Brian Chippendale: Interview
“I got into a groove and was like, I can actually draw!”
Late last month, Brian Chippendale’s brick of a comic If ‘n Oof was unleashed on the world by publisher PictureBox, Inc. At around 800 pages, it’s not only Chippendale’s longest sustained narrative work, but also the biggest comic to be produced by any of the members of the now-defunct Providence art collective/legend/thing called Fort Thunder, once home to a staggering number of artists working in both narrative and non-narrative visual arts and music.
It’s difficult, and not too helpful, to define what exactly “Fort Thunder art” is, but to my eyes, If ‘n Oof has all of its hallmarks: monsters and weird creatures, offbeat jokes, formal inventiveness and complexity, fantasy, sci-fi, fight scenes, and a draftsmanship that doesn’t resemble much else in indie comics. You wouldn’t be completely off if you called it high art punk pulp, except that kind of label implies a pretension that’s not only absent, but totally at odds with these artists’ exuberance — a fact that might have been obscured for some readers by much of the work’s intimidating line work and composition.
If ‘n Oof is a big exception. Instead of the cramped-yet-kinetic tiny panels of Chippendale’s previous books, Maggots and Ninja, his new effort has huge, inviting panels that let the lines breathe and draw the reader in easily. None of which would matter much, of course, if If ‘n Oof’s world weren’t so compelling. Populated by robot boys who sell ice cream from carts in barren landscapes, elephant dudes whose capes can decapitate, and cloud-riding cat-faced people, If ‘n Oof is overflowing with characters who are as inventive as Chippendale’s line work.
But while it can probably be appreciated as such, it’s not a work of untamed creativity. These characters are important pieces of an epic, structured (if weirdly) narrative, at the center of which are the mouse-headed If and his cute, sphere-with-legs sidekick Oof. We don’t know much about them, especially little Oof, but for me, their friendship was enough to make me care about them. That emphasis on long-form narrative and character development makes If ‘n Oof perhaps the most accessible comic to come out of Fort Thunder. Not surprisingly, Chippendale described the book as his attempt at a “straight story.” But it’s still weird enough to give me lots of “whoa” moments, reminding me just how vital comics can be.
I interviewed Brian Chippendale about his (and Marvel’s) comics, Peter Gabriel, and home gardening; he was gracious, funny, and self-deprecating. While the occasion was If ‘n Oof, it could have been a lot of things: He’s a busy guy. As a drummer, he recently finished up two tours as Lightning Bolt with bassist Brian Gibson, and the duo’s just starting work on a new album that might see release later this year. Early this summer, Chippendale had a solo art show at Cinders Gallery in Brooklyn. He’s been publishing regular installments of a new comic strip, Puke Force, on PictureBox’s website, and writes long-ass critiques of mainstream comics under the name Brynocki C. And who knows, maybe he’s recording new Black Pus and Mindflayer albums, too, while maintaining a vegetable garden and touring to support the new book.
This is my first interview. Of anybody. So we’ll see how it goes.
I’ve done millions, I’ll lead you through it.
That’d be great! You can ask the questions, too.
I’ll ask the questions.
No, I’ll start out with a really obnoxious question and just get it out of the way. I read in an interview, I forget where but it was for Ninja — the interviewer asked you how you’d describe the book, and what it was about, and your answer was really long and cool. Like an absurdist list of stuff, but also a pretty accurate description. So, how would you describe the new book? [Laughing] I mean, no pressure or anything!
God, the new book. It’s super-different than Ninja. What is the new book like? The new book — my answer will be so much less interesting — it’s an attempt to write a long-form story, which was new for me. So [laughs] what is my new book about? I don’t know. An 800-page search for a character’s voice that I never quite found. [Laughs] No, don’t print that!
OK. Or, we probably will. Maybe not. [Laughing] Formally, the new book seems pretty different. More white space, and, for the work of yours that I’ve seen, these panels are huge and… regular.
Did that come out of trying to tell a long story? Or was it some other development?
I think it was just sort of me literally fucking around at Kinko’s. The Ninja book was comprised of 8.5-by-11 pages of 15 or 20 panels or something, so there’d be little squares. [For] this book, I made these tiny mini comics that were basically the same size as the Ninja panels were, like 2 inches by 1.5 inches. So I would put one on each page and make this tiny pocket comic. I think there were five issues of If ‘n Oof that were in this tiny little form. And it was basically a form that ripped off from my friend Mat Brinkman [of Fort Thunder mainstay Meerk Puffy] who had done a whole pile of these kind of pocket comics. So basically, in If ‘n Oof it was as if you took a Ninja page and instead of printing all the panels on one big page, you put each panel on its own page. And then I was screwing around at Kinko’s and I just blew up these mini panels to twice the size and I was like, whoa, these little drawings look really cool twice the size. And that’s how I established the size — most of the If ‘n Oof pages have a standard panel size. I just wanted to see how it would read if I stretched out these panels and put one per page. And then before I knew it I’d mapped out this huge If ‘n Oof story and started plugging away at it with this one panel per page format.
A page from Ninja.
I really like the format.
It’s really strict. I tried to be straight.
It shows off how crazy the drawings are in some of the panels.
Some stuff got edited out, because it took me 2 years to complete it, but at the beginning I was drawing tiny and blowing it up 200 percent. And there are still some of those in there, kind of in the middle of the book where it gets rougher. But then I started drawing bigger and it allowed for more line quality to come through. I got into a groove and was like, I can actually draw! Ninja is so cramped it was like, I believe I can draw, but maybe I can’t — I can’t really tell!
Or how cramped Maggots is.
Oh yeah, Maggots, which is just like a big scribble.
It still seems like, I dunno, Maggots to me, reading it was all about movement, and it still seems like that’s very important in the new book.
Yeah, I think I’m still into that. I just sort of stretched it out. When I was pacing out this new book I kind of think of it as… I play drums, so I’m into rhythm. So the new book to me, to some extent, is just this constant beat, a real straight bass snare bass snare. It’s almost like a march. You could almost march to it. But it’s like this weird extended remix where weird things kind of come in, and there are little breaks in the beat, or there’s little climaxes within the story but they’re all places in this really specific marching pattern. You’re kind of supposed to spend the same amount of time on each page, and just go through it like, I dunno, you’d go for a walk or something. The reason it’s 800 pages, when not a ton of stuff happens, was just because it had a fixed beat, in a way.
Right. That makes sense.
And the old Maggots was kind of the same in that I liked the rhythm. It was based on motion and movement, which is rhythm to some extent. But I really crammed it in there for that book.
A spread from Maggots, which was drawn over a Japanese catalog.
It had a different pace. That rhythm was faster.
Yeah. This one’s a more mellow, older-man rhythm. [Both laugh.]
I thought, and this is probably really obvious, like lots of people might make this comparison, but it seemed like, oh, if I were gonna be listening to some of your music for Maggots or Ninja it would be Lightning Bolt, and for If ‘n Oof it would be Black Pus.
I guess so. Yeah, a little more, just slowed down.
Or maybe Tori Amos.
Yeah, right. More like Tori Amos. Yeah, you know. I was listening to a lot of Bjork, I guess.
Do you listen to a lot of her since you worked with her?
No, not really. I mean, I listened to a shitload before I did the drums for her, because I had only ever listened to a little bit. I was like, “Oh god, what is she into?” So I got all of her records and I totally fell in love with [them].
How was that experience, working with her?
It was awesome. It ruled. It was just for a day. I went down to New York and I was in the studio for, I dunno, 5 or 6 hours. I met her that morning at the studio, most likely mispronouncing her name, like Beerk or Bork. Yeah, I think that something bad came out of my mouth. [Both laugh] It was great, she was super nice. We listened to everything that she had recorded and I just made some stuff up over it, and landed one thing on [Volta], which doesn’t sound remotely like me.
Yeah, it’s different.
Yeah, it is different. I played crazy stuff over everything. Except for that one song [“The Dull Flame of Desire”], and at the end of that one song she was so excited. It should have occurred to me that that was the one that was going to be on there.
Yeah. It’s my Peter Gabriel moment.
I used to listen to Peter Gabriel — he put out Passion, which was like his world music album. You ever listen to that?
Yeah, it was some weird early ’90s/late ’80s thing. But, it basically sounded like — maybe it was — a soundtrack to a movie. And it just had like areas where these tribal drums would kind of fade in, pretty similar to that Bjork song, and I used to love that. I was into punk and noise, but I always liked this one Peter Gabriel thing because it felt, you know, tribal or something. Fake tribal, you know. But that Bjork song reminds me of that. It’s kind of nice.
No, I haven’t really heard much Peter Gabriel!
I probably just have a few years on you so I know that stuff.
Besides Peter Gabriel, who are your major influences. For comics, music, whatever.
God, I don’t know. I guess it’s just all Peter Gabriel. Every album.
Yeah, I can tell. [laughing]
It’s all that song “Big Time.”
It seems like some of these panels in If ‘n Oof… You mentioned Mat Brinkman. Some of the cave things, or some of the bricks, they reminded me of his stuff.
Yeah, totally. There’s a whole cave thing in there. There’s a type of slide. There’s a tower. Which is completely Brinkman. And then there’s a little bit of, there’s some creatures in there that are sort of like Paper Rad, like Ben Jones’ stuff. I kinda lifted stuff from here and there. I mean, I’m not literally looking at their stuff and copying it, but I’m invoking the memory of them.
I’m psyched about influences seeping in. There’s other references in there, just to have them there. I think it’s good to have that stuff — it expands your vocabulary.
If and Charlie in the flowers.
Yeah, definitely. I really liked the Charlie Brown character in If ‘n Oof.
Oh cool, yeah. [Laughs] There’s one panel in there where — this is stupid reference stuff that no one will ever get so I’ll just tell you — there’s Charlie Brown, and there’s this part where If is standing in this flower world talking to that guy Charlie, and If is wearing Linus’s clothing.
“It’s funny because indie comics, I dunno, I have this weird opinion of what they are. I don’t find a lot of the art attractive; it’s stiff… People sitting around drinking coffee talking about stuff — I just get bored.”
I did not notice that.
Is it Linus that has the blanket?
I think so.
Charlie has Charlie Brown’s shirt on, and then If is wearing Linus’s shirt, and there’s one little panel where Snoopy’s hiding out in the flowers.
Oh. Now I’m going to have to read the whole book again searching for that.
[Laughing] It’s in that flower section. Snoopy’s in one panel. So there are a few things like that hidden in the book just for fun.
It is a really fun book.
It was supposed to be fun. It was an experiment for me. By the end, I felt like I had figured out how to make a book like this. But some of the process is still in there. So to me, it was an experiment even though it’s more straight and normal. Some of the older stuff is in the middle, and the newer stuff is in the beginning, and the newest stuff is the last chapter, so it kind of moves around in terms of line quality. I dunno, it feels to me like sort of a transitional book. I hope it’s a success as a story.
I thought so.
I hope so. It’s hard to say. I mean, with anything you work on for a couple of years and then put out there — I’ve stared at these pages so many times I don’t know what to make of them anymore.
I think it works really well as a story. There are lots of moments where I was surprised because I kind of got lost in the pacing and the long passages where there’s not much “plot development” and it’s more like, traveling and zoning out on the drawing. But then, it comes to some climax, and you realize, oh shit, something good just happened here. Mostly at the end of chapters. But then at the very end, too; that’s a big climax. That fight scene, the transformation into a tiger, the insurrection that happens with the robot boys… And it did feel like it was building to that awesome climax.
Good… Each chapter has its own identity to some extent. But they do build some. Or, it’s almost like a straight line and then there’s a bump. It was fun! I don’t know, it’s funny to try to make straight stories. I usually don’t do that. Like, Ninja was little stories piled up on top of each other to inadvertently make a bigger picture. But this one, I really tried to make it one story; I was going back and inserting pages, changing dialogue to foreshadow stuff. It was really the first novel I’ve ever worked on.
I think it’s successful as a novel. And the subject matter, you know, there’s room for this style of big book in comics. You know, there aren’t many sustained stories that I know of that are like this — usually they’d be, like, about a human character: “Oh this is about my love life when I was a teenager,” all autobiographical and stuff.
So, I dunno. There’s definitely a need for mouse-faced monster dudes.
Right. Yeah, like more sci-fi or fantasy in indie comics. I think so. I have a hard time reading — do you read that many comics? Like, Blankets, which was a big one. Just stuff that’s real big, real-life stuff.
I read a lot. Stuff PictureBox puts out, or Buenaventura Press. [Translation: Pretty much all I read are comics.] But I haven’t read mainstream comics in a really long time. I used to be really into X-Men and New Mutants, but then something happened in high school where I got into Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman and I was like, [goofy high school voice] “Oh, this is way cooler.” But I saw on your blog, which is really interesting, that you keep track of Marvel comics, right?
Yeah, I totally do. Like literally today, because today’s Wednesday and Wednesday is new-comic-book day, I rode my bike to the comic book store. I’ve been so busy the last couple of months that I’ve barely read anything, but I get them and I keep track of mainstream stuff. I’m into it. The last couple months I’ve been so busy I can’t remember why I’m into it.
It’s funny because indie comics, I dunno, I have this weird opinion of what they are. I don’t find a lot of the art attractive; it’s stiff. Not that superhero stuff isn’t stiff but, I dunno. People sitting around drinking coffee talking about stuff — I just get bored. I like fantastical stuff, and some of the mainstream stuff has that, where they take you someplace else, which is nice.
I was realizing while reading your blog, you did some plot summaries of The Avengers, and I was like, wow, If ‘n Oof has something in common with mainstream comics, and in not that small of a way. The way the plot twists, and the characters’ physical transformations at some points, and there’s so much adventure going on.
I think that’s an influence. I read mainstream comics and I’m like, these are good but they’re not good enough — instead of me sitting around doing criticism or something, I should try to provide an example. You know, a somewhat successful, somewhat retarded example. But reading mainstream stories and seeing people do fantastical stuff in the good stories, and then there being so many weird failures in mainstream comics, I’m always thinking, Oops, if they would have just done this or that it would have been so much better. Why don’t they understand these characters? I think I wanted to compete with that a little bit, I wanted to get involved in that. So, If ‘n Oof is totally influenced by Marvel Comics.
If ‘n Oof’s superhero heart.
So is it even a possibility, if they came up to you and were all, “Hey Brian, do you want to do a book for us?”
[laughing] I dunno. I don’t think so. I just got this Marvel thing called Strange Tales that’s out right now, which is all indie people. Marvel does this every once in awhile, where they’ll put out some weird little compilation where underground people do mainstream characters. So this new issue just came out and it’s got Frank Santoro, who has stuff on PictureBox and writes on the Comicscomics blog, and I was reading it being like, God damn it, I wanna do this! [both laugh]
But I don’t wanna go there. I would dabble for a second, but I know those are famous last words. I feel like every once in a while some indie person sticks their foot in the door and then gets swallowed up by it and before you know it they’re writing shitty Batman stories. But, A) I don’t think I’d ever really get invited through the door, and B) I’m a little too stubborn and, I dunno, proud or something to just throw my own creations away for a paycheck. Which is why I assume a lot of people do that. But I do love some of the characters.
Yeah, me too.
I was just up in Montreal because we played some Lightning Bolt shows up in Canada. And one of my favorite comics growing up was Alpha Flight.
Was that the Canadian one?
It was Canadian superheroes, yeah. The first 28 issues were by this guy John Byrne, who was kind of a lunatic in comics, but stuff in that era in the ’80s was amazing. Now, of course, he says Alpha Fligiht was the worst thing he ever did. But I thought it was amazing. They’ve done a few revisits to the series, and it’s always a joke or something. But I was up there and I was like, I want to do an Alpha Flight series. [both laugh] Just move to Montreal for a year and do a Montreal-based Alpha Flight series, it would be kinda fun.
I would definitely buy that. [Laughing]
Haha, yeah maybe. You’d buy like three issues then you’d be like, nah, this isn’t working.
Well, I’d at least buy the first edition hologram variant cover.
I really like that blog piece you wrote on the Captain American series and the Tea Party fiasco that Marvel had.
“… I’ll start doing something political and realize I’m being hypocritical and should do more, talk less. Still, it’s important to discuss it. Certain things that happen in American politics are so outrageous and ridiculous that you have to say something, you have to throw some more fuel on the fire.”
It was pretty ridiculous. But it’s a good story. How you wrote it, too. I liked how you inserted yourself into the story, simple stuff like riding your bike, in a post about Fox News demanding an apology from Marvel Comics for implying that the Tea Party is Racist. Do you see your comics or your music as political at all?
I go that route sometimes. Ninja had a lot of politics inserted into it. If ‘n Oof is almost devoid of politics. And again, that was another conscious effort, trying to not get distracted by day-to-day stuff. But I just started a web comic —
Yeah, Puke Force. [laughs] It’s kinda like Ninja, faster thoughts and shorter episodes. And politics is creeping back into it somewhat.
Like with the terrorism thing that’s happening in the strips, where there’s a bombing and you have this series of “last conversations” people are having before they get blown up?
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s like faking current events, and twisting them and making fun of them and stuff. And that’s generally where I go, I’m just making fun of politics in general. Politics is tough. I’ll definitely get irate about certain things and I’ll draw stuff, or write stuff, or make stuff about them. Or I’ll insert some lyrics into a song. But then at the end of the day, like I do ride my bike instead of driving, but more so because I like to ride my bike and not because I’m trying to save gas. I love the fresh air and the exercise. But it’s difficult — I vote in all the elections, and I vote on local issues, and every once in awhile I’ll go to some event and say a little about some issue, but politics are tough. Sometimes I think, I haven’t even put a solar panel on the roof of my house, or I’ll start doing something political and realize I’m being hypocritical and should do more, talk less. Still, it’s important to discuss it. Certain things that happen in American politics are so outrageous and ridiculous that you have to say something, you have to throw some more fuel on the fire.
For some reason, I thought this country would get more sense of togetherness after Obama was elected, but obviously I, and others, was super naïve to believe that. It’s worse than ever as a polarized place. That’s definitely in my mind all the time, especially when I’m making Puke Force.
I like the flash drive that’s a virtual potato in Puke Force.
I thought, since I’m making a web comics, I should make web jokes.
I just posted one this morning that’s about forums.
So can I go post a comment on it? Is there a forum to talk about your forum comic?
I google “Puke Force” to see like, how’s it going? Are my Google results going up? And they basically go down each week. There were a few-thousand results coming in a month ago, and now it’s down to like 600.
Puke Force is going down the tubes. [Laughs] But it’s cool. I’m confident.
How long do you think it will go for?
I’m on [#] 22. I want to do about 40 strips and then take a little break. I want to do chunks, or seasons. And then, if you put two strips together they’re about Ninja-sized, so, in a way, I’m thinking of it as a sequel.
So it might be collected?
I think it will probably be collected. That’s my long-term goal.
Is Puke Force your main new project right now?
I guess so. I was drawing it a little during If ‘n Oof. This summer, I had an art show [at Cinders Gallery in Brooklyn], and then I went on a Lightning Bolt tour, and then another Lightning Bolt tour. So now Puke Force is the only art thing I’ve been doing for the last couple of months. But I’ve been super busy for the last couple of years, and this fall my whole goal was to not be busy. Go outside more.
I can give you pointers on how to not be busy.
[laughing] Oh really?
Speaking of going outside, I read you have a garden.
It’s starting to go out since it’s getting cold here. But I have two — one on the roof. I live in a big industrial building with a flat roof so I have a small thing there with boxes that I built. Then I have another one in a plot that I rent. I was doing gardening all spring and summer.
I’m super into gardening lately.
Yeah, it’s fun! I’m in California, so I live right across from some strawberry fields that grow berries even in the winter.
Right now I have a lot of tomatoes, tomatillos, zucchinis.
It’s totally relaxing.
Yeah, super relaxing. I mean, until you get some kind of pest.
Yeah! That can be depressing.
Yeah, it can wipe you out. You plant squashes and before you know it you have squash beetles that destroy everything.
Squash are really horrible for pests. For me, they’re the worst. We have a lot of morning dew here, moisture in the air, so the plants get this mildew—
Yeah, you got some of that downy mildew.
I’ve been trying to spray milk on them. Supposedly that helps. You have to do it every day, and then your whole garden smells like milk that’s old.
[Laughs] That’s funny. I think you can use just soap and water to get that stuff off.
I should do that. Then my garden will smell like a shower instead of old milk.
Whatever you do, it’s going to take forever, since you have to scrub each leaf. But gardening rules! I’m sad our season is ending here. All the gardens look pretty sad. I still have some stuff. Kale and greens.
Uh huh. Um. I should ask about Lightning Bolt, because —
Because it’s a music site?
Because it’s a music site and I’m talking to you about gardening. [laughing]
We just did a week-and-a-half tour with Dan Deacon, which was fun. And now we’re going to be recording for the next couple of months. We’re doing stuff at home, so we’re going to see how it goes. I got this new digital machine now — I’m like 10 years behind schedule with technology, but I generally record all of our practices and all of my solo stuff on a cassette four-track, so I got this new machine to try to bring up the quality a little bit. So, I’ll be using it starting tonight. But we have a bunch of new songs, and we’re going to try to have something by the end of the year. That’s the goal.
But we’re notorious at failing at our goals. [both laugh] But we’re going to try.
Well, Wonderful Rainbow was no. three on our site’s best albums of the decade list. So some people must like your failed goals. [laughing]
I have a lot of goals. [laughing] Too many goals. Even if I fail at half of them, I actually get stuff out there.
Which is your favorite Lightning Bolt album?
Aaaaa, I don’t know if I have one. I listen to them so much while we make them that by the time they come out, I’m pretty destroyed on them. I think I probably like some of our practice tapes better, but nobody’s ever heard those.
I have hundreds of practice tapes. My plan is to break up and then start releasing all that stuff. But we just don’t seem to break up, so.
You should be more of a dick.
” I feel like every once in a while some indie person sticks their foot in the door and then gets swallowed up by it and before you know it they’re writing shitty Batman stories.”
Start throwing your drumsticks at [bandmate] Brian [Gibson].
I generally like the newest album best. I like Earthly Delights, just because of where I’m at as a listener, I like less poppy stuff and more, I wouldn’t say ambient stuff, but more stuff to space out on. I think the albums have progressively gotten more spaced out.
Yeah, I can see that.
[We’re] slowly becoming a non-stoner stoner-rock band.
Pretty soon you’ll be releasing just drones. Or Music for Airports, by Lightning Bolt.
Totally. Music for Airhangars. Music for Drunk Pilots.
When I was thinking about the interview, I was making all these clever connections between comics and music. And then I saw the Lightning Bolt tour documentary, The Power of Salad, a couple of days ago. I’d never seen you drum before. So I watched that, and I thought, shit, those are all really stupid questions I had planned, asking about calmly drawing comics — because everyone talks about how notoriously slow and painstaking making comics is — and then, you know, your drumming. Which is insane. [both laugh]
You know, when you take the finished products, it’s easy to say, oh, there’s lots of movement and little marks in this comic and in the drumming. I think you said in an interview that for both forms, it’s about filling up space.
Yeah, I have said that. I’m not sure if I believe that anymore, though.
So yeah, I realized that was a silly question for me to ask.
Yeah, but I think about it. We just did this tour, and the shows are so brutally crazy. I feel so crazy when I’m playing drums. It’s so weird. There’s so much energy, and it feels kind of maniacal. And then I go home, and I sit there and I draw. You know, I like to go to the beach, or just do normal stuff. And… Sometimes when we’re on tour, I guess I just don’t understand how I coexist with these two things. Like, because I really like just sitting in my room working on stuff calmly. But somehow they coexist. Maybe they are related in some sense, because I apply myself wholeheartedly to both of them. So maybe that ties them together — applying yourself to something a hundred percent, whether just sitting at a table drawing or sitting and drumming.
It’s really just a different facet of living — being physical and then being cerebral. They feed each other though. If I didn’t play drums, and I just drew comics all the time, I’d be a four-hundred-pound dude who couldn’t fit through the door. It’s all about my weight-loss plan; that’s what the drumming is.
Drumming is your lap band.
Exactly. My aerobicizer.
Well, I don’t want to take up all your time so —
Yeah, I have mainstream comics to read. I can’t talk on the phone all day, I have to figure out what the hell Daredevil is up to!