VALENTI: I was actually going to ask you about Afrodisiac and Street Angel. I’m wondering, especially since, in many ways, they’re commenting on comics… I’m wondering how have you managed to reach a wider audience with those works.
RUGG: I don’t know. I’m not even sure how you would track that. They haven’t sold in huge numbers. They haven’t really reached a wider audience. They’re definitely Wednesday comic crowd books … I grew up reading Marvel comics and stuff, and to some extent, those books are made for … that was the trajectory a lot of cartoonists I know had. You start out with Marvel and DC comics, because that’s what you had access to, and then you would cycle through those and move on to Fantagraphics or something that was different than Marvel and DC. Somebody that has that similar background to me is probably going to enjoy those books more than somebody who, I don’t know, read Scott Pilgrim after the movie came out and decided to try something else. Amazon’s kind of a great equalizer in terms of, if somebody hears about it or if they read a review, like a Black Dynamite fan might like Afrodisiac. So Amazon enables them to get it pretty easily. They can seek out their entertainment that way.
VALENTI: Afrodisiac is exactly my experience reading comics as a kid. You’d just find a stack of comics somewhere and read them, and you would not have any of the comics after or before. You’d get a weird, random trading card. “Here’s The Black Cat’s power rating,” “OK...”
RUGG: One of the first comics I read was X-Men, and I think I’ve probably talked about this other places…it was toward the end of Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men…but when I started, I didn’t start reading comics until I was 12, and everybody else at that point had pretty much quit. I knew X-Men was supposed to be good book, so I picked a copy up. And by that point, it was nothing but subplot…you’d get one or two pages of each character, and they were scattered throughout time, throughout…all over the earth, some are in different dimensions, someone everybody thought was dead or whatever. It made no sense. But you’d get the next one, and those subplots would all advance by a page or two. And it was almost like looking out a window — there was this whole world that seemed to be contained in those X-Men comics, and reading one or two issues was just like a glance out one window, one vantage point. And then you’d get more issues, or a back issue, and the picture would slowly emerge. I liked that experience. It was kind of like solving a puzzle or something — I am influenced by that type of storytelling.
VALENTI: It leaves you room to fill in the blanks yourself as a reader. And you can make superheroes better than the superheroes frankly were in your imagination.
RUGG: Absolutely. I always love when someone describes to me a particular issue, like an old back issue that’s so great … and if you ever get a hold of the issue, it’s usually lousy. It’s such a letdown compared … and especially if it’s another cartoonist is like, “Oh, and then this character does this,” because if a cartoonist who’s a very good storyteller to begin with, when they’re recapping some old 1970s comic, they make it sound a hundred times better than the actual book. So, you know, I was trying to hopefully be able to tap into a little bit of that.
VALENTI: But I guess what you’re getting at with Afrodisiac and with Rambo, now people are fetishisizing the tangible.
RUGG: Do you think that’s what it is?
VALENTI: I think it is a little bit. Don’t you?
RUGG: I don’t know. I’ve gotten to the point that I buy almost nothing anymore, even books. I haven’t bought a DVD in like, five years. I go to the comic book store now and it becomes not a judgment of whether the book will be good or not, but whether I physically want to add this to my rooms of crap. I feel awful saying that because it’s comics, this should be the thing I value the most. But it really… I was at a book store where they were selling these books for a dollar, like clearance books. And it was a book that I had looked at, I don’t know, ten times. Every time I’d go to this store I’d look at this book. “Ah, this is a great book.” By the time it got down to a dollar I was like, “You know, it’s an inch thick hard cover, I don’t have space for this.” Which is ridiculous, mostly, but the truth is we have so much stuff now it’s crazy. Everybody I know has more stuff than they have space for. Or they have reading piles that are… I have shelves of books that I haven’t read that I intend to.
VALENTI: I have that too. It’s that experience. It’s the tactile… I went to Stumptown this year and I don’t need comics. But I still spent $160 on comics because… Well, one, I like to support artists directly, because clearly they’re not doing this to be rich. So it’s nice to give money directly to the person who made the art. It feels good. [Laughs.] This person will now eat a cheeseburger or a gardenburger.
But it also felt like a luxury to sit there and touch all the printed things and look at them. It felt like… I don’t know, like I was shopping for Versace or something, just to sit here in this room full of all of these comics and touch them and look at them. They’re not the mainstream comics, they’re handcrafted works of art, but they’re also somewhat disposable, some of them, which I also like. I have an affection for those minicomics that are just like photocopied, folded, stapled. To me, that’s a minicomic. I don’t know if I’m articulating it very well.
RUGG: I understand what you’re saying; there’re a lot of points there. Do you think you giving somebody four or five dollars makes any difference in their life? In terms of that they’re going to buy a cheeseburger that they otherwise couldn’t get. I don’t think people are in that position. I don’t think somebody’s like ,“This is it, I made my minicomic and now I either sell it or I’m homeless.” I feel like it’s a side thing. “Ah I like comics, I have whatever my day job is and this is just to participate in this thing I like.” Making the book is the reward for a lot people I think.
VALENTI: I think it’s a couple things. I think one: people are driven to do it.
But I also think we’re in a really weird environment right now, where this form got legitimized in the last seven or eight years. And then for a little tiny bit it seemed like you could do that. Random House would publish your young adult graphic novel and you could be a 22 year old and have a book come out through a major publisher. There’re tons of schools teaching it, there’s a whole college devoted to it. So it seems… Like it’s almost a thing you could do. But it’s also at a time when nobody can do anything because the economy is very poor, and the print industry is obviously having a lot of problems, so it’s just something really…
RUGG: [Laughter.] Yeah there’s a little bit of that, but I know a ton of people… There’s another side to that and I’ve met a bunch of people around here who make comics like somebody who maybe would have, I don’t know, crocheted or on weekends gone out and done watercolor studies of streams. It’s just like this fun thing, and a bunch of them will get together: friends hanging out on a Sunday drawing comics. And there’s no idea of “this is what I’m going to do with my life,” it’s more of, “Hey, I enjoy this a lot more than watching TV.” I think that, I guess the generation younger than us… Because I always talk to people at shows like, “Are you a cartoonist, what do you do?” Everybody does something now, artistically or creatively. You know what I mean? Have you noticed that? I feel like everybody I know has something that they do that’s this rewarding, creative outlet. And I don’t think it was that way 15 or 20 years ago.
I know people who — they cook or they bake. And it’s not a profession in any way, but it’s this thing they find a lot of enjoyment in, and that’s what they might do on a Friday night is make some cake, and then make up an event to have a reason for making the cake in the first place. I don’t know, I just feel like culturally we’ve made a shift in the last 15 years that people are doing things and are a lot more active than they used to be, and I think part of it is they found a community now. Where I grew up, the town… there were 9,000 people. So, there were three people into comics or something. If you were interested in wheat-free baking you were the only person in town like that. It’s no fun to participate in the stuff that you love by yourself. You know, you go to this comic-book show and every cartoonist is excited because they’re blabbing about some obscure cartoonist they like and like seven other people are into that cartoonist. It’s the greatest thing ever. It’s like my nerd culture is flourishing now.
VALENTI: It’s true. I went to anime convention last weekend, and it’s interesting because it’s almost divorced from… It’s very individualistic; the exhibit hall is not like a comic show. It’s kind of like a cross between a flea market and a craft fair.
RUGG: Wait, how is that not like a comic-book show?
VALENTI: Well, a comic-book show is nominally about the cartoonist and the comics. Maybe I’m just spoiled and I get to go to comic shows like that. But they don’t really have any cartoonists exhibiting at all in the exhibit hall. It’s all people with hats or corsets. It’s a geek pride…
RUGG: I don’t even think it’s a geek pride, I think it’s a community thing. You have an interest in whatever it is — macramé or something. And now you’re able to find other people who share your interest.
VALENTI: Well it’s definitely that too, and it varies from show to show. Like Stumptown I had that happen, and that hadn’t happened in a long time, where I was able to say, “Hey, person I don’t know, comics!” and they were able to say, “Hey, person I don’t know, comics too!” But that’s almost rare, and it’s getting …
RUGG: Everything has changed so quickly. It’s very strange to talk to people about comics who have different levels of that experience…like last year, because of Afrodisiac, I did a ton of shows, and they kind of ranged…from Emerald City to TCAF. There are the shows you know about like TCAF, SPX and MoCCA and whatever, but I did a show in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and it was the first year for the show. And I’m thinking to myself, “Fort Wayne, Indiana…What kind of a show is that going to be?”
And it turned out to be this great show. The organizers did a really good job in that they had all ages, children-friendly comics represented, they had Marvel, DC stuff represented. It’s kinda like Emerald City, but on a much smaller scale. They had a bunch of Web cartoonists, they had people that were doing minicomics … and it was all in one show, and it was free to the public, which creates this perfect environment, because you have people who are like, “I’ve heard about comics,” or, “I’m gonna take the kids out,” or whatever, that are welcome to come through there. And almost anybody that came to that show could find something of interest. If they knew they were coming to a comic-book show, they could find something that would be interesting to them, whatever age they were, male, female, whatever. But all these shows are so different. They all have their own mission statement based on the organizers and things like that. It just seems to me that if you didn’t do that show, you could probably do three shows and have a completely different experience last year of shows than I had.
VALENTI: That’s true. I’ve also been doing it for a long time, I guess, maybe … probably not any longer than you, but since, what? 2004 or ’05? So I can watch a show evolve from year to year, and see how the makeup changes. It’s almost 180 from when I started.
RUGG: I started doing shows in 2000, at [SPX?] and MoCCA and TCAF, watching those three shows has been some of the most interesting development in comics to me. Because in 2000, I remember SPX was great for minicomics, but there was a sense of comics …this is it, we’re in the ashes of the comics industry…because it was after all the distributors had collapsed, and it was right before people started doing graphic novels seriously, and before manga sort of opened the book market…and it was just people doing minicomics and trading with each other. It’s when everyone would make the joke about five dollars would just go from table to table, and it was the same five dollars. TCAF has really built their show, so every year it’s better. They used to switch venues until they found the reference library it’s been at the last couple of years…but they aggressively courted a very diverse public. Whereas SPX has kind of stood pat for, I don’t know, the last five years. It’s very strange to see that, because I feel like SPX and MoCCA have this brand where they could be ambassadors for comics, and they haven’t really done that.
VALENTI: That’s a conversation that’s surrounding conventions this year. I don’t know if you read Dylan Williams’ post about conventions ...
RUGG: Yeah. I don’t say that in a negative way. I think. If anything, MoCCA and SPX both want to be … they’re both fundraisers. If they really wanted to make as much money as possible for their organizations, I feel like they could market their brand a little better than they do. For me, it doesn’t make any difference…if I don’t like their show, I just won’t do their show. Ten years ago, SPX was it. If you wanted to do a small press show, that was it. Maybe A.P.E. was around at that point … but you know what I mean … like now, every average-sized city in America has a small press show.
The reason that I was mentioning that is because I feel like a lot of people have this attitude of, “I had a bad experience at this show, and so the state of comics is bad right now.” And I hate it whenever people do that. I think that the state of comics right now is more flexible than it’s ever been in terms of serving a variety of people’s needs or interests. So it bothers me whenever people have that attitude of, “Oh, things are different than they were five years ago. Now the major publishers aren’t publishing graphic novels.” Or whatever it is, like if it’s a negative take on it.
Very few people make a living as a cartoonist, because it’s so time-consuming. If you want to make money drawing, you’re an illustrator, because you can get paid. Even if the pay rate were essentially equal, like for a page of comics or a page of illustration, the illustration pays more because it’s faster; you’re drawing one picture. So people who dwell on the industry’s changing, Wednesday comic sales are dwindling, more people read more stuff on iPads or whatever. We have more comics readers than we’ve ever had, at least as long as I’ve been reading comics, I feel. And I don’t understand how, if that’s your starting point, everything else is a solvable problem, I think. So I get mad when people dwell on this negative thing, that the business is different than it was five years ago or 10 years ago. It is, but every business on earth is different than it was five years ago or 10 years ago.