2 Morro Morro Land
Sci-Fi Gentrification Writ Large in an Obsessive Hand, Courtesy Brian Chippendale
A common parlor game among comics readers is to come up with lists of books appropriate for the uninitiated. It's safe to say no one has ever put forth a comic by Brian Chippendale for one of those lists, unless maybe the object of the game was an LSD-addled, teenaged noise-music fan. In other words, Chippendale's comics are hard. They're not only structurally hard to follow but also visually noisy--imagine trying to grasp images and a story out of TV static. But like much so-called difficult art, a little effort rewards greatly.
Chippendale, one of the several exuberantly brilliant artists to come out of Providence, R.I.'s Fort Thunder group house/performance space/art project of the mid-'90s to early '00s, still turns his living spaces into alien environments by filling them with the detritus of civilization: bike parts, records, magazines, stickers, toys, utensils, whatever's at hand. What's important is that he does so with a total sense of design, one that makes what should be a mess into something beautiful. Chippendale's music--he drums and "sings" in the noise band Lightning Bolt--works in a similar way, the million-mph drumbeats and bass blurts coming together to form some sort of epic, elemental groove. And so do his comics.
A native of Philadelphia's suburbs, Chippendale, 33, started drawing comics seriously in the early 1990s while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. His first efforts were the Maggots minicomics, whose pages, filled to bursting with tiny panels, mirror his drumming: millions of hard, fast pitter-pats occasionally interrupted by breakdowns, less-busy pages with more complex drawings. The plot is almost inconsequential in these early books--something about underground-dwelling students' dance parties getting busted by monster cops--and what gives them their juice is the sheer energy in the drawings and the design of the pages, whether filled with 100 panels or just one.
From the beginning, several of the elements that define Chippendale's comics, and the Fort Thunder aesthetic in general, were apparent. Instead of mainstream comics' familiar tight plots and realistic art, his work is literally about the drawings themselves. Chippendale's jagged lines and scratchy patterns and textures, in their way, tell his stories. "He's one of the very few cartoonists . . . who make comics that are made up of mark-making," says Dan Nadel, a New York-based writer about visual culture and publisher. "It's about drawing as an expressive tool for storytelling. It's amazing how much he gets out of pen lines. The buildup of ink on a page is very attractive. His house, he's the same way. There's always something to look at."
The Maggots minicomics were also where Chippendale first used his patented "serpentine" pattern. One reads his pages left to right in the top stack of panels, then right to left in the one beneath it, then left to right, and so on, snakelike. (It's actually more complicated than that, but no harder to pick up than reading manga back to front and right to left, which tens of thousands of middle-schoolers have no problem doing.)
Perhaps most importantly, Chippendale puts to use the cultural junk of his childhood--video games, fantasy novels, cartoons, role-playing games, hundreds of bad Marvel comics--to get across his current personal and political concerns. "Like a lot of great artists, Brian is using the trappings of superheroes, science fiction, fantasy as a means to get his ideas into other people's heads," Nadel says. But no matter how fantastical the setting may get, the characters remain down to earth. As cartoonist and critic Chris Lanier put it in an article about Fort Thunder in the October 2003 issue of The Comics Journal, these artists' work is "genuine ‘science fiction'--the prediction that the future of society will be populated by stoners in the bodies of gods and monsters."
After Maggots, Chippendale began work on his Ninja minicomics, a book of which, under Nadel's PictureBox imprint, will debut at the SPX comics festival in Bethesda this weekend. Having read only a portion of it, it's hard to say exactly what Ninja is about besides, of course, the drawing. "It's one of a few underground fantasy epics about gentrification," Nadel says in an attempt to help out. "There are power struggles between tribes, there's a love story. It's an action-fantasy epic." The gentrification plot line is somewhat easy to follow, and also has an obvious real-world antecedent: the demolition of the Fort Thunder warehouse to make way for a shopping center and the continuing gentrification of Providence's formerly low-rent Olneyville neighborhood--surely a story to which many Baltimoreans can relate.
Ninja is where Chippendale fully delves into exploration and world-building. Fort cartoonists' and their followers' work sometimes get dismissed by critics who say it's nothing but poorly drawn monsters and ninjas wandering around caves and castles spouting nonsense, and they have a point, except that the wandering around is mesmerizing and those caves and castles are totally awesome. In Ninja, opposing groups of magicians, superheroes, and other creatures fight and double-cross each other to either turn the pleasant hamlet Grain into condo-ville Groin--giving Chippendale plenty of opportunities for world-building--or stop that from happening.
While Chippendale's comics are difficult to read coming in cold, if you've read some of those epic Sunday comics of old--especially the verbose, poetic Krazy Kat and the visually opulent Little Nemo--you should be able to handle it. One precedent for his information-dense pages is the work of Hard Boiled and Shaolin Cowboy cartoonist Geof Darrow; and for his "bad" drawing, Jimbo's Gary Panter. Whether Chippendale got the idea for Ninja's grandiose battles between supernatural beings from Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics or not, if you've seen those, some of this will be familiar. Fine-art influences include Art Brut and Chicago's Hairy Who. "People are going to be surprised how easy it is to read," Nadel says of the Ninja book. "They've got the information they need. Sometimes I think Fort Thunder's mystique gets in the way."
That mystique, in a way, got in the way of this article. Chippendale, though not a recluse or entirely press-shy, is elusive and never could be reached for an interview. And the only comics on hand were two issues of Maggots, three of Ninja (one of which was filled with ninja comics he drew as a child), and a couple of short stories in anthologies. Hundreds more pages are out there, but it's hard to find all in one place.
Thanks to increasing numbers of books published, Fort Thunder offshoot Forcefield's inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and especially a current exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present, the swirls of mystery behind Fort Thunder--like Woodstock, many more people claim to have visited than actually were ever there--are evaporating. "The question for us was, ‘How do you maintain the spark of these artists in a mainstream institution?'" says Judith Tannenbaum, curator of contemporary art at the RISD Museum. "We wanted to let them lead it."
The featured artists came up with the idea of displaying hundreds of concert posters--probably the best of their kind since those from Family Dog in '60s San Francisco--and the museum commissioned installation pieces from each artist. Chippendale produced "Home on the Run," a typically art-filled house that can be dismantled and moved. "His work is the most overtly political of these artists," Tannenbaum says. "Gentrification and Bush and the Iraq war are frequent topics of his."
Chippendale's unwavering independence and hardheadedness, however, should keep him insulated from being co-opted by the larger art world.
"The thing that I admire and respect a lot is that Brian does what he wants and doesn't publish till he's ready," Nadel says. "What these books and RISD show mean for [Fort Thunder artists] is that they give people a ready resource to demystify them and enter the work."
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