Friday, September 27, 2013

Chameleon: Jim Rugg and Supermag

Jim Rugg, like many cartoonists whose tastes run toward the edgier and trashier neighborhoods of underground comics and culture, has always had a taste for exploitation films and over-the-top imagery in general. His chief strengths as a cartoonist and illustrator are his ability to draw absolutely anything with an astounding amount of fidelity with regard to whatever he's doing, and to employ a remarkable restraint while doing so. In his remarkably striking catch-all anthology Supermag, published by AdHouse Books. Rugg reveals a restless cartoonist who's all over the map precisely because he can't quite figure out how to limit himself to any one particular style. Rugg sometimes seems like a cartoonist in search of an idea worthy of his talent, worthy of spending years of working on it.

Rugg could easily be a mainstream superhero artist. His line and use of color on strips like "USApe" and "Duke Armstrong: The World's Mightiest Golfer" reveal an artist in total command of the medium, one who has an intuitive sense of how to depict action and creative effective panel-to-panel transitions. At the same time, he can't help but take the piss out of genre comics. USApe is both a paean to 80s-style, jingoistic action films and an over-the-top satire of same. Duke Armstrong's premise (a golfer whose aim is so unerring that he can take down airplanes and beat men to death with his clubs) is so ridiculous that the macho stereotypes and cliches that the strip otherwise embraces with a straight face look absurd. "Bigfoot Fist Fight" is another variation on mashing up genre nostalgia with current alt-comics trends; here, Rugg uses a scratchy and dirty line not unlike a lot of other alt-comics cartoonists who dip their toe into genre waters. His golden age action pastiche, "Captain Kidd: Explorer" is an astounding work of verisimilitude as Rugg channels Milton Caniff and once again plays up macho and sexist cliches while poking fun at them.

Rugg is just as comfortable stretching out using a more traditional alt-comics approach. He channels Dan Clowes (circa Velvet Glove) in the Robin Bougie-written "One Night In Paris", a delightfully sleazy story about a young man winding up with two friends at a legendary adult theater. Rugg captures that flatness of affect, the stooped shoulders and poor posture and the human grotesqueries dead-on here, but it still retains Rugg's signature clarity. That clarity makes him a killer illustrator, as images for Foxing Quarterly (a couple kissing in a library as the reader's view is obstructed by books) and Sleazy Slice (a woman going down on a man in a bathroom stall, with only a side view of the closed stall available) indicate. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of those two images, which suggested a sequential connection despite originally being drawn for separate assignments.

Really, there's a treasure on nearly every page here. Rugg does a Tom and Jerry type strip that has real and permanent repercussions for the mice, and it's both hilarious and horrible. He also does autobio, a Rob Liefeld pastiche that is jaw-dropping and slice of life stories. Rugg clearly loves all of it, all of comics, all of culture, high and low. Rugg seems to delight in fragments and the way they play on a page without outside context. Of course, playing those fragments against each other creates its own, new context, giving Supermag the feel of being constructed from lost copies of other publications full of that sort of image or comics. Still, I can't shake that sense of restlessness as I read this book: strips with middles but no beginnings or endings, glimpses and fragments of intriguing projects, bits and pieces from anthologies. Rugg has already done one pastiche adventure comic (Afrodesiac) and an homage to street culture and action films (Street Angel, with Brian Maruca). I'll be curious to see where his interests take him when he decides to do another long-form comic.

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