Chances are, you’re probably familiar with Brian Chippendale because he is the drummer in the spastic art/noise/punk group Lightning Bolt. Or maybe you know him from the Fort Thunder art collective that grew out of Providence and spawned a whole movement of dudes making intricate drawings and zines and comics with stony childlike wonder. Not too long ago, he linked up with Picturebox to start publishing his work in more permanent form. The result was Ninja, a massive hardcover that tracked Chippendale’s childhood characters and expanded upon them from a more adult vantage point. It was pretty much the perfect distillation of the entire Fort Thunder ethos. Since then, Chippendale has been touring and recording with Lightning Bolt, working on his web comic Puke Force and plugging steadily away at the recently released brick of a book If ‘n Oof, which we could try to summarize, but couldn’t even get remotely close to doing justice. At its heart though, it’s the rambling adventures of two characters through an intensely strange world, built one panel at a time. You can dwell endlessly on the details, or you can breeze through it, exploring the world in real time with the characters. However you choose to take it in, it stands as a unique, complex, confusing and often mind boggling piece of work. A little while ago we met up with Chippendale to talk about the book, Lightning Bolt, and what happens when you get a little older and your skill and energy levels finally intersect.
The first time I read If ‘n Oof, I felt like you were pacing it the same way Japanese comics are paced. Lots of action spread out over hundreds of pages. Is that wrong?
That’s a little bit wrong. I mean, I wasn’t really fashioning it after anything. I just had taken a lot of pages from my Ninja comics, which are big a lot of small frames, and I was messing around and wanted to put them one page after another instead of just on the big page. I was screwing around but I got attached to it.
Did you draw them smaller and then blow them up?
Yeah, most everything is drawn smaller. The first drawings for the book were done at probably half the size and by the end I was drawing maybe 75 or 80% of the size and blowing it up a little less.
In music there are a lot of bands that are slowing down music quite a bit because it draws out elements you might not otherwise notice. Is what you’re doing here the same idea?
It could be. You’re thickening up everything. Every good thing and bad thing about your drawings. It’s sort of like slowing down music, but I like to work with a certain sized tool and [ultimately] blowing things up is just a way to make them bigger without having to relearn a new scale tool. There are some drawings in there I shrunk down from bigger, but I still prefer to blow them up. It’s weird, people don’t seem to notice that much. People have been asking me how big I drew it. Twice as big? And I’m just like, no they’re small.
In all your work you shy away from the traditional comics format. Does the standard left to right panel grid not interest you?
It does, but I have gotten into the habit of doing it this other way. The one panel thing was a big stretch but I liked it because you didn’t have to—if you read my comics before this you could go and read If ‘n Oof and you wouldn’t be confused about like, Oh do I read this left or right or right to left or blah blah blah. There was really just one way of reading, and that was nice for me. I saw it as a continuation of the snakey thing I was doing [in Ninja]. You know when you have one panel per page, you’re just looking at this panel and then this panel. They touch each other, are next to each other. With the snaking pattern it’s the same sort of thing. You just go and your eye never makes that jump to the beginning of the next line. I don’t know if it’s a big deal, but when I first started doing it, it seemed really important to not take that leap from the right side of the page back to the left and start again. I just can’t make that leap.
The one panel method worked because I could zone out and breeze through it, or I could really explore the individual pages. Often, I felt like I was keeping pace with the characters.
Some of those walking panels, I was drawing them small so I’d draw like four on a page or six on a page so I can see the motion before I put them in the book. Then when I put the book together I was making these mock ups of each chapter. I would photocopy and scan everything and glue it into a mock up. I had a stack of these mock ups so I could check to see if it was flowing the way I wanted to. It took forever and was totally me glue-sticking 120 pages into this—
You were basically making a zine
Yeah I made a zine of every chapter and if I drew four more pages I would make another copy of the zine. I would try to make the zine when I thought I was finished with the book, but a lot of the time I would discover when reading that something didn’t work. I probably have three or four mock ups of each chapter. It’s totally stupid. If I had some digital knowledge I could have printed out something. It would have been a lot easier, hopefully the next one…but right now I have these thick chapter mock ups, which are pretty cool.
Your work always struck me as much more stream of consciousness, so I’m surprised to hear how calculated it was.
I would say half the book was completely uncalculated. I didn’t think it was gonna be something serious so I was just fucking around. The middle of the book is where I started. When they’re walking and they meet those boy robots. I didn’t have any plans or goals other than that I was maybe going to make some mini comic or a series of mini comics. At some point I talked to Dan [Nadel, Picturebox founder] and showed him what I was working on. He was like, We should do a book. I stepped back and looked at what I was doing and tried to figure out context. Then I did the early chapters followed by the final chapter so it kinda jumped around. By the end I was scripting and penciling things out. So portions of the book are very fly-by-night and other portions are really heavily scripted.
When you say scripted, were you actually writing a standard script? I always wondered if writer/artists would write scripts for themselves to draw.
I’ve never done that before. Ever. There are a few pages in Ninja that I would pencil out. You know, I would get an idea going into it and make a little dialogue in my head and make sure I could fit it all on the same page and get the camera angles right. But this time I was writing a script—that was probably like three of the chapters. There was a certain point when I realized it was going to be a book and then I realized what a book was. Ninja was a collection of things that had already—I had already made four issues of that so there was no going back. Or I thought there was no going back to fix things and change things. This time I suddenly realized I was writing a novel and I could go back into it at any point and fix and change things. I actually tried to make it make sense.
Was that daunting or more freeing once you figured that out?
It was fun. I mean it was freeing in that it was exciting to be able to look at a project and be like, Wow I have absolute control from the beginning to the end before anybody sees it, which was new to me. It was daunting because it was like, where do you end, then? I mean you could go back and slip some little reference into every page. You could go on forever if you wanted. At that point do you just call it quits? The daunting part was just being like, Oh I have to squeeze some last little thing in there. The daunting part was knowing when to stop.
When was that?
At some point it was going to be a 500 page book, and then 600 pages and then 700…I kept calling Dan and being like, How do you feel about a 668 page book? I kept pushing it and finally it maxed out at 800 pages. He put his foot down. There was a point where I had another ending in mind, but it would have been like another 100 pages. I tried to make everything in the book real. It was really important to me that each section be in real time and have this rhythm. If they wanted to get from this point to that point they actually had to walk across the room. Most of the book they’re just walking around, but that’s what people do. Walk around.