With its dynamic comics and collaborative ethos, the short-lived but highly influential duo Paper Radio galvanized New England underground culture in the early 2000s.
They say to master comics one must become invisible, then stop drawing comics forever, only letting the comics draw themselves. God does not like comics that come from the motives of the ego.
The two most important cartoonists of their generation, Ben Jones (b. 1977) and Christopher “CF” Forgues (b. 1979), are also two of the least recognized. Working together, often under pseudonyms, they changed the form and content of comics as few other artists have, radically distorting extant storytelling genres and emphasizing experimental approaches to drawing and printing. In 1999, when both were art students in Boston, they began collaborating under the name Paper Radio. Over the next few years, they produced hundreds of works ranging from exquisite silkscreened books to photocopied zines to early Web-based graphics. The narrative forms they explored were equally varied. A Paper Radio publication could contain subversive fan fiction about the Muppet Babies, elaborate fantasy adventures, psychedelic space operas, or crude slapstick gags. All of these works circulated in small editions among an audience of like-minded artists and musicians, members of a largely unchronicled New England subculture whose aesthetic continues to seep, credited or not, into popular visual forms, from music videos to subway advertisements.
For Jones and Forgues, comics offered a medium that could accommodate deeply personal and uncompromising approaches to mark-making. Many of their supposedly narrative illustrations verge on abstraction. Their drawings have more in common with contemporary art than most comics. At the same time, Paper Radio’s creators enthusiastically embraced the conventions of a popular format. Jones and Forgues may have developed a singular aesthetic, but they also reinvigorated disreputable genres such as the sword-and-sorcery tale and the suburban teenage comedy.
Looking back, it’s possible to understand Paper Radio as a way for two young artists to work together and serve as audiences for each other’s work, while simultaneously homing in on individual concerns. Forgues is now best known for his “Powr Mastrs”series of graphic novels, begun in 2007. These publications, drawn in a confidently minimal style, manifest certain concerns that also appear in Paper Radio comics: a Foucauldian critique of institutional power, a fascination with S&M practices, and a nearly fetishistic appreciation for analog technology. Jones moved absurdist dark comedy decidedly into a digital realm as a founding member of the art collective Paper Rad, which produced zines and installations as well as pioneering (and eye-searingly bright and colorful) Web and video works. These projects brought some of the motifs and characters first seen in Paper Radio to a much wider public, and Jones has gone on to produce animated cartoons for television, including the “Stone Quackers” series on the FXX network.
Yet, as the name Paper Rad suggests, Jones’s later work—like Forgues’s—owes much to the collective project he founded in Boston. What makes Paper Radio more than a small-press curio is that it crystallizes the tensions between individual artistic expression and collective production, while also balancing the tastes of a subculture with those of the wider public. Though museums and other institutions that patrol the boundaries of canonical art history are not well equipped to recognize a semi-anonymous duo whose primary medium was the photocopy, Paper Radio merits sustained analysis as an archetype of contemporary artistic collaboration.
The late 1990s was arguably the height of the independent comics boom. The melancholic, highly personal, and instantly recognizable works of Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, Chris Ware, and Daniel Clowes loomed large in both comics and literary circles. These artists pursued a mode of visual storytelling related to dominant forms of modern literary fiction, foregrounding authorial voice and middle-class experience. Led by the brilliant minimalist John Porcellino, the underground scene mostly paralleled these efforts by exploring the poetry of quotidian experience. Porcellino’s long-running comic “King-Cat” inspired an outpouring of gentle cartoon observations.
A strong alternative to those thematic and visual modes in comics was vested initially in a single American artist: Gary Panter (b. 1950), whose comics from the mid-1970s to the present seamlessly meld science-fiction imagery, art historical references, expressive drawing, and conceptual play. Compared to the graphic novels of his literary-minded contemporaries, Panter’s work can be impersonal, riotously funny, and wildly promiscuous in its cultural references. He established a porous boundary between an individual aesthetic and shared popular motifs. One of his most celebrated formal conceits was to create a comic book series, “Jimbo,” as though the artist were relearning how to draw as he tells the story. This series offers an ad hoc encyclopedia of drawing styles over the course of just four installments. Panter’s work is a tradition unto itself, crisscrossing established taste hierarchies. His practice is rooted as much in his Native American family history as it is in the work of Chicago collective the Hairy Who, iconoclastic artist Öyvind Fahlström, and superhero comics impresario Jack Kirby.
It wasn’t until 1995, when a group of pioneering artists and musicians banded together in an old warehouse in Providence, Rhode Island, that anyone picked up Panter’s thread. Fort Thunder, an art space-cum-commune, was established in Providence’s formerly industrial Olneyville neighborhood by Mat Brinkman and Brian Chippendale, both ingenious polymaths who created a distinctive brand of music, art, graphic design, and cartoons. Fort Thunder was a residence, a silkscreen studio, and a performance venue. The environment was a 360-degree experience of art, garbage, posters, and music, with prints and drawings stapled, wheat-pasted, grafted, and piled seemingly onto every surface.
Brinkman and Chippendale were instrumental in the two seminal Providence groups of the time: the noise duo Lightning Bolt (Chippendale and Brian Gibson), and Forcefield (Brinkman, Ara Peterson, Leif Goldberg, Jim Drain), which staged performances and produced music, films, sculptures, and prints. A hallmark of this work was its volume: it could be off-puttingly loud—visually and aurally—but it somehow demanded intimate interactions from audiences.
It was from the Fort that an avalanche of silkscreened event posters, comics, and records flowed into Boston. Fort Thunder’s output came in many different formats, and it was often impossible to identify individual contributors. The comic books usually bore colorful covers and contained pages depicting invented worlds, many rendered so densely that the lines seem to express a horror vacui. These comics take inspiration from fantasy novel illustrations, Saturday morning children’s cartoons, 1980s video games, and science-fiction films. Motley bands of hybrid human-animal creatures move through these environments, stonily commenting on their surroundings as if they were in a suburban 7-Eleven parking lot rather than a field of crystals that appear to be oozing mushrooms. Think Dungeons & Dragons crossed with Samuel Beckett with a touch of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “This moat is deep”; “This town sucks”; “You got ripped off,” goes some memorable dialogue fromMultiforce (2000–09), Mat Brinkman’s opus.
Such fantastic, plotless meanderings and psychedelic larks could not have been more different from the highly structured, three-act novelistic works then in vogue in comics. Forgues remembers his first encounter with Fort Thunder graphics as a moment of shock and an awakening:
I’d been waiting for those comics my whole life. They had a completely non-autobiographical, nonrealistic sensibility. There was no “this is me” quality to it. It was: here’s this fantastic creation that comes from my mind. And it was difficult to even know who was doing it, since there were no names on the comics. No one was trying to insert themselves. And the printing—the silk-screening—no one was doing that. They were unique as objects. Not related to anything in comics. They were like something out of a dream. It had that quality of transforming all these worlds that should have come together but never did. And doing it with a minimum of means, seeing how simple a story can be and still carry a lot of weight and shine a light—that was a revelation.1
Those comics would prove transformative for both Forgues and Jones, who met as students in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) program, an experimental course of individualized study. Forgues remembers Jones as a guy with a weird haircut (“even for art school”) and sums up their differences as, “He was a hippie and I was a punk.” While in a previous generation such differing subcultural allegiances may have been an obstacle to productive collaboration, within SIM’s media lab and silkscreen studio, “punk” and “hippie” could meld into something new. As Jones recalls:
As soon as I met CF . . . we set up an appointment to meet again—a play date. I went over to his house, he was like, “Here it is, this is Fort Thunder, this is the Lightning Bolt/Forcefield seven-inch.” He played it for me. “These are the zines.” And then he looked me in the eyes and I was like, “Alright, I’m ready to devote my life to this. I’ve been waiting 21–22 years for this and you’ve shown me the Holy Grail, what do we do now?” And he was like, “This is what we should do . . . let’s do this Paper Radio thing.”2
Though spaced-out and otherworldly, the aesthetic of Paper Radio arguably has roots in the New England setting of Jones’s and Forgues’s youths. Both artists describe the Massachusetts of their upbringings (Worcester for Jones, Ashby for Forgues) as a place mired in Puritan history, where ex-hippie baby boomers settled into upper-middle-class lives as academics, medical doctors, and tech professionals. The tech industry, anchored by MIT, was booming. Jones’s father built computers for Digital Equipment Corporation and taught his son HTML. The young aspiring filmmaker was an avid video-game and cartoon consumer (from Gumby to Garfield to anime) who also drew constantly; he wound up at Mass Art primarily because it was the only school for hundreds of miles that had the Avid editing machine, a cutting-edge digital video production system.
Forgues, whose parents were both in medicine, grew up immersed in all kinds of comics and what bits of the fading punk culture he could find, such as the last remnants of SST records, which famously released Black Flag’s albums. Worcester and Ashby were neither suburban nor urban nor rural, but something in between. Forgues remembers the Massachusetts landscape as an odd mix: unspoiled natural settings bordered old farms that in turn sat more-or-less adjacent to the glass-and-steel buildings of biotech campuses. He describes feeling both enchanted by the environment, which has inspired much of the “Powr Mastrs” series, and alienated from it. “You’re this beast in a system,” he has said of the feeling of gravitating toward the counterculture in a setting that is the historical home of a rigidly conservative society and the contemporary site of high-achieving technological enterprises.
Jones and Forgues found their own ways into making comics, but neither made a hierarchical distinction between mediums. Everything was fair game, except perhaps the remote-seeming New York art world. As Forgues recalls, “The idea of being an artist seemed absurd.” The venues, audiences, and markets for gallery art appeared totally foreign. “I’m going to do an installation? Where? I’m gonna paint on canvas? How? Where am I gonna show? At a coffee shop? Art seemed like the past, and a zine was the present and tangible . . . a way to proceed.”
Paper Radio, the name the duo applied to their partnership and zine, came from Forgues’s experiments with building handmade radios and, of course, the idea of a paper object “broadcasting” ideas on a regular basis. They produced over thirty complete issues (though no one can remember exactly how many), in editions of fifty or fewer, as well as piles of one-off prints.
Jones tended to create character-based vignettes populated by a recurring cast of humanoids, like Alfe (the foolhardy extrovert), Horace (the voice of reason in most situations), and his twin brother, Roba (an anxious nerd), who all play in a band together. In other sequences, an anthropomorphic duck and cat, seen from multiple points of view, might sit on a mountain making banal observations; or a man might describe ad nauseam the pleasure he gets from driving while petting a dog. Forgues focused on exploring the rules of the medium itself, breaking panel borders, attempting different mark-making techniques, and rendering complex geometric forms. The stories he is primarily responsible for depict humanoids inventing machines, escaping authoritarian monsters, and exploring psychological and physical darkness. One notable two-page story by Forgues, G.N. Comics (2002), shows a knob-nosed man methodically climbing a tower over the course of numerous panels.
Both Jones and Forgues drew, as they still do, in pencil, which was unheard of at the time in professional circles but appropriate for Paper Radio’s primary printing technique: photocopying. Without the need for the photostat process by which older comics were created, there’s no need for ink. They produced flat and open figures through their airy, calligraphic approach. Paper Radio never attempted illusionistic realism; instead, the drawings invite projection from readers, which the artists saw as a way of initiating an intimate exchange with their audience. As Forgues puts it, “I was thinking about how to make this work with the least amount of stuff possible. That sounds easy or lazy, but it’s actually incredibly hard. The whole mission of cartooning is, with a few lines, to bring something across that’s real in the mind. The whole magic of what it is to represent something on a surface. The space is there, and you fill it with your brain.” By foregrounding, and deepening, the interaction that happens in all kinds of reading, Forgues and Jones understood Paper Radio as connected to performance, which was integral to so much of the culture pouring out of Fort Thunder.
The artist Jessica Ciocci, who would form Paper Rad with Jones, describes this connection:
There was something about their style that felt unrehearsed, like a one-time performance, always live and, thus, full of life and fresh energy, and direct. There was a sense that anyone could do this also—create culture and shape the world—which was probably the most powerful thing about it.3
This DIY approach was, of course, common in the late 1990s punk scene, of which Forgues was a part. But Paper Radio has none of the defeatist cynicism that was also common to that underground culture. Jones and Forgues approached their readership with a certain level of generosity; the sketchy, open quality of Paper Radio invites a sympathetic mind to complete the experience, effectively extending the collaboration.
In order to make their stacks of photocopies, the duo altered the counter “keys” then in use by corporate copy store chains, allowing them to make free copies at any time. They’d assemble the zines and take off on their bikes, distributing Paper Radio gratis to comic book shops and record stores and at concerts. They’d also mail issues to a few compatriots in New England and the Midwest. Giving the publication away for free and keeping their anonymity was a key element for both artists. Forgues liked the idea of a curious potential reader “seeing some random piece of paper and being baffled.” Without a price attached to the work, Forgues felt that he and Jones were “short-circuiting the whole question of value,” finding their work’s worth in their own satisfaction with it. Still, as Jones recalls, there was a longer-term goal of creating an audience, and with that, perhaps, a sustainable way forward. “Give it away for free, get people hooked,” he’s said. “I’m not interested in short money. Charging five cents for a zines is dumb when you can have a fan for life.” In the absence of a preexisting public and distribution network for their work, Jones and Forgues effectively created their own. Paper Radio was as much a zine as it was the kernel of an alternative art world. The need to publish, broadcast, and distribute to a wider and wider audience was always checked against the need to preserve the more intimate space of collaboration they had established.
Paper Radio ran until 2001, eventually incorporating contributions from other artists. Forgues, who moved to Providence to immerse himself in the city’s underground culture, has flourished as an artist focusing almost exclusively on comics and music. Through his graphic novels, such asMere (2013), and various zines, including titles like “Aerosol,” Forgues has expanded the universe of characters and forms he first articulated in Paper Radio, pursuing increasingly complex tales of alchemy, pre-digital machines, and alternative sexualities. Forgues long remained somewhat secretive and resolutely analog, refusing until very recently to use any modes of digital communication. Forgues’s distrust of digital technology and its pervasive authority has gradually turned into an urge to master its tools in order to autonomously produce and distribute his own work.
Jones, however, dove fully into technological innovation when he moved with siblings Jessica and Jacob Ciocci to western Massachusetts and started Paper Rad. Still, many of the core values of Paper Radio were in play. The Paper Rad website developed into a new sort of community: a digital platform that hosted the work by the group as well as videos, music, comics, and animations by compatriots. Paper Rad became, with Cory Arcangel and his affiliated collective, Beige, among the most influential artist groups to use the Internet and software as a medium for art. Paper Rad and Arcangel’s 2005 collaboration, Super Mario Movie, has become a 21st-century icon of digital art. Jones’s comics, which he continues to create, have grown into ever-more elaborate tales of his character troupe, all of whom continue to view life through a cracked prism of digital communication and psychedelia.
Though the most striking point of contrast in Forgues’s and Jones’s individual paths as artists may be their rejection or embrace of new technologies, the roots of their collaboration in Paper Radio suggest a deeper, and perhaps more profound, commonality. The aesthetic they helped create has found its way into contemporary art. It has also been adopted by the culture industry, with a kind of watered-down punk-hippie psychedelia becoming almost the default graphic style for ads and entertainment targeted at millennials, from posters for the television series “Broad City” to the short Web videos promoting Miley Cyrus’s appearance at a recent MTV awards show. But this, too, may be a surface effect, and marketers have long adopted the look and style of authentic subcultures while jettisoning their values. What Paper Radio represents is an important and rare cultural moment: the point when artists, finding themselves without any kind of system, structure, or audience to make sense of their work, simply forge ahead, making it all up for themselves.