Jim Rugg is a comics artist with a penchant for drawing female protagonists.
Rugg, who's 42, traces the tendency to his high school days.
“In art class, I remember the teacher pointing out that I did not draw women well,” he said, laughing. “You hear that stuff as an artist, and that’s what you dedicate yourself to.”
Rugg, who grew up in Connellsville and lives in Glenshaw, has been a national name on the underground comics scene for some 15 years, ever since he and writer Brian Maruca created their first issues of “Street Angel.” The series tracks the adventures of what’s surely the world’s only homeless, pre-teen, skateboarding girl superhero: She spends as much time Dumpster-diving for food as she does fighting crime.
A few years later arrived another signature work that brought girls to the front. “The P.L.A.I.N. Janes” is Rugg’s graphic-novel series with Los Angeles-based writer Cecil Castellucci, about four high school friends in a secret guerilla-art club. Its first and second installments, in 2007 and 2008, were critical hits, but hopes for more faded when DC Comics abruptly folded Minx, its pioneering imprint aimed at adolescent girls.
Eleven years on, the cult favorite returns. Castellucci and Rugg’s forthcoming hardback “The P.L.A.I.N. Janes” (Little, Brown) collects volumes one and two and adds a new, third story that takes its protagonists through high school graduation.
For Castellucci and Rugg, it was more than a matter of simply “get[ting] the band back together,” as Castellucci put it. The series has the opportunity to conclude in part because of the past decade’s rise in demand for young-adult graphic novels – a genre that scarcely existed when the Janes first appeared.
Rugg’s “Street Angel” might have been a harbinger of a thirst for female comics protagonists: Unlike in Japan, where the manga industry has target girls since the 1970s, the U.S. comics industry has largely been a boys’ club, for both readers and creators.
“Whenever I did ‘Street Angel,’ I had just grown very dissatisfied with what I was seeing at the comic-book store,” said Rugg, a self-taught artist raised on the familiar panoply of DC and Marvel heroes. “It was Punisher, Batman -- it was 30- or 40-year-old white male protagonists, and they all just felt like the same.
“A lot of the stuff I make tends to be that way: I’m looking for something and I don’t find it, so I’m going to try to make it myself.”
On Pittsburgh’s thriving comics scene, Rugg is considered an innovator.
“The thing with Jim is, he’s like about 10 years ahead of the industry,” said Tom Scioli, a Pittsburgh-based artist whose own credits his recent Fantastic Four “Grand Design” series for Marvel. Scioli is referencing both Rugg’s artistic experiments on the page and his subject matter. “At the time when he was doing ‘Street Angel,’ it was really uncommon to have female protagonists in comics, and especially, not in an exploitation context. It really stood out.”
In 2006, Rugg’s art drew the eye of Los Angeles-based Castellucci, who’d just scored the contract for her first graphic novel. Castellucci recalls looking over samples by various artists in the office of Minx editor Shelly Bond.
“I pointed at Jim’s art and said, ‘I like that,’” she said in a recent phone interview.
“I think what appealed to me was that it was very clean and simple, but it wasn’t overly cartoony,” she said. “It had really nice, beautiful lines on it. … It just had a good spirit.”
“P.L.A.I.N. Janes” follows teenaged Jane, an aspiring artist whose family fled cosmopolitan Metro City following a terrorist bombing there. Looking for friends in her new suburban school, she seeks out misfits, and finds “Theater Jane,” who’s appropriately self-dramatizing; bookish “Science Jayne”; and athletic Polly Jane. Working at night, they pull off stunts like building pyramids in vacant lots, and spiking the town’s water fountain with soap bubbles. In the process, they tick off the local constabulary and learn about the power of art to build community.
The book was a breath of fresh air to many readers. “We were all excited just in general,” said Robin Brenner, a young-adult librarian and comics expert in Brookline, Massachusetts, who remembers when the first edition dropped. “We all liked the idea of the kind of art collective and, for lack of a better term, the kind of rebel-girl story line.”
“I think a lot of teens obviously can hook into that pretty easily, of feeling a little outside of what’s happening,” Brenner added. “But also it was just nice to see a story that talked about activism and doing something creative with that, and kind of convincing teens there was a reason for hope in the world, and for speaking your mind, which is something we all hope teenagers realize sooner rather than later.”
Brenner was also impressed by Rugg’s black-and-white art. “I really like his linework and the sense of energy he gives expressions,” she said. “I remember thinking that he … did a great job with all of the different Janes, and making them distinct, but also making them very sympathetic and easy to have empathy for.”
A second 150-page edition, “Janes In Love,” followed, in 2008. But the series, and its imprint, might have been just a little ahead of the curve. That same year, DC folded Minx, and the Janes – which had two more installments planned -- went on a forced, indefinite hiatus.
A big reason, hard to imagine today, is that the market for young-adult comics, especially those aimed at girls, barely existed. (Some mark the turning point as Reina Telgemeier’s graphic novel “Smile,” published in 2010.)
“Young-adult comics were not being put in the kids’ section, or in the young-adult section,” said Castellucci. “Librarians did not really know how to curate, because there were barely any titles. There was no infrastructure to support a line like that, graphic novels in bookstores and in libraries.”
“I think the Minx line was kind of cut off at the knees,” said Brenner, the librarian. “It was something that needed a little more time to establish itself.”
2008 also marked the start of the recession. Rugg had quit his day job to draw full-time the prior year, and “Janes” was one of two big projects of his that got canceled. However, though he briefly considered leaving comics, other projects materialized: for-hire work like character design for video games, but also personal projects like “Afrodisiac,” his and Maruca’s clever, retro homage to ’70s comics and Blaxploitation culture.
Rugg also teaches cartooning online, at institutions including New York-based School of Visual Arts.
Castellucci, the award-winning author of YA novels such as “Beige” and “Boy Proof,” went on to other projects as well. But the “Janes” persisted, at least in reputation.
“I still get emails probably like once a month, every six weeks about ‘P.L.A.I.N. Janes,’ and have for the last decade,” said Castellucci.
She said a few readers even told her the series inspired them to attend art school. And not all the readers were girls.
“I can’t tell you how many times Jim and I had 30-, 40-year-old men, 45-year-old, 50-year-old men, saying, ‘You know, I know I’m not a teenage girl, but I love this book.’ And they also said, ‘This is a book I can finally pass on to my girlfriend, my daughter, my mother, and they understood my love of comics and stuff.’”
Eventually, Castellucci and Rugg secured the rights to the series from DC, and found a new publisher. The thick new hardback distills the planned third and fourth books into episode, titled “Janes Attack Back.” It finds the P.L.A.I.N. Janes, no longer a secret society, becoming more institutionalized, and the girls branching out into other interests as the end of high school approaches. “Main Jane,” for instance, goes to France to study art – and gets an antagonist, a young punk artist even more ideologically committed than herself.
While both Rugg and Castellucci said they’ve sharpened their skills in the past decade, both said they picked up where the old “Janes” left off. (The new book does have a fresh look, however, with a single-color tint for each of the three installments.)
Among fans of the original series, anticipation is high.
“We’re all kind of excited that it’s coming back in a way we can all collect again [as librarians], ’cause I think a lot of us miss some of the stories that were done back then” and hope to reintroduce them to new readers, said Brenner.
A big question is how the Janes will be received by a wider audience in a changed publishing landscape.
“If you look at the comics market now, the driving force … is young female readers,” said Brenner. “And if anything now they’re younger, they’re the kind of tween, eight-to-12-year-old category, the blockbuster category. I actually think ‘The P.L.A.I.N. Janes’ would be great for them now.”
Rugg is on a little bit of a roll. In October, he released "Street Angel: Deadliest Girl Alive," a book-length special edition, on Image Comic. With "P.L.A.I.N. Janes," there’s also a sense of long-delayed completion.
“This book wraps it all up,” he said. “I’m so excited to get it into readers’ hands.”
The publication date is Jan. 7. Rugg speaks Jan. 23 at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Made Local series.