Artist to Watch: Baldemar Rivas

The 2016 Kansas City Art Institute Alum is a Rising Star in the World of Comics

One world might not be big enough for Baldemar Rivas.

He’s a Kansas City transplant with California roots. The son of immigrants, he celebrates his Mexican heritage but doesn’t want to be known for it. And his art . . . he’s not tethering it to one realm or another, either.

“I guess I would consider myself an artist, but I want to get illustrator work,” he said the other day in his West Bottoms studio. “I get to walk the line between being a fine artist and a graphic designer, where I can find editorial work or gallery work. I just don’t want to be shackled to one area.”

Rivas is a 2016 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute. He recently finished his part of “Wall of Respect,” a mural for InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park and the Jewish Community Center.

The piece featured a patchwork of the different cultures stitching together Kansas City; Rivas focused on his Hispanic roots.

The experience with that project has spurred interest in creating more murals. He found it fascinating to interview people and hear from them what it meant to be Hispanic in Kansas City.

“Being in California is definitely more of a melting pot — I never really thought about my ethnicity very much until I moved over here,” he said. “I embrace my culture, but I try not to be tied down to it. I think exploring different cultures is always the best part. Art speaks all languages.”

His drawing career began afternoons after school in his father’s upholstery shop, where he sketched cartoon and anime characters — after he finished his schoolwork, of course.

“I grew up drawing Dragonball characters,” he said. “I feel like that’s where everyone in my age range starts.”

The 27-year-old is now trying to make his way in the world of comic books. Kansas City may seem like an odd place from which to launch that career, but for those paying attention, the KC area has been fertile ground for comic book publishers over the last 20 years.

Some great and memorable graphic novels and comic book runs in recent years have been written by folks who reside or have spent time here. Among them:

  • Jason Aaron, who has written Avengers, Thor, Doctor Strange and a slew of other Marvel characters who have graced everything from the big screen to pajama bottoms
  • Dennis Hopeless, who has written X-Men comics
  • Matt Fraction, formerly of the MK12 design collective
  • Ande Parks and Phil Hester, who have drawn Green Arrow and Batman Beyond. Parks also is the creator of the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Capote in Kansas.”
  • Hallmark artist Kerry Callen, whose work appears in the recently relaunched “Mad Magazine”
  • Jai Nitz, whose El Diablo was part of the 2016 box office hit “Suicide Squad”
  • Image Comics publisher and “Spread” comics creater Kyle Strahm, an instructor at the Kansas City Art Institute

The lengthy list unfurls from there.

Rivas has some interesting projects in the pipeline, but none he’s contractually free to discuss until closer to publishing date. His work presently adorns the covers of “Bubba Ho-Tep,” the comics prequel to the 2002 movie that featured Bruce Campbell as an old Elvis Presley fighting an ancient, evil Egyptian deity.

Rivas’ local mentors include Hector Casanova and the aforementioned Strahm, both of whom were his instructors at KCAI. He credits Strahm with really helping him go from a kid with a vague notion of what he wanted to do with his life to a real burgeoning comics pro.

The first day of school, Rivas showed his pages to Strahm and said to give it to him straight: Could he make it as a comic book illustrator?

“He definitely tore me,” Rivas said. “He said, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here, this doesn’t make any sense, this page doesn’t flow,’ and, yeah, it hurt. Whenever you put a lot of love into something and people tell you what’s wrong with it, it’s tough.”

Rivas, however, credits the art school experience with honing his skills, through constant feedback, the incessant presentations and the learned humility.

“I see a lot of students who don’t want to learn,” he said. “They think, ‘My art’s perfect. I don’t need to improve on anything. I’m just here to get a degree.’ But I’m, like, ‘OK, cool, I did it wrong. I want to know why, and I want to know what I can do to improve on it.’”

Rivas came to KCAI via an outreach program at a community college in his home state. He said it was the highlight of his community college experience. In time, he and three friends left California for Kansas City to try to make their way at KCAI. Throughout school, they gave each other feedback and soon met a big group of California art students here.

“It definitely made Thanksgiving a lot easier,” Rivas said. “We’re like our own little bubble, and we try to meet up once in a while and talk and hang out. We’re on this journey together.”

Rivas’ first steps into the comics world began with him just showing up at Kansas City’s Planet Comicon, almost too petrified to even show anyone his book of drawings. The next year, he purchased table space, again not knowing what to expect. In time, the prospect of talking to comics pros about how to get into this uniquely American art form became easier for him. The best advice he received: Show that you can do actual sequential storytelling.

“You’d be surprised how many people say they want to get into comics, but they don’t have any sequential storytelling,” he said. “When I showed my art, people said ‘Your art’s really nice and beautiful with clean lines, but you have no storytelling — it’s just a sketchbook.’ And I was, like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ It’s like trying to be a NASCAR driver without even a driver’s license showing that you know how to drive.”

He still struggles with some aspects. Composition, especially. You have to understand the room. You have to show power dynamics. If you want a person to seem scared, you have to think about where to position the “camera angle.” He said he has to fight the urge to make every page the most dynamic, incredible, marvelous page he can do.

“You’ve got to realize you need to have the calm before the storm,” he said. “You’ll have a bigger impact on the ultimate page reveal if you’re quiet on the pages before. I just want to make everything exploding, but I’ve got to tone it down and find the heartstrings to pull on people.”

So far, so good. Rivas is surprised when he learns he has fans and shocked that they want to pay him for his art.

“How amazing is that?” he said. “My dream job is definitely drawing comics, so I’m definitely living the dream now. I always hear people say, ‘Ugh, I have to draw a couple more pages,’ and I’m, like, ‘Yeeeah, me, too.’ But I love doing this. It sure beats flipping a burger.”

About The Author: David Frese

David Frese

David Frese is a writer, photographer, artist and community advocate from rural Kansas who spent 21 years covering Kansas City’s arts and culture for “The Kansas City Star.” He is a graduate of Kansas State University.

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