SPX ’17: Jim Rugg And Gilbert Hernadez On The Indie, The Mainstream, And Comic Art

by Hannah Means Shannon

At Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, on Saturday, September 16th, a panel with Gilbert Hernandez and Jim Rugg in conversation was part of the first wave of programming for the two day show. Featuring two comic artists, the panel was destined to bring plenty of art perspective to the audience.

Rugg described the advent of Love and Rockets as a “momentous” juncture in comics history, something that cements his influence in the medium, but also commented that Hernandez is constantly “reinventing himself” as well.

As a self-taught cartoonist, Rugg said that he constantly asks people how they work. Hernandez, when asked, said that he started off rather “lazily” in comics, and could barely get himself to self-publish a single issue comic. When Gary Groth at Fantagraphics asked to publish their work, they wanted 64 pages, and it was stressful for them to push to that page count.

At the time, mainstream comics were “going nowhere” and since Gilbert and Jaime were coming out of the punk scene they had a “don’t give a shit attitude” in their own work which made it unique. It was hard at first to “get books out” because of a lack of training and they didn’t know where things would go. He had bad habits of putting stuff off, working at 2AM after proscrastinating, but eventually started putting effort in after realizing that he was his own enemy in this.

His particular OCD now is that he wants to “get stuff out” and not just one comic, or two, but three. Now he has a schedule, really ever since his daughter was born, of working during the day, and that enabled him to stop doing the late night stuff. He works till 5pm every day and then is “done” and makes sure he’s done.

He’s learned to “be a grown up about it”, with time to draw when he must draw. Sometimes artists don’t like structure, he acknowledged, but you need structure. Working for DC Comics also made that really necessary for him, like having to do a comic a month, and wanting to get paid, you just have to do it.

Rugg commented that there’s a “momentum” he can catch sometimes, starting a new story after finishing the previous one without putting things off, he can keep going on a good schedule.

Hernandez said he’s capable of burnout, and coming to a convention like SPX is actually like “stopping” for him. For three days he doesn’t have to draw comics.

Rugg said he does a lot of multitasking with freelance, and this has led to him working “all the time”. It’s a bad habit, and has led to burnout for him at times. A few years ago he decided he must take one day off a week, and that structure has really helped him.

Hernandez said that even if you have a “wild imagination”, you have to “corral” that on the page and turn it off at times.

Rugg asked about Hernandez being a parent, whose daughter actually makes comics, and how that feels for him. Hernandez said she does make comics, but it’s not her only focus. She seemed “wired” for it, though, since his brother Mario’s four kids aren’t interested “at all”.

He’s told her she’s “lucky” to even get into comic con these days, and she loves conventions, he said, though she doesn’t do as many comics as she used to.

Jim Rugg said SPX was only the second show he ever attended in 2000, and he sees comic cons changing greatly over time. He asked Hernandez if he’s seen a lot of change.

Hernandez said that it was a little easier to get into shows in the past, and there were still “old people making comics” from the 1940’s and the like. Now he’s one of the old guys, and that’s weird for him, being called a “veteran”.

Now comic cons are such a business that it’s best to be there every year and stay involved, Hernandez said. SPX is getting bigger and bigger and even better attended, too.

Commenting on changes in the industry, Hernandez said that now “there are too many cartoonists to ignore” in the alternative vein. There was a time where main stream artists tried to be more indie, to some extent and that didn’t work out, and didn’t sell, but real indie comics are still going strong.

Is there an antagonism between mainstream and indie artists, Rugg asked. Hernandez said it’s mainly “off the record” but there is a certain degree of that. Indie artists get better press, Hernandez feels, like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, and that speaks to the wider world in a way that mainstream comics does not necessarily. Those just speak to a core fan group, he feels, and part of that’s more about the superhero movies these days.

Rugg added that mainstream comics can feel like “licensing companies”, with the toys and products, too. Hernandez said Warner Bros. would probably drop DC Comics if it wasn’t for the licensing.

It’s difficult in comics to make a living either way, Hernandez said, so being able to creatively direct yourself is the benefit of working in indie rather than mainstream. He knows there to be “unspoken” dislike for indie and art comics among some mainstream creators, but the creative attention indie artists get is the benefit of creating characters and stories entirely their own. And that is deserved attention, in Hernandez’ view.

Rugg and Hernandez both worked with Shelly Bond when she was at DC, Rugg said, and now Hernandez is working with Bond again at Black Crown at IDW.

Hernandez says Bond has always been “really into it”, a very involved editor who has that “energy” even after working with her for 25 years. That’s what you need in editors at a publishing company, he said.

Rugg asked if working with an editor changes Hernandez’ method at all. Hernandez said that it was difficult at first working with editors since “indie folks don’t always knows where they are going” like telling editors how stories will end. But he sees the need for it, and it increases his sense of discipline.

Even books he hasn’t been as enthusiastic about in the past were ones where he pushed himself to do his best, and going back to his own work afterward would feel “easy” because of the discipline he learned. It made him more confident. The work-for-hire stuff takes a lot of time and energy, which slows down his personal projects, but it’s a relationship with some positive aspects.

Rugg observed that Hernandez has worked in different page sizes and book length, and wondered how he decides on that. Hernandez said that he has often been sent very large pages to draw on by publishers, but it made him more tired, he noticed. He then drew on smaller pages, and it was better for him.

That just evolved toward smaller pages for him, and even though he sometimes misses the spread of a large page, but he’s more comfortable with this. Once he threw his shoulder out, he said, drawing on “huge” pages. For him, practical considerations go hand-in-hand with creativity.

Hernandez said he “draws like a cave man” without digital tools, so it’s hard for him to draw larger images without needing changes in scale. He can scale things quicker in a smaller image. It’s just part of the “muscle memory” which you need to draw a lot of comics fairly quickly.

Talking about tools, Hernandez says that he finds living in Las Vegas that his ink pens, strangely, often dry up from the atmosphere now, so he often has to turn to felt, which he does not prefer. India ink and other products, however, are getting cheaper and cheaper, which helps.

Rugg agreed that a lot of cartoonists go to great lengths to use “antiquated tools” and to find consistent products to use. Hernandez says that since brushes are not “consistent”, he knows people who buy up to 15 brushes to find one that works. But that is a little “perfectionist” and “crazy”, Hernandez admitted.

Rugg says cartoonists are often obsessive, and he finds he has to “pull back” from that. Does Hernandez feel that way?

Hernandez tries to be the “phantom audience” asking what they want to see and trying to meet that, which helps resist being obsessive. “Immediacy is better than impressing people”, he said. He wants it to be a “pleasant” experience, not over-rendered and dense in a way that only very few readers will appreciate. He can’t even look at the obsessive work he sees any more. He wants immediacy, too.

Asked about different genres he’s worked on, Hernandez said he’s not really conscious of “mood” in the different genres in connection with his life. When he started doing Blubber, his “anti-do-gooder” comic, he was looking back at S. Clay Wilson, who did quite “rude and horrible” stuff. He just wanted to draw “goofy and weird monsters” and asked what would “bother” people and the answer is still, always “sex”, he said. So he upset people by having the monsters having sex.

People ask, “What were you going through then?” about some of his works, but he said he doesn’t really think that way. He thinks in terms of story and wanting to draw different kinds of things. He feels R. Crumb worked in a similar way.

Asked what he likes to read, Hernandez said he doesn’t read a lot of contemporary comics because he works making comics so much. Musicians, he finds, have the same problem. He re-reads his own comics often to find mistakes and learn not to “screw up” the same things over and over. He doesn’t like his past work the further back he goes.

He grabs comics at SPX, and he goes to the comic store with his daughter once in awhile. He doesn’t like to read mainstream books, and gets sent free stuff from his publishers, like Fantagraphics, and that’s what he reads.

Asked if he’d ever be interested in teaching comics, Hernandez said there’s usually a Latino angle,  but he’ll “take what he can get”.  But he doesn’t do it much because it takes so much time, and he needs the time for his work.

He’s doing a workshop today at 3pm at SPX, and he can’t “teach you to be yourself” but he can teach tips and shortcuts, he said.

There are things that stop the reading experience for the reader that you have to learn as a creator, and some of that can be taught, both Rugg and Hernandez agreed.

During the Q&A, Hernandez said “I don’t think heavy any more” in terms of subject matter, but he still hopes he doesn’t get the point where he can’t. Sometimes as you get older, you “don’t want to be in that dark place anymore”, but he still wants “equal weight” and wants to avoid “fluff”.

Asked how they face perfectionism, Hernadez said that’s fortunately not like that as an artist, just in personality, but if he sees something that “just doesn’t work”, he’ll use white-out, and then it just gets worse sometimes. But sometimes he gets tape and tapes right over it, and will “put a tree there instead of a person”. And that works. He thinks his brain is telling him to remove that drawing that’s annoying him. His subconscious is trying to tell him something, and he trusts that. The reader doesn’t really know that something’s “bad”, it’s just the artist feeling that way, anyway.

Rugg struggles with perfectionism a lot, and deadlines are key to help him. You can only do so much in time. Even when self-publishing, he’d set deadlines, like coming to a show, otherwise he’d never finish anything.

Talking about Lover Boys at Dark Horse, an editor told him there were “weird things” in panels they couldn’t figure out, and Hernandez realized these were “street lights” and was surprised to find that they weren’t representational enough to work in the comic. He found that changing them to street power poles worked better. So sometimes details can be important, if it distracts the reader.

Asked about the punk scene, Hernandez said at age 60, he doesn’t really follow it any more. Most of his life he has listened to “hard rock music” but in the past five years, he hasn’t been able to find anything new, really. Pop music videos creep him out because it’s all about “looks” with the “pretty boys and pretty girls” and it doesn’t feel like “serious art” to him.