GREG RUTH
interview by the night watchman

GREG RUTH GREW UP IN HOUSTON, TEXAS, AND MOVED TO NEW YORK TO ATTEND PRATT. HE STARTED OFF DOING COMICS IN THE BIG BOOK OF... SERIES PUBLISHED BY PARADOX PRESS, WITH PIECES IN ...DEATH, ...WEIRDOS, AND ...URBAN LEGENDS. IN 1998 HE STARTED ON HIS FIRST SERIES, THE HARD TO FIND "BALLPOINT PEN EPIC", SUDDEN GRAVITY, FOR CALIBER. HE HAS WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED SEVERAL STORIES FOR THE ONLINE MATRIX COMICS AND A SERIES OF HOLIDAY MURALS FOR NEW YORK'S GRAND CENTRAL STATION. HE RECENTLY LAUNCHED HIS WEBSITE, WHICH FEATURES MANY EXAMPLES OF HIS DISTINCT BEAUTIFUL STYLE, INCLUDING HIS NEWEST ENDEAVOR, THE NOVEL AND COMIC LANE OF ACRES, WHICH HAS BEEN CALLED "DAVID LYNCH FOR CHILDREN."

Night Watchman: I noticed that you refer to Sudden Gravity as your "ballpoint pen epic." Was that really done entirely with ballpoint pen?

Greg: (groans) Yeah. All of it done in ballpoint pen. Ugh! It was terrible, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. At the time I had no money. I had paper, and Bic pens were cheap. With just two bucks you got a pack of ten. If they start gumming up, you throw them over your shoulder and get another one. It kind of worked as a way of being able to pencil and ink at the same time. The way the ink hits the paper is like a pencil. It doesn't get absorbed by the paper; you're able to scratch it; it was great for the hatching stuff. It was fantastic to work with, but after two issues of that, I suddenly realized what the hell I had locked myself into and I couldn't quit. I was so sick of it and I couldn't really change styles in the middle of it. It just became a real massive labor of time and energy-- a painful learning experience. It was great in a lot of ways but--

NW: You wouldn't do it again? (Laughs)

G: Oh, Hell no! (laughs) I broke all those pens in half and swore I’d never, ever do anything like that again. It was frustrating because it looked so nice in that you got a lot of gray tones, and I could not get Caliber to print the first three issues in halftone. It was a really great lesson in terms of learning to just do the work and get it done. After drawing 190 to 200 drawings per issue, you've got 600 drawings with the pen, you figure it out. You really are able to get it down. It felt good at the end, because I felt like I had really taken the ballpoint pen as far as I could. That felt good because it really meant I never, ever, in my life had to go back to that again.

NW: I remember at the end of Sudden Gravity there was the mention of a sequel or a continuation; did you actually ever tackle that?

G: I took that script, that second part, and turned it into a story called M.A.R.S., with the idea that it was going to be easier to approach a new publisher with. I had trouble finding publishing for that and had trouble finishing it actually. It was a really enormous project. So, that got shelved, unfortunately. That was all done with brush and Sumi ink. It was great because I couldn't control it at all-- the exact opposite of the ballpoint pen. It kind of flipped around and did things I couldn't handle. It would make all these wonderful mistakes. I think it motivated me a lot more. I spent more time drawing it than I did doing the work I should have on the story and it kind of ran away from me. I ended up with a lot of drawings, but not the story to it. Since then I have really been working with the brushes.

NW: Yeah. I have been working with the Oriental brushes and Sumi ink; a lot of it was in reaction to Jon J. Muth's Stonecutter book.

G: I never saw that, but I have the Sandman issue that he did.

NW: It's just like that.

G: It looks like he just turns the bottle over and it lands perfectly.

NW: It's a very unforgiving medium. I've had to do the same drawing five or ten times, just to get everything to gel together.

G: That's what's great about it, because you can't obsess about one drawing because it just kills it. It can be hard to keep the drawing alive, which I think is a real push/pull with comics. A good series of drawings doesn't necessarily make a good story. In some ways, it can be really distracting to actually have really good drawing going on, ‘cause it will take them out of the flow of the narrative. You don't really want them to stop on a panel and say, “Wow. That's a really great drawing.” Even though you and I might just love that, I don't even need to read it. I don't think I've even read that Sandman book yet. I just look through it.

NW: What other artists have really inspired your work?

G: A lot of fine artists I've been in love with have been photographers, like Weegee, Diane Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin and Sally Mann. In terms of fine artists, Egon Schiele. I've always admired him for his draftsmanship. It's so frustrating that he died so young, and there's so little of his work out there. I'll go out and buy a giant book of his just because there's one extra drawing in there I don't have. Magritte is an enormous influence, especially in Sudden Gravity. A lot of those covers were homages to him. In terms of comics, certainly Dave McKean and Kent Williams, a lot of European artists: Mattotti, Munoz. In terms of just comic storytelling, the all-time god is Alan Moore. I'll buy anything, even the superhero stuff he does these days. It has so much more to it. I just love how he does what he does. Daniel Clowes, of course. Paul Pope's got some great stuff. Especially his big books.

NW: Many of the people I know who like comics buy them for the superheroes and stories, whereas I'll buy a 24-page comic because Bill Sienkiewicz did the cover.

G: Of course, that's been my position as well. I don't know about you, but I didn't really read comics as a kid. I don't really have that superhero affection locked to my past that would make me continue to love those characters. I came to it at around 17-18 years old, and it was Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, Jon Muth, and even stuff like David Lloyd that just blew my mind. The fact that you could actually do paintings in comics! When I saw it, I was like, “Oh my God! Comics are really doing something!”

NW: You have a very cinematic look to your work, also. Is film important to the way you tell stories?

G: Yeah, that's how I think of comics. I really love that sense of being able to get into a story cinematically. Like V for Vendetta or The Dark Knight Returns, which were the ones that started getting me interested in comics. They're very cinematic in the way that I think about them. You end up having to “shoot your film” and then watch it to see if you did it right. I guess that lead me into assembling pages on the computer. I actually haven't drawn a paneled page in quite a while. A lot of the stuff, especially the Matrix stuff, was an experiment in doing these very large-scale drawings. Not laying out a page, but basically saying, “In three pages I've got to get this guy out of his car, walking down the road and putting down his keys.” Then sitting down and doing 20 drawings that might be little moments or snapshots along that journey and then scanning them all in and sitting down with the pages and laying them out. On the computer you can enlarge, reduce, crop and assemble them. I don't have to go back and paste over a panel or redraw the whole page, which is something I had to do with Sudden Gravity a lot. You can change it on the computer very, very quickly. A lot of times I may have to go back in to make it work. Say I need a shot of him with his hand on the doorknob opening the door. I'll go back and quickly do a little hand on the doorknob drawing, scan it, and plug it in.

NW: By working this way, do you ever generate images that don't make it onto the page?

G: Tons, actually! Everybody at The Matrix thinks I'm out of my mind doing it this way, because they see it as being so much more work involved than I really should be doing. I do have a lot of drawings that don't make it into the final cut but, regardless of whether or not they make it into the comic, they are something else in and of themselves. I think that appeals back to my fine arts training. I'm not looking at a comic page, I'm looking at an ink drawing.

NW: Would you get the same effect drawing a page as you do when doing each panel individually? Because it seems like there would be a certain sense of freedom doing each one separately.

G: It has enormous freedom, and you're given immortality. It's like a video game: you can do whatever you want to do. You can die and be born again. You can really wreck the page and make big errors and correct them very quickly without any real repercussions, whereas that could translate into days in the studio of redrawing pages or cutting and pasting. So it's great to have that. Now, having done a lot of M.A.R.S., and having done the two Matrix stories that way, it's hard to think about going back to that. I think what makes a good Sumi drawing is size, and being able to use your elbow rather than just your wrist. Having a nice large piece of paper and saying, “I've got to do a drawing of a guy fishing a slug out of the inside of his shoe.” That's a very direct motion, and I can spend my time worrying about how that drawing communicates that, rather than whether or not I can go outside the borders. Or, “Oh no! My favorite part of the drawing is outside the borders and I've got to white it out!” It prevents that kind of stuff. The drawings tend to get a little suffocated when I do the full panels.

NW: You've done two online comics for the Matrix website now. How did that work come about?

G: I actually got yanked into that by accident. I had just gotten to know Troy Nixey through a mutual friend, Jamie Tolagson, who had done a lot of Vertigo work. Troy had just finished his first story or was working on it for Spencer Lamm, and he was having trouble filling the thirteenth slot for series two. The deadline was coming up in three weeks, they didn't have anything, and they couldn't get in contact with the artist. They were really freaking out. So they felt like they had to get somebody else. Troy knew that I was working pretty quickly and he said, “Call up this guy. He's really fast.” I think that was 90% of what it was; you know. Spencer gave me a ring and I emailed him some drawings. He just felt like, “Alright. The artwork is good enough. That's fine. You've got three weeks. Can you come up with a story, draw it, color it, and letter it so that we can get it done?” I pretty much had free reign to come up with anything. Spencer turned out to be an amazing editor in terms of really being able to envision the possibilities of the narrative. That was such a fun project; it came out and got such a great response that lead into the Return of the Prodigal Son story, which has led into other things.

NW: So you're going to be doing more Matrix work?

G: Yes. I'm working on some other story lines that we're developing right now. I'm not quite sure whether it will be more online comics, be a printed book, or take on some other form. We're developing a whole other realm in the Net world that could eventually be a really fertile ground for developing a lot of other things. I've just recently done a lot of compendium sketches and descriptions of equipment, clothing, and creatures that would fit into the context of the world of The Matrix. It's really been great fun.

NW: I would love to see more of your work come out in print. The Sudden Gravity comics are almost impossible to find, and the only places to really see your work is on your website or the Matrix site. Does that bother you that you don't have much in print?

G: Yes it does. I went to SPX (Small Press Expo) and I was able to bring books to show all the pages from the comic, but there are no comic pages. I was able to make really nice quality 8.5” x 11” printouts to show what it is, but there's nothing to hand out. I don't really love web comics unless they're a shape more true to the screen size. The scrolling down thing keeps you from seeing the whole page. One of the great things about comics is when you turn that page you can see first the floor-plan composition, that's the first layer you encounter or even the two pages sitting next to each other. You just don't get that kind of flow on the web.

NW: Especially if you're waiting for a page to load.

G: I know, they're very much geared toward a higher broadband dial-up. I was on a dial-up before and it was ridiculous. I think comics are a fetish medium. It a very private, individual moment: sitting in the chair (or wherever), opening the book up, and going into that story. You really don't get that off the Internet. Happily, one of the reasons they're doing a standard comic shape and size for their web comics is with the intent that they are putting out a printed book. I'm really looking forward to that because then the comics will suddenly be real, regardless of whatever happens on the web. To me, It doesn't really seem like it's manifested itself until it's been printed. The readership is literally a million times more on the web, more than you'll ever get in print. I've got more people seeing this stuff on the Matrix site than I will probably ever have in anything else I do. But, it'll be a real victory for me when that book comes out. I'm not quite sure how it will come out, maybe as the Art of The Matrix was done; a hardcover or something. I know it's going to be about 200 pages, because they were able to throw in a bunch of stories.

NW: Is that supposed to coincide with the release of Matrix: Reloaded?

G: Yeah. They've got a lot of books. They'll be putting out a new Art of The Matrix that will be specific to ...Reloaded, and a bunch of other printed books that will have to do with that. They were really very smart about how they gear all these things to happen at a certain time. They're gearing the Matrix comics to come out, and it will be called Off-line. That will happen in the summer sometime between ...Reloaded, and when the third film comes out in November. They're really smart about how they handle the material being available at a time when people need so desperately to grab onto it. I think their intention is to put the Off-line book out in both book stores and comic shops, and they can use that tertiary bridge of the film to draw people into both areas.

NW: So have you been able to support yourself just doing Matrix work and commissions and your projects like the New York Transit murals?

G: Yeah. A lot of things outside of comics. Only in the last five months did I start working full-time as an illustrator in the studio. I had a job-- a caretaker for an old Victorian mansion in Brooklyn-- where we got a 3rd floor apartment for free as long as the building was maintained and renovated. So I was running that. It was great in that we weren't paying rent or utilities. I could spend a lot of time working on ...Prodigal Son and not have to worry about whether or not it's going to pay the rent. It provided that kind of a freedom. Things are different now, of course, now that I'm back out in the real world.

NW: Where else do you feel like you want to go? Are you going to be pursuing more mural and fine art work, or do you think comics are where you want to focus?

G: I don't know. I only had a week to do all ten of these mural paintings. It was really kind of fun doing that, and it brought me back to painting big on a wall again. Just painting and not worrying about the complexity of the storytelling. It made me realize that I really miss that. I think I am going to probably get back into painting a little bit more. I'll be doing some more Matrix stuff, and I've got a couple other stories that I would like to do. One story, Lane of Acres, that I'm currently developing, I'm simultaneously doing it as a comic and writing it as a novel. I think a lot of it's coming from the mural idea of breaking the art away from the story, and now it's the Lane of Acres book. I want to try to see about breaking the story away from the art, and really explain where language can take you. Really, just focusing on a linguistic or word-based medium, rather than the kind of hybridization that you get with comics. In a book, you have a lot more room to explore far more nuances in a very short amount of time. One page in a novel can describe what a comic takes ten pages to do. It's not the same thing as a comic. They each have their own qualities that are really great. It's really interesting that the story that I'm writing for the book is different than the one I'm writing to draw the comic. It's interesting how it needs to be told. They're almost two completely different versions because the rules that work for a comic don't work really for a novel. When you're not able to rely on that silent visual panel to express an emotion which, in the flow of a comic, has rhythm and can be really powerful depending on how it's placed and where it's located. That kind of iconography doesn't exist in novel writing in the same way. So it's been interesting to approach the same story from two different points of view, using two entirely different tools. I don't really know where it's going to go from there. Whether or not the novel will be any good or if there's a future in that. I would certainly like to do more comics.

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