Between the beautifully drawn pages of Riley Rossmo and Alex Link's "Drumhellar" (previously titled "Strangeways") lies an intensely surreal, vivid world of ghost cats, bogmen and demons. The ringmaster of their bizarre circus is Drum Hellar, a private detective specializing in the paranormal. In fact, Drum is a competent psychedelic traveler whose shamanic hallucinations fuel his life's direction. His latest ritual—involving a lighting storm, a peacock and a bathrobe—has left him with an inescapable vision compelling him to return to a rural town and reconnect with his werewolf ex-girlfriend. Blending elements of horror, sunbaked '90s noir and fantasy, "Drumhellar" is a wonderfully weird addition to the Image Comics lineup.
Rossmo and Link spoke with CBR News about the series, including Rossmo's research in rural towns, the psychic properties of ayahuasca and the rules of paranormal world building.
CBR News: Alex, how did the story for "Drumhellar" come about, and how did Riley get involved?
Alex Link: It's been totally collaborative. Riley and I enjoyed working on "Rebel Blood" together. I'll work with him any chance I get, but he's in pretty high demand these days, so it's really his call. He contacted me a while ago with some basic story pieces--an episodic paranormal story set in small-town America, with psychedelic elements, bog people to start, and an enigmatic central character named Drum Hellar -- and asked if I'd be into writing such a thing. So I wrote something using those elements as my guiding principles, built characters with depth and motivation, designed a story structure that made sense, and created opportunities for Riley's art.
Riley, what was compelling for you about working on the series?
Riley Rossmo: Everything. I love building worlds and I have tons of ideas, and "Drumhellar" has given me a place to execute a lot of them. Alex is great to collaborate with. Early on, I sent him a list of ideas; scenes and concepts I wanted to address in the series and Alex helped find a way to string all the concepts together. Because Alex and I collaborate so much on story, I've been able to push visual aspects of the book in ways I haven't been able to previously. Alex, what kind of person is Drum? What stokes his curiosity about the world around him?
Link: You could say Drum is a combination detective and dream traveler. Everything is interesting, and everything is mysterious. That means, at the same time, that the wildest things in the world are par for the course. But in issue #2, he realizes that his deepest mystery is figuring out what kind of person he actually is. It gets scary for him too, before the first five issues are up.
Drum explores with conscious-altering substances, and it reminded me of some interviews on the shamanistic usage of DMT and ayahuasca. Did you do any research into psychedelic substance usage and its connection to unlocking psychic potential?
Rossmo: I really liked Rick Strassman's book on DMT. There are so many powerful psychedelics (peyote, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT and ayahuasca) that have been used for hundreds of years to help unlock various states of consciousness and to help foster psychic/mystical abilities and states. Terence McKenna's stuff is worth reading too, for those interested in the subject. McKenna's statement "The imagination is a dimension of nonlocal information," is applied throughout "Drumhellar."
Link: Riley and I both know people who've had life-changing experiences with ayahuasca. For myself, the substances matter less than what they make possible. One of the constants running through the story is multiple perspectives with or without chemical help. They're a way of exploring alternative paths to alternative truths that shouldn't be so hard to imagine in Drum's world, but are.
Riley, I heard that you spent some time in rural towns researching the setting for the series. What was the strangest thing that happened to you while you were traveling? Is it reflected in the series?
Rossmo: I went to the site of an old mine that has had giant coal fires smoldering under it for twenty or thirty years. It is hot enough that when it rains or snows, the ground steams. I visited a liquor store that was in someone's living room (TV, couch, etc). I saw a man kill and clean a chicken with his bare hands. I visited a store that let you choose between three different prices, and I met a kid with a black tooth who said his name was Captain Black Tooth. I met several people who had seen UFO's.
The panel design and artwork is so clean, especially in scenes where Drum's consciousness is altered. What was important to you when creating the art for this book?
Riley: Historically I've used more expressive line work on projects. For "Drumhellar" I wanted to concentrate on cleaner lines for the sections of the book in which Drum is experiencing normal consensual reality. Then when in altered states of consciousness, I'm more expressive with the mark making. I tried to use color in the same way. When depicting the mundane world, I used fairly representational colors. In states of altered consciousness the colors are more expressive.
How do you develop it and keep to the logic of the book, when by its very nature it seems like a story where anything can happen?
Rossmo: We've established Drum's, Padma's and Harold's story arcs, and where they start and end anchor the book. Besides that, we have some guidelines for how Drum behaves, which gives the book an internal logic to follow.
Link: In some ways it looks at first like anything can happen, but that's because "Drumhellar" is a complex world. There are rules, but they need to be allowed to unfold. In the meantime, the story's human relationships anchor it. As weird as they are, the characters need to be people a reader can understand. On the one hand, it's a world where the girl next door could be a time traveling space alien. But on the other hand, it's a world where people are still people, trying to get by and to figure their shit out.
How much do you currently have written on the story and how far ahead are you looking for the series?
Link: The first five issues are written in full. There are so many elements in play, in the narrative, that we're only just getting started with that five. I think it'd need to be at least 10 issues to do the overall arc minimal justice, but to take it past that would give us the chance to explore Drum's world further, and it's a rich world.
What aspect of this story has been the most fun for you to work on so far?
Rossmo: So far I've really enjoyed spending time with Drum, Padma and Harold.
Link: I have to say that I've really enjoyed the collaborative nature of the work. Pushing ideas back and forth until we come to a spot we're both excited about is really cool. In all honesty though, it's all been fun. All of it. And I think that shows in the final book.
"Drumhellar" #1 is in stores now.