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Boy's Life

Brian Ralph Gives New Meaning to the Term "Underground Comics"

By Christopher Skokna | Posted 4/3/2002

In Brian Ralph's wordless 1999 graphic novel Cave-In (Highwater Books), the humanoid hero (call him cave-boy) traipses through some caverns after chasing a mouse that has stolen his breakfast worm. Along the way, cave-boy finds some other worms to eat, gets eaten by a giant lamprey-eel-like creature (he manages to escape), crushes a Lilliputian cottage full of tiny cave creatures, makes friends with a mummy, destroys that mummy's Egyptian palace, is attacked by a swarm of bats, and at last finds his home cave again, where he settles in for a nice nap.

The story is pure fantasy, as is almost all of the Baltimore-based cartoonist's work: minicomics starring cavemen, robots, and aliens; a short story (published in the fifth edition of the anthology NON) about a boy pirate and a talking alligator who come across a haunted submarine. Fantastical as it is, though, Ralph's work stands as proof of the notion that all fiction is autobiography.

Cave-In, the cartoonist says during an interview at his Mount Vernon apartment, is more than a little about the period the 28-year-old Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) grad spent living in the semifamous, now-defunct Providence punk house/artists colony Fort Thunder in the late '90s. "Fort Thunder was this huge warehouse, filled with cartoonists, artists, and musicians," Ralph says. "You had to carry a flashlight to find your way around, had to climb over everybody's lofts. There were bats, rats. You had to build your own shelter." One can imagine Ralph encountering a bat or a drunken roommate on his way out the door in the morning, perhaps sharing a slice of toast with one of the resident rodents before leaving--a more modest adventure than cave-boy's, but one that surely would stick in his head.

Despite his use of the traditional trappings of juvenile-boy comics--monkeys, aliens, robots, pirates--Ralph doesn't hide his artistic pretensions. "I like comics, but sometimes I don't feel like I'm doing the same thing," he says of his slow-moving, scratchily drawn (think a more polished Gary Panter) work. "I'm using the same language [as other cartoonists], but I'm trying to find a different audience, a more fine-art one."

At his first RISD show in 1995, trying to find that fine-art audience, he nonetheless scattered copies of the first issue of his just-completed skateboarding zine/minicomic Fireball around the gallery. "Nobody said anything about the paintings, but they were really into the comic book," he remembers. "So I started doing more issues, dropping off piles here and there. That was really exciting to me--30 people may come to your gallery show, but hundreds can read your comic."

While Ralph read and drew/traced superhero and horror comics as a boy in Metuchen, N.J.--and continued drawing typical boy stuff in high school--Fireball was his first real stab at comics, one taken before he had discovered the world of alternative comics. "I was coming at it from a zine point of view--I hadn't been in a comic-book store since I was a little kid," he recalls. "The first issue was about half-zine, half-comic, and just about all about skateboarding. It became more and more a comic--and my 'themes' started appearing--as time went on."

The alternative-comics world discovered Ralph in 1996, after Tom Devlin, then an employee at the Cambridge, Mass., comic store Million Year Picnic, invited him to do a signing with some other young cartoonists. "I got a really good response there and made some good contacts," Ralph says. "I kept in touch with Devlin, who went on to start up Highwater Books and publish my comics. And it was good for him too; I introduced him to all the Fort Thunder guys."

Unlike many of today's popular alternative cartoonists (Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes), Ralph doesn't write wordy, complex plots or explore the existential dilemmas of the modern world. He just wants to "draw whatever I want. I'm not a writer. My books are not too heavy and they're mostly wordless. I think of them as settings. I introduce these characters, and they interact. I get [them] stuck and then have to figure out how to get [them] out. The work is driven by the drawing and the composition."

That's easy to see in Ralph's books. The simple but effective page layouts are full of expansive drawings of rough surfaces (caves, forest, the sea) you can almost touch. He frequently uses repetitive patterns, such as wavy ocean lines, crystals imbedded in cave walls, kitchen utensils, and multitudes of identical cave creatures. "It's all just an excuse to draw these things," he says.

Well, not exactly. Ralph's work, while on the "art" side of alternative comics, is accessible to just about all readers--his illustrations and storylines, while odd, are crystal clear. He's not an experimentalist, like some of his further-underground contemporaries, nor is he as plain confusing and out there as his old Fort Thunder roommates.

Ralph admits to being the "most sell-out guy" at the Fort. "After graduating [from RISD in 1996], all of a sudden I was practically a squatter, living in this punk house," he says. "All it took to survive was $150 a month per person for rent, which we made mostly by screen-printing stuff for people. It was great for me. Everyone had amazing things going on. [Music] shows once or twice a week, other artists coming in to visit. Constant stuff going on 24 hours a day. . . .

"While everyone was being crazy, I was doing Cave-In, I was doing freelance illustration," he says. "I was the most commercial guy there. We were always about to be evicted. The electricity was turned off, so I had to draw with gloves on during the winter. I miss the camaraderie, but I took everything I needed from that: the attitude, the daring willingness to do anything I want."

Ironically, a few of Ralph's old housemates ended up as "commercial" as he is. Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson's band Lightning Bolt regularly tours the country. And Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, and Leif Goldberg's multimedia project Forcefield can currently be seen/heard/experienced at the Whitney Museum of American Art 2002 Biennial. "I wasn't connecting with those guys on the future--I didn't think they were going to change," Ralph says. "But they did. They've really branched out."

Ralph's upcoming book, Climbing Out (self-published with a grant, due out in May), is another fantastical reconstruction of episodes from his life, in this case his departure from Providence for Baltimore in early 2000. His then-fiancée, Megan Luther, was entering Maryland Institute College of Art, and he had taken a Web-animation job at a now-shuttered dot-com company in Annapolis. In the book, a talking monkey longs to escape the drudgery of his job in a mine. With some help from a mysterious old man, the monkey comes across some plans that show him how to build a time machine that allows him to leave his caveman roommate behind and travels to what looks like a depopulated, bombed-out city.

Since the loss of his animation job, Ralph has collected unemployment, married Luther, worked as a recruiter for MICA, completed Climbing Out and other projects, taught cartooning to local kids through community organizations, and continued his freelance work (be on the lookout for a comic about the Museum of Modern Art's temporary move from Manhattan to Queens in an upcoming issue of MoMA magazine). So far, he hasn't released any comics about those adventures, but that won't be the case for long, Ralph says.

"Sometimes I see something weird--especially in Baltimore--and I draw it down," he says. "[But] all I can do is interpret [those weird things] in my own world."

Brian Ralph and fellow NON No. 5 contributors Nick Bertozzi, Jordan Crane, Tom Devlin, and Megan Kelso will sign copies at Atomic Books (1100 W. 36th St.) on April 7, from 2 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (410) 662-4444 or visit www.atomicbooks.com.

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