Any comic reader who knows Jim Rugg's art knows that he can get pretty eclectic.
His first major project "Street Angel" was a mix of indie comics style, ninja hijinx and heartbreaking tales of living homeless, and his follow up with friend and writer Brian Maruca "Afrodisiac" mashed-up '70s exploitation movies, old school comics coloring and madcap sex comedies.
For his latest solo work, Rugg is scratching his deepest aesthetic itch – the various styles and shades that encompass glassy magazines of the 1990s. "Supermag" is a 56-page one-man show for Rugg, a collection of short comics, illustration pieces, design work and printing techniques shipping from AdHouse Books this May.
CBR News spoke to the artist about his influences on the project, and below Rugg explains how his love for zine-making, his education in art direction, classic alt comics anthologies like "Eightball" and his personal favorite pieces from the past few years of illustration work all combined to make "Supermag" an unlikely and awesome reality.
CBR News: Jim, how did you light upon this specific format for your next project? I was bummed that I didn't get a chance to buy one of your old comic advertisement zines when they were up for sale, but I did see some similarities between that project and this one.
Jim Rugg: Yeah, it definitely comes from zines. I'm trying to think of how that all started. Some of my friends here in Pittsburgh are zine makers. I got to know artnoose who does what they call a perzine. It's basically an autobio letterpress printed zine, and she just did her 100th issue. She's been putting them out quarterly since the '90s. And I'm not sure what exactly got me into the whole zine movement. I think it was the D.I.Y. thing. When the internet came up, the history of zines had been in music zines. But the internet changed that because if you were going to write about a show, you'd just write about it online. Then in the past ten or 15 years, everything that was supposed to die off because of the internet has been born again in a stronger form. Now zines are almost like these mass-produced art books. I just gravitated towards that.
I don't know if you know Drippy Bone Books, but there are three people within that who publish these books. Keenan Marshall Keller is one of the guys there who does this comic called "Galactic Breakdown." It's this very small print run comic that's printed by a company that does restaurant menus, so it's almost plastic. The colors are so vibrant and amazing. I picked up a copy on a whim at SPX maybe two years ago. I started writing him just to say, "This is great. How do you do this?" It was like somebody finally figured out how to do print on demand in a way where the color actually enhanced the work.
So studying this has been a gradual process. I like making zines, and I've been experimenting with some stuff myself, and I came across Jason Karns' book "Fukitor." Have you seen that one?
I've seen it online, but I haven't been able to pick it up yet. It's been a while since I was at an alt comics show.
I don't know if you could even find that one! [Laughs] I e-mailed Ben Marra and said, "Have you seen 'Galactic Breakdown'?" and he e-mailed me back saying, "Oh yeah, it's great. Have you seen 'Fukitor'?" I Googled it, and it was great. He was just selling them through his website. He has a BlogSpot that he shows art through, and on the sidebar where you can order the comics. I ordered one, and it's just full of this hardcore, super graphic violence and sex and horror. It's kind of like old VHS horror movies. What those covers promised, he delivered. And it's printed in color on newsprint, and I just went, "How is this even made?"
So I e-mailed Jason and learned that he was printing them out on his own inkjet printer with his own newsprint. He would set the levels of ink to make it a little bit lighter, so it looked like the colors had kind of faded into the newsprint. It was beautiful, but it was such a low-tech solution. He was doing it I don't think necessarily for the aesthetic reasons but more going "This is how I can make comics." He's just a really talented guy, and he recognized what he had there. I fell in love with it and thought, "I have an inkjet printer. I've had an inkjet printer for 15 years. Why am I not printing this way?" That's what led to the ad zine.
We do this podcast now called "Tell Me Something I Don't Know." We talk to a variety of people, and we talked to a few people who make zines where I'd just ask them what they do and how they do it. And I also started hanging out with printmakers, and the lines get so blurry. You start crossing disciplines and media, and everything is a method to make comics. I just became more aware of paper and production and what's available. And now with international printing, print costs have gone down.
Then the last piece is that I art directed this literary journal called "Foxing Quarterly" out of Austin, Texas. It's this little journal where they prides themselves on being a print-only journal. They hired me to do the cover, and I kind of wormed my way into art directing it, which is a dream of mine. I went to school in the '90s for graphic design, and that was the heyday of magazine design in publishing. It was right after the desktop publishing revolution. So after I'd art directed an issue of "Foxing" and I'd done a couple of these zines, I felt I was ready to do something bigger.
I was planning to do a book set in the '90s. Like a period piece. It was going to follow the coloring style of the '90s and everything. There's an "Afrodisiac" piece in "Supermag" that was the original plan, but as I started expanding on it, it started to include more and more of the '90s media I was consuming. It wasn't just comics. It was David Carson's "Ray Gun" magazine, and there was a type magazine I was into called "Emigre." And this just kind of expanded out in to the magazine format it became.
I also feel there's a bit of that classic alt comics "one man anthology" feel that you're going for here. We used to see a lot more of those kinds of comics dating back to Dan Clowes' "Eightball" and Chester Brown's "Yummy Fur." Sadly, that kind of format has become a bit anachronistic. Are you trying to bring that back a bit?
Yeah, totally. It's not even to revive it. But the comics you name – "Eightball" and "Yummy Fur" – are probably #1 and 2 on my Top Comics of All Time list. I still go back and will reread those books. That stuff would get changed or reformatted whenever it was put into collected books, but I still feel like I'm figuring out how to do comics, so I can't imagine doing a long form graphic novel. Good for people who are able to think that way, but it's super hard for me. I like to concentrate very hard on one page and try to see everything that's going on there and make the first panel relate to the last panel. I want to keep it all in front of me as opposed to a graphic novel. I kind of go through ups and downs emotionally throughout the creative process, and I can imagine doing that six months into a graphic novel where I'd feel terrible about the work and then terrible about everything. It would be difficult.
So I love those one-man anthologies, and I love regular anthologies too. "Kramers Ergot 4" came out at the first MoCCA I ever did. I was lined up on a wall where "Blankets" was released on the left side of me and "Kramers 4" was released on the right side of me. They were in different corners of the room, and as soon as the doors opened for people to come in, there were rows of people just surrounding those tables with books being passed over the top and money being passed back over the top. There was this excitement that I'd never seen before. And I was excited for "Kramers." I'd read "Kramers 3" and was familiar with the work, but "Kramers 4" was just paradigm-shifting.
So that whole anthology format was incredibly important to me, and this is my version of "Eightball." You know, "Ice Haven" came out one year in "Eightball" #22, and it just changed everything. I thought, "Why hasn't anybody done this before where you're telling people's different stories in their own strips and different styles while they're still part of the bigger story?" That just stuck with me. So I always wanted to work that way. I'm bummed that that no longer exists, and I'd love to do my own one-man anthology. And this is my chance.
Within "Supermag," you've got a lot of different kinds of work: illustration, design-heavy text pages and tons of short comics including some new adventures of Street Angel and Afrodisiac created with your collaborator Brian Maruca. How did you decide what went in? Is this stuff you've been working on for a while, or did you create a lot of it to fit this format?
A lot of it is collected from different anthologies I've been in, and if you get to the end, you'll see that there's an index page which kind of lists where the work appeared first if it's reprinted. But there is new work too. Some of it is the kind of thing where once the project starts to come together, you do some arranging and editing. I probably have about 100 or 125 pages that got trimmed down to what ultimate made it in. And as you start to shape the project, you get a better idea for what can go in.
Once you have this as an object in your hands, you'll see that it follows the format of a magazine. The first handful of pages are basically ads because that's how most commercial magazines open. The front is valuable ad space. Those pieces are the equivalent of ads. They're single images. One is my cover to [Tom Neely's] "Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever" which is basically scanned from the printed book and reproduced at actual size. It's just an advertisement, literally. Then there's an intro page which is like your Editorial column. Then I've got a series of short works which are more like the columns or features magazines typically have in the front – the recurring columns. Then it starts to get into a couple of the longer pieces.
I'm very interested in rhythm. I was just talking to a cartoonist on Friday about my work on "Afrodisiac," and I was saying how the paper stock is important to me. Or whenever I watch movies, I'm always impressed by how you can date a movie by its film stock or its color pallet. All of this is kind of meta-information, but it means a lot. It's not exactly nostalgia, but it is a memory-inducing element. I think people were open to that on a subconscious level. Hopefully. [Laughs]
What I think is interesting about it is that you're replicating these styles that used to be made as the result of mass production. Like my mother-in-law is e-mailing articles about kids in Detroit who are starting their own cassette tape labels and trading tapes through the mail. But when you put them all together and place them in that context, you can almost see the hand of the artist more than if it was just one modern way of drawing and printing. It's more personal because of that.
And also, anytime something appears – like this "Street Angel" piece in here that is based on a screen print I made where I have the digital files, the original art and the actual screen print – I would look through all of them to decide which one would go in. The "Henry & Glenn" one was the same way. I thought about showing it full size or the original art instead the printed piece. A lot of that is about trying to figure out the texture and see how the piece looks best. It's kind of like finding the definitive version for a number of these pieces.
And I'm very fortunate because AdHouse Books is like my guardian angel or something. I can't stress enough how great it is working with Chris [Pitzer] because he enables me to do this stuff. He does a lot of this technical stuff like finding weird paper samples to help gear up for this project. I wish you had a hardcopy in your hands because it's printed on this super glossy paper. This project is full-color and CMYK, but there are some pages that are just printed with black ink in order to get that flat black that I'd associate with Charles Burns. I'm trying to print this as well as possible, and working with Chris and AdHouse kind of makes it possible in a way that I wouldn't be able to do under other circumstances.
So overall, what are your intentions for "Supermag" long term if any? Those classic one-man anthologies that we talked about often serialized longer stories or found new things to do across multiple issues. If this first "Supermag" sells well, do you think you'll make it a regular release?
It's really early for me to talk that way. It's even too early for me to talk about the next project I want to do. So for not this is a standalone object. The nature of it lends itself to doing other issues. I can imagine myself doing other issues in other formats or different sizes, but as of now that isn't planned. It's more like I can imagine it possibly happening. It really depends on the work that I'm doing. This is a weird project. It's one of those things that's a me project. It's one of those things where I saved some money or we sold enough copies of "Afrodisiac" where we can take a chance on it. It's a personal project.
Like I said, I went to school in the '90s when magazine design was this rock star stuff for me. It the first time when I was looking at stuff and thinking, "This is beautiful spot color printing" and this is my chance to play with that. In that sense, this stuff is very personal to me, and I'm excited to do it. But really, I feel like every print project I do may be the last one I get to do. That's how I was looking at this one. I was swinging for the fences here, and what I do next, I don't know. This will probably occupy my time at least through the summer, and I'm doing some store signings for it and more shows than I typically do. Along the way, I started drawing as much as I can. I've been drawing more and posting stuff on Tumblr. It's non-sequitor stuff, but it's getting me "back to work" so to speak. I'm seeing what comes out. As of now, I've got some projects I'm thinking about, but I'm not positive about what I'll do next.
"Supermag" ships to comic shops this May from AdHouse Books.