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Trouble with Comics

Supermag (2013)

By Jim Rugg, with Brian Maruca

Publisher: AdHouse Books. $9.99 USD.

If you don’t know, Jim Rugg is a fantastic artist who happened to make one of the best graphic novels of the past decade, Street Angel. The thing is, that was in 2005, and quite frankly, he hasn’t done a lot since as far as comics. I doubt it was for lack of effort. He did a book called The Plain Janes targeted at a tween audience that had no way of hearing about it, shortly before the economy collapsed and DC canceled the imprint. Afrodisiac was a lot of fun, but a blaxploitation parody seemed to be treading water a little creatively.

Now, there’s Supermag. Like his Notebook Drawings, it’s a showcase for Rugg’s immense illustrative talent, along with a number of short comics strips and stories. Rugg shows how much he’s learned from adventure comics of the ’30s and ’40s, the EC horror and crime comics of the ’50s, funny animal strips and cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the influence of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Jaime Hernandez. Rugg has a dazzling command of his craft and is skilled at all manner of styles.

He’s a good writer, too. There’s a voice here, only partially obscured by the spoofs and genre mimicry, and it’s one of dread and fear and helplessness about the dark forces that churn the world. It’s a noir voice, a horror voice, but here we only get brief glimpses of either genre. 

On rare occasions, critics can be a buoy to a creator, give them that lift when they need it to keep going. A lot of times, though, we can be perceived as terrible people for our demands. I mean, I recognize that the market is not the same as what it was when Rugg started. The days when a Dan Clowes or Chester Brown could work through things in a serial comic book are largely over. One is expected to come out with fully-formed graphic novels nowadays. Adrian Tomine continuing with Optic Nerve is a cute gesture, and we look at it with varying degrees of admiration and condescension, like a band issuing a single only in vinyl. This is an astonishingly impressive calling card for Jim Rugg, Jack of All Genres, but it’s also a stopgap measure. An unreflective survey. His superhero ape strips are fun, but you wouldn’t want a whole book of it. His short horror and suspense pieces are great, but it’s not terribly difficult to create nameless dread in one page. They’re exercises, a dipping of toes into genre waters, but there’s a lack of commitment here. As a critic, one has to set aside the likely realities that this is a not-very-well-known illustrator presenting a collection of bits of some of his best material from the past few years and ask whether it’s a great collection of comics. As great an artist as he is, the answer is no, it’s not. It’s impressive, but it’s more tantalizing than satisfying, small plates and spoonfuls of what could turn out to be a number of good to great meals. I recommend it on that score, as a sampling of a very talented guy giving indications of doing a lot of things really well, but one is still left wanting at least one really good story.

—Christopher Allen

ADD Reviews Jim Rugg’s Supermag

Jim Rugg’s Supermag (published by AdHouse Books) is kind of like the AdBusters of comics magazines — it takes a familiar format and recontextualizes it to display Rugg’s many and varied illustrative modes. There’s no single narrative; short stories and random pages from hypothetical comics co-exist within Supermag’s pages. Readers of Rugg’s Afrodisiac graphic novel will be comfortable with the approach, although Supermag lacks the laser focus of that book. Rather, Supermag seems to be a summation of everything Rugg has learned about creating art and comics, a “Where Is He Now?” moment that begs the question, “What comes next?”

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I loved Rugg’s work on Street Angel a few years back, a five-issue alternative superhero comic that was strong on story and featured bold cartooning and some early hints of the various styles that Rugg often utilizes, from ballpoint ketches to fully-realized paintings. There’s a lot of pastiche and homage at work in the pages of Supermag, as well as some one-off illustrations and Photoshop wizardry. The comics content shows a lot of Dan Clowes and Charles Burns inspiration, but if you’re going to be inspired, you could do far worse than Clowes and Burns.

The magazine’s visual virtuosity suggests a budget-friendly coffee-table art book, something Rugg’s art has earned and probably would have achieved by now if the economy hadn’t taken the turn it did five years ago. The non-superhero comics industry has adjusted to our new reality in a number of ways since then, and if Supermag is an answer to the question “How can we affordably present a dazzling array of Jim Rugg artwork and remind people of just how powerful and witty a cartoonist he is?” then, I am glad someone asked. At a smidge under ten bucks, you get a lot of stunning design and memorable eye pops for about what you’d pay for a crappy lunch at Wendy’s.

Me, I’ve quietly been waiting for more Street Angel for a long time now, but Supermag indicates that Rugg has a lot of other interests (although Jesse Sanchez, and Afrodisiac do both pop up in the pages of Supermag), and its implicit promise seems to be that whatever Rugg does next, it should be fun and beautiful to look at. I hope it happens soon.

Alan David Doane