Over the past decade and a half, Jim Rugg has channeled multiple professional trajectories - visual story telling instructor, podcaster, illustrator, cartoonist, graphic designer - into a career as a working creator. He has been putting out comics since 2005, when Slave Labor Graphics published Street Angel, co-written with Rugg’s frequent collaborator Brian Maruca. Rugg has revisited the character - an unhoused teenage girl who is also a skateboarding ninja - frequently over the years in the pages of various graphic novels, one-shots, and specials. In 2019, Image Comics published Street Angel: Deadliest Girl Alive, collecting the Street Angel material published at Image. Rugg is also known for Afrodisiac, also co-written with Brian Maruca, Supermag, and the recently completed young adult series the PLAIN Janes, written by Cecil Castellucci.
In addition to works published through traditional channels, Rugg has been prolific in releasing formally experimental zines and mini-comics, such as Rambo 3.5 and Silhouette, all of which draw considerably upon his background in graphic design. Rugg’s spare line work has a fluid quality. He is adept at adjusting his style to the tone of a given project by making thoughtful, often unorthodox choices in his application of both media and format, as in the case of his recently funded Kickstarter project Octobriana 1976, which employs the use of black light coloring.
In 2018, Rugg launched a YouTube channel, Cartoonist Kayfabe, with Ed Piskor. In the ensuing months, the duo have found an enthusiastic following for their commentary on both classic and often overlooked comics, discussions of craft, and long-form interviews with well-known creators.
Jim Rugg’s multi-faceted career to date is one that is emblematic of many working creators, who pivot along their path in order to find the creative outlets that best fit their needs, while trying to keep themselves relevant in an often fickle market. Less pragmatic creators may not take ownership of that narrative so easily, preferring to build a name upon a single specialty. That Rugg embraces so many roles speaks to his enthusiasm for raw creativity.
IAN THOMAS: I want to talk with you about your YouTube channel, Cartoonist Kayfabe, and your new project, Octobriana 1976, and how all of that fits together. You’re close to two years into the Cartoonist Kayfabe project, is that right?
JIM RUGG: We started it in October of 2018.
What were your initial motivations and goals for that as a YouTube channel?
Ed and I had known each other for a long time through comics and we would travel to a lot of conventions together and some of them are pretty long travel times and all we’d do was talk about comics and would often joke about “We should be recording this. This would be a great podcast.” That kind of thing. So we went to a show in the fall of 2018 in Baltimore together and then Ed mentioned we could do Wizard magazine [commentary] and put it on YouTube and it sounded good to me.
I think two weeks after that show we started recording, so that was basically it. He had this idea to do a YouTube show about comics and we we would start with Wizard and we would kind of expand out from there and I was on board. I had done a podcast before that was called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know and I liked that. It all works well. Doing it weekly gives me a nice deadline and it's a chance to talk comics and it's a way to promote ourselves. So, you know it checked off a lot of boxes and I like working with Ed, so it was a chance to do that, as well.
I think it’s fair to call it successful. Was the degree of success you’ve had thus far commensurate with what you expected? And, along with that, can you talk about how the channel has maybe changed things for you and how your approach to the channel has changed over time because it seems like you reach the point where you kind of got real sick of Wizard and that's kind of when you branched out into into a lot of other things.
Let me see. Expectations, we thought people would like it and thought it would be something that would grow as long as we continue to produce it regularly. My focus in the beginning was much more on the technical side of, literally, how do we do this? How do we make it look alright? How do we make it sound okay? I wasn't thinking that much about exactly what to expect in terms of response and response was very positive from the get-go. I can't say I was surprised, exactly, but also that's one of those things I don't focus on as much because it's out of my control.
In terms of the show branching into different directions, we now do a regular weekly show where we talk about what we're working on, kind of like a ‘what's new’ sort of thing. I think that was one of the early shows that we started to add to our schedule. Then we started showing other things besides Wizard and then we started talking to different artists, specifically Tom Scioli might join us and we might all read the same book and talk about it. We knew that interviews were something we wanted to do and it was just a matter of getting the technical know-how together to do that. So, we started that probably six months into the show.
We always had the idea that Wizard was just a starting point. We like comics in a lot of ways. We both grew up reading comics in the nineties, which is kind of that Wizard era and we thought there was we could use Wizard as a history piece for the nineties and really look at the comics that we encountered in the nineties, good and bad, and and then continue to expand from there because we always did want to talk about our own work, as well. So Wizard was just one piece of it and it was a piece that made sense to start with. We still have some Wizard commentary actually recorded that we haven't released yet, so we're not done with Wizard, but the show itself was always going to be more than Wizard, assuming that it worked.
So you mentioned focusing on what you could control. I think I've heard you make comments in other places that would indicate you have an interest in life hacking and productivity hacking as they relate to your work processes, is that fair to say?
Yeah, for sure. This is what I do full time, comics and drawing and stuff, so it is a concern.
When you see something like the channel taking off, how do you fix it in your mind, so it doesn't become a time sink or gain like an outsize proportion of your mental real estate in relation to your other goals?
Well, we knew early on that it was going to be a part-time thing, no matter how successful it was. We weren’t going to stop making comics to do it. So we figured out that we would record one day a week and try to do several shows. I don't know if that answers your question, exactly. It might be possible to ramp this up faster, bigger, or something like that, depending on how we allocate resources, but we do other things. Ed just launched his Patreon. We partnered pretty early on with Spreadshirt and sell t-shirts and merchandise through them. So, we're trying to do some of these things that make sense and fit in the time schedule, I guess. It’s definitely a work in progress. We do things and sometimes you get surprised when one thing works differently than you expected and you make adjustments.
I know that the content is distributed via multiple platforms, does this channel generate income for you? Do the various algorithms recognize the value of what you are doing, so to speak, so the content is monetized? My understanding is that it’s difficult to reach a level on YouTube where it’s a moneymaker.
We make a small amount. It certainly doesn’t pay for our time in any way and a lot of that we just put back in - maybe we buy a new microphone after a couple of months, or something like that - and it's part of why we sell merch. We're still trying to figure out a lot of that stuff and I think that the launching my newest book on Kickstarter is part of that. Some of the ancillary benefits are harder to trace. I have a web store and I sell books through that web store and I certainly sold more than I did before the YouTube channel started. So it’s definitely connected. It’s not that easy to tell you exactly what the sources of income are, or how much income is purely from YouTube, but there are lots of ways to use it to my advantage, like being guests at different shows. I’ve probably been invited to more places since we started doing the YouTube show. It’s pieces.
The important thing for me is to look at the bigger picture and what my goals are, which is to be a working cartoonist who gets to do the books I want and I'm not stuck, you know, chasing whatever book I can get an editor to give me. I can make my own stuff. I can sell it in a variety of places and the YouTube channel is part of that. It's a way to amplify my voice and it's a way to have people be aware of what I'm doing. I listen to a lot of podcasts and in the beginning of it was a lot of comedians and many of them, the ones who would go on to be successful, like Marc Maron, for example, they would slowly talk about their experiences on the road and how those crowds really became their crowds. They started to see more and more of their fans whenever they were out and it came from their podcast success. And so there is a component of that that I see. This Kickstarter has gone really well and I see people who comment on our YouTube channel and then I see them on Facebook or somewhere else promoting or sharing a link that I posted or something to that effect.
As you started seeing success, which I feel came on pretty quickly, were there ever attempts or frustrations to connect those dots and see if doing things yielded certain result with respect to how many views you receive and how your content seems to be perceived by the algorithms that could push the channel into wider viewership?
I don’t know that we’ve tried too hard to chase money on it. We've definitely tried to do what we want to do in terms of covering books and talking to different cartoonists. There's probably a slightly more commercial path that we could choose out there that we haven't necessarily done because we're not chasing that. It's not a big enough amount of money where it's like “listen, we need to reach this advertiser,” or something like that.
It’s still being guided by what we want to talk about and who we want to talk to and also things happen. We just had Mark Millar on the show and that happened very organically. A lot of the writers and artists that we've been talking to, some of them are people that we know and we reached out to and sometimes it's people who like what we're doing and reach out to us. So that creates a certain - I don’t if opportunity is the right word - but certain unusual things happen that we aren’t really planning on.
Neither of us knew Mark Millar, for instance, two months ago. He started talking to us on social media, so that leads to the interview we did with him, but it comes as a result of him liking what he sees us doing. So we’re putting a signal out there, actually pursuing certain things that we’re interested in through connections we know. Like, we talked to Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. Rick Veitch is a guy that we both liked forever. Steve Bissette is a guy that we’ve liked forever and had a relationship with him. So we knew once we started doing interviews we were going to reach out to Steve Bissette. Steve Bissette then connects us to Rick Veitch very organically. Some of it intentional and some of it is just happy accidents.
As an artist who is invested in proliferating your own brand and your own distinctive voice, how do you navigate being part of a highly visible duo, where you are sort of associated with your partner by design? How do you navigate conflicts that might arise from that?
We talk about what we want to do and sometimes we do stuff on our own for time or because one of us isn't as interested in it. There are so many artists that I'm interested to talk to and I think Ed feels the same, but I don't want to speak for him. There are so many books that I love that I’m excited to talk about. If I were to propose something that Ed isn't interested in, I can just go down the list to the next dozen things.
It really hasn't been a problem. I think a lot about improv principles, which I picked up on the first podcast I did and learned really early on you kind of need to keep these conversations going and avoid saying no, right? So I'm pretty open and if Ed brings up something and I don't know, that’s a yes from me. I trust him. It's always worked out. There is room. We're partners in this, so if there’s something he really wants to cover and I'm not interested in it, he’ll just do it himself and vice versa.
It's like any other creative endeavor. We created a space where we can be ourselves, so there are a lot of things we can do on this channel. We do livestreams ourselves, whether it’s drawing or looking through some books when we feel like a break from work and we want to talk comics, but we're not recording that day. So, it's pretty flexible. The other thing is we've known each other for 20 years, so it's pretty easy to be honest. I can't imagine exactly what the conflict might look like that we couldn’t work around.
We’re not journalists. We’re doing this mostly because we like comics. We like talking about comics. We like showing each other comics. There’s a lot fun behind what we’re doing. We’re not changing the world, necessarily, so the stakes aren’t high. It would be hard for me to imagine what we were going to fight over here.
I am assuming you are, to some degree, tapping into your experience as an instructor in putting some of these videos together and organizing the information so it flows in the right way.
One thing I’d say about that is, more than instruction, it’s storytelling. There's a lot of structure there that I think's really common to storytelling and not just comic books, but I mean even like recounting some anecdote that you experienced. We've all heard that person at the party that can make the most fascinating story boring, right? I think a lot of it - probably more than education background - is the storytelling.
Maybe this is redundant, but on the spectrum ranging from the objective voice of an instructor or a historian to the subjective voice of a critic, do you try to stay within a certain range or level of consistency, or does it depend on the subject matter you’re discussing?
Some of it is dependent on the nature of the information. Certain stuff is factual - when it was published , who the creators are and things of that sort. We try to present that stuff in a way that is clear. Almost all of the rest of it is subjective in terms of how we’re responding to this stuff, what we're seeing, what we think of it, whether we like it or not. I personally try to be clear about that. If I don't like something, I try to explain why that is. When I don't think something works, I try to explain why I feel that way and occasionally make clear that this is my opinion.
When it comes to storytelling and art, I think there are far fewer rules than I think most people have. I have almost no rules when it comes to good storytelling, which may be part of that educational side of what I do, especially with comics. It’s part of what attracts me to comics because I became a comics fan before there was an academic component to comics. It was impossible in high school for me to convince my English teacher to let me do a paper on Watchmen, for example. Now, there is a very strong academic presence when it comes to comics and I think that mostly a good thing. But I also like the outlaw part, you know, I like the part where Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird invented something that looked almost amateurish or something and could succeed in comics. I like that quality of comics, that freedom. I’m pretty loose in that way. Most of what I’m pointing out on the show is going to reflect my personal taste and I try to make that clear. Hopefully, that's clear.
You arrived to a media landscape upon which there is no shortage of people discussing this kind of stuff. What do you think has resonated with the audience and allowed the channel to be successful to the extent that it has been?
I think Wizard is a good example. Ed and I both had the experience of revisiting Wizard after not reading it for like 20 years and it had this hyper-nostalgic, almost drug-like effect, at least in my brain, where I could fill these neurons dusting off and firing again for the first time in 20 years and it was really great. The nineties, I think, are maligned as a comics decade because there was a lot of terrible stuff to happen and a lot of terrible comics that were produced. There were equally a lot of great comics and work that came out of there.
I think there were a lot of other people like us, who had read Wizard magazine as kids, and had great memories of that time period, so when that showed up I think it connected to a lot of people our age. And then once we started digging through and being like “Hey, remember Palmer’s Picks?” or the first time I saw Dan Clowes’ work, or Paul Pope’s. It’s not like we were just going through and asking “Hey, remember this?” we were also saying look how good this is. Maybe you come because it’s kind of a joke, but then you realize there is a lot of good stuff here, this is great.
“Outlaw” seems to be a resonant phrase on the channel. When you started, it was in reference to the work of Tim Vigil. As you’ve continued to use the phrase, it seems to take on different meanings in different contexts. Can you succinctly sum it up?
[Jim Laughs] You know, it’s pretty tongue in cheek. I don’t think this is the kind of thing we need to academize. I don’t know if this meets a formal definition, but we were looking at a few of these books and Tim Vigil is the king of outlaw comics, for sure. The stuff is NC-17, it’s super violent, it’s hyper-inked, there’s sex and violence throughout his stuff, definitely material I did not want my parents to find when I was a kid. We started looking at different things like James O’Barr’s The Crow as another example. It's not as hard NC-17, but it's definitely violent, dark and there’s lots of Ink on the page. We started to have the sense that there’s a unity amongst these comics. We found the term “Outlaw.”
I think David Quinn - the co-creator, the writer of Faust - I believe he used it somewhere. That’s how we got that term, but it just describes these comics that are R-Rated, weird, and personal in a way similar to Joe Matt cutting his own porn tapes, or something. It has a little bit of a personal quality to it, whether it’s the horror, or the sex, or just the drawing style, itself, but definitely rooted in this dark, possibly hopeless kind of area. Another big part of it is the inking. Often, there’s more black on the page than there is white. The qualities vary a little bit, but those are the main qualities I think of when I think of outlaw comics. A lot of them are indie published. A lot of them are black and white. I don’t know if you could find one that was published by Marvel or DC. They’re outside of the realm of good taste. You probably are not going to show them to your mom.
Moving into your own work and your comics work. I’m trying to get a feel for what drives you on the basis of your comics output, what you talk about on the channel, and how you talk about it. I get the impression that process, technique, and aesthetics are your entry point into creating, as opposed to storytelling. I get the impression that story is a vehicle for the implementation of the techniques you want to use.
I don’t disagree with that.What happens is you have a notebook full of ideas. They come from everywhere and, depending on what the opportunity is, you sort of dust off one of those ideas and say okay, this fits a short story or I have two months when I can do whatever I want and I have this project that I think I can do [with this]. There are different things that will come up. Maybe it's a color comic book because Image Comics says I can do a free comic book day book this year and I have two months to turn it in. So what idea do I have with Street Angel that will fit that? There's lots of stuff that happens like that.
Occasionally, I’ll have a formal idea. The black light comic Octobriana 1976 that I'm doing on Kickstarter came out of that, where I had done a black light screen print. I tend to do everything myself in terms of production for the most part. I know how to color comics. i know how to create color separations and all these different things and I realized you could do a blacklight comic book. That's basically the idea I had. Then I talked to Chris Pitzer at AdHouse books, who I’ve collaborated with a lot. He’s a publisher whose background is in print production and he has a lot of experience and knowledge, so when I have this kind of idea I kind of pitch it to him. In the case of the blacklight comic it was like “Oh, yeah!”
He thought it would work based on how I described it to him and then it became the idea of “Let's make this thing that doesn't exist and see what it looks like.” My number one thing is I like making stuff and that's a wide range of things. I make my own zines. I’ve bound hardcovers, occasionally. I just like making things and a lot of it comes from my drawings as the start point of what's going to be reproduced and then I have to find a story.
I made my first black light print, like, six years ago and I've been thinking about it ever since. Last year, I went to Angoulême with Chris Pitzer and I pitched the idea to him and he was on board for it, but I didn't have an idea yet. I was thinking along the lines of something fantastic, something maybe in the seventies because I associate black light with that time period. Eventually, I came across Octobriana and the pieces started to fit together. In that case, I had the idea and the format in mind and I needed to write the story. Sometimes, I have a story in mind and need to figure out if it’s a drawing, a comic book, a graphic novel, a webcomic. All these pieces have to come together. You could almost make a checklist.
I teach a short story class and a visual storytelling class. One idea I have is you can figure out what makes a good story and it's things like character, style, presentation, plot, structure, like a big long list of things. You basically just have to go through that checklist before you cross the finish line. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order. You don’t have to put it into an outline, but you do need to have a good ending, a good beginning, and a good second act. My creative process tends to go that way. I'll have an idea that I can't stop thinking about or drawing a character that I might want to do more drawings of, and then it just branches out.
It may start at different points, but hopefully when I’ve crossed the finish line I’ve taken into account all those considerations of what makes a book successful or a story successful or a project or a zine or whatever I'm making. The process of making stuff, that’s my favorite. I love that part of it and if it’s something I haven’t done before that’s usually extra exciting for me. Like, let’s figure out how this works. It’s the reason I did a podcast. It’s part of the reason I do a YouTube show.
You’re a person who is driven by solving problems, is that right?
You might say that, sure. If I have one criterion for a comic I want to read or see or buy it’s that I haven’t seen it before. It’s something new. We’re in an industry where we’ve been looking at weekly Spider-Man comics for the last 40 years, which is the opposite of something new. I know everybody doesn't view this stuff this way and part of it is because I'm interested in making it, probably. I want [creators] to keep pushing the boundaries, keep showing me what this medium can do that I haven't seen it do already. Not for everybody, but that’s the stuff that gets me excited.
I think that’s an okay place to work from if you have the self-awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish and what the audience for that is. Along the lines of things like Supermag or Rambo 3.5 and your zines, they can sort of function as art objects in and of themselves.
For sure. There’s a whole discipline around printed matter and book arts. When I started interacting with that community, now for about fifteen years, it was great. I learned so much from seeing how those artists approached things when format itself is part of the expression and the process. The whole thing with doing a channel and building up a following is that I’m sharing the stuff that I like, so a lot of people are interested in these things. We’ve got videos on some of these processes of making things and they get some of the best response. There are a lot of people I think that are interested in this kind of stuff. I'm not the only person to find exhilaration in making something or trying something new. I think that's fairly universal. There are a lot of people who respond to that.
When you began studying graphic design were you kind of a magazine head? The nineties were kind of a hey day for magazines.
They were and I think that was the first place where the desktop publishing revolution - digital design, in other words - really let loose because things could be turned around so quickly. You could suddenly produce a whole issue on a Macintosh and young people gravitated toward that. Design has been this thing in a lot of ways, like comics, where it was separate from art in a way, like a craft or a trade, and the computer opened up the door to it being much more expressive. It’s really interesting to me to look at magazines even from the eighties, like Thrasher Magazine, when all that layout was mechanical, then look at the nineties. David Carson was kind of a rock star when I was in school. He was a graphic designer. He was the Art Director at Raygun magazine for a while and he did some pretty radical stuff. One of the things he did was set an interview in the Dingbat typeface, which is just symbols. A lot of people hated him, but that’s how you become a rock star, when traditional people are like “this is the worst thing ever, he’s ruining literacy,” but his defense was “it’s more interesting this way than what the person being interviewed [Bryan Ferry] actually said.” Semi-controversial at the time, but when you’re nineteen or twenty, you love that attitude. That’s the kind of thing that was big when I was in school. Concurrently, street art and artists like Shepard Fairey and his Obey stickers, it was the early days of that movement. That’s the kind of stuff I remember seeing in the design world.
Comics at the time, the industry had collapsed. In 1995-96 all the distributors had gone away. A bunch of the artists that I’d idolized for self-publishing interesting work had left comics because it crashed and design was kind of like, well, it's sort of like art and I can probably get a job in it. In hindsight, it was such a great decision. It’s served me so well. Besides the production stuff that it has kind of led me into doing - and totally out of doing in some cases - it's also the other art form that's words and pictures. Totally lucky for me. That was not the plan but in hindsight that was so great. There’s so much from design that I use in comics and what I make.
What were the big magazines for you in those days?
Raygun was definitely the top magazine. Another big one was Emigré, out of San Francisco. It was a husband and wife [Rudy VanderLans and Zuzanna Licko] who were in type design and they started publishing in the eighties. So, they got a Mac and I think they started making typefaces and then started this magazine. They had kind of radical ideas to me in terms of what the responsibility of a designer is and what the influence a designer has on our culture and society. That was kind of head-spinning stuff for me at that point.
I’m not sure I implement too much of it to this day in those terms, but in terms of the design itself and the aesthetic they put out there, every issue would be in a different format, they would have guest designers who would design whole issues, that probably influenced me in a way that something like Dan Clowes’ Eightball influenced me. Each issue would have a different logo. I loved that. That was great to me.
Emigré magazine would do a similar thing, where the issue might be themed and the next quarter might be a completely different thing. That probably made me aware of “think of the format.”
My design teacher would bring in a piece of paper. He didn’t teach us anything digital. He would point to the computer lab and say “teach yourself that part, but here’s my knowledge of sixty years of design.” He would put different sizes of paper on the board and tell us that we would fill up these spaces and make us consider what we’d put on it and what we’d put in it.
I kind of think that way about books. What are the dimensions? What are you working with? Color or black and white? What kind of paper? All of this stuff to me is part of the narrative and we live in a time now where you can have control over a lot of that in a way that John Buscema never could’ve, at least not as easily.
When it comes to preparing a book for black light, is it simply a matter of using a certain kind of ink?
There are a couple parts. One is definitely using fluorescent ink. Not all printers do that. So you get fluorescent ink almost like you would do spot coloring. The other piece of it, though, is that you have to hit it twice. So, you have to print that color two times in order to make it opaque enough to have that fluorescent quality, which is the true black light quality. What we’re printing is one black and then a yellow, a blue, and a pink twice. So, it’s almost like seven colors even though three of the colors are actually just being printed twice, but from a printing standpoint it’s almost like seven colors.
Whenever, I was setting up files, I would color them in CMYK and I would make sure there was no black. I basically created a palette out of CMY values and then I’m switching the CMY ink for the fluorescent ink for the process. The palette I’m using is fairly limited because this is so experimental and I didn’t want to try blending too many of these colors without knowing what would happen. You do these projects and you try to do the things that will work successfully. There are little bits, here and there, like testing the gradients in the background of a smaller panel, and that will be something I can apply if I do something like this again because I’m not sure if there is a limitation to mixing these colors. I ended up with about six colors, plus black and white.
That’s a more limited palette than you’re used to working with.
It is, yes, but it’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you have an eight color pack of crayons. A lot of time when you’re learning color, the way that is taught is by limiting your palette. At the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, the cartooning school that James Sturm started, they developed a silk screen print lab that was partially to teach color. If you’re working with just a couple of colors at a time to really focus on color theory.
A nice thing with this limited palette was I found myself playing with complementary colors, certainly, but also a lot of adjacent colors. I have a scene that’s set in a Siberian labor camp that is all cool colors. So, blue, purple and green are my primary colors in there and then whenever something like gunfire shows up, that’s when you get your hot colors. It's a full spectrum, but there are not a bunch of gradations between these colors. It was pretty enjoyable to do coloring with this palette. A lot of artists create palettes to work on a project and this one just happened to be Day-Glo neon colors.
One of the challenges when I put together the Kickstarter is that this can’t really exist digitally, but Kickstarter often has a digital component, so I had to color the digital component differently, not drastically differently, but I’m building a palette for it so it looks cool onscreen and has similar qualities [to the physical print] because you can’t do the fluorescent colors onscreen.
Given your background in print, do you take a little bit of pride in doing a Kickstarter that can’t truly be offered digitally?
Yes, very much. I look for stuff and if it doesn’t exist, then I try to make it. That was a lot easier to do twenty years ago than it is now. Almost everything exists now. I sound like an old person that’s complaining that there’s nothing new under the sun. I take a lot of pride in this though because, as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen an offset printed blacklight comic. It’s legitimately going to look unlike any other comic book. When I’m looking through these old, dusty back issue bins, I’m looking for things that I haven’t seen before and I’m genuinely making something like that right now.
It seems to me that nostalgia has an appeal to you and manifest in your work. I’m thinking of the blaxploitation currents in Afrodisiac and now the seventies blacklight aesthetic of Octobriana. Do these things appeal to you strictly on an aesthetic level? In my mind, there was a heavily political underpinnings to blaxploitation as cultural movement, for instance. There are Cold War underpinnings to Octobriana. How do you approach this stuff as an artist and has that changed throughout your career as you’ve connected dots and contextualized source materials?
I try not to think too much about political correctness, if that’s the right word. I don't want to pander and I don't want to compromise, either. The way Afrodisiac came together was when I started watching blaxploitation movies and I can’t tell exactly why. It probably came from someone like Tarantino talking about different blaxploitation movies. I started watching them and, in my mind, it was almost like nineties comics where they were maligned, or parodied or something. They were being referenced in contemporary culture as, you know, giant afros and Soul music, or something.
They were considered ironically.
Yeah, that’s a good way to say it. Once I started watching them, rather than watching, say, some television show that was referencing them, I felt a huge inspiration, not that different from the black and white indie comics, where it felt like there’s a bunch of people who want to a make a thing and nothing is stopping them and they also paralleled superhero storytelling and archetype. Whenever I started noticing that, it was like oh this would be the perfect way to do a superhero comic that wasn't like every other superhero comic. This was a time, 15 years ago, whenever the market was still very saturated with superhero genre. I grew up on that and I have a fondness for that genre, but how do you stand out if everything is just people in capes and stuff.
Willy Dynamite was one where I made the connection that this guy was a superhero. He had a flamboyant costume. He had a custom car that he drove. It could’ve been the Batmobile from the sixties tv version. I just recognized all these parallels. The odds were stacked against the heroes. It was like “This is great. Let’s go find the comic books that are like Shaft and the Mack,” but there really aren’t any. Luke Cage and a few others were clearly comics that were drawing from that, but they missed so much about what I thought made those movies great. That was the genesis for how Afrodisiac came about. Like anything else, I couldn’t find it, so I tried to make it myself.
Octobriana is quite different. It’s like a Christopher Guest movie, or something. I’m a big Orson Welles fan, too. I love weird comics and I found Octobriana and the Russian Underground, which is the 1971 book by Petr Sadecky through Leather Nurse, a compilation of weird comics. So, I tracked this book down and it’s 176 pages, mostly text, discussing where this character comes from, how it was created, and written in somewhat of a dry, academic style, which set the tone of the story. Then you find out none of it is true. The author stole the artwork from a couple of Czech artists, doctored it a little bit to make it Octobriana, originally it was an Amazon character, one image of which appears in a Vampirella magazine. He stole this artwork and concocted the whole story of Octobriana around this pile of artwork that he has.
He was a bad guy for stealing the artwork, but what a fascinating story he made out of the ingredients he had. That’s one of those pieces of comics history that speaks to me because it’s a fascinating story and the hoax is incredibly well done. It’s a 176 page hardcover, published by a political activist writer-publisher, who, I think, had no idea it was a hoax. He thought it was an underground movement in the Soviet Union created to fight Soviet oppression. It’s just kind of perfect and because it was a hoax, all the better.
The phrase culture jamming comes to mind. It’s a hustle, or of dubious origin, and it seems to me that the appeal for you was to add your name to that canon, so now you’re part of the story?
Yes, I’m on the wikipedia page. That is part of the appeal. There is a graphic component, too. I was looking for a very specific look for this blacklight book and Octobriana has that graphic appeal. It works on a lot of different levels for me, but I do like that hoax part and I do like that it’s this public domain character who Bryan Talbot and Trina Robbins, and all these other cartoonists have done things with. It’s almost like the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft, where other writers can take these aspects of H.P. Lovecraft and almost bring Cthulhu to life. Octobriana has those qualities and I love that.
It’s Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. It’s just really interesting storytelling to me. As a fan of storytelling, I see that original book as being so far ahead of its time and it still holds up. I want to contribute to that. It’s exciting to me to be involved with it.
Ed recently launched a Patreon and it was kind of concurrent to you launching your Kickstarter. Was Patreon something you considered? I’m interested the choices around the timing and the considerations for alternative funding models for an artist in your position.
I think it depends on what you plan to do. The better Kickstarter comparison is probably Indiegogo and I can’t tell you a great difference between Kickstarter and Indiegogo besides that Indiegogo funds even if you don’t reach your goal. Patreon is more of a subscription service that seems to be more digital, but I know some cartoonists have run print objects through Patreon. For the most part, the projects are ongoing. With Octobriana, whenever I started the Kickstarter, the artwork was done and it was ready to go to press before Covid-19 happened, so that was part of what drove me to Kickstarter. I had a different plan for the book and when Covid-19 happened, I pivoted. But it was a one time thing, as well. My goal was always to make this book and as a result that sort of crowdfunding was what I was looking for, funding one big object.
I get the impression that the concept of an ongoing does not hold a lot of appeal for you.
Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t have anything against it, outright. I guess it hasn’t fit yet. I haven’t found a model that would be sustainable for me, so far, in an ongoing sense. I’m not opposed to it. There’s a lot of ongoing work that I admire greatly, from comic strips to comic books, but I haven’t found a model that really suits me doing that. I do struggle with commitment.
I’m into a lot of different stuff. Right now I’m doing drawings in ballpoint pen. I’ve done several Street Angel projects in pencil. One was completely digital. Octobriana, I went back to doing ink. I tend to bounce around a lot out of creative restlessness. It’s a little intimidating for me to think of ongoing, though I’m sure there is a way to do it where you’re mixing materials and media. Ed is really doing some interesting things in terms of the story he’s telling and crafting with his Patreon story. There are ways to do it. It takes so long to make comics, I need to live a long time if I’m going to get to all the things I want to do, but an ongoing is something I’d be interested in.
In your interview with Howard Chaykin, he speculated about the possibility of an epistolary future for the comics industry. With the issues surrounding Diamond in the wake of Covid-19 and having just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, I wonder what your thoughts are on the future of distribution.
I like that idea. That makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t think there will be one model. I hope there will still be comic book stores. One of my friend’s comic book stores, Copacetic Comics, doesn’t even have a Diamond account. They work with different book distributors. They work with different comic distributors, for more indie stuff. They work with individual artists. There are a lot of distribution avenues.
With comics, in general, it’s really tough because I don’t think we have an industry news source. Everyone has a different idea of what ‘comics industry' means. It’s almost meaningless. I love comics. I’ve spent most of my life with comics. However, there’s a guy who goes to my comics store who has every single Spider-Man, or every single Batman, and has a long pull list. He puts them in mylar and CGC grades them. I have no overlap with that person, but he also loves comics.
There are probably four or five branches of these people who love comics but don’t overlap at all with the other branches. Comics is so tiny, especially when you think of comics as the direct market. It’s such a small number of people that if you fragment that into four or five groups it’s just tiny, like the smallest niche there is, which would lead to the subscription model you describe. But in that subscription model, you’re not paying Steve Geppi, you’re not paying for these middle steps, so you may not need to sell a hundred thousand copies to make a good living, you might just need 1400 fans who are paying you directly. I think that already exists and I agree with Howard Chaykin in that regard. That may become a bigger percentage in the future with outlets like Kickstarter and Patreon or even e-newsletters.
There’s lots of models to do this, lots of subscription models out there, YouTube and podcasts included, where you can have that really close connection between author/artist and receptive audience. Kickstarter, they already say, would be the biggest publisher of comics if it were counted that way. I don’t think there will be one model, though. I think there will be more and more responsibility on the part of the artists, on the part of the publishers, and also on the part of the comic shop owners. Comic shops are very different from shop to shop. To make an umbrella statement about comic shops is very inaccurate. Copacetic Comics is run very differently than Midtown and hopefully both are successful, but they’re completely different models.