"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When Brian Chippendale was in sixth grade, he drew a bunch of little one- and two-page comic strips about a ninja doing ninja things — clobbering bad guys with his massive ninja skills, running and hiding, collecting treasures from his exploits and bringing them back to his secret headquarters. (“And that’s the end of another mission,” most of them conclude.) The strips had a whole lot of panels on each page, but he drew all the characters at tiny scale, with basically no backgrounds. Then, in the middle of the 12th one, he lost interest, and left the rest of the final page blank.
Eighteen years later, Chippendale had become a professional artist, semi-famous as the drummer/vocalist of the unbelievably loud and spazzy rock duo Lightning Bolt, and one of the leading lights of Fort Thunder, an artistic collective and artists’ space in Providence, R.I., that was torn down in 2001 and replaced by a grocery store’s parking lot. Over the course of five years, he went back to his old ninja comics and “finished” them — building the physically huge 120-page graphic novel “Ninja” around his sixth-grade project. (The original strips appear near the beginning of the book, with some new pages interleaved to flesh them out.)
The expanded “Ninja” doesn’t so much continue Chippendale’s juvenilia as use it as the entryway to a much broader survey of chaos in and around a small city called Grain whose residents’ way of life is changing rapidly — partly because a little troll of a man named Albert Groin has bought its water supply and is insisting on changing the name of the city to Groin. The last page of the original story went blank, the new part explains, because an evil scientist in the gigantic “eye” building in the heart of Grain had created a machine to “suck the very essence of the earth out,” but it had been too strong, and absorbed reality.
A lot of art-cartoonists’ work has nothing to do with the ninjas, evil scientists and reality-absorbing machines of the mainstream comics they grew up on; some of them take pains to distance themselves from fantasy and all of its clichés of violence without consequence, pseudoscience and good-vs.-evil oversimplification. Chippendale, on the other hand, adores that stuff; he revels in it, because he’s a lot less concerned with expressing something “realistic” than with getting something more or less equivalent to his feverish triple-espresso internal state onto the page, and because, frankly, it’s awesome.
The individual pages of “Ninja” are enormous — 11 inches by 17 inches, roughly — and they’re still not anywhere near big enough to hold the torrential spray of ideas and lines he fires at them. Most pages have around 50 panels crammed onto them, and they’re meant to be read in a sort of serpentine way: the top row of panels, left to right; the next, right to left; the next, left to right, and so on, so that not even moving your eyes can lift you out of the story. In a couple of scenes involving a “circle room that can blink in and out of Grain’s frequency,” Chippendale literally intercuts what’s happening in two different places, alternating eighth-of-an-inch-wide slivers of two simultaneous scenes, all the way down the page.
The plot? Well, “Ninja” probably has one somewhere in Chippendale’s mind, but the parts that end up on the page don’t make it terribly clear. There are recurring characters and settings, dramatic revelations, even broader thematic concerns, but if you’re looking for a straightforward narrative, you’re not going to find it. The ninja himself mostly vanishes after the opening sequence. His reappearance, in an image that occupies a full page near the end of the book, seems like it’s the conclusion of the story proper, but the book promptly shoots off in a different direction for a few pages, then abruptly ends.
Still, the story and characters of “Ninja” aren’t what it’s really about. The point of the book is Chippendale’s howling hyperspeed attack on every page with his pen — the kind of manifestation of pure style that has more to do with the contemporary visual art scene than with traditional comics and their ideals of clarity and representation. Chippendale, it appears, is one of those people who draw because they can’t stop frantically making marks on everything within scribbling range. (Judging by Lightning Bolt’s music, he’s also one of those people who play drums because they can’t stop hitting everything around them with sticks.) To borrow Robert Lowell’s distinction between “raw” and “cooked” poetry, Chippendale’s drawing is so raw it still seems to be alive on the page: “Ninja” is part of a series of his comics projects bearing the overall title “Maggots,” and his favorite visual effect is zillions of tiny jabs of ink that all seem to be writhing.
“Ninja” is incoherent, inconclusive, baffling and crazily, deliberately ugly. For all that, it’s surprisingly fun to read, and even compelling — largely because of the aforementioned awesomeness factor. The kind of overwhelmingness it aims for is total immersion in its mangled internal logic (the huge pages help with that), and even at its most confusing, it’s nowhere near boring. On one page, a mad professor devises a time-travel system involving a calendar, a magnet, a neck brace and a mirror, then accidentally stabs his younger self to death at his high school prom. On another, two characters discuss the building they’re inside, a gigantic pyramidal prison/school with a hot air balloon attached to its top (“after you finish doing your time rising within these walls, that balloon glides you back down into society” — but the balloon has never actually been used). On still another, we get a partial explanation of the drought that has afflicted Grain, which involves a poisoned well that’s guarded by a weird spiral that is actually Edward James Olmos stuck on a spinning bicycle, and then the explanation is interrupted by the arrival of a superheroine named Fire From Above who warns of a crisis in the desert in response to which the city may have to “animate the plastic militia.” If you’re wondering if that description got badly derailed somewhere, it didn’t — most of “Ninja” reads like that.
Chippendale is fascinated by patterns, both of design and of behavior, and he’ll often find a visual gesture he likes — overlapping whorls, thin horizontal stripes, tiny matrices of black and white triangles — and fanatically repeat it until it all but devours everything else in his compositions. In “Ninja,” the triangle-matrix, for instance, ultimately forms a pyramid called “Pattern Mountain,” which is also the resting place of “the Ancient Gamers.” That sequence culminates in a full-page image of the mountain with a giant, mustachioed, stripe-capped skull in front of it, a bunch of smaller demonic-looking skulls zooming around in front of it, and a few other elements off to its sides, including a comet, some tiny doodles and a vintage airplane piloted by a couple of cartoon animals. A stoner’s dream? Well, yeah, but the rabid energy of Chippendale’s drawing makes it practically leap off the page. His pattern fixation sometimes extends to drawing exactly or almost exactly the same scene over and over. A few panels into one page, somebody announces, “Hey! There’s Ya-Yum’s house!”; the next 24 panels are all the characters standing in front of its door, alternately shouting “Ya!” and “Yum!” as if they’re caught in the same kind of obsessive-compulsive loop as the lines that make them up.
Every so often, “Ninja” is interrupted by a “chapter break”: other kinds of Chippendale brain spew. A lot of them are pages filled (and I mean filled) with doodles and notes to himself, or blown-up fragments of his sketches on graph paper, the better to see his scribbles and their sub-scribbles. At one point, there’s a gallery of a hundred or so characters he invented as a tween (Black Swordsman, Acrobatic Wonder, Punk-Rocker); later on, there’s a similar gallery of another 60 characters he devised as an adult for “Ninja” (a “weird innocuous wandering robot” called Tripoli, an assassin called Ghoulden Rod who “could very well be the son of the ninja,” a “noble outlaw” called A.M.-P.M. whose head is an explosion of flower petals).
The older Chippendale realizes something the younger Chippendale didn’t, though, which is that fantastic characters like the ones he invents have an allegorical aspect. It’s not hard to draw the connections between the landscape of “Ninja” and the landscape of his personal experience in bohemia (and the specific bohemia of Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood, where Fort Thunder used to be), especially in the subplots that detail how money, gentrification and the military-industrial complex have corrupted Grain and its environs. There’s health-food-package detritus strewn everywhere; there are land developers who talk soothingly about their old experience in rough neighborhoods that got much nicer, even as they try to literally bleach the city; there’s a persistent thread about people being priced out of their homes by yuppies. “Prices are so crazy here that some kids are paying 1000 dollars a month to rent the inside of a dead man’s stomach,” one character says. Who can save the grainy masses that make up the population of Grain from the ruinous force of profiteers? Maybe nothing but a sixth-grader’s fantasy: someone who can draw the too-simple lines between good and evil, collect his winnings, and declare his mission accomplished, even when the story continues.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)