Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca, writers
Jim Rugg, artist
AdHouse, January 2010
96 pages, hardcover
What If Pim & Francie Got Bitten by a Radioactive Luke Cage? Afrodisiac, like Al Columbia’s fractured masterpiece, is a comic, an art book, an objet d’art, an assemblage of stories and story fragments and illustrations and pastiches and sketches and ephemera and so on. Yet I’m guess everyone interested in an Afrodisiac book would have been perfectly happy with an anthology of straightforward blaxploitation riffs, showcasing the heavy-lidded, angular action characters, juicy design choices (this thing is like sound-effect lettering porn), and deadpan over-the-topness we saw from the Rugg & Maruca team in Street Angel, maybe with a few ben-day-dot nods in the direction of faux vintage. So why go further? Well, for one thing, if you have the design talent that Rugg and Chris Pitzer do, why not.
But what these moves communicate is the slipperiness of what Afrodisiac really is. The titular hero receives a different origin with each story–he’s a cyborg, an inner-city Billy Batson, a ghetto Captain America or Thor or Spider-Man. He’s marched through a variety of comic-genre parodies–Archie, romance, funny-animal, Bronze Age Marvel magazines, Bronze Age Marvel comics. Sometimes his adventures are made to look like they could have sprung straight from the ’70s, but other times the coloring or the printing or the language (this ain’t Comic Code approved!) tip the project’s hand. And that’s to say nothing of Rugg’s art, which is sly and slick in a fashion that befits a guy who gets into the annual Society of Illustrators show every year rather than a member of the Gerry Conway-era bullpen. And have we ever lived in a world where a character like the Afrodisiac would get a toy line or a Saturday morning cartoon?
It could have simply coasted on the asskicking concept of a superhero pimp called the Afrodisiac, but every choice Rugg, Maruca, and Pitzer make here makes it harder to put your finger on what’s going on. Which, I think, is the point: Afrodisiac is an attempt by modern white nerds to capture and critique the art made by the white nerds of yesteryear’s attempts to capture the art made for that era’s black audiences in response to what that era’s white entertainment industry thought of that era’s black audiences, specifically what they wanted to see from the relationship between black criminals and white women. (Phew.) It is, in other words, about the nature of truth, about different marginal or marginalized subculture’s attempts to understand and interact with one another, how those attempts magnify and distort one another, and in the end produce art as fascinating and fractured and entertaining and incomplete as the cut-up “final issue” that ends the collection. Powerful stuff? You’re damn right.