Tyler B. Ruff was barely a teenager during the 9-11 terror attack and U.S. invasion of Iraq, but he was paying attention.
Then came news that government officials had misled the public into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I can’t always trust these institutions that are in power, and maybe I should be skeptical and seek out the truth of what’s really happening in the world,’” said Tyler, 28, of rural Waterloo.
This epiphany formed the basis of “The Unforgiven,” his graphic-novel series about a dystopian society of people who survived a nuclear war that destroyed much of the planet.
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Specifically, the story focuses on rebels who challenge the power structure of a newly established, walled-off region in North America. They are exiled, along with criminals and homeless people.
“Anybody who goes against the picture of a utopia that (the leaders) have created, anyone who doesn’t fit in, they push them outside the walls in the middle of the night,” Tyler said. “They’re left in the wilderness in the ruins of the world to fend for themselves.”
Pretty heavy stuff for someone who fell in love with Spider-Man as a boy and first checked out “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way” at Zahnow School library.
But the subject matter of “The Unforgiven” and Tyler’s passion didn’t surprise his parents, Kim and Todd Ruff.
“He’s always been a deep guy,” said Kim, purchasing coordinator for Holten Meats. “Some parents say their children were born adults. That’s how he was. Even though he was fun and funny and liked to play as a child, he was always thinking.”
A graphic novel is a fictional story in comic book form. Tyler began writing “The Unforgiven” in high school. He has self-published eight full and three half issues (out of 50 in the series) since 2012.
Full issues average 40 pages, about double the industry standard, but that seems to accommodate the story’s natural divides.
Dave Schmidt, owner of Main Street Music in Waterloo, which carries the books, has been impressed with Tyler’s perseverance.
“I enjoy seeing somebody local with such a creative mind who is able to get his work out there for other people to enjoy,” said Dave, 52. “You don’t see that very often.”
Tyler would love to land a contract with a major publisher, but until then, he’ll continue working on his own. He churns out illustrations and dialogue almost every day.
Tyler recently freed up time for the project by dropping from 40 to 20 hours a week at his day job. He’s a clinical research coordinator for the sarcoma oncology research team at Washington University in St. Louis.
“It’s a very rare type of cancer, and Washington University is one of the only institutions in the country that has clinical trials to treat it,” he said. “People come from all over.”
Tyler graduated from Waterloo High School in 2006 and went on to earn a studio arts degree at Illinois State University.
Brother Ethan, who plays baseball for Lindenwood University, is more into sports than science fiction or comics, but he’s proud of Tyler.
“I think he is super talented, and he’s very intelligent,” said Ethan, 21. “I support him, and I see what he’s trying to do.”
Tyler also has made a fan out of his girlfriend, Melissa Uhl, a second-grade teacher at Soulard School in St. Louis, who has discovered that comic books can help “reluctant readers” because they are so visual. She also sees a positive social message in “The Unforgiven.”
“I love that he’s written a story about a group of people who don’t fit in and they want to make the world a better place,” said Melissa, 27, of Waterloo.
The series addresses political issues, ranging from climate change to overpopulation. Most early characters were white males, but Tyler has been working to increase diversity on race, gender, background and sexual orientation. He wants all readers to feel represented.
Tyler originally drew with graphite but switched to ink, which is “neater, cleaner and faster.” His first eight issues are black and white. He’ll add color gradually.
“(The series is) not for kids, definitely, but I think 15 (years old) is fine,” Tyler said. “Anybody who could watch ‘The Walking Dead’ on AMC or ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Westworld’ on HBO could read this.”
Dave agrees. “I don’t think it would be something young kids would be interested in because it’s not cartoony,” he said. “It’s more story driven.”
“The Unforgiven” is available at Main Street Music, A.M. Trading Co. in St. Louis and The Wizard’s Wagon in University City, Mo., or online at www.wearetheunforgiven.com, www.etsy.com or www.comixology.com.
Single issues sell for $2.99 to $4.99, depending on length. The first eight have been consolidated into a collectible Vol. 1, “Of Ashes Born,” for $15 and Vol. 2, “From Shadows Shed,” for $20.
Tyler also holds book signings at libraries and stores and operates booths at comic conventions, usually with Melissa by his side.
“I honestly think he was made to do this,” she said. “I just couldn’t see him doing anything else with his life.”