The noise rock legend on creating one of the best graphic novels of the year.
When he’s not singing and beating the life out of drums in his band Lightning Bolt, Brian Chippendale is a prolific artist. His string of psychedelic album covers were the perfect visual accompaniment to Lightning Bolt’s frazzled noise rock, but for the last seven years he’s been creating something even more ambitious. Puke Force started officially in 2009, but it’s based on a world Chippendale has been forming since he was a child, and this epic series of surreal, hilarious, grotesque and beautifully drawn stories has now formed his first graphic novel.
The main characters are almost a superhero team, but Chippendale paces his story with the sticky disorientation of a dream. Plot threads dry up and disappear unannounced and characters declare inner thoughts with a conversational calm, taking everything from terrorist bombings to inter-dimensional monsters in their stride. In the enormous single panel splash pages, where city streets writhe with characters, Puke Force becomes a bizarre blend of Hieronymus Bosch and Jack Kirby, yet Chippendale is just as good at focusing in on small details. Not unlike his frenetic music, Puke Force’s greatest strength is how it can switch between those two planes without missing a beat.
One of the book’s most memorable moments comes following an attack from a Beatles-singing suicide bomber. After an enormous splash page takes in the full explosion, Chippendale then shifts back in time using multiple comics to explore the histories of (now blown up) background characters. If this sounds horrific, well, it is – but the pitch-black satire overwhelms; one blown-apart character can’t die until reading about his death on social media, and with his dying words begs a first responder to update his online profile.
When I first spoke to Chippendale about Puke Force, it was a year ago, stuffed in the back of the Lightning Bolt’s tour van before a show at Los Angeles’ Echoplex while he was still finishing the last pages. The project is now completed and terrorizing comic shops across the country to critical acclaim. After reading through the full book, I got back in touch to discuss this wonderfully strange creation he’s spent so long making.
“I don’t really deal in perfection”
Everything about Puke Force feels so authentically dreamlike. Was that something you were going for?
That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that before about the book that it felt like a dream. I knew I wanted it to veer into a sort of dreamlike reality at the end, with the mist and an off-balance ending. Maybe the way I reprocess reality is to transform it into dream logic? Dreams are so cool, reality unhinged, like you sort of define the narrative because it’s a mash up of your own experience but the puzzle pieces are in control. I like thinking of it as a dream, I should keep that in mind as I move forward. And here I thought I was being realistic!
The world itself goes back to me at age 11 when I began a series of comics called Ninja. Then later in the early 2000s I continued the comics but brought the simplistic ninja world up to date with a more complicated, somewhat adult worldview. An 11-year-old’s view of life mixed with a 30-year-old’s view of life. All my comics take place in this world that is somewhat interconnected, kind of based on the anime Star Blazers. If I remember correctly, no one in the Star Blazers show could live on the surface of the Earth due to radiation or sun heat, so they lived underneath in caverns. The greater world my characters inhabit is similar – all the various stories take place in adjacent caverns in this massive cave structure under the surface of a charred earth.
Another influence would be Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, the less mind-blowing follow-up to his mind-blowing Book of the New Sun series. In the Long Sun books, the story takes place inside of a ship that’s a tube-like world, not unlike Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Or in the later Foundation books where they find R. Daniel Olivaw living inside the moon. Am I losing you? I could go on and on. I just love inside-out planets, I guess.
What was the writing process like with the series being drawn over so many years? Did you have certain ideas mapped out from the start?
I had nothing from the start. I had a joke about a guy masturbating on another guy’s computer and then blaming it on a third guy, who happens to be a box-shaped robot. That’s all I had, for a couple days. Then I had a little bit more and then I had a little bit more. The comic unfolds in front of me. The more I work on it, the more it asks to be worked on. While you create a strip, more strips raise their hands and ask to be created as well. It’s just a matter of getting into the mindset of that particular story. I took long breaks to do other stuff, music or art or just living life. The comic-making would be hard to get back into but once I broke the ice again the stories would start lighting up. A lot of them come from sketchbooks ideas, just drawing loosely and carefree. Maybe while listening to music or the news. But no, there was no map. Maybe halfway through an idea for an ending appeared on the horizon like an island and then I attempted, very casually, to steer the unruly ship in that direction and crash it onto shore.
There are a lot of glimpses of our reality that seep into the comic. You drop band names, there’s a monster named after your solo-project Black Pus, DJ Dog Dick appears. Did you find yourself refracting things from your life through Puke Force? Do you pick up on things you might have been feeling or going through at the time when you look at older sections?
Yes, there is a direct connection to my life, sometimes very personally and other times I’m pulling from the news or other people’s lives. Or I’m just creating some shit from thin, very thin, air. It’s interesting to revisit the older episodes and see how my views may have shifted slightly, but I can still generally relate to myself from five years ago. It’s a little harder to relate to comics from 25 years ago, but I’m a slow evolver so it’s doable. You have to be in touch with your inner child to take part in the creation of comics in any case so you’re never really an inescapable distance from old work.
“History will lump the Marvel movies into a barely memorable pool of costumed goo”
Lightning Bolt has an album called Earthly Delights. Are you a fan of Hieronymus Bosch?
I’m glad you chose Bosch over Where’s Waldo as a comparison. I love Bosch. I can’t say I’m a scholar of him, but I know a few of the major works. Henry Darger might be another influence with his sprawling spreads. Or the basic superhero comic splash page, specifically Jack Kirby comics where his splashes would be huge and epic and would open the world up. You can always go to Kirby for guidance. In storytelling it’s good to pull back the camera sometimes and let people in on the greater landscape. To give a sense of place.
Do you have a favorite moment in Puke Force?
I have a few top moments: the cafe blow-up and the following four lead-up stories to it. I love the bar scene, a bunch of episodes that revolve around Trivia Night in a bar below a sweat lodge that of course ends in mayhem. I like what I attempted with the 10-part history of Budd, a would-be assassin who’s target is the Chairman of town. It was fun to slow things down and do flashbacks and try to carry a character through time and show a real change in their life. Something like that could be its own book. I like this scene where Sonny, a character who is barely in the comic, is sitting on the side of the road talking to three old rocks. When the voice really melds uniquely with the character it feels good. I like most of the book! There are some areas where the drawing feels a little more rusty, or the writing stiffens, because I had been away from it, but what can I do. It’s all fairly immediate, it’s not perfect. I don’t really deal in perfection.
Asking your “favorite current comics” is probably a little too open ended, so what’s your favorite thing you got on new book day recently?
I love Chris Samnee’s art so I’m psyched about the new Black Widow. I just read Black Panther issue one. It’s a positive that Marvel Comics is making attempts at diversifying its creators, like giving Black Panther over to Te-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, two powerhouse African American storytellers, or bringing in more female writers like G. Willow Wilson or Kelly Sue DeConnick. Jason Aaron’s Dr. Strange is good. Lazarus by Greg Rucka, Paper Girls by Cliff Chang and Brian K. Vaughan. And of course Vaughan’s Saga with Fiona Staples. And from the indie world I enjoyed Nick Drnaso’s Beverly, he portrays a really thick reality. Or anything by Lale Westvind, oh my god, her stuff is off the wall.
With so many comics being adapted to TV, and of course we have the Marvel movies and now the DC movies, are there adaptations you’ve been happy about? Are there ones you’ve been upset with?
I like the bulk of the Marvel stuff. I have a higher tolerance for it than maybe some of my peers do. Avengers 2 fell short of the sort of perfect voice of Avengers 1, but it’s still is very watchable. Hell, I even liked the Thor movies. Captain America movies have never done it for me too much. Cap just has too much caked-on makeup maybe — or not enough. All the Wolverine movies are narrative messes. I wish Aronofsky had made the last Wolverine like it was planned, that would have been sick. Guardians of the Galaxy was great. I haven’t seen Batman vs Superman because even people I know who like this sort of candy-coated gunk thought it sucked, but I’ll see it eventually.
Daredevil, who is my original favorite superhero, that first season was pretty good. Costume looked stupid of course, I don’t know why they can’t get that shit right. Like, the whole show is based on a fairly realistic situation, and then he gets into some weirdly designed clown outfit. Just keep him in a sweatsuit with a roughly made horned mask. Keep it simple. Kingpin was great in that. Nothing Marvel does or could ever do will match something like Game of Thrones though. Marvel has the perfect recipe for making product that is 75% good. In the end, history will lump them into a barely memorable pool of costumed goo, but a few will stick out. The Dark Knight perhaps. Guardians maybe. Maybe.
What’s next for you now that Puke Force is finally out there? Do you think you’ll make a new comic? Please make a new comic!
I’m always plodding along on some comic thing. It might take a while but there will be more. Thanks!