Jim Rugg joins other Pittsburgh artists in revamping Marvel superheroes | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jim Rugg joins other Pittsburgh artists in revamping Marvel superheroes

click to enlarge A white man seated speaks with a Black man as he leans in to look at a table full of bright green Hulk comic books. Rows of comic books and a Venom T-shirt are displayed in the background.
Photo: Matt Petras
Jim Rugg (seated) opens a copy of his book Hulk: Grand Design for columnist Tony Norman during a signing at Phantom of the Attic, Wed., Feb. 21
Local comic book fans flock to Phantom of the Attic in Oakland every Wednesday to pick up new release comics. On the Wednesday of Feb. 21, however, the store’s standard quiet atmosphere was replaced with the buzz of excited conversation. Jim Rugg clearly knows how to fill a comic shop.

To coincide with the release of the oversized collected edition of Hulk: Grand Design, a colorful, bombastic, densely researched superhero epic, the Pittsburgh-based cartoonist met with and signed comics for fans Wednesday afternoon.

Hulk: Grand Design was originally released as two, standard-format, single-issue comics in March and April 2022 – the year of the character’s 60th anniversary. It comes in a 9.25 by 13.25-inch “treasury edition," roughly a few inches wider and longer than a standard modern comic book.

It’s a spiritual successor to X-Men: Grand Design and Fantastic Four: Grand Design. All three have two things in common: they’re comprehensive retellings of the respective characters’ comics history and they’re by Pittsburghers. Ed Piskor tackled X-Men and Tom Scioli did Fantastic Four.

The front cover of Hulk: Grand Design is a striking, zoomed-in image of one of the hero's eyeballs with the title in bold, black lettering.

“It’s been really cool to see retailers showing their wall of new comic books or whatever, and Hulk just looks like it’s glowing,” Rugg tells Pittsburgh City Paper, chuckling. “In a wall of noise, it really stands out.”

The shop ordered about 40 copies of Hulk: Grand Design, roughly 10 times the normal amount for a new trade or graphic novel, according to shop owner Jeff Yandora.

At the Wednesday signing, Rugg sat at a table in the middle of the store surrounded by copies of his new comic, along with others from throughout his career. When a fan approached him, he’d chat with them for several minutes, happy to answer their questions and engage in conversation about the comics industry.

Fans love Rugg for his unique comics and for his YouTube Channel and podcast Cartoonist Kayfabe, which he co-hosts with Piskor. One such fan is local columnist Tony Norman, who, for years, worked at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before transitioning to NEXTpittsburgh. He attended the event to chat with Rugg, who he says he’s known for many years.

“He’s one of the top creators in comics today,” Norman tells City Paper.

Another fan, 32-year-old Harrison City resident Mike Ralph, met Rugg for the first time at the signing after enjoying his comics for years. He picked Rugg’s brain about his process and the production of the new book.

“I really like his brushwork,” Ralph said. “It’s really elegant, fluid, much more so than what you see in a lot of mainstream comics. And just in terms of color and his design sense as an artist, fantastic.”

Rugg read – and often re-read – more than 500 Hulk comics as a part of his research for the comic. He retells the bulk of the characters’ storied history with an emphasis on the earlier decades.

As Rugg researched and began to create Hulk: Grand Design, he realized for the first time just how much loneliness there is to the character’s story. He created the comic during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, which proved just as lonely for Rugg as it did for most people. “In the beginning, it really feels like you’re reading stories for 7-year-olds, but that pathos and tragedy, it’s there from the beginning,” Rugg says.

Many “alternative” style cartoonists – those who work outside the mainstream industry producing comics that are often more artistic or literary – started as huge DC and Marvel Comics fans, just like Rugg. Like his fellow Grand Design colleagues, Rugg makes comics with an alternative sensibility, eschewing the style and norms of mainstream comics.

Even so, he often infiltrates the mainstream scene with his unique work. Hulk: Grand Design is no exception. Much of the comic follows an expected style, but Rugg constantly subverts it. One page is done with colored, ballpoint pens on notebook paper. Another uses only pink and white coloring. And many of the pages include the kind of kinetic, blunt images fans of Rugg’s Street Angel series will recognize and adore.

“Whenever I do something, I think, ‘what’s the best way to tell this story, the most impact on this scene or this panel?’” Rugg says. “And that might involve color, it might involve different media … I think the best art, the art that I respond to, reflects that the artist is engaged with this.”

Rugg says his editors at Marvel gave him much-appreciated freedom to explore and create the kind of comic he wanted to make. He had early conversations about their expectations and his plans and mostly received encouragement rather than concern as he started to turn in pages.

“The more that happened, the more I felt emboldened to just go for it,” Rugg says. “If I had some kind of idea that seemed a little bit more out-there, I felt like, ‘yeah, these guys are letting me do this. So, I’ll do it till they tell me no.’ And they never really said no.”

Rugg set out to make the best Hulk comic ever. Whether or not he succeeded in doing precisely that will be left to fans and critics, but it’s hard to believe it won’t, at the very least, go down as a classic in the beloved character’s canon. 

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