Giant robots and wisecracking cats. They're such great cartoon tropes that you wonder why someone hasn't tried to mesh them together before now. But mesh they do in Brian Ralph's Reggie-12, an episodic comic strip about an constantly plucky, ever-optimistic Astro Boy-like robot who constantly is saving the city he lives in from danger (usually in the form of other, bigger robots), only to face withering indifference from everyone back home, especially the afore-mentioned cat.
Originally serialized in the pages of Giant Robot magazine and other assorted comics anthologies, the Reggie-12 strips have now been collected in a handsome, oversize, hardbound book from Drawn and Quarterly. Ralph was at the Small Press Expo this year, signing copies of his new book and generally helping man the D& Q booth. I pulled him away for a bit and, once we found a place to sit down, peppered him with questions about Reggie-12.
Chris Mautner: When was the first appearance of Reggie-12? Do you remember when you started these strips?
Brian Ralph: You know, I don’t. I had done comics in Giant Robot earlier before Reggie-12. There was this thing I did called The Legend of Giant Robot. It wasn’t funny. It was trying to be an ongoing serialized comic. I just didn’t have the storytelling chops yet. I ended it and wanted to start something new. That’s when Reggie-12 started and it was such a better fit for the magazine. It’s hard to do a daily strip in a magazine that comes out every month. I got so much more story packed into a smaller space. I don’t know the exact year [it began] though. Ten years ago?
Does this book collect all the Reggie-12 appearances?
Yeah, every single one.
Obviously Astro Boy is the main influence here, but I was wondering what else might have been thinking about while making these strips.
When I was a kid I had a Shogun Warrior, this big, 24-inch giant [toy] that launched missiles. That influence me. I just loved the design and shapes of robots. That was big and also just Japanese comics in general. I found all these old 1970s comics like Tobor, the 8th Man. It was that period of '60s and '70s manga that influenced me and I just borrowed and stole from there. Something between Shogun Warriors, Astro Boy and very simple cartoons was very attractive to me.
Reggie-12 is very obviously a parody. In fact, this is your only straightforward comedy, I think. Was that something you wanted to do? Did you not feel comfortable doing straight adventure stories?
I had been doing this stuff for Nickelodeon too so I became very interested in the timing of jokes and telling jokes. Because it was in a magazine and I was trying to reach an audience that perhaps didn’t normally read comics or was new to comics, I wanted to make the poppiest, most accessible thing I could, and that’s jokes. Everybody loves jokes. So I tried to fill it with as many jokes as I possibly could, with as many exciting robots as I possibly could, I tried to make it very digestible and appealing to readers. It turned out I really enjoyed the joke craftsmanship. It was an interesting puzzle to solve. The timing of any comic has to be really thoughtful. If you don’t hit the punchline in the right way it’s not funny. I found that endlessly interesting. It was a puzzle to figure out.
A lot of your comics up till now had been standalone stories. You didn’t have a lot of recurring stories or characters before. Was that an interest for you as well?
I was interested in making standalone pages that would work, but also in having the characters grow and change ... and figuring out who each person was and what their driving force was, and why does the cat behave like that? I got to know the characters. There was no overall story to it but everyone developed through each comic.
So when you started out you didn’t have the characters as fully defined?
No. I look back at the early strips and the jokes were there – I knew Reggie-12 was going to be this endlessly hopeful character who was an optimist, kind and friendly, and of course so easy to poke fun at. And everyone around him was going to be an inept and ineffectual and almost ill-willed or indifferent to him. But he’s never deterred by anybody’s lack of interest in what he’s doing.
He’s very plucky. There’s also a lot of experimentation on these pages. You were open to that anyway, being one of the original members of Fort Thunder. But I was I curious: Did you go into this thinking, "I want to play around with the format?"
Absolutely. Originally I did this under a different name, Ralph Stevenson.
'Cause when I started it I felt like I had these books I did – Cave-In and Climbing Out – I wanted Reggie-12 to be a place where I could explore new ideas. I felt like if I didn’t use my name, if I used a new name, I could have some freedom without tarnishing the Brian Ralph name. Ultimately, it turned out people knew it was me anyway. The name popped into my head and sometimes I just stick with a dumb idea. The ultimate goal was trying to do big pages that have huge robots and build big illustrations around them.
There was even some Frank King-like sequences.
Oh, yeah, that was a huge influence. I wanted to do big illustrations, but I also wanted to tell a story and I found that was the perfect mix. A readable story but you still got to do big imagery and you didn’t have to work in small boxes. All these panels also experiment with seeing the character multiple times in one image, which I had seen done and seemed so exciting in terms of motion and storytelling. It blew it wide open for me.
Why are the strips colored blue?
Tobor the 8th Man was in black and white. The animated shows were all in black and white. I wanted it to look like a comic that could have existed in the '60s; I wanted it to have this old look. I felt like if I did these two colors it would look like a historical piece. Like it was being reprinted in this magazine. It was a split second decision that I just stuck with, and I love the two color look.
I was wondering what kind of reception the strip got while you were serializing it. Did you get any feedback from readers?
No. The creators of the magazine they would let me do the comic but it wasn’t ever clear to me if they actually read the comic. I would ask them “Do you think it’s funny” and they’d say “Oh, I didn’t realize it was supposed to be funny."
In that way it was really freeing: “Darn it, I’m going to make people laugh at this. I’m going to try to write the funniest comic I can possibly write." No one ever tried to talk to me about it. I think it reached a lot of people and yet frustratingly, here I was looking for this response I was looking for – laughs – and I wasn’t getting it. And it drove me to do the next one. "OK, they didn’t like the last one but the next one will be even better." There was this guy who would write hate mail to the magazine saying he hated the comic. Maybe to get my goat [the editors] would publish the letters. I always thought it was maybe a prank. Who could hate this comic? It’s not hatable. But no, I was never getting the response I was looking for, but I think that was actually good. A really good thing for a cartoonist is to have a chip on their shoulder. It drives them to do better and better.
One thing that struck me is that – and it’s a good thing for comedy – all the characters are obnoxious in their own special way. Even Reggie for all of his innocence makes some pretty bad gaffes. There’s a lot of hurt feelings in the book and people desperate for friendship and acceptance and just not getting it at all. Were you conscious of that?
That’s a really good question. All these characters want to be friends with each other and yet no one can quite make the connection. You’re right. There’s a comic in there where Reggie has a rival named Sebastian X, who's more talented than he is. Maybe it’s some sort of deep rooted problem that I have but having characters not being able to find friendship is really funny I guess. I don’t know, it just happened that way.
They’re all operating on their own selfish ends and hoping the other person will help them.
Everyone’s really indifferent to each other.
Which is interesting for a funny comic about a giant robot. Are you interested in doing more Reggie-12 strips or do you feel like you’re done?
I could always do more. Once you’ve drawn these characters, they are … you can just pick them up at any moment and do another one. I always have a voice for these characters. I don’t know if I’m going to pursue another book of Reggie-12 but if there was interest, yeah.
So if this sells out today …
I’ll do some more, yeah, sure. But what is lasting for me is the storytelling and the jokes. What I learned from writing those jokes ... I can have any character, a piece of pizza talking to a cupcake and I could use that joke-telling in the same way. It would be just as desirable as Reggie-12.
What are you working on now?
Even if I don’t do a straight-up comedy book, I want to always be joking. I can never take anything too seriously. I even think Daybreak had a sense of humor to it. The dialogue was humorous to me.
It’s pretty open, what I’m doing next. I know I wanted to work more with Drawn and Quarterly on another book. I have a book with First Second that I’ve been working on for years and years.
Tell me about that.
It’s a book I tried a couple of different times and never gotten quite off the ground. It’s called Shipwrecks. I’ve had tons of pages of this done for a long time and First second has been so patient with me as I’ve been trying to knock this thing out. It’s a relationship between a little kid and an alligator and they go on this extended adventure. And it’s funny and it’s poignant and it’s sad. The jokes are always in there and that’s a book I hope to finish.
When do you think you’ll have it done?
Oh, my gosh, I’m constantly “I can get this done, just knock it out,” and then I look at the pages and I have all these uninked pages and its’ “Oh, I’ll never get this done.” I’ve got ten more years.
You’re going to rival Paul Pope.
When I saw Paul Pope had put out the first Battling Boy book I was like, if Paul Pope can get this done, Brian Ralph has to get his book done. So there’s some hope for it. It will happen. I would hate for it not to be completed.