Though he's best known for being one of the beasts behind noise-punk duo Lightning Bolt's drum kit, multitalented artist-musician Brian Chippendale is an equally-impossible act to follow when he puts pen to paper. Since co-founding the influential Providence, Rhode Island art/music/comics collective Fort Thunder in 1995, Chippendale has been creating comics that blend hyper-dense visuals, rollicking action sequences, goofy slice-of-underpaid-artist-life humor, and biting political satire. The result is like nothing else in comics—"Bloom County through a Gary Panter filter," as Chippendale describes it, "though Panter is way more unhinged. It's genetically complicated."
Puke Force, out from Drawn + Quarterly this week, may be his most accessible book to date. Unlike past work, it's not enormously thick (like its 2010 predecessor, If 'n Oof), extremely tall and hard to hold (like 2006's Ninja), or drawn on the pages of a Japanese catalog (2007's Maggots). Plus, even though Chippendale began working on the text seven years ago, the themes explored in Puke Force feel on-the-pulse, suggesting a naysayer-like quality to the artist.
Utilizing Chippendale's trademark "snake style" layout—in which the action weaves back and forth across each page in zig-zag fashion— Puke Force is a cautionary tale of Grave City, a teeming neoliberal metropolis beset by the dislocating influences of online groupthink and lone-wolf terrorism. Its water has been privatized, its social networks are under surveillance, and its shitty rock bands can barely find a place to play. In other words, though Chippendale may have started the book by serializing it online back in 2009, it's very, very 2016.
VICE: This book was seven years in the making. What took this one so long?
Brian Chippendale: The latest Lightning Bolt album was six years in the making, too. What the hell have I been doing? Looking back, I'm pretty sure bursts of Puke Force drawing coincide with bursts of Lightning Bolt touring—like, I remember drawing all the cafe bombing episodes right after a big tour. The period after LB tours is always a period of calm, because I'm flush with cash and I can work on whatever—and "work on whatever" kind of means work on things that make me no money.
As the comic went on, the amount of info I had to juggle built up, and if I didn't have like a month of free time ahead of me, I wouldn't even bother trying to get back in the swing of it. It takes some time to get that specific idea machine flowing, and to get your pen hand really in shape, too.
If I didn't know any better I'd read this book as a warning to kids about the dangers of online. Not that it's preachy, but the constant connectedness goes hand-in-hand with surveillance, and with the spread of destructive ideas.
People are definitely reading a heavy warning about online activity in the book, and I think that's one regret I have. I love the Internet. [ Laughs] I've gotten so much practical use out of it: Selling prints, booking tours, saying hey to old friends—all that. But I do feel that even though I have an overt need for and warmth toward some social media, there is an undercurrent of energy on there that corrodes the soul.
What do you mean by "corrodes the soul"?
I think it's the feeling that you're not alone anymore. That should be a positive thing, right? But I think aloneness is important. It's very important to get lost in your own head, not just get lost in the hive mind. As an artist, I need to venture inside to get at deeper meaning. Maybe new muscles for that are forming in younger people, new ways to go deep. I don't necessarily think we are going to lose a generation to the internet. It's an amazing tool. Pizza delivery drones, on the other hand? I'll definitely be throwing rocks at them… and ordering pizzas.
Even though Puke Force is a comic about internet culture, it's still very rooted in physical community. The core characters are roommates, or bandmates, or people who all go to the same donut shop. They're connected in a physical space.
For me, that's the answer. The last interview I did for the book really focused on a perceived sense of hopelessness and fear in the book, but I don't totally see it. In my comics, I follow the story, not necessarily the moral message. That doesn't mean the moral message isn't there, it just plays out in a different way. The violence is the loudest, but it's kind of peace that brings everything together.
Like you say, the characters are rooted in a physical world. Community still plays a vital role in society, and it's as strong as ever. Not just online community, but physical, hand-to-hand community. We all still live in a solid world. We all still eat. So the hope is in that. Humans will never truly get sucked into a digital netherworld. Toilets will keep us grounded.
Still, considering the gestation period and the fact that some of this material was posted as early as 2009, it's almost frighteningly prescient. There's a storyline about water privatization that could be about Flint, Michigan; there's a storyline that sounds like GamerGate…
It was upsetting to think that I was making political satire, but that its time was slipping away. Like, I had to get this book out now—that's what I've been thinking for three years. But, somehow, it feels like since maybe 2000, political issues don't get solved anymore, they just intensify. It's all rising. There's a big tsunami of bad shit that's been building for 15 years. Everything [in Puke Force] has stayed, in some way, relevant.
There's an undercurrent of deep skepticism about parenthood in the text. This seems like an idea you wrestled with quite a bit.
This thing took shape over seven years, and one thing that has changed since I started it is my view on parenthood. I still have no kid or kids, but I'm open to it. I'm ready for it. I was terrified of the idea. But it's still a good thing to joke about, ready or not.
In a way, this whole book is just one episode from a larger narrative. If I'm not mistaken, there are connections between this book and your past work like Ninja and If 'n Oof. Is there a Chippendale-verse?
There is a Chippendale-verse. It's not the focus, but it's there. Like, there's a scene in Puke Force where a woman gives birth, and the doctor from If 'n Oof shows up with a soap box to give to her asshole husband. It's just a joke appearance, but I work it out well. Also, the gang from Atrophy Life, my Mothers News serial, show up for one diner scene. That was really because I was drawing a bunch of stuff for Atrophy Life, and I wasn't in Puke Force mode. I needed an episode to get me back in line, so I used them to do that. I like my Atrophy Life gang. As for Ninja, it's a direct prequel to Puke Force.
Your snake-style layout remains unique in comics over a decade after your development of it. Is this a disappointment in some way, that others haven't followed your lead?
No, it's a horrible place to go with comics, doing the snake-style layout. I don't recommend it. [ Laughs] It's good no one else has gone down this dark path. I already loosened the rules: I used to make you go up the facing page, but now I treat each page as its own snake, not each page spread. Don't go there, kids.
'Puke Force' is out now via Drawn + Quarterly. For more information visit the publishing house's website here.
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