“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
How best do we sum up Jim Rugg’s artistic accomplishments? Writer. Artist. Teacher. Designer. Eisner and Ignatz Award winner. The work that grew from his own personal comics has since graced books from almost all major publishers, a DVD cover for the Criterion Collection, and so much more.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): I do everything.
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What is it about the comics artform that speaks to you as a creator?
Jim Rugg: My first reason was that I liked to draw. I bought my first comic when I was like 10 and saw the credits and decided that’s what I wanted to do. Now that I’ve been doing it for 20 years, I have many more reasons. I like telling stories. Comics are a great storytelling medium. I also like working by myself. Comics offer an enormous amount of autonomy. As someone who has freelanced and has experience working with others, I value having something that is all mine. And a lot of what I enjoy about comics comes from seeing other people’s unique visions.
Practically speaking, comics are inexpensive to make compared to video games, video, animation…that low-cost of entry equals a lot of creative freedom! They’re an extremely flexible and powerful form. I can’t think of anything that can’t be said or done in comics. The more I study comics, the more I make comics, the more I am impressed with their potential.
KS: Referring to you as “cartoonist” doesn’t cover all of the aspects of comic-making you’ve been involved in. How would you describe what you do?
JR: Sometimes, I’m hired to do something specific like pencils/inks (iZombie, Adventure Time), and sometimes, I work with a co-creator like writer Cecil Castellucci on our YA graphic novel, The PLAIN Janes. In addition to artist/writer/letterer/inker, I’ve also art directed and designed books including Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream which won an Eisner and Harvey Award. One more slash, I edited Fukitor by Jason Karns for Fantagraphics.
I like doing everything. Mtsyry: Octobriana 1976, the world’s first blacklight comic, is all me. Street Angel and Afrodisiac are with my writing partner, Brian Maruca. So, it varies.
KS: If we flipped through teenage Jim’s comic collection, what would that have looked like?
JR: My first couple years were X-books by Liefeld, Lee, Silvestri; and Spider-Man by McFarlane and Larsen; and then whatever caught my eye or I found at the flea market. I didn’t have access to comic stores until Image Comics happened. At that point, Wizard and comic shops entered my life and my taste started to grow.
By my 20s, I had found alternative comics and the Comics Journal. I started making comics and I started looking at manga, comic strips, reprints, history, and small press.
KS: Back when you were first able to identify different artists/art styles, who was an early favorite?
JR: My second comic book was Wolverine #10 by John Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. Then, I found a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and connected John Buscema. At that point, I started locking into artists.
KS: Did you used to follow artists from book to book?
JR: I got a copy of Ronin #1 by Frank Miller, and he became my first comics crush. I bought everything of his that I could find. I also followed the Image guys. One of my best moves [was] I traded some Liefeld New Mutants (not #87 or #98) for a complete run of Miller Daredevil! By then, I was into a lot of people: Tim Truman, Dale Keown, Simon Bisley, Jack Kirby, Mark Schultz, James O’Barr, Mark Texeira, Barry Windsor-Smith, Sam Keith, David Lapham.
Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X was one I loved, and then Sam Keith took over the next story after Weapon X ended and it was like — whoa! Stylistically, both of these were outside the normal comics I saw. And I loved them. Bisley’s Lobo was around this time and same thing, stylistically atypical, and something I dug.
KS: What was a particular comic story that had an impact on you as a younger reader?
JR: Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You. This was an autobio comic from Yummy Fur about Brown’s middle school/high school life. It like going from Jim Lee’s WildCATs to a story about someone my age struggling with bullies and girls and his family/home life. It completely rewired my brain. Stylistically, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. And the story was so personal and relatable. It changed everything for me.
Rick Veitch’s Bratpack was another one. It made me uninterested in Marvel/DC superhero comics. It was a critical analysis of both the superhero genre and the corporate publishing/licensing practices of media companies. I never saw superheroes the same after that.
KS: Why were those the right stories at the right time?
JR: I was bored of Image Comics and Marvel Comics. I was getting older and my tastes had changed and those companies weren’t producing comics that engaged me. If I hadn’t found those alternative comics, I would have drifted away from comics because those Marvel/Image comics no longer held my interest.
KS: Moving from being a reader to working in comics, how did your first pro assignment come about?
JR: I started making mini-comics after school. I did this for a couple of years. Then, I made one called Street Angel. It sold out at the next show that I attended (SPACE in Columbus). I wanted to do more Street Angel and it seemed like people liked it. So, I submitted it to SLG, following their submission guide. They called me one week later and we did a Street Angel series: five issues and a trade paperback. Then, Shelly Bond, a Vertigo editor that liked Street Angel, offered me The PLAIN Janes. She was starting a Young Adult line of graphic novels at DC Comics.
KS: Shelly is certainly spoken of very highly by those who’ve been privileged to work with her.
JR: Shelly is brilliant. Ahead of her time with the Young Adult line. And as a good editor, she’d keep files of potential artists. I was in that file. So, I read Cecil Castellucci’s novel, Boyproof, because we didn’t have a script for The PLAIN Janes yet. I fell in love with Castellucci’s writing and said yes to The PLAIN Janes and we were off and running.
KS: Since then, your comics resume features a wide array of projects, from Street Angel to Afrodisiac to Octobriana 1976. Looking at all of those without credits, I don’t know I would guess they were by the same person. Is there a common thread that ties your works together? Or is it a case of pursuing various interests wherever those take you?
JR: One thing I love about comics is that they can be anything! My mind is restless so after I finish something, I often want to do something completely different! Also, I think of style as a storytelling choice so when I have an idea that I’m excited about for a story, I spend time thinking about the style and production. That can result in comics that look very different from story to story. But it’s definitely a case of pursuing various interests. I find the world so rich! Sometimes the hardest part is choosing one thing to do for a long time.
KS: In addition to the work you produce, you’ve also been an art instructor. Imagine one of your students today is the college version of you. What’s a piece of guidance you’d give them about their work?
JR: Study business. The world has become more and more entrepreneurial. As artists, we have a lot of agency that we did not have 20 years ago. Business acumen will open a lot of doors. It will unlock maximum creative freedom. It will enable you to be the boss and construct the life and art practice that you want. Study business. Yoga’s great, too. We spend a lot of time sitting; healthy habits will serve you well.
KS: Thumbs up or thumbs down: Listening to music, or any other background noise, while you work?
JR: I don’t listen to a lot of music. I listen to a lot of podcasts. When I’m writing, I can’t listen to podcasts, but maybe classical music or film scores. I’ve enjoyed Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter scores lately. For podcasts, mostly wrestling, conspiracy, history, movie, and comedy subjects.
KS: Pausing comics for a moment, because we rarely get to talk wrestling in these interviews, I have to ask your personal Mount Rushmore. Your four favorite wrestlers, not necessarily the greatest of all time…
JR: Roddy Piper. I fell in love with him based on his podcast. I was listening to it when he died. One of the wildest characters, people, personas of anything I’ve come across. A very unique talent.
Ric Flair. Best promo in the business. Lived the character and managed to do it all over the world for a decade plus. Unbelievable.
Steve Austin. Brought me back into wrestling with his podcast breakdown of Mankind vs. the Rock.
After that, I’m not sure. So many great ones and often their stories are thing that I gravitate to. I think Mankind might be the most underrated worker in WWE history. Andre the Giant. Road Warriors. Jim Cornette. Ron Fuller. Terry Funk.
KS: On your Cartoonist Kayfabe channel, you and Ed sit down to revisit and candidly critique comics from all corners of the medium. What was the original impetus for starting Kayfabe?
JR: We travel to a lot of comic book shows over the years. The car rides are like my grad school, because all we do is talk comics. I have learned a lot from those rides. And we would joke that it make a great podcast. Ed pitched the idea a couple years ago when we went to Baltimore Comic Con, and we started Cartoonist Kayfabe a week later! We thought it’d be a way to promote our comics, which can take years to produce. And we thought it would be fun to talk about comics regularly, because we only did shows a couple times a year.
KS: What’s been the most fun aspect of doing it?
JR: Once we started, it just took off. And so many cool, unplanned things have happened, like the community around Cartoonist Kayfabe. It feels like when I first started hanging out at comic book shops. I think other people feel that, too. We focus primarily on comics and creators that we enjoy. So, it’s like, let’s get together and look at this awesome comic! Turns out, comic book lovers enjoy looking at good comics! So, that’s fun. Then, we started interviewing creators and that has been mind-blowing. We’ve done some live events at stores and conventions. It’s taken on its own life, and I’ve been reading so many more comics. It’s been fantastic. One of my favorite comics things I’ve ever done. My nightstand is always well stocked.
KS: What’s a special work from any era that you look at with pure admiration?
JR: There are so many. I’m a fan of Dan Clowes’ comics, including Ghost World, David Boring, Patience, Ice Haven, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Death Ray — and the qualities that I admire are attention to detail, character, and world-building. I find the psychology of his characters makes sense. Also his art style and design appeal to me.
Eleanor Davis is another favorite cartoonist of mine. I enjoy all of her comics and illustrations. My favorite book of hers is You & A Bike & A Road.
Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. Britt and Arsenault make picture books, and this was their first graphic novel. It’s about a middle school girl struggling with her peer group. She reads Jane Eyre. Her little brothers are ninjas. And it’s just beautiful. One of the most beautiful books I have ever seen or read.
Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz. This one amazes me. It’s two very creative cartoonists coming from the Marvel ’80s and pushing the limits of that language beyond anything anyone had ever done in that system. It is overwhelming and breathtaking and spectacular. The greatest action story I can think of.
Alex Toth’s One for the Road. Toth is a favorite of mine. His draftsmanship and composition is flawless. One for the Road collects his comics about cars and racing. They are wonderful. Very cartoony. Very lively. They feature a variety of styles while still showcasing all the things Toth is great at. But these stories add a lot of humor and the cartooniness adds warmth and life to these strips. Delightful.
KS: Lastly, what are you working on these days?
JR: [Patreon is] where I share art, notes, comics, zines, templates, and whatever else relates to the comics I make, read, and think about — including info about Cartoonist Kayfabe.
I can’t say much about what I’m working on these days. I will say that it is a dream project. It’s due in summer of 2021, so I expect everyone to know about it soon. I’ll never shut up about it, once I get the green light to promote it.