Image, Marvel, Dark Horse: A Comics Renaissance Man

From Image to Marvel to Dark Horse: Rugg

A year ago, Jim Rugg was almost ready to leave comics.  Now, he’s doing books with the likes of Courtney Taylor and Felicia Day.

The year 2009 has seen many acclaimed and groundbreaking graphic novels, such as Asterios Polyp, Stitches and Parker: The Hunter.  And yet, none of those books has a scene where Dracula gets his brain punched clear out of his skull.

Rugg and his Street Angel collaborator Brian Maruca are takin’ it back to the streets with Afrodisiac, a new graphic novel from AdHouse that premieres this December.  The book collects the various anthology appearances of this bad-ass brother, along with some unmissiable new material, as the dude takes on pimps, dealers, aliens, vampires, and even the Almighty.  It’s chocolate thunder like nothin’ you’ve ever seen before.  In other words: This shiznit is tha butterz, yo.

Brother Voodoo from Strange Tales

Rugg, one of the most prolific cartoonists in comics right now, is celebrating a plethora of other projects as well, including the new graphic novel One Model Nation with the Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor, the just-announced comic book of the Internet series The Guild with creator Felicia Day, and stories in such anthologies as Marvel’s Strange Tales.  

In a year that’s also seen Rugg’s work in the likes of New York Magazine and the L.A. Weekly, he’s poised to make his biggest splash yet with these new projects.  And yet, they almost didn’t happen. In an in-depth interview, Rugg talked about his new projects, and how things turned around for him.

Newsarama: Jim, give us a rundown of what you've had coming out this year.  It's been prolific for you!

Jim RuggAfrodisiac  - full-color, hardcover graphic novel from Adhouse Books (co-written with Brian Maruca). December.

 One Model Nation  - graphic novel from Image comics (written by C. Allbritton Taylor). November.

Brother Voodoo - Strange Tales #2 from Marvel (co-written by Brian Maruca). Available now.

Machine Man and Garrett - Strange Tales collection (co-written by Brian Maruca). No idea when that will come out.

Dr. Horrible story featuring Penny -  Dark Horse Presents  #23 (written by Zack Whedon). Available now.

The Guild teaser -  Dark Horse Presents  #27 (written by Felicia Day). Available now.

Painkiller Jane - Liberty Comics #2 (written by Jimmy Palmiotti). Available soon.

Cinema Sewer #22 story - One Night in Paris (written by the great Robin Bougie). Available now.

Sleazy Slice #3 cover. Available now.

Awesome 2: Awesomer : 4-page story for (co-written with Brian).

Street Angel French edition published by Le Lezard Noir.

North: A Graphic Guide to Pittsburgh's Northside - cover and a couple of pages published by the Toonseum. Available now.

Nrama:  That…that is a lot.  And this almost didn’t come about…

Rugg: Yeah. This is what happened: Last year, around this time, I was working on storyboards for a video game and working on volume 3 of The P.L.A.I.N. Janes for DC. I estimated both to last almost a year. Within a week, and with no warning, both of those projects were cancelled. And I was sitting around all day doing nothing.

It was a difficult time. I considered going back to school, trying to get a more standard/dependable day job. But eventually things began to pick back up. And in the last 6 months, I've been busier than any other time in my life. Knock on wood.

I think I'm more left-brain dominant than many cartoonists. I hate to admit it, but I crave a certain amount of structure and stability. Emotionally, I struggle with the freelance lifestyle. I respond well to a fixed schedule, which unfortunately isn't something that I have found in producing comics. So the last year has been a bit up and down. It's definitely improved as the year has gone on, but last fall was not easy.

Nrama: Now the biggest, and most personal project you have is Afrodisiac.  Tell us the origins of this bad-boy brother, and how this collection came about.

Rugg: Brian (Maruca) and I have done a number of Afrodisiac short stories for anthologies. I like the character a lot - I get to draw girls, cars, monsters, action! So we put together a proposal for a series and sent it to a number of publishers. They all passed on it.

I started talking to Chris Pitzer (Adhouse Books publisher) about doing something for AdHouse. It began as a smaller idea, but as we talked, it grew into a full-color, hardcover book of old and new material, art and comics. I have very little confidence in this sort of thing. So I would show Chris something I was working on, he'd be enthusiastic or suggest something that was really smart, and slowly but surely the book began to emerge.

At some point, momentum took over, Brian and I were just bouncing ideas around, and we ended up with the book. It was great because towards the end, we had to actually take stuff out. I always like to do that - revision and editing strengthens a work.

I'm really excited to see the final, printed object. When we were designing the cover, I sent Chris a rough of what eventually became the front cover (a close up of  Afrodisiac 's face with the reflection of a woman in his sunglass lens). And I was thinking, this would be so cool with a spot varnish, but I wasn't sure about asking for that. Before I mentioned it, Chris suggested it! I was floored.

As for the character, I think it comes from a few places. One is my interest in ‘70s pop culture, which I ascribe to nostalgia. Then when I was 11 or 12, like much of suburban America, gangsta rap flooded my school.

That material was really the second generation of blaxploitation. So much of that music referenced the blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s. And it was received by parents like punk rock a generation earlier. Parents hated this music. It sounded different than the hairband pop music they were used to.

The last major ingredient is crime fiction. I got on a kick reading crime fiction a while back, and one of my friends (Bill Boichel from Copacetic Comics) recommended Chester Himes.

Himes wrote a series of detective novels set in Harlem. He was an expatriate in France, a contemporary of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. His Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones books are fantastic. One of them, Cotton Comes to Harlem was adapted as a movie released in 1970, and is considered one of the groundbreaking movies in the blaxploitation movement.

Nrama: In Afrodisiac and your Brother Voodoo story, you really experiment with design, recreating the aged look of a 1970s-era comic.  What's the particular appeal of homage for you, and what do you do to capture this effect?

The Guild

Rugg: I'm not crazy about a lot of the coloring of today's comics. Some look fine, some look muddy, and some seem to overpower the drawing, especially in terms of defining volume and texture. I love the way old comics look, plus Afrodisiac is set in the 1970s – it's supposed to feel and read like an artifact from that era - like the best blaxploitation comic ever!

Brother Voodoo shares that same setting and those same themes (exploitation plot about drug dealers, street gangs, and one man's revenge), so it made sense to me to make the stories look like they are from that time period.

I come from a design background - every element on the page is part of the reading experience, from paper stock to color and lettering. In many cases, I believe those elements, the ones many people don't consider, are the ones that hold the key to the readers' subconscious.

To achieve the various coloring effects, I used about half a dozen approaches. For some stories I created fill patterns from sampling small patches of colors from old comics, then duplicating and merging those patches into large images.

I also found a color palette that matched the exact percentages of CMY that old companies used in their screens. So I would color a story using that limited palette, then I would separate the colors into CMY channels, and work on each channel individually. And I would do a ton of stuff to those channels.

I would scan pages, blur the colors to eliminate the dot patterns, then use that as a palette for coloring (this was one of the later techniques I tried, it is one I plan to more fully explore in the future because I found it full of potential, potential I wasn't able to explore and develop as thoroughly as I'd like).

I would color pages using the screens that old comics used, then I would create separations, print those separations, work on the printouts, scan those, and compose the coloring digitally, like I had shot it from actual film.

That's some of the technical process.

Nrama: Throw-down: Who would win in a fight between Afrodisiac and Luke Cage?

Rugg: If it was a street fight, the  Afrodisiac . He's never lost a street fight. I'm not sure how he'd overcome Cage's strength, but I'd put my money on the  Afrodisiac .

Nrama: Hell yeah, sucka!  Now, the other big project right now is  One Model Nation .  Tell us about this book, how it came about, and what it's been like working on it.

Rugg: Last winter, out of the blue, Mike Allred called me. He was editing this new project, and wondered if I'd be interested in drawing it. The timing was perfect. He sent me the script, I was impressed by it. It felt very different than other stuff I had done up to that point, so I said I'd do it.

The graphic novel is based on a screenplay about a band (an early industrial/electronic style band) in Berlin in the 1970s. The band has a strong following among the youth culture of Berlin, it's similar to the punk scene of the late 70s, sort of.

The other significant force in the youth culture of this setting is a terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, and more specifically within the RAF, the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. Because the terrorists and the band both influence and inhabit the same group of young people, the authorities have trouble distinguishing them. The band doesn't want to get involved with politics, they just want to make music.

So that's kind of the background for  One Model Nation  - an influential band, a terrorist gang, a bunch of disaffected kids, and a bad economy. A lot of the book is true, some of it is speculation, it's like historical pop fiction.

Nrama: Nation exists on a more realistic level, while Afrodisiac is straight-up hommage, yo.  What's the difference in how you approach a project like Afrodisiac and how you approach something like Nation or Janes?

Rugg: The research is different. For  Afrodisiac , I studied old comic books, blaxploitation movies, and Rudy Ray Moore albums. For the Janes, I got a bunch of teen magazines, which is an awesome thing to buy when you’re a 30-year-old bald man. No funny looks there. The Janes research was primarily clothing, hairstyles, teen fashion.  

One Model Nation  was more historical, some of the characters are real people, some of the locations are real places, cars needed to be from that time period, and Taylor had very specific ideas about fashion and artwork, so he and Donovan Leitch would send me references.

For  One Model Nation , I did a bunch of drawings in different styles, until we found one that fit the story. And in that way, it's not different than Afrodisiac or the Janes. That process was the same, the style we decided on was different than the others, but they were different from one another too.

It goes back to what I said about coloring and lettering and paper, the drawing style is an important part of the storytelling. So it makes sense to me that the styles would be different.

Taylor was after more of a realistic style, so there were panels and drawings that I had to redo because he felt they were too cartoony. The timing was funny because I have been gravitating towards more cartoony/simplified/exaggerated work, but I had to rein some of that in for  One Model Nation .

The Guild

Nrama: And of course, you're doing The Guild with Felicia Day.   Is this just the short story, or are you doing a longer piece?

Rugg: It's a 3 issue mini-series. And it will give me a chance to explore another style - fantasy!

Nrama:  Had you been familiar with The Guild before this assignment, and what's working with Felicia been like?  

I was not familiar with The Guild before Scott Allie contacted me. I had drawn a short story featuring Felicia's character from Dr. Horrible for  Dark Horse Presents.  I think she liked how it looked, and that's what led to Scott contacting me about The Guild. I have only done the short Guild story so far.

So my interaction with Felicia has been minimal. But I expect the experience to be wonderful. When I did The Janes, I read Cecil Castellucci's novels before I agreed to draw it. Her writing was visual and dynamic, and I felt confident that she'd be able to write comics well. That experience turned out to be great. Better than I hoped.

In addition to a positive working experience with Cecil and Shelly Bond (my editor at Minx), I learned a ton from both of them. I believe The Guild is a similar opportunity. I think the show is extremely well-written (Felicia is the writer/creator of the show). It's funny, economical (which is vital for good comics storytelling). Judging from the show, I assume Felicia's comic writing will be terrific.

Scott's a great editor, which is a plus. I think my cartooning skills are still in an early stage of development so working with experienced editors like Shelly Bond at DC and someone like Scott at Dark Horse is a huge bonus on a job like this.

And we get to do the fantasy/game play material that budgetary constraints have prevented from the live action show! Which means, Felicia's probably bursting with great ideas about that! I'm really excited for this. I think it will be a lot of fun.

Nrama: What else is coming up for you?

Rugg: I have some short stories in the works for  Dark Horse Presents  and Papercutter (like the best indie comics anthology being published today!). One of the Papercutter stories is a Bald Eagle strip (if anyone remembers him from Street Angel).

I have another really great thing on my schedule, but I don't want to mention it because I haven't gotten the script and I'm terrified it's not going to happen. Brian and I continue to write. We have a couple of things we've been talking about doing, including a new character that you'll see at the end of the  Afrodisiac book!

SLG just reprinted Street Angel  too! It was out of print for a while, and now it's back. So I hope people who see Afrodisiac or enjoyed the Janes or what have you, will be able to find a copy of Street Angel  now.

Thanks for your help with this. One thing I'd add, not sure where to include this, is something about pre-orders are due soon for the  Afrodisiac , so anyone who plans to get it, tell your local comic book guy! Here's some order info:

Adhouse Books

96 4C pages

6 " x 9 " HC

$14.95 US funds

ISBN 978-1-935233-06-0

Shipping December 2009

Diamond Order Code: OCT09 0658

Afrodisiac kicks it old school in December; One Model Nation premieres this month from Image.  Rugg’s story in Strange Tales is out now.

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.

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