REVIEW: Drumhellar #1

I’m facing something of a dilemma right now, as regards my reviewing of creator-owned comics.  I do try my utmost to review everything that is sent my way, eventually.  But I get sent quite a lot of comics, and it seems like the backlog is getting longer and longer, because rather than drawing from this treasure trove of comics submitted for my attention by talented new writers and artists, I instead find myself drawn to gush about new releases that have caught my eye, more often than not from Image.  I would love to get back to that backlog of awesome indie comics, really – there’s a new Tall Tales from the Badlands awaiting my attention, for crying out loud! – but these past few months have just been too damn good, with just about every week offering some exciting new debut.  It’s a veritable onslaught!  And this week, Image debuts the launch I’ve been looking forward to arguably more than any other in 2013: Drumhellar, drawn and co-plotted by artist extraordinaire Riley Rossmo and scripted by Alex Link.

Riley Rossmo is an artist who’s been on my radar for a few years now, going back to his highly distinctive work on Green Wake.  That dark, horror-tinged noir from Image marked him out as a highly unusual artist worth keeping an eye on, and stellar, diverse turns in the likes of Bedlam and Wild Children solidified his status in my eyes.  Rossmo has a remarkable craft for both showing considerable range in shifting his style to meet the demands of the story he’s telling, and for always giving us comic book art that’s unmistakably his.  Whether  it’s the harsh, scratchy quality of Green Wake or Bedlam or the light, fluid bounce of Wild Children or Proof, his work has this loose, free-flowing energy that gives his comics an offbeat rhythm, creating a sense that anything could happen.  Rossmo is superstar material in my eyes, and I firmly believe he has all the tools to be the biggest artist in the comics world one day, should the right project pop up.  And Drumhellar might just be that project.

The best way to describe Drumhellar would be “The X-Files meets The Big Lebowski.”  It tells the story of Drum Hellar – possibly a paranormal investigator, possibly just a guy who weird things happen to – who uses psychadelics and various other unusual methods to see strange, possibly prophetic visions.  And something he sees takes him back to one of his old haunts: a small town in South Dakota, where Drum has to deal with bisexual werewolves, ancient bogmen and a resentful ex.  Oh, and his best friend is a talking, ethereal purple cat called Harold who may or may not be imaginary.  And yes, this first issue is just as odd as that synopsis would suggest.

A big part of the success of this world-building is down to writer Alex Link, who similarly co-plotted and scripted unorthodox horror Rebel Blood with Rossmo.  Link’s ear for naturalistic dialogue grounds all these bizarre happenings with believably nuanced characters, with the verbal sparring between Drum and his ex Padma working as a bedrock of credibility that helps us to invest in the world as it spills into the increasingly surreal.  Even small characters like diner waitress Wanda are given voices laced with personality.  Thanks to Link’s skillful writing, no one ever feels like a solely functional cog in a plot machine, but rather a rounded character who the events of the plot happen around.

But the true superstar showcase here comes with the visuals of Riley Rossmo.  Right from the striking, entirely silent opening page that leads into one of the most memorable, intensely weird opening scenes of any comic in 2013, Rossmo’s trippy artwork demands your attention.  Crazy opener aside, though, Rossmo actually dials things back in the beginning, presenting an aesthetic of eerily familiar Americana that only gradually slips into unhinged psychadelia over the course of the issue.  Because the various locales feel such like real, tangible places (likely informed by Rossmo’s travelling he reportedly did as research for the series), the appearance of a giant purple triceratops feels all the more unusual when it happens.  And it’s in the quieter work that Rossmo truly shines for me.  If Link’s finely-crafted voicework goes a long way towards bringing characters like Drum and Padma to life, Rossmo’s knack for naturalistic body language and facial expression more than finish the job.  Rossmo’s figures never feel like they’re posing for a comic panel.  He’s long had this ability for capturing natural, relaxed gestures and postures that feel like what characters might make in between the big dramatic motions of a typical comic book panel, and here that’s combined with some of his most refined work on subtle shifts in facial expressions to present characters who feel like they could be real people, even when they’re talking to floating purple cats and fishing ancient corpses from swamps.  All these factors combine to make Drum immediately emerge as one of the most likeable new comic characters of the year.

But more than just the drawings themselves, Rossmo excels in storytelling technique.  Throughout Drumhellar #1, breaks all kinds of conventional rules of pacing: key scene transitions happen in the middle of a page, or shocking, pivotal moments occur in small panels, among other quirks and ticks.  It gives the whole book this strange, stacatto heartbreat, where you’re kind of put on the back-foot as a reader and drawn in for reasons you might not consciously realise on first reading, until you really dissect the panel construction.  The colouring is marvelous, too.  I didn’t even need to check the credits to confirm Rossmo was also the colorist, so seamlessly do they connect with the luscious aesthetic of the linework.  It’s telling that Rossmo also co-plotted this book, as visual innovation here shapes the narrative, and is integral to our comprehension of this world.

I’ve already read through the entirety of Drumhellar #1 several times.  It reminds me a lot of Pretty Deadly #1 from a couple of weeks back, in that it feels packed with little Easter eggs, and demands rereading and detailed examination.  As my first exposure to Alex Link, it wins me over on his abilities as a writer.  And as far as the art goes, it stands as perhaps Riley Rossmo’s finest work yet.  This is a comic destined for cult adoration: get in on the ground floor now!

Drumhellar1Drumhellar #1 is out now in all good comic shops, or you can get it on ComiXology here.

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