Puke Force, the new graphic novel from Brian Chippendale, is one of the most gloriously surreal comics you’re likely to read this year, with riffs on everything from low-rent superheroes to the bleaker side of social media to violent obsessions. Between this and the release late last year of Fantasy Empire, the latest album from his band Lightning Bolt, it’s been a good year for those who enjoy the often-riveting end products of Chippendale’s aesthetics. In advance of his appearance at Desert Island on February 19th, I talked with Chippendale via email about the project’s origins, its unconventional panel structure, and its myriad influences, from SST Records to The Smurfs.
The story you’re telling in Puke Force is incredibly wide-ranging, covering everything from surveillance technology to superheroes to online trolls. Did you have a sense of the breadth of this from the beginning, or did the expansiveness of it come more gradually?
I honestly had no clue where things would go when I started. Puke Force began as a web comic, whatever that is, basically published weekly online. The story starts in a very crude way just portraying a computer monitor and a guy looking up a porn site. At that point what little thought I was putting into it was about it just being drawings of people doing things on the Internet, as a joke about what a web comic is. Like a web comic isn’t a comic on the web it’s a comics about the web. But I quickly veered off the strictly computer jokes into all sorts of places.
Before the story of Puke Force even begins, you have a quick guide to the way in which your panels have been laid out. What made you opt for this rather than a more traditional method?
Many years ago I started drawing comics in a snake-like or chutes and ladders style panel layout and I have for the most part stuck with that approach. I wanted comics to be viewed more like an animation, and the jump from the end of every sequence or line back to the left pulled you out of the comics internal motion. It still makes sense to me for the most part.
Did you have the print edition in mind when you began working on Puke Force? Did you make any changes as you put the collection together?
I’m a big fan of print so it’s hard too think that what I do will stay just digital. These days it’s hard to define anything as either made for print or made for the web. Comics very often might start one way or the other but end up published in both worlds. I figured I would make a handmade volume of some of the episodes or someone would collect them. Things stayed pretty much exactly the way they were presented online. These comics were drawn on paper and scanned so they were very ready for book form. Comfortable on paper. Part of me thinks I should have drawn a few extra opening episodes that are a little more PG, every time I give it to someone I have to have a disclaimer like “yeah it starts really rude and crude but I swear it gets smarter and deeper”. I mean I gave this thing to my parents for Christmas and it starts with a masturbation scene, so a little reorganizing might have been wise. Next time.
The references in Puke Force are incredibly wide-ranging, but I noticed one aspect that hearkens back a few decades: there are nods to 80s post-punk bands in the dialogue, and a subplot in which an infection prompts characters to say nothing but the word “Gnap!” references a Smurfs storyline, which I first saw as an episode of the cartoon in the early 80s, and which freaked me out at the time. Is this coincidence, or are you specifically critiquing certain aspects of culture and nostalgia by referencing these things?
Is the SST record era considered post-punk? I grew up in the 80s so that decade hit me hard and stuck. I religiously watched the Smurfs on Saturday mornings and He-man, Transformers, GiJoe and Thundercats on the weekdays. That shit formed me. That purple smurf episode with the Gnaps scared the living shit out of me back in the day and I never forgot it, so yes I directly ripped off the idea, or really expanded upon it and brought it to use in a current metaphor for Twitter which when I started Puke Force I knew nothing about. I like bringing in old references, I think it livens up a story or provides a deeper level of context. There’s a lineage of weird concepts back through cartoons and comics and Scifi books and films that should be mined and recombined; it opens doors in your own creative process and allows you to investigate your past as well as your future. Everything behind you is a compost heap of rich soil and I dig in but I bring in new stuff too that I create. I love new and old simultaneously. Why just hang out with young ideas? I like multigenerational parties.
Towards the end of the book, the storyline “A New Bud on the Tree of Heaven” comes as something of an emotional shift, as you veer into the deeply messed-up childhood of one character. It’s also one of the most restrained in its setting. What prompted the shift for those flashbacks?
The book was built over a five year period, and at times I would start getting in really deep with a narrative. I love the story that takes place over several episodes in the bar that erupts into a huge bar fight, and I love the story of Budd Wright. As I delved into the story of Budd, a would be assassin, things just asked to be slowed down and drawn out. I couldn’t deny it. Many PF ideas are things that float around a while in my head before I get a chance to put them on paper, and that one, which is based loosely on the shooting of Arizona Senator Gabriele Giffords, floated a while and had time to germinate. I really care about these shooting all over the US and I wanted to try to do a real investigation into what might bring someone to that point. And to think about it not by examining them but their parents too. And obviously not do a whole book about it. I wish I could do a whole book about it but I don’t think I’m that patient. Not yet. But that set of episodes are the most patient aspect of the book. That’s the slow song.
Was there anything that you had hoped to work into Puke Force that didn’t quite fit?
A million things. I had another whole story about this Elephant guy who lost his true love that starts to be told in the middle of Puke Force, and is even touched on in Ninja, an earlier book that uses some of these characters and this same world. Manny the M&M was going to help him figure out what happened to his lady before he shows up for big scene at the end of the book but I just couldn’t get to it. I will though. I’m just curious about what happened! This book walks the line between satire of world events and just making up stories that relate to nothing, just passing fancies. It’s supposed to be a platform for me to wonder around without too many rules in terms of story. But set in a concrete world where the drawings and characters are firmly and consistently embedded in this reality. I’ve already started drawing more episodes, so there’s more to come. It’s an endless wormhole of whatever.