Anthologies and Autobio
VALENTI: So let me talk to you about True Porn, because everybody’s in True Porn. How did you get in?
RUGG: Probably a blind submission. It’s been a while, but that’s my guess.
VALENTI: Is that the only time you’ve done an autobio comic?
RUGG: I used to do autobio comics. But they’re not really anywhere. They were minicomics, before Street Angel even. So I think True Porn was probably back then.
VALENTI: What was that like, doing autobio?
RUGG: I don’t know. I liked the autobio that I would read. I read Chester Brown early on; that was one of the first indy books I read. I was like, “Wow, this is so different than Wolverine!” At the time that I started doing comics, I was reading Debbie Drechsler’s Nowhere. You know that book?
VALENTI: I don’t. I’ve seen some of the stuff [Fantagraphics] published with her and I’ve seen some anthology stuff, but I don’t know that one.
RUGG: I really like her work. Especially that one; it’s like a junior high school setting. You know, Julie Doucet — there were a handful of autobio cartoonists I was reading, just really great cartoonists. It made sense. There seemed to be a glut of autobio stuff after that, so it was OK. I would change names and stuff, to feel a bit better about the personal nature of the material. And probably the work wasn’t very honest.
VALENTI: What’s this Romantic Rendezvous?
RUGG: That’s part of a new series of one-pages. They’re based on original art, because I look at a lot of original art. You only see it scanned pages on eBay or with dealers at shows. Usually it’s one page out of context without the rest of the story. So you’re interacting with a very incomplete piece. And I like that; I was reading — I want to say it was Walter Murch, but it doesn’t matter — and he was talking about cutting pieces out when a scene isn’t working. And usually if you cut the main moment of a scene that will usually solve the problem in editing. And the reason is, an event written correctly will have gravity all around it. Now, there’s the anticipation and tension building up to the moment, followed by relief or something afterwards. All the time around a specific moment — you can kind fill in that moment on your own. So I like the idea of incomplete stuff. The ’Beto story in Love and Rockets New Stories No. 2 with Sad Girl: there are these huge gaps in time when she’s talking about dating somebody, and the very next panel it’s four months later. They’ve broken up, and you don’t see any of the relationship. I think that’s really interesting. So I started doing all these one-page comics that are designed to look like original art. I’m hoping to show them, like original art hanging on a wall. But they’re just fragments of whatever. It might be something that happened to me: something I overheard or a dream.
VALENTI: One thing I noticed when I was looking at Dr. Horrible was that you’re really good at doing stillness and silence. Which is hard to do in a comic and still make it feel alive.
RUGG: That’s probably just a quality I like. There are a ton of cartoonists who do it a lot better than I do, and I probably just like their work. You know, guys like Jason or somebody.
VALENTI: So are you working on a sci-fi anthology? With Brandon Graham?
RUGG: I’m going to do at least a page for the proposal for that. So I’m pretty excited for that. I’m probably going to treat it like the original art series that I’m working on. I don’t know if that book will get picked up or not.
VALENTI: Could you tell the readers about that, because I just know about it talking to somebody who just spoke to Brandon Graham.
RUGG: I don’t know too much about it. I was approached by somebody trying to put together a sci-fi anthology. I don’t like to talk about it, because who knows? And it’s at the very early putting-a-proposal-together stage. It’s really kind of ludicrous to talk about it too much.
VALENTI: What is the role of an anthology for an independent cartoonist today?
RUGG: That’s a good question. I don’t know. It could be a lot of stuff. This particular project, I’m interested in the cartoonists that are in it. I like their work. Doing a book with them is nice; it’s part of that community building, in a way. You could think of it from a marketing standpoint, in that if somebody—if that cartoonist is in there, it’s a chance for his fans to see my work. It’s a lot different if you’re a contributor and not the editor. The editor should have some point of view or reason for doing the book. In terms of this science fiction anthology, I’ve been wanting to do a sci-fi thing for a long time, so this time somebody showed up and gave me a kind of nudge. Anthologies are nice because of deadlines too. I mean, the one pagers I’ve been doing are so nice compared to a graphic novel, because I can’t think in terms of 150 pages. But I can think very clearly on one page.
VALENTI: That’s one thing [Eric] Reynolds talks about a lot. He talks about how to give the space for people to develop and put out their work and collect it. And now that space is transforming.
RUGG: It’s so different to think of a young cartoonist committing to one style over two years, or the first few years of their cartooning. I can’t imagine doing that. But when I first started doing comics, I had a friend who was also doing comics, and we’d get together every week and just work. It was a way to encourage each other and keep working. Because when I started, I was doing these little autobio stories I mentioned. And my friend, he was like, “Oh, I’m doing this six issues series, with one big, long story.” I’m sitting there thinking, “You’re crazy! You’ll get sick of this and burn out. You’ll have nothing to show for it.” Cut to two years later, and he’s done with a 200-page book. So some people work that way.
VALENTI: Rob Clough did a piece with CCS in TCJ #301 about these kids that come into it — well, they’re not kids, they’re adults — and they’re thinking, “OK, I’m going to make my 300-page graphic novel.” But they end up wishing they had done shorter things, where they could have figured it out.
RUGG: That’s what I like. That’s my favorite part of an anthology, where you can try things and not be sure that they will work. And if they completely fail, what are you out? Like a couple of weeks? I can’t imagine working on a multi-year project. Emotionally, the creative process is very difficult. Once you’re a year into something and if you’re looking at it on a bad day, that would be like suicide.
VALENTI: I don’t envy cartoonists.
RUGG: You know, it’s no harder than anything else. Half the time, it’s a good day. In my case, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I was 12. And the other half, it’s a bad day, and it’s the same as if I was working a job I didn’t like.
VALENTI: You’re a full-time cartoonist now?
RUGG: [Laughs.] If you were to look at my income, you would find that I’m mostly an illustrator. Just based on income.
VALENTI: Did Street Angel pave the way for that?
RUGG: I guess. I refer to Afrodisiac as my business card.
VALENTI: How do you balance that kind of commercial work? You did One Model Nation.
VALENTI: So did you have a page rate and a page pace?
RUGG: That one I did. I did about a page a day. It was a work-for-hire job.
VALENTI: People like Colleen Coover, or somebody like that — they’re so independent, but they like working for somebody like Marvel. Because it’s so different, they can change their headspace and be really straightforward.
RUGG: I’m working on my website right now, and I am so much harder on me than anybody I’ve ever worked with is. I just couldn’t work for myself all the time. I couldn’t take it. I would just burn out. I can’t create my own logo without hammering my head against the table. So sometimes it is nice to do something where you can shut a little bit of that off. Or at least have an editor who'll say, “Yeah, that's good enough.” If it's your own thing, good enough is never good enough. Good enough doesn't do anything. Like, if you were able to find out the percentage of cartoonists that make a living off of just their comics, it would be far less than one percent. Good enough doesn't get you the cheeseburger. And you can never be too good at something.
VALENTI: I'm an editor and a writer. I'm never happy with what I did. I can't put that brain, that mindset to my own work. It must be really hard for a cartoonist, because their work is so labor-intensive.
RUGG: I really don't feel comfortable evaluating my work on any level. I think there are tricks to make it easier; if you take some time off after you finish the work, you might be able to come at it with fresher eyes. I had somebody who I really respect a lot say that they smoke pot whenever they're editing their work, because that creates a different mindset for them. They can look at the work differently. It's hard. It's hard to evaluate your own work, and it's good to have a peer group that you trust. Especially if you want to try something and you want to know what effect it's creating. So you can give it to somebody whom you trust, or whom you know is articulate and get feedback.
VALENTI: Does your wife ever look at your comics for that purpose?
RUGG: No, she's not a big comics fan. She doesn't like the way you read comics; the image and the text going back and forth. So she reads my stuff, but not as an editor.
VALENTI: It seems like many cartoonists are married to somebody who is a cartoonist, or they're married to a business manager. [But] there’s the complete opposite. The other person is doing his or her own thing.
RUGG: Its surprises me when two creative types are married. That seems really, really hard. If you work in a steel mill or something, it's not like you share your work with your spouse.
VALENTI: The same rules for not being boring applies. You still have to remember how to be a person out in the world and not think about your work all the time.
RUGG: That's one of the things I struggle with. Before anyone would pay me to make comics, that's what I would do in my free time. And once you find someone to pay you, and it becomes your job, what do you do on the evenings and on weekends? You still make comics! But you do kind of have to regulate that.
So are there any other projects you want to tell me about?
RUGG: The “USApe” stuff is eventually going to be a webcomic. I'm excited to start to do webcomics. He’s a cross between Rambo, G.I. Joe cartoons, and Looney Toons. And the webcomic story basically picks up at the end of a typical action movie — the reluctant hero has seen enough killing, with the world saved, he’s going home to his family. The bulk of the strip is about a super-soldier who retires to the suburbs after a career of global adventuring and his struggle to adapt to middle-age and to come terms with the idea that his best years are behind him and that the American dream he defended may not be his dream.
VALENTI: In what ways is it a response to the political climate and attitudes toward terrorism?
RUGG: Some of the suburban ennui may be subtly political but I’m not interested in the current mainstream political debate and certainly not interested enough to bore my readers with it.
The idea of USApe probably began as a result of the war on terror, but that’s not a theme of the strip. It is more slice-of-life than it is action-oriented. I think that’s true of a lot of my work. Rambo is more about Rambo and the American myth than it is politics or President Bush, Afrodisiac is more about superhero comics of the ’70s and ’80s than it is about race, and Street Angel is more about ninjas and nonsense than it is about gender or homelessness.
But the stuff I sent you, I'm not sure whether that will be a webcomic or not. That's a work in progress.
VALENTI: What kind of plan do you have for that? Is it going to be free, and then when it's completed you'll sell the collection?
RUGG: That's a good question. I don't know. That's such a weird — the business model going forward right now is so odd. I don't know what it will be. Because I feel like a webcomic isn’t definitely something that will be collected in print. Maybe. But then again, who knows what printing looks like in a couple of years.
VALENTI: Yeah, but I think the ones that people like the most are more like regular newspaper comics.
RUGG: But that doesn't — from a commercial point of view, a lot of my own work doesn't seem all that commercial. I feel like when I'm doing freelance work, that's what I'm getting paid for. So part of me has to do my own comics, or what's the point? I try really hard not to worry about all that stuff. The webcomic thing is so amazing to think about, because the constraints are so different. My friend started doing a newspaper strip. What a newspaper strip is — it's such a different mindset. Just thinking in terms of three or four panels. I feel like webcomics are sort of like that – their own format, not necessarily strips or graphic novels, but something unique.