Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Greg Ruth, and the issue is Freaks of the Heartland #6, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated November 2004. Enjoy!
In 2003, Ruth drew some stories for The Matrix comic books, some of which were in the print editions and some of which were only published on-line. I wanted to feature one of those stories, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” and Ruth gave me permission to take the art off of his web site, but I couldn’t save them as .jpg files, and I couldn’t get a better scan than this:
So yeah, it’s not great resolution. I decided that I would skip them instead of using blurry artwork, but I encourage you to go to Ruth’s web site and check out this story and the other stuff he has up – there is quite a lot of cool stuff. About the same time, in 2003/2004, he began working on this comic, which is about, well, freaks. In the heartland. Steve Niles doesn’t mince words with the title! It’s about children who are born a bit … different than their parents expect, and what happens when the brother of one of them decides to set them all free. But that’s not important, as we’re all about the art here!
Ruth is using a sumi brush and ink on this book, and you can see how good he’s become at it. He knows how to use blacks well, as we saw yesterday, and as it’s twilight, he uses them nicely here as Trevor and Will stand on the outcropping in Panel 2. He uses a lot of black on Will’s face in Panel 4, probably to show his fear about the future, as he gives him a good look of consternation by flattening his mouth out and pinching his lips together, but also by shrouding his eyes nicely. Ruth doesn’t get too detailed with the wilderness – this is a very impressionist book in many ways, as we see some of the trees in the mist in Panel 1 and splotches of green and strokes of brown in Panel 3, with the hazy hills in the background. This book takes place in the past, so there’s a bit of nostalgia to the proceedings, which Ruth does a nice job with throughout.
It’s now night, so Ruth uses darker colors, setting the mood as well as the time of the scene. We see some of the “freaks” in this example, and Ruth does a nice job with them. He uses beautiful brush strokes in Panel 1 with the furry child (Niles doesn’t name many of the kids, so you’ll just have to bear with me). The fur is lush and silky, which helps make the kid less monstrous and makes the adults’ reactions to the kids (they want to shut them away and, failing that, kill them) even more peculiar and tragic. Ruth does nice work with the facial expressions – in Panel 1, the girl (her name, at least, is Maggie) is crying, but she’s also leaning against the other kid for comfort, while in Panel 2, he makes a different girl look more upset, stretching her lips back and making her eyes slightly puffy from crying. In Panel 4, he uses thick black strokes when Trevor moves his head, something we’ll see again. They’re motion lines, sure, but they feel more violent because of the thickness Ruth uses. It’s an interesting trick.
Will has some kind of power – it’s never explained – so I’m not sure if he actually attacks Jim or just uses the power of his mind, but in some way, he does a number on the dude. Ruth does a good job building to that middle panel, as Jim crawls through the grass, finds his gun, and then begins to pull the trigger before bad things happen to him. Ruth, as we see, uses those black thick motion lines across the page, which speaks to the trauma that the characters are experiencing. He also does a good job with the layout – the top row moves us into a cramped position, which focuses us better on the finger on the trigger, and then he moves us from right to left in the second row, as the swoop comes from the right, and Panel 4 leads us down to the word balloon in Panel 5. That’s basic comics storytelling, but it’s still well done. Ruth uses those thick, scraggly lines in Panel 4 to show the violence of the motion, and uses yellow on the left side of the panel to show the gun going off but being smashed to the side. He gives Jim a nice expression of pain and shock, too. The panel works so well because there’s not a lot of movement in the other panels, so the speed and violence of the middle panel makes it have a greater impact. He also uses a different palette – the yellow, of course, but also the orange in the background – to contrast it with the duller greens and grays in the other panels. It’s a clever choice.
Here’s another similar page, with violence in the center row standing outside the flow of the narrative a little due mostly to the artwork. Ruth uses those muted colors in Panels 1, 2, and 4, as the adults challenge the kids, who just want to be left alone, until one father finally stands up for his children. As we see in Panel 4, Ruth is still using that impressionistic tone with the backgrounds, as the brush work in lighter and less detailed, giving us more of a vague impression of trees rather than solid “tree-like” figures. Panel 3 has the violence, of course, and Ruth uses a lighter tan, which isn’t quite as warm as the previous example, but it still works to set it apart. Ruth again uses a crazy pattern of black lines turning the sheriff into a disgusting mess, and the shaky lettering makes the scene even more violent.
Ruth knows all about silhouettes, so we get this beautiful page toward the end, as the kids head into the wilderness. Once again, he uses a light touch to create the trees in the background, which makes them look even more ethereal balanced against the preponderance of black in the foreground. Look how Ruth varies the leaves in the foreground, too. Some of solid black, while others are a bit lighter until we get to a few that are just a slightly lighter hue than the sky behind them. He creates a gate of the trees, too, which implies that the kids are moving toward something bigger, which they are – the rest of their lives. His silhouettes are so precise that it’s easy to see which kids are which, too. With all this black, you might think this is a depressing page, but because Ruth puts the light in the background and makes it something the kids are moving toward, it becomes more hopeful. It’s a nice look.
Ruth continued in this vein on his next project, which was a story about a certain Cimmerian who has a good idea about what is best in life. So come on back to check that out! In the interim, I wouldn’t want you to neglect the archives!
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