Q+A: Brian Chippendale On His New Book If ‘n Oof

December 22, 2010

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.

I always hear about people that are unable to process comics. Like their brains don’t work or flow that way. Your book might be the perfect entry point because you’re providing the stuff that’s usually left between panels. There's no mental jump between visuals that has to be made.
Aside from some eccentric things in there that are hard to figure out, there is probably SOME comic language in there. I mean, I’m sure I failed at some things, but it’s also pretty basic. My sister read it and I got an email from her saying she enjoyed it and she’s never read any of the stuff I’ve given her—I suspect. She has read a few comics but I don’t know if she sat down and just read this one. I read it again recently and I was like, Can you really get this done in like half an hour? It took like two years in the making.

I read an interview with someone who worked on a Harry Potter movie or something. And the dude was talking to JK Rowling and being like, I can’t really figure out how to make this part of the movie and she had this whole unwritten world of knowledge. Like this backstory that no one would ever know outside of her and maybe her editors. If 'n Oof seem to live in a pretty realized world. Did you do the same thing?
There are totally ideas behind it. I didn’t start that way, but I realized I’ve got ideas of the shape of the place they're in. Other stuff that’s going on in that world. It takes place in a crater. There’s stuff happening below the crater that I only slightly know about. Back stories of how they got there and certain histories of other characters. I know a lot of stuff about it, which is a weird trick. I get all this stuff in my head about what is going on and then I let people see a glimpse of it. Sometimes I’m not sure if I let people see enough of it.

Are you ultimately going to explore this world further?
I did this outline when I started. There was one night of drawing and messing around where I wrote out an outline of what I wanted to do in this world. And this little piece, like the first book was this little leg of this journey. There are destinations that I wanted them to go to. There’s this huge, vast story. By the time I finished the book I was trying to come up with a lot of other things. There was a chapter in the middle that I had to eliminate because I thought I was going to go in another direction. The whole chapter is referencing this big war that is going on and I took it out, but I still have this idea that there’s a big war going on. Now I have an idea in my head for another book which would just take place where they are in the end. It’s kind of a castle. I was like, I’m going to do a story just in this castle where have to go through each floor. There’s too much. It never ends. I’m amazed at authors who can just tell a simple story and they introduce just enough. I tend to get carried away.

I know you’ve expressed a love for superhero comics. Superman can never end because he is an icon that makes a company money, and there’s something about that that is fascinating.
It’s so vast. When you pick a comic up you’re reading it, but the context is set in this greater world and it adds up over tens and tens of years of people making stuff up. So when you’re introducing a new character and a new world, I want to get the greater stuff right in the beginning.

I’ve read a lot about the early era of comics production when dudes would just sit in a room pretty much all night and day working on what was basically an assembly line. Hearing you talk about agonizing over this stuff is funny because I had this vision of you working in that mold, just smashing through page after page.
Just smashing through? Not exactly. I don’t agonize that much. I’ll start working on it before it’s ready to get worked on. I don’t like to get held up in much of the detail where I’ll crank out ten pages, crank out ten pages, look back, realize four pages don’t make any sense, crank out ten pages with those four, do forty more and realize it didn’t make sense. I run forward and smash a bunch of stuff then try to fix it while smashing other stuff. It’s like a factory mentality because it’s not so careful. If I could just sit down and work it all out beforehand, that would probably be a little smarter.

When I read your stuff I have memories of being a kid and deciding I was going to draw comics. They were terrible because it was all about forward movement and getting ideas on a page without any real effort into making it look like anything. When you did Ninja you actually went back and continued from the stuff you did as a kid. Was it weird to go back?
Maybe it should be weird, but it wasn’t. It was almost too easy to do. Sometimes I think the road back to my childhood—there’s not that many speed bumps. Things have changed for me a lot, but on some level maybe they haven’t so much. Sometimes that feels really good and sometimes it feels like I should probably do a little growing up.

A lot of what you do now is very visceral—both your music and your art. It seems like they’re pretty much inseparable actually.
They’re actually almost starting to become less connected a little bit. It used to be hyper connected, a big mixing pot of stuff. Now they sort of just feed each other, they coexist and they feed each other’s energy sources. But there’s some separation. As I get older, I feel like me drawing comics becomes more meditative and still. Then Lightning Bolt and playing drums becomes more chaotic and energy-driven. Sometimes when I’m playing that stuff when we’re on tour I can’t believe I’m going to go home and sit at a desk and work on a comic and be totally satisfied at the same time. In the beginning it was really mixed up, it still is. They feed off each other.

It seems like constant forward movement.
Yeah, it’s an expulsion of energy and trying to be immediate. Just expelling the day’s energy in some form so you can go to sleep and do it again the next day.

When did you actually start publishing comics?
Ninja was published in 2005 and that was the first time I had a real book I didn’t make in my own house published. I made my first mini-zines in like ’96 or ’97, but that was the first moment I felt like I was seeking an audience beyond the doors of my house.

Did you fit into the underground comics scene? You were doing adventure stuff, but a lot of the underground and alternative stuff skewed more autobiographical.
The only world I was a part of was the world in the walls of our house. Like Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg and Brian Ralph were all friends and we just lived together making these comics. I didn’t know what other comic book people were doing, like underground people. I’d seen a few things and I’d just be like, I don’t know. A guy hanging out with his girlfriend drinking coffee, this looks horrible. It sort of stained my idea of what underground comics even are. Still to this day, I’m like, underground comics are dudes hanging out with their girlfriends, which they’re probably not. At that point [in my career] I had no interest in even having an audience. We had parties and I’d hand out my comics at shows.

Were you just not expecting it to bloom outwards the way it did?
I mean Lightning Bolt...comics, I wasn’t expecting that. At that period it was like, We’re going to live in our house forever and it’s going to get crazier and crazier. Everyone we ever needed to know would eventually come to us and come to our house, so why would we want to go searching for an audience? That all came caving in on us. The band started getting more invitations but a lot of the switch from being in this really insulated world was when we all got evicted in 2001. When they literally tore down our house and we were all out in the streets trying to figure out what to do. Rent became more expensive, everything changed and suddenly I went from making art on the wall to making art on these things I had to hang somewhere. I suddenly needed to make more money, realized what I thought was the strongest fortress of culture in the world was super fragile and that it wasn’t going to be easily created again. Suddenly I was like, Oh my god, I have to deal with the rest of the world and get involved.

And maybe make a living doing art?
We were paying like $150 a month each. Some months I would literally find all the money I needed stuffed in the couch or something. The next place I found I needed to pay like $500 a month and it just destroyed me. I had to get this stuff out there. Lightning Bolt took off on its own, but it lined up so when I needed it to get a little bigger, it was. Eventually, Dan came knocking on the door. I remember the first time I did the Ninja mini comic, which was 8.5” x 11” but still a small comic. I was like, if I’m going to make money I need to make a comic. I probably spent countless hours and was then selling them for three dollars, making nothing but thinking that was going to work.

Were you ever thinking you’d make a book that would appear in actual bookstores?
It never was on the radar. But now it is. I made these five If ‘n Oof minis before that and was going to make a sixth. That was my plan and then it ballooned. Now I’m working on this web comic called Puke Force and as I’m drawing it I’m thinking of it as a book. Things have changed. Up until Ninja I didn’t really want to make a book. I like being in control, I like hand-printing stuff, I like handing it out myself. I miss that to some extent, but I like distribution.

Don’t you worry that the minis are disposable? A lot of that stuff is just gone after people buy it up. Are you okay with that?
Not exactly. That’s a struggle I have. I don’t want to make exclusive stuff for the members of the club. I like getting information out to everybody but I also like hand-making stuff. It’s a weird struggle I don’t exactly have a solution to.

So the web comics work as a middle ground between the two.
That was me finally collapsing into immediate gratification. I was doing and it was taking a couple years. I had drawn a couple episodes of this comic that I was thinking was going to be my web comic, even though it’s just a book on paper. I’m not doing stuff I should do if I was really doing a web comic. But I wanted to put something up and have someone write a comment and get something immediately.

Do you feel like you need to keep your name out there constantly to stay relevant?
I know I will always have something out there. Either Lightning Bolt is putting out a thing or I have a solo thing or we’re doing a tour or I have a comic out or I’m writing a stupid blog post. I do like to have something out there but I wish I didn’t. I like to think that people are keeping me in mind. I definitely feel pressure to make something, but it could be any of those worlds of different things.

You’re in an interesting place because your work is accessible, but you're also a part of an art world where the inclination is to be more difficult.
I’ve always been good at a lot of stuff, but never a master at anything. Sometimes I feel like I should just focus on one thing. It’s weird because I feel like I’ve never taken any of those things to their extreme level. Every time I work on something, it’s like, This is all I want to be doing. I’ll be drawing this new web comic like, This is it. I don’t feel like going on tour, I just want to draw this comic. Then I’ll be on tour and be like, This is amazing—well, tours kind of suck—but it’s good and it feels really healthy when you’re talking to all these people and it’s fun. Then I’ll have a show coming up, like, Ugh art. It’s this snooty thing for rich people. I can’t buy it and my friends cant buy it, why would I want to do this? Then suddenly I’m in the studio gluing all these things together and I get really excited about it. I feel really lucky that I have these options. If at some point once collapses and just isn’t going to work anymore then I can do these other things. Sometimes I think my art is limited a bit. I probably can’t go far enough down the gallery road. I’ve talked to Mat Brinkman about this. Fort Thunder has propped us up in a way, but it’s also a limitation because we’ll always be cartoony guys. There’s a limitation on fine art’s ability to take in that stuff.

Do you feel like your work has gotten less difficult over time?
It totally has. Lightning Bolt used to be super jerky and angular, kicking you in the teeth the whole time. We’ve gotten more melodic and more stretched out. And my comics—If 'n Oof is super readable. I had an art show last June in Brooklyn, some people think it’s too much to look at, but it’s all pleasant colors. I’ve always liked pleasant stuff and I’ve always thought I was making pleasant stuff, but I’m not fully aware, and when I was younger I think my energy overcame my skills. My skills and my control match with my energy now, and I can steer the ship a little better. It’s just a mellowing matched with a wider range and a better grip on my skills. Even with making another book, I feel like I could sit down and script a book and illustrate it. There was a time when there was just no way. I’d sit there for a second and be like, Fuck this and start drawing frames and panels with dudes running and stuff. I feel more mellow. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Lightning Bolt makes money, art shows make money, comics make virtually no money but comics are my first love in a way. There will come a time—I’m not going to be able to play drums forever. Will I always want to live in Providence? I kind of hope not. It changes. I have time and some options.

Q+A: Brian Chippendale On His New Book If ‘n Oof