Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brian Chippendale: Ninjas & Hilroy Scribbles

I’ve been wrestling with a recent visual trend, some of it appearing in my favorite comics anthology (Kramers Ergot) some local design work (Sid Lee) and gallery shows (Team Macho) that is best summed up by a friend who mentioned that “In the end, they are exposing work that reminds me of the stuff we used to do in high school on the covers of our Hilroy Notebooks”.

While a lack of technical mastery (ugliness) in and of itself isn’t a bad thing (an image can be powerful and hold deep evocative emotion without having to be “technically” masterful) it seems that there is a current momentum in comics that has cartoonists / illustrators revisiting childhood / teenage themes, tendencies and imagery. Filled with eighties television iconography, superhero comic book scribbles, Dungeons and Dragon puzzles, Atari and Nintendo ephemera ... why is there such a strong need to dip into nostalgia?

It seems that this impulse could have been a result and eventual backlash against the current mass acceptance of comics … a call to arms against pretentious independent / “alternative” cartooning work taking itself too seriously. A realization and need to inject a bit of the low-brow backpocket tendencies into the medium’s starving veins. While I like some of the work that could fit into this category, and understand the sporadic need for a jolt of fun once in a while, I can’t help but be puzzled with most of it and think that the (ironic or genuine) novelty of revisiting superficial childhood / high school references won’t be able to stand on its own for very long. Is this Hilroyian aesthetics a strong relevant stance against the snobbery and homogenization of comics into the fine artworld …or is it just a passing hipster trend that will leave us with a mass overload of retro superficial fluff?

After recently picking up Brian Chippendale’s massive (11 x 17) book called Ninja (published by PictureBox) I found it to be a good encapsulation of both what attracts me and puzzles me about these odd Hilroyian tendencies.

Much of it explodes with such a fever of colors and masterful layout design that it’s hard ignore its seductive aesthetic of quantity. The project is divided into strips he did when he was a kid about a ninja, filler one shot pages that seem like unconscious doodles one would do while talking on the phone and a fully realized (nonlinear) narrative that goes in and out of some of the most energized formal layout work I’ve seen in a long time ...

The childhood ninja stories and one pagers (below) are what puzzles me about the whole affair. The early ninja strips (17 pages worth) seem to make sense to be included as the origin of the book but don’t hold much beyond this novelty.

The one page pieces display the same gonzo blowout deconstruction of comics language that the full strips explore, but I can’t help but feel that their lack of conventional narrative end up making me flip through them pretty quickly, seeing their function as sub-quality textures and divisions between the “proper” work.

Dan Nadel (publisher): Can you summarize Ninja?

Chippendale: Not really.

A big pile of unrealized potential! Space unrealized! hahaha

Ok…lets see. Lots of characters in a city that is expanding population-wise. It started out with drawings I did when I was 11 or so about a ninja.—Ninja comics. Then 18 years later I continued it. Four years later here we are. I sort of have an underlying story with this Ninja character but that is maybe 20 of the 80 pages of comics. It is about tangents, because that is what life is about. It is about diagonal thinking. Character creation. Some adventures. Some standard comic book fare. It is a failed standard adventure comic. Half-visionary and half-reactionary. It’s about waking up and thinking about something different then you went to sleep thinking about. It touches on the idea of multiple cities existing in the same spot at once‚it’s loosely a Dune rip off, though not as overtly as like all of Jodorowsky’s stuff. It’s a pile of superficial ideas that accumulate a certain depth through density. Deep layers of superficiality.

The fully realized strips can’t but visually dazzle the reader by offering a multitude of different psychological landscapes and overcharge that ends up morphing and creating its own inner comics language. The chaos of the previous one page pieces is restricted and refined, offering context and relief to the otherwise (unreadable) anarchy.

As mentioned above by Chippendale the focus here doesn’t seem to be towards plot or character behavior. Instead, Ninja reaches forward in a fever dream of lines and markmaking that attempt, through the shear transcendence of QUANTITY to inject the medium with a jolt of excitement ... before *it’s all too late*.