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Comics - About Comics - Article | by Pedrovmoura in Comics - About Comics on 26/10/2009 - Comments (0)

Abstract Comics / Andrei Molotiu / Fantagraphics

When comics go beyond comics but are still comics: a look at the new Abstract Comics anthology, edited by Andrei Molotiu and published by Fantagraphics.


The way we look at comics is a matter of choice. We can say that its matter of expression is found in the particular relationship it creates between text and image. We can also emphasize sequentiality as its intrinsic and necessary quality. Or we may choose to find its unanalysable core in the “invisible” relationships that teem and emerge from the inter-panel space. And all these choices are, in a way, correct. Comics is not a technological determined art as photography or cinema. However, as these two forms of art, it is the offspring of a certain moment in History (more or less dilated, according to the attention and interests of any given researcher, which can crystallize its “origin” whether with the advent of the press or with some particular kind of printing technique – say, Töpffer’s autographie – or with processes of distribution – North-American newspapers, and so on) that will link it, through contiguity, with a specific technological form. Therefore, as photography and cinema, comics is born in the midst of its own experimentation, in the sense that it does not report to centuries of practices that would be seen as its norm, its classicism, its model. Therefore, I see comics as a discipline that is constantly developing in a negotiation of its own, that suffers its own crisis, that strides its own path, and that tries out variations that can have different degrees of success, some of which with a sustained life that, consequently, amplify its circumference. There are many experiences that, having been commercially or critically successful did not have real continuity, such as the major examples of the oeuvre of McCay and Herriman (and perhaps we could add Gustave Verbeek, whose historical importance has been, so far, and despite a handful of editions, enclosed in the province of specialists, something that may change with the recent Sunday Press book). We could also point out Martin Vaughn-James’ book The Cage, which opened up a door to a path that no one else could follow. This is something very different from what happened to the art of a Saint-Ogan or Hergé, on the one hand, and of a Milton Canniff, on the other, for instances. But that lack of continuity cannot be seen as a failure, or a problem. It is not something criticizable, for in any field, artists that reach a “too” unique language or style cannot leave heirs (who could carry on a project such as Finnegans Wake without being under the shadow of Joyce permanently? Or explore the paths of Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow without being an epigon?). 

Notwithstanding, this does not mean that we are not able to find, on the one hand, an “experimentalism” that can only emerge within the continuity of norms and models and canons that are formed throughout the history of any medium or form of art. That is why I find Noël Carroll’s notion of a “historical narrative” useful in order to find defining principles of comics (and not a definition) – it is such a narrative (how something came to be, how something changed, what happened before this or that) that not only prevents one from judging in absolutes as it allows one to retell a certain path that was followed to reach a particular work of art. Without this contextualizing resource, we would have “outmoded” art, we could say “it’s not worth to look back”, and the gestures of people such as Duchamp, Len Lye, Richter, Cage, Beuys, Snow, Brakhage, Joyce, Vaughn-James, Klimowski would still be impossible to understand… which would be ridiculous. It is that historical narrative then which allows us to perceive some authors as experimental and others as classic (even if they have “invented” new visual strategies, or founded an “idea”, they have also founded a “school”, its continuity, diluting somehow its uniqueness). 

On the other hand, though, and in a paradoxical way, that is also what helps us to create a “tradition” in the words of Andrei Molotiu, the editor of the Abstract Comics anthology. That is to say, it is possible to choose a perspective that will help one to draw a line of continuity through a series of works, relating them to each other, even if one knows that that notion of “continuity” is but an illusion: the authors worked separately and, quite often, not really knowing about each other. Perhaps what we find at work here is Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance”, which permits us to enclose within a sole descriptor several differentiated elements. Molotiu presented a few principles to design his notion of a “tradition” of abstract comics, which is also informed by the fact that he is a student and a maker of this “kind” of comics, as well as by the network of authors that have been exploring this specific territory (a typical internet network, with Molotiu’s blog acting as a sort of hub). 

More often than not, when you start to look for this sort of thing, there is something akin to a growing spiral movement: as you go through the lines that the “family resemblance” notion allows for, you start to include the neighboring work to another neighboring work up to a point in which the movement is so expanded, and the examples gathered so many, that the last few ones have no connection with the departure point whatsoever. That is the reason why Molotiu does not present a closed set of rules, but rather a working method, a principle, so that this book is not an “anything goes” sort of thing. For instance, when we find a comic that presents a problem of figuration only, that is to say, in which the characters are represented through geometrical or abstract forms, but everything else remains within a clear narrative program, then it won’t be part of the abstract field. An example of this would be the variations of the short piece Tatanka, by Spanish authors Felipe H. Cava and Raúl. Also external to that field would be a work that despite the dissolution of all those parameters would maintain some degree of legibility, iconicity or referentiality, which would hamper an abstract reading. A good example might be Gerner’s T.N.T. en Amérique

The editor is interested in a difference of nature, not degree. He is interested in a certain number of absences: absence of plot, of representation, of an “unified diegetic space”, to quote him from an interview (CBR). The works must be independent from the projections of the readers/spectators, or their intentions, an issue that can be extremely complex. It may suffice to remind ourselves of the numerous cases of mould and damp blots that are “seen” as faces of Jesus Christ… 

The introduction text of Abstract Comics is short but it is also a great gesture of drawing a very ample circle around the “Pre-History” and the “History” of this field of works. Molotiu encompasses in this short presentation the “children’s illustration” (how odd it seems to use such an expression here) made by El Lissitzky for the book Suprematicheski Skaz (which is presented completely, I think, here, a work that emphasizes the facility we have to project animated traits on things (which were expected and even desired by the Constructivist artist). One name that I did not know about was Kurt Kranz’. Heavily influenced by the films of Walter Ruttman and Hans Richter, Kranz may have influenced in turn, according to Molotiu, Kandinsky and Klee, both Kranz’ teachers at the Bauhaus. The two famous painters have a few paintings in which they reveal an experimentation with the notion of sequentiality, the division of the composition place into several, smaller planes (i.e., a “page” with “panels”), and exploring the metamorphoses of the “abstract” figures within those planes. It is quite possible that we may learn in the future more about this artist, not only due to an eventual second volume edited by Molotiu, but also by the sheer inertia that a book of this sort will trigger. A second volume is quite likely, if we take in account the concerted efforts of many of its authors in producing new work, as well as the influence exerted by the companion blog to this anthology. 

The first work of the anthology proper is Crumb’s famous “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics” (something probably made under the influence of LSD, even if not directly, at least tangentially, or even ironically). This piece includes letters, non-abstract figures, but they do not coalesce into a, let’s say, consensual meaning. And that dissolution is the direction towards which all other included works move. 

As an Art Historian with a book on Fragonard, as someone interested in Chinese calligraphy painting, as an artist of drawing, calligraphy painting, abstract comics (besides this anthology and his own comics, the Danish Fahrenheit has recently published an anthology of his work, Nautilus), as an asemic writer, etc., you can feel the convergence of Andrei Molotiu’s interests and passions in this book. When he describes Gary Panter’s work, he explains how he sees the “image coming to existence, or disappearing into pure graphic trace, or being formed into a figure”. This is an idea that Molotiu seems to be after in other places too, and which we can understand as a sort of background sea in which all forms exist but where they are not forms yet, a plane from which all forms stem and to which they all return (a “Chaosmos”?), a plane towards which this anthology’s works open up and allow us, no matter how fleetingly, to look at it almost straight ahead. 

Although a few of the gathered works have a metamorphosis principle as its basis, such as Tronheim’s Bleu (only a couple of pages from that booklet in this anthology), these works force us to see, more than to read: what’s at stake here is an optical attention, guiding us towards the idea of contemplation (closer, thus, to the classical “Visual Arts” or “Fine Arts”). Is the “abstract” notion in contradiction to that of sequentiality, which someone opposed once to simultaneity? I think that the problem lies, once again, in the lack of historical integration. Simultaneity occurs in many works of comics. We could bring to the fore, once again, the historical Verbeek, or the modern exploits of Fred’s Philémon or the contemporary J. H. Williams’ Promethea series in order to find examples of simultaneity operating within sequential legibility. Just as in Escher’s visual palindromes, there is the potential to draw up a linear path, even if this is an infinite path and all its parts are likely to become points of entry and exit of that path, and “reading”. 

In his seminal article “Du linéaire au tabulaire”, Pierre Fresnaut-Deruelle instituted two poles (of tension) of reading comics, which are actually used at all times, in a cumulative, concomitant, and inset way, no matter what kind of comics we’re dealing with. To put it in a (reductive) nutshell, on the one hand we have the “linear” way: one panel at a time, creating a more narrative strand of meaning; on the other, the “tabular” or “planar” way, in which we appreciate the whole page as an image, a map. Even in a classical album such as the Smurfs, no one forces the eye to focus solely on the first panel of the page to the left, and then moves it towards the next panel and the next and so on (holding the book as close as possible to one’s face and only opening it slowly to reveal the “next” panel). Such a control of seeing/reading is impossible: the natural thing to happen is for the eye to sweep over or scan the whole of the two opened pages, to apprehend the whole representation space at one go (through the saccadic movements) and then concentrate on each reading unit (the panel, the figures, the letters, the signs, etc.). The eye is never disconnected from cognitive activity, although the degrees of attention may differ in complexity: we can see without reading (bur never read without seeing). 

Most contributions, if not all, to Abstract Comics, create the condition of possibility of a tabular, planar, saccadic or contemplative reading, more than a linear one, especially the pieces by Warren Craghead III, Andrei Molotiu, Richard Hahn, Henrik Rehr, Patrick McDonnell, among others. But not Trondheim’s, or Mike Getsiv’s or Andy Bleck’s. The figures that compose these last works have formal characteristics that stress the internal metamorphoses, that is to say, the upholding of at least one axis in which the metamorphoses take place (and which become easy to receive our anthropomorphic projections). That is the reason why Derik Badman considered Tronheim’s Bleu a “minimalist” piece and not “abstract”. Then we have the comics by Bill Shut and Mark Staff Brandl, which, although as “morphological” as Trondheim et al., make us imagine a sort of spatial progression, a movement of the vision axis in relation to a given object, or a similar mental pattern (Bill Shut’s time Lapse Growth can even remind us of the backgrounds of the space-mystical operas of a Ditko – quoted in the Introduction – or a Starlin). Mark Gonyea and Alexey Skolin make the idea of visual progression even clearer. 

As I see it, although a distracted, unordered, “free” vision is possible (then again, something that can happen with any form of art, even the most figurative, even the most narrative: pure distraction may occur when we are reading a novel and realize that we’ve been going through the letters but not reading; or when we stop watching and following a movie and let our minds wander elsewhere) in regard to any of these comics, the very fact that there is some sort of structuring forces us to employ that very same sort of organization and structuring (close to, if we wish, the ideas of sequentiality, temporality and even causality). In a certain fashion, it is close to Neil Cohn’s notion of “system of navigation” of a comics page, or to what Molotiu called a “sequential dynamism”. This is not related directly and necessarily to the narrative structures or the sequential principles to which we are mostly used to in comics, its very own descriptors sometimes, but rather to “preferential patterns” of reading. There are a few studies from the field of the Cognitive Sciences to describe increasingly better and more precisely the optical-cognitive behavior of the reading of a comics page, but this issue is profoundly interlaced with other questions that arise from disparate fields such as Aesthetics, Visual Psychology, Semiotics, and so on… making up a single body that all these works at one time complicate and expand. 

The very gesture of making this book happen is, thus, very positive and most welcome. One of Molotiu’s own included pieces is entitled “The Panic”. It seems as if that is an ironic clin d’oeil to the feeling that these works may elicit in those who always wish to verbalize their interpretation in the most clear, problem-devoid, uncontradictory way.
In a discussion around this very same book, and on the direction towards which “abstract” could lead us, the issue tended to focus in on the “meaning”, which, as we’ve seen, can be more projective than inherent to the object in itself. Recurring, thus, to Peirce’s semiotic triad seems pertinent. This is a more articulated system than Saussure’s, for it includes, always, the interpretant in order to account for the “imposed” relationship that can occur between symbol and meaning. When we look at a cloud, it has no intention to communicate (thus, placing it outside Saussure’s symbolic relationship) but the truth is that we see in it forms similar to other objects we know (the shape of a country, of an animal), projecting that meaning on the cloud. In the case of the works gathered in this anthology, it can happen, it does happen, driven to a greater or lesser extent by the very objective characteristics that they present. Again, Trondheim’s example, but also Ibn al Rabin’s: it is but obvious that I will project concepts in my “reading” of these colorful blots: no matter how “abstract” their shapes are, I will find in the sequential relationship between them notions of mingling, crossing, consummation, transformation, conflict and so on, although I’m conscious that these are but metaphors that attempt to come up with a description of what I see, and not an objective description of the same represented actions (if “actions” they are). In these particular cases, then, or at least where I’m concerned as an individual reader, I am projecting not only animated traits - in objects that are inanimate, motionless, they’re but lines and color on paper, this is not even animation – as well as anthropomorphic or animal-morphic characteristics, trying to find traces of animal behavior in these blots. 

As of course, the very premise of abstraction opens up to a whole spectrum of non-figurative, representative, formal potentialities and possibilities of interpretation that, to start with, become an unmovable obstacle to their own classification or typologization. However, if we want to address abstract works in the field of comics, we must necessarily deal with the comics’ characteristics that are maintained: the idea, no matter how phantasmatical it has become, of sequentiality; speech balloons (even if there’s no speech, if they’re totally blank, or if they carry non-symbolic visual and/or graphical elements); words (even when the editor rightfully states that they gain a visual or pictorial value before anything else, if not exclusively); the mise-en-page with multiple panels, allowing us to think of a relatively classical structuring. 

Going back to Peirce, and to the adjective “asemic” that we noted when referring to Molotiu’s writing practices (as well as by other authors, gathered in the Asemic Magazine anthology, edited by Tim Gaze, who’s also present as an artist in Abstract Comics), we could ask ourselves if these comics are really “asemic”. In the first place, we have to think of asemic less as “having no meaning” that as “having no socially agreed signs” (that is to say, something that has to go through some process of social, consensual assimilation, or process of education). We need to take a little detour here, though. 

According to several sub-fields of semiotics, there is a strict condition in these relationships: there can be no semiosis without interpretability. Semiosis, according to Peirce, is the action of the sign, or the process of the sign: there is a (triadic) relationship of cause-medium-effect, or codification-vehicle-decodification, as for example (stolen from Gérard Deledalle) when an officer gives an order to his soldiers (event A), who will interpret that order (event B) and act it out (event C). For Peirce, the word “sign” does not mean simply that which stands for something (for someone, being these last two words the great distinction from Saussure’s view), but it’s something that gained two senses, the one through semiosis, which we just described summarily, and the other through the notion of the representamen. This, according to the Century Dictionary, is an “object serving to represent something to the mind”. Despite the complexity of this distinction, perhaps Peirce’s own example will help us to partially clarify the question: “in looking at a map, the map itself is the Vehicle [first formal perspective on the representamen: the substance of the representation], the country represented is the Natural Object [second perspective in the representamen: the quasi-agent of the representation], and the idea excited in the mind is the Interpretant [third perspective on the representamen: the quasi-patient in the representation]”. 

Taking in account both senses of sign for Peirce, how could we begin to describe these “abstract comics”? Do they have or not a semantic content? Do they suggest or not a meaning? Do they belong or not to some sort of socially accepted or agreed on code or system? And, lastly, are they or not “comics”? The answers, of course, are not clean-cut. These comics – I will take an inclusive stand, a positive assumption – are vehicles that excite in our minds some idea, but we will not find a consensual natural object for it (taking the risk of over-simplifying to the point of absurdity or even blatant error, perhaps we are quite close to what Kant called the “dynamic effect” in the search for the understanding of the beautiful, its “floating image”: in which we perceive an object, but not its end). These pieces of comics elicit a semiosis (they are a cause and provoke an effect through the means/media of the pieces themselves), but it’s as if that interpretability could not be shared in a more common manner. Thus, “any meaning” is drawn out, even if the comics do not allow us to reach “socially agreed signs”. They are, therefore, asemic in that “open” sense foreseen by their creators. It is obvious that the association to certain “classic” elements of comics, such as speech balloons and panel-structuring will, notwithstanding, make us think in terms of “communication” and “progression”.
All of these questions will be answered, or better, challenged, by all the pieces included in this book. The different techniques – ink on paper, watercolor, pencil, black or color, collage, digital manipulation, minimalist drawing, patchwork, cartoony lines (unavoidably, Kochalka’s) -, associated to the different strategies and presences of “comics” elements in these variations will make us wonder, on the one hand, on a progressive dilution of any formal determination in relation to this art (bringing it closer, thus, to freer or more conceptual artistic disciplines, in which the gesture is more important than, say, talent, virtuosity, technical prowess), and, on the other hand, in the phantasmatical emergence of an unifying idea (a name: “abstract comics”), but which is, in the last instance, irreducible to something directly analyzable. We cannot forget the modes and conditions of production either: for example, Molotiu employs a progressive destructuring of any given element that acts as a point of departure (a painting by Pollock, a panel from Josie and the Pussycats or from Tony Millionaire, a page from Little Lulu, a picture of a model, a drawing from his son, and so on), or a progressive “peeling”, and the subsequent “reforming”, until one reaches the paradoxical states of an articulation of disarticulated elements. Other authors in this book act out similar procedures, sometimes making easier, sometimes not, the identification of their sources (although, if we do realize it, it may become significant for its appreciation/interpretation, and if we do not, it will not constitute a dissuasive factor in that same appreciation/interpretation). 

I must confess here a personal preference for certain works missing here, such as Molotiu’s own black-and-white work (which I had the pleasure to publish in the Divide & Impera little book, along with Warren Craghead III), but this is a frankly expanding territory (as one can see, for instances, in the new animated works in Molotiu’s blog), and, therefore, this new perspective is, in fact, and frankly so, new

Another wish is to see a wider discussion – not necessarily within the book itself, but its critical reception – on how these works, whether the historical or the new ones (some of which were created for this anthology), interconnect themselves with a wider field of “experimentalism in comics” (which is different from “experimentation through comics”, as it usually occurs within the Art world), which we find in other centers or strategies of creation, as for instance the very visible and highly praised production from Frémok (a recent group of three books that stem from collaborative, transdisciplinary projects by Vincent Fortemps, Thierry Van Hasselt and Olivier Deprez could be a good starting point). Or perhaps yet another discussion on what is the role of comics in divulgation spheres than not printed matter: the “white cubes” and even the “black boxes” of the museological and galleristic spaces: how can one contrast Molotiu’s curated show Silent Pictures or the recent New York Minute show in Rome’s MACRO, with Vraoum!, which insists on a mode of approaching the “Fine Arts” that I find obtrusive to the advancement of the necessary discussion, if it is really necessary even with the “larger audiences”. 

Abstract Comics does not abstain itself from this discussion.

© 2001, 2014 SuccoAcido - All Rights Reserved
Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:

Pen: Pedro Vieira de Moura


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Andrei Molotiu - Flow - cropped
Andrei Molotiu - Flow - Full
Andrei Molotiu - Continental Slide
Abstract Comics - Andrei Molotiu
Abstract Comics - Henrik Rehr
Abstract Comics - Warren Craghead III
Abstract Comics - James Kochalka
Abstract Comics - Derik Badman
Abstract Comics - Billy Mavreas
Abstract Comics - Derik Badman
Abstract Comics - Cover

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