Call them “comics” only if you need to. It’s the shorthand we’ve used for about a century for stories told through sequential art, but not all “comics” are alike. So it is with Greg Ruth, the acclaimed creator of The Lost Boy, co-creator of Indeh with Ethan Hawke, and highly prolific artist. His preferred mode: moody black and white, highly detailed, with each panel opening up to a world of its own. Ruth is embarking on a new project with Hawke now, and his 52 Weeks Project of art based on a single source of inspiration is neck deep in the White Lodge at Twin Peaks. Popdose spoke with Ruth on a number of subjects, which was more difficult than it should have beensince we can hardly turn away from his artwork.
Your 52 Weeks Project this time is focused on Twin Peaks. First, could you explain a bit what the 52 Weeks Project is, and second, what drew you to Twin Peaks as the subject, aside from the revival at Showtime?
Well, I started the self-assigned weekly drawing thing, The 52 Weeks Project, as a kind of codified act of playing hooky a few years ago mainly as a way to keep the art-making fresh and interesting for me when it had become a full time 9-5 rigorous job, and was starting to feel like a grind. So it was a way for me to start off the work week with desert, rather than Brussels sprouts, if you know what I mean. It really did the trick and then of course ended up being such an essential and integral part of work… what was really supposed to be a lark, became a children’s book I did with President Obama, at least a dozen cover jobs, a music video gig, work for Criterion, and a bucket of other companies, and a weekly source of added income and a successfully overfunded hardcover book we did through Kickstarter.
I guess I turned play into work again… but it remains a vibrant sandbox because at its core it’s still basically just drawing what I want regardless of need beyond that impulse. So the fun remained. I’ve done a lot of variances to date, Dune, Mummies, Gods, Coal Miners, etc… but essentially they’ve always been portraits. I’m a wild man for a good portrait, so that overall ethic has tied all of them together. And I do it whenever I want and cease it whenever I like- so it’s a set deadline that I also get to ignore when I chose. Usually that happens when a series runs its intended course, or if the steam dissipates. The recent Dune series, for example will be ongoing, been though I’ve had to put the brakes on it for a few months. The White Lodge– my Twin Peaks series, cycled through after about two dozen portraits from the original series and was recently revived as The Return began airing. So you just never know.
I guess what drew me to the subject of Twin Peaks was simply an enthusiasm for the material- it began airing back when I was a freshman/sophomore at Pratt, and was a total phenomenon. It was by miles, the most artful and insane piece of tv we’d seen since The Prisoner, and none of us could believe it was on network tv. (For you kids out there, back in those days we still really only had three or four stations to chose from. Yes, cable had it’s thing, but they weren’t making original content yet). It was amazing to see how this campus literally shut down for a couple of hours as everyone scrambled around whoever had a tv in their dorm room for us to crowd around to watch an episode. The visual language of the show was so rich and became so iconic, as did the characters and so it was a natural thing to want to do portraits of each of them for the original series. The Return is a whole different animal in many ways, and inspired an unexpected reviving of The White Lodge drawings entirely by accident. I had done this one drawing of Cooper footing in the box that Jeff Lemire grabbed, and I honestly thought that would be it. But each week I’d come away wanting to do another, and so without planning, I had a whole new series rolling out- I think I’ve done ten now to date.
Unless my information’s incorrect, I hear you might be planning a new project with Ethan Hawke. You and he collaborated on the graphic novel Indeh. How did that pairing come together?
Ethan saw Conan: Born on the Battlefield in Forbidden Planet in NYC, was struggling with how to tell this story of the Apaches he’s been working on for years, and had an a-ha moment I think in looking at the book. He reached out, we had lunch- I always like to talk about how I didn’t intend or expect to be doing this with him, but really just thought we’d have lunch, it’d be a nice moment, snd then we’d get back to our lives, etc…. Well that one hour meeting turned into a 3+ hour meeting of the minds and I walked out of there committed to the project. We got on like a house on fire- I think as a surprise to is both. We were and still are like two kids in a sandbox together and all these years later, he’s like a brother to me. I personally, had not planned to partner up like this- I had just come off of The Lost Boy, and was eager to continue assuming the lonely life of a creator-owned comics guy… he’s such a brilliant story guy. We’re both share a real passion for reading, watching, editing and constructing these stories, digesting them, parsing them out, etc. It’s likely a terrible bore for others around us. But it’s been a total partnership- unlike most projects like this where some celebrity drops a story off at the editor’s desk and then returns to his thing, Indeh was a hand in hand walk until the very last moment. I never expected to have so much fun working with another before; it’s a very intimate and vulnerable thing, and this new one even more so.
We fully intended to follow Indeh up with its second part, largely on the basis that we supremely desired to tell Lozen’s story that got cut from the first book, but while we were doing the book tour for Indeh, we started writing a new father/son coming of age crime story that grabbed us fully and now that’s what we’re doing next, again for our amazing editor, Gretchen Young at Grand Central/Hachette Books. It’s very reflective of our parallel lives as fathers to 15 year old boys, autobiographical in terms of it’s setting and time in Texas where we were both born, and is a great bit scary for us which is what attracts us to it so strongly. We could have never made it without having first proven the level of trust we instilled in the process of Indeh, because it’s so damned personal and close to the bone. We’re writing the script now. It’s called Meadowlark.
I’ve seen a few things that discussed your art process and it is both fascinating and a little scary. You don’t pencil sketch first — instead, you go straight to the paper with ink and brush. That seems like there would be a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong, but it clearly works for you. How did you come to adopt this regimen?
It’s called “impatience.” The thing that grabbed me so fully about the sumi — particularly as a response to having done a 5-issue graphic novel thing in ballpoint pen, which was tedious beyond comprehension — was its immediacy. True sumi dry brush drawing is just instantaneous, though doing a good one takes a lot of practice getting there. It’s immediate, gestural involving the whole arm, and always yielded surprises. So, coming off something so microcosmic and fussy as ballpoint pen into sumi was like a dive in a cool pool during a hot summer. Twenty years in now and here I am, though I confess to having returned to the microcosmic in some way through this new graphite series I’ve playing with these last two years.
Things go wrong all the time with the sumi, but you just wad up the paper and throw it over your shoulder to do it again. It’s different each and every time, and I’ve done innumerable cover paintings with it, two graphic novels, both Indeh and The Lost Boy, and a video for Prince with it. The 52 Weeks Project itself was largely a sumi thing until very recently.
The other thing is that (also, unless I’m mistaken), the panels for your stories are done full-size, and then scanned and placed onto a page digitally. That sounds like a really interesting way to get maximum detail into each panel. How do you go about coordinating the pages to work out the compositions?
My editor for The Matrix comics, and dear friend, Spencer Lamm, and the Wachowskis thought it was bugnuts crazy. I actually made the switch over after doing my last on-page comics panels for a short story for them entitled A Path Among Stones. The second 22-page story I did, Return of the Prodigal Son, was my first go at this new full-scale single panel drawing, and computer assembly experiment. The sumi just lent itself to larger drawings, and since I would invariably screw up at least one or two of the panels on the page before, doing it this way didn’t mean having to glue down replacement panels.
It also really opened up the whole editorial side of comics making in that by working this way the story could be changed and edited fully all the way up to press. If I didn’t leave enough room for a word balloon, or the text changed, no sweat. If a panel worked better cropped, or an image reversed, or zoomed or simply needed a fix, it was so much easier to do. It meant the writing of the book continued well through the entire process where it used to get stuck once the art was being executed. It’s a lot more work to be sure- a lot more drawing, as my bulging flatfiles will attest, but it’s what was absolutely best for the books, which always has to be the leading edge.
The Lost Boy seems like a movie waiting to happen (or, as the current case may be, three movies). What was the impetus to write it?
I’ve heard that a lot with regards to The Lost Boy, and likely with my work generally: that it’s very cinematic. And my comics really are informed by cinema, absolutely. Unlike, I think, comics that are trying to emulate movies, by relegating themselves to wide screen panels like a storyboard for a film, I aim to be more true to the medium unto itself, but import over some of the cinematic language, cutting of scenes, layout of the world building in those terms. I’m a kid parented by a shit-ton of tv and old movies growing up and that bell rings still through all I do in art.
I guess the impetus was a combination of feeling like kids weren’t getting enough thoughtful and serious storytelling they deserved. I had just had my first son and it changes your priorities a lot. I had begun to delve into children’s picture books at the time, but since I always think of these grand gestures and long form narratives, and I had formed some strong opinions about the place of scary stories in children’s literature.
While currently there’s just the first book out there, I did draft and map out the full trilogy all the way to the end. The second book following in part Walt’s post-villain life as an outcast living alone in the Kingdom, and the aftermath of the events at Harker’s Drop, particularly what really came back with them looking like Tabitha, and book three, which ties the entire secret history of the town and it’s relationship with the Kingdom culminating in this terrifically massive confrontation with these ten story tall Willow Tree women. Let’s just say whatever weirdo notes were sounded in the first one gets ramped up by a factor of ten.
These last two books, if I get the opportunity to do them, are really one big story split in half, and structured in a way with the first so if they were all put together they would read rather seamlessly as a whole epic.
The Scholastic Books of my day are much different than the ones of today, post-Twilight. When you delivered The Lost Boy to them, what was the reaction? While the story is meant for younger readers, it is a dark kind of story.
Well, initially when I brought The Lost Boy to Scholastic, Graphix!, its graphic novel imprint was literally just getting off the ground, the entire structure there was different, Harry Potter was just rolling out, and then we had the crash in ’08 which fundamentally changed everything. Not sure how or if Twilight had any impact whatsoever to be honest, certainly not with me in any noticeable way. I still haven’t seen the films or read the books to be fully honest.
So the calculations about it were never something that existed insofar as I recall. It was received extremely well, but only after a long series of insanities to get us to the end game. I think it went through at least 6-8 editors? The crash just upended the whole industry and things were really unstable for a good while after… layoffs, hirings, staff changes, market changes… it was like surfing a pair of conflicting tsunamis some times.
But David just acted as this incredible lighthouse through it all and brought me in, assigned Adam to the project, and it just took off like a rocket after. It was a herculean task wrestling this story down. I often refer to it as having to take the Black Forest in Germany, and turn it into a single bonsai that still felt like the whole forest. Adam was incredible to that purpose, and we became good friends as result. The whole of that team at Scholastic really feels familial in a lot of ways. I always make sure to stop in and see them whenever I can.
But it brought me my first NY Times bestseller listing, and really changed a lot for me in a million different ways. It is a dark and challenging complex story, but I think kids are such sophisticated readers- especially these days- and are rarely rewarded with such material, I just couldn’t resist putting my money where my mouth is. Scary stories aren’t for every kid no doubt, but for those who really love them, it’s a special kind of honor to please them. The support, the letters and cosplay and all the support from Scholastic has been such an incredible affirmation. Kid’s lit is still an area I am really devoted to and look forward to returning to after Meadowlark– which, despite centering around a kid, is in no way whatsoever meant or intended for children — it’s a rough edged frenetic noir piece that literally pulls no punches.
You’ve said previously that you were never really into comic books per se. You didn’t like the open-ended, soap opera nature of them. But Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns changed that. The idea that you could tell a single story that starts and conclusively finishes got your attention. What did that change in your mindset?
Well, largely that was a response to the time I grew up where being able to follow a comic through on a monthly basis was near impossible for me. There wasn’t the direct market like the one that exploded on the scene later in the ’80s, so it wasn’t possible to follow those long arching stories. But generally I do like endings- I think like the way death stalks our lives, each and every one of us, and brings it focus and value, stories that just run forever lose a lot of punch. If you know Superman won’t die, or even if he does will come back, than your ability to relate to him gets cleaved by half right away. The dispensing of mainstay character safety in George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books really changed things for me when I first read A Game of Thrones. Killing Ned was like ending Captain Kirk, or murdering Bruce Wayne: it just shook the foundations of what stories could do, and made everything dangerous and threatened in a way that brings a terrific level of meaning and value to the story.
So The Dark Knight Returns, Mai The Psychic Girl, Watchmen, etc. were pure revelations for me, and helped reintroduce me to the medium of comics in a way that lives on today. The way the market changed, the old comic shop market collapsing and the reduction of Marvel and DC into essentially being IP farms for their parent corporation’s film divisions really afforded and opportunity for the book world to take the medium under its wing and start to finally, after generations of insane self-immolation, take the medium seriously and start growing up and catching up to where it has been driven in other cultures like Europe, Japan and Latin America; where it has such a vibrant and diverse playground to run about in.
I could never have sold Indeh or even The Lost Boy, or Meadowlark in the old comics industry dominated world, and we’d have never seen such legitimately literary masterpieces come like Persepolis, Essex County, March, Boxers and Saints, Smile, or the dozen other excellent genre busting stories we get to have now. While the mid 1980’s-early 90’s were a true renaissance period for comics, and an incredible time to come up in, there has been no better period in American history to be making graphic novels than right now. Forget the superhero stuff, the myriad of other environs has never been richer. Indeh‘s been out just a year now and has already been translated into, I think, six different languages. It’s an amazing time.
Could you go into the materials you use?
Pretty simple really: paper, sumi ink, or graphite pencil. Scan and assembled in Photoshop. I will often use watercolor, crayon or color pencil, and gouache too, but all of it get scanned in to be dealt with digitally. Even though I letter my comics digitally, it’s via a font I built based on my handwriting, with word balloons and tails also hand drawn and scanned in so that there’s a consistency throughout the story, and everything is of a piece with itself.
But I am pretty minimal and uncomplicated or precious when it comes to materials, which I suppose should be clear by my years-long experiment with ballpoint pens. There’s a tendency with artists to indulge in the minutia of materials, the hand-pressed linseed oil aged in the skull of a family enemy for a decade, and the siphoned through a laudanum spoon that makes it responsible for your work excelling. But I honestly think it doesn’t matter what you work with as long as you work with something. You can make a book a million times more resonate with ruled paper and a Ticonderoga #2 pencil than one made with the most Ferrari of materials.
It’s not the hammer you bang, but the arm that wields the hammer that really matters. So, I tend not to be too reverential about materials. That said I do love the Blackwing Palomino, Pearl, and 504 pencils to death because they are like drawing with compressed velvet, and that liquified sumi ink that comes in those green grenade shaped bottles from Aitoh. When I find a material that works, I tend to be extremely monogamous about them clearly.
Thanks to Greg Ruth for sharing his work and process with Popdose.com. You can learn more at www.gregthings.com and Greg’s books are available at Amazon.com.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. For Popdose he has contributed many articles that can be found in the site's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Musictap.net, Ultimate Classic Rock, and Diffuser FM. His music can be found at http://dwdunphy.bandcamp.com/.