Maggots, by Brian Chippendale. PictureBox, publisher. $21.95.
...and so Charles hands the Maggots ball off to me, and what a strange, fur-covered, octagonal-shaped ball it is. What language is this book speaking? Can I understand it?
No, I can't. I can't say anything useful about Maggots. It's such a unique (and troubling) book that any credible evaluation will come in about 50 years or so, after we see how Brian Chippendale's career plays out and how influential Fort Thunder is on successive generations of cartoonists. (Maybe in 2058, Marvel and DC artists will lay out their pages according to Chippendale's snaking panel flow. Or maybe not.) Below, then, are nothing more than some provisional, personal observations on Maggots, to be taken with a bucketful of salt.
To begin, I'm fascinated by Charles' use of concepts like "developmental" and "experimental" to categorize contemporary comics production, but I'm not completely comfortable with his definition of Maggots as an experimental comic. On the surface, Maggots seems relentlessly experimental--any comic where you're not sure if you're reading the panels in the correct order is a challenge to the orthodox legibility of the medium--but what I find most subversive is the book's narrative elements. Maggots sticks to a cause-and-effect narrative chain (its finale even hints at a Bone-esque quest narrative built around the search for a "living pyramid"), and its inclusion of reoccurring characters (such as Peanut Butter Boy) and locales (such as the Pants store that looks like Lucy's psychiatry booth) "harkens back to traditional aspects" of storytelling.
At the same time, though, Chippendale refuses to tell this story in any sort of easily-comprehensible way. Most of his panels are so small, and so tightly focused on human figures, that we get only a few establishing shots of the environment that the characters inhabit; Chippendale's tiny canvases exclude any view of the characters' progression through their story world. These panels, though, are packed with narratively irrelevant information. As the book's back cover flap indicates, Maggots was "frantically drawn over the pages of a Japanese book catalog," so kanji and hiragana percolate beneath the drawings, creating a palimpsest effect, a layer of ocular noise that obscures what the characters do in each panel. This noise gets turned up to 11 when we factor in other traits of Chippendale's art, like his trademark white and black slashing lines, his smeary inks, and his flourishes of intricate patterning:
The result is a page that's extremely hard to read, and a book that seems to fit into the definition of developmental comics art by teasing us with a story, and then telling that story in the least reader-friendly manner possible. Maggots is an uneasy combination of story and anti-story, at its most insidious when it mixes avant-garde style with enough traces of a narrative to activate in us our hunger for a conventional story.
Of course, we never do get a story that comes together, at least not one that I can figure out, and Chippendale is clearly trying to do something other than tell a well-crafted story. Maybe Chippendale's inspirations lie outside traditional narrative. In his excellent survey of Fort Thunder history and aesthetics, Tom Spurgeon points out that Chippendale is a master of "mostly-silent movement exploration," of scenes where crudely abstracted cartoon characters sluice through panels that function as "tiny windows," with incremental McCloudian moment-to-moment closure between the panels and serpentine page designs. Chippendale acknowledges that he blasted most of Maggots out quickly, directly in ink, and it feels less like a story and more like a sketchbook where he was able to practice his cartooning and draw a storyboard for the craziest video game ever.
A bit later in his article, Spurgeon argues that video games and role-playing games are, in fact, a central inspiration for Chippendale in particular and Fort Thunder artists generally. As in Dungeons and Dragons, Fort Thunder comics are "all hierarchies, fortresses and physically imposing creatures that represent constant danger," and part of the attraction of video games is figuring out the rules after you've been dropped into this alien new world. I'm showing my age by admitting this, but I was obsessed with Myst (1993) went it first came out, and spent months of my life playing the CD-Rom game, flicking switches and searching hopelessly for codes and clues. I finally got my life back when a buddy showed me how to crack the game's secrets. While I'm not currently a video game player, I can understand the joy and intellectual stimulation that gaming can provide (and that Steven Johnson discusses so cogently in Everything Bad is Good for You ).
I question, however, if Spurgeon's video-and-role-playing observation holds true for Maggots. Myst entertained me for two reasons: the CD-Rom environment was pretty to look at and tantalizingly interactive, and my attempts to understand this new world were rewarded with the revelation of a big backstory and insight into a coherent fantasy world. Chippendale, however, sets up rules for his art that are seemingly designed to thwart these pleasures: his palimpsest visuals are stridently unpretty, his tiny windows limit our access to his fictional world, and his story never gels, never builds, remains deliberately incomplete and unfulfilled, and boy oh boy is this frustrating. Call me old-fashioned and stodgy, but my favorite moments in Maggots are when Chippendale ditches these self-imposed avant-garde restraints and cuts loose. The visuals seesaw between multiple pages of small panels and occasional bursts of larger panels, and at the end of the book, Chippendale piles on the action with double-page splashes chronicling a battle among humanoids, a church-like structure, and floating eyeballs in a beautifully-patterned flower field:
The double-splashes that conclude Maggots are among my favorite images in the book. Watching Chippendale break out of his tiny windows, I felt an almost palpable sense of relief. This relief is a testimony to Chippendale's mastery of craft; he establishes small panels as his default aesthetic choice, his default tempo, so that when he storms out of that baseline it has a huge impact on us. (In a Comics Journal interview, Chippendale describes his drumming for the band Lightning Bolt as playing "lots of fast beats," and he and interviewer Dan Nadel then connect this idea of "micro-beats" to the visual aesthetic of the Maggots pages.) Even so, I think Ninja (2006) is a better Chippendale book, if only because Ninja's massive format allows the images to breathe--and the fictional environment to show itself off--in ways prohibited by Maggots' dinky panels and diminutive 4 X 6-inch size.
I have other problems with Maggots' format. Some of the material in the book was originally printed in short, self-published zines (Maggots Adrift, Maggots Sleeper) and in other folks' publications (such as Mike McGonigal's Yeti), and I think it'd be rewarding to read Chippendale's comics alongside work by other cartoonists. Maggots is thick and comprehensive and gorgeously designed (like all PictureBox books), but it's also overkill. Chippendale's demanding material would go down easier in close proximity with more traditional artists (even a fellow Fort Thunderer like Brian Ralph) and/or in briefer doses. One of the great errors of the avant-garde is overstaying its welcome, and audiences are more sympathetic to experimental art that leaves 'em wanting more than art that exhausts them through sheer density and rigor. (Not many people can sit through--much less like--movies like Warhol's Empire (1964) or Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles .) I respect Chippendale's talent and admire his aesthetic dedication, but I can't say that I found reading Maggots a rapturously pleasurable experience, and the further I read the more bored I got. Spurgeon describes Chippendale's art as burning "with the energy of a 5-year-old running around the yard with his pants off," and it seems to me that all that profane kid-energy belongs in a format more akin to a 3-minute punk single than a Wagnerian opera.
I feel like a louse criticizing Maggots, because Chippendale clearly put hundreds of man-hours into the book, and because comics could use an experimental (and "developmental") avant-garde. We need an R&D wing to come up with new ideas and approaches, and all props to Chippendale and Fort Thunder for serving that function for so long. I'm still troubled by Maggots, though, and I can only explain why by telling you a story about another experimental work, Ken Jacobs' film Blonde Cobra (1963). I taught Blonde Cobra in a film history class a few years ago, and like other Jacobs movies of the early 1960s, it's essentially a performance piece featuring queer filmmaker and notorious goofball Jack Smith. In Cobra, Smith dresses in drag, tells stories about "a lonely little boy" while in baby clothes, and delivers a monologue to a hand mirror for what seems an excruciatingly long time. (Remember, kids: folks like their avant-garde art short.) Afterwards, when we were talking about Cobra in class, one of my students commented that the mirror sequence perfectly summed up the film as a whole: the scene was a perfect reflection (nyuk) of Smith's colossal narcissism, of his egotistical belief that even his dopiest improvisation deserved to be preserved on film.
Why can't I drop my nagging suspicion that this page perfectly sums up Maggots as a whole?