Spend an evening talking with Brian Chippendale and you’ll hear a lot of self-deprecating laughter, repeated invocations of the word “fun,” and quite a few conversational tangents (from a brief history of his studio space’s square footage to the comparative merits of the current Captain America and Green Lantern comic books). What you won’t hear is any horn-tooting over Chippendale’s place —whether as the cartoonist behind the dizzyingly dense graphic novels Maggots and Ninja or as the drummer for the noise-rock band Lightning Bolt—at the forefront of America’s artistic avant-garde. Nor will you see the longtime Providence resident rest on his laurels as the co-founder of Fort Thunder, the late-‘90s/early-‘00s artistic collective that remains a symbol of the city’s creative community to this day. “My main concern is ‘How does today’s page look?’” says the workaholic artist, whose forthcoming graphic novel If ‘n Oof (from publisher PictureBox Inc.) will clock in at 700 pages. He took a break between a couple of those pages to speak with us about Fort Thunder, the Providence scene, and his own restless creative spirit.
You first came to Providence to attend RISD, but you didn’t graduate, correct?
I didn't. I was at RISD for two years, I left, I spent a year wandering around the country doing whatever, I came back, I went back to school for two more years. I had four years of RISD but I just did so bad. I can't do more than three things at a time, so I'd do good in three classes, but the fourth and fifth classes I was supposed to take that semester would just fall apart. I'd fail. At the end of the four years, I had a bunch of credits left, and because my parents were paying for school, the money had just run out! [Laughs] I was going to school just for the community.
So you devised a way to preserve that community aspect without the pesky classes.
Pretty much. My senior year at school we started Fort Thunder, which was this warehouse with a bunch of us living in there. By the end of that, school just seemed less exciting than Fort Thunder! [Laughs] Which is a little silly, but I had everything I needed over there in the warehouse.
The basic question: What was Fort Thunder? Even within comics-aficionado circles, there's this strange shroud of mystery that surrounds it.
Maybe because if you look too closely at it, it was just a dingy warehouse full of dirty boys or something. [Laughs] It was a warehouse that started out with four of us, and at the high point I think we had maybe 13 people living there. It existed from '95 to ‘01, I think. My roommate Mat Brinkman and I had silkscreening facilities there, we had a bunch of music shows there, bands practiced there, we lived there, we constructed a bunch of weird rooms, we just decorated the hell out of the place. Most of the people who were in there were into comics, so we were making books, minicomics. We were all broke and didn't have jobs, so we had a lot of time on our hands. [Laughs]
At that point, my aspiration in life was just to decorate the wall in my room. I couldn’t imagine…After a few years we started getting offers to do gallery shows or this or that, and still, everything paled in comparison to what we were doing right there. It just felt so important, so fun, so cool. I would just stand in that place and stare at it and think, “This is really rad. This is what I want to be doing.”
It was a weird fluke, in a way: There was a really good art school in this town with really cheap space, we all kind of landed in this spot, and it grew. It could easily have not happened or got cut short, but somehow it lined up and it happened.
In speaking with friends who’ve attended RISD, Fort Thunder is seen as a “local kids make good” situation—there’s a sense of pride that Providence’s arts community produced you guys.
Providence in the late ’90s in general was really cool. We had Fort Thunder, but on the other side of the building we were in there were four or five other spaces, and they had shows too. Across the street there were twenty more spaces in another building, and they were having shows and lots of artists were living there. Next door to us, these kids opened a gallery. This whole mill complex around this one big parking lot exploded at this point in the late ‘90s, and it really felt like, “Whoa, we’re building this insane psychic pyramid of power shooting up over this area.” A lot of people felt it. It was so much bigger than just us. We just happened to be the ones to run off with the credit. [Laughs] I was super-nationalistic about Providence. It was so important to me to make this a good place, make this a vibrant community—we’d have this city and it would be the coolest place that anyone could go.
By the time Fort Thunder really caught on—its members’ comics being published and critics paying attention, some of you showing work in the Whitney Biennial, Lightning Bolt touring worldwide—the Fort itself had been shut down. What was that like to experience?
When it initially closed down, I was so fired up: “We have to make this happen again now!” I was really sad that it was gone. The rug got pulled out from under us and everyone flew up in the air and landed in a bunch of different, weird spots. Some of us landed in the Whitney, and I landed in a van with Lightning Bolt and kept driving around because there was nowhere to go. Maybe for a little while I was upset. I wasn’t focusing on watching Fort Thunder grow in its notoriety throughout different media—I was more concerned with, “Okay, where are we gonna go to set this up again?” After butting our heads up against a few walls, we realized the climate had changed and we were going to have to do whatever we could to survive and have a roof over our heads, let alone recreate something. At this point, I think that for most of the people who actually lived there, it’s just kind of funny. [Laughs]
Your major post-Fort Thunder comics work is the book Ninja. I read it all in one sitting today, and the amount of obvious joy you had in making it is what strikes me most about it, quite apart from whatever boundaries you might be breaking in terms of layout or linework.
Well, that’s good! I think Ninja’s crammed full. There’s so many things going on in that book. I made it over the course of four years. I’m actually superexcited about my new book, If ‘n Oof. I was a little skeptical about it for a while. It’s a bit of a monstrosity, but it’s actually less work than Ninja was. I think it’s going to be about 700 pages. I’m up to page 550 right now. It’s like manga-sized, squarebound, 5” x 7”. It’s different than Ninja. There are way less ideas in there. I’m curious as to how it’s gonna come across. I think it’s gonna be more readable.
You still live in Providence—are there people here now whose work you’re excited about?
Yeah. CF lives across the street, so I get to see what he’s working on. Ben Jones is here still. My girlfriend, Jungil Hong, has a show coming up, so I’ve been watching her get ready, and I love her stuff. Leif Goldberg, who was in Fort Thunder, still lives here with his wife Erin Rosenthal, and they still make great stuff. New people—Barkev Gulesserian is making awesome stuff here. Christopher has a friend named Carlos Gonzales who makes really cool drawings. There’s a lot of people here. There’s a gallery called the Stairwell Gallery, which is just a few blocks away from here in Olneyville. They show a lot of local stuff, they’ll have group shows. It’s been a pretty fun place for the last couple of years to see what people are doing. I’m glad Stairwell’s here. I know it’s a struggle for them because they don’t make a lot of money on it—they cater to the community.
Do you find yourself consciously shifting gears between your comics work, your fine-art work, and your work as a musician?
My band has a new album coming out soon and we're starting to do interviews for that, so I'll get on the phone and be like, "Which interview is this again? What am I talking about?" [Laughs] That's sort of the story of my life: I'm always getting pulled to do one thing when I'm in the mood to do the other thing. Whenever I'm in the mood to draw comics I'm probably about to play a Lightning Bolt show, and when I'm drawing comics I'd probably rather be drumming. Well, okay, not really.
That sense that you’re willing to follow your ideas wherever they take you is something I find very invigorating about your work, no matter what form it takes.
Oh, awesome. Thank you! I try not to censor. That’s what Ninja was about—any idea, just go for it. Ideas are crazy. It’s about a seven-mile ride to the comic store from where I live, and every week I bike there. Something about that trip helps me solve problems with If ‘n Oof. I ride with a sketchpad and stuff, and it’s literally like turning the tap on. I can’t even tackle anywhere near the amount of ideas I have. There’s too many goddamn ideas! It’s killing me! Not that I’m trying to say “I’m the most creative person in the world!”, but somehow, I can tap into ideas. Maybe it’s the same idea over and over again turned upside-down on its head, but they’re killing me sometimes. I’m drowning in ideas. Help me!