It’s been 15 years since the closure of the Fort Thunder art space in Providence. Many Fort Thunder alumni have gone on to notable careers in the visual arts and music, but none have made the impact of Brian Chippendale. Although he may be (slightly) better known as the drummer and vocalist for Lightning Bolt, he has also assembled an intimidating body of work as a cartoonist and visual artist. Puke Force (Drawn & Quarterly) only confirms his status as one of our best living cartoonists.
Puke Force exists in a universe all its own. Serialized from 2009 to 2015, the strip is a glimpse into a dystopian future not unlike our own present, albeit one just slightly ameliorated by the presence of small amounts of magic and superheroism. But simply explaining the plot does little to illuminate Chippendale’s appeal as a cartoonist. Anyone unfamiliar with his art, simply glancing at sample pages, may be surprised to learn that there is a plot. Certainly, his work is intentionally rough, primitive, even occasionally taxing for the reader to follow. He disregards the rules regarding how you read the page. Figures pile up one on top of the other, with new characters appearing and disappearing as quickly as the pages turn.
Above it all, however, looms Chippendale’s insistence on making his pages look as “ugly” as possible. Like his precursor and influence Gary Panter, he seems constitutionally unwilling to allow the readers’ eyes to rest while reading. It’s an anxious book. Puke Force does, however, represent a step up in terms of legibility for Chippendale. His first tour de force, Maggots, remains almost literally unreadable, hundreds of tiny cramped pages of sketchy figures interacting in a dark inky subterranean realm. The best literary analogy would be something like Stein’s The Making Of Americans, a technically readable book that features words and sentences being put into recognizable order that still nevertheless manages to actively discourage the process of reading. Compared to Maggots, Puke Force is positively new-reader friendly, less The Making Of Americans and more Tender Buttons. There’s still a measurable degree of difficulty, but the pleasures are nowhere near as opaque.
So what actually is the book? Well. Grave City is a dirty place. It’s dirty because there’s no money left for social services. The water is classified as a “toxic mystery.” Suicide bombers appear at random to blow up coffee shops at the behest of the Tea Party. There’s a split between flakey abusive leftists and violent dictatorial rightists, with Black Panther party members and turbaned Middle Easterners at each others’ throats in the margins. The collective bile of the internet rises up in a wave of black terror to destroy the city. Punk rockers rub elbows with He-Man while elsewhere a brisk aftermarket in Iron Fist back issues occupies the visionary philosophers. It’s a world where hatred is a tangible and pungent reality, while Jesus is busy eating all the chocolate hidden in the cracks of the walls. There’s no way to do justice to the panoply of ideas, sensations, and emotions on display here, from snarky bathroom humor to deep and abiding anger at the dissolution of civil society. It contains multitudes. It is also, without question, the first masterpiece of 2016. [Tim O’Neil]
Although not all four issues were drawn by Jim Lee as planned, it’s fair to say that there was some serious excitement when it was announced that Batman: Europa was finally coming to the shelves, albeit 10 years late. There must be something in the water, with Europa and Captain America: White, which would have seriously benefited from a name change, coming out at the same time after extensive delays as well.
Written by Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello, Batman: Europa #4 (DC) features solid art from Gerald Parel. Azzarello, contributing both to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III and Europa, is perhaps the only person who could give Scott Snyder a legitimate run for his money as the king of all things Batman. Europa is old school, lush and formative in a way that Batman & Robin Eternal hasn’t quite managed yet, for all that it’s a fun read. In four short issues and without a lot of dialogue to bog it down, Europa has done more to illustrate and deconstruct the relationship between Batman and the Joker than a lot of other books have in much longer runs. Both the Joker and Batman are infected with a virus that’s rapidly killing them; rather than being pitted against one another, they’re forced to work together to discover who’s poisoned them and how to stop the virus’s effects. The comic beats are perfect, the twisted sense of need and violence that echo between Batman and the Joker making for a satisfying read.
Casali is a relative newcomer, and like with DKIII it’s easy to feel Azzarello’s hand at the wheel. He’s one of the best, most consistent and inventive minds in cape and cowl books right now, and he does right by Batman in Europa. Parel’s gorgeous work is perhaps a little hobbled by the fact that Giuseppe Camuncoli did the layouts for all four books, despite only drawing one of them himself. Diego Latorre’s work in the previous issue is more kinetic and fractured than Parel’s, which feels a bit awkward since Batman and the Joker are supposed to be descending further into a madness inflicted by the virus as time passes, but Parel’s work is much easier to read and he’s got an incredible, painterly style that captures landscapes and movement beautifully. Having three European artists contribute certainly solidified the sense of place, where other Batman books often rely far too heavily on Gotham to be a character itself.
The reveal of who poisoned Batman and his nemesis feels a little flat, a little rushed compared to the rest of the story, but it also makes a lot of sense. That’s fine though, because the book isn’t really about the mystery. More important and impressive is the way Azzarello and Casali write Batman and his relationship with the Joker. There’s a remarkable panel where Batman intentionally states that Bruce Wayne is the alter ego, a gratifying moment for fans who’ve long believed the same. Europa is good, solid superhero storytelling, old-school Batman at his finest. It perfectly demonstrates just how codependent Batman and the Joker are, that one could not exist without the other, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s tried to make it otherwise. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Averaging one update every year, Skew (Study Group) is William Cardini’s psychedelic space-faring webcomic. Firmly situated in the tradition of what Frank Santoro would call “art comics,” Cardini privileges color, mood, texture, and atmosphere, and as such, it’s difficult to pinpoint a plot (or even characters). There are recurring images and figures, but the dialogue never exceeds a couple oblique lines, and the work is obviously designed to function as something more experiential than articulable.
By this metric, Skew is wildly successful, and Cardini drags the eye down, down, down the lengthy vertically sequence of page-size images. His compositions are cacophonous, and his lines are thick opacities of colors that veer into one another, colliding and exploding. The effect of this is a jarring sensation, and it takes a few reads before an articulable response emerges. Cardini’s imagery isn’t particularly shocking—he doesn’t trade in the grotesque or comedically over-sexualized like a Johnny Ryan—and he’s not trying to transgress or subvert. Cardini does, however, craft abstractions so far removed from their referent that it’s sometimes impossible to tell what you’re looking at. The book repeatedly steps the line between representational and nonrepresentational art. For anyone bogged down by platitudinal conversations about plot, narrative, and story, the immediate gut reaction is one of cold refreshment. Here is something that actively jukes attempts at intellectualization; in fact, it denies readers the tools by which they may intellectualize.
Subsequent readings force you to dig deeper, though, because surely there must be something there. The image cannot just be the image. An eye recurs throughout the serial—some are colored with ominous and overpowering greens, blacks, and browns; others are colored with vibrant hues of red, yellow, and white. Cardini positions the oculus as the great observer, an object that sees all and takes forms both friendly and menacing. What are we to make of this? A cabal of floating heads shout, “There’s the virus,” before a green blob grows and takes the loose form of a double-helix ladder of DNA; further still, that strand is either revealed to be or transformed into a trans-dimensional portal, and a bulbous beast emerges. Is he the virus the heads spoke of? Does it matter? No.
Skew is a work rife with images that lend themselves so easily to interpretation. Stuff like the recurring image of an eye almost comically begs to be read into. And that’s fine. It’s not as if there is some penalty for trying to make sense of a text—even one as abstract as this. But Cardini doesn’t give any easy answers, and it’s unclear if any of the seemingly polysemous signs he laces throughout Skew were intended to have any deeper meaning. That’s fine too; sometimes the greatest utility a work can have is in being present, in demanding attention and making itself immediately felt. [Shea Hennum]
Following a big win in last week’s New Hampshire primary, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is quickly gaining momentum and posing a very real threat to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Prospective voters that want to learn more about the democratic socialist Sanders will find a valuable resource in Ted Rall’s new graphic biography Bernie (Seven Stories Press), which sees the political cartoonist detailing Sanders’ personal story, but also the recent history of the Democratic Party and how that has set the stage for the Vermont senator’s rise. It’s an informative, intensely researched graphic novel that breaks down dense political ideas in an easy to process way, but it’s less successful as a piece of sequential storytelling.
Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, and in Bernie he sticks close to the conventions of that format, which typically consists of a single illustration with text providing commentary. Rall has broken from that structure in his editorial cartoons and incorporated a comic strip influence to divide the action into multiple panels, but that’s not the case with Bernie, which is primarily composed of big chunks of text paired with illustrations, photos, and graphs. These visuals clarify and add some character to the writing, but he’s doing the bare minimum in terms of visually interpreting the content of his script.
Bernie feels like a rush job put out to capitalize on Sanders’ rising profile, especially compared to Rall’s other graphic novels, which do much better work integrating text and images in a cohesive narrative. Last year’s Snowden is a much more ambitious work of graphic non-fiction from Rall, and shows that the cartoonist can push himself much harder than he does in Bernie. That’s not to say the piece doesn’t have merit; it offers a detailed account of the Democratic Party’s shift away from the liberal left after the disastrous 1972 presidential election saw Democratic nominee George McGovern trounced by Richard Nixon in an unprecedented 49-1 landslide, and Rall’s one-on-one interview with Sanders provides personal insights directly from the source. The text is captivating on its own, but it’s unfortunate that Rall doesn’t put more effort into the artwork. [Oliver Sava]