O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
Regular readers of Robot 6 will not be surprised to read we’re fans of Jim Rugg‘s work. Rugg and I recently did an email interview regarding his latest collaboration with Brian Maruca, Afrodisiac (AdHouse). The book is described here as: “Inspired by the blaxploitation films of the 1970s and classic superhero comics, the Afrodisiac collects art and comics starring the original super badass and featuring cool cars, sexy women, scary monsters, self-righteous superheroes, corrupt cops, aliens, Dracula, Richard Nixon.” Any interview so deeply focused on an unforgettable independent work of this caliber is a blast–partially also thanks to the wacky turns our discussion takes, including into the realm of Wolverine. My thanks to Rugg for his time and to longtime pal of mine (as well as a great publisher), AdHouse’s Chris Pitzer, for his assistance in arranging the interview.
Tim O’Shea: Before getting into the guts of the book, one quick question on the back cover. Who had the idea to do the female silhouette glaze (or what would it be called) on the back cover?
Jim Rugg: It’s called a spot varnish, son. When we figured out the front cover design, Chris Pitzer (Adhouse Books publisher and all-around awesome design guru) suggested a spot varnish for the glasses. That sounded great to me. So I wanted to take advantage of the spot varnish on the back too. But the illustration on the back didn’t really lend itself to the same treatment as the front. I wasn’t sure the back cover effect would work, but figured it was the back cover. Give it a shot. I was pleasantly surprised by how it turned out.
O’Shea: There are many origins for Afrodisiac, can you single out one that was the most absurd or enjoyable to concoct?
Rugg: My favorites are the one where the kid trades his soul to the devil in return for being the greatest pimp ever and the one with the A.F.R.O.Di.S.I.A.C. acronym from the Night of the Monster Cockroach story.
O’Shea: You mimic a variety of art styles in the book, which style proved the most challenging to recreate? Can you give a hint as to how the stories were colored and given the aged condition qualities on some pages?
Rugg: I used probably 6 or 7 different coloring techniques. None of them stand out as being particularly harder than any others. In the process of doing a story, I would get an idea for a different coloring or aging process, and then I would just file it away until the next story. One of my favorite techniques was done on the front cover. It involved coloring the image, then creating color separations digitally, and printing those separations relatively small (like 2 x 3 inches). Then I scanned the print outs at a super-high resolution and created the color image from those tiny printouts. It allowed me to recreate the bleeding effect of ink that old comics have. Most of these technical details are pretty boring. I’d say the one consistent part of my process was studying old comics closely. I would find specific marks – printing errors, paper discoloring, whatever – and then I would try to duplicate those details. It was a lot like painting a still life and avoiding local color in favor of observation.
O’Shea: Between the time of Street Angel and this partially new collaboration with Brian Maruca, you collaborated with Cecil Castellucci on The P.L.A.I.N. Janes as well as Janes in Love. What lessons did you learn in your non-Maruca collaborations that you were able to bring to bear in this project? What are the odds you and Castellucci will collaborate again?
Rugg: I can’t think of any specific lessons. I hope I’m growing and learning all the time. And working with Cecil was pretty great. Her background as a prose writer gives her a different perspective on creating comics. I think she’s an excellent storyteller, so I hope I learned a bit about building character from her. But Afrodisiac’s something of a meta-character, so I’m not sure those were lessons I brought to this book. As for us working together, there aren’t any plans for it at the moment. But I would love to work with her again in the future. We became friends during the Janes, and I admire and enjoy her writing. So hopefully our paths will cross again sometime.
O’Shea: How do you and Maruca co-write a story typically, and/or with the Afrodisiac collection, specifically?
Rugg: We usually start by brainstorming ideas. Sometimes one of us will have some specific thing in mind. I wanted to do a monster story for a while. I think that’s how the Cockroach story began. We kick around ideas until something sticks. Then we write the equivalent of a short story. Lots of revisions are passed back and forth. We usually talk a few times in this process about what’s working or what isn’t. Once we have a detailed story that we both like, I’ll break it into a script – pages, panels. And then we revise that until we’re furiously fighting over commas, captions, slang. Often, once the script is done or almost done, we get together and read it, making final changes. Then I’ll go and draw it. On a few stories I would do breakdowns and then we’d get together again and go over those.
One of the things that happens in this process is that we’ll end up with 20 times more material than we use. A lot of it is garbage, but some of it is stuff we want to develop it just doesn’t fit in this particular spot. That’s how Street Angel went from a mini-comic to a series, and it’s how Afrodisiac went from minor, supporting character to his own book. In the course of writing one story with the character, we generated enough material that we decided to revisit the character.
O’Shea: Many critics have already heaped vast amount of praise on the book, but how pleasantly surprised were you by just how enthusiastically David Brothers has supported the project? It’s hard to top praise like “If it had come out in 2009, Parker: The Hunter, Asterios Polyp, and Pluto would’ve suddenly been part of a Top 4, instead of a Top 3.”
Rugg: I’ve been very surprised by the response. It’s hard to tell how anyone’s going to react to your work. As the co-creator, I can’t judge it in any way objectively. You just do what you think is best. So far, the response has overwhelmed me. It’s been much better and more enthusiastic than I ever imagined it might be. And for those who have taken time to endorse the book with positive reviews and word of mouth, I want to thank you. We’ve received really good reorders from stores and Diamond, and I’m confident that is a result of people like David Brothers who have really voiced their support and gotten behind the work. I don’t think there are many books like Afrodisiac out there. If it’s the type of book that appeals to a reader, our goal is to make sure that potential reader gets a chance to see it, to hear about it. I’m always surprised when I find a book that’s a couple years old that appeals to me but for some reason or another I never heard about it when it was released. That happens a lot, and I’m sure I keep a closer eye on comics than many casual readers do. Hopefully, these critics have raised awareness of the book for those who might enjoy it. So maybe pleasantly surprised is an understatement. I’d say I’m shocked and very, very grateful.
O’Shea: Clearly showing some ignorance, I assumed the appeal to a work like this would be restricted to the United States for the most part. But as evidenced by this Christopher Butcher post, our Canadian neighbors equally appreciate Afrodisiac. [Apologies to The Beguiling’s Parrish, who actually wrote the post, not Christopher Butcher, as Rugg notes in his answer.] When tackling a work like this, slightly rooted in pop culture of a certain era–how concerted an effort do you make to ensure its appeal is not limited to fans of that era–but rather appeal beyond that scope?
Rugg: We don’t really consider the audience much when we’re writing a story. I try to make our comics clear, but that’s more of a personal standard than an audience one. Once the book is done, then we try to decide to whom it might appeal. And that’s when we start talking to publishers that we think can help us reach the potential audience we think will connect with the material. When we’re creating the comics, we are the audience. We’re the only ones we can really measure. Conjecture about how an unknown audience might react to the work is a waste of time or worse. There’s no way to predict such a thing accurately. We tend to be very critical of each other during the creative process. If we can make each other laugh while developing the story, chances are that we’ll try to get it into the work. As for that Beguiling post, I don’t think Chris Butcher wrote that. I think someone else at the store may have posted it. But like the previous question about David Brothers and other critics, we’ve been very, very fortunate with retailer support. We’ve heard from a number of retailers about their success selling the book. They are vital to helping readers find the book and the Beguiling is certainly one of the retailers that has promoted our work. That’s part of what prompted our southern tour. And I’d love to do more store appearances and promotion. It’s nice to see good comic book stores and how they operate.
O’Shea: How long did it take for you to come up with a design for the dust jacket once AdHouse suggested printing a limited run with them?
Rugg: A few weeks? I kept a couple of sketchbooks during the time I worked on Afrodisiac. In the end, I found some ideas in those sketchbooks that contributed to the final design.
O’Shea: Why did you two decide to work Tricky Dick Nixon into the stories?
Rugg: The first Nixon appearance was in Street Angel 5, which was like 5 years ago. I can’t remember how that came about exactly. It may have been Brian’s idea. I really don’t remember. For the Venus story, I was excited to draw him. He has such a cartoony/distinctive face. Over the course of the book’s development, we had a lot more Nixon back story than what ultimately saw print.
O’Shea: Can you recommend the ideal 1970s music to put in the MP3 or CD player that should be playing while reading Afrodisiac? In promoting this homage to blaxploitation, have folks enlightened you to obscure blaxploitation films or related projects that you had not known about?
Rugg: Music – there is a lot of great blaxploitation soundtrack music. I’d recommend Superfly, Truck Turner, Troubleman, Shaft, Cotton Comes to Harlem. One of the wilder soundtracks I found was Sun Ra’s Space Is the Place. It’s insane. Two of the more interesting (not necessarily great) blaxploitation films I’ve seen are the Candy Tangerine Man and Welcome Home, Brother Charles (retitled Soul Vengeance as a DVD). Candy Tangerine Man features an alpha pimp who has a secret identity as a suburban family man. I found it about halfway through the book, and was struck by how similar it was in concept – the blaxploitation archetype merged with superhero genre tropes. Welcome Home, Brother Charles…I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. It’s amazing but probably not for everyone. It’s Jamaa Fanaka’s student film, about a drug dealer who is assaulted by a racist cop that tries to cut off his penis. After he gets out of prison, Charles seeks a rather unusual brand of revenge against the men who led to his imprisonment.
O’Shea: Is there anything you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Rugg: If you like Afrodisiac or crime fiction, you should check out Chester Himes. He wrote a series of crime novels set in Harlem that followed the exploits of two detectives – Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones that are just incredible, amazing books. We read a lot of crime fiction, watched a lot of blaxploitation films, and looked at tons of comic books. The best thing we stumbled upon during the creation of Afrodisiac, in my opinion, was the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones novels by Himes.
We’re also putting together an Afrodisiac online art show/contest. We’re going to have prizes that include original art, books, and prints. Here is a link to the contest.
There are already some great entrants, and hopefully there will be a lot more in the next month. When I first started reading comics, one of my favorite books was Wolverine. On the back cover of those old Wolverine’s, a variety of cartoonists would draw their version of the character. I loved it! So we’re trying to create that sort of thing for Afrodisiac.
Finally, I want to thank everyone who gave the book a chance – retailers, readers, critics. I’ve been amazed by the response so far, and hopefully we’ll continue to entertain with things like the art contest. Please come out to shows when we’re nearby and say hello. I’m doing more shows than I’ve ever done this year. So come out and let me scribble in your book!
Emerald City, SPACE, TCAF, Summit City, Heroes Con…and check my site now and then as I will likely add a few more shows to the schedule. Thanks.