If the question of what precisely defines a comic book is complex, the question of what makes an abstract comic book is certainly more so. Drawing from the worlds of abstract painting, narrative comics, and other sources which serve to inspire the imagination, a select few artists have created works that defy convention yet retain some of the traditional characteristics of comics like panel borders, speech bubbles, and other less concrete aspects.
In June, Fantagraphics will present a collection of such works in "Abstract Comics," an anthology edited by Andrei Molotiu. The book includes short strips by R. Crumb, Gary Panter, and Lewis Trondheim, and original pieces by James Kochalka and others, and is complemented by a blog, which features new work and experiments by anthology contributors. CBR News spoke with editor Andrei Molotiu about the book and blog, the traits of an abstract comic, and the dynamic elements of superhero comics.
Recognizing that it is important to define one's terms, Molotiu opens "Abstract Comics" by discussing the boundaries of what is and is not an abstract comic, recounting some of the principles and laying them out in the book's introduction. "The term 'abstract' has been applied in a variety of different ways to comics," he told CBR. "On one hand, you could think of something like 'Beanworld' by Larry Marder as being an abstract comic, since it has very abstracted characters. Nevertheless, it still has a forward narrative. If you just have a story with abstracted characters-a story that is otherwise narrative and has straightforward storytelling-it's simply not different in kind but only in degree from reducing human beings to cartoon characters, anthropomorphic ducks [as in 'Uncle Scrooge'], or what have you. That's not the kind of strip I was interested in for the anthology.
"I took my cue from several abstract comics of the past, specifically beginning with Saul Steinberg, who had a number of pages of abstract comics in his 1960 book, 'The Labyrinth.' Starting from such examples, we can define an abstract comic as a comic that does not illustrate a pre-existing plot and that has only non-representational images in the panels. We can even expand this definition to include comics that may contain representational images, so long as those representational images do not cohere into a straightforward illustrated plot or narrative, and do not create a unified diegetic space.
"For example, one can imagine a comic that doesn't really have a plot, but in which all of the objects depicted belong in the same landscape, in which case the comic is basically surveying that landscape-most likely by means of what Scott McCloud calls aspect-to-aspect transitions. I wouldn't include such a comic. For the anthology, thus, my working definition of an abstract comic was either a comic that contains only non-representational images, or one that that may contain some representational images so long as they do not cohere into a plot or a united diegetic space. I also allowed that some may contain words, so long as the words function primarily visually or pictorially and are not there to convey the narrative."
Describing comics' place in the world of abstract art, Molotiu noted that there are affinities but only rare occurrences of the two media crossing over directly. "One can't really plot the evolution of abstract comics to the evolution of abstract painting, but there have been abstract artists in the past who became interested in the idea of doing some kind of sequencing," Molotiu said. "This is somewhat connected to the notion of the series, as practiced by Mark Rothko or other abstract painters. What we call a series usually consists of a number of abstract paintings that are connected by similar formal concerns, but that don't necessarily form a sequence. Often they are numbered, but that numbering tends to speak only to the order in which they were created, not to an order of reading that could hint at a definite sequence. However, some people become interested in exploring the connection of abstraction to sequence, possibly under the influence of abstract cinema, and the most important of those would be Kurt Kranz."
Molotiu said that he was unable to include Kranz in the anthology (except as represented by a brief excerpt reproduced in the introduction) because he was not able to determine the copyright owner or representative, but is hopeful that Kranz's work will be included in a possible second volume. "Working at the Bauhaus from the late '20s to the very early '30s, when he was in his late teens, Kranz was inspired by the abstract cinema of Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, and Hans Richter to make abstract art that progresses and changes from image to image to image," the editor said. "The best work that he created at the time is a series of forty ink drawings titled 'Picture Sequence: Black/White.' In them shapes seem to grow from panel to panel-or, more accurately, from drawing to drawing. A circle, for example, multiplies into many circles, and you get a feeling of actual sequence developing from image to image.
"Then there is a painting from 1937, reproduced in the introduction, by Wassily Kandinsky, who had been Kranz's teacher. It's called '30.' The painting is divided into 30 squares, and each square has either black-on-white or white-on-black glyphs on it. It looks very much like a comics page, panel after panel, and I would guess that Kandinsky was inspired by his student to create it. You can even find hints of sequence in some drawings from the 1930s by Paul Klee, who was also a teacher of Kurt Kranz, and I wonder if he too may have been inspired by Kranz."
Other than Kranz and his impact upon his teachers, Molotiu includes a few other major names from the art world in his analysis of abstract comics. "I reproduced a [Willem] de Kooning, one of the drawings he made around 1960 when he was living in a small apartment without a really big studio, when he began drawing on smaller sheets of paper that he then glued onto larger pieces of paper or canvas. The piece I reproduce consists of four such smaller sheets that are combined, and it's pretty clear he arranged them in such a way that they have a sequence. The first three have more movement, and the last one kind of stops, almost like a four-panel gag strip. The next step was taken when Pop artists became interested in the relationship of comics with high art. I'm not referring to Roy Lichtenstein who, rather than investigate sequence, instead took sequentiality away from comics by focusing on single panels. I'm thinking, rather, of Jasper Johns's 'Alley Oop' of 1958. This is the one where Johns took an 'Alley Oop' Sunday page, glued it to a canvas, and painted it over to leave visible only the major shapes. This way you still see the panels, you still notice the major changes in composition from panel to panel, without however being able to follow the story or even recognize the characters. So that's the opposite of what Lichtenstein did--it maintains the sequence, but does away with the figures. Saul Steinberg put a number of clearly abstract comics in his book 'The Labyrinth,' which came out in 1960. And those function almost like abstract parodies-they're actually, perhaps surprisingly, very funny--of daily strips. They usually have four panels and end with something like an explosion, giving you the basic structure of a comic strip but in purely abstract terms. Not so far from what de Kooning had done, really.
"To put it in a context, I think that abstract comics-or at least what one might call abstract sequential art-- have been occasionally made by abstract artists, who included sequentiality either within a single work like in the Jasper Johns or de Kooning pieces, or in a series, such as Jackson Pollock's 'Red Painting, 1-7,'" Molotiu explained.
Despite these convergences, most abstract artists were overall not interested in sequential art. "To a large extent, this was because abstract art, especially as defined by Clement Greenberg, was interested primarily in the direct confrontation between viewer and image, in which the main axis consists of that direct confrontation of the painting and the viewer's gaze, as opposed to the side to side direction of reading, from one image to the next, that would resolve into sequentiality."
Molotiu's introduction also implicates a legendary narrative comics artist, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, and briefly discusses the abstract elements of his Dr. Strange stories. "The reason I mention Ditko is that there are a number of superhero comics that become so graphically powerful, because there's so much movement in them, that even if you completely ignore the text and even the figures, the vectors of force in each panel will lead you to the next panel," the editor said. "You have these very strong graphic sequences in works by Ditko, Kirby and many others where even if you blur the whole image and get rid of the words, you still see a strong spotting of the blacks, for example, from which you can construct wonderful abstract compositions."
The editor noted that though abstract comics might appeal more to the indie comics base than superhero comics readers, the latter form is often better suited to the needs of abstraction. "A kind of party line has been predominant in portions of the alternative comics world," Molotiu said, which leads them away from the graphic energy the editor sees as inherent in art by creators like Ditko and Kirby. "I think that, oftentimes, abstract comics do end up maintaining more of that graphic energy, and I think that they can draw attention to this very powerful tool in the vocabulary of comics that may have been lost in a number of art and alternative comics."
Molotiu also cited Gary Panter's "Zomoid" as mostly abstract. "You kind of see the image coming to existence, or disappearing into pure graphic trace, or being formed into a figure." The work also has elements of representation, places the dominant emphasis on the purely graphic component of the art.
On the "Abstract Comics" blog, and also in the book, there are several examples of artists adapting narrative comics into abstractions, such as Johns's "Alley Oop" and Mike Getsiv's "Kirbstract," highlighting a phenomenon that Molotiu calls "sequential dynamism" which he defines as "the dynamics of forces that lead your eye across and through a sequence, beyond plot, the graphic element that leads you from one panel to the next."
"About four years ago I took a 'Little Lulu' strip and took out all the words and began blurring it, changing shapes and making it more unrecognizable. And because it was originally black and white I colored it more non-realistically," the editor said of his own abstracting practices. "It almost automatically became a graphic abstract comic. You can do it in Photoshop."
There are, though, different methods for different artists. "Derik Badman drew digitally over a 1950s 'Tarzan' comic, and just drew the main compositional elements but got rid of the figures and the words. I think it's quite powerful," Molotiu said. "Noah Berlatsky has two pieces in the anthology based on, respectively, an 'Asterix' page and an 'X-Men' page. As far as I can tell, he just looked at the originals and redrew them by hand. In such cases, these artists attempt to maintain that abstract play of compositional forces from panel to panel that they see in the original pages they copy, while moving away from the representational aspect of the comics."
Beyond offering promotion for the Fantagraphics book, the "Abstract Comics" blog has had the effect of creating a community for abstract comics artists and inspiring others to post their efforts online. "I wanted a place on the web to bring together a lot of the efforts in this genre, which have been very scattered," Molotiu said of the blog's origins. "I've been working on this anthology for the past five years, and five years ago there was a lot less material than there is now. One way I found a number of contributors for the anthology was simply, once a week or once a month, Googling 'abstract comics' in English and in French. I actually never figured out how to Google it in German, I should find a way. But every once in a while someone new would pop up who had done something of the kind. They were so scattered that I thought having a single forum on the web where they can come and bring everything together would be very helpful. It has turned out, to some extent, to be--we've only been in existence since April and several other people on the web, inspired clearly by our blog, have begun trying their own hand at abstract comics. Which potentially gives me more material for a second volume of the anthology, which is great."
The blog also serves as a place to suggest and post the results of abstract comics exercises, in the spirit of surrealist "exquisite corpse" collaborations or limiting experiments in the style of Oulipo ("workshop of potential literature") and Oubapo (the comics equivalent). While this aspect is in its "infancy stage," Molotiu said he hopes abstract comics artists will continue to explore similar themes in this way. "I think the most there has been so far is the emotion challenge, proposed by Alexey Sokolin. It's quite fascinating to see not only how different people see different emotions graphically, but how their renderings fit together and the extent to which there are some common threads between conventionalized notions of how to represent an emotion abstractly.
"I think overall, there has been a sort of Oulipian component to much abstract comics production. On one hand, something like what Derik Badman or Noah Berlatsky are doing, basically transforming a preexisting strip, derives from the sort of Oubapian constraints," he continued. "Also some of my own comics, like my series called '24x24: A Vague Epic,' which is currently on show at ArtLexis gallery in Brooklyn and is going to be in my new book. There I wanted to divorce panel making from sequencing, so I would either take an old drawing of mine or make a new drawing, which would be a unified, single drawing, and then cut out of it panels and completely resequence it so that the ultimate product was not the drawing I began with but a sequence, a 24-panel, 4x6 page. Since each panel came from one drawing, there was a consistency of markmaking. My only rule was that I could never take contingent areas of the drawing and put them side by side in the comic. Basically, there seem to be continuities from panel to panel, but they are completely made up--I would usually try to take something from the top-left of the drawing and then from the bottom-right, panels as far apart as possible, and put them side by side in the comic. So again, I don't know if you'd call that a generative constraint, but it is largely Oulipian-inspired."
Since "Abstract Comics" tackles a previously unexamined subject, it is perhaps not surprising that it will serve as an exhibition catalogue for a retrospective of abstract comics art. The exhibition, curated by Molotiu and Linda Norden, is titled "Silent Pictures" and will be on display from August 14 at the CUNY Graduate Center's James Gallery. "It's actually a double show: about half, or a little more than half in terms of works exhibited, will be from the anthology. We're going to represent every single artist in the anthology, I don't know if we're going to be able to get in every page, but every artist is represented," Molotiu explained. "The other part is going to be a collection of silent sequential art and comic books in the woodcut style from Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, as collected by Art Spiegelman."
In closing, Molotiu praised book designer Jacob Covey for his work on "Abstract Comics," noting that his work complemented the anthology's subject matter. "I think it's his best work, and I think he might agree to some extent with that," Molotiu said of Covey. "The overall graphic theme and design theme that goes not only through the plate pages but the introduction, the title page, the back matter, is quite fascinating. One of the things he's done is to base part of his design on the first plate in the introduction, which reproduces four pages from 'The Story of Two Squares' by El Lissitzky. Lissitzky's story is about a red square and a black square, and the graphic theme of the red square and the black square reappears throughout the book, both right before the table of contents, then leading into the plates, then the bibliography. There is constantly this design theme of red and black, and what might be seen as red and black triangles, functioning like arrows leading the reader to turn the page, but which are actually derived from half a square standing on one of its corners. Jacob basically picked up on the graphic theme of the first image in the introduction and disseminated it throughout the book, making the design itself Constructivist, in a sense. I thought it was a very great design idea and I'm very happy with it. The book becomes a powerful graphic design object in its own right. Jacob's notion was that--this being a book of abstract comics, not something you see every day, the first publication ever dedicated to the subject--we should do something more interesting, more out of the ordinary, to echo the book's contents in the design itself."
Molotiu also mentioned his own book of abstract comics, titled "Nautilus," debuting concurrently with the anthology. "I'm pretty excited because I convinced my publisher to do it in the old fashioned European album format, like the hardcover 'Asterix' albums I grew up with," he said. "It's being published together with a book, 'Reykjavik,' by another contributor to the anthology, Henrik Rehr, a Danish artist living in New York. We chose the titles advisedly, to be understandable in any language-just like the books themselves, being primarily silent, not to mention abstract, can be universally understood."
"Abstract Comics" will be released June 29. Exclusive material is regularly posted to the Abstract Comics Blog, http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com.