"The Dude" on the Importance of Art Over Commerce
Conducted by Chris Knowles
Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson
From Comic Book Artist #8
Steve "The Dude" Rude immediately came to the attention of comics art fans with the arrival of his (and writer Mike Baron's) Nexus in 1981. The artist's work is confident, the storytelling compelling, and the style reminiscent of Russ Manning's art, and the artist's contribution to the series has made Nexus one of the more successful independent projects to survive the '80s. Currently working for Marvel Comics, the artist has also recently completed work on the cover of this issue of CBA, to which we are thankful. Steve was interviewed by telephone in January 2000, and he copyedited the transcript.
COMIC BOOK ARTIST: Besides Kirby, what other comic artists did you like as a child?
STEVE RUDE: I loved Gene Colan's "Iron Man." When Iron Man would fight the Mandarin, those were just the greatest stories. These were the things, the forms like this sketch in my head, that would eventually form what I think about life. It's a good thing it happens in adolescence, because the lessons that those comic books were teaching us were of... there were good guys and there were bad guys, and if a bad guy had done something to anyone—yourself, your girlfriend, your friend, anyone—you'd go after them.
STEVE: Yeah, justice, and I think to this day that's a very powerful way that I view life. You have to stand up to bad guys. I'm taking karate lessons now for that reason.
Steve worked out the design for the cover painting of the prestige-format one shot, The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman in his sketchbook. Courtesy of Steve Rude. The Hulk ©2000 Marvel Characters, Inc. Superman ©2000 DC Comics. Art ©2000 Steve Rude.
CBA: So, comic books helped color your view of the world, gave you a sense of morality?
STEVE: In fact, right now, I'm reading the story I talked about so much in my Jack Kirby Collector interview, the Thor/Hercules battle. It works on so many levels that it basically brought me to the conclusion one day that comic books are the Greek myths of 20th Century society. These are the timeless stories that mankind has put in print, or written about, or orated for as long as there've been human beings on the planet, and it makes you wonder where this comes from. Why all these cultures have these things in common with themselves about right and wrong, or how the world began, and who controlled it—basically, our view of ourselves in the larger picture of what everything is supposed to mean. Knowing the foundation of right and wrong. Building not destroying.
CBA: Let's talk about when you first started drawing. When was that, when did you first start taking drawing seriously, and when do you first think you wanted to become a professional cartoonist? You wanted to do what people like Gene Colan and Jack Kirby were doing.
STEVE: I decided in high school, around 1974. When I graduated in '75, that was the year I was just so hardcore into Kirby and the Fourth World books, actually having to get all the issues that I'd missed, because there was a period when I was just not reading comics.
CBA: The traditional period, the adolescent period.
STEVE: That was the thing I'd go through, and when I became aware that I'd missed all this history, I was curious about it. I actually thought back then there's no way this Jack Kirby guy I remembered from the '60s could still be drawing comics. When you're a kid, four years is like a lifetime! Now, you can do that over a cup of coffee, four years.
CBA: It seems time has definitely accelerated.
STEVE: Yeah, it's a pretty funny thing. So, that's when I decided comic books would be my path in life. Paul Gulacy was doing Master of Kung Fu, the greatest work he's ever done, and it's just an evolutionary path of seeing the great things people were doing, getting so excited, and having an aptitude for drawing to begin with, and nothing could've ever excited me in life more than comic books.
CBA: Were you very shy in high school?
STEVE: I was very introverted, and yet, I felt this weird energy about me. This very strange emotional energy that developed from reading comic books. I would read these stories, and the show Kung Fu was on at the time, in 1972 and '73, and when these things would come on—always seemingly at just the right time in my life—they would propel me into this fanatic emotional maelstrom of inspiration and excitement, and these were the things that kept me going in life. High school is traditionally a very confusing stage for people, and God knows it was for me, because I had all these powerful emotions, and I just remember feeling things very strongly. I was always like that as a kid. I was very sensitive when I saw animals getting hurt, and would cry my eyes out for weeks sometimes, and so I would look to the culture I was living in—comic books, movies, TV shows—to supply me with answers that wouldn't come from friends who were much more stupid than I was. [laughter] Their thing was getting drunk and stuff, and that was never something I ever felt compelled to want to do with my life. I never went through a phase like that, with drinking or drugs or anything like that—but I needed other things in my life, like when Bruce Lee came along in '72, I can't tell you what he did to my life, he was a real-life superhero to me. I continued my incredible admiration relationship with Bruce Lee to this day. I find a kindred spirit in the guy, a guy who wanted to risk anything in life to pursue his dream.
CBA: When did you start painting?
STEVE: I never did a single painting until I actually got into college, and I was frustrated. I wanted to learn how to do it, and Frazetta was really big at the time, and we all wanted to paint like him. I never touched paint until I got into college, and the teachers were terrible there, they didn't know anything about how to teach anybody to paint. I remembered a classic moment where this one teacher in charge of the painting department came up to me and said—I was in the middle of an oil painting—and he said, "How does it feel, Steve?" I said, "Okay, I guess." He said, "Well, keep going." That was the extent of my entire so-called "art school teachers" who were teaching how to paint at that particular school.
CBA: The recruiters you spoke to were contemptuous about illustration?
STEVE: I must bring this up, that's one of the things I'm most proud of my own character. I never give a rat's ass what those people would say to me. I just looked at them with contempt, "You're clueless, Jack."
CBA: Was it true you were living at the YMCA?
STEVE: Yeah, I was over at the Y, and I had a couple of other places I was living at in the first year I'd moved down there, but I remember one of the lowest points of my life. I was walking around barefoot on campus with my sketchbook, and I stepped on this piece of glass, and my foot got infected. I started getting this incredible pain in my foot, and the campus hospitals wouldn't take me because I wasn't a student, and I thought I was going to die of gangrene or something, and all I could do is sit there with my foot in this tub with Epsom Salts, with my sketchbook, drawing from comic books, and for the first time in my life, I thought, "Am I ever going to make it? Is my dream ever going to really happen? It's going to take me forever to get as good as these guys!" I just thought, "I don't know if I can do this or not." There's always these moments, to make the story good, where you don't know if you can pull it off or not. Bruce Lee went through that; God, the guy hurt his back so bad it messed him up for his whole life. A guy with his emotional temperament spending six months in the hospital? I mean, it's unthinkable! It's like trying to tell a bird not to fly for six months.
CBA: When did you hit your breakthrough? When did you really start to come into your own?
STEVE: Probably about now. [laughter] Actually, the funniest thing is, I get so bored out of my mind talking about this historical crap, because everybody does that in interviews and all, but I'm so excited since I'm now 43 years old and I can't help but recall that Kirby was in his mid-40s when, in 1966, he was doing his greatest of all work. He was always doing great work. That I kind of timed it to that career point where you either forge ahead, and become truly your own man in charge of your art, or you falter and just give up and go back to some worthless day job.
CBA: Mike Baron says when he met you on the steps of the Madison Area Technical College....
STEVE: Actually, it was the student campus, the steps of the Memorial Union, in Madison, Wisconsin.
CBA: Okay—but he said when he saw your work, it made him give up! [laughs]
STEVE: That's been the joke with me and Baron all these years, I actually talked him into giving me some of his art books when I first met him, and one of them was the Loomis book, and it said... [laughs] here, I'll read it for you, I'll give you the exact quote, this made me laugh... First of all, Baron's name is on the top of the book here, because he owned it, and when I asked him to inscribe it to me, he continued it from the name "Mike Baron," and it says, "Mike Baron bought this book at the Harvard Co-Op in 1975 in the mistaken belief that he could turn himself into an artist through hard work and practice, however..."—this is classic Baron—"...in 1979, he met Steve Rude, and discovered a mundane, but profound truth: If God had wanted me to draw, he would not have introduced me to Steve Rude." [laughter] "Merry Christmas, 1981."
Rare example of a non-painted Nexus cover by The Dude. Courtesy of Alex Wald. ©2000 Mike Baron and Steve Rude.
CBA: You're still living in the Y at this point?
STEVE: Oh, yeah. I went through it all. I was on food stamps for a long time, the whole Summer.
CBA: But you were dedicated.
STEVE: Frankly, I didn't know what else to do with my life! I had this mission that I had to do, and even though 90% of the time I was compelled to work at it all the time, it still doesn't stop a guy who's only moderately talented—I was certainly no prodigy, like I think Alex Ross is—from having doubts about, "How can I do this?" I'd go to Marvel, I would fly there, spend every cent I made in my day jobs moving baskets of paper from one end of the room to the other, and I'd go there to New York, and I'd get my critiques from people... I remember Jim Shooter gave me a great critique on my work one time, he told me to go back to basics—but I wasn't interested in basics, I was interested in flash. Basics are something you learn retroactively.
CBA: So Nexus debuts, your work is not quite developed in the black-&-white stuff, but you're doing all the work yourself, inking, and doing a lot of work with shading film.
STEVE: Yeah, I did the lettering on the first issue, everything, painted the front and back covers, and all that.
CBA: Did you feel like you'd arrived at that point?
STEVE: Did I feel like I arrived? No. But I can tell you I was extremely grateful I was actually being published in a real comic book. I didn't know what meeting Mike Baron would do for my life, because what we created with Nexus was all the timeless things that were inside of me, my image for nature, and not realizing the extent of where it would take me at the time. I had no idea where this thing was going to lead to, and what it would do to my life.
CBA: Every good artist has a large group of influences that are sometimes at odds with each other, and a synthesist is somebody who can put it all together, and that's the way I felt when I was reading that book, and it wasn't just the art, it was also the writing and the beautiful production values, as well. It seemed like such a classic book when it first hit the stands. It was just this incredible leap from the last issue of the black-&-white book to the first issue of the color book. Was that just a function of consistently putting the work down? That, to me, would be the first of your breakthroughs.
STEVE: Well, I've asked myself because people have asked me that so often. I think it's really exciting to see an artist who starts out being pretty mediocre in many ways, and then suddenly, there's this, "Oh my God, what happened to this guy? He's learning at this accelerated, exponentially high rate," and I think it's because I started to learn how to use photographic reference a little bit better; that made my work look more real. I used to get out these Star Trek photo-novels and try to figure out how lighting would work. I really had no clue, I was not one of these guys... I was born with a talent, but....
CBA: You were not a prodigy.
STEVE: Nothing close to that, nothing at all. I was just a guy who was determined to get somewhere in life. It was a slow process and it's easy to confirm that by simply looking at the first b-&-w Nexus. I remember George Freeman did that with Captain Canuck, starting out semi-amateurishly, and he suddenly took this huge leap forward. Gulacy the same thing, but he always had this great energy about his work. I don't think there's anything more exciting than to see a guy develop in print like that.
CBA: Did you see it in yourself? Were you just so thrilled you were really putting the things you saw in your head down on the page? Was it just more routine than that?
STEVE: No, it felt good to know I was somehow getting better, because that meant I was becoming the artist I wanted to be, but couldn't, because I simply didn't possess the aptitude at that time to be that good. I was always drawing in my sketchbooks, and I think the sketchbooks looked a lot better than the stuff I was actually drawing in my comics, which was mostly out of my head, and then I sort of developed into this... "Well, let's start taking photo reference for certain things and see what happens."
CBA: So, you did Nexus for quite some time with different publishers. Why didn't you do any outside illustration work?
STEVE: Because comics encompassed everything that I wanted to do with myself, artistically. I could paint my covers, and I consider that my art of learning illustration with tone and color and anything that was done linear. So I was doing everything I wanted to do through comics. My covers were painted, because I wanted to learn the things I learned from my illustrators, and the comics were drawn because I love comics and all my great comic book heroes who were artists and writers.
Steve and Mike Baron have been pitching Nexus to animation studios over the years. Here's a recent presentation drawn by The Dude. Courtesy of the artist. All characters ©2000 Mike Baron and Steve Rude.
CBA: You also had a greater level of autonomy. Let's back it up a bit: When you first started doing Nexus, all of a sudden, there's this explosion of new concepts and new artists and new approaches to doing comics. Did that fuel you at all? Is that something you really felt a kinship towards? Were there other artists you really felt you were almost compatriots with?
STEVE: No, I never felt like that. To me, my idols were my idols, and they stayed my idols.
CBA: You didn't feel any connection to people like Jaime Hernandez, or some of the work Bill Sienkiewicz was doing?
STEVE: Yeah, I guess I did with people like Hernandez, because he came out at the same time I did, but he was much more developed than I was. I remember I felt a kinship toward guys like Matt Wagner, people like that, because we were all in the same boat. There were these new companies developing, and we were all part of that new thing that was coming about with comics in the '80s.
CBA: Was that exciting for you? You being in your studio in Madison, Wisconsin, did you feel like you were part of a movement, did you feel like you were part of something beyond just doing the book, as far as the things going on in comics outside?
STEVE: I remember being very excited because I was someone who was now published, so I could approach my idols at the time, feeling less intimidated by them, actually. I was still intimidated, and I was still in awe of them, because they were working for Marvel or DC and I was working for these guys in Madison, it wasn't the same kind of yardstick to me. I remember loving to talk to people about their art, and what they learned, and I liked shop talk. I hardly ever engage in it any more these days. I'm simply at a point where, unless it's something of substance to me, I don't like discussing it. The most boring thing in the world is to argue about the merits of one artist versus another. Somewhere along my late 20s, I just completely disengaged myself from those ridiculous, pointless arguments, and I would remove myself from any kind of conversations about those kind of things. My excitement about shop talk didn't last long with people, because most of these people didn't have anything to say, they had nothing really solid to teach me, and I wanted to learn some things that could really help me. Unless you were there to give me that, if you want to sit there and talk about the color of your underwear that day, [laughter] I was just going to get bored and walk away. I wanted to learn. I mean, there were great secrets to be uncovered, and to me, the only people fitting to teach me those were masters, like Alex Toth.
I remember when I met Alex for the first time, I believe in '86 in San Diego, and that was the only time I ever saw him there. So thank God I went! I made him look through my sketchbook and asked for some advice before he went on to the next guy, and he gave me some superb advice, all based on the most basic fundamentals imaginable, and that's probably when I started to reconsider what fundamentals meant, and what it really means to break down a figure into its most simplistic terms, and get something seemingly complex and accurate out of simple basics. Alex was the guy that imparted things like that to me.
CBA: A couple of years earlier, I recall seeing a picture of you and Jack Kirby when you'd won the Russ Manning Award.
STEVE: You know, I've got to tell you, my relationship with Kirby was always one of... I know people say this all the time, but it's almost a sense of non-reality to it. It just wasn't real, there was something Twilight Zone-ish about standing next to the guy, or being in his company, or listening to his voice. He was more than human to me.
CBA: It's funny, because you towered over him, physically! [laughs]
STEVE: Yeah, I towered over poor little Jack Kirby—but he was, by far, the taller guy on the inside. He was always a giant to me.
CBA: In 1984, you were probably about 28, right?
STEVE: When that picture was taken? I was 28.
CBA: Plus, it must've been meaningful to win the Russ Manning Award.
STEVE: That was my first award, and I must tell you, the convention guys pulled that off without flaw, I mean, they really had me going for a moment there. I had no clue there was any nomination of any sort for me. I remember sitting in this crowded banquet with these geniuses around me, and I remember they dimmed the lights—the award was just being introduced for the first time, Dave Stevens had won it the first year, and I think someone else won it the second—and we're all sitting in this banquet room, the light got dark, and they threw these slides up on this big screen, and one of them was my work! I remember being there with my girlfriend at the time, and I just kind of went into this state of shock!
CBA: [laughs] The room started to spin.
STEVE: Kind of, yeah. I got this feeling that it's almost impossible to actually put into a sentence or words, but I could tell you my heartbeat was racing like it never felt before, you know? I had a feeling that was something that could not be described, and when they announced my name, I went into a deeper sort of shock, where I barely had the presence of mind to stagger up to the podium! And I wasn't really a newcomer, either. I mean, I'd been doing Nexus for five or six years by then, but it meant that in the minds of my peers, I had arrived in some way. That was extremely flattering.
CBA: You had the biggest grin on your face in that CBG picture. [laughs]
STEVE: Well, it was insane! I was with Kirby afterwards, and all I can say is, whoever invented the word surreal, it was invented for a reason, because there are some things you simply can't explain, it just became more than a sense of normal reality, and you went into a literal Twilight Zone state of shock, where your mind seldom goes in everyday life.
CBA: That begs the question, did you ever feel that experience since?
STEVE: Yeah, I have. As the San Diego convention got larger, and I started winning these "best artist" and "best penciler" awards for Nexus, I remember one time I got up there, and I won the Will Eisner award, and I remember Will himself being the saving presence of my mind at the time. I was feeling pretty close to the way I felt when I won that Russ Manning award, and Will Eisner was just this tower of quiet strength to me. Because he was so down-to-earth, and so real, he just looked at me with this grin on his face—he probably saw the predicament I was in mentally—and just said, "Say what you feel, Steve. Say what you feel." And I did! If I stuttered, that was because it was part of the way I was feeling. I stutter anyway, [laughter] I never got over that. Me and my brother are terrible stutterers, but the only thing that was ever important in my life—and this goes down to almost everything I do, even on a day-to-day basis—was to be true to what I was, to be true to what I was born as. Even though it's hard to put that into words, and when people try to describe it, it sounds like it's indications of ego, but it's actually nothing like that, it's a feeling that certain things were passed on to me; I see that much more clearly now in my 40s, that literally dictates my path in life. That is, I've got to be worthy of the people who've been influencing me since my childhood.
CBA: Well, you certainly almost came close at that one point, it sounds like. [laughs]
STEVE: I did, yeah. I since learned from those moments of calamity that the only thing that matters to me is how good the work is. Nothing else matters.
CBA: I think there's so much nonsense that affects all of us as a society, particularly in the comic book business, there are all these secondary considerations that cloud the quality of the work itself.
STEVE: Well, I have a comment about that, Chris, that simply must be put in words. If your thinking evolves to that point—assuming you didn't start out thinking that way—and suddenly your thinking becomes one of strict commercial considerations, you have literally lost your soul.
CBA: You did so many issues of Nexus—16 years all told—and you did very little work outside of that, and the book certainly was never a cash cow. I think that what you're saying is borne out by your actions.
STEVE: Thank you.
CBA: But what is it about Nexus that kept you so dedicated to it, despite the fact it was never a big seller? It was almost on the periphery of the market, as the market became more and more commercialized. What kept you on that, what connection did you have—maybe not to the character, but to the book, or to your relationship with Mike Baron—that kept you dedicated to Nexus?
STEVE: Because personal considerations aside—things which I've never been concerned about—the book was literally a diary of my evolution as a human being, and I believe it was that for Baron, too, even though we tend to have very different ways of thinking about our lives and philosophies. I would say that everything I ever wanted to say or do in life was within that book, and as I evolved as a person, I became aware that I had things I wanted to say about society. It was because of what I was reading in the newspapers, and that in turn made me think about historical context of humanity since there's been the written word, and it led me to various philosophies, one of which prompted the "God Con" issues. So, since the only things that were of true value to me were things that were tales that were based on the timelessness of the human condition, where could I get that, except in doing Nexus?
CBA: You weren't going to get that in the run-of-the-mill super-hero bang-'em-up kind of comic.
STEVE: Well, had I done those kind of comics, Chris; I still would've made sure that quality came through, because of my personality.
The character we will always associate with Mike Baron and Steve Rude: Nexus, the Executioner. ©2000 Mike Baron and Steve Rude.
CBA: So obviously, you had a real deep synergy with Mike Baron, connecting on a very deep level.
STEVE: Well, I'll say this, and I'll say it until the day I die: Mike Baron is the greatest writer I've ever worked with. I can't believe, sometimes, that we could work so well together, knowing that we're literally from different planets about some things—but when he gave me those scripts, I mean, it was like reading Marvel comics from 1966... the greatest stories and morality tales that I've ever read.
CBA: I just remember the feeling when I was a kid reading Nexus that the whole tableau just seemed set in stone, it seemed timeless. I could fumble for words, trying to pin this down, and it's not a fawning kind of thing.
STEVE: Well, those would be exactly the same words I would say about my Jack Kirby/Stan Lee comics, and later on, the Fourth World books, and it also led me to a personal philosophy that—I think I've never quite heard anyone give people permission to think like this—there are many things in life that can't be inscribed into words. For example, I was asked so many times, "Why Space Ghost? Why did this 'kids'' cartoon appeal to you?" It just did. I had no answer for why. I would listen to songs that would make me feel things, and someone would ask me to describe why a certain singer sends me to this emotional epiphany. I realized it couldn't be done, and I didn't even try. I thought some things were simply relegated to the reality of non-verbal feelings, and you should just leave it at that.
(These are just some excerpts from Steve Rude's interview. Be sure to pick up COMIC BOOK ARTIST #8 for the full interview!)