Rossi Gifford is a Scottish comics creator now based in Toronto, Canada. A graduate of Duncan and Jordanstone, Rossi began what is now a globally published comic series whilst studying on her University course. Spirit Leaves is a beautiful, powerful and mystical story that delves the reader into the world of Freya and Skoll as the unlikely duo work together to overcome both their own personal demons and the ones terrorising their land.
‘Too many animals are being killed… too many plants are dying … and the demons are getting more powerful and roam … what is causing this?’
MS – The opening lines of the comic set up the fictional narrative within but is there an underlying message to this about environmental issues in our own world? Are we the ‘demons’ of this comic? Destroying wildlife and nature for our own gain?
RG – Not exactly, this is a world where Nature rules and the Spirits roam. It focuses on fantasy dilemmas but yeah, I think the everyday scares of global warming and the harm we are doing to the planet influences aspects of the story. It might be something I’ll add to the tale, but from how things are looking at the moment I tend to agree with the description given in Sunny’s article. It’s a brief and excellent review that I felt grasped the message of what I was trying to say. Two unlikely characters meet and work together to face a challenge – how they work and bond is an important theme for me to explore and develop.
‘Balance is the key focus of this book, from the cover which shows a play on the Yin/Yang symbol. It’s seen in the landscapes, and the characters, both as prey and hunter, share a philosophy of respecting the drives of nature.’
MS – I just wondered what your influences were for the comic?
RG – I dreamt it. There was a white figure running through the woods – the imagery was striking and I was curious to develop it into a story. Freya is an albino Deer girl training to be a shaman wanting to prove herself to her clan. It is a pretty simple plot but it reflects my own experiences and challenges when I was younger. That is how I create stories and characters – through dreams, nightmares and experiences.
I also take influence from animations, films, music and other art mediums. My artistic influences include Hayoa Miyazaki for storytelling, Wes Anderson for colours and Frank Quietly for his incredible artwork and layouts, but I have so many inspirations and influences it would be hard to mention them all. They all vary in the styles, colours, mediums and stories they tell. I also enjoy looking to the past and studying art and its history for inspiration.
MS – The artwork within it is beautiful and I love your commentary in the back matter about your decision to make it panel-less, or to have the panels constructed instead by the wildlife, I think it suits the narrative perfectly. I thought the art had an Asian influence to it, like a combination of manga and traditional Japanese paintings. Did you base the landscapes on any particular art style or real landmarks?
RG – There were no real landscapes, it was either from my imagination or looking at a reference and when I find a cool shot that would suit the scene I draw it. However, I did take influence from Japanese woodblocks, they have such beautiful images that have a lot happening within them. Textures and the environments conveyed by lines are fascinating to me and I always love experimenting with inks and space.
The format was similarly important to me. The main reason for the story to be panel-less was that it is the forest – it is an unpredictable and wild environment so I wanted my story to flow within that space. For example, rather than have traditional gutters many of the characters are used as borders.
MS – At the end of the comic you show the contrast of both B&W pages and full colour, both are fantastic and I agree with you that they both tell a different story, what made you opt for the coloured version in the end?
RG – The black and white are great to look at, you always want to see the stages of how comics are made so this was a key feature to include in the publication. In the beginning I was worried I would not have time to colour it plus I was struggling on how to apply the colour, but the environments get quite detailed so I had to separate them. Colour can sometimes take away the actual artwork but if applied well and simply I find it promotes the line work even more! So overall I’m glad I coloured it. The audience responded well to it too, so that’s flattering.
MS – What type of comics are your favourite to read? Is there an influence of these comics and their creators within Spirit Leaves?
RG – Oh man, that is a long list! I collect series or issues that my peers draw and love collecting single issues just for the artwork.
I love the European comics, Indie books, some manga titles and of course my super hero issues. I adore Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man and Batgirl.
French comic are fantastic for gestures and interesting themes. I grew up with French comics as a kid – I would go to France every year and the comic scene is huge there and the bookstores are incredible. I would buy so many books I couldn’t understand but studied the gestures and draughtsmanship.
Manga was also big in my teens and I still read some great titles, and animes are pretty fun for dynamic poses and styles too. Studio Ghibli is a huge influence on my work, which I again grew up with.
MS – The characters of Skoll and Freya are both young and on a journey to prove themselves to their elders in a ‘Coming of Age’ style narrative. Do you consider them role models for a younger generation? How important do you think it is to have relatable characters in comics?
RG – These characters reflect a little of me, you go with what you know and the experiences you share with others. Freya is a character who is determined and outgoing, that is pretty much me. I struggled throughout school from a kid to my teens and in University. I always had to do more to accomplish simple tasks but this has developed into a strong skill now.
Skoll is going to be an interesting character to explore as he reacts differently to Freya and I want to have him face challenges that will really mould him.
If kids like what they read and want to be like them then that’s great but I had no intention of making them role models – my focus was to make them relatable characters.
It’s important to have characters the readers can sympathise, love, hate etc… if you can’t make convincing characters who you are intrigued by then you’re lacking a strong key element in the story.
MS – I think it is important to have a balance of strong characters, of both genders, and I love how both Skoll and Freya seem evenly matched despite their differences. Is this to do with the balance of the environment itself? How we need hunters and the hunted and those able to understand and sense the energy of the forest?
RG – I just wanted the most likely couple to work together. It’s more interesting to have opposites engage, and from my experience you never know who you will bond with, so engage with people!
Both of them are pretty open and so don’t react in an over the top way with each other. They clash of course, but they are well informed of the cycle that exists and so there are no hard feelings towards one another.
Also, people always comment on the main character being a girl and really that’s because I am a girl, so I like having a female figure drive my story. I will be introducing more characters in the later issues which will be fun and push me to create more distinctive and strong personalities.
MS – You mentioned coming up through Duncan and Jordanstone College of Art and Design. When initially thinking of a comic story are you more inclined to visually imagine it as an artist then develop the story from there or do you work with a script and then thumbnail?
RG – The process for me to make comics is almost backwards.
Thumbnails come first, the layouts for this story is particular and need to make sense. I figure out when there will be more talking scenes and what the characters are talking about etc.
I love drawing dynamic poses and gestures. For me, a good story should be understood with or without words so poses and pacing are very important to grasp.
Afterwards, I develop a poorly written script, full of spelling mistakes and grammar problems – I’m not a great writer so I like to keep things simple and casual, I want the conversations to be convincing. Then I always get someone to read over them over … Many, many times over.
MS – How did you enjoy your time on the comic’s course at Dundee University? You mention having world famous comic creators such as Frank Quitely and Dave Gibbons read and compliment your work. How did it aid your work having these contacts available via the course and how beneficial was it having comic academics such as Dr Chris Murray and Philip Vaughan on hand to help you through the creation process?
RG – The comics course was the turning point for me. I always loved storytelling through comics and this really hit a chord with me. Phil mentioned I was the first student to submit my application form for the module, I knew after the introduction day I would love it. Phil and Chris were a tremendous help to me throughout my course work and beyond. They kept things in perspective and kept me motivated to get this done!
Those guys really care and they offer so much in their courses and have great connections. The guests are fantastic and engaging. You learn so much from the professionals that the course gives you access to. You gain confidence from interacting with so many respected figures and your peers. The course gave me a real insight of what I could accomplish.
I never expect anything from people so the comments from Dave Gibbons, Frank Quietly, Ramon Perez and others were truly special and gave me a real boost of confidence!
MS –The course offers many opportunities to work face-to-face with top class comics creators, how did you find these workshops? Did they help you to progress academically in the way you approached creating comics?
RG – The workshops offered in the classes and festivals in the University are fantastic. I became very involved with the comic scene in Dundee and Phil, Chris and I became a strong wee group!
Dundee offers a ton of events and workshops, it is a real powerhouse for comics and places all over the world are promoting Comic Studies there which is amazing! There are so many opportunities in comics becoming available right now which is great to see.
MS – Congratulations on your publication with Chapterhouse, I just wanted to know if you have any advice for budding comic creators on the process you went through to get your work professionally published?
RG – Thank you! Honestly Chapterhouse came to me. I networked with so many people in Toronto and visited a lot of studios across the country. A friend of mine who works in animation but loves and is involved in comics mentioned me to the publishers. I was so flattered he did that! Again I never expect anything from people, but others will do good things for you if you treat them well and show the passion you have in what you want to do.
I have been very lucky in who I have met in the past few years and have been in the right place at the right time. Luck comes also with decisions and I obviously made some pretty damn good ones!
Chapterhouse is a young publishing company that releases work by local talent in Toronto. I was very surprised they were interested and wanted to make a mini-series with my work. They liked that fact I already had a finished piece of work. The guys in Chapterhouse can even see Spirit Leaves as an animated series which would be incredible!
MS – Now that you are a professionally published creator how do you find events such as signings and conferences, and what did it feel like signing your first comic?
RG – It’s a lot of fun and pretty surreal. I have some pretty hardcore fans and they are continuing to grow. I always react like, “Really you like this?” and their positive responses always makes me smile.
People obviously like the characters, the theme and style. It’s something they have never seen before and I like that I have made that impression.
I also love Con life – it is a real buzz and you get catch up with your peers at these events. I love meeting fans and you will always come out if these events with one or two interesting stories!
MS – I noticed that Spirit Leaves #2 is now available (have just pre-ordered myself one for coming out end of March), I read in another interview that you planned for the story to run for 4-5 issues. Have you got the story all planned out and will the rest of the story arc be released within the course of this year?
RG – Yep! I have roughed out a wee something that I hope everyone will enjoy. There are more characters to come, different types of demons and personal collisions the characters must face to proceed forward!
MS – And finally, I hear you will be attending the Toronto Comic-Con in March, are you excited to be part of such a huge festival and have you got any plans for what you will be doing over the event?
RG – Yes that is very exciting! To be a guest at a big show with my peers is super cool! I have done plenty of conventions and sold my work but this is different. I have been invited to a few shows across Ontario this year and really want to get myself in the US shows – that is the next goal!
As for plans, well, I plan to sign and sketch a lot! I will do some commissions, draw on the blank covers available for Spirit Leaves and chat away to fans and fellow comic comrades of mine. I also bring a load of prints to sell on the side. These conventions are always busy but super fun, I will always get a buzz when I’m at them!