For the last few years, when not busy with his day job teaching sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Brian Ralph has been busy working on his latest graphic novel, Daybreak. The book is a slight departure of sorts for Ralph — best known for his early work as part of the highly influential Fort Thunder collective and for books like Cave-In — in that it delves into the horror genre. Yes, it’s another zombie book, but it’s a zombie book with a unique twist, with everything viewed from the perspective of an unnamed survivor (i.e. the reader), as he explores a foreboding landscape and finds a potential friend amidst all the devastation.
Daybreak makes it debut at Comic-Con this year, and Ralph will be on a panel at 5 p.m. (Pacific time) 14today with Anders Nilsen and Jeff Smith on the subject of “Epic Literary Adventures” (in Room 9).
I talked with Ralph over email about the panel, the new book, and the adventures of teaching comics to college students.
Daybreak is a horror story told from a unique, first-person perspective. Which came first for you, the desire to do a horror tale or the unique way of telling it?
I don’t play video games, but I felt there was something exciting about how a person could be immersed in the world of a video game. With comics the reader isn’t an active participant in the storytelling. I wanted to make a comic that, in it’s own way, achieve some feeling of participation and immersion. I was looking for interactivity of some kind.
I had not seen a “first-person shooter” style of comic before. It turned out to be very exciting approach to storytelling. I was constantly trying to figure out new ways for the reader to feel like they were interacting with the characters and become characters in the story as well. I made some decisions along the way; to never show the reader’s “character” such as in a mirror. I didn’t want the reader to talk with a word balloon. I felt those things would break the illusion. It was tricky to work with those constraints, but such a fun challenge.
The horror direction just happened naturally at the same time to be honest. I love zombie apocalypse movies and books. But it’s not the gore or the violence or even the zombies that I’m attracted to. It’s the landscape, and the constant need to explore and move around the landscape that I found the most compelling to depict in this comic.
During the process of making Daybreak over these years I’ve had people roll their eyes, “oh the zombie apocolypse thing is so played out” or whatever. But I would hate for my book to be thrown into that pile, because I feel that if you give it a chance you’ll see that it’s unique. But also, a part of the challenge was in fact to work within a genre where I had seen it all. It’s exciting to try to bring something different to the genre.
You originally serialized Daybreak with Bodega but opted to go with D&Q for the final collected version. Why? Are you still a fan of serialization? Did serializing Daybreak give you any benefits or feedback that you wouldn’t have gotten if you had just released it as one book?
I was drawing two pages at a time and putting them on the Bodega blog once a week. That kept me on a schedule, I knew that there might be people expecting to see the work every Monday. It also kept the pacing pretty snappy, it was like every two pages was a cliff-hanger or an exciting page turn. I got really used to that rhythm. It kept the story moving at a brisk pace.
In terms of serializing the work with Randy at Bodega, it seemed like an interesting way to present it. I’m used to the artist sequestering themselves away for years and then emerging with this massive tome. But in this case, we presented it online and then did a yearly serialized book at SPX. It was exciting. It really got me talking to the readers more at conventions. They would tell me things they wanted to see. They were curious about how it would end. People were very open to discussing their ideas. With other books, the work is done — there’s no discussion. I was always interested to hear people’s opinions and theories about what I was trying to accomplish. “It’s going to turn out to all be a dream” was something I heard a lot. One reader sent me an email pointing out panels where I had made errors. Especially where I had reversed the missing right arm to the left.
My understanding was that Randy wanted to take a break from publishing, and so he and Tom at D+Q discussed the idea of D+Q doing the collection. Tom and I are close friends from the Highwater days, so it seemed like a natural progression. Randy was involved with the whole process of collecting the books so it was great that he stayed involved.
You talk about exploring the landscape, which is a trait that’s shared with your other book, Cave-In. And the Fort Thunder group, of which you were a part, were all very much interested in using comics to explore a space or landscape. Why is this? Where does that interest come from?
I’ve heard this type of comic described as “Walking Around Comics” or “Video Game comics” which I think would refer to the fact that they aren’t really written in a traditional way. I think everyone at Fort Thunder came upon this style of non-writing in a genuine way. We played video games, we explored abandoned buildings, we wandered around Providence, we lived in a cavernous and weird space. I think the stories emerged from all of those things.
We never talked about it, so I’m just guessing, but I think there was an interest in very pure, stripped-down storytelling. Just moving characters through spaces. That’s it. Exploring the basics of storytelling.
You stick to a very basic six-panel grid throughout the book, which I don’t think you ever vary from. Why? What did this format give you in terms of storytelling that a different set-up wouldn’t?
I felt as though the consistent six-panel grid would help the reader lose themselves in the story. I believe it helps the read forget they are reading a story drawn by an artist’s hand, instead they can completely experience the story as if they are there. That’s the hope at least. I didn’t find it limiting at all, it was a lot of fun actually. Also, this story is unlike a traditional comic because it’s meant to actually feel like this is actually happening to the reader, through their own eyes.
What was the biggest challenge of maintaining that “first-person” look for the book? Was there any point where you worried you were going to have to break one of your rules?
I had to really carefully consider the dialogue. Our one-armed friend in the story talks to us, the reader, and asks questions. I wanted it to feel like he was carrying on a conversation with the reader. There’s a couple times in the book where we the reader pick up an object. Since I didn’t want to show our hands, I would do a panel of the object that we’re picking up, an axe for example. I would hope that the reader would then understand that we did pick it up and could use it. My favorite sequence is where we shoot a weapon, that was a leap of faith and I think it worked.
You don’t show the main character at all, but you also don’t show the zombies much, apart from a leg or arm here or there. Why? What did that decision give you in terms of building tension in the book?
I made a couple attempts at sketching the zombies thinking, of course, that I should include them, but I kept finding ways to avoid them. I wasn’t sure why, but it never felt right. Ultimately I decided that it just wasn’t necessary for the story I was trying to tell. The story is about traveling around with a stranger and becoming friends. Are any zombie stories really about the zombies? I don’t think so. The stories and movies are about the survivors having to form relationships. The blood and guts cheapen that. Plus, what a fun constraint, to draw a zombie book without ever showing a zombie? That’s crazy.
The main relationship in the book is between the main character (i.e. the reader) and the one-armed man. How important was that relationship to the book’s coherence and story arc?
I think that’s the whole story. It’s about making a friend and then having to say goodbye to him. I really came to like that character and I didn’t want to let him go.
Peggy Burns at D&Q mentioned that you are teaching comics at SCAD. How did you end up doing that? What has that experience been like?
I had been teaching Illustration for years at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore and really enjoying it. SCAD has an actual Sequential Art major and that really interested me, so I traveled to Savannah to visit and really fell in love with the department, the faculty and the students.
I teach classes like Character Design, Introduction to Sequential Art, Alternative Comics, Cartooning, and Materials and Techniques. It’s funny, because I feel as though I’ve learned so much about comics and cartooning by having to teach it. In order to teach a subject you have had to clarify what it is in your head, broken it down, carefully considered everything about it. I’ve critiqued hundreds of pages of comics, maybe more, and I never get tired of problem-solving with the students, figuring out ways to arrange pages and panels to help them tell their stories.
I also understand you’re going to be doing a panel at San Diego with Anders Nilsen and Jeff Smith. Can you give me a preview of what you’ll be discussing?
My version of what I think we’ll be discussing is our thoughts on building and inhabiting these fantasy worlds in our comics. I’m not a big fan of the term “world building” but maybe that’s what it’s about.
When I draw these fantasy landscapes and fantasy characters, I really have to visualize them in my head and inhabit those spaces in order to really make the drawing believable. The artist must fully believe it in order to pull it off. It has to be real to the artist. I think you have to draw what you know, and even though I am drawing fantasy apocalyptic environments and caves, etc, I am pulling from places I have know.
I imagine the panel discussion will be me just nodding my head and agreeing with everything Jeff Smith has to say.
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