Brian Ralph has a thing about caves and cute little characters who scurry through them. Of course, not-so-cute things often happen to the protagonists of Ralph's comics; 1999's Cave-In and 2002's Climbing Out both feature grim twists amid their nearly wordless wanderings, and the new first volume of Daybreak (Bodega) ventures into full-on blood-spattered zombie-ridden post-apocalypse mode. Yet somehow, Ralph's detailed panels and simple shaggy-dog stories duck horror or tragedy for something more wry, or even heartwarming. Friendly, even, although there isn't much of the brooding pen-scratcher in the 33-year-old New Jersey native (and occasional City Paper contributor) to begin with. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1996 and spending some time as part of the Fort Thunder art nexus in Providence, Ralph packed up six years ago and moved to Baltimore, where he now lives in Charles Village with his wife and young son and, when not stealing time in his home studio, teaches comics at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Ralph recently sat down, sketchbook in hand, to chat about superheroes, video games, zombies, and living in caves.
City Paper: Did you start drawing young?
Brian Ralph: I did. I found my old sketchbook where I would trace superheroes and then draw new costumes on them and make my own characters, things like that.
CP: About what age?
BR: Really young. And then, when I was in third or fourth grade, my parents started to send me to classes outside of school--you know, to someone's studio, and you would draw and make little sculptures and things like that.
CP: Somebody's basement with a cat wandering around . . .
BR: Yeah, exactly. My parents really encouraged it, which was really helpful. My sister, who's a couple of years older than me, was really into art, too, so there was kind of a little course plan in my family as to what you did.
I drew comics that were like The Far Side. Little things like that. When I finally went to college, I stopped drawing comics and cartoony things, because I wanted to get more serious. I was working on, like, figure painting and more serious attempts at becoming an illustrator. I guess I just was trying to figure out how to turn this into something that I could make a living for myself. Not that my parents ever pushed me to be a commercial artist, but there was this feeling that that was a way to be a success, to have people calling you asking you for things. I always wanted for someone to want my work.
I got back into comics because people were asking me about the comics. No one was excited about a still-life painting that I did--they were more excited to read a comic I had drawn. People were interested in the characters and what was going to happen and when's the next one coming out.
I started doing minicomics and leaving them at record stores for free. Even before I moved to Baltimore, I was sending things to Atomic Books and asking them, "Will you carry five of these?" In the boom of the zine days, I was trying to distribute minicomics like zines.
CP: It's interesting that you started out tracing superheroes. No matter what kind of comics people end up doing, there are always superheroes somewhere in their past. I keep wondering if there's ever going to be a generation that came up strictly on Fantagraphics or something.
BR: I think I see that already. When I go around to conventions, I see kids coming up who haven't read superhero comics. And I think it's going to be really interesting to see what the shift is going to be like with kids who are into Japanese stuff--Pokémon, Dragonball Z. Maybe it'll be exactly like superheroes, just a different style.
In America there's this history of superheroes that's inescapable, but I had these two students from Sweden this year, and they didn't have that baggage of American superhero comics, and it was really refreshing. They were doing things that we just didn't understand, and it was nice to see things other than that classic kind of storytelling that we're used to.
CP: So you were around RISD at a time and place that's getting a lot of attention now--the music and art collective/commune Fort Thunder. It's interesting that institutions like RISD and the Whitney Museum and others are honoring this scene that was all about stuff that's not usually part of the fine art world--crazy masks and noisy punk rock and comics.
BR: I don't know if it was happening, or if it was about to happen and Fort Thunder just happened to be there--I can't say that it started everything like that around the country. It's just one of those things that's out there [in the art world] right now. When I came to Baltimore and [visited] the Wham City art space, I was like, This is what Fort Thunder was. It's a look, but it's also this weird punk-house thing.
I lived there for about four years. You had Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, and Jim Drain, who's now one of the more well-known fine-art guys to come out of Fort Thunder, but I kind of didn't fit. I got my BFA in illustration. I was doing spot illustration for newspapers while I was living there. Everything else about my attitude fit, but I was trying to make money. I was willing to do, like, a recipe illustration. I remember Brian or Matt would look at me, and they just didn't understand why I would do that. But it was just different ways of making money. I would also do rock-show posters, and that would make money, and I wouldn't have to necessarily do illustration for a while. I just never turned down a job. Whenever people called me, I would always do it.
I think people overdo the art collective aspect [of Fort Thunder]. It grew really organically, and that was part of the beauty of it. We never had a house meeting to decide how we were going to attack the world. You had all these people who couldn't sit through a house meeting. But you had a lot of people with a burning desire to do stuff.
CP: You did your first book, Cave-In, while still living at Fort Thunder. How did it come about?
BR: I know exactly how it came about. We were playing a lot of video games, and I wanted to continue that experience. As silly as that sounds, I was really into, not just video games, but fantasy, taking someone on an adventure. I was really into playing Tomb Raider, and I wanted to make something that was like my version of that. And that's why it's this meandering tale. I think of it as storytelling that's similar to video games, in a way. It's catching every moment. There are no big leaps, you're just watching the character do things, which is kind of what video games are.
I wasn't thinking that at the time. It wasn't until this Brian Chippendale book [Ninja] came out [recently] that I heard someone talking about the video-game aspect of it--the moment-to-moment-to-moment following of the character--and I started to think, That was actually a huge influence.
Also, it was in direct response to Dan Clowes' Eightball and Adrian Tomine's work. Milk and Cheese. It's not like I hated those comics, but I wanted to have a really fresh voice, and I wanted to respond to this coffee-shop, whiny, emo stuff I was seeing. I wanted to draw the furthest thing away I could do, which is to draw someone in a cave, walking around.
CP: One of things that makes Cave-In--and your other books--distinctive is that while a lot of harsh things happen, it's also quite sweet.
BR: Yeah, people have described it as "cute brute." I don't consciously do this cute-brute thing, but it always happens that there's got to be this balance between something lovable and something darker, or deeper.
CP: While each of the books is different, there are a lot of similarities. There's your drawing style--all the hatch marks--and then there's the caves, the cute characters in awful situations. Is that something you've consciously stuck with?
BR: I'm not consciously doing it, but it's the thing that appeals to me most, for some reason. I've tried to do other things, but I always come back to what's most comfortable for me. Every time I try to force myself to do something else, it doesn't feel right.
They do have a similar type of storytelling, but it's part of the language--that's the way I speak through the images. It just so happens that it's this long, meandering way of telling a story. (laughs) It's all fantasy, too.
CP: Your new book, Daybreak, reminded me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's new novel, The Road--this kind of grim but ultimately humane post-apocalyptic story. What drove you to this extreme?
BR: I'm really fascinated by zombie movies. I'm not like a horror-movie fan, but I'm really interested in survival. And that's what I love about zombie movies, is that you have these bands of people who have to survive, and everything else doesn't matter anymore. I could watch a zombie movie for hours and hours and hours and have nothing happen other than just figuring out how the people survive. That's what I felt like this was.
I didn't consciously take the zombies out. It just didn't interest me to draw zombies. I just wanted to do the meandering. (laughs) Exploring the environment through the characters was what interested me--just the human interaction.
I was really thinking about video games when I did this one. I haven't played video games in 10 years, I guess, but I was thinking, What did I like about video games? How can a comic compete with a video game? So I did make a conscious decision to figure out a way that I felt could compete with a video game, could pull you in as much. And that's why this is like a first-person shooter game, where characters are talking to you directly.
It's actually gotten really good response. I didn't know what the response would be. The people who loved the other books, I didn't know if this would be such a departure that they would reject it.
CP: It has a lot of the same elements, including that same essential sweetness.
BR: Well, I've tried to make really horrible things happen, and I couldn't let myself do it. Or I've drawn the zombies, and I was like, This doesn't feel right to do right now, at this point in the story. And I'm always wondering if that's going to frustrate people. It's not what I'm interested in. I'm not the guy who draws monsters. I want to draw the people talking and having this friendship.
CP: So now you're teaching a course in comics at MICA.
BR: It's called Sequential Art. When I first started teaching this, I thought, This is crazy.
BR: I'm a little surprised sometimes that people like this stuff. I mean, I know I like it, but I've done these stories that are so different than anything out there, almost daring people to read these things . . .
CP: But maybe better you than someone who's going to teach them to be Alan Moore, because we've already got Alan Moore and lots of people trying to be Alan Moore.
BR: One of the things that's different about me is that I'm not a writer, and I'm also not a traditional comic-book artist. And I don't want to be a director of a movie--I think a lot of people make comics because they can't afford to make a movie. My interest in comics comes from this really pure love for this kind of comic-book storytelling.
CP: Do you talk to your students about the practical aspects? Because art school, like a lot of academic settings, seems geared toward training lots of people for a field with few opportunities.
BR: I do, and I base it on what's been successful for me, and for people I've known, and that's to do your work, do exactly what you want to do, and be prepared to publish it yourself until people accept you. If I had sat around and waited for someone to notice me, I wouldn't have these books out. I had to draw a hundred pages' worth of comics before someone was like, "Oh, I might want to publish this." Especially in comics, there's no get-rich-quick scheme. There's no job waiting for you out there.
The comics world is a real struggle. It's a struggle to me now, after 10 years of doing it. When I struggle, though, I actually do stuff. When I have some success, I slack off. Like when I drew Cave-In, I was basically living in a cave, with no heat and bats and mice, and you had to use a flashlight to get to your room. Now I'm very comfortable and have a family. I almost have to invent danger for myself, invent struggle to keep going.
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