When Steve Rude made his comics debut in 1981, you could almost hear a sigh in comic shops nationwide as readers first witnessed his skills. In his creator-owned Nexus (with writer Mike Baron), Rude showed a timeless pop-art mastery of the human form that combined the kinetic energy of Jack Kirby with the shape of classic Renaissance artists. Over the years he's been lured from time to time into doing work-for-hire for DC Comics and Marvel, but it's Nexus that has been the backbone of Rude's professional career. After a brief attempt at self-publishing Nexus in the mid-2000s, Rude and Baron returned to their previous publisher Dark Horse to continue their epic story, with new Nexus adventures debuting earlier this year in Dark Horse Presents.
But while Nexus might be Rude's magnum opus, it isn't his only passion. A few years back he challenged himself to learn classical painting, and he's incorporated that into his breadth of work while teaching others in a series of intensive workshops. The artist continues to be prolific on the comics art market, doing a number of original commissions, from sketches to fully painted pieces, for fans. He's maintained an active presence online, posting frequently on his blog and on his Facebook page and showing off a number of original pieces that never see print.
I spoke with Rude late last month by phone, and what I wanted to talk to him about wasn't Nexus or whatever new comic cover he's doing next, but rather what's behind the art -- and inside his head. He's well known for expressing his opinions and standing up where others might back down for a freelance assignment, and is the single comic creator I know of whose first professional comics work -- in his case, Nexus -- is still his signature work and something he does to this day. People are talking a lot today about creator-owned comics, and Steve Rude's been doing it for more than 30 years.
Chris Arrant: Let’s start with an easy one, Steve: What are you working on today?
Steve Rude: Well, I’m working on trying to solve a problem that has been fairly ongoing for me recently: I seem to be shaken in my confidence for capturing people’s likenesses on canvas. This has been going on for about a year now. I haven’t lost anything with my graphic sense as far has holding a pencil, but when it comes to paint I’m having trouble. I’ve been trying to apply it in a non-linear way; masking shapes, color and value. I’m having the darnedest time trying to control the paint to get likenesses down for portraits
Aside from that, I’m starting on all different kinds of work. Today I’m probably going to do a few commissions and do a couple things in my sketchbook.
It seems you’re always striving not just to be great, but to be perfect in your eye.
I’m never perfect, but I’m always trying to fine-tune things. In comics, the process of creating art is like sitting in a car and trying to turn on the engine and aiming to get it cranked up high enough to perform the duties you’re called to do. Graphic storytelling is a creative challenge; in order to get things out of your brain and onto the page you have to, in effect, summon them and make sure it lives up to the vision in your head. I’ve found my way to get to that level, and the key is just being able to go back to it. That doesn’t mean it comes easy.
I can’t name one cartoonist --- not even in newspaper strips – that’s been fortuitous enough that their first published work would become their hallmark and been able to return to it for years like it has been for you with Nexus; not Kirby, not Lee, not Eisner, not even Sickles, Schulz or anyone else. What’s it like for you that your first published work is still your most popular work, and you’re still working on Nexus over 30 years later?
You put me in some pretty good company, Chris. Those are all people I revere, and I revere them for doing a lifetime of good deeds through their work. I have one very deep philosophical credo that runs through my head when I do my work: “never sell your soul to the world of people who may not care anything about you.”
Your soul is the only thing you have in like that people can’t take from you. People can take everything else: food, lodging, the means to support yourself and your family, everything. Anything material in this world is fleeting, but souls stick with you. I’ve always felt that if I’m true to myself and my soul, then I’ll be okay. I know what I’m here to do, so its simply a matter of me sticking to it and walking that path; that’s what I’ve been put here to do.
Pretty heavy stuff for a guy who just draws all day, huh? [laughs]
I do a lot of thinking while I’m sitting at the drawing board. And the material I read in my spare time factors into that too. I’m currently reading Nightworld by F. Paul Wilson, one of his Repairman Jack novels. Wilson’s a former doctor; I think he might still practice. Anyway, the book is about the end of the world and how humanity is dealing with it. Basically everyone runs to the hills, except a select group of people with Marine-like tenacity for life and fight to keep civil society going.
Speaking of fighting the fight, unlike a majority of other comic creators out there, you’ve kept your independent spirit alive while still doing work-for-hire from time to time. You’ve seen creator-owned comics ebb and flow over the years, so what’s the current comics climate look like from your vantage point?
Well, I’m probably not the best-qualified person to make an accurate assessment of that. I don’t read comics nowadays, ever since the dark trend of the early '90s that has continued fairly unabated. I completely disapprove of this way of storytelling, taking the best of what humanity has to offer and shoving it down in the ground to such a low level. Even the art, it’s embalmed in dark colors that resembles nothing of the great comics which came before. The optimism that first drew me to comics isn’t there anymore.
People of my generation, they grew up with comics with nice colors and a heroic mythos, but that’s kind of been put in the backseat with darker tendencies taking the wheel. When I talk to other people like me, they have a fairly similar opinion. There’s just not a significant number of comics for people like us anymore.
Now having said all that, I still sometimes see some swells of optimism in comics with people with individual visions. They believe the same things I do, and they give it their best shot. That’s what we did for Nexus, and we still see people making that valiant attempt today.
I don’t know where comics are going. I’m not going to live forever, and nobody knows where comics will be down the road. Comic books themselves might last, or they might be replaced by something else – the way action comic strips were phased out in favor of comic books.
Here’s a good analogy: Back in the 1960s, illustrators banked their entire future on providing art for magazines, and suddenly found themselves out of work. For them it was the darkest period of their lives -- they looked at the years of training they invested in and believed in, and the market dissipated. They didn’t know that was coming. No one could have expected that. To ride it through you have to have a personal set of beliefs to guide you through life, and the ability to roll with the punches.
If any publisher were ever to call me to do a comic that was dark and bloody, I’d tell them to go to hell. There’s 5,000 other guys out there who would do it, but not me. Even though Nexus walks the line, it does it tastefully. When you look at Nexus, it’s far from hopeless in its outlook. When your eyes see it, you can soak up from a few words and a few panels what the overall trajectory of Nexus is. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they’ll keep reading.
In the trailer for the upcoming documentary about you and your work, your wife brings up an interesting point about how your quest for perfection in your work is a both a boon and a curse for you, leading you to sometimes labor on something when others might wrap it up and move on to the next thing. What’s going on inside your mind when you’re working on a piece and you get to that point where it’s good ... but not good enough yet?
It’s very much a process going on in my mind when I’m producing a piece of work. It’s a basic part of my personality, and it's something people are either born with or they’re not. It ties in with something I refer to as "temperament." Temperament determines how you approach things and how you react to them as they react to you. It determines what you’ll settle for, and what you strive for.
Life’s all about coming up against barriers and deciding how to handle them. I’ve done many pieces of artwork where I’ve never been able to complete them to my satisfaction. As an artist or as a person, there’s always obstacles in your way; it’s up to you to find a way to confront them. Whether it’s jumping over it, sliding under it, skipping it or breaking through it with a proverbial sledgehammer, you have to find a way to deal with these things. What approach you take determines what kind of person you are.
My way is to either slam away at it with your fists and smash through it or do what I learned from Jack Kirby’s character Metron from the original New Gods series. In one scene, Jack showed Lightray just moments away from being killed by the Black Racer. Kirby described the Black Racer as the personification of death, and despite all of Lightray’s awesome powers he failed at fending him off. At the last possible moment, Metron steps in and diverted the Black Racer and saved Lightray. Metron explained to Lightray that the experience he just had was a very harrowing one, and that if he’d thought through it more coolly he would have been able to overcome it on his own. From that single scene, I learned one of life’s great truths: If you can’t hammer through something, there’s always another way. There are a thousand potential solutions to every problem you will ever come up against, and how to overcome it depends on how you think.
Where would you say your high standards of quality and craftsmanship come from? Your parents?
Well, my mom was someone I looked up to most when I was growing up. My dad was the typical father from that period, one that didn’t see the need to talk about feelings. I’m precisely the opposite, as you can probably tell by now. Overall, I had nice, normal parents and an idyllic childhood. When comics entered the picture, they taught me things about life, truth and how to conduct yourself as a person. In the 60s comics weren’t as ugly as they are now; they were optimistic vehicles that transported you to fantasy worlds where people strove to be the best they can be. Heroes never had it easy, and every issue they were confronted with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Thinking back to New Gods, that showed that having superpowers doesn’t necessarily make life easier; in fact, it might make it harder. But going through these trials and having to face these obstacles is what mortal life is all about. No one ever escapes this, no matter how strong or weak, how rich or how poor. Life is always hitting you, but what’s inside yourself determines how you fight back.
As I alluded to earlier, you’ve done work for DC and Marvel but only on small prestige projects. And I know a couple years back you were talking to DC about doing some new work but an agreement couldn’t be reached. What are your thoughts on DC and Marvel – is there still something there you’d like to do?
At this point I’m primarily focused on Nexus, the documentary, commissions, classes and doing what I can to keep myself fresh and trim as an artist. The DC situation you refer to was simply a matter of people at DC not having the courtesy to get back to me. I wrote letters to the top four guys there at the time, and never heard a single thing back. You can’t have a relationship when one side won’t even participate. That forced me to think about comics different, and led me to refocusing my sights. What I’m attempting to do now is to make a difference in comics. I’m trying to classically get back into the field, and doing that with Nexus. It feels good to get back into the pattern of storytelling. Getting back into Nexus comics makes my other big goal in life more front and center, as well.
And what’s that?
Getting Nexus on air as an animated television show. When I was growing up in the '60s there were animated shows out like Jonny Quest and Space Ghost that changed lives, and Nexus could be that touchstone for today’s generation.
I remember that being talked about years ago, with you even producing a short demo reel. What’s the status on that project today?
That two-minute reel you referred to was originally produced because I wanted that proof of concept to show them how good it could be. Mike Baron had little to do with the animation; it was something I did primarily. It’s something I wanted to see so bad, something I believed in so much, that I was willing to go through the trials of creating it with very little money and paying people with commissions and original artwork to get it off the ground. The people that helped me were all angels; they really proved their loyalty to the goals by working with me on it for no money but for trade, showing me they believed in the project as much as I did.
After we created that two minute spec pilot of Nexus, we shopped it around but didn’t really get anywhere. At one point I made an open offer online to sell it, but I never had a single person call or write with a serious offer. That person is out there, somewhere, we just have to find them. Just because I haven’t met this person yet doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I try not to think negatively. I don’t focus on what I can’t do, I focus on what I can do. It’s all about me keeping at it.
Life has a strange sense of timing; it rewards some, but doesn’t others. I’m only 55, so I have more than few years left of high-level brain and body capacity. It’s a fallacy to say that teenagers are at the peak of human creativity. There are people who bloom later in life. Look at Jack Kirby. He endured some of comics' greatest depressions, and rode it up to its greatest heights. In the 1950s and 1960s people were thinking comics were near extinction, but Kirby forged on. He was arguably at his artistic peak in the late 1960s when was in his 50s, drawing Marvel’s books and on to DC doing New Gods, which I consider his greatest personal work. I read the reasons why DC canceled New Gods prematurely back then, but I think that was one of the greatest travesties in the business – he may have had poor sales numbers, but sometimes you have to think past the first reports that come in. Look at how great Jack Kirby’s New Gods are now in retrospect, and just imagine what it would be if he’d been given the ability to finish it the way he wanted to.
Comics can be the the greatest medium for storytelling, as it combines words and art into one package. I’ve never read Shakespeare, because I don’t need to. If people consider the greatest stories ever told to be ones dealing with heart, then I read it reading Jack Kirby’s comics.
In recent years, you’ve pushed yourself into the fine art world with your painted works. What brought you down that path, and what’s that like compared to the grind of comics?
Well, one thing led to another, as life tends to do. I started delving into it after I began wanting to learn the foundations of what it means to be a good artist, a classical artist. Fine arts painting is about painting things sitting right in front of you, and being able to depict different light conditions, waterfalls, rocks, buildings, cars, anything. To me it was about returning to the ultimate basics: learning from life and painting from life. The things I learned were immense, and that led me to begin teaching so I could find a place to put all the knowledge that was pouring out of my head. It’s important to pass on what you’ve learned to others, as it gets back to what we were talking about before with obstacles. Through my classes I’m giving people tools to allow them to traverse those obstacles.
You came into comics following greats like Jack Kirby and Alex Raymond, but what about now? You said you don’t read new comics much, but we’re also in a time period where a number of classic comics are being reprinted and more widely available. What are you reading?
The odd thing about my forward progression with art is that I’m delving into past works by others more and seeing the roots of what’s popular today. You mentioned
Hal Foster, and his Prince Valiant is perhaps the single greatest adventure story ever told. Roy Crane was another master, as was Alex Toth. Through their years of study, perseverance and hard work they discovered the real truth and beautify of telling stories with art.
From classic illustration to more cutting edge comics art, next week Leinil Yu comes to Conversing On Comics to talk about comics. In the expansive chat, we talk about his time at Marvel, is creator-owned work with Mark Millar, and what he would have done differently when he worked for DC. Come back next Friday!