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