One-Page by Blaise Larmee

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This post originally appeared at The Panelists on January 18, 2011.


I enjoyed the “One-Panel Criticism” posts from our first two weeks, so I thought I’d start another irregular series (for myself, though perhaps some of my colleagues will join in) of “One-Page Criticism,” wherein a single page is discussed (either pulled from a longer work or, as in this case, a complete work unto itself). As I limited my One-Panel posts to 500 words, I’ll limit myself here to 1000 words.

While writing up my Best Comics of 2010, I had a realization that my choices favored the book, the lengthy story, the series. This bias is easy to attribute to a few factors: I kept track of all the books I read, but not every page, strip, or short story; it’s too easy to associate quantity with quality. The latter seems to be prevalent in recent comics. Comics have a history of set formal lengths: comic strips as single page or single strip, comic books of 24/32 pages often broken into 8 page stories (which have pretty much disappeared), bande dessinée has the 48 page album format, manga has the endless serial. For a long time, everything happened in a set number of pages, either in toto or strung together endlessly. The rise of the “graphic novel” and manga translation in the West has only increased the predominance of length. Webcomics offer a break from the constraints of rigid page lengths, yet it seems that series are still the norm. What about the single page comic, a work that exists as a whole inside one boundary? One might argue that the narrative-focused content of comics are not best served by such a limiting structure (unless you’re just telling a joke), and I might be inclined to agree. But, if one moves past narrative, conventional narrative, one finds places where the single page comic can be a complete and beautiful object.

Case in point:

This page by Blaise Larmee was posted online on November 25, 2010. Larmee is the creator of the book Young Lions, publisher of Gaze Books, and a rather prolific web poster. His work is often unconventional, lately he’s made frequent use of screenshots, photograph, and digital images that stray from most readers’ notions of comics. This page, which I’ll call “Magic Forest” (based on the text), shows the, dare I say, softer side of hand drawn work that clearly displays its analog origins.

The imagery here pushes away from representation without leaving it completely, as trees, animals, and a figure are still identifiable. Yet, this isn’t a story. The panels show little in the way of repetition to create a sense of character, time, or even action. The text, partially erased, helps anchor the imagery in some sense. The “Magic Forest” unifies the images through place, the panels become a description of that place. Domingos Isabelinhos calls this the “locus”:

…what I call, a locus (the totality of all points, satisfying a given condition; the locus, as applied to comics, is a third way between narration and description). There’s a geographical connection, so to speak, instead of a more or less linear temporality. [“Monthly Stumblings 6: Otto Dix” at The Hooded Utilitarian]

Domingos brought this concept to my attention when I wrote about some works by Pascal Matthey last year. While this page is considerably shorter than those other works, I think it fits the concept. I don’t know if there is time involved over the course of these panels, and any narrative is based on only the slightest of clues, requiring the most imaginative addition from the reader.

The wonderful atmosphere of Larmee’s page is partially generated through this non-narrative descriptive place. The appellation of “magic” to the “forest” modulates my reading of the imagery. The images are in some way otherworldly. Their abstract qualities, for instance the ovoid shapes that appear in panels one, three, and six, are integrated into this conception of a place that is elsewhere, potentially unreal. Where the marks stray from clear representation, this unreality is introduced. In panel four a dark shape hovers next to the head of the rear deer(?), like some kind of specter. It could be just a compositional shape, but once I start reading, it takes on this other life.

Panel two reads like a figure, hair, profile, shoulders, though I can’t say for sure it isn’t something else. This ambiguity suffuses all of the panels. The foreground of panel six is quite ambiguous (is that an animal of some kind?), as are the ovoid shapes at the left side of panel three. In juxtaposition with the tree in the same panel, the larger shapes read as something in the foreground, large and close, yet why couldn’t it be something even larger in the background? This ambiguity is part of what draws me back into the page. I don’t exhaust even a surface reading of “what is this?” on a first or second pass through the panels.

The ambiguity starts to defeat a conventional reading pattern the more I look at the page. Reading the panels in the “normal” order of left-right top-bottom starts to become meaningless when there is little visual repetition from one panel to the next. When I don’t have to read for narrative time or for repetition and variation, the logic of sticking to that reading pattern is lost.

The tonality of the page provides a certain counter-effect. The densest/darkest panel is the last, with the first panel being only slightly less so. This adds a movement to the page, as the first panel will naturally attract the eye where it is (upper-left, near the only text on the page), and the last’s density drags the eye to it. This push and pull of beginning/end is nicely countered by the red-orange stripe that divides panels three and four. As the only saturated color on the page (a less saturated tone can be seen in panel one) and situated just right of center, it is another natural focal point.

All this would be moot were the style not so attractive: soft washes; crayon-like marks; a lightness that does not feel the need to fill ever inch, complete every shape, drag out every visual cue. The pencilled-in grid lines, usually erased, and the text, partially erased, creates a sense of incompletion, yet through its erasure, the “magic” seems to echo a slow disappearance of something hard to hold onto, fleeting, and undefinable.


A few comments from the original post at The Panelists:

Charles Hatfield:

I like Domingos’ concept of the locus (a third way between narration and description), which it strikes me is a way of achieving lyricism and evocativeness in comics, and a corrective to the idea of comics as graphic narrative strictly applied. I tend to describe comics’ “narrative” in a very broad sense, in hopes of including such examples, but you’re right that “Magic Forest” isn’t storytelling. I often say that comics “tell stories, unpack ideas, or evoke scenes,” which is a cheat, since “evoke scenes” could also describe what conventional landscape painting does, for example, without comics’ sequential structure. In comics it’s got to be multi-aspectual and involve some kind of shifting of perspectives or focalization, I think.

When I don’t have to read for narrative time or for repetition and variation, the logic of sticking to that reading pattern is lost.

Ah, but these practices are a matter of habit over logic, yes? I would have to assume that Larmee was conscious of this when creating the work. Without some putative reading order, or without the reader’s ability to posit a particular order, we’re not dealing with comics, are we? So, traditional linear comics reading underlies this untraditional example, a kind of implicit template that the piece can push and pull against. I think you’re getting at that same quality here:

This push and pull of beginning/end is nicely countered by the red-orange stripe that divides panels three and four.

I like your attention to the panel borders (pencilled-in grid lines, usually erased). Again, Larmee seems to be using the conventions of comics under erasure, so that they’re half there, half gone, teasing and informing our reading but without falling into a predictable approach. I saw this a lot in Young Lions, which I reviewed here:

http://www.thoughtballoonists.com/2010/05/younglions.html

Thanks, Derik! Thought-provoking “Best of” list, BTW!

Derik Badman:

Thanks, Charles.

I like “multi-aspectual” as a descriptive term. I’ll have to remember that.

Without some putative reading order, or without the reader’s ability to posit a particular order, we’re not dealing with comics, are we?

But can’t a reader posit a reading order for anything? You can look at a painting and posit a reading order. Even the most confusing comics page (I’m thinking of a.. Steranko Nick Fury page that defies any reading order), you can posit an order. I’m not sure that’s something we can say is necessary to be “dealing with comics.”

My point hear was that after a few times reading this page, I started losing the need/desire to read it in conventional order, and that it didn’t really make that much of a difference what order I read it in, unlike narrative comics where the order is generally very important.

(I actually linked to your Young Lions review in the post!)

Caro:

I agree with Derik on this, that order is superimposed, but I would be most heartily enthusiastic for the two of you to take extreme entrenched positions and argue to the dialectical synthesis. I find the status of “sequence” in comics to be a remarkably pressing critical question — the least well-theorized aspect of comics and the least satisfying to me when it’s evoked — and I’m eager to hear any in-depth thoughts on it anybody’s willing to offer up…

Derik Badman:

I’m not one for trenches.

As for sequence… I’ll try to work that into more posts. In fact, I can guarantee it’ll show up in a few of posts I plan on writing about some works that are not traditionally considered comics (Alechinsky, Turbeville, Twombly, etc.)

Charles Hatfield:

But can’t a reader posit a reading order for anything? You can look at a painting and posit a reading order.

True, but these habits or protocols are not merely personal and idiosyncratic. When we get involved in a discussion of comics, we’re thinking in terms of genre, in the broadest sense, and socially determined or at least socially informed ways of reading. The habits are shaped by our participation in comics reading and in the discourse surrounding comics.

Similarly, anything can be read as poetry, but it takes immersion in the discourse of poetry, or at least some familiarity with poetry, in order to perform that interpretive move.

My suggestion is that sequence or “order” is so important to comics, and to conversations about comics, that the only way an informed reader is going to abandon that is if they look closely enough, and long enough, at a work to break out of habit:

…after a few times reading this page, I started losing the need/desire to read it in conventional order, and that it didn’t really make that much of a difference what order I read it in…

Yes. After a few times reading the page, yes. But in the context of a blog about “comics,” that impulse would only come after your initial linear reading gave way to a tabular appreciation of the whole (or a nonlinear appreciation of its parts).

No hard and fast rules here; no trench warfare. Just an observation that we have reading habits that look for order, and that in comics that order tends to come in a particular way. Of course, in your case, Derik, I imagine that your defaults are not set in nearly as conventional a way as those of most comics readers! :)

Derik Badman:

My suggestion is that sequence or “order” is so important to comics, and to conversations about comics, that the only way an informed reader is going to abandon that is if they look closely enough, and long enough, at a work to break out of habit

Well, that I agree with (and the rest too). But that’s different than the statement I quoted in my reply, where you seem to state that without a reading order something isn’t comics at all.

Caro:

I got that too, Charles. Not just from you — I’ve had lots of people tell me that reading order and sequence are essential for comics. So even if you didn’t mean it here, I think it’s still a big elephant in this room…

Caro:

Derik — awesome. I’m really looking forward to reading those posts. So far this post is my favorite piece of writing about Larmee’s work, which I think is extraordinary and routinely underestimated.

I do still think there’s some value to theory’s “entrenchment,” though, its purification exercise. What’s happening for me, Charles, theoretically, is that the gesture (period, not just yours) toward “socially determined or at least socially informed ways of reading,” while absolutely correct and certainly important to comics studies, obscures or perhaps inhibits a properly formalist description of the ways in which “sequence or order is so important to comics.” (In terms of the conversations it’s not a problem.)

Derik’s reading makes the point that sequence and order are in fact not as formally essential as is generally claimed. They are certainly socially normative, as you say, but they’re not formally essential. (That’s the distinction that makes French structuralism politically radical, right?)

One thing that I find so exciting about Larmee’s work (and that of other artists working in the same vein) is that it does gesture toward a synchronic — and equally radical — approach to comics meaning. I think that is extremely exciting as it opens up ways for comics to fully participate in the experimentation of postmodern literature.

But theories of synchronic approaches rely on a properly formalist, non-historical foundation, and comics is very attached to its social conventions. There is no operable theory of comics form (that I know of!) that engages and thoroughly describes a category that’s meaningfully “comics” but that is fully non-sequential and non-ordered. Those categories feel like they’re embraced as “essences,” the things which are necessary for calling something “comics.”

But sequence and order are diachronic, not synchronic, so we’re in a situation of either superimposing other formalisms, usually literary formalisms, onto comics, or avoiding the most adventurous synchronic theoretical explanations and strategies. (That’s the theoretical version of what I meant a few weeks ago when I commented that comics “history” was holding it back…)

div cher:

and yet one finds that developing soft surfaces with little sequential elaboration suggests that each panel a freshly opened window into a new narrative, possibly infinite, that connect back to other panels on a page as a plane that interrupts the coincidental (orisitmagical) but formally harmonious intermingling of foreign stories

like 6 eternal hallways that wrap around each other at a point and then bisected by the blade of a single page

it’s no secret that blaise larmee believe in ghosts

Charles Hatfield:

…the gesture…toward “socially determined or at least socially informed ways of reading,” while absolutely correct and certainly important to comics studies, obscures or perhaps inhibits a properly formalist description of the ways in which “sequence or order is so important to comics.”

I’m simply trying to remove the dogmatism from the issue by suggesting that all formalisms are in fact socially determined.

Caro, what would a “properly formalist” approach detached from social ways of knowing be? Or, rather, how would it be? Every reading and gazing convention is embedded in culture, whether diachronic or synchronic; I thought I was simply acknowledging a truism?

In other words, how could there be a truly “non-historical” formalism?

But theories of synchronic approaches rely on a properly formalist, non-historical foundation, and comics is very attached to its social conventions.

I’m not saying that comics is especially attached to social conventions, any more than is the reading of poetry, or the act of taking up a spectator’s role, or an art appreciator’s role. Do not these “social conventions” inhere in the discourse surrounding and holding up every art form? These conventions are the very grounds of making meaning with these objects, these forms, these performances. As I understand the issue, there isn’t a conversation about “comics” that could somehow stand entirely apart from these conventions, that is, from the general conversation about “comics”—because the very act of positing these objects as comics performs a kind of framing, establishes a set of discursive coordinates and assumptions. This would be true of even a McCloudian arch-formalism in which questions of differing social origins, historical roots, and generic affiliations are swept aside. In other words, this isn’t a matter of comics being parochial or especially beholden to its social roots; it’s a matter of all art forms being so situated, socially, culturally.

Comics “history” doesn’t only hold it back. It also constitutes it. That’s what I’m saying. And this is true even if we leave behind myopic fan narratives of history, or leave behind cultural nationalism, myths of origin, and other narrow aspects of the history. Again, even if our aim is a kind of super-formalism that dispenses with historical particulars, we’ll still be participating in the history of “comics” as long as we call it “comics” and make formal connections to other “comics.”

Derik’s reading makes the point that sequence and order are in fact not as formally essential as is generally claimed.
Forgive me for harping, but I don’t think Derik’s reading does this. Rather, Derik’s reading demonstrates that his initial sequential reading gave way to a less linear one, or that he was capable of oscillating back and forth between the two readings. That is because Larmee’s work is unconventional and sophisticated, and, if I may, because Derik’s ways of reading are also unconventional and sophisticated, and he has had considerable training in reading comics both with and against the grain of their assumed sequentiality.

Now, I grant that a strict chronological sequence is not necessary to my understanding of “Magic Forest”; I observed the same about many of the pieces in Andrei Molotiu’s splendid Abstract Comics anthology. But there is still, for me, a reading sequence, because, I think, comics reading is parasitic on conventional textual reading, which is to say that I bring similar habits to both; I attempt to read comics, and this presupposes sequence—even if the work in question can monkeywrench or sidestep linear narrative. And that reading sequence is what allows me, emboldens me, to call such works “comics.” Without that assumption, I don’t see how our discussion could continue to operate within the discursive field known as “comics studies” or “comics criticism.”

Empirically, let me ask you this: can you remember a comic, or imagine a comic, in which some presumption of sequence did not play a part in your experience of it?

By the way, I think comics in which the sequence can be changed by the reader, as in McCloud’s “Choose Your Own Carl” or Shiga’s Meanwhile, as well as comics in which there are multidirectional reading vectors, maze-like or game-like, say some of Trondheim’s work in this direction—all these demonstrate rather than undercut my point about sequentiality being essential. They still posit, in fact they call attention to, the necessity of choosing a reading path. They still work diachronically, rather than synchronically.

Anecdotally, my responses to the works in Abstract Comics all were dictated by my understanding of sequentiality, and of the traditional reading demands of comics. That understanding is what allowed me to, if you will, reconcile those works to my view of “comics.”

Jan Baetens recently argued, at the International Conference on Narrative (April 2010), that “abstract comics” are not abstract by dint of adopting an abstract picturing style, but rather by flouting narrative conventions. That is, saying something is an “abstract comic” is inevitably an ideological move that positions that work in relation to this thing we call “comics.” One thing I get from this is that ostensibly nonlinear or sychronic comics are still subliminally informed by the socially determined reading conventions that lead us to expect sequence in more conventional comics. That is, in fact, what makes “abstract comics” legible as comics. No?

Caro:

Charles, thanks for the response! You came up with more than I’ll hit in this — the things you said actually about sequence I want to think about a little more because they’re what I was asking for and I don’t want to give them short shrift. I’ll try to clear up the most basic bit that I think is a communication issue, just getting on the same page thing, though.

For me, there’s a big big difference between saying that a formalism (or any theory) is non-historical, by which I mean it is not a theory which considers history or historical forces to be directly part of its object or the set of questions it’s intended to answer, and saying that the theory is a-historical, in the sense that it’s not historically determined.

Think about several of the different formalisms we use as literary scholars: we can use Jakobsen, we can use Derrida, we can use grammar itself. (And many more). All of them are historically constituted, yes, of course I agree (although grammar is a complex case). But they’re concerned with properties of their objects independent of those social and historical aspects. Lacan’s topologies are formalisms — he is absolutely a product of his mid-century post-war France, and a reading of Lacan may benefit from some awareness of that, but you don’t have to be attentive to it to understand Lacan, what he says hangs together as a logical structure independent of when he wrote it. If I use Lacan to talk about David Lynch, I’m not going to have to also talk about the mid-century conditions under which Lacan’s theory was formulated. I could, that might be really interesting (I’m suddenly intrigued), but the theory gives me the choice.

Theory is formalist philosophy, and although philosophies are products of the time when they were composed, it is a measure of their rigor that the abstract structures they delineate can be fully understood without reference to the circumstances of their creation and reception. That’s what I mean by non-historical.

I agree entirely that sequence is the thing that makes Abstract Comics in particular legible as comics: Andrei’s book is without doubt the best, probably the only, meaningful effort to “theorize” sequence in a rigorous way — but it’s in many ways just giving us the perspective, the raw material, exposing the “sequence” to us. It’s not a finished theoretical project.

Comics does not have a philosophical delineation of its abstract structure that includes sequence as a part of that structure — instead it has a socially constituted definition in which sequence plays an “essential” part. “I know comics when I see them.” But a definition isn’t a theory.

There’s two ways to take the conversation about comics where sequence “doesn’t play a part.” I mean, sequence plays a part in prose literature too but we’ve learned to be extremely attentive to the work’s synchronic aspects: take the big-ticket conceit in Midnight’s Children, equating the promise of India’s democracy to the potential of 100 magical children and attributing the squandering of that promise to prejudice, fear, and lack of belief. That conceit is most meaningful when the book is viewed as a whole, from above, not through the diachronic experience of reading it or the arc of events throughout which it is interspersed. It’s not that the book doesn’t have sequence — it’s that there is an aspect of the book for which sequence is absolutely irrelevant. If my theory said that “sequence” was the essence that made it a novel, something would be missing.

But I’m not sure that’s the most interesting way to go with that question — it’s the important one but it’s not the most provocative. What if I wanted to consider this a comic?

Derik Badman:

I’m intrigued by the Rauschenberg example… requires further thought.

Caro:

Hm, posted this and it disappeared. I think Charles is onto something below when he talks about comics being broken into frames/panels — some kind of segmentation may be more fundamental than “sequence.” Could I have asked that question about Pollock instead of Rauschenberg? I don’t know…maybe about this?

Charles Hatfield:

But they’re concerned with properties of their objects independent of those social and historical aspects.

Well, so is comics formalism. My argument would be that the very social dimension of comics that you seek to sidestep is in fact the source of that formalism. But that doesn’t make the formalism invalid as a tool.

The larger question I was trying to raise is whether we can impute “properties” to objects independent of a social discourse that enables us to recognize, isolate and study those properties.

Comics does not have a philosophical delineation of its abstract structure that includes sequence as a part of that structure…

See, I think this is untrue, Caro. Comics does have, and is continuing to develop, an immanent vocabulary for dealing with these issues, one that arises from the very structure of comics. There is indeed an emerging philosophical delineation of comics (notable in Groensteen’s notion of comics as system). What I hear you saying–and correct me if I’m misreading you–is that you consider this delineation, as it now stands, too mired in the sociohistorical particulars of comics and comics fandom, and you would like some larger conceptualizing outside of those boundaries.

My response to that would be that comics theory will not arise wholly outside of comics culture, but rather, and necessarily, from within it. As WJT Mitchell argues in Picture Theory (and I believe I referenced this during our recent HU discussions as well), the immanent or, if you will, native vocabulary of a field ought not to be discarded in our quest for a higher synthesis.

Here is my attempt at a broad delineation of what comics do, from the blog for this semester’s comics course, which I’m about to start teaching:

visual art that tells stories–or presents situations and ideas, or juxtaposes ideas, or makes arguments, or breaks down scenes or settings into multiple aspects–via successive still images in series.

Pretty broad and slippery, I’d say, but note my stubborn retention of the word “successive.” :)

Derik Badman:

I do note that you use “series” instead of “sequence”.

Charles Hatfield:

Ah, now there you have me. And the distinction isn’t just hair-splitting. As I see it, the series is objectively present, whereas the sequence is that which readers work toward, assuming that they read with that expectation of sequentiality in mind, as I beleive comics readers generally do.

My reading of “Magic Forest” is based on a series of images that I read, due to habit and expectation, as following a left-right, top-bottom sequence, but I grant that there doesn’t seem to be any clearly enunciable narrative content in the work that demands such a reading. Still, in the context of a “comics” reading, that is the first thing I do, I think: try to turn the series into a sequence in such a way as to reveal a narrative or progression, one that necessarily has a direction. I do think that Larmee doesn’t quite give us that here, and I consider that a strength rather than a weakness of the work; however, I still think there is an assumption of sequence and directionality that hovers around, or behind, my experience of the work. I’d call that the “ghost” of comics reading that haunts my encounter with this particular page.

Derik Badman:

Agreed, the convention says “read this as a (narrative) sequence”. That’s what it took me a few times to start thinking of it as not a (narrative) sequence but a (non-narrative) series.

I think you can see the opposite shift occur in some of the “fine arts”, where we are used to seeing series with no direct sequencing involved.

Caro:

Comics does have, and is continuing to develop, an immanent vocabulary for dealing with these issues, one that arises from the very structure of comics. There is indeed an emerging philosophical delineation of comics (notable in Groensteen’s notion of comics as system).

Absolutely — I think it is emerging. But I don’t think it’s emerged. I don’t think comics has hit that point where there’s a stable, solid, reliable body of theory to fall back on — there are still lots of questions that need lots of theoretical effort. My initial point was that sequence wasn’t well-theorized, and that it was one of the weakest attributes of what was theorized, so the statement you quote here is indeed too strong out of context. What it was intended to mean is that this theoretical project is not completed to the point that we no longer need to put concentrated focused effort into the non-historical aspects. We don’t want to say, “oh look, Groensteen’s good. Let’s go with what he said. Hurray, we’re done.” (Not that I think you’re saying that…)

I like Groensteen’s book a lot, but I don’t think it resolves these questions about sequence, and I don’t think it’s become any sort of standard that automatically feeds back into conversations — even conversations more concerned with history — the way comparable theoretical efforts in linguistics and literature have.

But, yes, I do also think that even Systeme, which is far and away the best shot at this yet, is “too mired in the sociohistorical particulars of comics and comics fandom,” even though it’s much less so than many other attempts and definitions.

I don’t see why the options here are either “wholly outside” or “necessarily from within.” The meaningful theoretical efforts in other art forms that come to my mind happened in dialogues between the within and without. Rosalind Krauss’s engagement with linguistic philosophy; Fredric Jameson’s recasting of Freud. To use the Lacan example again: he did not work within film; he was not a film scholar in any respect — but he did sit down with Bunuel and Langlois at 3am to see El, and their conversations influenced the Seminars in ’54 and again in the seminars on Ethics at the end of the decade, and Lacan’s own ideas emerge in Bunuel’s work throughout his career (most obviously in Cet Obscur Object de Desir…)

Why is comics theory more necessarily bound to the parameters of its culture and history than the theory of any other artform? In 100 years, sequence might not be important to comics at all, but if we aren’t brave enough to ask whether it has to be, then doesn’t that reduce the chances?

visual art that tells stories–or presents situations and ideas, or juxtaposes ideas, or makes arguments, or breaks down scenes or settings into multiple aspects–via successive still images in series.

The next time Matthias accuses me of being too literary I’m going to send him your definition and tell him to come yell at you instead! :)

Successive followed by series! It’s twice the sequentiality!

Maybe can you expand a little on the “breaks down scenes into multiple aspects” before I dig into it? It’s certainly a definition that would preclude reading either the Rauschenberg or the Pollack I linked to as comics…

Charles Hatfield:

Why is comics theory more necessarily bound to the parameters of its culture and history than the theory of any other artform?

I don’t think it is. Bu then, nor do I think other artforms are free from the sociohistorical groundings of their attendant theories. I’m just being a materialist stick in the mud about these things. :)

I don’t think comics has hit that point where there’s a stable, solid, reliable body of theory to fall back on — there are still lots of questions that need lots of theoretical effort.

I think this will always be the case, and that is part of what prompts my involvement in these questions. There will always be orthodoxies to unsettle, new questions to ask, and old ones to ask again.

Theory in the sense we are discussing is not, I believe, a progressive undertaking like hard science in which older models are swept aside according to new empirical evidence, and in which new forms of knowledge may be said to succeed or supersede old ones. Theory doesn’t get things “right” and then get settled; it circles, renews, comes back.

I don’t think it’s become any sort of standard that automatically feeds back into conversations…the way comparable theoretical efforts in linguistics and literature have.

Ah, but, see, I regard these kinds of standards as questionable, and potentially tyrannous. I want to have further and more intense engagement with the questions, but not the kind of exclusionary framing that takes place when theory becomes standardized. Of course, I agree that certain questions and issues should become part of the repertoire of theorists in the field–let’s take sequentiality as one such example–but I would hate to have a situation in which not only the questions but also the answers feed back into the conversation in a kind of predictable lockstep, the way so much humanities theory now does in classrooms and curricula far and wide.

I think what we’re talking about here, underneath it all, is my resistance to decontextualizing moves that put theory before history. But I can chalk that up partly to my roots and my stubbornness. The question of sequence you raised remains an interesting and important one; forgive me if I’m browbeating!

Caro:

You’re not browbeating! Perfectly valid argument…I don’t disagree with you about the problems in the academy. I left academia largely for those reasons. Theory is not only entrenched, it’s entrenched in a way that results in a lot of bad theory.

But I do think that it’s a problem caused by materialist conditions in the academy rather than with the various Hegelianisms that inform a lot of theoretical practice. I don’t think you can pin what happened post-theory in the academy just on the Idealist projects, or that it would solve the problems in the humanities if we could go back to the beginning of the 20th century and push all the post-Hegelian philosophical discourses in more materialist directions. If we could make Lacan more rigorously materialist, we’d just have a differently entrenched Lacan, because it isn’t the Hegelian aspect of theory that has caused its entrenchment in the academy. There’s a baby with the bathwater problem there…I guess I’m the sort of materialist who feels that any corrective must be dialectical. :)

But more to the point here, if you pick the methodology of humanities academia to push against in this context, you’re sort of pushing back against something spectral, since academic theory isn’t an immoveable force in comics — it isn’t a force in comics at all. There isn’t a single article on comics in either October or Diacritics. (I haven’t searched Critical Inquiry.) Comics has a different orthodoxy — a non-theoretical orthodoxy, mired in the fandom and the artform’s history — but it’s still an orthodoxy, worth pushing back against for the same reasons that you’re giving for pushing back against theory. But it’s such a materialist orthodoxy that, at least dialectically, it makes sense for the push-back position to be some sort of Idealism…

I like your distinction between series and sequence; I think it’s useful — I’ve still got something to push back against there but I’m gonna have to do some work to articulate it. It’s probably going to have something to do with the Jakobsonian metaphor:substitution::metonymy:sequence and deMan’s corrective that metaphor is not substitution (which is still sequential, I think, for him?) but combination…but I can’t articulate it yet.

Charles Hatfield:

…academic theory isn’t an immoveable force in comics — it isn’t a force in comics at all. There isn’t a single article on comics in either October or Diacritics. (I haven’t searched Critical Inquiry.)

Well, you’re stacking the decks a bit by starting out at “the top,” whereas most applications of theory in academia occur in far less august circumstances. These processes are trickle-up, generally, no?

But OK.

Caro:

Oh I think that must have come off snottier than I intended; I’m so sorry. :( I didn’t have the impression that comics studies was particularly trying to place articles in those journals. They’re very much theory-first sort of journals, and comics studies is very much work-first. That’s what I meant by theory not being much of a force in comics…

Caro:

“Snottier than I intended” — I didn’t mean it to be snotty at all! I’m stopping now LOL.

At least, until I’ve thought about the real issues regarding sequence and have something useful to say…thank you both for the great discussion. Looking forward to more later!

Caro:

Ack, I missed this:

The larger question I was trying to raise is whether we can impute “properties” to objects independent of a social discourse that enables us to recognize, isolate and study those properties.

It’s not the “independent” that I’m on about — it’s the singular social discourse… the privileging of comics’ specific, narrow sociohistorical context. I think that was probably clear in what I just wrote.

Although I’m not entirely sure I understand what you mean when you say that the “social dimension of comics…is the source of the formalism,” so maybe I should be asking that first…

I mean, it sounds like an ontological point — all theorizing emerges from a context. Which I buy, But you’re deploying it as an epistemological one: theory can only know that which belongs to its proper context. Which I don’t buy. Context is shifting. History with a capital H is inescapable; specific historical particularities can be challenged, undermined, expanded, shifted — with the resulting effects on the theories that come out of those shifted contexts. There’s no such thing as a “proper context”… there’s no reason (yet) other than historical convention and cultural context why that Rauschenberg collage isn’t comics…

Although I guess you might have been saying that there’s a Groensteen argument against it? Maybe point me?

Charles Hatfield:

…you seem to state that without a reading order something isn’t comics at all.

You’re right. That’s what I’m saying, as I now realize.

But I’m not making this argument on some ahistorical ontological basis; I’m trying to acknowledge that all such determinations are socially made.

That’s why I pushed back so hard against Caro’s suggestion that comics formalism could be ahistorical, or disconnected from comics’ social history.

Charles Hatfield:

…order is superimposed…

Yes, and that act of superimposition is the very thing that constitutes the work as “comics,” isn’t it?

It isn’t simply that I the reader am doing the superimposing, either. I suspect an idea of readable sequence is anterior to and constitutive of any work that its creator poses as comics.

Charles Hatfield:

You can look at a painting and posit a reading order.

Sure. I do that all the time. But I tend to do it more when the surface is broken into frames, or panels, and more so when those panels seem to encapsulate repetitive figural imagery.

Enough harping for tonight!

Noah Berlatsky:

Really interesting conversation.

“and that act of superimposition is the very thing that constitutes the work as “comics,” isn’t it?”

I think this is the point at issue, yes? That is, Charles is saying that the most important (the only?) social-historical fact which makes comics comics is the use of sequence. If you get rid of sequence, it’s not comics. This is pretty much McCloud’s deal too, right? Which is why single-panel cartoons don’t get to be comics but hieroglyphs do.

Caro’s arguing (or suggesting) that sequence might not be the whole deal. Maybe something could be comics without the sequence, perhaps working off of some other aspect of comics — the use of panels, for example, or the use of familiar characters, or of cartooning, or the juxtaposition of words and images.

For example, what if you had an Andy Warholish page of Tintin heads; all the same head, repeated on a grid say 20 times. The repetition seems like it would pretty thoroughly obviate sequence. But…it’s tintin. And there are panels. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a comic if it were hanging in a gallery…but what if it were a pamphlet sold through the direct market? Obviously there’d be trouble with the Herge estate, but presuming you saw it before it received the cease and desist letter…wouldn’t that be a comic? At least conceivably?

I think the issue of sequence in comics is pretty fascinating. But I find it *least* interesting as a means of defining what comics is or isn’t. To me it seems more useful to think of comics as a medium which has explored sequence rather than one defined by sequence. Abstract comics like Blaise’s do often work off the tension between a potential narrative and the frustration of that narrative…but I don’t think that’s the only way abstract comics could go. It seems like you could also use panels and speech bubbles and other signals to work in the tradition of comics while abandoning sequence altogether.

I’d like to entirely divorce formal and definitional issues, basically. I think mediums are social/cultural phenomena. Formal issues arise from the medium’s history, as Charles’ says, but since history is still moving on, form can move on too. It’s not that hard to imagine a future in which abstract comics are enough of a presence that the presumption of sequence when viewing them no longer holds.

In some ways, the emphasis on sequence just seems to mean that comics hasn’t really had it’s modernist moment yet…..

Charles Hatfield:

Charles is saying that the most important (the only?) social-historical fact which makes comics comics is the use of sequence. If you get rid of sequence, it’s not comics. This is pretty much McCloud’s deal too, right? Which is why single-panel cartoons don’t get to be comics but hieroglyphs do.

I didn’t intend to say this, and in fact I disagree with McCloud re: single-panel cartoons, which to my view are comics inasmuch as they are part of the same tradition of cartooning, publishing, and use.

I don’t think that’s the only way abstract comics could go. It seems like you could also use panels and speech bubbles and other signals to work in the tradition of comics while abandoning sequence altogether.

Perhaps. We started by discussing a work that eschews speech bubbles and many other symbols familiar to comics readers but yet retains a traditional page shape and panel grid. Were Larmee to use balloons in “Magic Forest,” I expect our discussion would have gone in a very different direction (heh). Of course there are a number of ingenious uses of balloons among the comics collected in Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthology.

It’s not that hard to imagine a future in which abstract comics are enough of a presence that the presumption of sequence when viewing them no longer holds.

Actually, it is hard for me to imagine that. If we imagine a work that lacks sequence and also lacks balloons and other common symbols associated with comics, I think we’re imagining a work that very few readers, even specialists, would recognize as “comics.”

Of course, there are other markers or signals of “comics” besides formal ones, perhaps the most obvious being social context (as you say, Noah, Perhaps it wouldn’t be a comic if it were hanging in a gallery…but what if it were a pamphlet sold through the direct market?). But the absence of both discernible sequence and devices like word balloons would, I think, make a work very hard to recognize as comics in any case. More to the point–and this is an observation McCloud makes with regard to non sequiturs in comics–the very placement of images in a comics grid is likely to make readers impute sequence even if the creator, as in Patrick’s sketchbook example (below), consciously intended none.

In some ways, the emphasis on sequence just seems to mean that comics hasn’t really had it’s modernist moment yet…..

Comics will never have its “Modernist moment,” not in terms hospitable to the prevailing historical narrative of Modernism. That moment is past. One can see, of course, all kinds of radical formal experimentation in the comics of the past 30-40 years that would seem to cry out Modernism!–the kind of Spiegelman work collected in Breakdowns is one obvious example–but comics will not recapitulate the developmental narratives of previous eras and other forms. Bart Beaty wrestles with this issue in a chapter on Modernism v. Postmodernism in his (excellent) book Unpopular Culture, which deals with the Eurocomics avant-garde of the 1990s. In general, the whole narrative of succession or supercession implied by the critical fictions of Modernism v. Postmodernism is bogus, IMO.

In any case, I argue that Modernism is as much a historically situated social as well as artistic phenomenon, and therefore will not happen again. Saying that comics hasn’t had its Modernist moment yet implies, to me, that there is some necessary but deferred intellectual coming of age that comics must go through, and that that process can be judged by whether and how comics approach the history of other consecrated cultural forms, as in, Will comics finally achieve Modernism?, Will comics studies finally do what film studies has done?, Will comics become more like painting?, and so on. I reject that kind of teleological developmental model. There is no historical precedent for the moment that comic (and we) are now living through.

patrick ford:

Since the blog has shown an open minded approach to a whole range of comics, maybe one of you guys might be interested in further discussion of reading order as applied to the Jim Steranko piece “Frogs.”
Steranko is an interesting study because he eagerly makes love to the most pulpish kind of genre trappings while experimenting with structure and form in a sophisticated way.
Steranko suggested the piece could be read horizontally, vertically, or in any other order the reader liked.
I suggested, to Steranko’s publisher David Spurlock, the large grid be reprinted as a card set so that readers could experiment with a wide variety of reading order.

Derik Badman:

Hi Patrick, where might we find this Steranko piece? Is that the Nick Fury one, I mentioned above?

patrick ford:

Derik, The piece was first published as a two page spread at tabloid size in Comixscene #3, 1973.
A very small but complete version can be seen here:
http://www.thedrawingsofsteranko.com/frogs.html
My thought is a set of 48 cards which could be arranged in various reading orders would fit Steranko’s suggested intent.

Derik Badman:

I found that piece very straightforward as far as the reading goes. Up-down, left-right. The extra lines that separate the columns got me reading that way from the start and the more direct narrative connection from panel 1 (top right corner) to panel 2 (just below it), rather than in moving across the row, added a level of confirmation. Numerous other juxtapositions in the pages enforce that reading order for me.

patrick ford:

As Steranko suggested multiple reading orders could be edited together.
One of the more obvious would be a strict chronological order with no cross-cutting between episodes.