(Brian Ralph appears tonight at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery at 6 pm. It's free.)
A long time ago now, Frank Miller and Geof Darrow made a comic called The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. Like all Darrow comics, it was visually arresting; you could stare at a page for hours and still find tiny new details to appreciate. Unfortunately, like most mid-period Frank Miller comics, it was a too-slight thing, a puppet show starring some cliches Miller had dredged up from his youth. There was a Big Guy and Rusty cartoon that lasted for a few episodes, and then the book disappeared from memory. On balance, it just wasn't good enough.
Cartoonist Brian Ralph's Reggie-12 basically has the same premise as Big Guy. It's about a boy robot who a scientist created to fight the giant monsters who are invading his city on a regular basis. Unlike Big Guy—or Pacific Rim, or any of the other kaiju fictions that have popped up recently—Reggie-12 is a black-and-white comic, drawn in a large-format, Sunday comics-style collection. The title character is a cat-faced robot who acts like a rocket-powered child: He's enthusiastic, easily bored, and prone to petulant fits. Professor Tinkerton is absent-minded and occasionally likes to make new robots to replace Reggie-12. There's also a talking cat, along with a bunch of monsters. Some of the monsters are friendly, like a giant walking maple syrup spill named Lawndark of the Woods. ("By the way, I dropped the 'of the woods' part of my name. These days, most people just call me Lawndark.") Other, nastier monsters have drills for hands (which, it is repeatedly pointed out, is a highly impractical design) or Jack Kirby-ish heads. The humor is relatively innocent, although there's some swearing and adult situations, so it's definitely a book for older teens and adults.
Ralph's artwork is somehow intricate and primitive at the same time. His page layouts are complex, and there's a whole lot of detail, but his lines are easy to follow and never too overwhelming. In this way, they're a perfect complement to the writing, which is simple and charming and cute-but-not-too-cute. Ultimately, the appeal of the book relies on the enthusiasm of the characters and of its creator, which allows Reggie-12 to be many different things—crass, clever, friendly, prickly—at the same time. This is a hard book to explain, but an easy book to love.