PRINT November 2016


Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force

Page from Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015).

Puke Force, by Brian Chippendale. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2015. 120 pages.

NOISE IS IN THE EAR OF THE BEHOLDER—a “catchall phrase for overwhelming stuff with abstract elements or ‘energy,’ elements involving harsher tendencies,” as Brian Chippendale said in a 2012 interview with The Believer. Noise, as a category and a descriptor, is frequently used to characterize Chippendale’s music: the pummeling drum lines and incoherent vocals of the two-man band Lightning Bolt. But it’s in the eye of the beholder, too: The term is often deployed as a shorthand description of the style of his comics, in which thickets of panels are populated with feral, densely composed drawings.

Chippendale’s latest book, Puke Force, shows the hallmark of his music making, its hyperactivity and intensity: Each panel abounds with scratched-out hatch marks that indicate surfaces but also come to function as the visual equivalent of distortion in music, not only “dirtying” the page but producing, in their ubiquity, a low-level buzz throughout the book. Instead of a drumbeat structure, Puke Force gives way to more complex, symphonic arrangements of voices and narratives. It dispatches some dozen denizens of Grave City along independent but intersecting threads in the aftermath of a café bombing and amid a zombifying plague that emanates from the internet itself. Puke Force enacts Claude Bremond’s notion that, as Barthes put it, “every character (even secondary) is the hero of his own sequence.” The world of Puke Force resembles any one of Mike Kelley’s stuffed-animal sculptures: a profane agglomeration of roughed-up, “cutified” castoffs. Each character follows a distinct story within the shared world of the book, engaging in such common activities as getting in bar fights, courting political intrigue, and buying doughnuts, but also fantastically tinged ones, such as finding a way to counteract the ill effects of technology’s “hive mind” on human memory. The social realm of the book—in which characters visit the same places and experience the same events from different perspectives—is both underscored and undermined by the introduction of a citywide surveillance system in the underground headquarters of a loose collective. Here, twenty video screens (which resemble a supercomputer crossed with a mixing board and a 1980s arcade game) not only show simultaneous moments around the city but also capture the scenario playing out within the panel itself.

Part of Puke Force appeared serially on the website of the now-defunct publisher PictureBox from 2010–13, but it was created on paper and, Chippendale has said, intended ultimately for print. The book collects five years’ worth of strips and presents a satire of gentrification, online culture, and consumerism. It is the digital-era version of Gary Panter’s printed matter–based referents, with culture now manifesting as the tide of social media, mass surveillance, and online overload. As a black cloud seeps out of a computer, it infects the user, who spreads the infection to others; collectively, these victims become “gnaps” who speak in emoticons, hashtags, and platitudes (“Find solace in reflection, for one still moment”). Instagram here is Voyeurstagram, and whole strips are given over to games of computer solitaire and reproductions of a Twitter (called “Chirp”) feed. Chippendale’s reading instructions for the latter, a series of plunging vertical columns, are “Let the fool fall where he may.” He nimbly drops in visual citations of his earlier comics and the work of others, including C.F. and Ben Jones—all in the casual way one would cite friends and contemporaries, likes and dislikes, on social media. In a strip subtitled “Who Monitors the Monitors?” (an apt reference to the graffitied dictum in Watchmen [1986–87], Alan Moore’s commentary on contemporary anxieties), the proprietor of a comics and internet shop advises an exasperated patron, “You must steel yourself against the internet,” moments before that patron is literally overcome by the black cloud, becoming patient zero in an internet-zombie army.

Chippendale employs the snakelike layouts seen elsewhere in his work: rows of panels that are read from left to right, right to left, and then left to right. “Read! Like a drain pipe,” he instructs, “Read like a river,” “Read like a labyrinth,” “Read like a rat in a maze.” Duration, typically marked by the empty gutters between panels, here becomes an abstract notion: There’s no space between panels; the “distortion” muddies any smooth transition; and the winding, ceaseless flow keeps the reader’s mind and eye from “resetting” with the start of each new row. But in Puke Force, the fluid panel arrangement also echoes the circuitous, overlapping mode of storytelling, where, as with the surveillance system, an action can simultaneously refer to itself. Temporal progression is troubled, too, by the book’s large single panels, whose borderless and chaotic realms suggest multiple disparate events occurring at once. These capacious spaces with no interior walls are like stadiums, in which separate narrative threads play out alongside and in full view of one another.

Frequently (especially in the large panels), the book’s view of humanity and of social injustice combines humankind’s best and worst impulses in a way that, despite the fantastic settings, feels deeply realistic. But, like some of his characters, Chippendale remains optimistic. At the end of the book, he introduces a superhero named Power Fantasy, who saves a character from temptation and despair. Perhaps temporary escape is what Chippendale is advocating. “I don’t think of escapism as something outside of yourself,” he told The Believer. “It’s something natural and fundamental, like breathing. . . . Escapism de-rigifies the mind. And it’s fun.”

Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.

Read our special issue on comics (Summer 2014).