Cartoonists find fans at Cockeysville library

The Baltimore Sun

Brian Ralph spends about 30 hours a week alone in a small room with a monkey and a time machine.

He is neither a zookeeper nor a mad scientist. He's a comics artist. The monkey with the time machine is a character in Crum Bums, Ralph's forthcoming graphic novel. The small room is his studio in the Charles Village rowhouse he shares with his wife and their 2-year-old son.

Ralph is also an illustrator, but writing and drawing comics are his passions.

"Comics give me a chance to elaborate further on a character's life," he said.

Ralph and Maryland artists Emily Flake and Mark Burrier will speak to comics enthusiasts at 7 p.m. today at the Cockeysville branch of the county library, which has the state's only collection of "zines" and mini-comics - magazines and comics that are self-published or printed by small, independent publishers.

The collection is an 18-month pilot program started in October 2005. If the program is successful, similar collections could appear at other county branches. Library staff members attend street festivals such as Hampden Fest and the Baltimore Zine Festival to promote the collection, said librarian Miriam DesHarnais. And previous events like tonight's have drawn positive responses, with one attracting 50 to 60 people to the library.

"It's a chance to reach a different demographic," DesHarnais said. "Zines are interesting because they're handmade and they're personal, and I think that has a lot of appeal in the digital age."

Ralph said he will speak about how he plans and lays out comic book pages and will share some of his influences.

Flake, whose comic "Lulu Eightball" appears in the City Paper, said she will talk about how she got into comics and will show some of her work. Her career began as an art intern for the City Paper while she attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation and Mad Magazine.

Burrier started drawing comics for his high school and college newspapers. The Myersville, Frederick County, resident said he will show some of his old and work and discuss how comics have influenced his illustration work.

Ralph described his work as a mixture of "cute and brute," as he put the finishing touches on a drawing of a flaming skeleton warrior he will display at an undead characters-themed exhibition tomorrow at the Lo-Fi Social Club in Baltimore.

He said he started out drawing skateboard scenes. The 33-year-old still skates on occasion but he doesn't attempt tricks any more.

"Now that we have a kid, I can't get hurt," Ralph said.

Ralph first earned acclaim in the so-called underground comic world in 1999 when he released his graphic novel debut, Cave-In. His wordless tale of a cave explorer's adventures was nominated for several awards and named one of that year's five best comics by The Comics Journal.

Ralph worked on Cave-In while living at Fort Thunder, a large warehouse in Providence, R.I., where he said about 10 artists lived together. The residents divided some of the warehouse into private rooms but left open space for punk-rock performances, steel-cage wrestling matches and anything else they could imagine, Ralph said.

Fort Thunder inspired the story line for Crum Bums, in which the primate protagonist arrives in a post-apocalyptic future and must find his way home, Ralph said.

"Living at Fort Thunder reminded me of the apocalypse," he said.

Ralph said his years at Fort Thunder, where he lived from 1996 to 1999 after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, were the most creative of his life.

"I would just wake up and start drawing," he said. "We didn't have to pay much rent, so we really got a chance to mature as artists without having to worry about paying bills."

Ralph also found his biggest fan during his time in Providence. His future wife, Megan, wrote to him after reading one of his comics and the two began exchanging letters and publications (she published a cooking zine). Ralph discovered that she worked up the block from Fort Thunder and stopped by.

Their relationship "came from comics," Ralph said. "Otherwise we wouldn't have met."

The couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1990s so Ralph could take a what turned out to be a short-lived job doing Flash animation and his wife could take classes at MICA, where Ralph now teaches in the illustration department.

"It's really exciting because I'm teaching things I love," he said. "I get inspired by talking with the students and seeing their work."

In addition to teaching and working on his own comics, Ralph draws illustrations and poster art for magazines and ad agencies. His work has appeared in Nick Magazine, Wired, The New York Times and in ads for Brooks running shoes and Volkswagen. His pay ranges from nothing to about $1,000 per page for his comics in Nickelodeon's magazine.

Ralph said his 2-year-old son, Miles, has developed the ability to recognize his dad's work, including a mascot he designed for the Walters Art Gallery.

"We went to Walters, and he saw the mascot and said, 'Daddy drew that,'" he said. "I don't know how he knew."

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