When we think of Josh Ruben, he's not just that friendly (Fango) face; he's that joker playing with (and cutting out) masks, the impressionist, a filmmaker, an actor… and now… graphic novelist. Never one to shy away from the community, he is constantly engaged with his audience and has now collaborated with artist Bri Tippetts on Darla, "scratching an itch" to delve that little bit deeper… and darker. Bri's previous graphic novel, Rictus, from 2019, is a pure indie gem of J-horror-inspired grinning madness, in which her charming style misleads us all. Catching up with them both, we discuss everything from influences and their process to collaboration and (for Josh) adjusting to another medium.
FANGORIA previewed Darla back in the October '22 issue… but for those unaware, what is the story?
Josh Ruben: Darla is a dark and twisted comic tale about an irritable small-town woman who, after a vicious factory accident, starts to mentally deteriorate thanks to fracked water and an entity in her house that tells her to do "naughty" things.
Bri Tippetts: All of that, and it has a very punk rock indie vibe, like something you would see at a cool art store or in a pop magazine.
How did you come into contact with each other, and how did the initial collaborative process develop?
JR: The reason I met Brianna ― and this is such a brilliant way to market yourself and to put your work out there ― is that she just drew this fan art, including my own films that she liked, then would tag some of us artists, filmmakers, and actors… and that got our attention, then, before you knew it, the conversations happened.
BT: Josh was like, "Do you want to work on something?" I love his films, so I was already sold. This particular story had the heart you would expect from Josh and his fun characters. He then sent over the basic plot, the script, and his director's deck for references to what he was picturing.
JR: Because I've already gone around with my films, you have to sell your vision. So I used images ― everything from Shutter Island and Requiem for a Dream to Prisoners and the more traditional anthology horror, such as Tales from the Crypt. There's a lot of Stephen King in there too. I hope to release this visual treatment in full someday; that was a solid stepping-stone for Brianna visually, and it was cool to see her work on building the characters.
BT: I figured if I could get out exactly what Josh wanted, then kind of add my twist, that would naturally become the style of the book.
Was there also a shared influence of horror movies and comic books between the two of you as you were starting to look at these ideas?
JR: Less films and more just specific references from the director's deck and our conversations. I certainly didn't have the monster; that evolved via Brianna's designs. I never really knew what it was going to look like. I just knew I visualized something that felt like the Babadook, not that it would resemble an imposing man with a top hat but more the way it was shot in darkness and shadow; there was a mystery to it. Brianna also brought in a subplot about a dog that grew out of this organic series of references. So, as you have to do with every artistic collaboration, you have to let your artist have "skin in the game."
How much conceptual work was there with the monster?
BT: We only went through a couple of designs. Josh is a director, so he's great at looking at different ways of approaching these things and also helping to pop the characters a little bit more. All of this felt like a team process as I normally just make my own comics and, for a long time, I was pitching and applying to places and couldn't get in and so I just thought I'll do it myself and see what happens.
There are so many flaming hoops to jump through. Here you have taken full control by going straight to your audience via crowdfunding.
BT: It's definitely more of an option now, and we do not have to worry about if someone says "yes" or "no" to a project.
Your previous graphic novel Rictus is a grim little tale that rattles along like a horror movie. It is completely digestible based on just the art and dialogue and reads like a manga, not loaded with captions and other exposition.
BT: I appreciate that. That's kind of what I've studied a bit about, such as storyboarding and other visual storytelling devices. Something that always bothered me with comics is that you would have horror stories, but they never quite felt like a movie ― and I appreciate they're their own medium ― but that's what I was trying to play with.
It literally makes you smile. You seem to wear the influences on your sleeve, such as the J-horror and wraith-like elements. The way you capture those contortionist movements we often see while your clean line work and cartoonish style lends a false sense of security for us readers.
BT: A lot of my favorite comic artists work in black-and-white. I just love that, as there's more focus on the art. Darla is the first time I have done any color work on a comic. That was Josh's direction, and following my art over the years he thought it would be cool to go with my style but add a little color to it, which I worked on traditionally. Nothing is digital.
Josh, do you feel you have learned how different it is to write a graphic novel compared to a film script?
JR: The Scott McCloud route was not there initially, which is somewhat taboo and frowned upon in the comic community, especially with some other filmmaker coming in and saying, "Hey, here's my screenplay!" There was looking at what would work as a comic, what would translate, but then the real learning curve for me was, "Oh, yeah, we need way less text." It was riddled with bubbles, and I soon understood how much that made sense, despite having read comics all my life. The process only highlighted how different a medium it is. If you're working on a film set, you have to welcome that improvisation, the jazz of it all, because you can only do that kind of work on the day. The collaboration with Brianna let me sort of mold what she would bring to the table. That's the fluidity of it all, the process. And the process is the key. How can we emphasize this story, bring it out visually, and make it as effective as possible? So that's the wonderful thing about comics is that the process is as long as you need it to be. At least independently.
How did your director's brain help?
JR: You're still telling a story with a series of images to evoke a certain emotional response. As mentioned, an image exploring a scene with no dialogue is just as effective. You can say so much with the picture. For example, Brianna just showed a smear of blood on the driveway instead of the dog having been run over. You still know what has happened. "What if we do a close-up of Darla's eyes?" And then I would show my face, literally on the webcam, or send pictures of myself so that particular images would evoke certain emotional responses. So that's where the director comes in. Another fascinating element that the publisher Invader Comics opened my eyes to was this whole thing of turning pages on a cliffhanger. It's a whole other process to hook the reader constantly.
But when you're the reader, those tricks become invisible.
Bri, did you find that there was an element of reminding yourself of these hooks and processes?
BT: Yeah, I really did try to move it in that way. As with Josh, I previously read Scott McCloud's books for how to set up the page. That is all paramount in ensuring the page leaves the reader wanting more. I tried to do that with Rictus and Darla. It was trickier this time as it was my first time adapting someone else's writing, and Josh's writing is so good, and that made it difficult to pull back. That's why I was first drawn into all the dialogue because I loved it.
For a while now, many comic books seem like they are produced with a movie in mind. I understand this was a film script originally, but were you even more conscious of just treating it as a graphic novel?
JR: Yeah, it's not necessarily the plan anymore to have it as a movie, although it would be lovely. Darla was one of my first five screenplays from over a ten-year period. The original intention was to do it really weird and super experimental. I was even thinking of the New York indie style at one point, deciding I would play Darla myself in prosthetics and make it super dicey, which I don't know if that would go down well today. Who knows what will become of this book. I'm just excited to be popping up at a store and sign. Let's see how the thing goes. It's a dark and tricky little story.
Dark, but Bri's art is the perfect style to lure you in with its playful coziness.
JR: I think that's why the art works so well because there's a charm and a grotesqueness to it that helps sell the bleak nature and heartbreak of the story. It's still funny, but maybe funny in a Beau is Afraid kind of way, as opposed to something more commercial. If it was made into a movie, it should be a female filmmaker and actor who would be down to take the swing and, ideally, sink into this character, like what Ellen Burstyn did in Requiem for a Dream. Get Sarah Paulson, Kristen Wiig, or even Molly Shannon to put on heavy makeup and go really dark because they also have this great sense of humor. That would be the dream party.
That's your producer brain talking. So, would you do this again, write another graphic novel?
JR: Oh my god, yeah. I have a running list of things I want to bring to Brianna, and then I have some projects that I want to do darker and maybe more traditionally. I've made the werewolf social allegory film, but my romantic brain is becoming a bit like Larry Fessenden's, retreating further into the woods. I think that's just by the nature of being so affected by horror movies, that kind of childhood film influence ― Carpenter, early Spielberg ― as opposed to only watching something like the Basket Case trilogy. I want to make stuff that's rewatchable and fun, but I do have a twisted sense of humor. That was the cathartic thing about Darla, it definitely scratches the itch of the anxious artist in me, and I imagine with Brianna, too, that there's a punk rock nature of "fuck everybody else."
It went way over its goals, especially in raising money for Bri.
Yeah, and it was a massive campaign to begin with. I was so anxious about doing it because it's like, "Some Caucasian male filmmaker who's already made two movies is asking for money for his little book?" But this is how it works: it is so monumental in terms of size because of our PR budget, early printing costs, and most importantly, paying Brianna. It was never going to be "Yeah, you want to just draw 200 pages for free… or five bucks?"
There's always AI…
JR: "Drum me up a Brianna Tippetts-like image."
Do it… see what happens [laughter].
BT: I'm scared to look
It will never have your soul or individuality.
JR: It's not sentient. It's just a device. And I say this as someone who does pitches constantly to studios and producers and is always trying to find the right wording to make the most impactful pitch to a studio. Something like ChatGTP (as a device), I can see the value in taking an idea and phrasing it in such a way that it's the most impactful in a logline or generating a pitch book. But you can't give that information to a device and then ask it to create a story with soul, with human experience. So it doesn't matter how advanced it gets. The human being has to take the torch the rest of the way. I understand the exploitive nature of it, but it's the business for some of us directors and artists to get something sold, you have to go: "This meets this!" The shitty thing is, typically, you'd go to the artists and graphic designers for all of that. Hopefully, there'll be some sort of enforcement boundary legislation!
Do you have any further words of encouragement to other artists out there?
BT: Keep making your art. Do it how you want to do it and work with other people. For years I didn't put my art online, and what's kind of funny about it is that it's become such a great tool to meet people like Josh, who has been amazing, and I really like being able to collaborate and get my stuff out there. Don't give up on your art, as there are all kinds of different routes to get your work out there these days. You don't have to approach the big publishers.
JR: I'll also just say that Brianna's art was undeniable ― whether it is a homage to something pre-existing or not ― but to then turn that into a collaboration, maybe a career… well, that's quite something.
It has helped with someone like yourself, Josh, who is so connected with his audience. That's beautiful to see.
JR: It's a community. That's the crazy thing to me: if you're not enriching your community when your community is constantly enriching you, that's kind of got to be part of the gig because it is a community. I fully understand that that's not what we all sign up for, but I do think it's important to engage with an audience who appreciates your art. I came from a world of community in my internet comedy days, where everything was instant in terms of reaction and engagement. It makes sense to me. That's not what you have to do, but I certainly think it's kind of a valuable piece of it all. And that's what helped bring Darla to life.
And if you're in Los Angeles, head to Revenge of Comics to meet Josh and Bri, grab an ashcan, a signature, and maybe even a sketch from Bri.