Jim Rugg is best known for his grindhouse take on the comics medium; his calling cards, co-created with writer Brian Maruca, are 2004’s Street Angel (about a homeless teen vigilante) and 2010’s Eisner-nominated Afrodisiac (about a black pimp). In between, he has contributed to quite a few anthologies — Meathaus, True Porn, Study Group — and drew YA author’s Cecil Castellucci’s The P.L.A.I.N. Janes and Janes in Love for DC’s now-defunct Minx line, among other ventures. He’s also continued to publish minicomics, such as Ignatz-Award-winning Rambo 3.5, in which George W. Bush dreams about his favorite action hero. What Rugg brings to his projects is a playfully knowledgeable attitude toward comics history and tropes, eye-catching visuals (due to his background in graphic design) and an ever-increasing technical mastery.
While researching Jim Rugg for this interview, I noticed that he had a tendency to go off into tangents, a tendency that I share. As such, this interview took on the texture of a conversation as we discussed conventions, exploitation films, commercials, Rambo, nostalgia and more.
This interview was transcribed by Oren Ashkenazi, Steven Davis and Ao Meng. It was copy-edited by the participants.
Sell it to the Kids
KRISTY VALENTI: Let’s go with the whole “where were you born?”
JIM RUGG: I was born about an hour south of Pittsburgh in a very small town called Connellsville.
VALENTI: What was your childhood like?
RUGG: It was a mostly rural area. My dad was raised on a farm, so as a child, whenever I would visit my grandparents, they had a farm. I say that because a lot of my books are set in an urban environment, which I have no real experience living in. Even now I live in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh. It was a small, decrepit town.
I knew no one who was a practicing artist. You don’t think about it as being strange when you’re a kid, but when you’re an adult and someone who is an artist, you realize how strange it is that I didn’t have any role models of that sort.
VALENTI: How did not having any artist role models affect you?
RUGG: I’ve had to learn most of the business of being an artist through trial-and-error. I wasn’t even sure it was possible to make a living as an artist. I think just seeing alternatives to a 9-to-5 lifestyle would have been beneficial.
I was pretty directionless during college. In hindsight, I regret not using that time and those resources in a better way. But my high school and college experiences didn’t really prepare me for real life. If I had known a working artist or two, I might have gleaned some ideas of what to expect from a career in the arts and how best to prepare myself.
Even in terms of dreaming/goal-setting — when Image comics started up, I thought the apex of being a cartoonist was doing a book with my own characters. Then when Street Angel happened, I had no real goals beyond that book. I think it’s important to think about what you want in order to formulate a plan to achieve it. A role model might have been useful to say, well, where do you think you’d like to live? What do you want to do besides a creator-owned comic? How much do you want to work? Just someone to point out some of the things I never thought of ahead of time.
VALENTI: How did growing up in a small town or a suburb shape the way you imagine or create cities such as Wilkesborough in your comics, visually and so forth?
RUGG: I find cities magical and fantastic. I enjoy looking at buildings and thinking about how everything is connected. I’m sure I romanticize cities because they are so foreign to my experience, especially my childhood. Conversely, I don’t care for much fantasy work. Perhaps it doesn’t measure up to land in which I grew up or something like that.
VALENTI: How did that affect how you viewed the urban environments in the exploitation movies that you cite as an influence?
RUGG: The exploitation movies contribute to my fascination. Same with the Marvel Universe and its NYC backdrop. I guess most of my interaction with the urban environment has been filtered through an exciting lens — superheroes, action movies, hip-hop.
VALENTI: Do you have siblings?
RUGG: I have an older sister. She’s two years older than I am.
VALENTI: Did you ever draw together?
RUGG: She wasn’t into cartoons at all. We didn’t really get along very well. We were overly competitive maybe. We get along well now, but we didn’t do things like draw together or watch the same kinds of entertainment or anything. Strange, because were I grew up there weren’t a lot of kids in the neighborhood. There wasn’t even much of a neighborhood. So you’d think we would have gotten along better, or at least been forced to interact more, but we didn’t.
VALENTI: I’m always curious about those dynamics.
RUGG: Yeah, I don’t remember my sister ever really having an interest in anything artistic.
[Pauses.] It is funny. I find, not in the case of my sister, but with other people I’ll see them draw something absent-mindedly, and it’ll be very good, and when I mention it, they’ll be like “What? I have no talent — I can’t draw anything.” When I was in college — I started dating my wife when I was in college — and at one point I was doing paintings, I was painting chairs. Every day I would do a painting of a different chair. It was mostly just practice painting. So the girl I was dating at the time, my current wife, she came one day while I was in the studio and decided to paint a chair out of boredom of sitting there while I was painting, and my teacher came in that night for crit and instantly declares, “ah, this is a break through. You’re really… this is something.” [Chuckles.] And it’s like “uh, that’s the one that I didn’t paint.” [Valenti laughs] But my wife hated it. She looked at it and said, “That’s terrible, it looks lousy.”
VALENTI: It’s intriguing how people perceive their own art and the art of others. When you’re a creator of art it must be difficult to be objective.
RUGG: Yeah that’s certainly true. I think that’s one of the hardest things. I sometimes wonder if people who are really great are great because they’re able to evaluate the quality of their work. You know what I mean? Like I think of Chris Ware and sometimes I wonder; is the reason he’s so great because he’s able to say: “That’s not good enough?” or “that part isn’t working,” or whatever?
VALENTI: He’s a perfectionist craftsman.
RUGG: Yeah, I wonder about him a lot. The last two Rusty Brown installments, I thought, were so much better than … They were so good and I feel like he’s already operating at this really high level and once you get to a certain level of quality you’re improvements are going to be somewhat … you know, small increments. And I feel like those last two Rusty Brown were amazing. Even by his standards, they were raising the bar significantly. I just wonder if that’s reflective of someone who can’t enjoy his work at all. It seems like he’s trying harder than ever and probably being more critical than ever; it’s pretty amazing.
I always cite the Coen Brothers as guys who haven’t dropped off. I think a lot of filmmakers, as they get older, their work tends to be repetitive and less risk-taking. It seems to drop off. But with the Coen Brothers it hasn’t yet, and I think its because, as brothers, they can’t get away with anything; they can’t coast. They’re always going to have someone around them who isn’t a yes person.
VALENTI: Because you create comics about teen girls, I imagined you had multiple sisters. You know how when you look at cartoonists, you notice how they just draw the same body type over and over? A lot of cartoonists can’t really draw older or younger or different shapes of bodies, and you definitely can.
RUGG: I think that’s a byproduct of the monthly … how comics used to be made, where speed was such a premium. I feel a lot of cartoonists now can draw all sorts of body types.
VALENTI: It’s a familiarity thing. Just looking at different types of … I think a lot of it’s affected by your visual input and what you expose yourself to.
RUGG: Yeah, that’s probably true.
VALENTI: So if you’re looking at a lot of mainstream movies, the people you imagine in your head, that’s gonna be what you draw from. Beautiful, Hollywood celebrities and things like that. As opposed to people on the street or, you know …
RUGG: If that’s true, I would imagine you are going to see … We’re kind of in a golden age for visual diversity now, don’t you think?
VALENTI: I don’t know, because what you’re getting into is the ability to contextualize, because you can see all these images, but you may not understand how they were made and why they were made. For example, I was watching Coffy, and you know that scene where they’re all fighting each other and Coffy’s got razors in her hair?
VALENTI: And then somebody rips off someone’s top, and I was like “Oh, her breasts look really weird,” and I realized it was because they were real [laughs]. If even I, who is a woman who lives in a real world with other women as my friends and family, am surprised by the sight of that, I can only imagine somebody with less exposure…
RUGG: Wow, that’s a great point. I was actually thinking similar things earlier today. Not about breasts [laughs], but about how subjective our standard of beauty is. You know, like anything can be beautiful. What we think of as beautiful; it doesn’t necessarily have an evolutionary purpose. I feel like it’s all manufactured. Like a few tastemakers decided: skinny, blonde … Whatever value we have now to judge beauty by, it’s the work of a few people that have manufactured that image and have had the influence to implement it.
VALENTI: Well, what’s insidious about it is, it’s commercialized. They want the thing that’s hardest for people to achieve so they will pay money to try to achieve it.
RUGG: Right. Yeah, the advertising thing … I feel like people don’t realize the impact that has on our lives. Because any commercial you see, whether it’s a billboard or something on TV or on the radio, ultimately it’s saying “You’re fat, stupid, ugly, poor,” you know? Whatever it is, it’s this negative judgment on you for having those qualities. They universally describe things that we are insecure about anyways. Nobody sits around thinking that they are wealthy enough or good looking enough, or anything you know? Regardless of the truth, they’re going to connect to almost every listener or viewer, because it’s a universal concern. It’s awful. It’s so wrong.
It’s a terrible system. It’s a very unhealthy system that no one ever talks about. People are aware of it, but it’s not something that there’s a consensus around of like “Hey, we’re doing damage, and the longer you’re in this system the more you’re confronted with these images and these messages.” Nobody … There’s no counterbalance to that, really.
VALENTI: Well, I think there is, but I think it is a more … It’s also like propaganda in way, it’s so stringent. It’s difficult to … It’s like you can’t do away with it all together, and it’s difficult to navigate it critically.
RUGG: A lot of my work is about that stuff, though. It’s specifically about the context of images and how that changes what you’re reading. Afrodisiac is like that. It’s a different book if you pick it up and think you’re reading reprints from the ’70s, for example.
One of my favorite things to watch are television commercials. In the last three or four years that’s been some of my favorite entertainment because I think, storytelling wise, there’s so much similarity to comics, just in terms of economy — in two seconds they establish setting and family and character dynamics. So that stuff bleeds into my work a lot, it comes out whenever I talk about it.
VALENTI: I was going to ask you to talk about the relationship between the grammar of film and the grammar of comics. But what’s interesting to me also is recently there’s just these bizarre ads where you don’t know what’s being advertised or what’s going on.
RUGG: Yeah, that’s one of those things that I’m more aware of now than I’ve ever been, and I think it’s because I’m just outside of the demographic. If you’re watching prime-time television — that’s something we all grew up watching, so it was advertising … depending on what you’re watching, the advertising targets a specific group of people. So if you’re watching a show on MTV like Jersey Shore, those advertisements are practically in a foreign language. They’re not for a 34-year-old guy in the suburbs. They are for … I don’t know who watches that … 18-year-old kids, probably college kids or something, right?
VALENTI: Can you think of a specific recent commercial you found effective, and why?
RUGG: I don’t know about effective. But one of the recent head-scratchers is an award-winning Kia Soul campaign featuring hamsters. Who is this supposed to appeal to? I thought it might be aimed at children who have become so horribly spoiled that they now influence their parents’ automobile purchases. It’s very bizarre and I can’t imagine who it is targeting. When I learned it’s a celebrated, award-winning campaign I was even more confused. If this were my favorite car of all time, these commercials would keep me from buying one.
Another example — I was watching something on NBC Thursday night, with my wife. She was drinking Diet Mountain Dew. A commercial for Diet Mountain Dew came on — it featured a couple of guys in an office talking about skydiving and getting giant eagle tattoos because Diet Mountain Dew is so awesome. Then a woman (possibly their boss, I can’t recall if that was my impression or if it’s really in the commercial, she’s at least the big Act 3 climax), looks at them and makes a horrible, shrieking eagle-like noise that causes a window in the office to break (she’s also consuming Diet Mountain Dew). Now my wife’s enjoyment of Diet Mountain Dew has been compromised by the wretchedness of that commercial.
So, as the language becomes more sophisticated, it becomes harder and harder for someone who’s not in that demographic to even understand what’s being sold. My wife watches reality TV shows like The Bachelor, and I don’t really like those, but sometimes I walk into the room and watch them. There are times I can’t even distinguish between the commercial and the actual programming, because they’re shot with the same camera angles. It’s the same visual vernacular. The characters, or the actors, are wearing the products that are advertised in the commercials. The clothing products, the cars that are being advertised are the ones that drive these people around on dates, so it becomes one long commercial. It’s very bizarre.
VALENTI: It is, and I was thinking about that because I wonder what’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years when people are creating things who’ve never had a monoculture, or they’ve never had… I think the last big cultural touchstone for people is maybe Harry Potter. Harry Potter is Star Wars for kids. Everybody at least has a basic understanding of it.
What’s going to happen when people don’t have these experiences in common anymore? There’s no network TV really, for a lot of people. I’m wondering where that’s going to go eventually, when people don’t have these infused images.
RUGG: Yeah, I wonder about that. I wonder how nostalgia will work in 20 years, because it seems like the cycle is so fast now. You know, when we see the ’80s come back or the ’70s culture repeat in 20 years. I don’t know that we’re going to have the same cycles in the future either.
I heard someone say that we watch reality TV because we either aspire to be the subject (like perhaps a successful chef or talented fashion designer) or we feel superior to the subject. So by watching this programming we are learning to be even more judgmental and critical of ourselves. While we’re in this mindset of deciding who we like and don’t like on a television show, a commercial comes up and suggests that our teeth aren’t white enough or some pill can help us lose that stubborn weight or eating McDonald’s will make us happier than we’ve ever been…