Rule Them All Vocalist Jon Gusman on His Other Life as a Visual Artist

Photo: Lisette Briceno

Jon Gusman is a renaissance man. He splits much of his time between singing in Rule Them All, drawing comics, creating large-scale paintings, studying theoretical physics, and drumming for whatever band conscripts him at the moment. Gusman’s love for the arts is most profoundly felt in his visual work though. In his comics and paintings, Gusman has the latitude to incorporate everything from deeply personal introspection to mega-zany surreal absurdism.

I chatted with about creating his works, the life of an artist, and comics everyone needs to read.

How long have you studied art? Is this both an academic and professional focus?

Drawing was the first creative thing I ever fell in love with. I used to doodle on everything without thinking about it and usually had a loose leaf notebook by my bed because I would draw my own Dragon Ball Z characters before going to sleep. I also made two comics in the 3rd grade with my friend: "The Claw" which was basically just a Spawn rip off and "The Fuzz," which was about a guy who went on a global killing spree after getting an evil haircut.

Once I hit my teen angst years, I pretty much decided I was going to try to be the greatest drummer that ever lived so drawing sort of fell to the wayside. In my early 20s, I started taking a huge interest in comics and illustration again so I started rekindling my chops. Eventually, YouTube wasn't cutting it so I went back to school to finish my degree in Visual Arts. I'm approaching my last semester and since I started there, I've really taken an interest in Fine Art.

So to answer the second question, getting educated has definitely helped me grow my work to a point where I'm confident enough to try and do art professionally. I've been drawing here and there for bands for years but within the last year, I've sold a decent amount of my own original work. Ideally, that would be my lane. 

Much of your art seems to straddle the line between comics and other paintings. How does each inform the other?

It's a pretty cool relationship. When I paint, I usually paint on a larger scale, like 6'x5' minimum. It lets me be free and gives me a clean slate to create a whole world. Comics are quite the opposite because there are unspoken rules to make a good comic. You need to speak the language and understand that the reader is watching step by step how the world you're creating unfolds.

So the painter side of my brain will influence my comic pages by trying to deliver something that feels free and not contained to the amount of panels on the page. The comic side of my brain will influence the painter side of my brain to make sure that what I'm painting still carries a narrative even if there is no dialogue. 

What is the biggest challenge in developing a storyline for your comics? Do you typically have a story before the art, or vice-versa?

Most of my comic stories start with an idea along the lines of "wouldn't it be funny if this character did this" and "this" usually is like some really stupid potty humor joke. It wasn't until my 3rd semester at my current college that my mentor introduced the idea of character development on the basis of "you have these really imaginative ideas but the reader has no emotional connection to them because there's nothing there to identify with."

At first, I was like “alright go fuck yourself” but then he pointed to one of my minor characters and said, "Who's this guy? Does he influence the story in any way? If yes, that's a character! Expand on that." From this point on, I started obsessively thinking about every avenue of the story literally 24/7. I used to just dive in and carve out ideas as I drew them but now I'm starting to plan the story with a small script which saves me a whole lot of brain power as I'm drawing. 

Dimensions of Pain seems to connect the mundane with the surreal. What’s the concept behind that comic?

To refer back to the last question, that idea started because I overheard someone talk about their pain tolerance by saying "I can handle many dimensions of pain" and for some reason, I just heard Mako yelling those three words.

I figured I'd try and make a comic that pays homage to my favorite action/fantasy movies but in a way that's relatable to the average person. The main character is loosely based off of me when I worked as a delivery guy at Dominos in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina.

I would always get asked to make deliveries to these basically abandoned houses at 2am and thought "this is where I die" every single time. It's sick that you brought this up because I completely forgot about making the next installment. I guess I gotta get on that. 

The Cosmic Debt seems to draw in some of theoretical physics you’ve mentioned in Rule Them All lyrics. Is that a conscious effort? Interestingly, lots of comics pull from physics and other sciences.

For sure, there are definitely little bits of reference to Chaos Theory in there as well as other existential themes. In the Rule Them All song "Teacher," I talk about a conversation that really impacted me on the last day of my first semester back in college. The teacher had such a cool grasp on how physics related to spirituality so ever since then, I've done a lot of research and really can't help myself when it comes to loading my work with all sorts of stuff like that. 

What artists are you most influenced by? Do these influences vary depending on your medium?

I try to be as much of a sponge as possible. But regardless, here are the big ones for me: Mike Judge, Mike Mignola, Moebius, Genndy Tartakovsky, Frank Miller, Stan Sakai, Gary Panter, Dave Sim, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Chuck Jones, Goseki Kojma and others which are escaping me (as you can see, a sponge). 

As I started studying art history, I started realizing that even in Fine Art, there were people that got me excited about art like Ben Shahn, Joan Miro, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Francis Bacon, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, George Condo, Kandinsky etc. 

Like I said earlier, one hand kind of washes the other so all these people could inspire me despite the medium. 

Do you find any opportunities to weave your visual arts with the musical arts in terms of Rule Them All (and whoever you’re drumming for at the moment)?

There were a few rejected EP titles that were just ripped straight from names of different art pieces I liked. I actually drew a shirt for Rule Them All for the run we did with Backtrack back last June. As I get better with my craft, the conversation comes up more and more so eventually I will probably draw something else for the band. When the band started, I was really just focused on making funny, gross cartoony people so it didn't really fit what we were going for. 

How has your experience been at the art shows you’ve participated in?

It's been amazing honestly. I really love talking to people and making new friends as well as feeling supported by my old friends who continuously come to hang out and support. I actually had a good amount of shows planned for 2020 that all obviously got postponed or canceled.

My main goal is to be able to do both comic cons and gallery shows so that I can maybe show the nerds some sophistication and get the snooty art people to lighten up a bit. (I'm like 60% joking when I say that).

The cherry on top is that I've come away from every show with a little money in my pocket which usually gets me a victory meal after the show and some Starbucks in the morning. 

What has pursuing the visual and musical arts as an adult revealed to you about how society views ‘the artist’?

This is a great question and something I talk about a lot. With social media and it's tsunami of convenience, anyone "can" be an artist. It's like we're truly living in Warhol's "15 minutes of fame" phrase. It's become so easy to fabricate an image of yourself and what I've noticed especially being amongst other artists is that people are so much more focused on the image of being an artist rather than the art itself. What you get is a bunch of conveyor belt mediocre imagery to go along with some shitty sleep-deprived, voluntarily dirty pretentious "weirdo".

I think people just need to understand that social media is a great tool but will never replace the power of physical mediums. As tablets replace paper, people are forgetting the importance of fucking up. You have to fuck up in order to learn and you have to fuck up in order to appreciate the finished product that much more. This is not only applicable to art but to life. With this though, I've learned that being genuine is the only thing that can navigate you through all the nonsense.

It might not get you thousands of followers or a bunch of money but what it will get you is real friendships, positive connections and most of all, fulfillment. 

If you could reimagine the artwork for one LIHC record, which would it be and why?

This was a very hard question. I'd have to say Automanipulation by Mind Over Matter. I feel like that record has so many different textures and I'd try to make something that reflects the intensity of the record. Obviously no disrespect to the original cover. A close runner up for me was Funeral for a Feeling by Kill Your Idols just because that is a very special record for me as well.

But while we're on the topic of LIHC/ NYHC album covers, Sean Taggart is the GOAT. 

Give No Echo readers a suggestion for one comic that everyone should read.

The Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius. It's definitely out there and the French to English translation can be a little funky at times but overall, it has an incredible story with even better visuals.


Pick up a copy of The Cosmic Debt comic book at this link

Jon Gusman on social media: Instagram | YouTube


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Tagged: dead last, jon gusman, pillars of ivory, restless spirit, rule them all, the fight