It’s been 15 years since the closure of the Fort Thunder art space in Providence. Many Fort Thunder alumni have gone on to notable careers in the visual arts and music, but none have made the impact of Brian Chippendale. Although he may be (slightly) better known as the drummer and vocalist for Lightning Bolt, he has also assembled an intimidating body of work as a cartoonist and visual artist. Puke Force (Drawn & Quarterly) only confirms his status as one of our best living cartoonists.
Puke Force exists in a universe all its own. Serialized from 2009 to 2015, the strip is a glimpse into a dystopian future not unlike our own present, albeit one just slightly ameliorated by the presence of small amounts of magic and superheroism. But simply explaining the plot does little to illuminate Chippendale’s appeal as a cartoonist. Anyone unfamiliar with his art, simply glancing at sample pages, may be surprised to learn that there is a plot. Certainly, his work is intentionally rough, primitive, even occasionally taxing for the reader to follow. He disregards the rules regarding how you read the page. Figures pile up one on top of the other, with new characters appearing and disappearing as quickly as the pages turn.
Above it all, however, looms Chippendale’s insistence on making his pages look as “ugly” as possible. Like his precursor and influence Gary Panter, he seems constitutionally unwilling to allow the readers’ eyes to rest while reading. It’s an anxious book. Puke Force does, however, represent a step up in terms of legibility for Chippendale. His first tour de force, Maggots, remains almost literally unreadable, hundreds of tiny cramped pages of sketchy figures interacting in a dark inky subterranean realm. The best literary analogy would be something like Stein’s The Making Of Americans, a technically readable book that features words and sentences being put into recognizable order that still nevertheless manages to actively discourage the process of reading. Compared to Maggots, Puke Force is positively new-reader friendly, less The Making Of Americans and more Tender Buttons. There’s still a measurable degree of difficulty, but the pleasures are nowhere near as opaque.
So what actually is the book? Well. Grave City is a dirty place. It’s dirty because there’s no money left for social services. The water is classified as a “toxic mystery.” Suicide bombers appear at random to blow up coffee shops at the behest of the Tea Party. There’s a split between flakey abusive leftists and violent dictatorial rightists, with Black Panther party members and turbaned Middle Easterners at each others’ throats in the margins. The collective bile of the internet rises up in a wave of black terror to destroy the city. Punk rockers rub elbows with He-Man while elsewhere a brisk aftermarket in Iron Fist back issues occupies the visionary philosophers. It’s a world where hatred is a tangible and pungent reality, while Jesus is busy eating all the chocolate hidden in the cracks of the walls. There’s no way to do justice to the panoply of ideas, sensations, and emotions on display here, from snarky bathroom humor to deep and abiding anger at the dissolution of civil society. It contains multitudes. It is also, without question, the first masterpiece of 2016.