by Dre Grigoropol
New York City based cartoonist Jess Ruliffson presented her collection of comics for her upcoming graphic novel at The Drawing Center in Soho on February 13th 2013. Though her comics are biographical, they are not about her own life. She documents the real stories of people who have survived life-threatening situations and has interviewed hurricane survivors, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and soldiers who are still enlisted. At The Drawing Center, she presented her accumulated work, which has been associated with the Joe Bonham Project since 2010. This project involved Ruliffson visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed Military Medical Center and documenting their stories in comics form.
Ruliffson works in a genre of comics-journalism, which isn’t as popular as other varieties like autobiographical comics. That is probably because her work focuses on topics that are serious and often tragic. This type of work gives reader a rare insight of what stories these people have to share.
Ruliffson kindly agreed to answer some questions for The Beat about what inspires her work.
Dre Grigoropol: What gave you the idea to write comics about veterans?
Jess Ruliffson: I read a great book by Sebastian Junger called War. He and the late war photographer Tim Hetherington also created the documentary Restrepo––I highly recommend them both––they are about time they spent at a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. There’s a bunch of young men living day to day and doing their jobs as soldiers, and it’s crazy. The thing that struck me about both pieces was that they were pretty objective and still so powerful. Junger and Hetherington went there and just reported what was going on without much of a slant. I never read nonfiction like that before. It’s surreal that there are people that do this stuff. It just woke me up. I didn’t know what to write about when I tried to make comics before, and it seemed like a good way to work, by listening to other people tell stories.
DG: Where do you go to find the people you interview?
JR: I asked friends-of-friends and just started being more inquisitive. Some of the veterans are friends from high school, but many are new acquaintances. I met one veteran in the School of Visual Arts silkscreen lab. The first person I interviewed for the project, I heard him in an interview on my banjo teacher’s podcast, Down Home Radio Show. He’s a gifted storyteller and I knew as soon as I heard him I had to meet him. By luck, he was playing at the Brooklyn Folk Festival a few months after I had the idea, so I asked my banjo teacher to introduce us. He ended up being a really great guy. I’ve been recently working with veterans participating in the NYU Veteran Writer’s Workshop, I met them through Peter Catapano. He was a panelist at the Joe Bonham Project opening in Washington D.C., and invited me to a reading these writers were putting on later that week. So, some of it is luck, but a lot of it is just putting yourself out there and seeing what you get.
DG: How do you curate what goes in the comic?
JR: I usually gather interviews via email or transcribe audio recordings. Once I have all that material, I go through and highlight things that seem very visual or very interesting ideas, or some main theme that keeps recurring. Then I figure out how to put those interesting parts together in a narrative arc that seems somewhat chronological. I do my best to quote directly and let the oral histories speak for themselves.
DG: Why is sharing the stories of veterans important to you?
JR: I was one of those people who thought I was anti-war, and then I realized I was just apathetic, which isn’t the same thing. Once I read War, I really wanted to do something. It just all of a sudden seemed really important to me. I decided to go to art school, and at the same time many of my peers decided to fight in wars. I realized that just because I wasn’t participating didn’t mean the wars didn’t affect me. I felt responsible and convicted after ignoring it for so long. It also seemed that a lot of these stories weren’t making the news. A lot of veterans are activists, musicians, writers, and artists, and not the one-dimensional, pro-gun, all brawn/no brains combination I had come to think was requisite of veterans.
DG: Did you foresee the path of comics journalism as the path you would take in the past? Or did it happen haphazardly?
JR: I didn’t know what comics journalism was until I started making comics. I read Josh Neufeld’s A.D. a few years ago, which I found so thoughtful and kind. It really made me feel good that a New Yorker cared about my home and wanted to report about it. I moved to NYC from Biloxi, Mississippi the day the hurricane hit in 2005, and it felt like no one really understood the devastation. I think when people take an interest in other people’s stories, that’s when good journalism happens. I didn’t see myself as a journalist until recently, because I’m not formally trained. I guess I started making these pieces and then hearing about other creators making nonfiction comics. I got in touch with Josh Kramer who edits The Cartoon Picayune and Erin Polgreen, who edits Symbolia, and have met a lot of nonfiction comics creators through those outlets. It’s been cool discovering that the community is much larger than I ever thought, and that lots of my comics peers are excited about this stuff. I feel like I showed up to the party at the right time!
DG: Are there any comics that are in the category of comics journalism that you would recommend?
JR: I love Joe Sacco but have never read an entire book of his, I always check them out from the library and just look at the pictures. He’s incredible. I think there’s a lot to learn by just looking at the pictures. I tell all of my writer friends to read David Mazzucchelli’s comic adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, it’s really abstract and really smart, though fiction and non-comics journalism. I like Guy Delisle’s Pyongang, it’s surprisingly funny.
DG: Can you tell us a little about your future comics projects?
JR: I just wrapped up a piece for Columbia University, about their duPont-Columbia Awards ceremony, which is the highest honor of broadcast journalism. I attended this year’s ceremony and created a short nonfiction comic piece about it for their website. It was a lot of fun and so inspiring. I’m also working on short, one-page veteran stories right now, as well as a longer piece for Symbolia Magazine. I want to make shorter, funny pieces. I’ve been collecting funny things my friends say. I also had an idea of a comic series where I go on dates with Jesus and he gives me advice about guys. I’ll let you know how it goes, or you can read my blog: callingthedog.blogspot.com.
Jess Ruliffison’s graphic novel is planned to debut in 2014. Keep tabs on this interesting and dedicated artist by visiting her site: jessruliffson.com.
[Dre Grigoropol is an indie cartoonist and blogger. Her work can be viewed at www.dretime.org. Follow her on Twitter at @dretimecomics. Photos by Dre Grigoropol Photographs by James Tehero and Dre Grigoropol Images via Jess Ruliffson]
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.