The 'Supermag' story: An interview with Jim Rugg

Jim Rugg is an interesting and fun guy to talk to. The Pittsburgh-based cartoonists, whose resume includes such diverse genre work as Street Angel, Adventure Time and the Plain Jane series for DC's late Minx imprint, is someone who has clearly studied comics -– and certain comic artists specifically -– very closely, and has a genuine fascination and curiosity for what makes the medium work and what doesn't. If you want to talk comics, he's the guy to corner at the bar after the convention (be polite and introduce yourself first though, please).

Rugg has a new comic out, a magazine-formatted, one-man anthology of sorts from AdHouse titled Supermag, which features a number of short stories done over the past few years as well some illustrations and other new material. It's a pretty nifty package.

I chatted with Rugg over email about Supermag, his frequent collaborations with writer Brian Maruca and the podcast he hosts over at Boing Boing, Tell Me Something I Don't Know. I look forward to the opportunity when I get to talk to him about comics some more.

How did the idea for Supermag come about and how did the initial concept change (if at all) as you started to put it together? 

Supermag began as an early- to mid-90s period comic. My plan was to create an Afrodisiac comic using the processes, materials, storytelling vernacular, and style of that era - a comparison would be something like 1963. As we worked on that idea, I struggled to make all the elements work the way I wanted. As I continued to work on it, it morphed into a magazine/comic/art project.

In the introduction you mention your background in graphic design. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how it informed the production of Supermag (and your comics work in general)?

I studied design in the '90s. Digital technology began to enter the classroom. I think I started working on Photoshop 2 and Quark 3. Imagine a world without the history palette! And then from a critical or academic perspective, design was transitioning from a trade or craft classification to a more creative, flexible art "form." It's not that the concept of design changed, but its profile changed (as did the tools and business side of the trade). There are a lot of parallels between the evolution of the comics/graphic novels industry and artform in the 2000s and the evolution of graphic design from the mid 80s to the late 90s.

Anyway, I worked for a publication office when I was an underground and that experience enabled me to learn a little about print. There was a printing facility on campus so I would get to work with the printers, do press checks, go over different types of proofs...and then I worked for a printing company and finally in the marketing department of a manufacturing company where I handled all of the print materials. These experiences, combined with Chris Pitzer's vast knowledge of design and production, informed the way that Supermag looks.

One of your most frequent collaborators is Brian Maruca. Can you talk about your relationship with him? How did the two of you start working together? 

We worked in the same marketing department. The cycle of a day job means there are ups and downs in terms of production responsibilities. Over time, we became friends. He is a technical writer, I am terrible writer, so once I decided his opinions were valid, I began showing him scripts and stories. That turned into us just throwing ideas back and forth, and we began writing together.

He's one of the most critical and honest people I know. I can't imagine any quality that is as important as honest and critical feedback in the creative process. He's a valuable part of the work I've made and the work I will make. A lot of what I know about writing I learned through our collaborations.

How does the writing process with Maruca work? Does he come to you with a finished script? Do you two collaborate on the initial idea or plot? Give me a bit of the inner process on something like USApe or Duke Armstrong.

I usually go to him and say I have time to do something or I have an idea or I'm going to be an anthology and does he want to do something together. If he's game for whatever thing is happening, we email, phone call, and hang out and just brainstorm ideas. After we have a bunch that we like and that one of us thinks we can form into a compelling narrative, we start writing it. Sometimes this will be a nearly complete story and sometimes it will be one scene. We pass that back and forth, fight a lot, insult each other's mothers, and eventually end up with something that resembles a short prose story. When we're happy with that, I take it and break it into a comic script. We go over the script, fight some more. I turn that script into  breakdowns. We get together and read through those. Make some last minute adjustments now that we have a rough of the visuals, and I go off and draw it.

USApe came out of the NYMag fashion piece. That piece began as many do, with an editor saying we could do whatever we wanted. They never, ever mean that. Anyway, in the course of brainstorming and riffing, the name USApe popped up. We liked the name a lot, and that went into the files for future use. I'm interested in the way G.I.Joe and Rambo function as distorted foreign policy advertisements. I think our political system is reprehensible. I love '80s action movies and toy advertising (which includes aspect of the toy like the cartoons, coloring books, comic books, the toys themselves, movies, games, t-shirts). Starting from the name USApe, it was clear that this was a perfect name for a cartoon/comic book character. At that point, we just start the process of developing plots and scenes and then try to craft those into entertaining comics.

I think Duke Armstrong may have begun as a name, too. I think it's funny to "write what you know." Since we know nothing about golf, a golf-based hero fit that criteria perfectly. I think we were reading or watching something from the '50s and the hero archetype of that era has not aged well. So Duke came from those things.

Supermag references a lot of different eras and genres: Golden age, silver age, romance comics, the Image era, etc. Was that intentional and if so, why?

That wasn't my goal, but I tend to view comics as comics - gag cartoons, caricatures, pop art that references comic elements, Image comics, art comics, web comics, manga, newspaper strips, pre-code genre, superhero. I think in the '80s and '90s the separation between indie and Marvel/DC/superhero comics was very distinct. And this classification made sense to everyone - consumers, retailers, artists, critics. But in the late '90s and 2000s, these two types of comics broke down further and further and artists were working in more than one camp and everyone was aware of one another and the distinctions became unimportant in many ways. So I think Supermag's referencing of a different eras and genres is reflective of my taste which is pretty wide-ranging at this point.

A number of the comics in Supermag, especially in the first half of the book, feel more like snippets of a larger story that the reader is only allowed a glimps of. Are these unfinished works? Can you talk a bit about the idea behind this?

I had an idea to do a series of pages that would be like old original art - found fragments of stories. I like original art a lot. It has been very instructive to my own development and I like its aesthetic qualities. At some point, I realized that I also like the way one page or panel suggests the narrative around it. I remember hearing Dan Clowes talk at MoCCA one year, and he talked about screen-writing and film-editing and how you can remove the big, climactic moment from a scene and the scene will often work better.

When I started reading comics, Chris Claremont was about 12-13 years into his Uncanny X-Men run. It was nothing but subplots. I would read an issue and understand like 9% of it. Then I get the next issue and all the subplots would advance a couple of pages, and I'd understand like 14 percent, and I'd get a back issue and fill in more gaps...but the effect to me was like looking out a window. There was an entire world outside, but from the vantage point of the window, I'd only see a little bit of that world and I would have to fill in the gaps. Scott McCloud talks about this a little in Understanding Comics when he covers the concept of closure.

Back to original comic art, usually when I see original comic art, it is one or two pages from a longer story. And after looking at a lot of original comic art in this format, I started to appreciate the fragmentary way these pages work when viewed out of their intended context - as part of a longer, complete story.

Most of my comics develop in this way. I look at a lot of stuff. Something catches my eye. If it holds my eye long enough, I want to take it apart and put it back together in order to understand how it works. It's the same process that led to our podcast, Tell Me Something I Don't Know.

You take on a number of different styles in Supermag and in some cases I thought could spot the influences pretty well — "Cat and Mouse" seems like an homage to Mattioli's Squeak the Mouse, for example. Are there other influences that loom as large for you in this book?

That's a good eye on your part. I like Mattioli's work a lot. His book, Superwest is a much bigger influence on me than Squeak the Mouse, but I enjoy Squeak as well. There are a million influences in the book. Some of the big influences are alt comix anthologies like Non, Raw, and Kramers - mainly in terms of the how those books assembled a variety of content and that content - comics, art, text - all complimented itself and created something different than the sum if of its parts. Once I started thinking about the magazine format, I went through things like Deadline (so good), Heavy Metal, Rubber Blanket...

A couple of big influences that aren't comics were the books More Things Like This and the Last Magazine. More Things Like This was a catalog for an exhibition by the editors of McSweeney's of humorous drawings that included words. I remember getting a copy of this and just staring at it and thinking - this is comics, right? And almost instantly it expanded the way I thought about it comics. The Last Magazine is a relatively recent book about the current and future state of magazine publishing. It surveys the cutting edge of magazine publication and provides covers and layouts from over 150 independent magazines that advance the medium through their presentation, content, design, and tailoring to a niche market. It contains a lot of inspiring examples and some interesting ideas about printed matter.

I also picked up a zine called Where Is My Super Hero (SSE#20) by Sung Mo Kang and the book Object 5 (Floating World) by Kilian Eng. Both of these books featured interesting artwork that suggested a narrative but weren't necessarily narrative. I've been going through both books over and over since I got them and I think they were both very informative for Supermag.

Tell me a little bit about your podcast, Tell Me Something I Don't Know. How did it come about? What are your general goals or aims with this show? Has interviewing cartoonists helped you as an artist in any way?

I listen to podcasts when I ink and color my work. I've been doing that for a few years and before that it was NPR. So anytime I focus on something for a while, I'm compelled to take that thing apart in order to better understand it. The easiest way I find to understand something is to try to replicate that thing. So after a couple of years of listening to thousands of hours of podcasts, I decided to try to make one.

It's indie media, like comics or zines. I'm attracted to media so it makes sense that I'd be drawn to it. The first year my goal was just to make a podcast. I had participated in a local art program through the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that was about sustainable practices in art making. The program brought 20 artists together for 8 weeks and just info-dumped ideas on us. It was a life-changing experience. Afterwards, I wanted to expose everyone I knew in comics to this sort of idea exchange. So when I started the podcast, the idea was to interview artists about the reality/business side of what they do because that is something I thought every cartoonist I know could benefit from hearing. After the first year, we were going to stop the show (it's co-created by fellow cartoonist, Jasen Lex) because it cost us money to produce it and it took a long time (about 20 man hours an episode). At that point, Ed Piskor and Boing Boing came on-board, so we figured we'd continue with it and see what happened. I like doing things with unknown results. I like working with talented people. Once Ed joined up and Boing Boing took on hosting and distribution, I figured it was worth doing it for a little while longer to see what happens.

It's definitely designed to help me. Ultimately, the only point of view from which I can judge anything is my own. So when I'm building the interviews, I focus on areas that I want to learn more about. Hopefully the information that comes out will interest other cartoonists.

Do you see Supermag as being a one-shot deal or do you hope to keep it going as a regular one-man anthology? What are you working on now?

It's a one-shot deal, at least for the time being. Right now I am working on my next art show, Supernerd. It opens Aug. 2 at iam8bit in L.A. I am also working on a couple of classes for SVA new Visual Narrative MFA program. The first of which begins this fall. Once those things are over, I'm going to take a couple of weeks and think about my next project. The last couple of years have been the busiest time of my life, and I haven't really had the chance to evaluate where I am and where I want to be. So this fall, I plan to do that. I have a few projects that I've been thinking about doing, so I just need to take some time and think about which one most excites me.

I can't imagine a more exciting time to be working, but with that comes a lot of potential for distractions. I've definitely taken on more work in the past than I can competently manage, and I want to avoid doing that in the future. Time is so limited.

Vertigo Editor Karen Berger Reacts to DC Retiring the Imprint

More in Comics