The first thing that happens in Brian Ralph’s 2011 graphic novel Daybreak is a character greeting you. Yes, in the very first panel a man in ragged clothing and missing an arm says “Hello” to you, the reader. In a novel approach to perspective, the reader is the main character of Daybreak as the story has you head off on a post-apocalyptic adventure filled with common dangers and a mass of zombie-like creatures called “ghoulies.”
“It was always the intention for the story to be written in the first-person point of view,” Ralph, the Savannah based cartoonist and professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) says. Daybreak was Ralph’s third graphic novel after Cave In and Climbing Out and is now set to become the first to be adapted.
Netflix stepped up to the plate to adapt the unique and challenge in Daybreak into a TV series. In doing so, the streamer has introduced a high school element into Ralph’s post-apocalyptic world, complete with a first person narration to pay capture the sensibility of the original. We spoke with Ralph about writing Daybreak, his thoughts on Netflix’s adaptation strategy, and the challenges of teaching the sequential arts.
Annoyingly broad question to begin, I know, but where did the inspiration for Daybreak come from? I’m just curious about its origins as you recall them.
Turning Daybreak into something more than a comic book has been a long time coming – the book itself was published in 2012. The comic book developed out of the need for a creative outlet that was on par with playing video games. At the time, I was a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design within its sequential arts department (where I still work now) and wasn’t gaming all that often.
While I was trying to find things to fill the gap, I realized I was missing the adventure aspect – the way finding though uncharted territory, the problem solving, the world building… everything. So I decided to write a book that could compete with a video game! It was a slow process, but as I teach my students, you need to fully develop the story. We teach our students to concept, create and revise so that they can adequately weave the narrative with their visual art to tell amazing stories.
How did you develop your interesting take on zombies or zombie-like creatures even? Were you a fan of the zombie and/or apocalyptic genres? Any inspirations?
When it comes to zombies, I’ve always been a fan and have explored the genre from just about every angle. In college, my friends and I watched a lot of zombie movies. What I liked was the ability to see the solutions devised by the characters on how to survive. I liked that they were slow – it gave characters time to problem solve and really come up with a clever solution. I was also in a zombie band, The Scared Stiffs, for a while. We dressed like zombies and sang songs from the point of view of zombies. It was pretty sweet.
I’ve also read several apocalyptic novels, but I’d say that my inspiration was drawn from books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Zone 1 by Colson Whitehead, and Into the Forest by Jean Hegland.
The first-person nature of the comic is a unique storytelling technique. Was it always the intention to tell the story from that perspective or did it develop along with the story? To your knowledge, is that something Netflix attempted to do with the show in its early stages?
It was always the intention for the story to be written in the first-person point of view. In the comic, the characters are talking to the reader so having that come through in the adaption was great. Brad Payton (the director) thought it would be a good idea for the main character, Josh, to break fourth wall and that’s where Ferris Bueller nod comes in. It’s a throwback to an ’80s classic and Matthew Broderick as one of the stars just makes it that much better.
Speaking of Netflix, how did that deal come about and what was your level of involvement with the series? What did you make of the high school aspect they’ve gone with?
As I mentioned before, turning Daybreak into a movie or TV show has been a long time coming – I’ve worked with director Brad Payton for many years as he’s optioned the project out. But to back up, Brad found the comic while he was browsing in a comic book shop in L.A. and called me that night to talk about it. It took me a moment to realize he was who he said he was, but after that, it was full steam ahead. Over the course of a couple of hours, we talked about Brad’s vision for Daybreak, what he liked about it and also what it would need to be adapted for film or TV. I really liked what he had to say, and felt his additions only enhanced the story I had created.
It wasn’t until early 2018 that I found out Netflix was turning it into a TV show – from there it moved quickly and was amazing to see the world I had created come to life. Originally, I thought I wanted to have a lot of input and control over the adaption of my book. However, after hearing what Brad and the team had to say, I became much more open to the collaboration. As a professor at SCAD I teach my students that cross-disciplinary collaboration is at the core of every great project. By collaborating, you have the opportunity to learn from the best minds in a variety of industries, ultimately making your project better. All of the men and women working on the project are insanely talented – the best thing I could do for the book was let them do what they do best. The end result was a group that had given their all to the project and you could really see it shine through in their work.
In terms of the high school aspect, it seemed fitting! I think it was Brad that made the comment, but everyone can relate to the feeling of being in high school, the feeling of being “so over” this world and wishing you lived in another one. The apocalypse is that “other world” and really allows for the playing field to be leveled so to speak, and for everyone to reinvent themselves.
Do you feel that your works Cave In, Climbing Out, Daybreak work as a sort of spiritual trilogy? The titles alone in sequential order seem like they tell a little story. How did your storytelling and art evolve through each?
Yes – I do think that they are a part of a larger world. What that world is I’m still trying to figure out- so stay tuned! I think the art and storytelling have evolved over time, simply by the things that I’ve learned and seen throughout my time working in comics and teaching at SCAD.
How has teaching a sequential arts program changed or refined how you think about sequential arts/comics/graphic novels? It seems like the teaching of this art in an academic environment is still a relatively young endeavor. How do you go about developing coursework?
It’s interesting, because what I teach is directly related, but also juxtaposed, with what I would consider “real life” work. I teach traditional sequential storytelling and the core elements like drawing, cartooning, and the known ways of storytelling. Like any creative endeavor, you have to have the foundational elements in place to make the piece an effective piece of art. For sequential arts you need to have elements like the character development, the problem being solved, or story arch, and know how to drive the story forward to keep the audience turning the page. However, in my opinion, the best novels are the ones that break the rules and keep you guessing, so that’s what I try and do in my own work.
I teach my students the foundations and the parameters but want them to think of my classes as the “authority on how to break the rules” in order to create great stories. And while I give assignments that are asking students to make creative decisions, every assignment has a bit of a “wink” to it that allows for creativity.