This hardcover project is published by PictureBox, Inc. You can order it from them, or elsewhere online (Amazon has it). It’s $34.95 for 144 dimensionally huge b&w and color pages.

There’s a lot of things that can be said of this. It’s an art showcase. It’s a graphic novel. It’s a billboard, in that it’s so big (11" x 17") that merely carrying it around at SPX provided constant advertising. It’s autobiography. It’s superhero-tinged fantasy. It’s domestic apocalypse comedy. It’s a pleasure cruise across visual noise and the dance steps of scratches on paper. It’s labored-over and scribbled to the hilt. It’s naive in both its (literal) engagement with its author’s preadolescent worldview and its angry cries against a largely unshaded force of injustice. It’s sprawling in the way that only unfettered worldbuilding can be. It’s the only comic I can think of that comes with instructions on how to read it. It can be called Ninja. Or, you could call it Maggots #6, as the title page happily notes, just to tie everything in to writer/artist Brian Chippendale’s wider body of work, not that much of it is easy to find.

Chippendale was a co-founder of Fort Thunder, which was both the name of a structure that housed a number of artists in Providence, Rhode Island starting in the mid-‘90s, as well as the name applied to the artists themselves as a collective. The latter were eventually evicted from the structure in the midst of local redevelopment; the former was torn down about five years ago, and the former site is currently occupied by either a grocery store or its parking lot. Sources vary. This is important to keep in mind while reading through Ninja, the first lavish bookshelf-ready Chippendale solo project, since its story is obviously autobiographical in part, what with its sprawling cast of comers and goers and folks hanging around the fantasy city of Grain, which becomes a target for bleaching and re-creation for the pleasure of a growing, affluent population.

Chippendale has tackled the topic before, but the breadth of this project will inevitably distinguish it; if the entrance of Fort Thunder artists into the wider comics consciousness constitutes a new, altered ‘first’ flowering of their aesthetic in unmolested fields, then it’s fitting that Ninja should be so large and prominent, so sprawling and unwieldy, a big ‘n tall collection of stuff that seems in superficial character to be the opposite of the handmade minicomics that formed much of Fort Thunder’s output, though the work itself is no less personal. It’s just been reconstituted in a form responsive to the bookshelf atmosphere of today, though don’t bother looking in Borders; this is too idiosyncratic a work for now. It’s a large hardcover book because it seems, upon reading it, that it couldn’t be anything else, despite its own origins as a series of minicomics. Which is how it should be with reconstituted works.

Ninja is divided into four chapters, all of them separated by copious amounts of Chippendale’s drawings, much of which has been drawn on graph paper - this setup is complimented by Chippendale’s comics, which are executed mainly in the form of single-page episodes, mathematically precise panels carefully laid out in tight arrangements. There are sometimes 50 panels on one page, each of them stuffed with scratches and lines and shading and stuff. This arrangement nicely facilitates the unique approach to reading that Chippendale asks of his audience, as mentioned above - you begin a page by reading left-to-right, but once you reach the rightmost panel you move down one panel into the next row and begin reading right-to-left, until you reach the leftmost panel of that row and move down again, and so on and so on until the page is done (handy illustration here, though note that in this book you return to the top left upon completing each page). This may initially seem rather odd, but it fits into Chippendale’s attitude toward comics-as-movement, his art often dedicated to characters moving and interacting in animated ways from panel-to-panel. When asked by Chris Mautner at SPX, Chippendale replied (and I heavily paraphrase) that with this type of reading setup, the reader’s eyes never have to break in movement from one panel to the immediate next. That makes some sense to me in preserving the sequential motion of drawings, and it’s not a difficult mode of reading to get into (especially if you’ve been reading lots of unflipped manga).

And indeed, much of the pleasure of Ninja comes from Chippendale’s sheer joy of drawing, and building things. Sometimes simple, unwavering environments host elaborate character actions, like a stage play - Episode 69 (lol) is nothing more than an extended sex sequence, with the reader’s point of view barely shifting as the participants go about their activities. Sometimes characters are plunged into strange realms of horizontal stripes, and sometimes the panels break open into large landscapes and vistas as characters travel. There’s a quietly bravura page (Episode 48) in which the panels are subdivided into half characters watching things on a surveillance monitor and half what they’re actually seeing, the two viewpoints coalescing by episode’s end. Another one (Episode 68) drifts from a character’s torture to semi-related moments of difficulty and embarrassment throughout his life, past and present knocking together like drumbeats. Always, Chippendale’s sense of page design emboldens his character art, sometimes reminiscent of Gary Panter’s most recognizable styles.

Also like Panter, Chippendale is interested in mixing genre. Ninja is not Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (which, in the interests of disclosure, is one of my favorite comics ever); it’s too scattered and geometrically precise for that. It’s also not Cold Heat, another PictureBox series, from Ben Jones (whose Tux Dog ‘open source’ character pops in for a cameo) and Frank Santoro, which is basically an effort (so far) to do a pretty typical pamphlet-format fantasy/action genre comic in the delicate visual style usually attributed to ‘art’ comics; Ninja is obviously informed by genre comics (Chippendale is a big reader of current Marvel superhero books), but its author does not conform the book to seemingly any standard of pacing or plotting his own, so much that the work as a whole emerges as a truly unique mess in terms of plot and genre accouterment.

Indeed, it’s often difficult to tell where the hell the plot is going, and let that serve as a warning to those who value such characteristics to a great degree. Chapter 1 is actually pretty easygoing; a large number of its episodes were created by Chippendale when he was a preteen, and it’s typical enough sixth grade stuff about a mighty ninja killing the shit out of villains for profit. The adult Chippendale happily works around his own past work, adding in new episodes that essentially expand on silly notions he had as a child, up to and including his sudden abandonment of the work, the page left blank. Turns out that was all part of a wicked plot to suck the essence out of the Earth itself, reducing a childish (if fun) reality to whiteness (a visual motif that’ll recur when the town of Grain is bleached of grime). It’s affecting stuff, building retroactive continuity into past stories in the Mighty Marvel Manner while ruminating (through visuals only) on the inevitable end of childhood.

The Ninja and his foes then disappear for much of the rest of the book. Chapters 2-4 proceed to explode into a bonanza of events and semi-plotlines and new characters on almost every page. Chippendale just keeps throwing stuff out, some of it building into a story, some of it apparently just there for color. What emerges is the plot against Grain, the abuses of development, evictions and homogenization, plus added broadsides against torture and foreign wars and other international concerns. It isn’t complex at all -- the ‘bad’ characters are occasionally capable of goodness sometimes, but the good v. evil lines are probably more clearly drawn than in most of today’s actual superhero comics -- but that’s not much of a problem since the story is basically a conveyance of Chippendale’s inner state anyhow, as much a representation of a frantic youth as Chapter 1 focused on childhood. But soon the bleach drips in, and maybe only the Ninja and what he represents can save us.

Once parsed, read and re-read, climbed over and devoured (though at 11" x 17" the book sometimes seems it could devour you), Ninja seems to be a rather simple story about the haven art can afford those willing to cast aside the myriad troubles of life to return to the garden of creation, the innocence of a child as inhabited by adults in Chippendale’s view (needless to say, it looks like a void to the outside world). And, fittingly, the key appeal of the work is Chippendale’s joy of creation and drawing, furious and sometimes dazzling, characters and concepts out of control like a superhero world with no constraints of commerce or format. It's as individual and unique a book as I can imagine from this very good year in comics, and offers great joys for those ready to drink it in.