Comics Time: Abstract Comics

Abstract Comics

Andrei Molotiu, editor

R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Spyros Horemis, Jeff Zenick, Bill Shutt, Patrick McDonnell, Mark Badger, Benoit Joly, Bill Boichel, Gary Panter, Damien Jay, Ibn al Rabin, Lewis Trondheim, Andy Bleck, Mark Staff Brandl, Andrei Molotiu, Anders Pearson, Derik Badman, Grant Thomas, Casey Camp, Henrik Rehr, James Kochalka, John Hankiewciz, Mike Gestiv, J.R. Williams, Blaise Larmee, Warren Craghead III, Janusz Jaworski, Richard Hahn, Geoff Grogan, Panayiotis Terzis, Mark Gonyea, Greg Shaw, Alexey Sokolin, Jason Overby, Bruno Schaub, Draw, Jason T. Miles, Elijah Brubaker, Noah Berlatsky, Tim Gaze, Troylloyd, Billy Mavreas, writers/artists

Fantagraphics, 2009

232 pages, hardcover

$39.99

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One of the pleasures inherent in anthologies is the way proximity draws out the contrast between successful and unsuccessful work. One of the unique pleasures of this anthology is how that success or lack thereof can be determined not just by the subjective standards of the reader but also by the ostensibly objective standards of the anthology itself. In his introduction, editor Andrei Molotiu defines abstract comics thusly:

What does not fit under this definition are comics that tell straightforward stories in captions and speech balloons while abstracting their imagery either into vaguely human shapes, or even into triangles and squares. In such cases, the images are not different in kind, but only in degree, from the cartoony simplification of, say, Carl Barks’ ducks….While in painting the term ["abstract"] applies to the lack of represented objects in favor of an 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.

True, none of the comics featured here use (legible) captions or speech balloons. But as Molotiu’s subsequent emphasis on “images” implies, the lack of text is incidental to the more fundamental lack of narrative or story. It’s by that petard that several of the strips Molotiu selects are hoisted. The contributions from Ibn Al Rabin, Lewis Trondheim, Andy Bleck, and to an extent Mike Gestiv and Bill Shut all rely precisely the sort of “difference in degree” Molotiu warns about–in their comics, abstracted shapes perform actions based on recognizable, and in some cases quite clearly depicted, physical motivations and even emotions, just like the “triangles and squares” we’re told may as well be Uncle Scrooge. These strips are cute, but not exactly challenging, and far from abstract.

But the successful strips in Abstract Comics prove that comics need not depict emotions to pack an emotional wallop. Indeed, part of my long-held enthusiasm for this project stemmed from my suspicion, based on steps (small and giant alike) in the direction of abstraction during this decade by such alternative comics artists as Kevin Huizenga, John Hankiewicz, Anders Nilsen, Josh Cotter, and Frank Santoro, that abstract comics stripped completely away from their narrative moorings–abstract comics “in the wild,” as it were–had the potential to generate emotional content of enormous power. What I didn’t expect was just how…I don’t know, idiosyncratic my reaction to such comics would be.

For example, I’ve already described how the more openly narrative works contained here elicited a chuckle but not much else. What’s interesting to me is how the sorts of shapes used by those artists–outlined blobs, for the most part–left me cold even in purely abstracted form. The squiggles of Elijah Brubaker, the whorls of James Kochalka, suggest a warmth and an airiness I’m just not tuned into at all. I’m not a curve man, it turns out. Meanwhile, I’m equally unaffected by strips that eschew drawing sharp contrasts from image to image and panel to panel, either by muting the differences between juxtaposed visuals (Warren Craghead, Richard Hahn, Janusa Jaworski) or by weakening or eliminating the parametric framing and structure provided by panels (Noah Berlatsky, Billy Mavreas, Troylloyd, Tim Gaze, Bruno Schaub).

What I am interested in, it appears, are angles. boxes, cold geometry. Jason Overby’s “Apophenia” is perhaps my favorite comic in the whole book: Beginning with a grid of penciled-in panel borders containing nothing at all, it proceeds to flash various sharply carved shapes into panels at random intervals like sudden words emerging from a haze of silent static, or subliminal messages erupting from a blank screen. Mark Goneya’s “Squares in Squares” is just that, panel after panel of brightly colored squares surrounding one another like an infinite regression, their position within the panel shifting slightly to slow our eye’s descent into the abyss. Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell’s untitled, college-vintage contribution uses a repeated bisected-circle motif in black, white, and watercolor-blood red to suggest cold sunrises and magisterial eclipses. And Spyros Horemis black-and-white concentric circles and swirls practically glow off the page with the force of an optical illusion.

I’m also interested in a sense of awe and scale. Molotiu’s own excerpts from The Cave overwhelm with bright colors and massive slopes that dwarf panel borders and seem to escape his control, like a microscopic process blown up to IMAX size or a projected filmstrip set on fire. Henrik Rehr’s “The Storm” is as aptly named as was “Squares in Squares”: Great waves or windgusts toss us to and fro across black backgrounds, sending tiny offset panels scattering like leaves. Alexey Sokolin’s “Life, Interwoven” sees its panels slowly overwhelmed by furious black scribbling, like a diary of a madman, until it not only totally blots out the grid but appears to topple it over.

And sometimes I’m like John Cleese’s pope: I may not know art, but I know what I like. I like the loneliness of Blaise Larmee’s tiny, shaky, frail, incomplete rectangles against their off-white background in his Nilsenesque “I Would Like to Live There.” I like the humor of Geoff Grogan repeating a bullseye motif until the laugh-out-loud punchline photo of a woman’s nipple in “Bullseye.” I like Jason T. Miles creating shapes out of chunky, semi-monstrous black and white lattices–Brinkman Blocks, if you will–then signing it with a great big clumsy JASON T. MILES in “Mainstream Blackout.” I like the implied sequentiality of Mark Badger following up a pencil-sketched “Kung Fu” strip from 1980 with a boldly colored remake of the same strip from 2008. And I like the pure psychedelia–in the information-overload sense–in R. Crumb’s “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics,” drawn, laid out, and even titled as though attempting to get it down on paper winded him.

So. By my count I liked, mmm, about half the book, give or take a couple strips. And there are potentially fruitful paths that remain largely untrodden. For example, I know Molotiu has been doing yeoman’s work on carving out a space for nonnarrative comics for years because I remember jostling with him a bit about on the Comics Journal messageboard following the release of Kramers Ergot 4 in 2003; however, the work of Fort Thunder and its fellow travelers, showcased so memorably in Sammy Harkham’s anthology, isn’t represented here (unless you count their spiritual godfather Gary Panter). Meanwhile, Crumb and Larry Zenick excepted, the use of representative figures in an abstract way is elided here; I wish Molotiu had selected one of John Hankiewicz’s enormously effective strips in this style rather than the comparatively staid and painterly contribution we see here. And for my money, the sequencing peters out toward the end–I’m not sure what I was supposed to take away from the final strips, rather formless black and white affairs. An editorial focus not so much tighter as tweaked, I suppose, is what I’m looking for.

But what I liked! What I liked, I liked for more than just the strips themselves–I liked them for the proof they offer that comics really is still a Wild West medium in which one’s bliss can be followed even beyond the boundaries of what many or even most readers would care to define as “comics.” That an entire deluxe hardcover collection of such comics now exists is, I think, one of the great triumphs for the medium in a decade full to bursting with them. And even if the book’s existence is ultimately more impressive than the sum total of its contents, it strikes me as churlish to complain.

2 Responses to Comics Time: Abstract Comics

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey Sean. I don’t agree with you on much of anything here, I don’t think (McDowell’s strips left me singularly cold, and, hey, my stuff is great, obviously.) But it’s well thought through, and fun to read. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Carnival of souls

    * Today on Robot 6: Avengers-related news galore (let’s hope Secret Avengers is Brubaker espionage), possible glimpes of the Marvel Universe’s post-apocalyptic future, someone got Wizard wet, and Benjamin Marra’s awesome Traditional Comics commercial. …