Context: Fort Thunder

by on Nov.05, 2010

Johannes and I were just talking and he pointed out that many Montevidayo readers, those who are not extensive readers of comics, might be interested in what I think are some of the formative historical works and movements that inform contemporary work. So I hung up the phone with him and decided to write this. Hopefully, I’ll do a series of posts like these. Just suggestions of things to check out as way of building a context when looking at comics, cartooning, visual narrative – that kind of thing.

I think a good place to start discussing the source of some of the more avant-garde or form-challenging work being created today is to consider what was happening in Providence, RI a decade ago. (The contemporary work that I’m talking about includes comics published by presses like Picture Box, which I hope to write more about.) At the center of the Providence scene was an old warehouse, venue, workspace, housing complex called Fort Thunder.

This was the center of both the noise rock scene and the indie comics scene happening in the city at that time. Brian Chippendale, member of the band Lightning Bolt and a comics creator, is the best place to start to understand Fort Thunder. Chippendale sheds cartoonists’ traditional anal retention of exact tools, and particular lines, and preciousness. While in many ways his work (including his recent Ninja) explores the role of traditional genres in comics, they resist the expectations of that kind of work. His smudges and palimpsests and cross-hatching will never be confused with the perfect blacks of Jack Kirby (or the deft Rapidograph lines of Robert Crumb, for the matter). This is maximalist work. The lo-fi approach is indicative of much of the “alternative” art created in the late nineties. (Think Pavement’s approach to classic rock.) There’s something about the Fort Thunder work that often makes people say, “What is this shit?” at first look. But the lines compel you not to look away, to find the movements and the shapes and the coherence hidden with the nest of marks.

Other Fort Thunder artists include Mat Brinkman. His work is also characterized by crowded pages, and an obliqueness that hides an essentially “boy”-inspired adventure story:

And the more accessible work of Brian Ralph (he builds up those beautiful thick lines with a Uniball pen):

And I think the work of CF (Chris Forgues) very much follows in this tradition.

The next place to go from here is a discussion of fine artiste and cartoonist Ben Jones and techno-maximalists Paper Rad.

Oh, and, of course, the single creator who made this work possible is Gary Panter. Let’s talk about him next time. (Then we’ll talk about Paper Rad, and then look at the reincorporation of the conventions of traditional genre comics into these deconstructed pages in the work of Frank Santoro, and discuss his own fresh, new term  for what the kids are up to: “hybrid comics.”)

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17 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Love this post, John. I don’t know anything about comics. But I reallyliked the Fort Thunder comics that I saw when I followed your link with Brian Chippendale. Where can I get some of these books online? (Remember, I live in Indiana…).


  2. John Dermot Woods


    Picturebox publishes Chippendale, CF, Ben Jones, and Brinkman – and a ton of other amazing books. Check out their site.
    Next time you’re in Chicago, I believe the places to go are Chicago Comics and Quimby’s (but someone else who actually knows something about Chicago might have better advice).

  3. Johannes

    Also, I’m designing a class on the modern grotesque, might use these? I’m not just doing literature and theory but performance art, David Lynch, Kurt Cobain’s body etc, so this would perhaps fit in.


  4. John Dermot Woods

    And definitely consider Paper Rad for that class. Just look at their website.

  5. Jon Woodward

    Johannes, be sure to also check out the music/performance that came out of Fort Thunder. Some Lightning Bolt for starters:

    I think Sam White knows a bunch of people in the Fort Thunder diaspora.

  6. Ken Chen

    Dude, I’m all over this. I love the Fort Thunder guys. Johannes–you should also consider Panter’s JIMBO book.

  7. John Dermot Woods

    Absolutely. I’m hoping to write about Panter next (but I probably should have began with him).
    Also, Johannes, check out Same Hat blog for some examples of Japanese grotesquery.

  8. A D Jameson

    Johannes, John,

    Chicago Comics is indeed the best place I’ve found for, well, Chicago comics. (Quimby’s is carrying fewer comics these days, allowing CC to handle that end of things—both stores are owned by the same person.) A truly great comics shop, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.

    I also quite like G-Mart on Kedzie in Logan Square (right by the Blue Line stop). The staff there is very nice, knowledgeable, and they have a surprisingly deep stock for such a small store (even though it does tend toward superhero comics). But they’ll order anything in print for you (of course), and they’re fun folks to talk with. I don’t know how well they know more experimental/underground stuff, though. But they do keep the Cerebus phone books in stock, every last one of them, and I love them for that.

    One person you should talk with: Mike Kitchell, who knows a lot about underground 70s comics/comix (and more). I can put you in touch with him, if you don’t already know him.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about this! We need more comics scholarship!


  9. A D Jameson

    John, Johannes, all,

    I’m pretty interested myself in “messier” work, as distinguished from extremely clean stuff. It’s a very old distinction, I’d argue: see Nietzeche’s Birth of Tragedy, and its Apollonian/Dionysian binary. One finds it played out everywhere, across multiple media: The New Left vs. Hippies. Mods vs. rockers. Glam/disco/pop vs. punk. Language poetry vs. Slam. And on and on.

    It seems to me that the Dionysian was more culturally palatable in the 1960s/1970s, then again in the 1990s (see, for instance, grunge, plus the above-mentioned Pavement, as well as many of these comics artists), but over the past ten+ years has receded once more in favor of a more Apollonian, cleaner, more refined aesthetic. (Of course these are very broad generalizations, and only true of certain aspects of the culture—I’m talking here about my white middle-class cohorts.) A lot of the work I see being done in indie comics right now strikes me as being very clean, albeit childishly awkward (it’s twee—and twee is /very/ Apollonian). It seems very influenced by our current clean/sterile fetish, which I think stems largely from the digital tech we have available.

    …Well, that’s all pretty broad fancy talk. As for more concrete discernibles, what about Raymond Pettibon’s work as a potential influence on the artists mentioned in this post? It’s less maximalist, but he was so bold in his lack of “professional” composition, his use of asymmetry, his “smudginess”…

    As well as the animations of William Kentridge? Who I guess was/is actually more of a contemporary…

    Among countless others, no doubt… It’s an interesting question, who Paper Rad’s influences were. Maybe Len Lye was among them?

    On a related note, does anyone out there know the work of Madame Chao? He used to send me his tapes in the late 90s…
    Very nice guy, but I’ve lost contact with him.


  10. Johannes


    Many great ideas.

    I love Raymond Pettibon’s work. Love.

    Also, look at the Sara Eriksson pictures I posted in connection with John’s and mine discussion about comics. She’s an artist but begins to look a little like comics of sorts.

    I’ve been thinking about Pavement a lot lately. Partially in response to a New Yorker article where Sasha Frere Jones, who picked Nirvana over Pavement as the band of the 90s (I much prefer Nirvana too): “If Pavement’s songs were the air-conditioned stacks at the main library, Nirvana’s were the fight behind the bleachers: one set of problems was theoretical and subject to will; the other was entirely real and unmanageable.” []

    In Frere-Jones’s analysis Pavement got rid of its initial “static” and that’s what made them into an “amiable bunch” goofing around. Goofing around sounds Dionysian perhaps in the sense that it’s messy, where-as Nirvana never had that feeling to me, it always seemed incredibly driven. But at the same time there’s something much messier about Nirvana to me, the place we arrive at is much messier, more violent. The mess seems perhaps too intentional in Pavement. It seems clever in a very kind of “American heterosexual male” kind of way: they’re never hysterical, sometimes sentimental or sad, but never acting out. A lot of indie rock seems this way to me.

    And a lot of contemporary poetry.

    OFten when I read journals and such I think: a lot of these people write such good poems, but they write as if nobody ever killed themselves. I’m not saying that should be the end-all criteria for poetry! Just saying: That idea pops into my head sometimes.

    A tiny observation which may not have anything to do with this argument: Around South Bend, IN, I often see these ratty-as-hell looking kids on their shitty bikes and they often wear Nirvana shirts, and they’re either too fat or too skinny, and they shop at the Hot Topic at the mall, and they’ve definitely been beaten up behind the bleachers.


  11. John Dermot Woods

    Hey Johannes,

    I’ve been wanting you to explain something to me. You write: “She’s an artist but begins to look a little like comics of sorts.” Seems like you’re establishing a dangerous hierarchy of popular vs. FINE art. Almost feels like you’re saying “You can put Efrik’s pictures on a museum wall but they look like stuff you can’t.” Doesn’t sound like you, but that’s what I’m seeing there.

    As far as her relation to cartooning (I think that’s very much what she’s doing), her form is actually quite traditional. (The Eisner-McCloud definition of comics as “sequential art” wouldn’t define it as a comic, in the same way it wouldn’t define Ziggy, as such.) She’s using simplified drawings (cartoons) complemented by textual captions to create an odd (often funny) response in her audience. This is the same basic form as The Far Side or a cartoon from The New Yorker. What distinguishes Efrik’s work is her subversion of conventional expectations (hence the necessity for her to set up what at first blush appears to be a fairly conventional form) both graphically and in terms of “punchline.” Can’t wait to see the book.

  12. John Dermot Woods


    The messy/clean dichotomy is worth noting. I thought about it looking at CF’s work at the bottom of the post. The obvious trend toward line and minimalism, without forsaking volatility, like, for instance, the perfect lines of Clowes and Ware and Burns. Blaise’s (see interview above) book YOUNG LIONS seems a part of this conversation. There’s the messily scanned pencils and palimpsests of Mat Brinkman, but beneath it is a bold one-stroke line that almost recalls Mucha (the defined containing the subtle).

    Pettibon is a great example of this tension.

    Really glad you brought up Kentridge. I feel like his name comes up so rarely in discussions of cartoon draftsmanship and composition, although apparently its influence saturates the medium (my own work included). But I do often wonder how much of this is coincidence of contemporaries (Kentridge and others) following similar models, or Kentridge’s actual presence in other artists’ work. You hear cartoonists talking about him much less than, say, Phillip Guston, or even Jerry Moriarity.

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  14. Johannes

    Madame Chao was interesting too. Hadn’t seen that before. What was the story behind that (as youtube was not avaible back then!).


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  16. Jeff

    The other interesting thing to point out with a lot of these artists (Fort Thunder generally, CF, and Blaise – who is not directly connected with the Rhode Island folks at all) is the way they’ve manipulated public understanding of their artistic personas rather than ignore that aspect of the creative process entirely. CF is especially interesting because of how aloof and secretive he is (not doing many interviews, rather obscure web presence, i.e. anonymous seeming blogs popping up here and there but generally short-lived). I just ran across which sort of purports to be CF or at least a Chris Forgues who makes references to drawing and Providence, RI…not sure if it’s a fake or a fake by him to throw off his fans or what.
    Point being, it’s the artist’s public performance as well as their drawing that make a lot of these guys interesting.

  17. John Dermot Woods

    Absolutely, Jeff. These discussions we have are as much a part of it as the works themselves.