Comic book writer and illustrator Rafer Roberts of Hagerstown never expected that his sometimes funny and sometimes scary drawings would be hanging on a wall in an art gallery.
But now that a sampling of his work is the subject of an exhibit at the VisArts center in Rockville called “Fever Dreams of Organic Machines: the Comic Book Art of Rafer Roberts,” he kind of likes the idea.
“It’s not something I was looking for, but when they invited me, I found it really intriguing,” says Roberts, whose India ink, framed original panels are on view and for sale to Sept. 8 at the Rockville gallery.
Aileen Goldman, volunteer director of the Common Ground gallery at the center, says she invited Roberts to exhibit after spotting him at the Artomatic show in Frederick last year.
“I thought his comic art was unique,” says Goldman, who lives near Olney. “There were lots of potters there and fiber arts and painters, but this was something different.”
A printer by trade, Roberts is a member of a Washington-area network of underground comics writers and illustrators called the DC Conspiracy, which twice per year publishes a free tabloid newspaper called “Magic Bullet.”
In the latest issue, which features more than 50 diverse imaginings about the end of the world [as predicted for late 2012 by the Mayan calendar], are two pages of a Roberts strip called “Nightmare the Rat,” a black rat with blank white eyes who roams Hell City at night with a pair of pliers, harvesting teeth out of people’s mouths.
“I do the darker, weirder underground stuff,” says Roberts, who says much of his work stems from his personal dreams and nightmares, including an irrational fear of losing his teeth.
“It’s the dark, psychological stuff that bubbles around inside him,” says John Shine, manager of Beyond Comics in Gaithersburg, which carries some of Roberts’ work.
“His work does not generally appeal to the mainstream,” says Shine of Montgomery Village. “It’s like the punk rock for the music world it’s where new ideas later get appropriated by [mainstream] artists.”
Roberts also is well known for “Plastic Farm,” a series he started in 1999 that he calls his “magnum opus, my white whale, my Canterbury tales” in notes accompanying the exhibit.
The ongoing narrative is about Chester “Cheezer” Carter, a young man abandoned as a baby and raised in a haunted psychiatric hospital who is slowly descending into madness.
Floating in and out of his world, for example, is a character called The Kamikazi Kid, a cowboy who lives inside his head and rides a dinosaur, as well as other characters that “shape his reality,” says Roberts.
Cheezer’s saga goes back and forth in time, sometimes with seemingly unrelated characters and stories.
“I like playing with that,” says Roberts, who has yet to connect all the dots for readers, in part because he enjoys the surprises that the story, simmering in his head, spring on him.
To mix things up even further, the strip also occasionally includes panels drawn in different styles by fellow comic book artists, including Jake Warrenfeltz of Takoma Park.
“It keeps things interesting and fun,” Roberts says. “They bring their own unique styles. It helps speed up the [drawing] process, and there’s the fun of collaboration.”
But Roberts also says that he does, in fact, have a long-range plan to pull everything together for “Plastic Farm” readers in the next 10 years.
“I’ve got it all plotted out in loose, major outline form,” he says.
Roberts already has assembled the early chapters as Part I in a paperback compilation called “Plastic Farm: Sowing Seeds on Fertile Soil.”
He’s presently working on compiling Part II, some chapters appearing on his web site, into a book titled “Plastic Farm: Seasons of Growth in the Fields of Despair,” which he expects to release in spring 2013.
Also featured in the VisArts exhibit are panels from a sci-fi strip called “Wild Women of the Kitty-Kat Galaxy,” which Roberts describes as “a love letter to 1950s B movies and Golden Age comic books.”
The Kitty-Kat drawings and Roberts’ other work tapped into boyhood memories for Michael Winegrad of Potomac, who said the artist’s style and content remind him of the “Zap” underground comics from the late 1960s and early 1970s that featured the work of Robert Crumb, creator of “Fritz the Cat” and “Mr. Natural.”
“It was avant garde then,” Winegrad says. “They were rebelling against [strips such as] ‘Dennis the Menace’ and ‘Dick Tracy.’”
Roberts, who laughs easily, readily admits that some of his strips can “creep people out.”
One of his major influences is David Lynch, who wrote and directed the surrealistic movie “Blue Velvet” featuring Dennis Hopper in 1986 and also co-created the TV series “Twin Peaks” in the early 1990s that exposed the darker aspects of characters’ lives.
Shine says Roberts taps into something universal — the “hidden id” of people’s psyches — and explores subjects that most people don’t talk about in “polite company.”
Roberts says in his own case, creating his comics, which he has been doing for more than 30 years, is a form of therapy once he gets his more disturbing thoughts down on paper, they go away.
“The glorious part of making these comics is that I don’t think about it all once they’re done,” he says.
“I think what appeals to people is that my comics are unlike the Supermans and Batmans of the world,” he says.
“This may sound egotistical, but I think that what art should perhaps be is [something] to help people figure themselves out,” he says.
“I’m hoping that maybe they’ll feel better about themselves ... and not feel so alone in the world.”