Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CBNAH Interview: Jim Rugg

I head the great pleasure of interviewing Jim Rugg, co-creator of Afrodisiac and Street Angel. He talked about his future plans, his inspirations, and his thoughts on the industry. He also puts me in my place! read the full interview after the jump!

CBNAH: What are you up to at the moment project wise?
RUGG: I’m drawing iZOMBIE #24. I’m also working on a new comic book, a tabloid-sized format, like Cold Heat Special 4. I applied for some grant funding to pay for it, then to distribute it on Free Comic Book Day. It’s an adaptation of a movie trailer. I’m getting ready for a couple of upcoming art shows. In late March, I have a show opening in Pittsburgh at the Toonseum that will showcase my recent comics art – a lot of short pieces and drawings that probably most people haven’t seen. Then in May, I have a show in LA at iam8bit gallery of my ballpoint pen on notebook paper drawings. Besides that stuff, I have the usual anthology pieces coming up for different things.

CBNAH: Where do your ideas come from? I mean, a book about a pre-teen homeless skateboarding ninja chick is pretty inspired.
RUGG: I don’t know. There’s a lot of stimulation in the world. I think ideas just grow out of that. You see or hear something new, and it makes your mind work and ideas just sort of come out of that process. Street Angel came out of a certain dissatisfaction I felt for the comics I was seeing at the time. I wanted something I wasn’t finding at my local shop, and I think we developed Street Angel to scratch that itch.  
CBNAH: Street Angel Issue 4 currently resides in the library of congress. What are your thoughts on that?
RUGG: I think it’s fantastic that comics have been accepted into libraries, schools, galleries, and other outlets where potential new readers can more easily find them. It’s an honor to have a comic book in the Library of Congress, one I never expected. I’m very grateful to Sara Duke of the Prints & Photographs Division for her interest.
CBNAH: Are there any plans for anther team-up with Brian Maruca? I’d love more street Angel and Afrodisiac in my life.
RUGG: I assume we’ll work together again. I’ve just been busy with some other things lately. We still hang out and talk. We have ideas for both characters as well as other characters. Just need to find a few more hours in the day. 
CBNAH: In 2009, Lucas Testro and Adam Bishop made a short film based on Street Angel. I actually knew Katie Bell, who plays Jessie, when she was in school. Were you involved at all? What did you think off it?
RUGG: We weren’t too involved. Lucas and Adam were great about the process. They sent us work-in-progress and gave us access to their production materials, which was interesting to see. But we didn’t actually participate as anything more than spectators.
I was very happy with how it turned out. I’m a fan of the 60s Batman TV series, and I thought there were some nice parallels between the two. I think they did a great job with material that couldn’t have been easy to adapt.
CBNAH: You tend to lean more towards comedy stuff, even when you’re drawing someone else’s script (The Guild, for example). What draws you to that over, say, traditional superhero comics?
RUGG: I don’t know. I think that’s just how things have gone so far. I like real people a lot. And the less we see real people in media, perhaps the more I’m drawn to them. Superheroes are very complex to me as a genre and a concept. Eventually I expect to do something superhero-related but it hasn’t emerged yet. I enjoy comedy, so for now, it just seems like my work gravitates towards that element. Honestly, it’s another one of those, I need more-hours-in-the-day! answers. Unfortunately, I only get around to a small percentage of what I’d like to do. But the longer I keep working, the more ground I hope to cover.
CBNAH: The beats in your dialogue are spot on, and often has me in stitches. I love the conversation between Jessie, the Mayor and the Chief of Police in #1 - something about calling the chief of Police a pervert through a megaphone is so irreverent - comic gold! Does writing dialogue come natural to you, or do you have to work hard on it?
RUGG: Every aspect of writing is hard for me. It’s the reason I often work with Brian. He’s a much better writer than I am. But I see him struggle as well. I don’t know. Maybe it’s easy for some people, but it’s the hardest thing I try to do. When we work on a script, at some point (often more than once) we get together and read it out loud and it’s a chance to examine it from a slightly new angle. So usually dialogue gets a lot of attention by the time I’m actually lettering a strip.
CBNAH: The comics industry is in a weird place right now, where comics are driving pop culture, but people just aren’t reading them. What are your thoughts on the industry and how can it improve?
RUGG: That’s a lot to unpack.

First, I flat out disagree with your assertion that people aren’t reading comics. There may be fewer readers per comic/graphic novel than in the past. But I believe the number of American readers is much, much greater than it’s ever been in my lifetime.
A friend of mine started dating a hair stylist recently. He’s also a cartoonist. When she learned this, she told him about the comics she had read – Watchmen, Scott Pilgrim, a few others. She also read a lot of prose, and reading comics for her was just a casual part of her reading. She’d hear something is good, comic or otherwise, and next time she was looking for something to read, it might be a graphic novel.
I went to a Chip Kidd lecture recently at the Warhol Museum. It was co-sponsored by the local AIGA (a graphic design/arts organization). I assumed there’d be a bunch of designers and bookophiles at the talk. The talk sold out quickly and was almost all comics fans. 
Our local library system has an insanely good, big, and constantly growing collection of comics and graphic novels. If there weren’t demand for comics among library-users, that collection would not continue to grow.
A lot of what I just mentioned may be readers outside the direct market/superhero/Marvel/DC demo, but I bet they represent a far larger number of readers than currently exist in the direct market/fandom. A few years ago, I remember some controversy when the year’s best-selling list was published. DC didn’t include non-direct market numbers for their periodical sales. If they had, their Wildstorm video game books would have been their bestsellers by a pretty substantial margin.
What I’ve begun noticing is the growth of a huge, casual audience. I love this development. It’s not always been this way. I remember Patton Oswalt’s thing about nerds and fandom disappearing (, but I don’t think that’s true. Come and hang out with me, Ed Piskor, Tom Scioli, and Jasen Lex at some get together and see if geeks still exist. Access to a mainstream audience does not preclude the existence of hardcore fandom. Those are two different things entirely.
My thoughts on the industry and how can it improve? I think in most regards the industry is better than it’s ever been. I think the quality and diversity of content available has never been better. I don’t think it’s ever been close. The talent working in the industry is just incredible. There’s never been a better time to be a comics fan than right now.
Obviously distribution is a popular subject in comics right now, and plenty of other media for that matter. Generating revenue is important for the sustainability of the industry and community, both retail and creative, and traditionally revenue generation has been concentrated in distribution.
I worry about brick-and-mortar retailers. In Pittsburgh, we are fortunate to have a number of excellent comic book shops, but I worry about all of their survival. I’m not sure what the answer is. I like being able to go to a nice comic book shop and look through a bunch of comics and talk to a retailer or store employee who has a different perspective on the form and industry than I do. But I’m not sure the retail model we are familiar with (and this isn’t limited to comic book shops) can survive. The overhead is so great. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think that’s a troubling issue our industry faces.
There are a lot of legal issues I think we need to actively monitor from free speech to the SOPA/PIPA to obscenity laws. I think it’s critical that our industry (readers, fans, retailers, publishers, journalists, critics, and artists) continues to contribute to these ongoing debates, discussions, and actions. A lot of people don’t realize that comics have a long history in this area, as such, we bring a lot of experience to the table and we need to recognize that fact. I think as an industry we are fortunate to have an organization like the CBLDF doing a lot of heavy lifting on our behalf.
Historically, I’d like to see greater efforts to appreciate, recognize, and support our aging cartoonists. Personally, I want someone to do a multi-volume biography/interview of Marie Severin. Has anyone in comics seen and been around as much significant history as her? But there are many levels of history I’d like to see us care for better. We’ve seen improvements with historical and archival preservation of work, but many of the men and women who have built this history drift into obscurity and we lose their stories forever. I hope more historians begin to look around and shine a light on those cartoonists that have drifted away from comics.
Readership can always be improved and shouldn’t be taken for granted. I think the last ten years have been great for expanding readership, and I think we need to continue to pursue that as an industry. At this point, I think we have comics to offer just about everybody. So that’s an ongoing concern, but it’s also a fun one. I love giving a comic to someone when I know he/she will like it. Inevitably, it gives us something to talk about in the future.
Comics education has been an area of growth over the last decade as well. I think that bodes well for our future and like readership, can always be improved. More and more cartoonists are touring in support of their work. I encourage people to go see a cartoonist read or talk about his/her work when you have a chance.
Comic book shows have gotten better and better. There are so many good regional and specialty shows these days. This isn’t a dig on Patton Oswalt’s rant, but the abundance of small press and regional shows has grown the fandom that he laments. I’ve met a lot of friends and learned about a lot of my favorite artists from attending these shows. They offer a chance for readers and artists to interact face to face, something most industries do not do.
The art world has begun to look at comics. I know a number of artists who work in a variety of disciplines like painting, filmmaking, writing, and also make comics. Galleries and museums have begun recognizing comics. Pittsburgh’s Center for the Arts recently named John Peña its Emerging Artist of the Year ( and his show featured three rooms of breathtaking comics drawings. The Warhol Museum just held an Alex Ross retrospective and supported that with a sold-out Chip Kidd lecture. Last year’s Pittsburgh Biennial commissioned a new comic by Frank Santoro. And those are just the big events from one relatively small city. 
So overall, I think the industry has a lot going for it, but like everything, that doesn’t mean we should sit back and relax. It’s not perfect. But I think we have a tremendous amount of opportunities to continue to improve this thing we love. How each of us approaches that depends on our individual preferences. Fostering that independence is something I’d like to see more of in the future. The great thing about comics, is that to support them, you basically just need to do more of what you love – reading, seeking out the art, community-building, whatever. The creativity, intelligence, and dedication of the comic readers and fans that I meet is amazing. And that quality of support gives me hope that whatever difficulties our industry encounters, we’ll find ways to overcome.
CBNAH: What comics are you currently reading?
RUGG: Tom Scioli’s American Barbarian, Ed Piskor’s weekly strip on Boing Boing is absurdly great, especially his Hip Hop history strips (, Steve Ditko Unexplored Worlds, Harry Lucey Archie, Carl Barks Donald Duck, Ryan Cecil Smith’s SF Supplementary File 2, Jason Karns’ Fukitor series (so good, please google this if you like b-horror and exploitation movies and Richard Corben and Faust), old Wizard magazines (mostly from the first five years of its publication), Jamie Hewlett’s Get the Freebies, Peepo Choo, Pope Hats, Object 5 by Kilian Eng, Pin-Up Art of Humorama, Fiction Illustrated vol. 2: Starfawn, Eerie 135, Thickness 1 and 2, Chameleon 1 and 2 (especially 2), More Things Like This…I might even go to the comic book store tomorrow for new comic book day (my first one in like five years)…I hear Prophet #21 is coming out.
CBNAH: Finish this sentence: Comic book nerds are hot because…

RUGG: Comic book nerds are hot because…they are smart.

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