Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Greg Ruth, and the comic is Sudden Gravity, which was published by Caliber Comics in 1998/1999. These scans are from the Dark Horse reprint, which is cover dated July 2006. Enjoy!
Sudden Gravity isn’t Greg Ruth’s earliest work, but it’s close enough, and according to Ruth, his work for Paradox Press isn’t very good, so I guess it’s okay that I don’t own it (although if I did, I would totally show it!). When I looking into the chronology of Ruth’s work, I was a bit puzzled by the way Sudden Gravity was presented in the Dark Horse reprint, so I contacted Ruth about it. He mentioned that for the Dark Horse book, he simply moved some of the art around, but didn’t create any new art. I asked because it seems like the collected edition was longer than the five issues that came out from Caliber, but he assured me that the only thing he did was move some stuff around. I’ll get back to some of the other stuff he told me as we move along.
The first thing you should know about Sudden Gravity is that Ruth drew the entire thing, with one brief exception, in Bic ballpoint pen. I asked him if he laid it out in pencil beforehand, but he said the nice thing about Bic pens is that you can use them as pencils – you can sketch lightly and then go over them afterward. So this is all pen work, which to me makes it even more amazing, even though the actual work is stunning enough. Ruth does amazing work on this page, as the narrator (whose name is Alice) climbs a tree (she’s dreaming) and gets bitten by rats. Ruth uses blacks with amazing results, turning the rats into giant, aggressive monsters, while he shades Alice’s face well to show how alone she is in the tree. He uses thick blacks to create the bloody letters on the Alice’s back, and he mashes the panels in the bottom row together in order to create a sense of speed and tension before she falls, when he uses a slightly wider panel so that he can isolate Alice even more as a silhouette against a stark white background. Ruth also varies his line weight very nicely, as the rats in the background in Panels 1 and 3 are hazy, given that they’re farther away from the reader. Even this early in the book, we can see the attention to detail that Ruth brings to the book. It’s not the last time we’ll see it!
Ruth is already quite good at facial expressions, as you can see here. Henry is trying to get Alice to speak, but he’s a bit unnerved by her silence, so he rambles a bit, and Ruth shows him flailing around for something to say. He tilts his head, scratches his scalp, half-smiles in Panel 4, then realizes he might have said something a bit unfortunate in Panel 6, and Ruth shows his realization really well. Panel 8 is nice, too – Ruth pulls back to show all of Henry, sitting awkwardly and silently in his chair as he tries to think of something else to say. Even his body language shows how uncomfortable he is – he’s tilted to the side, and the fact that his foot isn’t resting on the ground but is pointed a bit makes him look younger, like a child who said the absolute wrong thing and is extremely mortified. Alice, meanwhile, remains stoic, and Ruth again uses blacks magnificently on her to show how shut off she is. He shades her eyes and mouth well in Panels 1 and 5, but notice how he changes her expression a little bit in Panel 7 – we can see her thin and disapproving mouth, and Ruth curves her eyebrows just enough to show that she’s not terribly happy with Henry’s babbling. It’s really well done, especially as Ruth still uses a lot of blacks to hide her face.
Ruth returns to the Alice falling, and he gives us another creepy page (Sudden Gravity is incredibly creepy, so that’s not shocking). He uses a lot of hatching, which makes the tree look ancient and gnarled, while it adds nice shading to the figures in the bottom row. Ruth thinks a lot about the way objects cast shadows, as we see in Panel 6, as the thumb casts a shadow on the Alice’s face but because it’s pulled back a bit, it fades a bit toward the top. It’s always nice to see an artist consider this stuff. Meanwhile, the fact that he drew those amazing eyes in Panel 4 is just another testament to his skill. They’re pretty stunning.
Ruth drops in architecture of the hospital where the book is set and the surrounding town every once in a while, so we get the wonderfully detailed Panel 1 on this page, for which he uses slightly lighter lines. I know that occasionally artists go too nuts with the line work, but Ruth’s hatching give Sudden Gravity a, well, gravity that is necessary for the tone of the book, and I can’t even imagine how long it took him to do this one panel. Inside, he draws a typical horror movie scene where someone gets touched on the shoulder but when they turn around, no one is there, but he does it pretty well, as Susan doesn’t quite know what happened. In comics, it’s harder to get away with this sort of thing because gutters can easily represent a passage of time, so the person could easily sneak up on Susan, but Ruth mitigates that by showing Susan from the apparition’s point of view, so that we become the person approaching. It’s another old trick, but it helps create a good sense of creeping terror. I like the fact that this takes place in the daytime, too – too often things like these take place in the dark, and while the light doesn’t make it scarier, it does make it a bit creepier, as this kind of thing can happen in broad daylight as well as the middle of the night. Ruth tilts Panel 5 just slightly, which is the smallest bit disorienting. It’s another example of knowing how to make the scene more unsettling.
There’s a lot of cool stuff going on here, as Ruth gives us Henry talking to Alice again, while Alice tries to ignore him. Ruth uses very light lines in Panel 2 to show Alice’s memory, and he blurs the edges to make it even more like a fleeting thought. He focuses in on Henry in Panel 3, and he doesn’t forget to show the light stubble on the doctor’s chin, as even though he’s clean-shaven, there’s still vestiges of hair. The middle row shows Alice becoming darker, which is very cool, as Ruth begins with a fairly regular drawing and slowly draws more hair falling over her face, casting deeper and deeper shadows in her eyes and across her face until the final panel, where we’re closer in and she’s almost completely obscured. Just by using some more hatching on her face, Ruth turns her far more dark and disturbing, which is the point. Then, in the final row, we get the blurry silhouette – notice the short strokes around the edge to blur it – and the shattered glass that even takes down the panel borders. This is another clever device, and Ruth does a nice job with it. He doesn’t break the fourth wall often (without re-reading this, I can’t remember if this is the only time), but he achieves it well here.
Ruth draws the hospital (the Panopticon, I should note) and the surrounding town beautifully in this panel. He does amazing work with the details on the circular building, then slides easily into the dark shadows on its edges. The book takes place in the modern day, but Ruth makes sure we get a Victorian vibe from the whole thing (Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, so maybe I should say the book has a “Regency vibe”), as the Panopticon is very sturdy and majestic, with the columns ringing it and the roof adorned with solid outcroppings. The buildings in the town are also “old-looking” – Ruth draws in olde-tymey chimneys in the background, while he even puts some columns on the modest dwelling on the right. He draws the background a bit lighter than David (I think that’s David) and the motorcycle in the foreground, which adds a bit of the fantastic to the town, as if it’s Brigadoon in the modern world and anyone who enters the hospital goes back in time. It’s a subtle part of the book, but that’s how I interpret it.
Ruth can draw in different styles, which isn’t surprising, so we get this weird drawing by Alice that appears to be a medieval woodcut. Ruth’s figures are a bit stiffer than the “real world” stuff surrounding it. Ruth appears to make all the lines slightly thicker, not just certain ones. He definitely models the figures after medieval drawings – the king getting overwhelmed by the rats is a very good representation of a medieval figure – although he uses perspective a bit better than a lot of stuff from 500-800 years ago (which isn’t surprising). As usual, the details are impressive – Ruth adds sweat to the face of the “schattenkreiger” in Panel 2, and the face of the king in Panel 4 shows his fear with just a small mouth and glazed eyes. Notice that Ruth doesn’t draw his hand in the correct position – this is less a function of Ruth not knowing how hands work and more, I suspect, to make it even more “medieval,” as woodcuts from, say, the 1400s often showed anatomical oddities like that. It could be a mistake, I suppose, but I choose to think otherwise!
This is another amazing and terrifying page, as Alice gets a visit. Once again, Ruth does some really nice work here, as he shows us the knife in Panel 2 as a freaky silhouette, which isn’t at all phallic. What I really love is Panel 3, where he draws the blurry man as a collection of shapes and shades and lines. His head and body fade into the background, while Ruth just inks in blackness on his face and a black strip for his tie. His shirt is just lines working in opposition to the lines on the ceiling behind him, which is quite clever. Alice remains a solid human being, but the way Ruth draws the dude in that panel makes him stand outside reality and really freaks me right out.
During our email exchange, Ruth noted that this sequence was the only time he didn’t use a ballpoint pen – he used a sumi brush, which you can see pretty clearly, and he told me that he enjoyed it so much he vowed never to use ballpoint again and stick with brushes. We shall see that going forward, I can tell you that much! He also told me that this sequence was supposed to lead into a new story arc, where the history of the Panopticon was explored (it’s an old hospital where some weird stuff went on a century before), but it never came to fruition (when I reviewed this comic, lo those many years ago – man, eight years already? – I noted that the only thing I didn’t like was that it ended kind of strangely, but that, I know now, is because there was supposed to be more of it). This is exquisite brush work, though. Ruth does slightly rougher work, which is perhaps to be expected, both because of the brush and because it’s a flashback to an earlier time, but he still can do very delicate work, too, as we see from the woman’s hair in Panel 1 and the hand holding the gun in “Panel” 3. Ruth adds the background blacks to set the mood, as the woman’s world grows darker until she commits suicide, when he uses even more blacks – the curtains turn into shrouds, while the folds in the woman’s dress threaten to swallow her. Ruth would get better with a brush, but even at this early date, he was pretty darned good at it.
I first saw Ruth’s work when I bought the next comic I’m going to show, a book that made me a big fan of his work. So come back tomorrow and we’ll see what kind of work he can do when he’s using a brush exclusively! In the meantime, you can always check out the archives!
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