Thunderation!

Some notes on Teratoid Heights and the “Fort”

Teratoid Heights
By Mat Brinkman
Highwater Books
176 pages, $12.95

Mat Brinkman hails from Fort Thunder. I’m not sure exactly what Fort Thunder is, and that’s fine: art usually benefits from a kick of mystique. What I do know about Fort Thunder is this: it’s some sort of artists’ collective in Providence, which has not only provided a fertile loam for cartoonists, but for musicians as well. A lot of the cartoonists also play in bands; I’ve never heard any of the music, but from what I’ve been able to suss, it’s often performed in costume. Judging from photos on the deliberately obtuse Fort Thunder website, the costumes were fished out of a dumpster on Roger Corman’s back lot, and repaired through the magic of macramé(1).

Picasso said he wanted to draw like a kid; the Thunder folks want to draw like a Special Ed kid who’s fielding transmissions from the planet Gxxylplzz on his braces.
The comics that come out of Fort Thunder seem to have no fear of incompetence. Picasso said he wanted to draw like a kid; the Thunder folks want to draw like a Special Ed kid who’s fielding transmissions from the planet Gxxylplzz on his braces. Visible through the squiggles and scrawls of their work is a world drenched in the ambiance of sci-fi, fantasy, and video games. It might seem like a dazed recapitulation of escapist junk culture, if the artists (particularly Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain and Brian Chippendale) didn’t have such an ear for everyday speech. The word balloons in these fantastical landscapes are stuffed with repetitions, colloquialisms, and deadpan banalities — anthropologically exact tape transcriptions of High Slackerese. Tagging these word balloons to ridiculously overblown situations and characters gives the stories a crackling friction.

The FT cartoonists manage to bend gaming structures to (semi)-narrative ends. A long piece by Brian Chippendale in the anthology Non #5 seems to ascend through a variety of game-based “levels,” and Mat Brinkman’s work-in-progress, “Two Dudes” (which can be seen by nosing through the Fort Thunder website), appears to be governed by random encounters with monsters — interactions best served up by polyhedral dice. Altogether, the FT artists come across as a gang of video-game junkies and role-playing game nerds (you begin to wonder if the rock-star part of FT is a necessary corrective of “cool” for this geekiness, but who knows? Within a certain narrow niche of culture, it’s possible to be simultaneously both a rock star and a geek). As cartoonists, they sometimes seem like people trying to describe the whole world using the tools of Dungeons & Dragons and Donkey Kong.

I’ve never been very interested in video games or role-playing games (which could probably be gathered from my circa-’80s references above, though the primitivism of the FT work seems closest in spirit to those pixelated and kitsch-soused zygotes of the gaming industry). Regardless, it’s fascinating the way the FT artists build grand fantastical worlds of the sort you might find in game-play and populate them with creatures who talk like the actual everyday folks who might play those games. It’s persuasive not just because it’s an effective inversion of the usual function of these gaming environments, where you project your mundane self into a kind of “super-self”; it also implies that changing our world into a mythological world won’t change us. With our culture’s preoccupation with simulated reality, adolescent power dynamics and escape from the physical limits of our bodies, the FT “universe” feels like a genuine glimpse into the future. If we will at some point be able to actually leave our bodies for a constructed world of avatars, it would be something like what Fort Thunder draws: an absurd conflation of the petty and the grandiose. That’s the crux which, beyond the spacey trappings of aliens and UFOs, makes a portion of the FT work genuine “science fiction” — the “prediction” that the future of society will be populated by stoners in the bodies of gods and monsters.

To date, it’s been difficult to track down a sizeable portion of this work. Some of it has been available by mail order; some of it has been dispersed in mini-comics and ’zines; pieces have turned up in anthologies like Non and Kramers Ergot. Catching scraps of it here and there enhances the junkyard aesthetic — it’s like coming across a crumpled page of doodles in some trash-smeared alleyway. It also enhances the feeling that you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg: there’s a sense that there are mountains of material being produced somewhere, and you’re only catching the bits that happen to slip under the door.

This scattershot availability is beginning to change; Highwater Books, the alt-comics publisher based out of Brooklyn, has started to compile some of the work into reader-friendly collections. A book of Brian Chippendale’s comics is slated to appear in 2004, and Teratoid Heights, the first collection of Mat Brinkman’s work, was printed in the summer of 2003.

Very few of the Brinkman stories in Teratoid Heights use dialogue in the above-mentioned way: as something that cuts against the grain of the “spectacle.” Very few of the pieces use dialogue at all, and though the book is well-populated with monsters, it’s more of a zoology than an adventure: stripped of language, the stories seem more basic, more primal — primordial, even. Through its pages, strange creatures propagate themselves, dance or spaz out, devour each other, fight, hold funeral rites. The style is rough but thoroughly confident: the ragged lines appear as an organic, almost inevitable outgrowth of the subject-matter. The panels sometimes fit into each other eccentrically, like puzzle pieces, or like cells crowding together to form tissue.

You have to look closely to find your bearings, and understand exactly what is being revealed. The first story, “Oaf,” drives forward on a series of social misunderstandings that take place between the reader and the subject: a monster arises from a moat, and seems about to attack the protagonist — but it’s actually leaning in for an affectionate hug. The protagonist enters a castle and seems to want to ascend to the throne — but it turns out he has other plans for the seat.
In the story “Crud Club,” you begin to identify with the four humanoids (well, three humanoids and one slug-like thing) that gather at a black pool. You identify with them because they appear vaguely human, in their shape and their sense of purpose. But then it turns out they’ve gathered together for a raid on a hut containing smaller humanoid creatures, who they begin to massacre. The four larger creatures now seem like the villains rather than the heroes of the story, and you are open to question the ease with which the reader falls into a sense of “identification.” At the same time, the apparently unmotivated group violence makes these four “villains” more, not less, identifiably human.

In “Flapstack,” doughy, headless creatures, attached to some unseen source by umbilical cords, navigate through passageways with obscure intent. Their investigation becomes broken up into animation-like snippets of time, creating an almost abstract sense of suspense, before it’s cut off by a subterranean eruption.

Is it a kind of vanity or self-regard that impels us to see ourselves in these activities? There are the odd dramas of:

Transportation: In “Metro,” a lone creature stands on top of something that resembles a millipede. As the millipede moves forward on a trail, more creatures hop on, and then eventually hop off, until there is only one rider left again. It’s a mystery whether this creature is the “driver,” or if he’s actually going somewhere.

Entertainment: In “Raise a Ruckus,” a crowd of armless two-legged creatures circle a jagged hill. When enough of them have gathered in the route around the hill’s base, the hill spouts like a volcano — the volcanic discharge is a blast of energy in the shape of the heads of the circling creatures. It could be a profound religious rite or a half-time show: anything that would produce some kind of reflection of the audience in the climactic burst.

Conflict: In a story whose title which can’t be transcribed exactly with words — there’s a cloudy shape linked to a more squiggly shape by the word “vs.” as in “cloudy versus squiggly” — we have a perfect distillation of a comic book superhero battle. A squiggly creature impales a cloudy creature with its head; the cloudy creature begins to dissolve the squiggly creature. Everything ends in a pile of goo.

You can recognize yourself in these patterns and activities, but at the same time, you’re alienated from yourself. The stories make the everyday strange — if you appear in these pages, you appear in the flow of life not as an individuated self, but as an “organism.” Recognition and alienation come at once, as elements of a single process.

Teratoid Heights is a perfect example of a kind of work that’s emerging in comics from a wave of cartoonists (including but not limited to Fort Thunder) who are making art that is more “granular” in focus than the wave of alternative cartoonists who came onto the scene in the ’80s and early ’90s (the Hernandez Brothers, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, etc). Those prior alt-cartoonists are concerned with generally accepted rules of storytelling: character, plot and narrative arc are all very important to what they are trying to get across. Their work is “literary,” not in the sense that it has pretensions to respectability or is overly verbose, but in the sense that its appeal toward meaning depends heavily on nonvisual aesthetic categories — categories that have emerged from the non-visual medium of prose.

There seems to be intense pleasure and expressiveness in the drawings themselves — the drawings are just as much “about” themselves, their own textures, as they are about moving the narrative forward.
This new wave, however, seems less interested in story than effect. In the literary world, the FT effect would be closer to poetry than prose. Impressions and ideas are more important than characters and plot. And because the “literary” recedes, the surface of the drawing becomes more important. While Ware and Clowes are visually fluid, and their drawings are appealing to look at, each drawing’s visual identity is secondary to the story. In the FT work, there seems to be intense pleasure and expressiveness in the drawings themselves — the drawings are just as much “about” themselves, their own textures, as they are about moving the narrative forward. This is related to the evaluation Robert Boyd makes of Ron Rege (not strictly a FT artist, but an artist who’s been published in many of the same anthologies and who seems a fellow traveler). In his pamphlet “Ron Rege and his Precursors,” Boyd writes: “When you read a Rege comic, part of what you’re doing is following (often with great difficulty) a narrative. But you are also swimming in a sea of marks that have their own extra-narrative qualities.”

(Of course I should make the caveat that this reading of alt-comics is a huge over-generalization — and any attempt to zone separate aesthetic forests is bound to do violence to a great number of trees. The Chris Ware “Quimby” strips, the early work of Julie Doucet, and of course much of Gary Panter’s output seem close in spirit to some of the FT work that would come later.)

Above and beyond this aesthetic shift to the texture of the drawings themselves, the most persuasive magic trick that the FT crew performs is the appropriation of the detritus of junk culture, in order to turn it into something weird, beautiful and strangely personal. The dominant entertainment culture sets us swimming in junk, geared to make us a passive “consumers” — the FT work makes a few hopeful strokes against the tide. It’s a mulching as exciting as the turntablism of DJ Q-Bert and Kid Koala. Turning shit into gold is an alchemist’s trick even better than turning lead into gold. Maybe it could be possible to describe the world armed only with an Atari and a Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Click here for an original Chris Lanier cartoon in the style
of Brinkman---------------------------------------------------------->