Steve Rude, we’re informed at the start of this new documentary film, is bipolar. He is shown as both an enormously gifted, classically-trained artist (a term popular “cheesecake” “artist” Adam Hughes helpfully defines for us, revealing the ignorance that informed his earliest days as a would-be artist) and a rage-filled, troubled man who seems to have become more and more difficult to work with over the course of his career in comics, getting fewer and fewer assignments, and making life very hard on his long-suffering wife. (I may be unsympathetic, but every one of Rude’s run-ins with the law seems to find Rude squarely in the wrong and deserving of arrest or confinement.)
I was a Steve Rude fan from virtually the moment he entered the comics industry. I bought those first three black and white Nexus comics new off the stands and was blown away by both the story and the art. Did I understand then how Rude had assimilated the art styles of greats like Kirby and Toth? No. Did I detect the idiosyncratic and increasingly political subtexts in the writing of Mike Baron? Maybe a little, but give me a break, I was maybe 15 or 16 years old. Was I blown away by the idea that an independent, creator-owned comic book could also be an ass-kickingly joyous exploration of science fiction and superheroes? Oh, my, yes. Blown away I was.
But Nexus kind of blew away into the winds of history. There are creators these days that people of a certain age (like 48, ahem) remember and revere, like Rude, like Windsor-Smith or Paul Smith or countless others, but who have been out of the regular comics marketplace so long that they no longer have the same cachet they once did. That’s not at all to say their talents have diminished, just that after your first or second decade out of the industry spotlight, your audience diminishes, leaving only those with long memories, refined tastes and the hope that your favourite creators will someday get back in print and show why they were superstars in the first place.
That’s talked about a little bit here. Mike Richardson, the publisher of Dark Horse Comics (the third or so publisher to have Nexus in its stable of titles) talks about how Rude has a nostalgic element in his art, the implication being that that is detrimental to sales. That’s echoed in the discussion of how DC was unhappy with Rude’s interpretation of Batman and Superman in the late-’90s World’s Finest miniseries. Meanwhile, readers like me ache to see a style rooted in the proud history of superhero comics artwork. Darwyn Cooke is another example of an artist who brings both nostalgia and vivid energy to his artwork, but after he signed onboard DC’s egregious, ethically bankrupt Before Watchmen mini-series, I decided to never again support any project Cooke is involved in, and sold off or threw out any remaining works of his in my house. That’s how strongly I personally feel about how wrongly DC has handled their responsibilities and obligations toward Alan Moore and their abuse of the original Watchmen contract.
Steve Rude is also shown to feel strongly about creator rights, talking firmly about a time when he resisted working for Marvel because of the way the publisher has mistreated Jack Kirby and his heirs. It’s one of two moments of lucidity the troubled Rude evinces in Rude Dude, the other being his advice to learn how to draw feet properly if you want to be a professional artist. Sadly, those rare moments of genuine insight are offset by ramblings and meanderings that are starkly at odds with the achingly beautiful Rude artwork lavishly displayed throughout the film.
Rude is trying to channel his art into the fine art world now, having apparently burned his last bridge in the comics industry. His wife bemoans the fact that Rude is overpricing his fine art efforts, probably out of a misguided sense that he can convert the big bucks comic art commission buyers are willing to pay (he seems to be keeping his family’s financial head above water via commissions of popular Marvel and DC characters, which painter Alex Ross points out the irony of) with the money fine art buyers might be willing to spend on a talented but virtually unknown fine art painter. There’s little likelihood that one can convert popularity with a moneyed, nostalgic subset of comic book fans into a lucrative fine art career in less than a decade, but it’s clear Rude thinks otherwise, with his insane claim that he will earn “billions” in the fine art world. Perhaps Rude has a list of fine artists who earned billions of dollars while still alive to enjoy it; I am unaware of a single one.
Here is a highly watchable film about a sadly deluded, madly talented artist who was once a superstar comic book creator, who by all rights should have been able to write his own ticket. If Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld earned millions for their junk comics, and let’s be frank, they were junk and nothing more, Rude should indeed have been able to make a similar fortune on the back of his truly incredible gift. But his temperament, I would even say his madness, based on the evidence of Rude Dude, has not only held him back, it’s been highly destructive to the lives of his family. My God, look how miserable his wife is. Don’t listen to her words, look in her eyes.
The final info cards as the film plays out inform us Rude is better now. I hope so, because the guy in this film is mentally ill and hurting more than just himself through his self-destructive, arrogant and irrational behaviour.
I had forgotten one thing about Rude’s career that the film helpfully reminded me of. While Rude was angry once about the way Marvel treated Jack Kirby, one of the final info cards at the end of the film informs us Rude returned to DC Comics recently to work on Before Watchmen.
Seriously? Fuck you, Dude.
A copy of the film was provided for the purpose of review.