'Rita's Dream' artist moves comfortably between worlds

Bryan Moss' decision to live Downtown places him at a cultural and economic nexus, giving him easy access to the South Side, where he grew up as the only boy alongside four sisters, as well as the Short North arts district, Olde Town East, Franklinton and so on.

“It's one of those things where I'm centralizing myself to where I can jump between those worlds,” said Moss. “I can go to the hood and it's no problem. I also go to New Albany. I don't care.”

Moving comfortably between worlds is a skill Moss developed from childhood. The artist was born to a white mother and a black father, and attended after-school arts programming at Schiller Park, where he worked alongside the children of wealthy German Village residents who grew up north of the park.

“I remember these two kids, George and Ben, their parents were lawyers, and they lived across the street [in German Village], so I would go over there and hang out,” said Moss, 36. “Being biracial and black never really affected me as much as being poor. … There's always an insecurity that comes with [growing up poor] because you don't have access to the same education — that type of thing. Art was a good bridge in that way, because you were respected as an artist, no questions asked. I knew art would be my way out of that environment early on.”

Moss was also introduced to comics at Schiller Park, first coming across a copy of “Thor” another youngster left sitting on the table at the rec center. Thumbing through the issue, Moss was hooked. From that point forward he could often be found at the Book Loft, flipping through comics that continued to open new, unexplored worlds.

Sam Kieth (“The Maxx”) introduced Moss to more cerebral, exploratory comics that delved into the subconscious, often placing photorealistic panels alongside more cartoonish drawings. “It was like, ‘Oh, you can do that?'” Moss said. “It really broke things open.”

Further inspiration arrived with the discovery of Jeff Smith's “Bone,” heightened by the realization that Smith lived and worked in the same German Village neighborhood where Moss spent his afternoons.

“It was like, ‘Wait, this guy lives near my neighborhood and he's self-published and making this awesome comic?'” Moss said. “It was surreal.”

Beginning at age 14, Moss started taking the Greyhound bus alone to Chicago, attending comic book conventions and looking for work in the field. Though he never landed a job, the trips served as a reminder that the world was far bigger than the impoverished neighborhood in which he grew up.

“Growing up poor, you start mowing lawns and things like that to make money. I remember I was so elated one day because I made like $60 cutting grass, and I go home and show my mom, like, ‘Isn't this awesome?' And she's like, ‘The water's about to be cut off. Can I have that?' ‘Well, yeah,'” said Moss, who, while happy to help, did admit to losing an element of childhood in the transaction. “I felt there was this responsibility. My dad wasn't doing well at that point, so, being the only guy, you grow up quick. That's where that survival kicks in, hence going to Chicago trying to find work.”

Starting late in his teenage years, Moss landed his first commercial jobs. He also launched a now-defunct T-shirt company, which he used as a distribution source for “Strange Things,” an early comic, up-charging shirts $2 and including a comic, allowing him to spread his art worldwide. In the years since, Moss has done album and liner note artwork for musicians such as MF Doom and Kool Keith, and provided spot illustration for Marvel.

More recently, though, Moss has focused his efforts on “Rita's Dream,” a graphic novel tracing the story of a young girl, Rita, who is able to dream in vivid color while the rest of the world dreams in black and white. Moss, who envisions the finished version topping out at 700 pages, has already drawn more than 200 pages, in addition to engaging in discussions with prominent publishing houses.

Returning to the idea of floating between worlds, Moss has also expanded beyond comics into the fine-arts realm, and he intends to continue to inhabit both arenas moving forward.

“People tend to compartmentalize things. If you draw comics you draw comics. If you paint you're a painter,” Moss said. “For me it was always like, ‘No, I can do whatever.' It's all just expressing.”