Crazy, Sexy, Cool: Jim Rugg’s and Brian Maruca’s Afrodisiac

Posted by on June 30th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

AdHouse; 96 pp., $14.95; Hardcover, Color; ISBN: 978-1-9352330-6-0

On the back cover of this book—at dead center—you see a well-built, large black man with a huge mushroom-shaped afro.  Surrounding him on this cover are illustrations of a giant bug, a UFO, God, Dracula, the devil, a lion, a preacher and Hercules, not to mention several “foxy” women.  This montage is overlaid with an embossed silhouette of a nude woman, a shout-out to the infamous trucker mud flap so popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  The back cover summarizes the book’s multiple plots and functions similarly to a mise-en-abyme, a postmodern technique of using an art piece within another piece of art to provide commentary for the larger work’s structure and purpose.  Indeed, this cover represents the beautiful chaos of Afrodisiac.

Jim Rugg is the artist for The Plain Janes series (published through the extinct Minx imprint of DC Comics), which concentrated on the rejuvenating and liberating power of art for young adult women.  He has collaborated with Brian Maruca in a previous graphic novel entitled Street Angel, which chronicles the adventures of a skater/ninja girl as she fights her way through the mean streets of Wilkesborough.  Afrodisiac, a spin-off, shares the setting and plot of the aforementioned book.  Yet Afrodisiac is no sequel, as it is no usual story.

Rugg, in an interview with Sean T. Collins over at the Marvel website, explains his admiration for the “weird ’70s Marvel characters like Brother Voodoo, Satanna, Morbius, ROM, Power Man and Iron Fist.”  This collection of various “oddballs” (or misfits, to be more endearing), informs the style and characterization of Afrodisiac.  Indeed, Rugg appears to be following his own interpretation of the earlier Marvel generation:  “Those characters are so transparently a marketing grab, yet the creators seem earnest in their effort and execution, for the most part.  There’s a sense of anything might happen.  You can almost see the duct tape holding these concepts together.”  Within his book, Rugg leaves the duct tape visible through his disjointed and disconnected collection of outrageous stories.

The book is divided into nine vignettes, ranging in genre from pulp comic, to B-movie (such as Afrodisiac versus Dracula, Afrodisiac versus a massive mutant ant, and Afrodisiac versus Hercules), to highly stylized avant-garde.  Each of the stories collected is completely different in plot and drawing style.  For instance, “Afrodisiac vs. Dracula:  Out for Blood, Sucker” is treated with a grainy finish: each panel is made to look weathered and old.  This effect contrasts nicely with the other polished, digitally clear stories in the collection.  Moreover, Rugg and Maruca’s choice to use grainy art helps to temper the violence in the story with humor.  In this story, as Dracula lunges out of window to attack Afrodisiac, he gets punched through the skull, or as the caption notes, “With one punch, the world’s greatest street fighter knocks Dracula’s brain out.”  In the accompanying image, we see Afrodisiac’s fist in the center of the panel, blasting out of the center of Dracula’s skull.  The sound effect “Smack”—like a re­-embodiment of a Dave Chappelle (a la Rick James) joke—is shown drifting letter-by-letter in the panel, indicating Afrodisiac’s superhuman strength, skill and general badass-ness.

My personal favorite vignette in the collection is “She Came from Venus.”  This story is an homage to Alan Moore’s alternate reality in Watchmen, where Richard Nixon never resigned and withdrew from Vietnam.  In Rugg and Maruca’s story, Nixon (who used to be Afrodisiac’s professional wrestling tag-team partner in the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Association) has fallen in love with the intergalactic, blue-skinned Princess Vixena.   She has come to Earth to betray Nixon and lead an invasion.  She has the ability to blind and control men’s minds, except for Afrodisiac’s, who uses his powers to control her.  She cannot resist him and succumbs to him, finally admitting to our hero, “Your . . . oh . . . oh my . . . I have traveled the galaxy . . . never have I felt such longing . . . savage . . .!”  In the next panel, she kisses Afrodisiac and becomes his pawn, helping him to counterattack Nixon, who in distress retreats and gives up his plan to defeat Afrodisiac (for now).

Beyond the sheer fun of this book, Afrodisiac offers a study in comic form and narrative strategies.  Some stories are cartoony and retro (as in “Afrodisiac in Shock-a-con!”—which uses newsprint pointillism to place this story in an old-fashioned context and history) while others are artistically sophisticated and avant-garde (as in “Death Comes for the Afrodisiac!”—which uses a technique of panel repetition (the first five are identical) but captions change to develop the inevitable deathly fate of our hero.  It is a pastiche of Superman or Batman, except that Afrodisiac actually meets a sexy-as-hell Death, whom he impregnates).

Figure 1

For me, the most complete and impressive story in the collection is the noir piece “Sting! Stang! Stud!”  Drawn realistically, in a style reminiscent of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s City of  Glass, this story deviates from the typical detective plot.  Instead of the sleuth as hero, Afrodisiac has been deployed to the hideout of a beautiful rogue CIA agent who has been hired by the police to capture him.  In an effort to capture the seedy underworld of Wilkesborough, the artist colors the story in a bright yellow with black detailing.  Beyond the fact that it’s eye-catching, this coloring revises the classic black-and-white noir colors to correspond to the story’s plot twist and its anti-hero. Though Afrodisiac  is there to arrest this rogue agent, his powers of love and deduction turn this sting around against the police who have trapped him.  In the end, Jones joins his vigilante team at his Afroca nightclub/headquarters.

Indeed, it is the last spin of converting women to positions of sexy, beautiful, yet powerful roles that makes Afrodisiac a valuable read for others.  On the surface, it would appear that this book is misognostic and misrepresents women as visual lust-fuel: buxom, partially nude images.  However, this book shows an empowering perspective of women, at least as empowering a one that can be found in a comic written and illustrated by men.  In each story, women become power brokers and central to each plot.  Although at times Afrodisiac catalyzes some of these women into heroines, he defers to them to save the planet (as Vixena does) or rescue the world of Wilkesborough (as others do).  Rugg and Maruca remind the reader of this purpose through the book’s layout, which contains in the middle of the book as two-page centerfold of Afrodisiac surrounded by his rides, his sidekick dog and all the foxy superwomen within his universe and our reading experience.

In the South, we have a word that summarizes Afrodisiac perfectly:  bodacious.  This book is amazing, fun and impressive.  It takes street smarts to college by offering thought-provoking styles and art.  The book also plays with the genre of blaxploitation and retro-’70s style pop culture to a new level of enrichment and entertainment.  This reviewer completely endorses everyone to get his/her fly ride “pimped” out and take a trip to Wilkesborough and shoot out the lip with Afrodisiac.

all images ©2009 Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca

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