Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Commentary and Features

A Brian Ralph Bibliography
posted December 31, 2003

Brian Ralph is the kind of cartoonist where you should buy everything you can get your hands on rather than cherry pick one or two books. More than any specific effort, it's the body of work that's interesting with Ralph. Finding a single Ralph illustration is sometimes more fun and enlightening than consuming the second or third graphic novel on another cartoonist's serious output shortlist.

imageIt's not like Ralph lacks for major work. Ralph's best-known book is 1999's Cave~In (Highwater Books, $12.95, 0966536339). This small but substantial volume remains one of the few books ever to be nominated for the Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz. Cave~In's most alarming feature for many comics fans, some of whom were enjoying Ralph's comics for the first time, was its sharp and subtly radical design. The volume stands approximately five inches tall and six inches across, is rounded at the outside corners, and changes its ink color at various times in the story. That it worked so well and was so appropriate to the story being told made a compelling argument for letting design grow out of the work instead of hammering content into one of a few commercially viable packages. Cave~In provided a fascinating meditation on fundamental comics effects like movement, fantastic imagery, and textured surroundings, and made for a fun adventure story to boot.

imageRalph's other bookstore-ready volume distributed by Highwater is the 2002 Xeric Grant-enabled Climbing Out ($10, 0970085856). This is a less accessible work, with a slightly more somber subtext and a layered narrative. But the story of a young creature making his way in the world through the use of both crude and fantastic implements holds a lot of power as a metaphor for a young artist's career. And as always, it's extraordinarily pleasing to the eye. A sequel and third major book, Crum Bums ($14.95, 0970085842), is due any week now from Highwater Books.

Ralph's work has appeared in any number of outlets other than his books, including Flying Saucer Attack, issues of Coober Skeber and Monster, a Dark Horse anthology or two, and several issues of well-received and very funny comics for an extremely appropriate and natural home for Ralph's work, Giant Robot Magazine. His breakthrough mini-comic was named Fireball, and everything from the fourth issue on is worth pouncing upon if you get the chance.

A period of living off of silk-screened work while a resident of Fort Thunder means there were several great-looking posters and a few equally attractive album covers done by Ralph. Most of the former were probably ripped down and thrown into the gutters of Providence, but there are a few collectors. Unlike many artists who protect their next major works from public exposure as if they were Lucasfilm executives, Ralph restlessly self-publishes portions from forthcoming works to sell them by hand, and, one imagines, through the mail. Much of Climbing Out was familiar to readers who had been buying comics at cons attended by the cartoonist for the 18 months previous to its release. There has even been a Crum Bums Volume One. It is a unique testament to Ralph's work that these glimpses into his more ambitious work read extremely well in short bursts, hinting at an organic quality to Ralph's work that doesn't depend on traditional modes of establishing a scene and raising the narrative stakes. Plus, they're desirable as objects.

What else? Ralph's illustrations have appeared in Wired and the New York Post, among others. The cartoonist has made several great-looking t-shirts for both Giant Robot and Highwater, and sells his original artwork through the Toronto-based store The Beguiling at their web site's art store. Not a lot has been written about the cartoonist. There is a bookseller named Amy Antonio who writes of him glowingly. Greg Stump wrote a short but insightful piece on his work in the Comics Journal's "Young Cartoonists Issue," published in 1998. Cris Skokna profiled Ralph for Baltimore's CityPaper in a piece that is probably still accessible on-line, Megan Kelso and Robert Young both conducted earlier interviews with Ralph, and according to his book publisher the cartoonist "is routinely interviewed in skateboarding magazines."

Ralph's teaching side comes out at shows and seminars, and he has also contributed to Jordan Crane's downloadable primer A Guide to Reproduction ( That should be enough to get everyone started, right?