Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Reggie-12

Brian Ralph's Reggie-12 strips are interesting in that they are very much of the moment and anticipated the moment a good decade ahead of time. What I mean by that is that these strips started running in 2000 but were only collected (and added to in 2013), and this is a time period when the Fort Thunder/Highwater Books aesthetic started to dominate popular culture in surprising ways. When one considers shows like Adventure Time, there's no doubt that the work of folks like Ralph, Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale and James Kochalka had a huge influence on that show's aesthetic and attitude. Of this group, I think Ralph may be the biggest influence on this kind of fantasy storytelling, one that involves a total immersion in one's environment balanced against identifiable and active protagonists exploring that space. A book like Cave-In is sort of a master-class in that kind of storytelling.

Ralph is such a big influence because his work is a blend of accessibility and an uncompromising aesthetic. Part of that is his own blend of influences, including video games, Jack Kirby and general genre fiction. His status as a fan of that sort of work, at least as stuff that moved him growing up, gives him a remarkable amount of facility in telling that sort of story with his own aesthetic. That's true of Daybreak, for instance, a zombie story where one of the main characters is the reader. Reggie-12 is aimed more at kids as a send-up of anime and manga tropes, with Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy being the main target. The humor is frequently juvenile and scatological, but there are actual jokes with actual punchlines that are funny. Ralph isn't being raunchy in that sort of twee James Kochalka "Look at me! I said 'penis'!" kind of way; instead, his scatological jokes are well-constructed and funny to look at. Take the strip where Reggie-12's "waste fluid retention filter" didn't get changed and he starts to leak. When prompted on camera if it's like a diaper, the naive robot cheerfully says "Yes! It's very much like a diaper!" and follows that up by saying "You'd be surprised how often it needs changing". That latter panel has the reporter laughing out loud and another one laughing so hard that he's thrown his arms around Reggie. That's funny enough, but when another robot says "At least he didn't mention his posterior deflatulator", Ralph absolutely drives the joke home.

Drawn & Quarterly published the book in the best possible format. It's hardcover and oversized, all the better to allow the reader to fully engage in the level of detail and chicken fat Ralph throws into each panel. The single tone blue wash is attractive and helps provide needed contrast between the figures and their background; Reggie in particular is almost never in blue but instead is in crisp black & white. The comic features plenty of cute and funny drawings by Ralph, but it's always in a variation of his own cartoony style. One never gets the sense that he's dumbing down his drawing style to do this book; instead, he's simply focusing on a particular kind of drawing style (Tezuka, monsters, robots, etc) and playing it for laughs. While the jokes and gags are simple and the targets fairly broad and easy (this is a loving send-up, not a sharp satire), the level of craft Ralph applies to exploring environments or creating suspense in other comics is simply turned to thinking up as many jokes about Astro Boy, cats, scientists, labs, etc as possible. Ralph's storytelling chops and total mastery over his line and (most of all) page design enable to tell any kind of story with great efficacy, especially if it's a story that has kinetic storytelling possibilities.

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