Greg Ruth’s dry-brush ink drawing, dense shadows, and limited color palette creates images that appear both dream-like and immediate, as if you are just barely pulling a moment into full clarity before it slips into the next.
Greg must also be a man that never sleeps: besides the comic work for which he is arguably best known for, he works in children’s books, mainstream illustration, animation, and writes.
This week, it was announced that Freaks of the Heartland, by Greg Ruth and Steven Niles, will be a movie directed by David Gordon Green. So I asked him…
What are you most excited to see in the movie?
Well you know these days you could throw a rock and hit a superhero comics-to-film thing, so I’m especially happy to see a comic adapted into a film from a more under-represented area of our medium. There’s so many other kinds of stories to tell, so I’m gratified to be seeing that expressed. Right now I’m just very curious to see the transformation of the story. It’s not going to be the book exactly. Film is a different medium entirely, and so things will have to be adapted to that change. That part I always find really fascinating—the what-gets-left-out and what-we-keep of things. I think that’s what I liked most about doing the Goosebumps story. Not so much the story itself but the exercise of translating it from one medium to another. I think you really get a sense of the story’s soul that way, and I’m very much excited to see what shakes out for Freaks from this process. I’m also excited by the prospect of bringing more attention to the originating book—of putting it into the hands of readers who might otherwise miss it.
What are you most worried about?
It’s a good question. I think my only real concerns right now at this extremely early stage come from the whole movie-making business and committee process. If this is a smaller production in terms of price and scale, then I think you get less of that, and it makes for a more solid vision later. There’s always a trade-off when money comes into it. So my concerns are mainly around that. I actually have far fewer worries about this project than even I would expect myself to. I think David is a really interesting choice from what I’ve seen in George Washington, and Undertow. He’ll come at this, I suspect, not from within the genre of horror films, but from a different place—and I think that can only be an asset. Freaks of the Heartland is about our world, and about inserting the “other” into our world and wrestling with the consequences of that. What that means for them, what that says about us, and so on. If this thing does come together at its end, I’ll be interested to see David’s approach to that. I think so far, from what little I know of it all, I am very much encouraged so far.
Do you remember the first time you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t know if it was really a light-bulb-over-the-head kind of moment for me. I always drew and made things since I was a little kid, so it was always in me. I guess it was in high school that I realized this was really something I could do for a living. But still I imagine it’s sort of like being gay, I suppose—if you are, you always were, and then it’s just about how long it takes to realize who you are. I don’t really think of myself as a conscious, self-aware human until I was 17 years old, you know. Before that I was just doing my thing on autopilot. There were moments of self realization, but they were pretty fleeting. I was such an oddball growing up in Texas, that I spent most of the time just trying to fit in to it all, even though I never much cared for it. I was always pretty capable at drawing and painting—it came naturally so I didn’t give it much credit, really. This came to head at the end of my sophomore year in high school, at my year end portfolio review. I had been going to a performing and visual arts public school in Houston and at the end of each term, you had to go before the whole of your teachers and the administrator and put out your portfolio. They could see I was just lazy and resting on my talents rather than pushing and honing them, so they all, one at a time, eviscerated me. It was a disaster. I think it went on for like an hour and a half, and I remember just sort of shaking afterwards. They basically threw me out of the school, and I spent the whole summer having nightmares each evening about having to go to my zone school. It was a pretty dark time. Later after begging my way back in on probation—and I mean begging—I found that this was their whole plan all along. So the realization that I was artist, that I wanted to be one came from that. It was a life saving moment for me. It was my way out, you know. If I hadn’t come to that or followed that I don’t want to think about where I’d be today. Pretty miserable, I imagine.
What was the hardest part about establishing yourself in the field?
I think it was committing myself to it, and getting the discipline to show up for it. Comics are all about discipline. There’s so many more things you have to coordinate to make a comics story function, you have to be really organized about it when you’re putting it together. Plus coordinating checks and payments and the like so that you’re not without food money for a three week stretch can be tricky and harrowing. But above all that mundane stuff, just trusting my own vision for the kind of comics I want to do, and believing in myself enough to go forward with it is an ongoing task. It really is an act of hubris to stand up above the throngs and state that you know what’s best and are worth investing in and taking a chance on. I’m not much good at self-promotion, so this kind of thing has been tough to grapple with. But you gotta do it. You gotta risk seeming like a bloviating ass, or an overly earnest goofball in this business if you expect the gatekeepers to take notice. Find your weak points and work ’em until they’re strong.
First break in the business?
My first break… I think it was Lou Stathis at Vertigo returning my unsolicited art-faxes. That really made me feel like I wasn’t crazy and had a decent shot at this. It was with him that I developed Sudden Gravity, my first comics effort of any length beyond 5 pages. I think the fact that he was so responsive and encouraging of a project of my own, however weird and hard to publish it may have been, really filled me a degree of self confidence that I build on today. But there were other moments that lurched me forward—those Factoid Books from Paradox Press, being brought in at the last minute to fill in for Dave Lapham for the Matrix Comics, getting a rave review from none other than Alan Moore himself for a two page story I did for one of those post-9/11 benefit comics that led me to getting a job doing Freaks of the Heartland… There’s always those moments that pop up and you have to grab.
You work in so many different arenas—film, comics, illustration—do you separate them in your mind or do they all help inform each other.
Hmmm…. it’s a good question. I think they bleed over into each other a lot. I had to do the last issue of Freaks of the Heartland simultaneously with the first issue of Conan, and that was pretty hellish. And I think it hurt Conan a good deal—the requirements visually of Freaks were not those of Conan, and the latter suffered the former a good deal. It took a bit of time to really be able to find it properly. So I have trouble switching gears, I think—but I’ve found it’s mostly when there’s two projects of the same medium. I don’t think it was ever really a problem between say, the film stuff and the comics, or the comics and the children’s books, and so on. But when there’s two separate comics projects… that’s big trouble. I found I had to put off one book I’ve been working on for a few years in order to do this DC project I’m doing now in order to keep them both free from that. Even though I’m also finishing up this children’s book, there doesn’t seem to be much suffering between each other. I don’t know why that is, but I’m glad for it. I suppose I’m not really much of a multi-tasker. I sort of have to turn one off to do the other. But it’s not always easy to pull that off—some days I wake up in a mood that runs counter to the project I’m supposed to address that day. Being able to keep the schedules organized for them is essential so that I can indulge that tendency—otherwise I spend the day banging my head against the wall trying to force an inspiration that ain’t there.
Do you have a set image in your mind when you first start sketching or do you start out abstractly and let the process of doodling take over?
It depends upon the nature of why I’m sitting down to draw. For the 52 Weeks thing, it really is a stream of consciousness thing. Sometimes I have a picture in my head, but it never looks like on paper what I imagined it to be—took a long time to get over that disconnect and just go with it. For say a comic, it’s usually pretty specific. It has to be, you know. Each image is a strand in the rope line, and if it doesn’t tell you something new and push the story forward, you can derail the whole enterprise, and break the magic of what’s happening when it works. But I don’t sketch too much—if there’s a tough image or a facial expression I’m not getting I’ll draw it a few times to nail it down, but usually I like to just jump in with both feet. I had to do a lot of prelim work for Conan though—sword and sorcery stuff just isn’t my area, so it took a good deal of background work to make it look authentic and purposeful.
You recently started a series of self assigned drawings called the 52 Weeks Project. With all of your other deadlines, what inspired you to take this on?
Well, you know as an artist, you’re kind of encouraged to indulge your desires bit more than the rest of the world, but when you make your art your means of paying the bills, that kind of thing doesn’t always work out. It’s not like I’m suffering tremendously under the yoke of having to draw other people’s notions, or that I’m hacking out mindless stuff for a buck—I’ve been really fortunate to have avoided a good deal of those scenarios, and paint and draw what inspires me, but the demand to make the bills does factor in anyway. 52 Weeks is a response to that. It serves no purpose at all, really, other than to require me to make a drawing that doesn’t necessarily have a place to go. Doing this exercise publicly, and even selling the drawings at half their normal rate both forces me to keep up with it, and also to not take it so seriously… which I do for most everything else. They’re literally for the fun of it, and it’s been really wonderful. But the real surprise has been the down-ballot effect on the other projects. Even those that I truly love doing can get tiring after a while, and you know, I can get lost in the thing and despair a bit. This project just yanks me back up to the surface every week, and recharge. I’ve actually been far more eager and happy to sit down with the day-today work now because of it. Sort of like having a artistic version of working for the weekend. Plus the responses have been really wonderful and interesting. It’s funny what kinds of reactions certain images trigger in people.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing and drawing the Woodland Chronicles Book 1: The Lost Boy, for Scholastic, which is really taking so much longer than I ever wanted it to, but I think in the end, it’ll be a better book for it. A children’s picture book called The Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, to be immediately followed by my own children’s picture book, The Red Scarf. And I’m writing and drawing an eight issue series for DC, which is so much fun I can’t believe it. The 52 weeks Project and also a similar art-for-art’s-sake idea with Jason Shawn Alexander where one of us makes a piece and the other responds to it with another piece and so on… I’m really excited about that.
To be honest both the Woodland Chronicle and the current thing I’m doing for DC are dream projects…. but that’s a cowardly answer, so… I always had this dream to make a graphic novel adaptation of The Innocents. I would love to draw a book with Cormac McCarthy. Hell, I’d even adapt one. That goes for Kurosawa too—Seven Samurai especially. But the Innocents thing has been on my mind for years. There’s also a bio-comic I want to do that looks at the holocaust through the life of Leni Reifenstahl that I’ve been burning to get to. So little time though… but the Innocents would make me drop everything, rent a cabin in the mountains and not come down until it was done. That’d be amazing.
Do you have to like the book/comic/movie to be excited about the project?
Absolutely. No question. If I don’t find something that makes me excited about doing it, I don’t do it. Plain and simple. I’ve had a number of near-misses, though. You know a big named project comes along that is just horrible, but there’s nothing else coming and the mortgage is due and the kids need food and I start to think about taking it out of fealty to my family. You know the responsible choice. But when I don’t, as scary as those times are, that decision has always been somehow rewarded by another project that come along that is exciting. It’s happened nearly every time this choice is made, and whatever that all means I’m really grateful to whatever angels or devils are responsible for this. It’s encouraged me to trust myself, and listen to that inner voice, without which I’d be completely lost. I think Conan was the closest to the edge for me in that regard. I confess I’ve never been particularly fond of the character, and am by no means a Howard fan at all, and it was so off base from where I come from… it just scared me to death. I was pretty much terrified the whole time I was doing it actually! But it wasn’t until Scott Allie got me to call Kurt and talk about the project with him that it became clearer. Just chatting with Kurt about the ideas behind it, what he wanted to do, and my doing the same brought it home. We just clicked right there I think.
So I would say you have to be excited—you can’t pretend to be enthusiastic or interested in what you’re doing on paper. You may be able to bluff it away in a conversation, but when it comes down to sitting alone with the thing and engaging it, it’s impossible. Especially for comics which take so long to do and are so exhausting. It’s just far too much labor and time if it’s not something that strikes your fancy.
Favorite painting you did in the past year?
Oh, I can’t say… I mean I know which one it is, but it’s not out yet and I’m not supposed to talk about it. That said I think this favorite painting choice changes each month.I did really like the cover I did for the Outlaw Territory anthology, though. That’s one of those that kind of came in a flash and was done within a single day. Those moments are pure gold, and perhaps because they emerge from the ether so quickly, there’s little time for me to burden it with the hang-ups and self-recriminations I usually torture myself with.
What painting do you wish you painted?
Wow… ummm… there’s so many. I’m a tremendously jealous person, you know. But just to name one… Francis Bacon’s “Triptych” from 1973 is one I wished I had done. It’s just sublime in every respect. It’s perfect.
John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Eduoard and Marie-Louise Pailleron” is another. I recently got to see this in person at the Clark Museum here in Massachusetts, and it was a dream come true. It’s such a haunting, weird, dangerous image because all of the subtext is just brimming near the edge of what would otherwise be a typical cheerful portrait study. That little girl’s stare is piercing and powerful.
A career highlight?
Oh man, I don’t know. There’s been a lot of those moments. Getting Alan Moore to pick my piece out from that 9/11 anthology was certainly one of them. The Prince video, too—getting to work on that with everyone was pure fabulous. It was a tremendous amount of work, but was such a fun thing to do. Plus you, know… it’s Prince. That guy’s amazing. Having John Landis come up at a con and tell me how much he loved Freaks of the Heartland was pretty astonishing. Oh and standing at Allen Spiegel’s booth a few years ago in San Diego, next to Kent Williams, Dave McKean and Jon Muth… that was a real moment for me. I mean, those guys were who made me want to do comics in the first place. Incredible.
How do you balance personal time with work?
I don’t so it so well, to be honest. I mean I do better now than I used to, but left to my own devices, I’d go into my studio and rarely come out at all—they’d find me with a Rip Van Winkle beard, dead of starvation in my basement studio if it wasn’t for having to come up and be a decent husband and father. So I schedule the studio now like one would for any normal work day.
Do you have a five year plan or do you just take each job as it comes?
I don’t know about a five year plan… my agent and friend (fragent?), Allen Spiegel, claims to have one for me but he’s keeping it to himself. But the previous ten years have all been about getting to where I am today. Writing and drawing my own books, being able to choose projects that inspire me. If I can maintain that from here forward it’d be a miracle life I think. I think getting to a more stable place financially would be good—it’s pretty exhausting chasing after checks like I do now, and I can’t imagine having to do it forever… but I suppose the alternative of getting an office job or something for me would be worse, so I suppose I’ll knuckle up and do it if it must be done. I just want to have enough time in this life to get to at least half of the stories and images I want to do before it’s over. Life is short and comics take too long!
How do you feel your schooling prepared you for real life?
Not much! I wish it had, you know, but it didn’t. They taught us all about art history, and technique and exploring our visions, but not once did we ever get a class about how to get into a gallery, or make a book come together, or find a publisher, or manage your business. Because as a self-employed artist of any kind that’s exactly what you are. Unless you have some kind of big trust fund, you have to sort out the mechanics of running your business, or else you’ll sink. I had to figure that all out by my self. It helped me develop a community of creatives that I still hold dear to this day, and it helped me work on my own vision, but nothing practical. Not really.
Advice to a young illustrator?
Draw everyday, draw anything and everything that inspires you to imagine it in your head. Watch movies, read books, engage the creative world in all its aspects—don’t just read comics if you’re into comics, or listen only to rock if you want to be in a band. It’s all just human responses and expressions of a creative impulse that comes from somewhere else, and it all relates to itself if you pay close enough attention to let it. So make sure to listen up and seek it out. It’s the duty of an artist to expose yourself to everything you can in the world. Shy away from nothing, be it offensive and disturbing, or sickly sweet or religious or whatever. Each work of art, in whatever form contains within it a kernel of magic and truth, and If you can’t uncover that in the work of another, you’ll never be able to find it within yourself.
I also think you should never do a job that isn’t right for you to do. You’ll know it when it comes to you—you’ll get this sick, vertigo feeling in your stomach when you think about taking it on. Listen to that, for the sake of your very soul, you have to pay attention to that response. Otherwise you’ll find yourself years down the road, grouchy and angry and frustrated with little or no love for the medium that brought you there.
Don’t take any single project you’re doing too seriously. It doesn’t have to be the end all be all of your artistic career, and chances are if you approach it that way, your sure to guarantee its opposite. Do your best and get it out of the way to make room for the next one.
Always make your deadlines—come hell or high water. I can attribute each step in my short career to originating in the “Greg’s the go-to guy when we’re up against the wall” thought. The dirty little secret in this business is it’s all about the deadlines first. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you can’t get it in on time. I’m not saying you want to hack out your work all for the sake of speed, but speed is really important. Get organized with your working practices, avoid studio distractions and be decisive about what you want to do and what you can do in the time allotted. There are hundreds of folks out there with ten times that talent and ability that I have that can’t get work because they can’t meet a deadline. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. I mean it.