by Charles McGuigan
As a kid he heard the story over and over again. During the Second World War the Defense Department built a massive plant in northeast Ohio, a place called the Ravenna Arsenal, an important cog in the machinery of the war, ensuring a steady output of ordnance. It sprawled over 20,000 acres and was virtually in the back yard of the town where his mother grew up, not far from his own home. The story goes that the government decided on this northeast corner of the Buckeye state because it was the most overcast place in America, and that permanent and impenetrable cloud cover would conceal the arsenal’s existence from possible enemy airstrikes. This boy could vouch for that. Northeast Ohio seemed to be the grayest of all places, where the sun was an infrequent visitor, and the winter held the countryside in its grip well into spring.
Rob Ullman not only grew up there, but ended up going to college not far from his hometown of Newtown Falls, and lingering in that general area, a captive of his own inertia. Until one morning, halfway through April, when he woke, to the world covered in fresh snow. “I was like, ‘I got to get the hell out of here,’” says Rob. “I got to go some place warm.”
That October, on the day of the OJ verdict, he moved south to Greensboro, North Carolina. He remembers that first January in North Carolina. He was sitting on the front porch, the temperature hovering at 75 degrees, and he was soaking up the sunlight, relishing the warmth. “I thought, ‘This is the life. This is the absolute life,” Rob says. ”I never ever once regretted moving away from Ohio. It’s a great place to be from, but I never thought, ‘You know, I should really move back.’”
Despite the sometimes bleak landscape, it was there that Rob’s talent as a visual artist began to emerge. Even as a boy, Rob spent his time drawing. “I could always draw,” he tells me. “It was the one thing that I was always good at. I worked on it a lot, even at five or six years old.” And at an early age Rob would discover comics which would lead him ever-closer to what he would ultimately become.
We’re sitting in his home-studio in the heart of Bellevue. He has nut-brown hair and a carefully trimmed beard, and wears his signature Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. On the walls there are framed illustrations, and comic books—some containing his own work—are stacked in neat piles on shelving.
“Ever since I was a kid and I started reading comics, I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” says Rob. “I always liked reading comics, I always liked drawing. And I was more of a DC kid than a Marvel kid. For me it was Batman and Aquaman.” His first exposure to the Dark Knight was the goofy 1960s TV series with Adam West. “And then as I discovered this more sinister, scarier Batman,” Rob says. “The darkness of it got to me.”
Many of the Aquaman and Batman comics that most appealed to the young Rob Ullman were drawn by a man named Jim Aparo. “If you saw his art I’m sure that you would go, ‘Oh that guy’” says Rob. “It was dark. It was very moody. It spoke to me.” His appetite for comics became both voracious and omnivorous. He would devour everything. “Before long I would read any comic I could get my hands on,” he says. “Archie, you know, Little Lulu, whatever. If it was comics, I wanted to read it.”
Rob picks up a pen, then lowers it. “I don’t know where it came from,” he says. “I wasn’t a particularly athletic kid, but I wasn’t a stereotypical milksop. I did have thick glasses. I wasn’t quite that pathetic or anything like that. But just something about the way the panels would work together, the way that you could tell a story through a comic. I just came to it at the right time in my life.”
When he was about ten, Rob started reading comics that were more advanced. “These books were not aimed for children, but aimed for a more mature audience,” he says. “Like Watchman. I read that first issue as it came out, I remember buying them all monthly.”
Just around the corner from his father’s office at the regional electric power company, there was a bookstore that featured comics. Over the years, Rob spent hours there, perusing and buying. “I read ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman, and that was just a total eye opener,” he says. “They called that time the black-and-white explosion when all these black-and-white comics were coming out from all these fly by night companies. You know, none of them could afford color, so they were all black-and-white. All kinds of weird stuff and random stuff.” That’s when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged.
“And, of course, now and then there’d be naked chicks and swearing and people having sex and that kind stuff,” Rob says. “That was always guaranteed to get my attention. I still say, to this day, ‘I’m probably seventy five to eighty percent more likely to read a comic book if there’s nudity in it.’ I don’t know why that is, but it’s true.”
He hands me a copy of one of his black-and-white comic books called Traffic & Weather—an intermittent series published by Wide Awake Press. They’re snippets of real life, short-shorts that last a page or two at the most. The struggles are those of an Everyman, and thus universal in their implications. The backdrop is frequently Bellevue. As I read and view, Rob continues talking about the art of comics.
“It’s about unlocking that language, you know, what happens between the panels, what happens in the gutters between the beats of the story,” he says. “You don’t always need to be told, or to be shown with a comic. A lot of times you can infer what happened. What happened in moment A and what happened in moment C, and you can kind of put together on your own what happened in moment B. And that’s the kind of thing I like. There can be just one interpretation of the story. You know what happened, you may not know exactly what happened, but you know what happened.”
Though there are similarities between a written story and comics, there are differences as well. “With comics you have the visual aspect, so you can tell a story with no words,” says Rob. “But you can’t tell a story with no words in a prose novel.”
Comics, in this way, are closer in nature to film than any other medium. “You can tell a story without words in film, and you can do it in comics,” Rob says. And as with films, most mainstream comics require a fairly large staff to complete a work. “With comics, somebody writes it and then somebody draws it and then somebody inks it and then somebody letters it and then somebody colors it,” he says.
But Rob doesn’t like to work that way. “With most of my stuff, I write, draw, ink, letter, and color it,” he says. “It’s nice having complete control. That would be very hard to do with a movie because you have to have actors, you have to have some sort of a crew, and all that sort of thing.”
He remembers making amateur films with friends back in high school “It was always just such a drag getting everybody together on the same page to do this thing,” he says.
He pushes himself back in his chair, away from the desk. He brings both hands up to his forehead and through his hair. “With a comic, you’ve got a stack of paper, some pencils and some pens, and you pretty much can do whatever you want within your own ability or aspiration,” he says.
Often I run into Rob over at Stir Crazy on MacArthur Avenue, and most every time I’ve ever seen him there, he is hunched over a table, fingers gripping a pen or pencil that glides over a blank sheet of paper in a notebook, and then the sheet begins filling with images. It seems to me this art form is one of the most ancient endeavors of man. I’m thinking of cave drawings that tell a story with images alone. When I mention this, Rob nods, and says, “Or hieroglyphics, it’s just a story in pictures. You can understand the visual language.”
Although he is passionate about his work on comics, Rob is more than that. “Well, I guess I consider myself an illustrator, first and foremost,” he says. “That’s sort of where the bulk of my work goes. It would all fit under the banner of illustration. I’m a cartoonist as well, I draw comics and that sort of thing, as time allows. As the jobs come in, I also do some design work so I guess I would also consider myself a graphic designer. I do logo design, mainly traditional print design, not web design, brochures, publications, business cards, a little magazine design, booklet design, that sort of thing. I enjoy doing that kind of thing for print. I’ve never been very tech savvy on the web side of things, I would always work with someone who handled that. I establish how something looks and how it feels, and then somebody else puts it together online.”
When Rob graduated high school he went to college at nearby Kent State. He studied English, studio art, graphic design. And then after three years, he took a semester off. “And I’m still taking that semester off,” he says.
He had some serious reservations about art school at Kent State. “I had some of the most apathetic teachers,” he says, remembering one instructor in particular who would leave class, sometimes for hours. “We would have these aimless three-hour studio classes, and I’m paying for this? I needed someone to tell me to come in here and do this. I wanted someone to talk with me about some fundamentals.”
After taking that semester off, Rob worked retail jobs, followed the local music scene, drank a lot of beer, and worked on his comics, perfecting his skills as an illustrator. “Mainly, I was self-taught, learning from various sources,” he says. “You just have to do it. Chuck Jones (film maker and animator) said something like this in his autobiography: ‘The first thirty thousand drawings that anybody does are going to be terrible, so just tear through them right away.’ It’s daunting, but it’s the only way to learn. If you’re going to be any kind of success it’s as much hustle as it is talent. I don’t say this as some sort of lame attempt to sound self-effacing, but I am not as good as a lot of people just in terms of pure talent. I would not rate myself as high as a lot of folks who, however, don’t have the drive to be successful. You can be the greatest at something, but if nobody knows your work, if you just sit around doing bong hits all day, and nobody ever sees your work or reads your work, so what?”
When he finally left Ohio for good and all, and moved to Greensboro, Rob continued honing his craft. He eventually got a job at Border’s Books and Music, and began drawing comic strips and an occasional illustration for a local tabloid called ESP magazine, a general interest weekly with a focus on music. “I was working a lot drawing comics, but it was mainly for myself, it was mainly practice for something better,” he says.
Because it’s a college town, Greensboro’s younger population tends to be fairly transient. “So after about three years things were just drying up, and people were moving away and it had just gotten kind of boring so I moved to Richmond with a friend, got a place in the Fan, and transferred my job at Border’s,” he says.
While working at Border’s Rob got a call from a friend of a friend, a call that would pave his way as a free-lance illustrator. “So this guy was a children’s book editor at McGraw-Hill and they had this series of children’s science books that their artist had dropped out of at the last minute and they needed someone right now,” says Rob, snapping his fingers. “And I signed on to do it, having never done a children’s book in my life. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to use a computer when I said yes to the job. So I had a couple of weeks there of just abject panic. But that job enabled me to leave my job at Border’s. And it was a lot of work, and it just threw me right into it. I just went right in to the free-lance life. It was great.”
Two years after arriving in Richmond, Rob returned to Greensboro and took a job with a graphic design shop while still doing his comics, and free-lance illustrations on the side. At a party he met a woman named Brooke. “I basically bothered her and bothered her, until she went out with me,” says Rob. “And then I just kind of hooked her before she could dislodge the lure.” Two years later they were wed. “We got married the day after Hurricane Isabelle struck in 2003,” Rob says. Two months later, the couple moved to Richmond and rented an apartment on Stuart Avenue within hailing distance of the VMFA. Eight months later they bought their house in Bellevue.
Over the past twelve years, Rob has cobbled together a successful free-lance business. “I just always want to keep drawing,” he says. “I’m working on the hockey comics right now, and I really enjoy it.”
He considers the range of his work. “I’ve always done a lot of pinup stuff, ever since I was a kid,” he says. He’ll even do custom work. “It’s kind of a little side project I’ve come up with, but these dudes will order a commission portrait of their wife or their girlfriend in their favorite sports team jersey,” Rob says. “I’ve done tons of them, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s cute; it’s not exploitative. My wife Brooke is totally cool with it.”
Like Rob, Brooke is a designer and when I ask what he loves about his wife, Rob smiles broadly. “I don’t know,” he begins, then pauses for the right word. “She’s a smartass, and she can take a joke, she’s super funny. And this: she is genuinely interested in almost everyone, she can talk to anybody. I think we play off each other very well. She’s curious about everybody’s situation in a very genuine way. She’s one of the funniest people I know.”
Rob looks like he can’t believe his great, good fortune to have Brooke in his life. “She tells me the only reason she even talked to me at that party was because she wanted a job at the place where I was working, and she was going to grill me for the info,” he says. “And she didn’t realize I had my own ulterior motive.”
They now have two children. Max is not quite six, and his sister, Evie, is approaching ten. They both attend Holton Elementary, which is a stone’s throw from their front porch.
“Evie’s a lot more like me, a little more reserved, a little more of a rule follower,” Rob says. “Max is a total smartass. I mean he’s hilarious, but he’s also a handful because he’s really smart, and everything’s a negotiation. You can’t just tell him, ‘Don’t do that.’ He’ll be like, ‘Why can’t I do it? How about if I do it this way?’ And he never forgets anything.” To illustrate the yin and yang of their personalities, Rob says, “Max is in kindergarten and he’s already been to Mr. (Principal David) Hudson’s office three or four times, and my daughter never has been there once, and she’s in fifth grade. It’s wild.”
We talk about the periodic joys of parenthood. “I like being a parent more than I thought I would,” he says. “But it’s also a ton of work. Nothing drives me more crazy than when people say things like, ‘Well, yeah, I know what you mean. I have a dog I just can’t keep him off the sofa.’ I’m like, ‘You can put a dog in a crate.’”
Not long ago, Rob landed a gig that will give him additional exposure. People will literally be wearing his art. For the past few years he had been toying around with the idea of designing T-shirts for the Richmond Flying Squirrels for their giveaway Friday home games.
“I have a friend, David Frost, who is involved in minor league baseball down in South Carolina, and he just knows everybody including (Todd Parnell) Parney who’s the general manager of the Squirrels and so he kind of put us in touch,” says Rob. That was last summer.
“And I just kept bugging them and bugging them and bugging them, sending them unsolicited designs, just figuring sooner or later they would tell me to buzz off, or they would let me do one,” Rob says.
Finally this past fall it paid off, and Rob hit the jackpot. “They called me and said, ‘Hey we want you to do all eleven of our shirts this year,” says Rob. “Which I did not expect. I was expecting maybe one or two. They offered all eleven of the designs, and offered me all sorts of leeway.”
Working on a tight deadline, he began work on the eleven designs just after the new year dawned. He hunkered down for a good six seeks. “Some of the designs had a lot of creativity to them,” he says. “With a wide open theme, I could go nuts. Most of them were limited to two or three colors, so you have to be a little more inventive, bring a little more ingenuity to the design to make everything work.” And in late February in the marble hall of the VMFA, all eleven of his designs were unveiled. “That’s probably the only time my work is ever going to be shown at VMFA,” he says, tugging the bill of his Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. “It was the coolest thing, it was pretty great. I can’t lie.”
His daughter Evie accompanied him to the unveiling and helped drape the eleven design-bearing easels. “It was cool, she was really into it.” Rob says of his Evie. “My daughter is very into drawing, she’s a very good artist. She’s been recognized a couple times for posters at school, and anytime there’s a drawing contest she usually enters and she’s done really well.”
Rob Ullman talks more about his daughter. It’s as if he’s seeing himself in her. “She’s got a really good eye,” he says. “I mean she’s doing stuff at age nine that didn’t even occur to me until I was well into my teens. She’s definitely got an eye for it.”