Written by Neil Greenaway
Ron Ruelle began his lifelong journey into cartooning as a child, growing up with a grandmother who worked for a comic publisher. He spent his formative years practicing his art, getting one teacher to remark on a report card, "Ron needs to spend more time on math and less time drawing cartoons." While he was attending the University of Texas he was also drawing his first strip, Stoner's Aquarium, for the UT Daily Beacon. In 1990, Ron created a new strip called Stoopid Zü which ran for three years at the Knoxville News-Sentinel before being picked up by a syndicate - who requested a name change. Now called At the Zü (a name Ron has never liked), the strip ran in syndication for three years - at one point reaching an audience of nearly 100 newspapers. In 1998, facing the end of it's syndicated run, Ruelle decided to rename the strip again and keep it going on his own website as Darwin & Co. Wanting to try his hand at a more mature strip, Ron created the weekly Food, Shelter, Cable under the pseudonym Rex Silo.
These days, Mr. Ruelle has stepped into the world of graphic novels. When I caught up with him at the 2018 Denver Independent Comic & Art Expo, his table was covered in different books - including stacks of his newest work, Be Kind, Rewind. I sat down at the table with Ron and we talked about the bygone days of the video rental store, why his Awful Activities are okay for kids, and what he would do with a How To book.
The whole time that we spoke, Ron's new VHS mascot - Tapey McTaperson - sat nearby. Quietly judging us.
Neil Greenaway: Today I am at DINK 2018 speaking with the statuesque and deeply voiced Ron Ruelle. Can I get you to introduce yourself and your new book?
Ron Ruelle: (laughs) Thank you! Well, as you said, my name is Ron Ruelle. I am a cartoonist, illustrator, and ad guy. My new book is called Be Kind, Rewind. It is a graphic novel about a VHS tape of a movie about dachshunds. This is a book that I started in 2001, back when rental video cassettes were still a thing, but a bunch of stuff happened. Life got in my way and I sort of set the book aside, even though I had about 65 pages done already. Then, in the last few years, I decided that I needed to find a way to make this book happen one way or the other. So I came up with a new framing device and here we are.
NG: You have told me that this is a graphic novel about a VHS tape of a movie about dachshunds, but you have also told me that the dachshunds themselves are fairly tangential to the story.
RR: Yeah, there is not a lot of dachshund action in here. If you are a fan of wiener dogs, they are peripheral to this story.
NG: That is a shame, as I am a fan of hot wiener on wiener action.
RR: Yes, wiener action is pretty good. There are still some fun bits in here - like there is an ad for Sea Wieners (which it turns out are just brine shrimp). This book, by the way, has a very cuddly cover with cute cartoon dachshunds chewing on a videotape - but this is a very R rated book. There is profanity, nudity, violence, casual racism and general dickishness.
NG: It does say Rated R right on the cover.
RR: Yeah, it says R on here a few times and it says For Mature Readers on the back.
NG: If the book is not about the movie about dachshunds, what is the book about?
RR: The book is about the video cassette itself. Imagine that you are shopping at a grocery store and you are returning your cart, like all good people do. And there, in another cart, you see a rental video cassette that somebody left behind. What would you do? Would you take it to the video store right away? Would you keep it? Would you take it home and watch it and return it 3 weeks late, incurring late fees? Would you murder someone with it and implicate the person who had originally rented it? There are so many different shades of gray & beyond. That's what we explore in this book, and so we live through all these different scenarios. We see the video tape destroyed several times over - so these stories can be seen as mutually exclusive or in alternate universes.
NG: Before working on this book you had a daily comic strip called At the Zü. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
RR: Right, so At the Zü was a comic strip I had many moons ago. It ran from 1995 to 1998. It was running in almost a hundred papers at one point. Which is getting to the place where you can start to make a living at this, but not quite, and it sort of faded from there. The thing about doing a syndicated comic strip is that it is the same amount of work whether you are in one paper or a thousand. But even for one paper, you still have to do the work. So after a few years I decided to move on to other things. I have 3 collected volumes of At the Zü now: 2 books of the dailies and one book of the collected Sunday strips.
NG: You have another book here at the table called Awful Activities, which you told me earlier was your best selling book. Could you tell me a little more about that?
RR: Yes, Awful Activities is my best-selling book. It is an activity book for immature adults. It has pages like 'What horrible anxieties keep mommy awake at night?' and then you fill in her dream balloon. Or 'That's the most offensive cereal mascot ever!' and then you draw in the cereal box. 'What is Betsy burying in the shallow grave?' There are all sorts of fun possibilities. It says not for kids right on the cover, but I have been told that kids love this book. It is really only as raunchy as you make it. I do set people up for some pretty good jokes in here, though. I set them up, you knock them down.
NG: Now that you have finished Be Kind, Rewind, what comes next? What is on the horizon?
RR: Going around and selling books. (laughs) I have to plug this thing for a while, so I'm not really sure right now.
NG: Aside from cartooning, the appearances at conventions, the selling of your books, I know that you also do a little bit of teaching. How has that been going for you?
RR: Yes! I used to teach college classes at the Community College of Aurora, but I don't do that anymore. Right now I do teach at summer camps for different grades (usually late elementary school, middle school, some high school) in Denver and Boulder. At the Boulder Valley School District, I teach for them. So I will do a five-day, half-day summer camp. I work with the JCC in Denver, the Art Students League, various gigs downtown. It's a lot of fun because I never took art classes at all when I was a kid. I learned to draw cartoons just naturally. When I got hired to teach I had to ask myself, "How do I do those things? I don't know how to explain this other than to just do it." I had to sit down and think through my own process, and the decisions that I make to see how I do things and help me create lessons. I had to relearn cartooning so that I could teach cartooning. So, one of my next books will be a How To book, but I don't want it to say things like "...this character is 3 heads tall..." I wanted to talk about how to compose a panel that makes sense. Or how do I know what to draw versus what to write, and how do I flip back and forth between the two? How do I develop characters that are useful and that matter? Again, this is stuff that I never really thought about until I started teaching, and I had to figure out how to tell other people how to do it. Basically, I am going to distill my lessons into book form.
NG: That sounds great, and it would address questions that I hear asked a lot. I have one more question for you: if my readers wanted to see more of your books or follow your work online, where would they look?
RR: They could go to my website which is RonRuelle.com. Right there you will find links to all of my books, my graphic design, other comics, and all sorts of fun stuff!
NG: Thank you very much for your time!
RR: Thank you and Party On!