“I want to make things that do not exist”: Cartoonist Jim Rugg on Octobriana 1976

Jim Rugg is undeniably one of the most consistently interesting and surprising comic creators around. Whether you’re talking about his work on titles like Street Angel or my personal favorite Afrodisiac, Rugg has a rare gift to tell comic stories unlike any others you’ve ever come across. And he’s back at it once again with his Kickstarter for Octobriana 1976, or, as it’s hilariously, accurately called on the crowd-funding platform, “Fluorescent Blacklight Outlaw Comic Book.”

This project is Rugg’s attempt to answer one question, “why hasn’t anyone made a blacklight comic book with fluorescent ink?” after he had a blast making a print in the same way. Octobriana 1976 is the result, but as per usual, it isn’t just a project with style, but one with substance to match. It’s effectively his continuation or conversation with Petr Sadecky’s Octobriana and the Russian Underground from 1971, a zine Sadecky straight up smuggled out of the USSR so it could see the light of day. Rugg continues that onwards here, building on the idea with a story that’s about “a badass Russian superhero/devil-woman who fights Soviet oppression and robot Stalin.”

I love all of that. The idea. The fluorescent ink. Rugg’s inventiveness. You name it. So Rugg and I chatted about all of that and more, as Octobriana 1976 enters its final week on the crowd-funding platform awaiting fellow comic lovers to dig into this bonkers world. Give it a read, and if you like what Rugg has to say, consider backing the project on Kickstarter.

Also, if you enjoy this chat and would like to read more content like this, consider subscribing to SKTCHD for plenty more!

So Octobriana 1976 is your new project, and it’s a “blacklight comic book with fluorescent ink,” which, near as both of us can tell, the first one of these ever made. I know its roots are in an earlier print you did, but why was this something you felt could work in an actual story form?

Jim Rugg: As soon as I saw the original screen print, I fell in love with the colors. Fluorescent ink is so bright and vibrant. It’s unique and beautiful. When I saw it in print, I knew it would make a gorgeous comic book.

I color my own comics. This is something that was unthinkable for an indie cartoonist when I was coming up. But with digital technology and globalization (i.e. cheap printing), color became available to everyone. Color is a bigger part of comics today than in the past. It’s replaced a lot of what inking used to do like texture, value, atmosphere, volume…so I think about color and palettes a lot. When I saw the black print in person, I fell in love with the colors.

It’s a cool idea, but if it’s the wrong story, it might not work. Was it important to not just tack this onto something that was ill-fitting? You had to find a story that didn’t just work as a story, but one that works specifically with this idea behind it?

JR: 100%. Story is vital. It’s the foundation. I knew I wanted certain qualities – fun, weird, graphic, and 1970s. Those are all things I associate with blacklight posters. So that was a starting point, but completely vague in terms of a story. One day, I was thinking about Octobriana, and it all just fell into place.

The idea specifically spawns from the book “Octobriana and the Russian Underground,” maybe the ultimate renegade comic book by Petr Sadecký, Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian. What made this character and the idea a good fit in your mind for this treatment, but also someone that you wanted to create a story about?

JR: I love that book. I mentioned weird and it certainly fits that description. For anyone unfamiliar – the book is about a group of underground artists and writers in the USSR in the 1960s. They create a superhero, Octobriana, to fight the Soviet state oppression in these illegal zines. Sadecky, smuggles some of this material out of the USSR and publishes a book about the group and the character called Octobriana and the Russian Underground. It’s all bullshit, but it’s also a compelling story. And I’m pretty sure the original publisher thought it was real. So there are elements of Orson Welles’ War of the World and F for Fake, it’s a little like Christopher Guests’ mockumentaries, and Sadecky steals the art from Bohumil Konečný and Zdeněk Burian. That last bit is shades of the American comics industry’s sordid history. Due to the conceit of the book, Octobriana is a public domain character and cartoonists start to use her in various comics. There’s a lot I love about this character and her story.

I know you have a lot of experience with print production, but given that this was something that was rather new in the world of comics, were there any unique challenges it presented, or was it a lot simpler than one might imagine?

JR: There are challenges. The fluorescent inks have to run twice to create the fluorescent qualities. That required some conversation with the printer. The palette that I use is designed a lot like spot color printing – rather than more photo-like blending. Not a big deal, but definitely important details.

I know Chris Pitzer of AdHouse Books was someone you worked with on this. He has a ton of experience solving every print problem known to man, I imagine. What made him an ideal partner-in-crime for this project, and how is he helping Octobriana 1976 get to the places you want it to go?

JR: Pitzer’s a print genius – lots of experience and also passionate and curious. I’ve done several books with him and value his commitment to taking on new production challenges. AdHouse Books is publishing Octobriana 1976. So he will handle the Direct Market distribution and printing.

One thing I love about your work is how you are seemingly always exploring different ways to play with the comic medium and the space that gives you. For you as a creator, is it important to not just tell stories, but to always be experimenting and finding new answers to old questions? To find new challenges and to keep learning?

JR: YES. It’s so important. I want to make things that do not exist. It’s the way a lot of my projects work. When I fell in love with these colors, I spent a lot of time looking for a comic book that used this blacklight palette. I couldn’t find one so I decided to make it. It’s exciting trying to make new things. I can’t imagine making art and not having this ideal. Someone recently mentioned advertising superstar Sally Hogshead’s slogan, “Different Is Better than Better.” I agree with that 100%. Better is subjective and arbitrary. Different is a bit more concrete.

I know that with Cartoonist Kayfabe and just talking with other creators, there’s a lot of exploring what makes comics work and all the different things you can do with the medium. I know Octobriana 1976 started with basically trying to find an answer to the question, “What would a full comic look like colored in this way?” but when it comes to the experimentation side of things, how much of that stems from conversations you have with others? Do you find that to be an important part of the process of where your thinking about comics comes from?

JR: Yes. I’m self-taught when it comes to making comics. That means I am thirsty for knowledge about how to do this. I read interviews with creators and I seek out conversations with readers and creators so I can learn more about comics.

Make no mistake, I love doing this. It goes all the way back to my early days buying comics. I would buy from a guy at a flea market and ask him about the books I was buying. When I found my first comic shop, it was like going home. Those conversations have never stopped for me.

I read this was a Kickstarter project simply because the convention scene is basically on hiatus with the pandemic going. That’s obviously a completely different beast than you’re used to, but I imagine it was something that was appealing to you in that it was a new challenge for you to take on. What made you want to go this route instead of putting a pin in the idea until cons were back? And obviously it’s successful, but have there been any surprising challenges or considerations in the process that you hadn’t predicted?

JR: I’ve wanted to try a Kickstarter since I first heard of it. I just needed the right project. Circumstances made this project a good fit. There have been lots of surprises. The launch was a surprise. I thought I was agreeing to terms but I actually launched my Kickstarter accidentally and earlier than I planned. So I’ve been scrambling to do things that I should have done ahead of time. But mostly it’s been fantastic. Everyone’s support has been amazing. I am learning a lot but it’s hard to reflect too much with time still on the clock for the campaign. Most of my focus is just raising awareness right now.

You have quite a few reward options, and that’s one of the ideas behind finding success with Kickstarters: creating an effective mix of stretch goals and rewards that incentivize and activate your audience or potential audience. Was that something you put a lot of time and thought into as you developed this campaign? Did you spend a fair amount of time researching the best options for the platform and your project as you were developing it?

JR: I did a fair amount of research. Kickstarter has a lot of great, well-organized resources. I appreciate that and worked through those. I also reached out to fellow cartoonists who had run successful Kickstarters. Shout out to Ryan Browne who just did a Curse Words Kickstarter. He helped me a lot.

Rewards were a challenge. I could have managed stretch goals better. I’ve created some awesome digital pieces – 178 page PROCESS zine for example. If I had it to do over, I would have designed stretch goals better. That wouldn’t effect backers’ directly, but it would have given me more to promote. Because this was my first Kickstarter, I had no idea what to expect in terms of how it would be received.

Another cool digital piece – I had to offer a PDF of the comic. That’s a big part of Kickstarter comics. But my book is so PRINT specific…I ended up making 3 versions of the Digital comic. One is neon, one is black and white, and one is retro (like a 70s comic book). I love them so much that I ended up adding some print options for these different editions. So lots of fun and a few happy surprises along the way!

Lastly, you noted on the Kickstarter page that it’s your intent to make more copies of this comic than just the ones the Kickstarter funds, hopefully selling it at not just conventions eventually, but also comic shops and online, under the idea that you want to “make comics accessible to readers everywhere.” Why is that important to you? And related to that idea, do you think that living up to that goal has only gotten easier the further in your career you’ve gotten?

JR: Making comics accessible to readers everywhere – is this not important to anyone who makes comics? As an indie creator, audience is a HUGE concern of mine. Without an audience, I cannot make comics. One of the great changes in the last two decades is how we can distribute comics – both digital and print. On a personal level, comics saved my life. They gave me hope and showed me a different world. I think art makes the world better in every way. Audience is hard. In some ways, we have better tools for connection than ever. But of course, we have much more competition for audience attention. Lots more noise. Not sure if it’s easier but there’s definitely a lot more opportunities.