September 3, 2020

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Exploring the Cartoonist Kayfabe School of Comics in Jim Rugg’s Octobriana 1976

by Jim Rugg

Sometimes realism is simply overrated.be

Jim Rugg’s Octobriana 1976 is a retro comic. It wears its backward-looking style as a badge of honor that he and his Cartoonist Kayfabe-partners-in-crime Ed Piskor and (part-timer Kayfaber) Tom Scioli proudly wear in their comic projects. Of the three of them, Rugg rarely wears his influences as blatantly on his sleeve as Scioli’s Kirby fetish or Piskor’s Image/1970’s mashup aesthetic. Rugg’s Afrodisiac is heavily dipped in the comics that Rugg was fascinated in and trying to recreate but his Street Angel doesn't look like anything else. Or look at his illustrated magazine Supermag where Rugg displays his illustrative chops, using a wide array of styles and media to create images.

Rugg is influenced (who isn’t) but his career isn’t built purely on mimicking those influences, trying to recreate them with a 21st-century flair. After a few years of finishing up The Plain Janes and telling more Street Angel stories, works almost created in an influential vacuum, Rugg’s Kickstarter project Octobriana 1976 reads more like a culmination of Cartoonist Kayfabe’s deep exploration of comics, its mediums, its genres, and its history, The book is the result of research, a master thesis on what Rugg has studied in those videos with Piskor and Scioli.

by Jim Rugg

Rugg and Piskor like to talk about “outlaw” comics and creators, including creators like Tim Vigil and Tim Truman under that umbrella. It isn't a movement but an approach to comics, an attitude about creation that frees the creator to follow their own personal directions in the comics. Attitude is a great word for it; these comics are about their attitude on a narrative level, on an artistic level, and on a freedom level. They’re the bastard children of the underground comics, channeling that counter-cultural movement’s approaches to comics into the genres that the creators love. It’s possible to love both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Marvel as well as Robert Crumbs and Gilbert Shelton’s more untamed and raucous comics about life after the Summer of Love.

With Octobriana 1976, Rugg follows his own whims and fancies down that outlaw comics path, trying to recreate the feel of old 1970s blacklight posters, expanding what was a single image into a full comic book. Giving in to the coolness of this kind of balls-to-the-wall action, it’s a story about the Soviet Union without ever addressing the politics or beliefs of that nation. The USSR becomes just a symbol in this book, an empty one, that Rugg mines. He uses a major world political ideology the same way he uses the blacklight coloring and thick line work; it’s calling back to a history without ever feeling the need to explore or delve into that history.

And an argument in favor of the book could be that this isn’t a history book which is totally fair. Rugg has no other apparent outward purpose here other than to entertain and he does that. He has created a fun, fast paced comic that’s almost purely visceral. It’s the gut punch of the neon colors, the images, the symbols that whisk you along, taking you away into this short and quick fantasy. Octobriana 1976 is a neon colored ballet of violence. It is one act of mayhem after another, bathed in colors ripped off of a blacklight poster.

Black and White blacklightretro
3 versions of Octobriana 1976 (black and white, blacklight, and retro)

Using flourescent reds, blues, purples, yellows and greens, Rugg’s colors just add to the mayhem of the comic as color theory becomes another tool on display here as he uses complementary colors to create energy on the page. The mixtures of yellow and purple, orange and blue, red and green magnify the drawn action, adding an excitement to every page that goes beyond the mere action that’s being depicted on the page.

With all of these visual tools, Rugg creates Sturm and Drang on nearly every page. This comic is very deliberate in the use of those tools to the point of artificiality. Rugg is digging into all of these visual and narrative influences and trying to synthesize all of them. The reality is that Rugg is exceptionally good at the craft of comics. That’s what he and his cohorts pride themselves on. And you can see that craft in the two other versions of this comic; the retro colored one (think Piskor’s work on X-Men Grand Design or Hip Hop Family Tree) and a newsprint black and white edition that evokes the black and white explosion/implosion that followed the debut of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These three editions of the comic provide a roadmap to understanding the mentality of the Cartoonist Kayfabe school of comics.

Octobriana isn’t a character and the USSR isn’t a major world power in this comic. They are nothing more than cartoon heroes and villains, symbols purely trapped in a moment that is gone as soon as you’re done reading the last page of this comic. But they don’t matter; all that matters is the aesthetic experience of Rugg’s blacklight fight comic. Octobriana 1976 isn’t a story to get lost in; it’s a menagerie of colors and actions that get you pumping your fist even as you’re digging through old drawers to try to actually find a blacklight to see what psychedelic effects there are under the right lighting.