Local comics artists Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca pay homage to blaxploitation with Afrodisiac. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local comics artists Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca pay homage to blaxploitation with Afrodisiac.

Local comics artists Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca pay homage to blaxploitation with Afrodisiac.
All art from Afrodisiac, by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg.

Who is THE AFRODISIAC? This "King of the Asphalt Jungle"? This black superhero who -- if the seemingly vintage comics collection bearing his name tells it true -- has kicked the Olympian ass of Hercules; matched wits with a villainous supercomputer and sexy Venusian invaders; KO'd a 20-story cockroach with his Cadillac; and punched the very brain from the immortal skull of Dracula himself? And who consistently looks Afro-fabulous, and usually ends up shirtless, doing it?

And what do we make of the fact that he's also a successful pimp?

The answers lie with Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg, the local comics artists behind the virtuosic blaxploitation homage Afrodisiac, new from Adhouse Books.

On one level, this full-color, 90-page hardback, assembled scrapbook-style, promises endless fun for comics afficionados. On another, the fact that its creators are white raises questions about cultural appropriation -- even as Maruca and Rugg spike the jokiness with subtle political points of their own.

"By day he cleans up your office -- at night he cleans up your streets," is our introduction to Alan Deasler, "a.k.a. the Afrodisiac." He's "the original unbeatable, irresistible, smooth dark chocolate brother." And in the spectacular, endlessly fungible way of classic comics characters, he not only dukes it out in his hometown of Wilkesborough. He also stares down Richard Nixon, flees a tyrannosar in "Vietnam 20,000 B.C." and suavely graces the cover of a romance comic ("the true story of a woman driven crazy by too much chocolate!").

The book's array of styles -- '50s pulp, '70s Marvel, '80s manga -- is hyperkinetic. But while Afrodisiac echoes black superheroes like Luke Cage, he's most rooted in blaxploitation, which Rugg discovered secondhand, a generation after the movie genre's early-'70s heyday.

Rugg, 33, grew up in Connellsville. But in the late '80s, gangster rap began flying off suburban record-store shelves, packaging sensationalized tales of the inner-city underworld. A decade later, neo-blaxploitation found Rugg again, this time via filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, an avowed fan. Now Rugg sought out the source -- not just iconic films like Superfly and Shaft, but more obscure stuff that helped define an era.

Afrodisiac first appeared five years ago, in the final installment of Rugg and Maruca's popular indie comics series Street Angel, about a homeless skateboarder and girl hero. Incarnations followed in Project Superior, Adhouse's showcase for superheroes by indie artists, and in exhibits like a Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators show. Bigger stages eluded Afrodisiac until Chris Pitzer, head of Richmond, Va.-based Adhouse, suggested a book-length collection.

Aesthetically, Afrodisiac was inspired more by flashy, boom-pow blaxploitation-movie trailers -- and even the outlandish movie posters -- than by the actual films. "Instead of being 24 pages and a lot of fat, so to speak, [the comic] would be that more condensed, trailer style of storytelling,"says Rugg, who's the primary artist but co-writes with Maruca. 

Rugg also read classic black crime fiction like the work of Chester Himes. And the comics-vault closet in his home, in Shaler, houses a yard-long file box tracking decades of black comics characters, from Luke Cage and Archie-style hepcat "Fast Willie Jackson" in the '70s to "explicit-content" '90s indie titles inspired by gangster rap (which often sampled blaxploitation soundtracks).

Blaxploitation movies were practically born controversial. On one hand, they appealed to African-American audiences eager for big-screen depictions of black life, and for black heroes and lovers, after decades of Hollywood's insulting caricatures. Some critics have praised the implicit black-consciousness politics of films like Melvin Van Peeble's genre-launching Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). On the other hand, groups like the NAACP and the Urban League formed the Coalition Against Blaxploitation to argue that films like Superfly reinforced negative stereotypes by sensationalizing sex and violence in the black community.

While blaxploitation has since gone mainstream, often via parodies like the 2009 movie Black Dynamite, "I expected to get some backlash on being a white guy doing this character," says Rugg. 

Not least because Afrodisiac earns his bread as a pimp, his worshipful stable of curvaceous women featured prominently in many stories. It's all in seeming contrast to girl-positive Street Angel, and the smart-girl protagonists of The Plain Janes, the young-adult graphic novel Rugg co-created with Cecil Castelluci.

Here, Maruca and Rugg were playing off films like The Mack, Little Willie Dynamite and 1975's hyperviolent The Candy-Tangerine Man, about a pimp who's secretly a suburban family man. "If you look at Luke Cage, he's the cleaned-up, almost G-rated version of a blaxploitation character. And if we were going to do that, why bother, that had been done," says Rugg.

"I've asked myself, 'Why would I want to do this character?'" Rugg says. "I grew up in a little suburb, white family. Blue-collar. I have no idea.

"Hopefully, nobody's going to misinterpret this as anything but humor," he adds.

So far, apparently, no one has. And the positive notices have come not just from Comics Reporter, or even from guy mags like Penthouse and Maxim. Even venerable Publisher's Weekly fell for Afrodisiac, calling it "a frantic cornucopia overflowing with legions of foxy white ladies driven to states of unabashed lubricity by our hero's melanin-rich manliness ... and damn near everything else that made '70s schlock entertainment among the most fun stuff ever concocted by the mind of man."

The book's also a hit with Jay Potts, a Columbia, S.C., cartoonist who draws the blaxploitation-themed Web comic "World of Hurt." 

"[O]ne might expect yet another jokey, one-note Blaxploitation parody," writes Potts, who's African American. But the authors "always play the character and the events absolutely straight. ... The overall look and style of the Afrodisiac short stories successfully evoke the feel of a Blaxploitation film and the creators' ear for authentic sounding dialogue is pitch perfect. ... It was a real inspiration to me, and helped me realize what I wanted WORLD OF HURT to be."

But there's even more to Afrodisiac than most critics have perceived. Rugg says the book offers sly social commentary through subtle shifts in perspective. Witness a pair of comic-book covers pitting Afrodisiac against a character called The Devil, whom the authors meant to parody Batman.

"Batman's always beating up street-level criminals," says Rugg. "The mayor loves the guy. But if you lived in this poor section of town where Batman is just putting people in the hospital -- if that's your brother, or somebody's dad or whatever -- you would hate Batman. He's like this fascist boot-thug in there just preying on regular people trying to get by.

"What we wanted to do was imply the 'Batman' character has his own book. ... But whenever he crosses over into Afrodisiac's, Afrodisiac's clearly the hero and The Devil, a vigilante character, is a bad guy."