The Adventures of Rick Ross: MU Alumnus Illustrates Kevin Costner’s New Adventure Story
Many of us fondly remember reading adventure stories when we were young, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. We would defy our parents’ admonition to “Go to sleep!” and hide under the covers with our book and a flashlight and race through the pulse-pounding narrative until we could no longer keep our eyes open. The book’s illustrations flooded our dreams, and we awoke in the morning eager to pick up where we left off.
That spirit of adventure is beautifully captured in a new book by Jon Baird and Kevin Costner, The Explorers Guild, which is illustrated by MU alumnus Rick Ross, BS chemistry ’91, BFA ’91, MA philosophy ’97. The book went on sale Oct. 20, and Ross will be joining Baird and Costner for parts of the national book tour.
Kirkus Reviews describes The Explorers Guild as “A globe-trotting yarn of lost cities, secret societies, and privileged fisticuffs, back dropped by World War I…Dense, handsome prose undulates ever forward, textured by floridity and imagination—rival sects; talking islands; massive, uncanny machinery; Inuit Babylons; séances; lost knowledge…With its colorful cast, exotic locales, and intertwined fates, the book slowly addicts. A rousing throwback whose spinning plates never stop, even at the end (cue Volume 2).”
“When they brought me in to illustrate it four years ago, Kevin was really adamant the first time I met him that he wanted to make a book that people will read for generations,” Ross says. “This is an aspirational thing—we want to make something of quality that people will pass on to their children to read.”
Ross says the book is in a format neither he, Baird, nor Costner had ever seen before–a mix of the traditional novel with a graphic novel. He says Baird, the writer who conceived the project and shared his idea with Costner eight years ago, was not intentionally trying to come up with a new type of book.
“His idea in making the book was to incorporate the graphic novel elements and the novelistic elements as a way to have both things in your quiver, because they appeal to your senses in a different way and help expand the storytelling,” Ross says. He says whenever the story demands more visuals, it transitions from a typical novel to a graphic novel, or “graphic fiction” as he describes it.
Ross created more than 600 illustrations and six original oil paintings for the book and says he based his artwork on Baird’s writing. “Jon decided to put it into a vernacular that had this kind of older sensibility, an older formality that gives it kind of an Edwardian era feel. And that really informed how I approached the visual side,” Ross says. He says he studied prominent artists from the early 20th century because they had decided a contemporary graphic novel approach would not achieve the results they wanted. Ross says American cartoonist Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips and Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations in Life magazine served as the inspiration for his illustrations in The Explorers Guild, while American painter N.C. Wyeth influenced the way he crafted the six oil paintings in the book. Ross says the book is not intended to be an artifact of the period but rather is meant to evoke the feeling of those older adventure stories like Treasure Island, which Wyeth illustrated.
Although Ross says he has been an artist since his youth, he originally planned to go to medical school when he enrolled at the University of Missouri. He was pursuing a double major in chemistry and fine arts but realized as he approached graduation that his career was not going to be in chemistry. However, Ross says his adviser, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Edwin Kaiser, encouraged him to continue to pursue both interests.
“After MU, I went to film school at the University of Southern California and found that in film school I could mix all of the elements I had learned at Mizzou,” Ross says. “There’s a lot of technical stuff in film, especially when I was actually shooting on film [as opposed to digital]—you had the chemistry of the film and all of the physics behind the optics and the lighting. And then, of course, philosophy is always something that informs my screenwriting.”
So Ross, who is an artist and a filmmaker, has created a book with one of our era’s most famous actors, Kevin Costner…will the book eventually be made into a movie?
“The idea was never that we’re going to make a storyboard for a screenplay, put it out as a book, and then make a movie of it—that was the farthest thing from our minds,” Ross says. “If it becomes a game or a movie, great, but that’s not what we’re going for. Kevin loved adventure story books when he was young, and he just wanted us to make the best adventure story book that we possibly could.”