The return of Barry Allen as the Flash may mark a return of a Silver Age hero, but Jim Rugg is looking to bring back an entirely different aspect of 1970s comics. Blaxploitation-styled hero Afrodisiac, created by Rugg with co-writer Brian Maruca, has been making the scene for several years, but this December, his adventures will be collected into a single volume for the first time by Adhouse Books. CBR News spoke with Rugg about the new edition and the creative aspects of “Afrodisiac,” as well as his recent Brother Voodoo story for Marvel and his upcoming work on Dark Horse’s “The Guild.”
“Afrodisiac” stories and art to date, which have appeared in several indie anthologies and magazines, have found the titular hero squaring off against U.S. Presidents and mythical monsters, being transformed into an animal, and fighting dinosaurs, among other adventures. Rugg explained that his art and storytelling in “Afrodisiac” mixes the style of 1970s Marvel comics, like “Masters of Kung Fu” and “Son of Satan,” with blaxploitation movies from that era, like “The Mack,” “Willie Dynamite,” “Black Shampoo,” and “The Candy Tangerine Man.” “We try to capture the style and energy of the great blaxploitation movies, and combine that with the craziness that was ’70s Marvel so, in addition to Nixon, Hercules, and Dracula, there are aliens, cops, evil super-computers, monsters, lots of fancy cars, and, most importantly, beautiful women!” the artist said. Rugg added that, in the Adhouse volume, “there are brand new stories, there’s new artwork, and the material that is collected has appeared all over the place in the last five years. I don’t think anyone has seen all the Afrodisiac material that’s been in print. He’s appeared in ‘Project: Superior,’ ‘Project: Romantic’ (hardcover only), ‘Meathaus: SOS,’ ‘Popgun vol. 2,’ the 2005 SPX annual, ‘Awesome 2: Awesomer,’ a very limited edition mini-comic, and ‘Street Angel’ #5. So [the collection features] new stories, hard to find stories, and classics.”
Rugg, like many creators, has a soft spot for the comics and movies he grew up with. “The late ’70s represents my oldest memories of pop culture, film, television, etc. And in the last few years, as I’ve revisited material from that time period, I have discovered a fondness for the storytelling conventions and the medium (like lighting and film stock that is common to productions from that era),” Rugg told CBR.”It’s mostly nostalgia. But I also have a fascination with the material because as a child, I couldn’t quite understand what was ‘real’ and what wasn’t. When the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ would jump their car, and we’d see a shot from under the car and the wheels weren’t touching the ground, I would think, how is that happening? Can we do that with our car? Are strings involved, some kind of crane apparatus (I probably didn’t use the word apparatus when I was thinking to myself at age 5, but…)? That time period is the one that most blurs the line between fantasy and reality for me, because it’s what I remember puzzling over when I was young. It’s almost magical.”
Blaxploitation films of the ’70s also have an obvious influence on Rugg’s current work in “Afrodisiac.” “Blaxploitation is a very specific genre with clearly defined roles, and it mirrors superhero comics almost exactly in that it’s predominately a macho power fantasy,” the artist said. “A hero struggles against long odds to overcome a wrong. As I started watching blaxploitation movies, it occurred to me that we could use all their symbols and cliches to examine the superhero genre in a new way. I think Miller started to do that in his ‘Dark Knight’ sequel, to reposition the superhero away from a position of fascism. That was interrupted by the events of 9/11, but the first 2 books are pretty fascinating.
“Stylistically, I love how blaxploitation movies look and feel. The fashion is often colorful and dramatic (in some cases, like ‘Willie Dynamite,’ the clothes are so outlandish and bright it looks like a superhero movie. Ditto ‘Foxy Brown’),” the artist continued. “Many of the filmmakers were getting their first shot at making movies. In a lot of cases, they lacked experience and training but made up for it with dreams and enthusiasm, and as a viewer, I respond to that. It’s very DIY, punk rock, inspirational. It’s a tremendous achievement. It’s entertaining. At the time, it was a new point of view, so the stories felt different from everything else. And the filmmakers were breaking rules and making things up as they went along. A lot of those movies feel like anything might happen, and for viewers, there’s nothing more exciting!”
Rugg also hopes that some readers will be interested in the formal or creative approach of “Afrodisiac” as well as in simply reading the character’s adventures. “In some instances, we may only have a cover to represent a story or a few scattered panels to suggest an event. Our intent is to use the conventions of comics to develop the character and the world in which he lives in a dynamic but efficient manner,” Rugg explained. “One of the things that interests me, even going back to ‘Street Angel,’ is storytelling density. When decompression became popular, I wanted to explore the other side–like how much can we fit into a short comic strip or a page or panel. With ‘Afrodisiac,’ we’re trying some new ideas to explore that, such as using limited glimpses of a story or setting or supporting character, and hopefully those things will plant seeds in the readers’ minds.
“Additionally, we’re trying to depict the Afrodisiac from 2 points of view simultaneously. First, he’s a character within a traditional, comic book setting. Second, he’s a ‘character’ in the same way Batman is a character in one of Chip Kidd’s books that considers his media history–from brooding comic book character to ’60s TV show icon. We tried to suggest a little bit of that cultural icon status, to make the Afrodisiac bigger than one comic book or graphic novel.”
Another formal aspect is the coloring of pages to look like faded old comics, but Rugg insists this an intrinsic part of the content rather than a stylistic device. “I make no distinction between coloring and storytelling in comics. I think it hurts the quality of a comic book to think of coloring as separate from the storytelling,” he said. “I like the way old comics look. It’s what I fell in love with. I don’t care for a lot of the modern comics coloring that I see. So much of it looks muddy to me. It often overpowers the penciler and inker. So, aesthetically, it was a chance to create color comics that resemble the comics I grew up enjoying.
“Conceptually, I like to imagine a casual reader picking up the book and not being sure what they are reading. Is it reprints? Is this an old character? It’s a contrast to the African-American characters that Marvel and DC published in the ’70s, like Black Lightning and Luke Cage,” Rugg continued. “As much as those characters were an attempt to jump on the blaxploitation movie trend, they fell way short. They weren’t the hard antiheroes that Superfly, the Mack, and Sweetback were. They were sellouts, compromised to satisfy editorial or the Comics Code or some self-imposed obligation to liberal political correctness. To achieve that comparison, I thought it was vital that the art and colors look like that era.”
Rugg and Maruca also have a Brother Voodoo story in Marvel’s indie anthology, “Strange Tales” #2, and there are some clear parallels between the classic Marvel character and the Afrodisiac. “That Brother Voodoo story was a lot of fun not due to the similarities to the Afrodisiac, but just on its own,” Rugg said. “I love the original Brother Voodoo stories from ‘Strange Tales’ (nice coincidence, huh?). The Gene Colan art is terrific. And I like how odd a lot of the ’70s characters are, especially the ones that are an obvious attempt to cash in on some trend (looking at you, ‘Masters of Kung Fu’). I remember trying to figure out what could have inspired Brother Voodoo to begin with (‘Sugar Hill’ is an obvious movie comparison, but it was hardly commercially successful, and one movie isn’t an indication of a commercial trend). I was on a movie trailer kick around the time that we did ‘Brother Voodoo,’ and I wanted to see how much storytelling we could fit in 4 pages without making it feel uncomfortably dense. I was so pleased with how Brian and I were able to distill an entire exploitation movie story line into 4 pages. And we used all of his bizarre powers–fire, the sounds of drums, his dead brother’s spirit.. I wish every comic I did was that much fun to create. Hopefully some of that translates to readers.”
Rounding out Rugg’s slate of current and upcoming projects is “The Guild” at Dark Horse, which is written by Felicia Day. A preview of which is available online now at “MySpace Dark Horse Presents.” “For those who don’t know, ‘The Guild’ is an online show about a group of gamers. The show was created by Felicia Day (who also stars in it),” Rugg explained. “And it’s terrific, funny, energetic, scary in its accuracy. So she hooked up with Dark Horse, somehow or other, to do a Guild comic. And the cool part about doing a comic is that we can show their adventures, which is prohibitively expensive to do in a live action show.
“I’m really excited about drawing ‘The Guild.’ I’ve only done a couple of pages so far,” Rugg told CBR. “The contract actually just arrived today. I think the script is currently in revision mode, so I’ll be starting on that very soon. When Scott [Allie, Dark Horse editor] told me about the book, he was planning on having someone else do the game sequences. But then I started thinking, gee, I love old Conans, maybe I could draw the fantasy sequences too! I like working in different styles (compare ‘One Model Nation’ or the ‘PLAIN Janes’ to ‘Afrodisiac’), and so I was able to badger him into letting me draw both sequences!!!! I’m really excited. I would draw fantasy sketches of the characters and email them to him like every day til he caved in!”
Rugg revealed, however, that he could never join the Guild crew himself. “I don’t play any games,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I did. I believe video games are the dominant storytelling media, device, and structure of our times. But if I did play games, I have no doubt that I would get almost nothing done. Between drugs and internet porn, there are already too few hours in the day.”