Pulphope (2007), page 32. Paul Pope.
Creating the illusion of movement is one of the main goals of comics art. It’s what sequence is there for. That said, it’s not the hardest thing to do when the movement in question is that of human figures or familiar machines. Dynamic posing and composition work quite nicely much of the time, even when it isn’t quite certain where the movement is being directed, or how. Comics have a library of stock gestures and shot transitions for artists to pull from in order to sell their action. Creating a sense of real life on the page is one thing, but to simply put some jump in the pictures, two words — “copy Kirby” — are often all that’s needed.
However, that’s only true as long as the artist is dealing with easily recognizable forms. Abstract comics have become a more and more significant part of the dialogue surrounding the art form over the past few years, and artists in that section of the medium are faced with a different set of challenges. How does one animate pure shape or color or linework, how can these things be convincingly brought to life? It’s not a question with a solid answer yet. There’s no How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way for abstraction, no solid set of rules cartoonists can turn to to string their non-figurative drawings into sequences that work as comics, accumulations of images that build power and function as more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s probable that one day some artist is going to come along and lay down a broad, workable grammar for abstract comics the way Kirby did for action or Ernie Bushmiller did for gags, but until then abstract comics are shots in the dark, unarmed forays into unknown territory.
The page above isn’t strictly abstract — there’s an easily parsed figurative meaning to it, a hand chalking shapes onto paper — but it deals with one of the main problems of abstract comics in a stylish and effective manner nonetheless. How do you put motion, the illusion of life, into pure lines that carry no meaning beyond their own existence? “Draw like Paul Pope” isn’t the worst starting point. The Pope line, fluid and expressive, messy and elegant in equal measure, is one of the liveliest in comics. Even when the line is bent to figurative drawing, it feels charged, like it’s waiting to be set free. Here, it is, and it moves with a life and logic of its own. Perhaps Pope’s greatest gift as an artist is his ability to communicate gesture with his line, to show readers the details of the path of his brush across the page with variations in thickness or wobbles in texture. That’s what’s being put on display in this sequence, the ebb and flow of ink as it relates to the trail being blazed, and like any depiction of forceful movement in comics, the reader can’t help but be drawn into following it over the panel borders, watching the progression from beginning through to end.
Pope’s framing is also key to the sense of life here. The standard eight-panel grid layout’s broad, low panels call up the shape of a movie screen, priming readers to see motion cutting across them. Pope plays with the panels borders almost imperceptibly, moving the central vertical axis of the page from right to left, creating a rhythmic wobble in the layout that mirrors the slicing curves of the line. By cutting in and out on the hand, making it now bigger, now smaller, now completely invisible, creates more movement, the sense of a camera unable to fix its rapid subject in place. The line is the one constant, its source a mere happenstance. It is what we watch.
The abstract trails and shapes Pope cuts across the page are themselves a major part of the loose, snapping kineticism this sequence carries: left with nothing but the line itself, no recognizable textures or outlines being formed, the movement we see when we move from panel to panel is assigned to the line itself. It’s the most engaging constant on the page: the background remains the same, and though the hand twists and strains, its contortions are pinned to human anatomy. It has nothing on the pure expression in the whip-dance of the black trail searing across the page. This sequence qualifies as abstract because it manages to make the abstraction more arresting than the figurative, cutting the strings that tether our eyes to the figurative but still leaving them dangling on the page.
It’s a beautiful thing, a kind of “drawn metafiction”, if you will. We are made fully aware that this comic is made up of medium on paper, a physical object in real space created by the movements of an outside agency. What’s so wonderful about it is that it denies the idea that that movement, that agency, is in the past, the means to an end. This page is not a cold, dead sheet of paper with its shapes and lines long since inked and printed. Whenever we look at it the lines begin to draw themselves again, and the motion on it forces us to watch it create itself once more.
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