May the Puke Be With You

Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force has static on every page; not motionless images but bits of visual noise. It's like watching a great old TV show with bad reception.

Puke Force

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 120 pages
Author: Brian Chippendale
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-02

It used to be that one of the great joys of collecting comic books was the thrill of the hunt. There was something of the white whale in seeking out an elusive issue, completing a run of a pivotal story arc, or finding a character’s first appearance. It was a quest which could drive anyone mad, but the ease of the Internet now makes nearly everything available to anyone with sufficient funds.

There's still a way to recapture the feeling of the hunt, though: visit your local comic shop and dive deep into the bargain bin.

It’s an archaeological dig into a mishmash of comics history. Most books usually date back no later than the early- to mid-'80s, and the vast majority come from the '90s. At my own local comics shop, the bargain bin is completely unorganized, but a quick perusal will always bring the same results: big guns, big breasts, and enhanced covers of the holographic, chromium, and foil embossed varieties. Books once collected by 12-year-olds in 1994 now collect discount dust.

The speculator boom and the independent spirit forged by the founders of Image Comics paved the way for some truly bad choices by creators, retailers, and readers, all resulting in the sea of titles with the word “blood” in the title and still polybagged copies of X-Force #1. What the market once swallowed has now been regurgitated into the bargain bins of America’s comic book stores.

Mix the noise of the bargain bin with the half cooked ideas, the ill formed human and cybernetic anatomy, and the weapons within weapons, and you’ll begin to approach the genius of Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force. Chippendale is the drummer and vocalist for the band Lightning Bolt and was one of the founders of the Fort Thunder art collective in Providence, Rhode Island.

Though all his previous books have featured comics run through a filter of collage and graphic art, Puke Force, for all its strangeness, is a relatively straightforward comic strip. That observation quickly falls apart, however. There are scribbles, notes, and other ephemera above and below many strips, things like the word “Psyched”, a drawing of little stairs, and a stray, unattributed talk bubble.

The biggest departure from comic strip conventions is the reading order of the panels. Each installment of Puke Force is intended to be read in a “snake-like” fashion, moving left to right on the top row then right to left on the next tier, then left to right on the bottom. Readers of manga will no doubt be accustomed to what is considered “backwards” reading to Western audiences, but here Chippendale explodes the standard operating procedure for comics.

It’s not as jarring as one might expect, however. In some ways it’s very natural, making the eye do less work and giving the neck a break from the typewriter-like effect of reading typical panel layouts. Even with helpful hints at the beginning of each installment -- “read as if in an intestine”, “read like squeezed syrup”, “follow the Trail of Tears” - -our brains are so accustomed to the usual order of comic panels that it’s easy to fall back into that pattern. To forget the artist’s intention, however, is to change the story, spoil punchlines, and get confused, even if only momentarily.

Sometimes Chippendale uses only a single panel for the strip, and each of these is an overwhelming display of ink darting everywhere, shapes coalescing out of stray dabs, and faces melting into the frame. At first, it seems like Puke Force #30 is just two pages of abstract ink dabs, with star-like shapes dotted throughout. Then, other things start to appear: creatures frollicking, someone working on a car.

There are jokes embedded everywhere, like the child playing a “Pray Station” inside a pick-up truck in the middle of a crowded panel, and a tattoo parlor called “Tattooine”. There’s hardly any space left untouched by ink. There are so many textures, from smudges to light hatching to squiggles, and not just in the single panels. Each page of the book is packed with visual information. There’s static on every page; not motionless images but bits of visual noise. It's like watching a great old TV show with bad reception.

The "Force" of the title is a superhero team of sorts, featuring the always pantless Aw Dude, the obligatory cyber-armed Babbit, and Gregus, whose, “dad was an N64, and grandma was an Atari”. These are only a few of the characters scattered throughout the book. They all live in a city called Grave, a place with businesses named Dick’s Balls and Crap Land.

In Grave, a terror attack at Coffee Whirld sets off a chain of strips entitled “Final Conversation”. Each is numbered and told from the perspective of different characters in the shop, and each ends in an explosion. Like the rest of the book, they’re also painfully funny. Reading Puke Force is like entering the door to some hidden land in the bottom of a comics bargain bin. All you have to do is find it -- and then lose yourself in it.


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