The comics of Brian Ralph are packed with effortless, raw energy yet arranged in a ridiculously knowledgeable and sophisticated manner, belying both his punk rock roots as a part of the Ft. Thunder scene and product of the Rhode Island School of Design. Building on the primordial, mostly wordless, and much loved caveman-meets-time-machine opuses Cave-In and Climbing Out, Ralph’s latest collection boasts storytelling that is as bold as the brushwork. Following an engaging panel at Comic-Con led by Drawn and Quarterly‘s creative director Tom Devlin regarding the epic literary adventures of Anders Nilsen, Jeff Smith, and Ralph, I had to follow up with the professor of sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design for more thoughts on Daybreak and more.
MW: What’s it like for you to revisit finished works and then compile them? Are they time capsules for your personal life and events as well as for your artistic progression? Do you ever get sentimental when reading them?
BR: Normally I don’t get sentimental for old work. Once it’s done, it’s done. I don’t ever reread the old work either; I just move on. But with Daybreak, you are right. I do get a little sentimental I really enjoyed that character of the one-armed guy. In a weird way, we became friends over the course of the comic. I was basically drawing an imaginary friendship and I didn’t want it to end. But I knew I had a responsibility to move on.
MW: Daybreak‘s second-person perspective/first-person shooter style is quite unusual in comics. Were there ever difficult moments in writing when you wished you didn’t do that? Did you ever consider changing the perspectives like Rashoman?
BR: It was a very exciting experiment, but I never regretted it. I really feed off challenges and working my way into difficult storytelling situations. I had established a couple of rules for myself, like, “never show the reader’s character’s hands or body” and “never let the reader’s character speak or have a word balloon,” which created some interesting problems. But it forced me to find creative solutions. I did entertain the idea of killing off the one-armed man and then allowing the reader to meet someone new, but I just liked the one-armed guy so much I couldn’t bear to leave him behind in the wasteland.
GR: Are you as educated in writing stories as well as you are in drawing them? How did you go about developing your writing technique?
BR: That was something that came up when Anders Nilsen and I talked. That we just thought of a bunch of cool things that we wanted to happen in a comic, and then figured out the story around it. It strikes me as a pretty irresponsible way to tell a story, but I have been guilty of it in the past. And I have heard of the style described as “video game storytelling.” Is that bad? People say, “It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.” Is that bad, too? I don’t know.
I never studied writing, no. But when I sit down to draw a comic, I’m not just allowing it to happen. I do have a plan for what I want and I don’t want it to be some contrived, formulaic package, either. I want it to be unexpected.
MW: Most readers know about your connections to Fort Thunder, but are you a fan of Kirby, Steranko, Eisner, and the old guard of comic makers, too?
BR: I love Jack Kirby. I don’t know that his work has informed my writing, as much as my art. I think I watched a few Twilight Zone marathons when I was a kid in New Jersey and that, if anything, formed the base of my storytelling. I’ve just been trying to find creative ways to retell the “Time Enough At Last” episode with Burgess Meredith.
MW: The post-apocalyptic environment with rocks, trash, and tons of debris is something you excel at depicting. Is that something you can draw on cue now, or do you have to immerse yourself in that now and then to do so?
BR: It’s a world that I keep going back to because it’s a world I know so well in my head. I enjoyed spending time there and I like to draw it. However, spending so much time there over the course of drawing Daybreak got really depressing, and I told myself that I was done with the “downer” environments and that my next project was going to be super happy. But I’m sure I’ll return.
MW: I’m really proud that your Reggie-12 strips ran in Giant Robot. Is a compilation really going to happen?
BW: Yes. I’m absolutely confident that Drawn and Quarterly will collect it. They’ve given me a “shrugged-shoulder-and-a-yeah-I-guess” agreement to publish it.
Coming up: An interview with Anders Nilsen…