Facing the Werewolf: Tom Spurgeon in Conversation with Brian Ralph & C.F.

The final event of the 2011 The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival was a conversation with Brian Ralph and C.F. by The Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon. Brian Ralph is the author most recently of Daybreak (Drawn & Quarterly) and C.F. produces Powr Mastrs (PictureBox). Our recording picks up just as Tom is asking his first question...

SPURGEON: Do you ever get tired of talking about Fort Thunder?

RALPH: Um, I do get tired of talking about it. It’s definitely one of those … you know, if you were an ’80s band that made a pop song and now you’re trying to do new material and everyone’s like, “Hey! Play that song, play that other song”. [Laughter.] No, people have a lot of curiosity about it, and for whatever reason there’s so many interesting things that came out of it and interesting stories and interesting comics. I never get tired of talking about it because I’m also a fan. As great as it was to be there, I was also a fan of those people. I never get tired of talking about it.

SPURGEON: Do you feel, though, that’s even a fair way to kind of group you and those artists together? All of the artists there were very different artists, you could make very different comics, and at the time it might have been useful just because you guys were doing stuff as a group that was so different than what was out. But really it seems like your aesthetic has done well enough that maybe we should just treat you more as individual artists and kind of drop that tag from you and engage with your modern work. Is it fair to even think of you as a group in that way? Other than initially?

RALPH: No, I mean, I don’t feel there was an aesthetic. There wasn’t a decision to work in a certain style or to address certain types of stories or whatever. I mean it was an interest in comics and a bunch of guys and women living together that were sort of interested in pursuing the thing that they were interested in all through their lives like comics, games, various stories, fantasy, whatever. And it just so happened to be an interesting mix, but I don’t think that has a style or aesthetic. I felt like I was one of the more polished, like I was really concerned with a polish on my work. I mean, my work’s very crude looking, but I thought, man, I look like slick in comparison. I felt like I’m the commercial guy.

SPURGEON: And, I mean, your career has kind of played out like that. You’ve done work for magazines and Nickelodeon, and that’s not exactly where everyone is.

RALPH: I’m the easily packaged Fort Thunder guy.

SPURGEON: How do you feel about that legacy, the fact that there are people who are still so obsessed with…

C.F.: I was a young kid, and I mean, I worshipped those dudes, but that was it. So it’s weird to be counted as part as that, because I was not really part of that.

SPURGEON: Was it a direct influence then?

C.F.: Absolutely. It changed my life. But at the same time, lots of things changed my life, and that was a long-ass time ago. And I have total respect for it and all those people. They’re powerful artists, you know. They really struck out in their own direction. At the same time it’s so easy to forget, because that style and that aesthetic has been so aged and used by a thousand people. And that’s just what naturally happens. When something’s valuable, people use it, you know? And that’s what’s happened with that style, and that’s cool. But for me, it was a revelation, late ’90s, fuck, I hadn’t seen anything like that.

RALPH: For sure. You know, I was thinking about it today, and it was a mix of people and there was a comics, or sort of artistic one-upsmanship that…

C.F.: Competition is important.

RALPH: In a way, a competition…and at the time it wasn’t high-stakes comics, there was no money to be made. It was just, “Cool, he did five pages of somebody walking around, I’m gonna do ten pages.” [Laughter.] It’s not even publishing, it’s like dumb competition.

CF: Yeah, it’s just like, “If you’re gonna do a five-color screenprint, I’m gonna do a ten-color screenprint.” I mean, we were friendly competition. But it was tough. The first time I met Brian Ralph it was like a Halloween maze, and at the end of the maze, as you got to the end of the maze, there was a tunnel made of mattresses, and at the end of it was Brian Ralph dressed as a werewolf, and you had to wrestle him to get out. [Laughter.] You had no choice. This mattress tunnel that’s big enough for one person, and you get to the end and there’s a Wolfman. You’re like, “Oh, it’s a soft tunnel from here on out,” and then you’re like, “Fuck this Wolfman.” That may have been a way to meet girls, I don’t remember. [Laughter.]

SPURGEON: Christopher, I was wondering: you said in many ways you don’t consider yourself a part of that group. Are there other big influences that we don’t know about that are as important to you?

C.F.: Well, the things that people always say. Yeah, I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I was interested in comics, but I couldn’t even get Marvel comics, so you go to the public library. That’s how interested in comics I was. It wasn’t even like X-Men and Hulk, you know, it was just I liked the idea of comics. I would go the library and look for that shit, and what they would have was Smithsonian collections of comics from the ’40s and ’50s. So that’s what I grew up on because I didn’t have anything else but newspaper strips.

SPURGEON: Was there anyone that popped for you? Was there anything in particular that blew you away?

C.F.: Lyonel Feininger. He was sculptural, he was a cartoonist, he was an artist, he was into design. He’s a really interesting person from the past. That kind of old cartooning because it’s very similar to what we were doing at Fort Thunder, because that’s before cartooning had rules, before people were scared because people in underground music and underground comics were scared. Everybody wants to be the best and back then it was this degraded art form, and still it’s very neglected. It’s pathetic. In America, I mean. So you can do anything you want, it’s like the dream of art, free space and society where you can do and say whatever you want. And back then, when I saw Fort Thunder, I feel like in a weird way that’s why I reacted to it, like these are people that are doing and saying and drawing exactly what they’re interested in and exactly what they want to see. Why would you draw something, why would you try to emulate something that’s already been drawn by so many times. In beautiful fashion, and I don’t disrespect that, it happened, and I’m not going to try to be like Caniff or something, you know what I mean?

RALPH: That’s what I feel like was one of things I feel like was one of the most interesting parts about that time, was the sense of freedom, the exploration. We were out in the middle of nowhere, and it was like, I don’t know if anyone should read this stuff, but I’m gonna do it, I’m interested in doing it. There were just enough people that sort of prodded you on that you wanted to keep going, and so I don’t know if I ever would have gotten as far as I did if it weren’t for the community of people. And it wasn’t like we sat around and talked comics critiques or anything. Mostly just, like, played video games and stuff, but there was a sense, maybe this unspoken work ethic. If you weren’t doing something, you’re useless, you needed to be working on something whatever it was, you needed to be producing something. And that’s a freedom I found really special.

SPURGEON: Would it have been different now that you have an audience and people react to your work? Do you have a different relationship to your work?

RALPH: I mean, this is interesting, and this is something I wanted to talk to Christopher about, too. Now that there is a sense of an audience or people that you’re responsible to; it has nothing to do with sales and money or wanting my book to do well, but it’s a responsibility to the people who read your work. You’re saying, “Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish, I want to be somewhat clear about what it is and not lead you astray.” So that was something I wanted to talk to Christopher about. Where do you go as an artist? What responsibility do you have to your fans and the people who want to read this? That’s something I battle with all the time, because there are things I want to accomplish, but you can’t accomplish them without some sense of who's reading it, or who might want to read it.

SPURGEON: Christopher, do you have a sense of your audience and what they want?

C.F.: I mean, you meet people. That’s nice. I mean, other than that, the appeal of cartooning in a lot of ways to me has been unlike music. You’re alone, it’s in a remote location, and then you broadcast. You’re not responsible for being a person in a lot of ways. And when you play music, you’re responsible in every possible way. You’re there and it’s thank you, please, play at a certain time. With cartooning, it’s very private, and it’s funny to go to things like this, even though I play music shows all the time, and sit and just talk about comics. It’s so different. When do you have to talk about that? You just do it, you know? And I thing Fort Thunder was a lot like that. Everybody’s trying to talk, have a conversation, everybody’s so worried about what’s going to happen. But you don’t have to listen, you don’t have to listen to anything, you don’t have to listen to your fans, either. But there is a reaction, and I think it’s good to take risks and play with the audience and find out for yourself. Are you mad at the audience? Well, then be mad at them. Find out what comes in return. How does the audience feel about that? You want to do violence to the audience, do violence to the audience. They’ll remember you, you know? If they want to hurt you, they’re gonna fucking hurt you, and if I hurt you, then that’s you’re fucking fault. There’s a thousand of you, just bite me? And you feel that, or I felt that when I was younger, and then as I got older, I was like, “You know, I don’t even care.” And I just feel like I have to do this. The reason I started drawing is because if you don’t draw you get sick. So when it’s like that, and you’re constantly questioning like, “Why do I draw comics at all?” You know there’s so many different things you can do as a creative person, and really, choosing comics, at least in America … I don’t know why I do it. I’m 32 years old now, I met John P. when I was 16, John Porcellino. I’ve read comics my whole life, and there’s been long periods of time, years where I didn’t read anything because I didn’t want to think about it. I’m not trying to make a career or trying to impress anybody, I’m trying not to impress myself. I remember when Porcellino put out King-Cat #50, he wrote, “I struggled and struggled a long time with this, and I realized King-Cat’s not about impressing anybody. I’m just not about impressing myself.” And I feel like with music, art, anything creative, you have to let go of that stuff, and you don’t want to be rude, you don’t want to be an asshole, and if you’re already an asshole, then you’ll learn, like, “Okay, I’ve been an asshole.” And then you have to adjust. I feel like if art is experimental, all music is experimental, all art is experimental. And you go, “This is it, this is what I’m doing. I’m a grown-ass man, and I’m still drawing comics.” [Laughter.] What it worth to me then? Can I make something that makes people laugh? Yeah, I can make something that makes people turned on or enjoy it in some kind of way. Yeah, I can do that. But I need to do certain things. And I think it’s the idea of necessity that a lot of people in America, maybe they don’t have that feeling.

SPURGEON: Is there a way that your experience of doing comics strongly contrasts with your other art? Is it really different when you do comics? Is it that reason or is it other reasons? Does it come from a different place?

C.F.: It doesn’t come from a different place, it’s just a different world that it exists in. And that really matters. And honestly, criticism for comics is really lacking. You are somebody that I have great respect for in that regard, because it’s easy, it’s hard and it’s easy to make comics in America, because the expectations are so low. But it’s very difficult, and it’s a lot of work for not a lot of feedback. It takes days and days to make things that take five minutes to read. Why would you do that? [Laughter.] Painting, sometimes don’t even take five seconds and you look at them for the rest of your life, you know. And some comics are like that for me, but they just exist in this place in this country, and I’m not exactly sure how to find our way out of that, but I know it’s not like, “We just have to get the books into Borders.” [Laughter.] Or, “We just need to criticize more in the right way.” No, the work isn’t there yet, I don’t think. Once the work is good enough, people will come, but I’m just trying to make the best work that I can, and I’m just trying to be the best person that I can be. I’m not trying to do everything. I’m just trying to be myself and be the best me that I can. And I feel like if everybody does that, things will be vastly improved.

SPURGEON: Now, Brian, this is kind of the same question, but you’re a teacher now and so your art exists in a certain space in your life; there’s a certain time that you do your comics. How does that operate within your general practice, because you’re no longer doing them all the time?

RALPH: My time? What do you mean? Am I like, [scoffs] “Now I can finally get me time!” [Laughter.]

SPURGEON: Is it hard to find time to do comics? Is it hard to find that space?

RALPH: It is, and I think it’s getting harder and harder to find that voice that I had initially when I had that brain sensation. Mini-comics, I was like, “This must be earned!” and now I’m like, “This is nice.” [Laughter.] Do I need to do this? No, but my passion to keep making comics … and now I’m teaching comics as well, and maybe I’m making up my own question. The way I teach comics, I break all the rules I tell other people to follow. I try to teach traditionally what I think people should do, and I’m hoping they’ll find ways to break everything that I told them to do. But I think the responsibility is to do a traditional class of storytelling, but I would hope that there’s some sort of way that someone could go through all this information. I’m showing them panels of tons of different stuff, and maybe they come away with a little bit of something or some bit of passion to say, “Fuck you, Brian. I’m going to do the exact opposite of what you told me.” Like great! Yeah, as long as it’s on time, great. But I’m really happy to teach that and sort of share that with people who have a little bit of interest in doing it. And I would never wish it on any of them. Don’t pursue comics. Go back, get job doing something honest. [Laughter.] And I find time to do it, and obviously I’m driven, and I come to shows like this. I have something to say. Like I’m reading Christopher’s book, and I can say, “I can see how this going to work” at the same time, my response to that is I wanna use all the things I’m learning from other artists and re-filter it out as something else. You try to get better and better and better at it and continue to improve your work. I think that’s something I think we can all get by: The next one’s going to be better. I’m gonna achieve that crystallized thing I’m trying to get.

SPURGEON: I talked to Brian this morning, and you asked that we maybe talk a little bit about process, because that doesn’t really get covered in panels like this, when you guys are both really fascinating artists, and I’d love to get at least some basic information on how you work, how you create, and maybe we can talk about that in terms of Daybreak and Powr Masters, and maybe Brian could go first. I mean that was a repurposed web strip. Can you talk a little bit about how you made that and how you repurposed it for the final book? How was that drawn?

RALPH: Yeah, this one came out of frustration at having done lots of comics and sort of being burnt out and thinking about how I wanna work and have the work ethic, but I felt like I was a little bored. I already know establishing shots, close up of character, long shot of characters talking, moment to moment panel transition. It was so engrained in me, the traditional way of comics. I started doing Daybreak just as a  way to do something at night, and I would usually do it after a couple of beers at eleven o’clock at night. But then I started getting all excited about it. So I put it up every two weeks or every week, the two pages up on online, and that kept me with a deadline to do it. Even if I just knew Tom Devlin was waiting for it or somebody wanted to see it, it kept me on a deadline to actually get it done. I did a lot of just panel-to-panel, or write page by page, and that was a challenge to me as an artist, to work myself into corners, figure ways out of them, and I had this constraint of second person point of view that the viewer was a character. Somewhere in that combination of challenges, I found interest in what I was doing. I work really traditionally, but I’ve come to the point where I rarely sketch anything, it’s almost all right on the paper. I don’t keep sketchbooks or diaries of panels or plans or something else. I found that when I was sketching something, I was like, “Why am I just not drawing this?” Just cut the middleman and just do it. Stop planning. It seems like cowardice or something.

C.F.: Yeah, it’s like over-planning my thought kills it.

SPURGEON: I think when Powr Masters #1 came out, for the folks that read it, it was one of those rare comics … A lot of people couldn’t quite figure out what the hell you were doing just in terms of the practical… they’d be like, “Is that really pencil? What is he drawing on?” Your design sense was so unique, and the way you added details to the comics was so unique. Can you talk a little bit like, especially with that first volume, how you got from conception to execution? How deliberate were you? Were you just drawing? What was the idea behind doing the pencils and then making them look Xeroxed?

C.F.: I think that was from … the real answer is, there was a Batman special, and they did the ashcan edition, which is this antiquated thing that comic book companies would do. Before they did the real version, they would do an ashcan version, which was a small mock-up, usually with just the pencils. And in the ’90s with the collection craze, they made fake ash versions. They would print elaborate pencils of this comic that I had the inked version of, too, so I had both sets, the pencils and the inked, and I preferred the pencils. I just wanted the rawness of it, and to me it was like, why ink? I don’t know, I had a Xerox machine with a contrast. It’s like you need things for these to print them in the ’40s, and now you shit on them. And it blows my mind when I see a good inker, and I have total appreciation for that. And when I was a youngster, before I knew what I was going to be doing in comics, I thought, my greatest ambition was, “I wanna be an inker at Marvel Comics.” I didn’t want to draw. I wanted to be the inker. Which is really funny if you think about it. [Laughter.]

RALPH: I have that all the time, and I agree, I love to do a little inking, but at the same time, I’m like, this is dead art. Why are we inking when we could draw? I love a brushstroke, I love a paper line, I love all that stuff, but at the same time you’re right. The reason this needed to be inked was because it needed to be a thick line for print, and now we can capture something that’s a really delicate line. And if Christopher was to go back and ink over the pencil lines, would that just sort of kill that raw feeling, that fresh look? Why am I inking all this stuff? It could just be this beautiful object?

C.F.: You can do whatever you want. Part of it was that [Brian] Chippendale was doing comics all over novels, and I was like, “Wow, this is great.” He has a book, and he has a pen, and that’s it. And in a lot of music, I like the same thing. You have almost nothing, and look what you did with that. In most people’s hands, what could they do? And look what you did, man. Wow, this is cool. And what if I just used pencil and paper?

RALPH: And my first impression, it’s just basic, just try to reduce everything to nothing. When I saw Christopher’s stuff, I was like, “Naïve, naïveté…” [Laughter.] I was looking at it and it’s really got this weird mix. It’s got this beautiful craftsmanship, but also like this incredibly raw, unique look. And I just really like the combination of the two, and so that’s why I think everybody was confused. I was confused.

SPURGEON: There’s a tremendous amount of detailing the overall look. Were you working that stuff out on the page or was that something that you had planned and then brought to the page?

C.F.: You have the notebook, that’s like the experimental field, [mumbles?] and I think at the time … At the time when I really started drawing comics, I gave up until I got better. Every time I sat down to draw, it looked like Chippendale. It just looked like somebody else every time they drew. So I was like, “Well, obviously I can’t do this. I need to quit.” Like everything I did sucked. So I just quit. And then I started drawing a lot, and it was fun again. It was not stressful, and I think, also, I was into so many things when I was younger, and still, really contradictory things like art nouveau and sculpture and The Beatles, and C.C.C.C. and fucking whatever. I’m just into all kinds of shit. And I used to despair when I was younger. I was like, “How can I make art with all this out there? You have to really, like, strategize.” [Laughter.] “You have to write so many essays and figure it all out.” And I would get so choked out about it, and this is about comics, mind you. It’s remarkable. But the thing is, I believe when you start working it’s very difficult, and everybody’s on their own, and then you keep working. The most important thing is to keep working, because all your interests will come out naturally, and everything will fall into place, but you need to do the work. You know, if you just spend the time, whatever you wish you were doing will happen, because it will find its way. If the work’s hard for you, it will appear, but you have to sit down and be … You have to give in. You have to sit down and be like, “I don’t care what else happens today. I don’t give a fuck about anything else that’s going to happen today. I’m just gonna draw and work.” And you don’t even care what happens almost. You work hard, and you want it to come out good, but if it doesn’t come out good, you’re like, “I spent the time, I did the best I could,” and you just forgive yourself, and then the next day you try again.

RALPH: And to me, that’s a much more realistic view. I’m not a machine, and I’m not an illustrator, I’m not any of these things. So many people I admire, are able to crank it out but that sort of just-fuck-it moment, I’m just gonna do this, and it’s the best I can do at this moment, and I’m just gonna get it done, because I feel lame having not done this. But then I think about the old cartoonists, and didn’t think about any of those hangups.

C.F.: That’s the fucking thing as American cartoonist, you have to live with that, and you have to live with Kirby and you have to stare that in the face and be like, “Do you have a home studio? Do you work in the basement? Writing and drawing six monthly fucking titles? And I heard an interview about this, but what just blows me away consistently is Glenn Danzig interviewing Jack Kirby in the ’90s. Deal with that. Deal with that for a second. [Laughter.] Deal with that for a fucking second. These guys can’t even get a book out once a month and you were doing six titles every month, written and drawn. You’re the man. You don’t even live on this fucking planet. His wife would have to pick him up sometimes because he’d get lost going to lost and be tripping on some other planet. [Laughter.] He’s a very special person, but that’s who he is, and whether he’s crazy or not, that’s the example that’s been set in this country. In Japan, it’s like Tezuka. For me, under the circumstances, he’s not making a lot of money, his originals sold in the ’80s for, like, whatever. He got nothing, as if they were garbage, basically.Like on of the greatest artists that America’s ever had. So Glenn Danzig asks him, “What do you think about these guys who can’t get a title in on time?” He says, “I grew up on the Lower East Side and we used to play hockey and compete with each other and I always said, if you want to run a mile, you can run a mile, and if you want to tell a good story, you can tell a good story.” I’ve always admired his positivity, just believing in himself, just real basic… you don’t know what you can do, I say you do it. Which sounds so corny, but you do have to try to find that out, and you do have to take a risk, and you do have to risk what comes back. And I think that anybody who’s done a good job has been totally ready to look like a fool at any moment. And that’s what it takes, and that’s Kirby, man. He’s like out of this world. So that weighs heavy on me, for sure.

SPURGEON: One of Kirby’s sons told me is that when he would work in the house, he was working in way that could heat the whole house. That’s a lot of energy! And that there were just waves of energy that came from that part of the house. Let me ask you another version of a question that I asked earlier, which is, with Daybreak, which is a serial, did you plan it out, or were you just putting the work on the page?

RALPH: No. I wish I could say that.

SPURGEON: Or was there a point at which you said, “I just gotta figure out where this is going or it’s never going to end?”

RALPH: No. Somebody just had to say, “This is done now,” so I would stop doing it. [Laughter.] No, I knew that there were things I wanted to do, but that was hard. I hate to be indulgent, I hate indulgent artists, but I was indulgent on this project. I was like, “These are the things I want to explore, I want this to happen, I want them to do this, I want this to happen,” and I said I’m just gonna allow myself to explore that. And I think in the back of my mind, I’m carrying this weight that I’m talking about, it’s like, I don’t want to be indulgent, so somehow I have to find a mix of the two. I have to be responsible to the reader. I’m reading all these great collections of Rip Kirby or Captain Easy, I’m reading all these action comics, and, god, these guys…these stories are immediate, they’re important—

C.F.: —Roy Crane.

RALPH: Yeah. And they’re coming out, there’s the cliffhangers, they knew how to work out the timing at the end of each stip.

SPURGEON: Roy Crane never cheated. He drew a scene, and that scene works from every angle that you look at it. And he never has the guy cheating by doing something that would be impossible in that scene. It’s incredible.

RALPH: Roy Crane did amazing stuff, and that was a comic I felt like I heard about or people had mentioned and I never got my hands on, and now it’s been collected and I’ve been really excited to read that. But that sense of audience awareness, that was really important to me. I was like, “Oh, this is starting to get boring, I should wrap this up. This has gone on too long.” I had this sort of sense of when it was starting to get a little tired. Just keeping it snappy. So maybe that’s something I’ve just gotten as a reader, and that I wanted to view that as an artist. Don’t be indulgent, be a little indulgent, and test the waters, but also keep in mind the reader.

SPURGEON: We’re about forty minutes in.  [Spurgeon takes questions from the audience.]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Brian, you’re really good at moving figures across the page, and Christopher, I think you are, too. And I thought maybe you guys could talk about the way you move figures through space, and how do you think about different angles, not just like close-up here, close-up there, I think there’s more than that, it’s a little bit more mysterious than that, the way you move figures in space.

RALPH: Here’s a guy who believes that these characters are moving and existing, and it’s just a part of the way he draws them. He can sort of make them exist. And to the reader, he knows it’s a simple curve of the line…[Laughter.] It’s believable the character’s walking us through these spaces and it really felt like a real person was talking to you, and even in that simple little line, it felt so beautiful. And this is something that, Tom, you said about my work one time that I hadn’t thought about but stayed with me as a really great compliment. You said that my characters actually have a believable weight when they walk, and I think that there’s something in us that you believe in these characters, you believe that they’re existing. You’re in a weird way there with them, and that way, you’re drawing them with the sense and the ability that it’s a magical place to get to. It’s a little hint of something that makes it believable.

C.F.: And in fact, I think that’s what separates ordinary stuff from the experts is that ability of being there. And that, when you look at early TV or something or early movies where you’d go into the theater and [sit through the film. And they still relate to this; they think of it as a stage and you’re looking out like this. After a while, they realize, “Oh, we have a camera, we can do this, and we can do this, and we can do this.” And with comics, it’s the same thing, but it’s not a camera, it’s your own stuff. Actually, you want to explore everything, but the most important thing is having respect for the characters, and dedicating yourself to the characters and dedicating yourself to the readers. And really what you’re trying to do is explain these characters to the people in the same way that you’d explain a friend. Maybe they’re acting in an apparently offensive way or something. Like, “No, I know this person. I wanna tell you what’s important about this person, what I think is important.” Because I have love for them, you know.

RALPH: I think that’s a really good point. I respect knowing your characters really well. It sounds ridiculous because it’s just a little cartoon, but having the love of that character, and know how that character acts, it makes the character real. And not to make it seem overly difficult, like I’ve got to invent this character and make him like this, but being able to observe the way people act, and the way things happen in the world, and having even some muscle memory of the way your body moves and, “Oh, this is the way people gesture with their hands when they’re talking,” and remembering that and sort of putting it on the page. So I think, Christopher, in that way, his characters move really naturally, and somehow he’s picking up unconsciously and observing people and all that.

SPURGEON:  I think there’s a strong tradition of that in Providence, but especially in your work and Christopher's work also.

RALPH: When we were in Providence, I always talk about living in Fort Thunder, it was like living in a cave. It was cold, there were traps, there were mice. It was gross. It was really like cave-dweller… it was early cave time. And so we’d then draw our characters in caves. To draw the apocalypse, I mean, I lived in Baltimore. [Laughter.] To draw the apocalypse we just looked around, you know what I mean? This is like what I see everyday, all I did was just turn it into a fantasy a little bit. It’s pretty close.

SPURGEON: Another question from the other half of the room.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I apologize. Are you tired of taking Fort Thunder questions?

RALPH: No, that’s fine.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: I gotta ask because you said there was a maze with a werewolf at the end. I’ve heard second hand about the idea of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons having influenced the  Fort Thunder stuff, because that was part of what you guys did, but I’ve never heard it directly from a Fort Thunder person. Is this accurate?

RALPH: I remember people being like, “We gotta get a Dungeon Master, man.” And everyone would actually be too lazy to do it. But I think they did play. I think for some people that was really strong in their high school life, and then they sort of formed who they were in college and post-college they were trying to recapture some of that in their comics. Yeah, there was a little Dungeons and Dragons playing. And we read 2000 AD and we read all kinds of comics and fantasy and played video games and all that kind of stuff, so I think what we had was not just to take in, but was then to bring something else out, and the way it came out was filtered through all these other influences we had and also each other. And that’s why we came up with this weird stuff.

C.F.: I think what D&D does is create a template for people to understand character creation and geography and strategy and stuff like that.

RALPH: Maybe that’s a really good point too, about the geography, is having a sense of the landscape and what you find there. Things that are hidden, things that are in space. Like you’re the DM or something. And then there’s all those people who still think about freeform storytelling, or stories sort of happening on the fly like that may have come from that too.

C.F.: I never played games like that growing up because I didn’t have friends [laughter.]. One thing, just a few years ago, I got a hold of the Dungeon Master’s guide, the first edition, ’cause was like, “I should check this out and see what it’s all about.” And there’s some shit in there that blew my mind, which is the cascading systems of character and geography locations, like generation, random number generators basically. So you draw a dice and whatever number it says, it makes some qualifier for that person, like they have blue eyes, but it’s completely random, and you keep rolling it and it’s just a cascading system, and you can create characters and create areas in that way. Which is a very primitive way of what’s happening in computer games like Second Life and all that kind of shit, which is very futuristic and very important. And comics are related to that. But also, like objects, they have all this vaguely fine art tradition or something, which I feel will also continue being important in the future. Like an object that one person has made another person can make, and that will continue to be valuable in the future. And these systems of creating characters and situations, in random in some areas and ways are going to be come more and more important as we create our environment more for ourselves, in the same as a way it starts with a Walkman, you’re listening to your own music on the go. In the future it will be even more extreme, so extreme that we can’t even imagine it right now. In comics and roleplaying games, I think they’re a very primitive version of that.That’s important shit. And it’s valid for sure, because when you start telling a story and you know every little thing about it, you’ll stop telling it. You need to have an element of the natural. And in synthesis and music, people that make electronic music and stuff, that’s why you have the sample at home with the random number generator, because you want chaos as well. So in that light making a plan and varying from it, and having things turn out better or worse than you thought they would. So I think a frequent question from Fort Thunder is improvisation vs. composition, and I think that the answer is always both, and that’s the most powerful way to make work. Because, really, I think if you’re going all composition, I don’t even know if that’s possible, like Dan Clowes or something like that, who I have so much respect for, and his whole system of working which is so arduous and difficult, and it is really thoughtful and really skill-based, and it’s a skill not a lot of people have, and not a lot of people learn in this day and age, that he’s gone out of his way to learn, to make the kind of work that he wants to make. I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s possible to just compose; I think there’s always improvisation. So, in a way, that’s a really relevant question to me. [Laughter.] I think really all people want to know is: Are you making this shit up off the top of your head? The answer is, of course, no. You can’t. You need to have some kind of plan, just so that you can be brave enough to step out. Okay, I have a weapon, and I’m leaving the house now. You’ve gotta have something. You can’t just have nothing. [Laughter.] If you have a guitar and you don’t know what the fuck you’re going to play, well, it’s going to be a guitar. You’re already making the composition.

SPURGEON: We’re rounding out the hour. One more question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: This is more of a moral question, kind of. For you, as a comics educator, you were saying how comics is like a death sentence in America. In one sense, you’re sharing something that you love, but it’s also like sharing heroin.

RALPH: You turn them on and say, “This is something you should pursue.” I’m tortured by that all the time everyday when I go to teach a class. I know as an artist that this is hard, this is really hard work. And you’re dealing with a young student who’s really trying to make up that energy, and they’re making two or three pages, and I’m like, “Now do that 100 times.” And when that one comes out, you can’t riff on that one. You’ve gotta make another one the next year, and do another one after that. And then again for the rest of your life.

SPURGEON: For no money. [Laughter.]

RALPH: And then you also have a second job. Why would these people want to pursue the thing I know is so much work and so hard and really draining? I don’t even have a problem with that, but what I hope is that you find people who are compelled to do it, and they’re like, “I can’t do anything else. This is what I do.” And then I’m like, “Yes. Let’s do this.” [Laughter.] I feel like I tried to show them as much as possible and sort of filter it, but that’s how it is with any art school or anyone who studies any…or anything you study in college, maybe there’s nothing that is a career that you learn in college. That goes for anything other than a trade, any sort of conceptual arts. I tell people, just go out and live. Go lift cargo on a dock for a couple years, and then draw some comics. Have some experiences. But I understand what you’re saying. It’s something to practice it and know the struggles of that, but also to try and get other people to pursue it as well. “Go! Run, run! Run away!”

C.F.: I never try to do that to anybody. You’re on your own, bro.

SPURGEON: I think we’re a little bit over time, so that was the last thing that was said at this talk: “You’re on your own, bro.”


[Transcribed by Madisen Semet & Kara Krewer]