Jim Rugg’s ‘Supermag’ Is Super, Is Also A Magazine [Review]
Jim Rugg makes me angry. Like the “seeing red, can’t think straight, fists-balled up in rage, flipping tables like it was my job”-type of angry. His latest collection of comics, design and illustration pieces, Supermag, – published by the fine folks at Adhouse – makes me want to punch a hole in the wall and then punch a hole inside of that hole and then scream loudly into both of those holes. See, it’s like this: Jim Rugg is just too damn good at comics.
If you’ve read Street Angel or Afrodisiac (done with writer Brian Maruca), or seen either of the ill-fated Minx line Plain Janes books he did with Cecil Castellucci, you know what I mean. He has a kinetic-but-clean linework style that manages to straddle the line between alt comics and mainstream work. If that isn’t enough, he’s also a talented graphic designer, with the Afrodisiac cover earning him a slot in the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ AIGA 50/50 book design awards, (which is, for you non-designers out there, kind of a huge deal) and his art direction on Supermag and on the last couple of issues of Foxing Quarterly is smart, inventive and playful.
It’s not fair, really. I mean, if he were just a good illustrator, or a good designer, I’d maybe be able to forgive the guy; but as Supermag shows us through all 56 of its glossy, oversized pages, he’s got both of those in the bag and then some. And it burns me up inside.
Supermag is, frankly, an overwhelming work; part portfolio, part illustration grab-bag, part one-man anthology that also somehow manages to be all killer, no filler. Supermag boasts entries as diverse as alt-comics-y slice-of-life comics, harrowing funny animal cartoons, a series of foul-mouthed patriotic ape comics, a Vanilla Ice trading card set, and pin-ups and posters galore, all delivered with an eye for detail, at a breakneck pace. It would feel like showing off if Rugg didn’t offer it all up with zero set-up, opting to let the work speak for itself.
And speak it does. The closest analogue I can find to it is Tumblr. Supermag is a Tumblr comic: a steady stream of seemingly unrelated images with little context offered, that still feel like part of a whole, only instead of these images coming from across the series of tubes that is the worldwide web, they’re all coming from Rugg. He’s the curator and the original poster. In his introduction to the collection, Rugg says that the magazine documents his, “exploration of today’s vast, near-endless comics landscape and reflects [his] interest in printed matter and the narrative collapse.”
And he delivers on that. The shorter comics hang there, begging you to fill in the rest of the larger comic they fell out of, while longer pieces feel like they were dredged up from a longbox full of weird old Golden Age comics and late-90s alternative comics. Then there’s the one-off spreads, like the one-two punch of the 90’s Image house-style pin-up of Afrodisiac and his 1992 crew that sits opposite one of Rugg’s ballpoint pen portraits of the titular badass as a Lego minifigure.
There’s a full-spread Rampage-inspired pin-up that zooms in on the ersatz King Kong gut-punching not-Godzilla that’s an intricate and multi-layered masterpiece. It looks like it’s cropped from a larger work, but it could also be framed that way to make it look more dynamic and, frankly, it works either way. Taken from a distance, it’s a masterful composition with some great play in scale and funny gags, and that’s before you start to notice all the lettering tricks Rugg’s pulling off here, from the Charles Schultz-y “Holy crap!”, to the Lichtenstein lettering for the jets (It's definitely Lichtenstein lettering, as opposed to the lettering in the art he "appropriated" for his work.), to the thought bubble where one harried evacuee is repeating “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” It’s sort of this collection writ large: something that seems so haphazard and slapdash and silly that slowly reveals the staggering craft inherent in its creation once you start digging in.
It’s not without its missteps. The USApe comics are a little one-note, and that there are three of them and only one page of, say, the cryptic “Secret Identity,” is a little bit of a bummer. I’d have loved another page or two of Rugg designing different superheroes saying vague things, reproduced in the style of a mimeographed, hand-colored comic. Some of the shorter strips, like the suburban housewife one-pager, seem like more exercises in style than substantial pieces on their own. There’s a couple "funny animal" comics placed back-to-back that are pretty much the same gag in different styles and with different animals, but even then, they manage to show off Rugg’s ability to approach a subject from different angles and pull them off handily.
The style-jumping tends to be a little dizzying after a while, like scrolling through Tumblr after a weekend away from the computer. I'd recommend taking it in chunks, as it can get intimidating when ingested all at once. You’re left asking which of these is the “real” Jim Rugg: Is it the Fleisher Superman cartoon-looking style of “Duke Armstrong, the World’s Mightiest Golfer?" The Happy Tree Friends-style of “Chester Chipmunk?" The Clowes-ian work in “One Night In Paris?" Is it all of them? None of them? Does it matter, as long as they work? I tend to think not, as even as he’s inhabiting these different art personas, you can still see Rugg’s style in the corners, peeking through.
In the end, Supermag delivers on Rugg’s promise of exploring the breakdown of narrative and the huge field of what comics are and can still be. It's an impressive work, staggeringly, maddeningly so. It’s not just a showcase for Rugg’s work – though it is an effective one at that – it’s more importantly a glimpse into what comics are and what they can be. It’s inspiring and refreshing and makes you ask, if freed from the necessity of narrative and cohesive style, what kinds of comics can still be made. And, well, I guess I can forgive Jim Rugg for being too damn good at comics in return for that.