So Much a Long Time Coming


Yep, this is the big Brian Chippendale release from PictureBox Inc. It follows last year's Ninja, although it was supposed to come out years ago from Highwater Books, which closed down before the project could be realized. Copies were out at TCAF 2007, and a small remaining handful were then sold online. The official release should be next month. Unlike Ninja, which was a big, thin hardcover, this one's a 4” x 6,” 344-page softcover. It's $21.95.

The differences between Maggots and Ninja don't end there. While Ninja collected work that extended up into 2005, this book confines itself to 1996-97, at which time Chippendale was in his mid-20s, and living in the famous Fort Thunder, an abandoned Providence textile mill which had only been established as a living/creative/performance space in 1995. Ninja, while a vivid and lively work, was often heavy with concerns of razing and loss; Fort Thunder had been torn down for local redevelopment in 2001, its squatting denizens left to find new homes. Maggots, in contrast, is packed with of-the-minute visions straight out of humming colony of fringe living.

Also, Ninja told a fairly straightforward story, albeit one prone to countless digressions and rendered in kaleidoscopic points-of-view. Maggots... well, let's begin by saying that this is surely one comic that's apt to discourage plot synopsizing and text-focused analysis at the expense of other elements of the comics form. Tom Spurgeon once ranked this material as the second-worst possible work to suggest as someone's 'gateway' to funnybook appreciation, and there's a good reason for that - Maggots, while not totally without ongoing narrative, is absolutely diabolical in its desire to wring comics into something befitting a mood of boundless energy and throbbing movement.

Even then, I'm not going far enough. It's vital to explore the very construction of the work so as to best appreciate its unique positioning between 'pure' comics and other visual arts.

Maggots, at its base, is actually a random Japanese book catalog that Chippendale came into possession of. He then proceeded to turn the book upside-down, so that the pages would proceed in order from left-to-right, and drew on top of every page. All of the art in Maggots is actually on top of something else. In nearly all of the white space -- and there's not much -- on every page of the book, you can make out the tightly-arranged type that once dominated the book. Chippendale's art works around or coexists with the book's original state, usually pounding it into submission with endless scratches of black, but somtimes working little bits of it into his new work.

And 'new' is the point. Maggots is perhaps the perfect embodiment of a major aspect of the Fort Thunder aesthetic (if you will): using the consumer society's debris as elements of creativity, transforming one lifestyle's garbage into another's art via accumulation or defacement. The very nature of Fort Thunder itself plays this out: a Civil War-era factory inhabited by young artists and covered from top to bottom with color and collage and decoration and artwork. They held concerts there. Costumed wrestling events. They lived there. It was a big, dead heap of trash before, and in the end it was seen as still trash enough to stand in the way of a supermarket, so down it went. But the defacement the structure underwent at the hands of the Fort Thunder artists transfigured it. A wonder maze and a new society of neon and crayon creation.

Maggots, then, embodies this quality. Chippendale's scratches atop the dreary set of sales symbols represent the beauty covering the rotten manufacturing husk of the Fort. His act may be viewed as political - seizing an instrument of capital and making it radiate with personal, spiritual vision by beating the shit out of it with drawings. PictureBox's edition of the work is a facsimile of the original item (Chippendale released a bunch of minicomics also titled Maggots, which were excerpted from the larger project), offering that old catalog an eerie afterlife, dropped back into the consumer stream to swim as a comic, that mass-produced art.

Ok. So, what's inside the transformed book?

Lots of movement, actually. You will not find very much dialogue in Maggots. Of what few word balloons there are, some of them are completely illegible, and others are primarily used as part of the page's visual flow, rather than as a means of dolloping information. You will, however, encounter upwards of 50 panels per small page, many of them resembling, in sequence, frames of key animation, with backgrounds included in the active animation.

Furthermore, Chippendale's unique demands of the reader -- you read one row of panels left-to-right, then you go down one from the rightmost panel and read right-to-left, snaking your way down each left page, crossing pages at the bottom row of panels, then going up each right page in the same way -- prevents the reader's eye from breaking with the page, allowing for faster appreciation of characters dancing or fucking or just sitting down and reading a book. And you will eventually learn to read this stuff fast. Some have likened the experience to hearing Chippendale's drumming, each 'beat' in comics time an audible strike - comics-as-music wags and Lightning Bolt fans take note.

However, this doesn't always work. Chippendale is the first to admit it, as the book's dustjacket warns you that the left-to-right, right-to-left reading style sometimes gets "tricky," forcing you to read left-to-right twice in a row. Without knowing ahead of time in most cases. "huh, funny. stay alert!" warns Chippendale. This leaves the reader in the odd position of never entirely knowing when the comic's design might betray their zipping read, and feeling oddly uncertain about what's even happening. Likewise, Chippendale's inky approach (you can get a close-up on PictureBox's product page) leaves some sequences very unclear, which has a way of dropping the whole book into chaos since there's not a lot of words to hang on to.

But maybe it's fitting that Maggots gains and loses clarity as it goes. Reading through it gave me the strong impression of a work perpetually in progress. Some passages seem typically autobiographical - a young fellow named Hot Potato can't stand to be without his girlfriend Rabbit, for instance, and doesn't want to get a job. Soon after, the book lunges into fantasy battles with danger, or veers away into a trip to Japan, or follows other characters. A handy bookmark is included to save your place, if you want to stop; when you pick it up again, it might all seem like you're starting anew. Minicomic selections of pages fit this stuff well.

Like I mentioned above, though, there is some total effect to Maggots' story. Its enigmatic images of Hot Potato being zapped between physical forms, and its many furious sequences of dancing and flailing, fighting and journeying, all convey the ecstatic truth of life in Fort Thunder, which is where the book's characters also seem to live, though in a dazzling form that would make sense to someone drawing things there, at the time. The book ends almost precognitively, with images of demolition, and a character left standing near a hole in the ground, the last page ominous with uncertain future.

What a frustrating and powerful experience reading this book is! Maggots doesn't behave like any other comic in the world. But as its state of being speaks of a higher purpose for simple blocks of symbols, its experimental, oft-revised innards reveal fresh ways of looking at the comics form, one so tight with writing-as-art that separating the elements is impossible, leaving formed the noise of a past as it was lived.