Anyone who has ever worked with Fernando Ruiz or benefitted from his teaching skills knows what a seriously impressive contributor he is to the future of comics. From his personal work as writer and artist on ARCHIE comics and a range of other freelancing projects to the intense mileage he puts in as an instructor at The Kubert School training young artists, Ruiz is all about comics. His own passion for the medium bleeds through every aspect of his life and erupts into casual conversation, whether he’s flipping through large format reproductions of the art of Wally Wood or he’s reflecting on the life of one of his personal heroes, the much-missed Joe Kubert whose presence is still felt daily at the school he founded.
[Fernando Ruiz in front of some of his ARCHIE work at the Kubert School]
I had the good fortune to make Ruiz’s acquaintance when I enrolled in some evening classes at the Kubert School and got to witness his virtuosity as a teacher first-hand. From the solid instruction in basic art techniques to student-prodded asides into the vastnesses of comics history, Ruiz displayed his trademark versatility in all aspects of the medium. Delving into his portfolio, particularly, is bound to prompt stunned silence as his sketches vault between styles and genres with a flexibility that seems almost impossible. If it weren’t for his engaging demeanor and unassuming attitude, his students would probably slink away quietly, intimidated by his abilities as an artist. The two sides of his life, private work and public teaching, are clearly driven by an overwhelming commitment to comics, matched only by his work ethic. I knew it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to get Ruiz to talk about his life and work, since he’s a modest person, but thankfully he agreed to field a few questions for us at The Beat.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that you attended the Kubert School and now teach there. What courses do you teach and how long have you been teaching?
Fernando Ruiz: I was invited to teach at the Kubert school in August of 1995. I’d graduated from the school a year earlier in 1994. I started by teaching the school’s Saturday Morning Sketch class, which is largely teaching cartooning to little kids. In 1996, I joined the full time faculty teaching during the week. Over the years, I’ve taught many different classes including Story Adaptation, Design, and Human Figure Drawing. Currently, I’m teaching Narrative Art to all of the First Year students and Basic Drawing to the Second Year students. In addition, I’m also teaching the school’s evening Basic Drawing class and after all these years, I’m still teaching that same Saturday morning class.
HM-S: What do you think are the most essential qualities for someone teaching aspiring comics artists?
FR: Obviously a certain amount of proficiency and knowledge in the area you are teaching is required. Beyond that, a teacher needs patience, flexibility and imagination in order to deal with the particular situation each student might present. Communication skills are also important. It’s not enough to be able to do what you are teaching. You have to be able to clearly explain what you are doing and verbalize it in such a way that your explanation is understandable to a beginner.
HM-S: What’s the most challenging thing about teaching aspiring comics artists?
FR: Each student is an individual and can represent a unique situation. It can be a challenge to gauge a class’ proficiency and tailor my curriculum to my students’ needs.
HM-S: What projects are you working on as an artist currently? What projects are you most excited about right now?
FR: Currently, I am penciling the LIFE WITH ARCHIE magazine for Archie Comics. This is a fun project in which Archie and his friends are adults and Archie is married to Veronica. The stories are serialized in a soap opera-like style and written on a more sophisticated level than your average ARCHIE story with more mature themes and sometimes very shocking twists. In recent issues, we’ve seen Archie’s gay friend, Kevin Keller, get married, his partner get shot, and Archie and Veronica very nearly get divorced! It’s a very crazy ride.
Recently, I took over as regular penciler for the U.S. Army’s PS Magazine. This is a magazine that has been worked on by Will Eisner, Murphy Anderson, and Joe Kubert. I’m very honored to follow them with this assignment.
In addition, I’m currently penciling a story for Image Comics’ HOAX HUNTERS. This is a short back-up story that will appear in their next trade paperback. It’s a different type of story than I usually work on so it’s a lot of fun and exciting.
[Ruiz draws The Avengers]
HM-S: How did you decide to become an artist? What influenced you to attend the Kubert School?
FR: I’ve always enjoyed drawing, comic books, and cartoons. I read comics from a very early age and almost immediately made my own with crayons and notebook paper! As I grew older, I knew I wanted to try for a career in comics but I wasn’t sure how practical or feasible that was. I attended Caldwell College in Caldwell, NJ where I became a Fine Arts major. After graduating, though, I was still attracted to the world of comics. I really wanted to give it a shot. I learned a lot about the fundamentals of art at Caldwell, but I didn’t feel I knew enough about the technical aspect of producing commercial art suitable for reproduction. This led me to enroll at the Kubert School, the best learning institution around for comic book art.
[Ruiz draws The Ultimates]
HM-S: What comics have you found inspirational in your work? What creators have influenced you the most?
FR: You can’t be an artist for Archie Comics without studying the work of all the great artists who came before you. I looked at guys whose work I enjoyed as a kid. Even before I cared to look for their names in the credits, I was studying and copying the art of guys like Dan DeCarlo, Samm Schwartz, and Harry Lucey. When I first started at Archie Comics, I was very fortunate to live close enough to their offices that I could deliver my work in person. Victor Gorelick, Archie’s Editor-In-Chief and the guy who hired me right out of the Kubert School, would ask Dan DeCarlo to sit with me and go over my pages, and give me pointers on how I could improve. Dan was a kind, generous guy and I can’t state enough what a helpful experience that was.
I also learned a lot from other guys who’s work I was reading and copying from as a kid. Among these guys were Steve Ditko, George Perez, Alan Davis, Kurt Schaffenberger, and the great Curt Swan, whose Superman remains my favorite comic book character.
[Ruiz draws Nova]
HM-S: What motivates you to commit your life to so many aspects of comics creation?
FR: I love comics. They’re the perfect storytelling fusion of writing and art. I’ve enjoyed comics ever since I was a kid and nothing makes me happier than being able to make a living creating them. I not only get to draw comics all day but I also get to spread my passion for the medium in my classes.
[Ruiz's work on EPICS]
HM-S: Are there any upcoming projects you want to spread the word about?
FR: In addition to my work on LIFE WITH ARCHIE and PS Magazine, I’m working on a self-published project called EPICS. This is an anthology comic I started with three of my fellow instructors at the Kubert School: Anthony Marques, Bob Hardin, and Fabio Redivo. We each wrote and illustrated our own original six-page story. The first issue was published in September 2012 and we will be publishing our second issue later this year. Working on a completely original story like this where it’s my own creation and I’m handling both the writing and the art makes it extremely satisfying and personal for me. I’m having a great time working on it. We got a lot of praise and attention for our first issue and we can’t wait to put out our second!
[Ruiz's work on EPICS]
HM-S: Where can comics fans find your work?
FR: Folks can check out my work at my website.
[Ruiz's work on EPICS]
HM-S: How can readers find out more about your classes?
FR: Visit the Kubert School’s website to keep up with upcoming courses and events!
HM-S: Do you have any advice for new artists who wants to work professionally in comics?
FR: Be versatile. Learn how to draw everything in every possible way. Don’t just learn how to draw Batman because you’re a Batman fan. If those very few Batman jobs out there are taken, you’re going to have to know how to draw something else. The more you can draw, the more employable you become!
HM-S: Ruiz is a tough act to follow, but he inspires his students to approach comics with respect and a certain amount of grit when it comes to pursuing personal success. He’s an asset of the highest caliber in the classroom, and I wasn’t surprised to learn, asking around, how many comics artists I know who have studied with him and gone on to influence the direction of comics. We wish the best of luck to him on his upcoming projects, hopefully showing off that range of style that makes such an impression on students. If you happen to see him at The Kubert School open house coming up on April 20th, feel free to embarrass him by praising his work and contribution to teaching!
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.