Madinkbeard’s smart-as-hell Derik Badman and my fellow Balloonist Craig Fischer have just posted a dialogic post, a veritable conversation in writing, regarding Abstract Comics, the anthology of non-narrative(?) comics edited by Andrei Molotiu and recently published by Fantagraphics: surely one of the loveliest and most psychoactive comics collections of 2009. Check it out! Derik and Craig’s back-and-forth addresses Abstract Comics from a variety of angles, offering a provocative, prismatic and very personal take on what will surely be remembered as a monumental book.
I came to the party late, so I’m posting my own review of Abstract Comics here on TB, in hopes that Craig and/or Derik will comment. In turn, I plan to comment on their post. You’ll see that I’ve cited and linked to them in several spots below, while they have done the same in their post. We’re hoping to get you to bounce back and forth between our sites! So, again, check 'em out!
Here we go...
Abstract Comics. Edited by Andrei Molotiu. Fantagraphics, 2009. $39.99. 232 pages.
I was struck by how enticing this book is, as an object. Its whole design, by Fantagraphics stalwart Jacob Covey, resonates beautifully with what it contains. I liked the way its paratexts, for instance its bewildering page numbers, are done up in geometric symbols à la Wingdings:
As Derik says, "oh-so annoying abstract markings." Sure,they run the risk of being a distracting gimmick, but I like them because they defamiliarize typographic and design conventions so as to draw attention to the way books -- not just this one but all books -- are artfully constructed. I grant that it’s strange to see the entire Introduction printed in this hermetic code, but thankfully there’s a parallel English text printed in red (rather Biblical, eh?) running underneath. I actually worked out the code!
Besides this gimmick, certain other motifs -- I’m thinking of geometrical devices and color patterns -- are used throughout, though subtly enough, I’d say, so as not to obtrude into the visual space of the comics themselves. The covers, for example, imply a sequence: reddish tones up front (from comics by Alexey Sokolin and Warren Craghead) contrast with blues and grays on the back (from John Hankiewicz and Gary Panter), as if to suggest that the subject matter of the book will blueshift toward us as we read; the colors of the endpapers shift accordingly. That sort of designing intelligence is in evidence all over, which, to me, makes Abstract Comics very appealing. Consider too how the graphic dividing of the title word, CO/MI/CS, into three successive “panels” -- a trick repeated throughout -- not only brands the book but implicitly stresses the very idea of sequential form which, for Molotiu, constitutes the core of comics when all narrative considerations are stripped away. All this, from my POV, is smart and lovely and fun to page through.
I’m interested in the decisions underlying the variety and positioning of the book’s contents. By my count there are seventy-odd selections in the book (though the abstract nature of the work can make it difficult to tell where one piece ends and another begins!). Forty-three artists are included. Despite some gesturing toward historical roots at the start -- the leadoff selection is Crumb’s 1967 classic “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics” -- the pieces are not organized strictly chronologically, nor by any other conventional or generic means that I can see. But there is still, I’m convinced, a deliberate sequencing going on, one influenced by considerations as abstract as the comics themselves, that is, by evolving line and color patterns, page layouts, and other recurrent motifs. Dig how a spectacular color sequence on pages 122 to 160 –- comprising Craghead, Janusz Jaworski, Richard Hahn, Geoff Grogan, et al., climaxing in Sokolin’s full-bleed explosion of frenetic lines –- is framed by the sedate, spare, almost empty cream-colored panels of Blaise Larmee on the one hand (118-21), and the equally spare, penciled grays of Jason Overby on the other (161-67), the latter consisting of steady six-panel grids, mostly empty.
Dig too the way Sokolin also leans on the six-panel grid, gradually obscuring it with super-dense linework, so that his work is united with Overby’s by commonality as well as contrast (Craig and Derik focus on Sokolin as well, a key example in their conversation: see here and here). Such linkages give me a sense of overlapping sequences, or patterns on top of patterns, as I move through the book, like polyrhythm and counterpoint in a large-scale piece of music. (The copy on the book’s back suggests, though the idea is not elaborated inside the book, that abstract comics come closer than “any other visual art…to the condition of instrumental music,” a claim that makes more sense to me when thinking of the book as a whole rather than individual pieces.)
Craig speaks of a sense of buildup and release that is both narrative (à la Freytag’s pyramid) and, implicitly, sexual. On that note, I like how the book climaxes with the disintegration or playful obscuring of gridlines, as in the blotted eruptions of Tim Gaze (aptly named!). In Gaze, panel borders (?) are barely visible, as if he were collaging together scraps of paper and then madly spattering them with ink. Gaze is followed by the at-first paneled, but then increasingly unruly, calligraphic doodling of Troylloyd, who finally dispenses with borderlines altogether; and then, finally, by the contrasting “Viral Suite” and “Border Suite” of Billy Mavreas, in which rectilinear forms still persist but with no concessions to readability, as if the blocks were there only to demarcate areas of contrasting texture -- flecks, spatters, striations, ink pools, graininess, grit, and other effects that I took to be the byproducts of radical photocopying.
The absence of visible gutters between these areas, again a collage-like at-onceness, tends to work against the readability of these pieces, and I agree with Derik and Craig that examples like these are hard to read “as comics” since they so baldly privilege (in Fresnault-Deruelle's terms) the tabular, or total surface, over the linear; still, I find them interesting as a sort of logical culmination. The book’s final movement strikes me as a shift away from the convention of paneling which dominates the first nine-tenths or so: a drastic departure from the comical, almost accommodating use of traditional elements seen in Crumb’s opener. There is, then, some sense of sequence pinning this all together, though it’s quirky and probably best left up to the individual reader/gazer to construct.
As a whole, I like Abstract Comics a lot. I’d say that it works like a good art exhibition, or at least an exhibition unburdened by obligations to teach history, one in which multiple formal and aesthetic connections are there but not shouted out, rather left to be discovered (or not) by the strolling viewer according to his or her inclinations. Of course there is a generic unity, though by no means aesthetic sameness, to the works gathered here, but Molotiu, apart from some initial framing, has been content to let the works fall together according to what the eye might see, rather than according to historical moment or cultural scene or subgeneric nitpicking. This is curatorial good sense at work. Connections among works are insinuated rather than asserted; the audience is cast freely, gloriously, adrift. The result is a smart exhibition on paper. I enjoyed navigating it, paging through and reading it, and enjoyed even more the experience of rereading it in parts, selectively, in my own self-chosen order. Rereading the book was a bit like my typical art exhibition experience, in which I alternate between slow and fast takes, moving around the space in fits and starts and coming back to things over and over, circling, orbiting, switching between up-close and faraway views (I have to do this, because, frankly, my feet ache if I stay in one place too long). Abstract Comics seems to invite me to use it that way. Like a good museum show, it activates something in the viewer.
That’s not to say that the book is an unalloyed success, or that all its contents burn equally bright. There’s a series of pieces threaded throughout the book, but particularly in the first half, which suggests that abstract comics, as a genre, may yield to cliché as reliably as any other genre, meaning that certain visual tropes are likely to be repeated ad nauseum. The movement of amoeba-like blobs, vermiform tendrils, flagella, and (here’s that topic again) sexually suggestive shapes threatens to become a generic convention, and said moves, partaking vaguely of literal-minded figuration, sometimes devolve into, as Derik and Craig point out, a kind of de facto narrative: containment, eruption; excitement, climax, satiety, stasis; tumescence, detumescence; or literal metamorphosis. These moves get predictable pretty quickly, which is why, notwithstanding the charm of Andy Bleck’s contributions (which look like Keith Haring graphics carried to the next level of abstractness), I’ve tended not to revisit those pieces that rely on rounded, squishy, squash-and-stretch forms.
The placement of Crumb’s classic “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics” (1967) robs some of the later works of their power to surprise. More positively, it might be said that Crumb seeds the ground. His strip forecasts certain motifs or devices that will repeat as the book moves forward, for example the opposition between white and black, notable in, say, selections by Ibn al Rabin and Hankiewicz; the use of spiraling, swirling, and radiating lines and forms, a constant throughout the book; an emphasis on enclosure, tunneling, and, implicitly, being swallowed, which recurs in, say, al Rabin and Trondheim; the troping on the eyeball as source of vision, repeated in Jeff Zenick’s and perhaps Richard Hahn’s pieces (in Crumb the eyeball visually rhymes with the nipple, and Grogan picks up on this too); and the toying with word balloons, both for their seeming substance (Crumb frequently feathers the balloons so that they appear rounded and solid) and for their nonsensical or unparaphrase-able, but not necessarily meaningless, content, a preoccupation also seen in, say, al Rabin, Trondheim (check out Craig's take!), Jaworski, and Grogan:
The element in Crumb's piece that is not repeated in the book very much -- and this may help explain its special evocative power -- is its use of representational drawings (city skylines, street scenes, machines, bodies and body parts, the infamous singing vagina, etc.) for abstract purposes. As Molotiu acknowledges in his intro, abstract comics may “contain some representational elements,” and therefore the book’s definition of “abstract” must be a special one specific to comics. Among the most interesting pieces in Abstract Comics are those in which abstraction and figuration are in a sort of tug o’ war, where abstract mark-making momentarily coheres into recognizable represented shapes: for example, take the page in Henrik Rehr’s “Storms” in which the swirling lines seem to resolve into an anthropomorphic figure, or the blurry hints in Craghead’s (to me) vaguely Cubist-referencing “Caligramme,” or the seeming microbial world of Molotiu’s “The Panic.” If some of the comics take too-literal or banal stabs at narrative, others anchor their abstractions in recognizable shapes just long enough to tease us into thought. They play around at the limits of narrative, and I like that.
One thing that struck me upon rereading the book is that, in abstract comics as in other types of comics, sheer virtuosity of execution has an effect that ought not to be underrated. Despite their obvious differences, the selections by Craghead, Jaworski, and Sokolin have in common virtuoso delivery: a highly skilled, deliberate, almost meditative engagement with color, line, and form that is anything but automatic or sloppy. Or dig the careful modulations in paneling, medium, and color in Hankiewicz’s “Hearts,” which pursues visual rhyming and variation across four very different yet unquestionably linked pages. Or Rehr’s flabbergasting “Storms,” which gathers roiling, fingerprint-like whorls of line into cloudlike masses that scud across the pages -- huge, varied layouts dotted with small square inset panels -- leading at last to a peaceful, graphically settled conclusion.
As an aside, Rehr’s solo book Reykjavik (Copenhagen: Fahrenheit, 2009) confirms his mastery in a most stunning way. I bought it from Rehr himself at the MoCCA Festival last June, and it’s a wonderful object:
Outwardly a traditional hardcover BD album, 48 pages long of course (though lacking color), Reykjavik is an entirely abstract symphony in line and form, bursting with full-bleed pages that benefit from the book’s large size. Oddly, Rehr’s pages in Abstract Comics are culled from the climax to Reykjavik, but have been both colorized and vertically flipped! I also bought Molotiu’s solo album Nautilus (Fahrenheit too, 2009) at the Festival, where Andrei and Henrik were encamped among the Danes and made for a terrific tag team. (At that time Abstract Comics was not yet officially “out” but a preview copy at the Fantagraphics booth was creating plenty of buzz.) Nautilus too is a striking 48-page BD album in black-and-white, and a good window into a greater variety of Molotiu’s work than appears in Abstract Comics. It features several comics that, like “The Cave” in Abstract Comics, exploit the ambiguity between linear and tabular readings of the page:
(I should add that no work from Nautilus appears in AC.)
Not all the work in AC, of course, scales these heights. For example, tucked in between Rehr and Hankiewicz are comics by James Kochalka that, despite playing with abstraction, can’t seem to escape the facile, self-congratulatory quality that, from my POV, clings to much of his work. Sandwiched between graphically stunning works, they appear merely simple (as opposed to the kind of artful simplicity that alludes to much more). And Elijah Brubaker, a terrific cartoonist generally, contributes some spare pages reminiscent of rainwater dancing on a car’s windshield that do not benefit from their positioning; they hark back to conventional layouts and rigid paneling just as the book is gearing up for its frenzied Gaze/Troylloyd/Mavreas conclusion, which I think is a curious choice. So the book has its lapses and lulls, I would argue.
The big unanswered question here, finally, is to what extent the pieces in Abstract Comics, interesting as some of them are, offer themselves up to a “comics” reading. That’s probably a question best left unanswered, or only provisionally answered, for the sake of discussion. I grant that some of the pieces in AC, if I had encountered them in another, less comics-centric context, might not have struck me as “comics”; there is ambiguity surrounding some of Molotiu’s choices. But I’m not interested in ruling out of court works that don’t fit some prototypical definition of comics; even the book’s weirdest, most outlying examples have something to offer a comics reader, by way of tweaking the mind if nothing else.
I hope you’ll indulge me a final reflection, as I try to push all this into theoretical waters:
In his biographic note at book’s end (208), Mark Badger comments that, these days, pictures are too often “being reduced to just another set of signs like words, unable to be freed from representation, unable to claim their real power.” He hopes that Abstract Comics “will be one shot in claiming back comics from the typists.” This strikes me as a telling, if buried, moment in the book, one that points to a still-unresolved, perhaps basic territorial dispute in the study of comics: the endless critical skirmishing around the putative borders between literature and art, word and image, sign and sight. You can see this simmering in Groensteen’s The System of Comics, which rejects literary or word-based systems of value and therefore seeks to radically revise the semiotic study of comics, and boiling up in Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture, which argues that the contemporary comics avant-garde sees comics as primarily a visual form and so seeks the liberation of the comics image from literary standards. But the fact remains that, in comics, typically the image is at least initially apprehended in terms of a narrative meaning that can be recounted. It seems likely to me, therefore, that “abstract comics” are always going to represent an exceptional or marginalized border case, since they throw into doubt (though they don’t necessarily throw out!) this initial reading for narrative content.
I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, with the help of a book that resonates strongly with Badger’s comment, namely, James Elkins’ On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them (Cambridge, 1998), which bills itself as “antisemiotic” to the extent that it resists attempts “to interpret images as systems of signs, or…as examples of visual language” (xi). Elkins’ agenda is to restore the picture-ness of pictures, to fight against art history’s and art criticism’s tendency to treat images as statements and ignore the marks, the “funny-looking smears and shapes” that make pictures what they are. I could swear that Badger has been reading this too! Here by way of teaser is a passage from the latest draft of my book-in-progress about Jack Kirby, a passage in which I try to understand this issue:
Narrative drawing is in some senses a self-deprecating or self-evading art. There is a fundamental tension in such drawing between the very picture-ness of the pictures and their compelling narrative function. Picture-ness is hard to describe, for, as Elkins argues, pictures “are always partly nonsemiotic,” that is, outside or in excess of narrative and linguistic structures. Indeed the pleasure and provocation they offer reside in precisely that. “To see what a picture is, is to see what about it cannot be described,” its inenarrable, untellable, and so-called “subsemiotic” qualities (47). To ignore such qualities is to ignore pictures:
Parts of pictures are disorderly, unpredictably irrational, inconsistently inconsistent, and ill suited to stories of symbols or visual narratives; we tend to ignore those aspects in favor of readily retrievable meanings. But those abandoned elements are what pictures are […]. (xviii, his emphasis)
Yet Groensteen reminds us that to read a comic is to anticipate a narrative structure, to prioritize “the dynamic of the story.” On first reading, therefore, the comics image “is apprehended principally in its enunciable quality, as an utterable,” a statement with a specific transcribable meaning (“A Few Words…” 91). By this logic, even the disorderly, unnarratable, and “purely” visual aspects of a comic drawing are subsumed to its narrative purpose…
To me this is why Abstract Comics is simultaneously a glorious success and an edifying “failure.” Far from refuting the conventional understanding of comics as a sequential graphic means of narrative, or exposition, or ideation -- far, in other words, from decoupling the idea of comics from the expectation of enuciable or tellable content -- Abstract Comics is a bouquet of exceptions that seem to prove the general rule.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the works contained within it are “not” “comics.” And it doesn’t stop the book from being profoundly cool. Refuting, I would like to think, isn't what it's all about. Reveling is.