Some notes on Teratoid Heights and the “Fort”
By Mat Brinkman
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
the costumes were fished out of a dumpster on Roger Corman’s
back lot, and repaired through the magic of macramé .
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.
||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 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.
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
To date, it’s been difficult to track
down a sizeable portion of this work. Some of it has been available
by mail order;
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.
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.
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
In “Flapstack,” doughy, headless
creatures, attached to some unseen source by umbilical cords, navigate
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.
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
Conflict: In a story whose title which
be transcribed exactly with words — there’s a cloudy
shape linked to a more squiggly shape by the word “vs.” as
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
here for an original Chris Lanier cartoon in the style