“Life is short, I don’t want to do work that’s just a paycheck,” Jim Rugg says of life as a comic book artist, bookmaker, illustrator, and designer.
The winner of Eisner and Ignatz awards for excellence in comics, Rugg has produced acclaimed titles including Street Angel, Afrodisiac, and the recently re-released The PLAIN Janes (Little, Brown) series, a collaboration with writer Cecil Castellucci that includes a new work, Janes Attack Back!
“Comics saved my life,” says Rugg, who will appear Thu., Jan. 23 for Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Words & Pictures series. “Books saved my life. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t able to find these places to escape from a life I wasn’t happy with, and so I want to make work like that.”
Rugg grew up in Fayette County, where one of his childhood pleasures was going to the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville with his mother. Dinosaurs, Godzilla, and other first infatuations eventually gave way to comic books, which meshed with Rugg’s interest in drawing.
He found a kindred soul in Ed Piskor, the creator of the Hip Hop Family Tree and X-Men: Grand Design series. The duo started meeting at Phantom of the Attic, the legendary comic-book store in Oakland, to exchange ideas with fellow artists.
“It’s nice to have that support group to share what you know and share what you see is interesting," says Rugg. "Because we were meeting weekly, we never wanted to show up without new work. There was positive peer pressure, because you knew Ed and everybody else was going to bring new pages. You didn’t want to be the guy who showed up and didn’t do anything that week.”
Rugg’s first major success was with Street Angel, about “a homeless ninja on a skateboard and the deadliest girl alive." But The PLAIN Janes might be his most influential, and important, work. The story follows creative high school student who moves from a major city to a small town without art. The series is considered to be a groundbreaking work.
At comic book conventions, the series took off. Fans, most of them men, would say that "The PLAIN Janes — this isn’t usually what I would read, but I enjoyed it,’” Rugg says. “I heard that a lot.”
Gradually, the series found favor with young adult readers, who were quick to embrace the idea of four girls in high school creating guerilla art installations. Rugg thinks it was one of the first graphic novels aimed at the YA audience.
“Now there’s a huge market for [YA graphic novels],” he says. “Some of the greatest cartoonists in the world do young adult graphic novels. It’s like, if you build it, they will come. There’s a big audience for it, and that’s part of my excitement for finishing the story and re-releasing it now.”