Pittsburgh-based cartoonist Jim Rugg has been making his rounds in the industry for a number of years, producing books for the likes of Dark Horse, Image, SLG, and DC’s short lived YA imprint, Minx. It’s Rugg’s latest book, Afrodiasiac, co-written with Brian Maruca for Adhouse, however, that truly finds the artist coming into his own.
The book explores the rich fictional history of the titular character first seen in Rugg’s five-part Street Angel series. The book is a lovingly rendered homage to a seemingly endless parade of pop culture touchstones from the 1970s, most notably the eras Marvel books and blacksploitation titles.
It’s a scrapbook devoted to appearances of an imaginary hero from a series that never existed. It faithful captures the decade’s diverse aesthetics with the manner of chameleon-like draughtsmanship rarely seen outside of an issue of Eightball or Schizo.
And while Rugg and Maruca certainly play fast and loose with the form, the work rarely enters the realm of parody. It’s clear that the people who created the book are fans, first and foremost.
You just got back from your mini-tour.
How was that?
It was really good. Friday night we had really terrible weather, but even with the weather it was pretty good. Saturday and Sunday were fine.
What do the appearances generally consist of? Live reading? Signing?
Mostly just signing and drawing in people’s sketchbooks. On Sunday we were at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find in Charlotte. I guess they have a reading discussion group. They did Afrodisiac this week. They have a main guy who moderates. He reads the book fairly carefully a few times and then comes up with a list of questions. We had a little bit of discussion.
Generally when you do a reading group, the author of the book isn’t present. It’s got to be a strange for you, doing the deconstruction with you around.
Yeah. I mean, it was pretty complimentary. No one was really attacking the book. It was almost like a panel or something. I liked it a lot. I’ve done a couple of store signings locally in Pittsburgh, but I haven’t done anything quite like that. I enjoyed that part of it. it was almost like a Q & A session, while I was sketching in people’s books. It was pretty laid back and nice.
What kind of feedback are you getting, generally?
Mostly positive. The discussion itself went around to all sorts of stuff, from the influence of blacksploitation films to things like Kirby comics—pretty general stuff. In terms of the book, I’ve been pretty surprised by the feedback. I expected to get maybe a little more of a negative reaction than we’ve gotten so far.
We’re you treading lightly, taking on something like blacksploitation, which is so clearly steeped in themes of racial identity?
I don’t know. The book itself happened pretty organically. It’s wasn’t like we said, “we’re ready to confront the issue of race. Let’s do that in our next graphic novel.” It just didn’t work that way.
You weren’t writing a Frantz Fanon book.
We weren’t. It certainly isn’t confrontational in terms of race. A couple of people brought that up, especially before the book was published, so I was kind of bracing. I thought it could get heated. But I usually tell people to read the book a little bit before they get too fired up. I guess race is involved because the character is black, but it’s much more an homage to blacksploitation movies and 70s Marvel and DC Comics and exploitation movies in general. It doesn’t deal with race much. It’s much more nostalgic for that era of films.
So the potential for that feedback wasn’t something that had occurred to you until you started seeing comments about it?
I was pretty nervous right before the book was printed about people declaring me a racist or something. And I’ve been very relieved that that hasn’t happened. I don’t know. I don’t feel like the book is offensive.
When you sent me an e-mail about the possibility of reviewing the book, you mentioned that we had already review [Vatican Hustle].
Were you worried when another blackspoitation comic came across your radar?
You know, I just discovered reviews of it in the last week or so, and I haven’t had a chance to track down a copy yet. I’ve been debating whether to order a copy. I probably will order it from my local shop. I am curious about it. But I’m not worried about it in any way. If it’s great, good. It’ll give me a good comic to read. Have you seen Black Dynamite yet?
It just came out last year. It was a small indie film. I saw the teaser for it, maybe two years ago. I guess they put that together to raise money from the film. It was cut with a lot of actually blacksploitation sequences—car explosions, chases. All the stuff that would have cost money was actual clips from the original movies. It was intercut with new characters and new material, most of which was talking heads, which I guess would have been cheaper to produce.
But my understanding is that the actual movie doesn’t use the clips. I thought that would have been neat to use actual clips from the original movies. I don’t think that’s what they do. I think that was just for the teaser to raise money. I think it’s very similar in tone to Afrodisiac, so I’d be more worried about that. I haven’t seen it yet, because it hasn’t come to Pittsburgh.
Looking at the IMDB page, Arsenio Hall apparently plays a character named “Tasty Freeze.” Seems like it might be straight up satire.
I don’t think it’s winking at the camera, exactly, but it’s very knowing of the source material.
Afrodisiac feels mostly like homage—there are points that are clearly winking jokes, but for the most part it feels as though you’re playing it pretty straight. Is it hard to take on such a well established genre and have it not be a full-on satire?
It’s too obvious, I think, to straight up parody it. It would be too obvious pretty easy to make a Mad Magazine version and pretty hard to make that any good. There’s some tone similarity between [Afrodisiac] and Street Angel, in terms of the way we approached the two books. We started out with maybe not the best intentions, by thinking that the material is ripe for being mocked.
But comics take so long to make that you have to mine them for what you like, in order to find that enthusiasm necessary to make them. Especially for work like that, which you’re not doing for a paycheck. You do the book because you find something interesting in it. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
The way we work, there’s a lot of brainstorming and passing story ideas back and forth. One of the first things we did with Afrodisiac was a short anthology story. In the process of doing that, we ended up with 20 ideas for the character that don’t fit or aren’t fully formed. In collecting those idea, you decide that you want to do more with the character. That’s what happened with this character. And then we started watching a lot of blacksploitation movies and started reading some black crime fiction. It became a very rich world to explore.
[Continued in Part Two]