VALENTI: Your stuff seems very animation-influenced.
RUGG: It is. There are elements I like of animation. I like the drawing of it; I just have a problem with it moving. Like, I do my own animations! I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and we made animated GIFs one night for hours. It’s so much fun to watch the characters running around or something. But watching animation, more complex animation, is very difficult for me. Hanna-Barbara stuff, something like that is easier for me to watch. It might be too much movement (more complex work, not H-B).
VALENTI: Yeah, you definitely have that flat — very Hanna-Barbera. You can almost see the drawings in Hanna-Barbera. I know that they were very low budget, so you could almost separate out the drawings in a way you can’t in slick CGI.
RUGG: I’m not able to pinpoint what it is. I don’t know if it’s a depth issue or what. I can’t really explain it, but I like the ’50s and ’60s. I like a lot of the animation and design from that era. Not to say that Hanna-Barbera is great animation or design, but just stuff of that era. Rocky and Bullwinkle, stuff like that. Part of it is I look at that stuff and think, “I could do that. Just characters moving in front of a background.” There’s always been an element of that, to see something and want to make my own version of it.
VALENTI: What people talk about with ’70s and ’80s comics is how it seems like you could just do that.
RUGG: Right. I think that’s why I hand-letter so much stuff. Because the lettering was the last thing I learned how to do. That was the one thing that separated my work from whatever I was looking to as my example. And that was like the professional mark; it was the last thing I added.
VALENTI: For Afrodisiac, I know in some interviews you were asked questions about race. But were you ever concerned about questions of misogyny?
RUGG: Yeah. Yeah, because I don’t think I can defend that one. There’s no defense when the pimp is a hero in my mind. But if your stance is that the superhero concept is fascist, and offensive for glorifying violence, then I feel that equating that to a pimp makes sense.
VALENTI: There’s a weirdly wholesome tone to Afrodisiac.
RUGG: Well, isn’t there a weirdly wholesome tone to Batman? Or Spider-Man? Name any superviolent superhero character that is aimed at kids. They wrap it in a wholesome tone.
VALENTI: Was that your ’70s and ’80s experience?
RUGG: I don’t think so. I think that at some point I realized, when I was an adult, all that stuff I learned from movies and cartoons, and what adults told me, didn’t correlate to real life. The real world doesn’t correlate to anything I read as a kid as to what adulthood would be like. And I’m kind of angry over that. Like, why wouldn’t you prepare me to be an adult? You know, school or pop culture or anything? What’s the advantage? It’s like we’re educated to be stupid. Comics and the superhero genre I think contribute to that.
VALENTI: We are adults, and we can’t let go of it, a lot of people our age. Is that all we have to draw on? Are those our images?
RUGG: Me personally, I spent no time reading any classics or going to museums when I was a kid. Cartoons and comic books are kind of the iconography that I’m stuck with. That’s the stuff I understand. If I’m going to tell any stories, that’s my vocabulary. Good or bad, whatever. I try not to judge that part.
I hate coming back to Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, but those guys use cartoons as vocabulary and tell amazingly complex and nuanced stories. So I don’t think that’s a limitation in itself. I think if you only focus on the surface style that can be a problem. Like all those people who imitated [Quinten] Tarantino’s pop culture conversations, a lot of them fell short of what he was attempting to do.
VALENTI: Did you get into Switchblade Sisters because of Tarantino?
RUGG: Yes. A lot of the exploitation stuff came through him. It doesn’t matter how people find the stuff. Everybody gets there though a different path. You can show stuff to somebody under perfect conditions, but if they ultimately don’t respond to the material, they don’t respond to the material. It’s not an indictment on the quality of the work. It just doesn’t speak to that person. Some of that has to do with age and experience. Going back to the Harry Potter reference, you’re going to see a lot less of Harry Potter types of phenomena because people have more choices now. It’s not like you have to settle for Harry Potter if you like magic, and everyone will not have to find meaning in the same source material any more.
VALENTI: I wonder if it’s going to be harder to communicate.
RUGG: Yeah, that could be.
VALENTI: One thing I did like about Afrodisiac were the disposable secret origin stories: that’s completely comics.
RUGG: I’m surprised anybody read those.
VALENTI: But that’s so comics. Maybe it’s because I maintain this 50-year-old archive of comics, but [it would be like], “Today his secret origin is this! 10 years from now, it’s going to be this!” It just doesn’t matter.
RUGG: I hate secret origins. That’s another one of my Peter Parker pet peeves…the fact that every one of these superhero movies, the first movie is an origin? You’re going to explain to me how somebody sticks to a building, or flies or whatever? It’s so stupid.
VALENTI: That’s the thing. They didn’t care about it, the original creators. Wolverine is a good example, because he jumped out of a bush! And attacked! It wasn’t, “He was in a secret facility! This is why he’s so tortured!”
RUGG: Yeah, it’s strange to me. I don’t understand that whole superhero movie thing, period. They’re so bad. I haven’t seen a lot of them, because they’re not my thing, but this summer — this has been such a bad year for movies; I was like, “I’m going to go see these this summer.” And then I saw a trailer for Green Lantern, and they were showing all this outer space stuff. And it just looks awful. It looks like Power Rangers.
VALENTI: These things don’t have any meaning for me; they just look bad.
RUGG: I don’t understand how everybody else can’t feel that way. Because the people who see these movies — nobody reads Green Lantern, right?
VALENTI: The problem is that people who write Green Lantern write it so nobody ever will.
RUGG: But how does that translate to these big movies that make $100+ million?
VALENTI: Again I think it’s that thing we keep coming back to, people investing so much into something … there’re a lot of gay and lesbian people who love superheroes.
RUGG: The masked icon makes perfect sense to me: the adolescent and the teenager wanting to be someone else. It’s perfect, and when you add virtual reality and the Internet, it makes even more sense why the mask and the secret identity is so popular now. It’s the shitty-looking movies that I can’t explain.
It’s all about the trailers. Trailers were a big influence on Afrodisiac too. I like that storytelling style. But the movies themselves are awful. I haven’t seen a good third act. Saw Iron Man; I thought it was really good, for a little bit. And it just gets not very good the longer you watch it.
VALENTI: I think it’s because people haven’t seen stories. They haven’t seen Beginning-Middle-End, all-your-basic-parts-of-a-movie. Now it’s like, “Look there’s something happening over here! Now there’s an explosion!” It’s like a little kid telling a story. This happens and this happens and this happens. It’s all the same level.
RUGG: I think that appeals to little kids.
VALENTI: Well, ’90s comics are awesome, because they’re exactly how little kids tell stories. I was reading this comic where Wolverine is fighting a bull during the Spanish Civil War, and he sees this Nazi helicopter, and he throws his sword at it. And the helicopter falls down. [Wolverine Vol. 2 #35 (January 1991), written by Larry Hama, penciled by Marc Silvestri, inked by Dan Green.]
RUGG: Wow. I need to look at that again. I used to really like those comics.
VALENTI: Because that’s exactly what a little kid sees as a story. “Oh he’s fighting a bull, and sees some Nazis, so he throws his sword!” It’s interesting to me that adult entertainment is now like that. And adults respond to that.
RUGG: Yeah, it’s kind of scary. I was having that thought recently too. Like, what was the last good movie I saw? What movie has been produced in the last 10 years that you expect will be a classic? What’s the Chinatown, or Taxi Driver? Movies are not very good mostly.
VALENTI: A [good] movie that would be a good little B-movie — like Juno; I thought that was more like a cute movie.
RUGG: We celebrate mediocrity.
VALENTI: I saw it and thought it was cute, but it’s not something that you would give to your children.
RUGG: And everyone acts like it’s the greatest thing ever! Everything’s very extreme now too. Everything’s good or bad; there’s no shade of gray. There’s no room for that.
VALENTI: I’m worried about nuance. I worry that I lose my ability to detect nuance.
RUGG: Yeah, the humanity. Where’s it going?
VALENTI: [Laughs.] Gosh, I’m a dire interviewer.
I think the thing about your work is that it’s playful and irreverent. That’s missing too; it’s like, “In issue 2, Green Lantern kicked a dog! And now, 50 years later, we have to think about that!!” You go with it and play with it and run with it.
You have a sense of knowing more than you show. Have you had any access to archival material?
RUGG: I’m obsessive, and comics have been my obsession for a while. I try to know what I’m doing; I try to take it seriously as a profession.
VALENTI: You can know so much of it, yet not be so reverent of it.
RUGG: I have no idea what’s going on in Marvel and DC comics anymore. I don’t go to a comic-book store with any regularity. It slowly has just tapered off. So the stuff that I read — I was reading that Noel Sickles book that IDW put out a couple of years ago —
VALENTI: Scorchy Smith?
RUGG: Yeah. Whatever I find that I like. I try to explore. There’s just so much stuff out there; from European imports to Japanese comics, it’s insane. I always wonder; if you were 14 right now, and liked to draw, imagine trying to sort out what you want to do. You could do anything! I have a little bit of that schizophrenia. You can look at stuff that is so different. Do you know Bald Eagles’ Victor Cayro? I like his work: to go from that, to, say, Barnaby? How do you reconcile those two things? I like both of them but I don’t know how they both exist. You think in terms of influences, and it’s so broad now. It’s terrifying.
VALENTI: I live in Seattle, [where] the big chain bookstores have been in trouble, but independent bookstores have had a pretty good year. Because it’s about taste and it’s about sifting. I think that people will pay people to have taste and sort for them.
RUGG: I could see that.
VALENTI: These comic-book shops like Family; with them, taste is a commodity.
RUGG: I’ve been thinking about this for some time. It’s almost like shepherds, guiding you through a huge collection of content. Because there’s so much, you don’t have the time to look through all of it. Those people are going to be very important. I wonder if that’s what publishers are going to become. Budgets shrink, and publishers aren’t necessarily the marketing machines they once were. They might be a lighthouse. Like, “Oh, you like Chippendale, so all the PictureBox stuff makes sense.”
VALENTI: When I got into the world of comics, I read them through the library. Cathy, V For Vendetta. And I would never even think about publishers.
RUGG: That’s true too; comics have become a lot more like the traditional publishing world. It’s such a transition; when I was a kid, if you were a Marvel junky, you’d buy every single Marvel comic. That was a thing that people did. But nowadays, does anybody on earth buy every single Marvel comic? At this point? It’s a major shift. Like when Patton Oswalt had his anti-nerd culture rant. I feel that that’s the adjustment we’re seeing. It’s a good time for the art form, but it’s a transition for the fans: because fandom doesn’t have the numbers it once did. It’s like unions in this country — they still have a voice, but it’s no longer the only voice or the loudest voice. And if you’re coming from that background, it’s disheartening because comics fandom has contributed so much to comics. They were the original historians of the art form when no one would call it an art form. And now that comics have found a wider audience and gained some degree of respectability, the industry seems like it’s turned its back on those fans. They built a monster.