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*.


Frank Santoro said...

not informative or illuminating at all. you could really try and say something more than whats already been said about this comic.

martin@rightearleft.com said...

Reply taken from here:



Wow, what a terrible way to greet a new member to the board ... Oddly enough I've recently just started seeing your name around (old inkstuds interview) and you're the reason why I picked up Miller's Ronin and am now trying to hunt down the Elektra softcover I read as a kid (but I need the one with the *exact same* cover). All to say that I've been really looking forward to picking up your Cold Heat and Storeyville. I hope your work is better than your welcome wagon.

The posted Ninja notes are simply my genuine reaction to the work, they don't pretend to be anything but that. Its link is coming from my graphic design site, so maybe for a guy like you who's *right* in the middle of the comics field (and the book is a bit old, so maybe its been talked about to death - I don't know) nothing in it is new, but for someone who isn't familiar with it, I disagree wholeheartedly that it isn't (at least) informative (even if its only for the specific images I took that are, to the best of my knowledge, the only place to see them on the web).

But, since your reply had absolutely no care in passing along any kind of constructive criticism about my notes, I'll have to ask (Chris Ware introduction in your last book or not) for a bit more from you than simply typing up a few condescending sentences, brushing aside the time and care I put into piecing these notes together ...

I'm puzzled about this recent inclination to create work that is drenched with nostalgic accents (I mentioned it as being "filled with eighties television iconography, superhero comic book scribbles, Dungeons and Dragon puzzles, Atari and Nintendo ephemera)". It's all very trendy at the moment and I'm trying to make sense of why I like some of it (ninja) but feel its superficial (Team Macho, shirts with Guns and Roses on it and He-Man etc) in other places ... I mean, I grew up on this stuff like everyone else and love a good dose of it from time to time, but it all stinks of (ungenuine) hipster irony sometime. And that, I have absolutely no interest in.

What would you say separates a piece that explores these concerns properly and the ones that end up being superficial trendy fluff?

Is this dip into the retro (thematically at least) more than a trend, what is in this looking back at this culture holds value to current concerns in the cartoon / Illustration medium?

Please expand on why you don't think that my comment (about how current cartoonists trying to inject a bit of fun as a backlash (consiously or not) against a certain seriousness (legitimacy) that has recently taken over the comics world) is a valid / informative reflection on the situation?

I heard Jim Woodring say that his one image work holds as much if not MORE narrative that his more traditional strips ... in Ninja, do you find yourself spending as much time on the (let's call them page doodles) or less than the pieces that have a linear construction?

What is it that you like in how they (page doodles) end up functioning (interacting) with the whole of the work?

Other than the novelty of showcasing its original source, how does the older ninja strips end up informing the whole of the book?

What is, in your opinion, the climax or best part of Ninja and why?

I was really surprised by the fact that, content wise - it left me a bit cold, but how I was won over with the radiance in the quantity and density of the work ... How do you react to Chippendale's comment that the work is: "It’s a pile of superficial ideas that accumulate a certain depth through density. Deep layers of superficiality."?

Looking forward to your reply,

Frank Santoro said...


I thought I'd try again.

Sorry for being such a jerk. You posed some thoughful questions and I responded not to your essay but to some other hang-up of mine.

I thought I'd try and address your original question about how a lot of comics artists these days are making work that is akin to notebook doodling that one did in high school, and ask "is this 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?"

It's an interesting problem. Because while this approach (let's call it Fort Thunder for lack of a better general term) was truly outlandish in the late 90s early 2000's the number of Fort Thunder copycats has grown so much that it has really reached an overload. But since Brian is the originator of the core aesthetic of the group it's difficult for me to care that his stories meander and go off on tangents andf loop back around. It's similar to music and very much like his own music - Lightning Bolt and Black Pus. I don't think it's really reactionary because from as far as I can tell Brian has been drawing like this for 15 years. He really just continued the pure process of creation that was in the early childhood Ninja strips. And he used that structure as a vehichle to transmit his rapturous evocations of tone, of density of form. Sheets of music, of vibration. The opposite of Chris Ware. Is it reactionary against stilted drawing? Maybe. But really, it's just Brian.

My problem in 2008 is all the copycats who've turned the Fort Thunder aesthetic into one giant monster of combined styles. So yes, there is overload. But to me, thats separate from the book itself, which is overwhelming at times and difficult to penetrate but in the end is truly some landmark of some kind to the form, whatever it is.

essstar said...

Your post and ensuing discussion ring with something I recently read by Alain de Botton regarding art and the societies in which it is conceived: the latter being a directly-inverse reaction to the former. According to Friedrich Schiller (1796): "However, as nature begins gradually to vanish from human life as a direct experience, so we see it emerge in the world of the poet as an ideal."

I wonder then, about the overhanded encroach on civil liberties increasingly seen in the 'free world' and question if this regimentalization of all forms of expression is the general catalyst for artforms all the more maniacal and abstract.

Admittedly knowing little-to-nothing about comics and their evolution, it would nonetheless appear to me, as a listless social potwatcher, that many forms of modern artistic expression (from indie music to graphics and colours to forms of speech and to an extent, political idoelogy) can be encapsulated under the heading "unoriginal" and often pastiche. And this, to the point where original meaning is so convoluted and re-adapted to mean esoterica on one hand or interchangably, rhetoric zilch on the other.

But this is all several degress away from what I consider to be a more poignant question: should artists care about all or any emotions emanating secondarily from their own? Or is "one" truly too lonely?