by Brian Truitt)
In her life as a tattoo artist, Nei Ruffino put a lot of big cats, wolves and birds on people, but not one of her favorite animals, the crow.
Instead, Ruffino explores them on the comic-book page, specifically one winged female at the heart of her creator-owned fantasy series The Secret Life of Crows.
Two years after the first issue, the artist launches the second chapter this weekend, timed to Free Comic Book Day on Saturday. She and issue writer Raven Gregory will do signings at Jesse James Comics in Phoenix on Saturday and Sunday, and Secret Life No. 2 is available to order online at Elysium Treasures (as is the first issue).
Ruffino is one of the comics industry's top colorists, but Secret Life marks one of the few times she's tackled all of the art duties on a project, as well as crafted the story. The second issue picks up with the main character, a crow living in the world of men who has both a black bird form one of a woman with gold eyes, green hair and a skull headpiece at night.
There is a sadness in her loneliness, but also an ethereal beauty in the fact that it's all she's ever known, and she's making the best of it, "to find a way to make sense of it all in a world where everything is new and strange and nothing makes sense," Ruffino says.
"It mirrors real life to me, and how we all search and yearn to be more than we are. By growing and accepting the universe as our companion, we are never alone. This is the heart of the story that is similar to my life at the time."
The second chapter, though, adds a new character into the mix when the crow meets a fiery sunbird of a man who also is seeking companionship.
He developed out of a discussion with Gregory one night about the second part to the story and how to round it out more.
"With her, the cold, empty night itself is very much a part of her very being," Ruffino says. "So in juxtaposition of that, we wanted a definitive sense of light and warmth, the sun, but it also felt like he was born out of that very duality.
"He is the sun, he is hope, and he is confidence. He completes her, and she completes him."
Ruffino concedes that she's had a fascination with crows since she was 12, mostly stemming from Native American stories with a crow as a guide.
She also had an up-close and personal experience while running one morning. Ruffino came up on a crow sitting high up, with its beak shaped in such a way that inspired the head adornment on her Secret Life character.
"There was a sort of 'court' of crows on the ground, all facing the one up high," Ruffino recalls. "When they saw me, they started digging in the grass, flying around doing usual crow things. It definitely was weird — it felt like I had just stumbled onto the crow king and his court, and they immediately had to 'act normal' so I didn't get suspicious."
That sort of intelligence is what fascinates Ruffino the most.
"It's kind of crazy what you read about the studies they have done on crows and how they react to humans," says the artist, recalling one tale of how scientists tormented crows in masks and they took note of them.
"They even spread the news of those masks to other crows, and as the warning spread, they would dive at anybody wearing one for miles outside of the original study."
That interest carried over to a fantasy setting, where they offer more than fairies or other birdlike creatures, Ruffino says. They "add a touch of mystique and darkness to the tale in such a unique way that just wouldn't come across the same with any other winged creature."
Secret Life is a very personal story for Ruffino to tell, and it's allowed her to invigorate her artistic mind as well. After primarily being a colorist for a long while, she started to get an itch to draw interior art for the first time.
Working on the first issue of Crows didn't just scratch the itch, "it gave me a rash," Ruffino quips. "Now I'm slave to the desire to create my own stories."
Creating something from whole cloth is also liberating for her, she says, and gives Ruffino the chance to let go of the feeling that she's chained to or dependent on one comic company or another.
"The creation of this story feels like a fevered dream, and every time I work on it, I am fully consumed, to the point it doesn't feel like I am the one creating it," Ruffino adds. "I think when you're passionate about something, it should be all yours. In this case, it's ours, both mine and Raven's."