influences: Iain Banks, William Gibson, Alan Moore, JG Ballard, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Carroll, Bruce Sterling - the list goes on. Artistically: Dave McKean, Jose Villarubia, Moebius, Nick Bantock, Tomato.
I'm in the middle of a massive love affair with French comics–bandes dessineés. I think the French sense of what comics can accomplish is a lot more diverse (visually and conceptually) than contemporary American comics. As Warren Ellis says, you can do anything with comics. I'm very interested in people who are looking for new ways to explore what that means.
WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?
RMR: I think that I would have started making comics earlier than I did. I made a few tentative comics in college, but nothing substantial. I hate to say that I wasted my time writing novels, because having written a novel is no small thing to scoff at. But there really isn't the same market for home-made self-published novels that there is for home-made self-published comic books. It's a completely different philosophy and I like to think that I could have saved myself a lot of time and aggravation if I'd just gone to comics from the get-go.
WCP: What work are you best-known for?
RMR: I'm probably best known for being the man in the purple suit at conventions, but that's a branding effort, not actual content.
I like to think that when I publish the next two books in the series, someone is going to sit up and take notice that a small artist has published five original graphic novels in a series over the course of five years. All told, it'll probably be about 450 pages of material. Am I well known for it? I don't know. But that's what I'd like to be known for. For now.
WCP: What work are you most proud of?
RMR: See the previous answer. The Oceanus Procellarum series is three original graphic novels (and counting). The high concept of the series is "the hidden truth is that when a character encounters the truth in a story, he remembers he's a character." There are a lot of ways to spin off that single concept. Characters running away from their stories. An entire organization to keep characters in line. MacGuffins that tear at the weave of the narrative as they pass through.
Putting the books together has been a challenge–one of the books had 19 artists on it. Hustling that many people, putting the art together and getting the book out the door has been a learning experience. To paraphrase Gene Wolfe, "I'm always learning how to produce this graphic novel."
WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?
RMR: Most of my ideas are studiously non-commercial. Not by design, but by execution. At this point in my life, I'm much more interested in figuring out how to make comics and how to tell a story than I am in attracting commercial success.
Having said that, I actually have a commercial idea that I've been kicking around with an artist from the Conspiracy. I mentioned it to him in passing when we were in bar and he emailed me a few weeks later to tell me that he couldn't stop thinking about the idea. We're gearing up to pitch it and, honestly, I really want to write that story. It's got legs.
I'd also love to do a non-fiction comic about the Beltway. Iain Sinclair wrote a book called London Orbital which chronicled his walk around the M25 (London's ring road). When I had him sign my copy, I asked if he would be offended if I wrote something about the Beltway. He said that would be awesome. To my way of thinking, there aren't enough stories about Washington D.C. as a place where people live and work. The Beltway is a buzzword, but for us, it's just a highway. I don't think that people who live in Annandale consider themselves to be any more "in the loop" than people who live in Fairfax, just because of what side of the highway they live on.
I also want to make more photo comics. And I want to learn how to cartoon. As far as I'm concerned, the more artistic options I have, the more comics I can make. The trick is figuring out which idea goes with which style.
WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?
RMR: I don't really have writer's block. I have a ton of ideas (and a folder on my hard drive labelled "Loose Ideas" to prove it). What I often get is artist's block – where an artist just isn't delivering or responding. When I get frustrated by this, I go off and make a small comic that stands on its own. I have more uncompleted projects than not, but I find that going off and making something else can often relieve that pressure to just create for the sake of creating.
WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?
TRMR: The comics industry is in a state of flux right now. Down at my end of the market, there's such a lack of structure that just about anyone with an eye for business and the charisma to draw in like-minded parties could probably create some kind of organization to take advantage of the economies of scale that come with so many new creators. (I figure that I should probably focus my attention on the portion of the market that I have the greatest chance of actually changing.)
WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?
RMR: I love a lot of things about this area. I love the fact that we have all four seasons. I love the fact that we're big enough to have city-sized amenities, but small enough that you can actually get to know your bartender in a fairly short period of time. I love the vast amount of free things that we have going on around town. I also love the fact that I live inside the Beltway, but there is a big grass field in my back yard.
WCP: Least favorite?
RMR: I am really not a fan of 14th Street, especially the bridge. Traffic in general is a pain in the butt in this area, but it's the same complaint everyone else has, so it's really not that bad at the end of the day.
WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?
RMR: We actually take a lot of our guests down to the Atlas district. The Palace of Wonders is a great bar to take people drinking in. We know people at the Rock and Roll Hotel, so that's a great place to take our friends. And my wife DJs at both the Argonaut and DC9, so a lot of our out-of-town guests see those places as well.
The best museum on the mall is the Air and Space Museum, though. I love the annex out by Dulles.
WCP: Do you have a website or blog?
RMR: Oletheros.com is my central website. I'm predictably bad about updating it on a regular basis. There's a link at the top of the site to the webcomics that I have floating around out there. I'm also on Twitter: Oletheros.
WCP: Tell us about the DC Counter-Culture Festival. Are you organizing it? If so, what does that entail?
RMR: My wife and I took on the organizational duties for the CCF this year. We've located a venue–RFDs–that's a block away from the Gallery Place-Chinatown metro station. We've got some DJs and live vaudeville acts lined up that should make the event really enjoyable.
The DC Comics Conspiracy is a great group of local comics creators and we've got a very solid sense of community. We've done four of these festivals to date and this is our chance to put together a nice milestone event. Our newest collaborative project, the Magic Bullet free newspaper, will be available at the festival.
Our philosophy this year is to make an event that is focused on comics. We're a comics group and it makes sense that the most important part of our event should be what we make.
We feel that the event is going to be judged a success depending on the amount of foot traffic that we get. To that end, we've printed posters that we're going to put up around town and fliers that we're going to spread around very liberally. Everyone should come out and support your local comics creators.
WCP: Will you be at the Small Press Expo (SPX) this coming weekend?
RMR: I will be at SPX. It's held in the neighborhood that I grew up in; my brother used to live across the street from the Marriott. To live in D.C. and not make at least a token effort to show up for the show, even as an attendee, is just disrespectful. Especially if you love comic books. And I love comic books.
I will be the man in the purple suit, vending amongst the DC Conspiracy. We have almost a full wall on the far left side of the hall as you walk in. Come by and say hello.
The Small Press Expo is at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on Sept. 11, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sept. 12, noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $10 for one day, or $15 for both.