There is no better way to feel hopeful for the future than to consider the past. This fact struck me recently while I was reading The Great Mortality by John Kelly, a stirring account of the Black Death, the plague that swept Northern Europe between 1347 and 1352. Even before the plague arrived in Italy from Mongolia, however, peasants were dying by the thousands as the result of malnutrition and ingesting spoiled food. 1300 marked the beginning of the Little Ice Age. By 1315 there had been years of poor harvests, the result of torrential rains and plummeting temperatures.
Kelly’s description of death from ergotism especially chilled me. “First, the ergot fungus, a by-product of moldy wheat, attacks the muscular system, inducing painful spasms, then the circulatory system, interrupting blood flow and causing gangrene. Eventually the victim’s arms and legs blacken, decay and fall off…”
With each new generation there are new crises to confront and new inventions that change the way human beings function in the world and relate to one-another. And with each new generation comes a new crop of artists to help us contemplate the events of the day through the lens of their work. In the wake of the plague, death bed scenes and vanitas paintings became popular-a reminder to the viewer not to become too attached to the things of this world because death is always close at hand.
In his fourth graphic novel, Puke Force, Brian Chippendale bravely tackles the perils of modern American life. The book begins where the action in his earlier book, Ninja, left off. In Ninja, a group of friends and the titular ninja fight to prevent an evil arms manufacturer from setting up shop in their beloved city of Grain. Chippendale drew the book in the wake of the gentrification of Olneyville, his neighborhood in Providence Rhode Island, and I assume Grain to be an alternate universe manifestation of that city. The oversized pages of Ninja writhe with dots, dashes and lines. Characters rendered in thick brush strokes emerge from dense thickets of very fine line, to dizzying effect. Reading it again, I was overwhelmed by the sheer density and cinematic scope of that book. Panel backgrounds often remain static while characters traverse them, calling to mind animation as much as classic cartooning. On one page I counted fifty individual panels. It’s one of those comics that, in its ambition and urgency, seems to have practically erupted from inside its creator.
After Ninja, Chippendale took a dramatically different approach with If ‘n Oof, an epic psychedelic adventure story. Almost every page of If ‘n Oof is comprised of only a single panel. The result showcases Chippendale’s exquisite figure drawing, and makes for a much easier read. Puke Force continues the trend toward readability and I would argue that it’s by far his most accessible work to date, a middle ground between the density of Ninja and the relative sparseness of If ‘n Oof.
That said, Puke Force is a profoundly “messy” book. It’s so trenchant and un-sparing in its attack on everything from the Tea Party, racists, Islamic terrorists, government surveillance, the art world, noise bands, Twitter and even trivia nights that to talk about the form seems like admiring the wallpaper while the house burns down. Even so, it’s important to note that Puke Force is a collection of strips that first appeared on the PictureBox blog before that venerable publisher ceased operations. I asked Chippendale how the strip format changed his approach to storytelling and if he preferred one mode to another:
I like both forms. But the serialized form of Puke Force sure comes naturally to me. I think social media; Twitter, Instagram. Idea snippets. I was waiting for it. I was made for it in a way. And page by page comics is the same. Limited commitment per moment but a large commitment overall. I mean that's life. You take it day by day. You edge forward. But there an arc, there is some sort of destination. But I can't wait to do another If 'n Oof type book. One that arrives fully fleshed out without everyone having seen 3/4 of it. One where I can go back and work all over it and really craft it. Make it work on all sorts of depths. I like both. I want both. And I want 36 hour days.
Puke Force's narrative arc is, more or less: The story’s protagonists, a group of young creatures including Manny, an anthropomorphic, somewhat mutated M&M candy, Gregus Gamecube, a robot-like fellow, and Aw Dude, a young man with a shock of dark hair and no pants, live together in Grave City, Formerly known as Grain. There’s an attack on a coffee shop called Coffee Whirld by a Tea Party terrorist and many are killed. In the aftermath, Aw Dude rescues an infant. A troubled young man makes an attempt on the life of Chairman Sound, effectively the Mayor of Grave. A vicious brawl erupts at the “Lower Bar”, a local watering hole, leaving a white supremacist, a black man and a Muslim man dead, their blood intermingling on the pavement. Slowly a modern plague begins to emerge and spread across the city. This plague originates not on the Mongolian Steppes but in the local comic shop/internet café 24XS, whose motto is “Check in to check out.” The plague is transmitted by touch and gradually black blobs descend on the city and begin to overcome its inhabitants. Finally, the protagonists unite to fight off the technological scourge that’s turning the townsfolk into braindead husks.
While reading Puke Force I began to contemplate the state of satire in contemporary cartooning. The work of Matthew Thurber sprang immediately to mind. His book Infomaniacs also debuted as a strip on the PictureBox blog, and it tackles many of the same issues, including environmental collapse and internet addiction. I next recalled a recent piece by Ron Rege, Jr. that appeared on the VICE magazine blog. A re-imagining of Alex Schubert’s Blobby Boys strip entitled “Hey America, Wake the Fuck Up”, it is a scathing indictment of consumer capitalism and the American military industrial complex. Kevin Hooyman and Leif Goldberg also sprang to mind, and they are all roughly the same age as Chippendale, who was born in 1973.
I wondered if artists who were born slightly before or around 1980 -- Gen X’ers -- were more prone to be critical of social media and the internet, since we were born on the cusp. We remember the world pre-internet but we are young enough to have become thoroughly immersed in it, and we can compare and contrast our quality of life before and since the technology gained ascendance. I asked Chippendale if he thought that he and the aforementioned cohort of artists ran the risk of becoming embittered towards younger people who had never known a world without social media:
I like the word cohort, and I love those cohorts. Again I'm only bitter about people. About people who yearn to strip away the rights of other people and creatures. Dude my band toured pre-Internet and it sucked. It's such an easier world in that way today. But like anything, you do need moderation. Not that I'm good at moderation. My idea of moderation is use the Internet too much then drum your brains out too much. I don't know what young people of today will be like, but I think they will be ok. I recently started taking jujitsu, and there are young people in the class as well as older, and they all kick my ass. I'm not too worried about young people floating off into the cloud and never coming back. Some will. Just like some kids in my generation never recovered from drug and alcohol abuse. Abusers will abuse. I wish them luck. Perhaps it's an easier platform to get addicted to than hard liquor but but I don't know.
In keeping with that line of questioning, I remembered hearing that Matthew Thurber was compelled to write INFOMANIACS not because he abstained from social media on principal but rather because he himself had, at one point, become addicted. It makes sense that the reformed addict is often the most outspoken advocate for sobriety, and so I asked Brian if he felt addicted.
Yeah maybe. That and sugar. But I'm not too worried about it. Obviously the book makes a big deal out of it all but I'm actually sad it kind of went into a literal black and white view of it. In future episodes I intend to soften that absolute. I love the Internet. The problem is the people who use it. "The Internet doesn't leave hate speech in the YouTube comments, people do". The villain in Puke Force is really supposed to be all the hate and anger that surfaces on the Internet, not the Internet itself.
That flattening into absolutes is one of the perennial problems with satire, I believe, and one of the reasons that it can be so powerful and so polarizing. My first encounter with satirical cartooning was in the pages of my uncle Howard’s Mad magazines. I was instantly smitten. Part of what made Mad seem so subversive was that everyone was a target, from well-meaning liberals to chest beating right-wingers to corporations that tried to sell poorly made products with catchy slogans. Mad taught me how to decode the language of ad copy and political sloganeering, and for that I’m forever grateful. Next I discovered the satirists of the '60s and '70s undergrounds. R. Crumb’s “Short History of America, a denunciation of the seemingly unstoppable forces of human expansion, is a stunning example of satire stripped to its simplest elements.
It’s also impossible to bring up satirical underground comics from the 70s without mentioning the incredible women involved with Wimmin’s Comix, among them Dori Seda, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Trina Robbins. Robbins’ Rosie the Riveter strip is beautifully crafted and laugh-out-loud funny yet utterly ruthless in its condemnation of everything from police brutality to misogyny to Richard Nixon. In fact, Fantagraphics will soon be releasing the Complete Wimmin’s Comix collection, which anyone reading this article may purchase for me at any time.
A personal favorite of that era is Spain Rodriguez’s Trashman strip, collected as Trashman Lives. Harry Barnes, a former trash collector in a fragmented, post apocalyptic America, is framed for the murder of his girlfriend and goes into hiding with the elusive 6th International cult, practitioners of “para-sciences” who can alter their own molecular structure. A lover and a fighter of superhuman prowess, the newly minted Trashman traverses the wastes, exacting vengeance on cigar-smoking, pig faced capitalists who wear suits with pocket watches and feast on human flesh. Trashman is, in essence, a cipher, a cardboard cutout onto whom we can project our hopes and dreams for a better, freakier world. That’s why he was my first comix crush, but I can understand why this is difficult for some readers to swallow.
I noticed that the protagonists of Puke Force (many of whom appeared in Ninja as well) seem to be almost childlike in their sweetness, jokiness, optimism and obliviousness in the face of evil, while the villains are canny, worldly manipulators, and I asked Chippendale if he agreed that this was the case: "Yeah they are sort of eternal children. Peter Pan'ish. I agree. It would be fun to try to drag them through the mud a little more, maybe I'll get to that." Even the greatest satirical works (amongst which I count Puke Force) are always walking a fine line; the author must balance narrative and ideology, without allowing one to eclipse the other. And few satirists worth their salt are above taking shots at themselves. I was curious about Chippendale’s character Mister Gom, a narcissistic purchaser of rare comics on eBay who refuses to help the protagonists in their time of greatest need.
By taking aim at Gom I'm taking aim at myself. You can't make comics about adventure and claim to be an adventurer of anything other than the mind. But I believe art can be a huge force for change. I mean look at the radio, you have radio talk show hosts that create reality for hundreds or thousands of people, and half the time it's based on misdirection. Perspective is reality, and art shapes perspective.
I am living proof of this. After consuming punk rock, satirical comics like “Underworld” by Kaz and “The City” by Derf, and feminist sci-fi in dangerous quantities, I came out the other side of my teenage years confident in my body, mistrustful of authority and opposed to violence in its myriad forms. I sometimes forget how truly powerful art can be, but who knows this better than artists? Why would we ever doubt our power to shape perspective? Lale Westvind’s gargantuan, futuristic giantesses make me feel unstoppable and put me in touch with the sublime. Such is the power of images.
Images can empower and they can disenfranchise. Art Spiegelman discusses racist caricature, its negative impact and his choice to depict Jews as mice and Nazis as cats in a simple but highly effective visual metaphor in this enlightening interview with comics scholar Hillary Chute. I felt a great deal of grief and confusion in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris; grief for the loss of life and confusion because I could not (and still can’t) wrap my mind around the nature of that publication and its context in French society. In the aftermath of that attack, and in light of the trigger warning controversy, which has been in the media a great deal but the real scope of which I can’t quite fathom, I asked Brian if he thinks this is a particularly difficult time to be a satirist in America, as opposed to the 60’s and 70’s when the form seemed more dominant.
Honestly, fuck trigger warnings in colleges. It's weird that there's this tip toeing trend in colleges, or at least that's what certain news shows are saying, but simultaneously things like Twitter are shouting non stop vulgar ideas at a rate of a heap a second. I'm not sure how serious the trigger word issue is. I hope it's just another story that got a lot of play and will fade. I'm not personally going to plop an image of Muhammad shitting on Jesus on the cover of my next comic, because really, what's the point? Whup de do, you're inflammatory. I don't know enough about Islamic values to start crossing those lines with it. But I will happily prod at the concept of organized religion from it's multitude of weak spot because huge aspects of mans interpretation of a holy presence can be deplorable. It's probably my responsibility as a cartoonist to be fully steeped in Charlie Hebdo's publishing history, but I don't actually know that much about how far they went. The people that killed them were deranged, sadly 'deranged' is becoming more and more normal, much like the planned parenthood shooter blaming the sale of body parts for his attack. It's more evidence the art can have an effect on huge swathes of the world, because these violent extremists are propped up on the equivalent absolute truth of a Jackson Pollack painting. They are propped up on visions that are rooted in reality, but filtered through intense imagination. I don't mean to make it sound romantic, there are a great many people in the world who have very little, and when you have very little there is a gap in you that is filled with what is readily available. If that's hate, it's a fucking mess.
I found myself particularly fascinated and disturbed by one section of Puke Force, “A New Bud on the Tree of Heaven” that details the origin story of Bud, a young American terrorist. The chapter has a particular emotional heft due to the development of the character’s backstory. I asked Brian if that particular chapter of the book had grown out of any single personal experience:
The seed of that part of the book was 100% from the shooting of senator Gabrielle Giffords. Whenever a shooting takes place in the states both "sides" of the political spectrum get ready to pounce and blame the other side. And I do too. That one shooting to me seemed weird because people sort of dismissed the shooter as a liberal kind of kid, maybe a music listening weirdo. And that was it. No one talked about his parents. About his upbringing. Not at all! So I started brainstorming how a kid could get to that point. But instead of having a conservative set or parents or a liberal set I decided the parents would be one of each, and have the worst traits of each. Or the stereotypical traits of each. So you have the self centered liberal idealist and the repressed fear driven zealot. Those are the parents. I think these shootings end, like all short shitty 24 hour news cycle reporting, they end with a kind of weak portrait of the 'crazy shooter' and very little investigation back into the family. I wanted to investigate the family some, and when I did, the story poured out. So it's a unique part of the book. That segment of the book and the bar scene are my favorites. Those are the two parts where the story really just flowed, like unstoppably. I like the bulk at the book but as a creator you yearn for those parts that just geyser up.
And that’s part of what makes Puke Force such a powerful, necessary and entertaining read. Although the subject matter is grave, the book is never dour, dull or ungenerous. It is a geyser, a firehose, an explosion of wit and inventiveness, a paean to the saving power of creativity. There are visual jokes on almost every page, and the panel backgrounds are lavishly, lovingly detailed. I delighted in reading all the outrageous and inventive shop signs-Perhaps a better person than I could refrain from laughing about a sporting goods store called Dick’s Balls or an area of town devoted to yoga and spiritual growth called the “Fox Forest Glen Brook Healthy Strip”, but I would not want to meet that person. Chippendale’s love of language and puns is infectious and he’s one of the few contemporary cartoonists whose artistic originality is matched by the originality of his writing. One particular exchange between a man and his expectant wife at a café, moments before the café is attacked by a terrorist, had me practically screaming with laughter:
Man: I will tirelessly assist in all the duties of a parent
Woman: When he shits his pants you will be there?
Man:I will wipe him with my own shirt
Woman: When it takes 2 hours to feed him a chick pea, you will guide his
Man: I will chew his food and spit it into his mouth
Woman: When he eats us out of house and home, you will ebay your vintage wallet to pay the bills?
Man: I’ll make him a coat of my own flesh if need be
Woman: You will not tax me with the strength of your sexual impulses?
Man: I will put my dick on a shelf next to my childhood toys.
I asked Chippendale whose writing he loves to read:
I recently read some of Harkham's Crickets and man his dialogue is great. But that didn't influence P-Force. I mostly read super hero comics and a lot of the dialogue is kind of base. I'll tell you who I hate, Brian Michael Bendis. HIs dialogue is deplorable. I've been in a Henning Mankell Swedish mystery loop for a few years now, he's great. But his dialogue doesn't really rise to the surface. It's embedded in the story which is why it's so great. The last part of the PF I was listening to Cormac McCarthy's Suttree book on tape which is one of my favorite favorite novels. But again did that influence me? Maybe slightly in the atmosphere at the end, but I doubt it effected dialogue. dialogue just rolls out of me. You draw a guy and he opens his mouth and stuff comes out. Then another character reacts. It's all about being able to make fun of people. You make a weird voice in your head and then suddenly that weird voice starts talking it's own weird shit.
On the topic of fiction, Puke Force’s closest contemporary literary relatives are probably the short story collection In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders and, although this is more of a stretch, the novel Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Both books are hysterically funny and unrelentingly bleak from cover to cover. But I knew that Ursula K. Leguin had recently called for writers of science fiction to imagine possible worlds that provided alternatives to capitalism, and since Chippendale’s work is a hybrid of fantasy, sci-fi and satire, I asked him if he could imagine such a world.
What's weird about fiction for me, or how I create fiction, is that there is only so much time to work on a thing. My artistic vision for the current and future state of things is built on ideas that make the strongest impact on me, and then once you start down a route, say a negative portrait of things, the flood gates open and the negative takes command. And there just isn't time to make a "fair and balanced report" of the state of things. And is fair and balanced what makes good art? Painting a negative portrait of the world just seems funnier and more intense to me. I'm trying to make intense work. I guess in a way I take for granted that the world as I know it, the world that touches me personally is actually very good and rewarding. But I'm not going to make work about what's good and rewarding because we know about that, so Puke Force talks about the negative, because that's what needs work. You can take a walk in a forest and be in silence and beauty, that still exists. But the need to support that doesn't partner with my brain as pointedly as say, the need to put organized religion through the ringer. As for a future that is good and wonderful, hmm, that would take another book or 20 to answer. I try, I really do, to get my stories going in that direction, but the anger at the dark things in life takes command. There's got to be some hope in Puke Force somewhere, isn't there? There's hope in the community of the gang. My gang, not the bad guys gang. Gang specific.
Speaking of gangs of good guys, the final pages of Puke Force, in which Chippendale’s pure-hearted protagonists battle the scourge of negativity that’s transforming the citizens of their hometown into hive-minded wraiths, reminded me very much of the final pages of a beloved classic from my childhood, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The gang in that book is comprised of Meg Murry, her kid brother Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin O’Keefe. The siblings’ father has vanished, and when the children travel through a tesseract to locate him on a distant planet, Camazotz, they find that he has become the prisoner of a powerful alien brain called It. The book is an allegory about the perils of communism, and I have always been profoundly moved by its insistence on the power of love, friendship and idiosyncrasy over tyranny. In this passage, Meg does battle with the brain in order to release her brother and father from its control:
But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike." For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. "No!" she cried triumphantly. "Like and equal are not the same thing at all" "Good girl, Meg!" her father shouted at her. But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. "In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else," but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.”
And here are some lines from the last pages of Puke Force, as the victims of the nefarious techno-plague entreat Aw Dude and his friends to relinquish their individuality and join them: "#poke. Independence is not evolution, it is a distraction. Come into our hive mind…Humanity is filth, There is no peace there. Peace comes only with the banishment of the corporeal form…Join us. There is no want when you are one with all.”
But are love, friendship and idiosyncrasy really enough to overcome the overwhelming forces of distraction, hatred and greed in the Anthropocene era? Fantasy is a welcome retreat from our daily concerns, but great works of speculative fiction and satire raise more questions than they answer. They sometimes feel less like a soothing balm than like lemon juice in a paper cut. They can inspire us to make up our own minds, think critically,
and develop our own opinions. They can help give us the confidence to look our oppressors squarely in the eye and say “NO”, and to look our friends and lovers squarely in the eye and say, emphatically, “YES.”
Please check the D&Q web site for information on Brian Chippendale's book tour.