Abstract Comics: The Discussion

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Craig Fischer here, which should tell you right away that this isn’t a typical Madinkbeard post, and that we owe you an explanation. At Christmastime, Derik and I began an e-mail discussion about Abstract Comics, 2009’s important anthology of (ahem) non-narrative, mostly non-figurative sequential art, with hopes of posting the results on one of our blogs (either here or at Thought Balloonists) when we were done. After Derik and I volleyed a few times, fellow Balloonist Charles Hatfield joined in, writing a big commentary that functioned better as a stand-alone review than as a part of the ongoing conversation.

So what you get is two pieces on Abstract Comics, posted simultaneously. Over at Thought Balloonists is Charles’ review, and below is the more free-form discussion between Derik and I. Predictably, there’s some overlap between both posts, which readers will ignore, forgive, or tease us about. Personally, I’d like to thank Derik for his patience and good humor during the discussion process, and for his willingness to post our chat here at Madinkbeard. He’s got one swanky blog here—that leather couch in the corner is a lot more comfortable than the crappy rocking chairs we’ve got at Thought Balloonists.

Derik chiming in—Thanks to Craig for engaging me on this book, it’s been an enjoyable and educational experience. His participation also helped allay some of my qualms about writing on a book in which some of my work is featured. On a procedural note, we wrote this back and forth in one draft and then edited it back and forth in a second draft, which might account for any lingering unanswered threads (and the fact that we started in December and it’s only getting posted now).

And for all three of my readers that aren’t already reading the Thought Balloonists, head over there and read Charles’ take on the anthology.

Our conversation:

CF: Charles’ review makes one thing clear about Abstract Comics: it’s a fascinating mix of new and old. The “newness” is obvious: comics usually tell stories (duh), so a showcase for non-narrative comic art is by definition a trailblazer. In addition, each individual artist in AC subverts and/or dodges narrative in unique ways, and the result is a truly novel book, stuffed with new ideas and approaches. The avant-garde has once again rejuvenated itself.

AC editor Andrei Molotiu points out, though, that one major purpose behind his book is to “highlight the formal mechanisms that underlie all comics, such as the graphic dynamism that leads the eye (and the mind) from panel to panel, or the aesthetically rich interplay between sequentiality and page layout” (8), and these mechanisms function in old narrative comics as well as the experimental works in AC. Reading Abstract Comics has led me to think more about how panels function on a comic book page, even if the page is from a Bob Powell strip or an issue of B.P.R.D. I was always skeptical, for instance, of Scott McCloud’s claim, in Understanding Comics, that the act of putting one panel after another prompts readers to make connections between the two images—even when the images are narrative “non-sequiturs,” unrelated by subject matter or any other form of logical progression. But Abstract Comics goes a long way towards proving McCloud right.

 One of my favorite pieces in Abstract Comics is Alexey Sokolin’s “Life, Interwoven” (155-160), where Sokolin constructs pages based on a uniform six-panel grid, and then fills the panels with what Charles calls “super-dense linework,” slashing lines of black, red and a little yellow. (The red lines look to me like they were made with a ball-point pen.) The lines get denser as “Life” progresses, and by the second-to-last page, the lines have madly spilled over–and obscured–the original panel borders. Finally, on the last page, Sokolin delivers a slam-bang finale by shifting the entire page 45 degrees, creating a new picture that reconfigures the marked-up page into a dark square on a checkerboard:

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The ever-thickening lines create, for me, something akin to a story: elements scramble around, energy intensifies to a climax, and we come to see the world in a new way, all without “characters” per sé.

More play with panels: in “Un Caligramme” (122-129), Warren Craghead makes panels out of scraps of paper, some of which appear to be Post-It Notes in various colors. Virtually all of these paper panels are marked with pencil and marker doodles, but Craghead’s most important tool is the scissors he uses to cut his panels into smaller and larger slices of time:

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And like Sokolin, Craghead builds to a virtuoso final splash page:

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What’s going on here? Craghead makes his first marks outside panel borders: a comma after the collage in the center of the page, and a period after the little piece of scrap in the lower right-hand corner. (“Un caligramme” is a poem whose letters are arranged on the page to form a picture—Craghead implies that his whole “story” is a poetic caligramme, complete with a period that finishes off his “sentence.”) More importantly, it looks like Craghead has dropped several of the panels from his previous pages into an unwieldy pile. At the end of “Life,” Sokolin pulls off a 45-degree shift, but Craghead abandons the flat, 2-dimensional plane altogether and piles his panels into a 3-dimensional vertical stack, emerging towards the reader like some bizarro hybrid of comics and sculpture.

Derik, in your contribution to Abstract Comics, titled “Flying Chief,” you alter an old Jesse Marsh Tarzan comic by “ignoring text, balloons, captions, and characters” and by abstracting background elements into powerful graphic presences. The result is touchingly ephemeral: we see clouds, breezes, flowing shapes. Craghead tries to build a 3-D bridge between his panels and his readers, but you invite us into the depths of Marsh’s panels, nudging us past his foregrounds and directing our attention to the wind that quietly blows through his backgrounds. Two questions: could you post one of Marsh’s original panels and one of your re-draws, so we could compare the two? And could you tell us why you chose to erase the “important” elements and detourn Marsh into abstraction?

DB: A lot to address, right off the bat, and I’m already losing coherence to my points…

Your quote from Molotiu’s introduction about highlighting the formal aspects of comics nicely rhymes with Charles’ comments on the move away from the literary in these comics. The abstract comic artist, in (for the most part) throwing out the literary elements plot, character, etc., brings attention back to the more purely visual aspect of the comics page.

I wasn’t expecting to talk about my own work (that seems so self-serving). But since you brought it up, I’ll indulge. The origin of “Flying Chief” goes back, I think, to 2006 when I was writing about one of The Complete Peanuts volumes with an appreciation of the Seth designed endpapers which feature all Schulz backgrounds, no characters. In the same month, I first saw (coincidentally enough) Warren Craghead’s Schulz tribute. I later made a story called “Comic Strip Apocalypse” (in a minicomic you can download here) where I made a two page story using only backgrounds of comic strip panels from a variety of different artists.

I see a fascinating and evocative world hidden behind a lot of comics. We read them for characters and story, the backgrounds are just setting, window dressing, or even space filler, yet if you really focus on them, there is a beauty there. I ended up using Marsh’s Tarzan work, because, at the time Andrei asked me to contribute, I had recently discovered a wealth of the Tarzan stories online and was immediately attracted to Marsh’s depiction of the landscape. I’ve ended up making a few comics based on Marsh’s backgrounds, some of which stick more to Marsh’s original images but less to the layouts/compositions/page-structure than “Flying Chief,” which is considerably more abstracted but in its layouts much closer to the original. Here’s a side-by-side example:

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Going back to other people’s work… A few months ago, I participated in a panel at MoCCA (the museum, not the festival) on Abstract Comics. Sokolin was there and discussed his piece in the book. I was surprised to learn that it is a series of overlapped pages, many (or most) of which are representational. Each new page in the comic adds another page-layer to the existing piece. It’s also one of my favorite pieces in the book, and I love how it works sequentially on both the panel and page level (in fact, my first time through, I read it as a series of panels, rather than a series of pages, it stands up to a dual reading in that sense). I don’t see it as a “story” though I can see it as an abstract narrative of some sort. It all depends on how you want to define “narrative”, which I’ll be liberal in saying can be “transformation” and not necessarily a traditional “story.”

I totally agree that reading this anthology (and the process of making abstract comics) had me thinking about formal as well as definitional/essential issues about comics. I had to go back and check in Understanding Comics to see if McCloud really claims “narrative” connections for any two panels. I’ll quote:

“No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between the panels, which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations. Such transitions may not make “sense” in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop. By creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole” (page 73 in my edition).

He doesn’t actually claim a “narrative” connection, just a vague kind of unifying principal, which is hard to argue against. Disregarding the “between the panels” stuff (which I’m not sold on), I think most of what is in this anthology fits somewhere outside of McCloud’s limiting transition styles, actually providing good examples of how (not just here, but elsewhere) his work is limited by a sense of conventional “story” goals of time and space, character and setting.

 As I look at some of these pieces, I don’t have trouble seeing most of them as unified wholes, but I do, at times, have trouble seeing them as comics, an issue this anthology seems bound to raise. Many of these works excise (or more precisely, do not use) many elements that are considered definitional of comics (depending on which definitions you refer to). No words (and thus no verbal-visual blending or balloons), no characters, no story, no representation, no panels, etc. I don’t see comics as defined by any one of these elements, but how many can be removed before the work is no longer “comics”? For instance, take Tim Gaze’s piece or Billy Mavreas’ piece. I can’t read those as comics. Where does a series of drawings become a comic? Where does a series become a sequence? (Those are partially rhetorical.)

CF: Thanks for discussing “Flying Chief,” Derik. I apologize for provoking you to talk about your own comics—I know that’s awkward—but experimental art is, for better or worse, heavily reliant on extra-textual explication. (I didn’t begin to “get” Stan Brakhage’s films until his text Metaphors on Vision [1963] provided me with an entry into Dog Star Man [1962-64].) I understand “Flying Chief” more now that I see where your idea came from, though you’ve wittily deviated from the purpose of Seth’s Complete Peanuts design: Seth only drew backgrounds because he thought it would be heretical to draw Schulz’s characters, but you zero in on Marsh’s backgrounds because you believe that’s where much of the beauty of Marsh’s art resides. I also loved your side-by-side examples, especially the way that your “Flying Chief” panel is dominated by the snaking black flakes of the foliage. I ignore the negative space in comics panels about 99.6 percent of the time, and thanks for helping me pay better attention.

You’re right that McCloud’s invocation of a “unifying principal” isn’t necessarily narrative-based, and it’s my training in English lit that leads me to see a story in and behind every image. In 2003, Andrei delivered a paper at the International Comic Arts Festival that turned out to be a rough draft of Abstract Comics’ introduction—I recall Andrei talking about Ditko’s Dr. Strange in non-representative formal terms—and I sat in my seat, scratching my gigantic cartoon head and thinking, “Huh?!? Comics can be as abstract as paintings? Really? Even when they include superheroes?” This was an important epiphany for me, one that led me to appreciate Kirby and Ditko as designers as much (if not more) than I appreciate them as storytellers. “Story” is still my default mode, but I’m learning.

 That said, I wonder if we can ever fully escape narrative. I’m glad to hear that you liked Alexey Sokolin’s “Life, Interwoven” like I did, and I was arguing that the escalation of complexity in “Life” is a visual manifestation of Freytag’s Triangle, without characters and motivations but with the surging towards a climax that I associate with narratives (and, for that matter, sex). Also, knowing extra-textual information like the fact that “Life” is “a series of overlapped pages, many (or most) of which are representational” takes us at least partially to Narrativeland. I believe that it’s impossible for a reader (of comics or anything else) to phenomenologically “bracket off” their interpretation of a text from extra-textual factors, and discussions of any individual example of experimental art almost always reference the biographical story of an artist struggling with his or her material and striving to achieve an individual vision. Look at how Abstract Comics is laid out: Andrei’s introduction is followed by 200+ pages of art–the bulk of the book–and then ends with a section where the artists write biographical blurbs and share the intent of their pieces with readers (if they choose). The comics are bookended by critical apparatuses that, at the very least, hint at stories. We watch Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted films as both formal explorations of the cinematic picture plane, and as symptoms of an exemplary artist’s life; his final work was Chinese Series (2003), made on his deathbed when he scratched designs directly into 35mm emulsion with his fingernails. Is it too much to say that in experimental art, the form of the work is always in a dialogue with the story of the artist’s life?

Like you, I find the Gaze and Mavreas works hard to read as comics. Gaze’ thick ink blots and lines hint at the presence of panels, but never give us enough visual information to nail down the sequence…

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…and the inscrutability increases when we turn to Gaze’s biography at the back of Abstract Comics and discover that he declares himself to be “an activist for the spread of illegible forms of writing.” Gaze’s bio ends thusly: “Here we are in the 21st century. How best to speak, write and draw the truth of these times?” Gaze’s story is a search for truth, or at least a provisional “truth” that captures our fragmented millennial post-modernity, and this might help to explain the mad blurs and definitional slipperyness of his “comics.” Maybe. I’m scratching my gigantic cartoon head even more when I read Mavreas’ “Border Suite,” which has a dominant unifying element—the dots and smudges inside some of Mavreas’ irregularly-shaped panels—but which seems bereft of any sense of progression whatsoever and which looks a hell of a lot more like a Mondrian picture than a Ditko page to me. Is this comics? I don’t know, but I like it, like it, yes I do.

DB: Actually, it’s not awkward at all for me to talk/write about my own work. I’d write more about it, but it seems a little… vain? You’ll note my contributed text at the end of the anthology is one of the more explicative ones (and I was holding back, trying to be brief).

I feel like I should admit a certain irony in my first real published comic (not counting the minis or webcomics) being abstract, as I have pretty much never done abstract art. In art school I was always the lame guy doing narrative art while all my fellow students were making abstract art. Like you, I look for the narrative, for the story. I’ve never even seen a Brakhage movie. I love narrative, though I tend to drift towards narrative that often requires more work by the reader/viewer or narrative that is more unconventional either in an experimental way (much of my literary taste) or in an very restrained way (my love of Rohmer and Ozu).

I do think we can get away from narrative, again, depending on where your definition lies… even in considering extra-textual information part of the work/narrative, that information is not always present. (I was just lamenting on my blog the lack of extra-textual information on Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip in the new translated edition.) But I’m not sure it’s easy to do with comics. As soon as we start reading something like a comic, the element of time is introduced, and then we’re right there on Narrativeland’s borders. I’m okay with that, though I don’t know if Andrei is.

 In his introduction to the book, Andrei attempts to define “abstract comics” as: “sequential art consisting of exclusively abstract imagery… expanded somewhat to include those comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even a unified narrative space” and excluding “comics that tell straightforward stories in caption and speech balloons while abstracting their imagery either into vaguely human shapes or even into triangles and squares” (no page because of those oh-so annoying abstract markings). By his definition there is essentially no narrative in these works, which I find a bit absurd unless you are using the most limiting of definitions for “narrative.” Long before this book, I wrote a narrative reading of Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, an excerpt of which appears in this anthology. It’s one of the more narrative works in the anthology, but it’s certainly not the only one.

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Andrei gets more to the heart of the matter in the paragraph following: “the use of ‘abstract’ here is specific to the medium of comics, and only partly overlaps with the way it is used in other fine arts. While in painting the term applies to the lack of represented objects in favor of increased emphasis on form, we can say that in comics it additionally applies to the lack of a narrative excuse to string panels together, in favor of an increased emphasis on the formal elements of comics that, even in the absence of a (verbal) story, can create a feeling of sequential drive, the sheer rhythm of narrative or the rise and fall of a story arc.”

I have to wonder here how a narrative (prohibited in the previous quote) is all that different from the “feeling” of narrative elements (sequential drive, narrative rhythm, story arc). Aren’t these simply narrative in the abstract? I’d argue that “abstract comics” is the abstraction of comics as a form. That is, the abstraction not only of imagery or panels, but the abstraction of narrative too. In this sense of abstraction, I mean a process of removing. This places “abstract comics” in constant relation to regular old non-abstract comics, similar to how abstract painting was created in opposition to representational painting. Abstract art takes away representation to focus on form, medium, texture, etc. Abstract Comics take away representation or story or words or what-have-you to focus on layout, breakdowns, rhythm, etc.

For me, though, some of these works seem to get too far away. Your mentioning of Mondrian in relation to the Mavreas piece mirrors my own thoughts. If that is comics, then why isn’t Mondrian? Because I can’t read either. It returns me to Lawrence Abbott’s “order of perception”, where we look at comics similarly to how we read text rather than how we look at  painting (or a film). I don’t think that’s enough, but it’s a big part of how I see comics.

 Your “surging towards a climax” remark forces me to note that one of Trondheim’s other abstract comics (not in this anthology, it is perhaps too representational?) is abstract pornography.

CF: Derik, I share your fondness for narratives that straddle narrative and non-narrative. We’ve bonded over Jean-Luc Godard’s movies before, and given your love of narrative “restraint,” you undoubtedly love Bresson as much as I do. (And Ozu’s probably my favorite filmmaker, and a moment of silence for the recent passing of Eric Rohmer, please.) It’s interesting that we’re bonding over auteurs like these, because most of my favorite artworks (and yours too?) tend to fall near the middle of the infinite and multi-dimensional continuum between quintessential storytelling (a perfectly constructed Howard Hawks film, say) and the complete repudiation of characters and a dramatic plot (Brakhage’s Mothlight [1963], which consists entirely of images of bug parts and seeds flashing on the screen). I like texts that reflect the tensions between these two extremes, like Sokolin’s “Life,” which seems to me a textbook example of Andrei’s belief that comics can “create a feeling of sequential drive” without all the other conventions of storytelling.

 I agree that many works in Abstract Comics violate Andrei’s dictum that truly abstract comics would lack “a narrative excuse to string panels together.” In fact, I’d argue that several strips give us characters that we identify with in some pretty conventional ways. The unnamed Trondheim one-pager immediately before the Bleu excerpt features a mutable geometric figure, whom I’ll dub “Geo,” who doesn’t look representationally human at all. But Geo has a goal that s/he wants to achieve—s/he wants to change into other forms—and Trondheim adroitly conveys Geo’s goal and progress to readers through very limited graphical means:

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This strip is a bit of a tragedy. In the first half, Geo transforms with ease, but then is trapped permanently in the form of a square. We feel Geo’s frustration when s/he fails to transform into a spiral; the enlarged size of that third spiral “word” balloon conveys Geo’s anger. The final balloon is shaped like a square instead of a rectangle (has Geo reluctantly accepted life as a square?), empty (has Geo given up his/her dreams?) and has a wispy tail, indicating that Geo is sighing rather than decisively declaring his/her goals. You’ve already discussed Trondheim’s Bleu in narrative terms, Derik, and this unnamed comic does exactly what Bleu does: tell a straightforward story through speech balloons with non-referential “characters.” Other Abstract Comics contributors tell these kinds of stories too: it’s no accident that the work of Ibn Al Rabin abuts Trondheim’s, or that Rabin’s “The Empire Strikes Back” is amazingly similar to the excerpt from Trondheim’s Bleu.

I’ve been thinking about your claim (and Lawrence Abbott’s) that we read comics more like a written text than a painting, and I wonder if this issue isn’t connected to characterization too. McCloud builds on the research of evolutionary biologists when he describes how humans anthropomorphize the environment, seeing faces whenever we look at the top of a cheese container, or the grille and headlights of a car. This process is a side effect of a species-wide fixation on faces; reading the emotions that pass over other human faces (“Is the alpha male of the tribe mad at me?”) is an important survival skill, so most of us are very good at it. But in an anthology of comics stories that exclude representations of humans and faces, we lose that automatic attraction, that anchor of identification and interest that comes automatically when we see McCloud’s ubiquitous smiley face.

Trondheim and Rabin seem to be asking the question “Can we have character and identification without faces and humans?” and the answer is yes—the same answer provided, incidentally, by such written texts as Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. But when an artist abandons character, identification and the cause-effect chains of narrative (the “feeling of sequential drive”), we get Mavreas’ “Border Suite,” something closer to Mondrian than narrative, more of a descriptive aesthetic than a storytelling one. That’s certainly the way I feel about Blaise Larmee’s “I Would Like to Live There,” which seems more like an exploration of various arrangements of sparse elements than a readable sequence:

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I like the way Larmee’s humble marks create the illusion of three dimensions, but there’s no storytelling here. Maybe a piece like Larmee’s truly fulfills Andrei’s definition of abstract comics, while Trondheim and Rabin fudge the definition somewhat?

And I’m bummed that Trondheim’s “abstract pornography” didn’t make it into the book…

DB: Here’s the first page of the other Trondheim book for you (kids, close your eyes!):

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I am ashamed to say I haven’t watch any Bresson movies yet (they always seem to be checked out from the library when I go to get one). But I agree in our apparently shared taste for that ground between storytelling and abstraction (in literature, I think of authors like Robbe-Grillet). That’s a nice reading of the Trondheim pages as tragedy. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

I’m not clear on the connection you’re making between reading comics as texts (rather than as paintings) and characterization, though your comment about anthropomorphizing nature/objects reminds me of a television commercial I keep seeing that has all kinds of non-human objects that look like smiley or frowny faces.

It’s only the second time through (as we edit) that I noticed your mention of a “descriptive aesthetic.” This aesthetic is something I’ve blogged about a bit, a space that can exist outside of both narrative and abstract comics, where representational imagery is put to a use less about narration than it is about description, or mapping a space. Perhaps I need to put together the non-narrative, non-abstract comics anthology…

 I agree Larmee’s piece is hard to read as a narrative. The sequencing is not (to me) readable as transformation or movement… as time I guess. I do read it different than Mavreas’ piece though. I can read Larmee’s pages as comics (again, the textual way rather than the pictorial way), which makes a huge difference to me as far as the “is this comics” question. That Larmee’s piece is entitled “I Would Like to Live There” also points towards a spatial interpretation. I am a fan of Larmee’s work, and one of his minicomics, a narrative one, has a cover that looks much like the pages in this anthology. The same geometry, girder-like colored shapes arranged on blank backgrounds. I’m still puzzled by the connection.

Certainly, Larmee’s comic seems to fit better with Molotiu’s definition than the Trondehim and Rabin comics, which I see more as a limitation of the definition, or perhaps just an issue with definitions at all. Though it is an issue (definitions) which I seem to get stuck on a lot (as do many in comics land).

While we’re on artists whose work in general I am a fan of, I wanted to bring up Jason Overby’s “Apophenia,” another work which does not read like a story, but has a clear sequential drive. The first page is six empty panels, and on each subsequent page one more panel is given content until on page seven all six panels have something drawn in them. It’s an attractive piece, though I don’t find it nearly as engaging as Overby’s “normal” work which is far more narrative (though often still quite abstract). My thoughts on the piece were altered a bit when I attended the “Silent Pictures” exhibit in NYC this fall which featured a number of works from the anthology. Overby’s pages in their original form had a large margin outside (what some would call) the hyperframe in which were scrawled lots of text. Here’s an example that is similar, though not part of the story in this anthology. I’ve gotten the chance to ask Overby about this, and while he doesn’t necessarily consider the marginal text as part of the comic, he thinks they “add something” to the work. Perhaps as the kind of extra-textual information you mention above.

Molotiu seems quite against the idea of text in abstract comics. I don’t believe any of the pieces in the anthology have text except a couple with titles on the pages and one of Gary Panter’s pages which has letters that do not form made-up words (there is word-like imagery though in the vein of Steinberg). Perhaps, editorially, comics that use text are not abstract enough because text offers a too great danger of narrative formation. Yet, even text can be abstract, even moreso if one juxtaposes blocks of text in sequence (as in a comic). Individual sentences may be coherent, narrative, representational, yet when put in sequence with other sentences the coherence and narrative can be broken, dissipated, abstracted. I think the potential for abstract comics includes use of text. Alexey Sokolin has done something in this vein (hitting refresh on that page will give you a new strip), combining representational imagery and text in such a way that the whole is abstract. I’ve played around with some similar ideas recently too.

Does text destroy abstraction? Do sentences? Would Larmee’s be less an abstract comic if he had put some words into it?

CF: Thanks for posting that naughty strip from Trondheim. I’ve always loved comics that capture and freeze incremental movement. I love Bernard Krigstein’s final page of Master Race, and I love the way Trondheim captures minute slices of thrust and withdrawal with those two abstract horizontal crescents. Is it hot in here?

You write that you’re confused by the connection I make “between reading comics as texts (rather than as paintings) and characterization,” and that’s probably because I’m not clear on that connection myself. Let me say it another way: I think that much of the power of stories—in comics form or otherwise—comes from several different sources. Perhaps most primally, we humans, obsessed as we are with security and sex, look closely and pay attention to other humans, a tendency that spills over into anthropomorphizing inanimate objects (as in those American Express commercials you mention). Most narratives exploit this primal tendency by giving us a human protagonist, and by placing this protagonist in a cause-effect chain that stimulates our curiosity by modulating the flow of information (“How will our hero overcome that obstacle? What’s going to happen at the end of the story?”) to keep us reading. Do you think that these tendencies might help to explain the “readability” of a conventional comics story? Maybe a major trait of experimental work is that it refuses to follow both of these tendencies, and has to find different, new modes of textual organization and audience address? (And maybe a major trait of our dialogue is to ask a lot of questions without arriving at definite answers…?)

I might’ve been hasty in my claim that Larmee’s “I Would Like to Live There” defies any sense of storytelling. Larmee begins and ends the piece with panoramic shots of dots, but at the finish there are more dots, arranged in straighter, denser lines that seem to recede to the horizon. Many stories end by returning to the equilibrium of the beginning, with evidence of “improvement” (e.g. the protagonist is in a better mental or material position); maybe the straighter lines and multiplicity of dots that conclude “Like” constitute a geometric manifestation of a happy ending. The graphical elements that you so accurately described as “girder-like colored shapes” float through the rest of Larmee’s panels like pick-up sticks falling from left to right across the page. The colored girders aren’t exactly psychologically-defined characters, but they do move, exploring negative space and volume in each panel and creating sequences open to sequential reading. Does it really take so few lines to create a sense of progression?

Incidentally, my invocation of a “descriptive aesthetic” is stolen from at least a couple of different people: McCloud, whose aspect-to-aspect panel transitions map space, and Seymour Chatman, who talks about different text types (narrative, description and argument) in his book Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (1990). Chatman argues that even in texts designed to tell a story, there’s plenty of moments where the mode of address shifts into a description of a person or a space. Chatman’s written extensively on Antonioni’s movies, for instance, and he talks about several moments–the deserted city square at the end of The Eclipse (1962), the long shot on a factory in Red Desert (1964)–where Antonioni puts his narrative on hold and just displays to spectators a space. I wrote an article a long time ago where I argued that pornographic movies do essentially the same things: dispense with storytelling in favor of description (in this instance, obviously, of naked bodies and sexual acts). Is that Crumb strip of Bo-Bo Bolinsky sitting in his chair a comics version of the descriptive aesthetic?

 You’ve read a ton more small-press comics than I have, Derik, so I really can’t comment on either Larmee’s other work (because I haven’t seen/read it!) or the differences between the versions of Jason Overby’s “Apophenia” you discuss. The central way I appreciated “Apophenia” was as an exploration of rhythm, a kind of paper version of flicker films like Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960), a comics peek-a-boo. That said, I think your questions about text and abstraction are very interesting. The first story in Abstract Comics, Crumb’s Zap classic “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics,” gives us a few word balloons (the “Spa Fon” EC in-joke), and these seem as much non-sequiturs (i.e. non-narrative) as anything in the image track. When reading a comic, my tendency is to consider drawings and text two interlocking but separable tracks of signification, but that’s not accurate. I have to keep reminding myself that lettering is itself a form of graphics, and thus capable of expression and abstraction as much as any other visual. At the bottom of the second page of “Abstract Expressionist,” there’s a panel of firing tanks, above which hovers, in faux-cursive psychedelic lettering, an unintelligible word. This writing is primarily a design element, and it would retain at least some of that function even if it spelled out a recognizable word like “cheese.” (In his cartooning classes, my friend Ben Towle tells his students to draw letters rather than write with the same casualness that they would scribble a message on a Post-It Note.) Also, the abstractness of text seems to me dependent on how understandable (or inscrutable) the words are in relation to the image: “The tanks rolled over the Viet Cong!” would be more specific (and, consequently, less abstract) than “cheese” in its limning of the tank picture. I think the overall approach of a particular piece—and the specific use of text in said piece—is what matters.

DB: Your restatement of the “characterization” idea makes much more sense to me. The following of characters is certainly a main thrust for most readers of comics stories (how else to explain the most popular comics from Peanuts and Garfield to Batman and X-Men to Maus and Fun Home). The lack of characters or, often, something that one can easily anthropomorphize, is probably a big stumbling block for many readers coming to this anthology, as is, I imagine, the lack of dramatic plot. I’m not sure this effects the “readability” of these works, unless by readability you mean the audiences ease and pleasure in absorbing the work (like saying a mystery novel is more readable than a Flaubert novel). I’d say a major trait of non-narrative experimental work is finding other modes of organization and address, such as the “descriptive aesthetic”. This is another point on that place between narrative and non-narrative, The Eclipse being a great example of something that is neither here nor there but still a powerful experience. I’m not familiar with the Crumb story, so I’ll withhold comment on that.

Most of the work at hand is using other organizational means, primarily visual rather than narrative. The panels make sense together because they share certain immediately recognizable visual qualities, we connect them not through what they represent but through the visual qualities themselves (which I want to liken to the idea of abstract expressionism and surface).

On Larmee’s piece, I’d say it does take so little to create a sense of progression. Which is why the idea of non-narrative comics relies greatly on how one defines narrative. Is it simple change and transformation, or is it more than that? Most people might say characters or plot are required for narrative, I’m not so sure. (I feel like I’m repeating myself.)

I think of McCloud’s sequence where he uses a photographic face and abstracts it down to a smiley face (well it’s not actually smiling) (Understanding Comics 28-9). He’s concerned with traditional stories and reader identification, so he stops there, but one could abstract it further. Is just a circle still an abstraction of a face? Trondheim’s piece seems to indicate there is still room there for a reading that involves “character” of some (abstract) form.

CF: Here’s that crumb Bo-Bo Bolinski one-pager, which describes me when I come home from work and sit in my recliner (except that Bolinski has his eyes open and isn’t snoring).

Click on the image to see it larger.

It falls to me to bring our e-chat to some sort of conclusion, but as I look over all the issues we’ve touched upon here–the inherent beauty of comic book backgrounds, the nature of reader identification, the descriptive mode of address–I realize that I won’t be able to knit together any satisfying closure here. We’ve simply covered too much terrain, though I hope some readers found the free-range nature of our discussion lively.

For personal reasons, I’ve found our exchange therapeutic. This semester, I’m teaching a graphic novel class, and a couple of days ago, while lecturing about chapter 2 of Understanding Comics, I told my students about Gary Panter’s belief in the non-referential mark, projected samples from Andrei’s two websites (the Abstract Comics blog and Blotcomics), and passed around copies of Abstract Comics, Jimbo in Purgatory, Ninja, and some Kramers Ergot. I was trying to get my students to climb McCloud’s epic pyramid, to move into those heights of abstraction that, as of 1992, Mary Fleener pretty much occupied all by herself. The student response? Apathy, and very little comment.

I teach another class immediately after the graphic novel one, an open-topic film class that I’ve focused this semester on experimental cinema. So far, we’ve watched and talked about movies by Brakhage, Dziga Vertov, Maya Deren and others, and these students also seem disengaged, distant, put off by the material. Maybe my teaching sucks–a distinct possibility!–but even so, I still can’t understand having a tepid reaction to something as clever and propulsive as Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000). Are Panter and Maddin just too weird for today’s students? Is everything outside the range of traditional narrative boring and/or annoying to them? Clearly I’ve become a blustery old fart, chasing the neighborhood kids off my front lawn while muttering “…in my day, we stole underground comix from the head shop and saw performance artists shove vegetables up their asses at the local microcinema.” In the first paragraph of this exchange, I wrote “the avant-garde has once again rejuvenated itself,” but is it rejuvenation if nobody gives a shit about the trailblazing work out there? I despair…!

That’s why Abstract Comics is important. Like any comics anthology, it has some pieces I like a lot more than others, but the sheer existence of the book itself establishes a precedent and a meeting place for the small community of readers who do, in fact, give a shit (or who might give a shit after looking through the book’s pages). Equally encouraging to me are the casual asides in your responses, Derik, about hearing Sokolin speak at MoCCA and attending the “Silent Pictures” exhibit: there’s clearly an art world coalescing around the idea of abstract comics, a community of artists provoking each other to create better work. Blaise Larmee won an Xeric grant (hollah!), Abstract Comics is in my university’s library, and I can’t wait to see the comics that you, Andrei and your fellow experimenters make next, Derik. Apathy be damned!

[Despite wide-ranging apathy, I’d like to reiterate my thanks to Craig and Charles for joining in on this discussion. Let’s do it again, sometime. -Derik.]