A Quick Introduction To Abstract Comics
by Tim Gaze

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I tend to use the word “comics”, singular and plural, to mean sequential art and graphic novels, as suggested by Scott McCloud.

Abstract comics and bandes dessinées abstraites/bds abstraites are an emerging stream of culture.

How might comics be abstract?

A first possibility: the frames might be asymmetrical, partly dismantled, or completely absent.

A second possibility: content such as abstract (non-representational) shapes might be arranged within conventional frames, or illegible writing put into speech balloons.

A third possibility: tropes from comics, such as speech balloons, thought bubbles or frames might be used within another artform, such as visual art or poetry.

 

1. IRREGULAR FRAMES OR NO FRAMES

Playing with the conventions of comics frames is not uncommon. Alan Moore's Promethea series includes some pretty convoluted compositions. Underground comix of the 1960s and '70s messed around with typical frames, especially when depicting the characters' psychedelic experiences.

More recently, one of the most extreme experimenters with warping the frames is Baladi (otherwise known as Alex Baladi)(Fig. 1). His book La main droite (Atrabile, 2004) is as radical a departure from typical storytelling style as some of the short stories of the '60s and '70s described as surfiction or metafiction, by the likes of Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, or older stories in German by Arno Schmidt.


 Baladi (Fig. 1)

A few artists make things without frames, but which somehow depict action in a way comparable to comics. Tommi Musturi of Finland's large format books of drawings such as Concrete Floor (Boing Being, 2007) include detailed scenes with a lot going on, as well as one page of exploded eyes and other facial features (Fig. 2). The collaborations between Swiss artists Xavier Robel and Helge Reumann, such as in "Kramers Ergot 6", also depict a lot of simultaneous activity.


 Musturi (Fig. 2)

Breaking the frame in a different direction, and escaping the page, the creators published in #10 of the journal Glömp (edited by Tommi Musturi, published by Boing Being, 2009) are preparing 3-dimensional comics works to exhibit in various locations around Europe, the group exhibition to be titled Glömp 10.  The print version of Glömp 10 is conceived as half of the project, while the exhibition is the other half.

Many of the presentations are highly abstract, such as Roope Eronen's panels on the faces of cubes which are mounted on rods. Every cube can be rotated by the viewer, thus allowing many combinations to be created by the person viewing it, who has complete freedom to control it. Makes me think of Raymond Queneau's ingenious book Cent mille milliards de Poèmes (English translation, One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems).

 

2. REGULAR FRAMES

A gentle approach to abstraction is for wordless comics, or inscrutable “asemic” writing in speech balloons or thought bubbles, accompanying recognisable scenes. A more radical approach is for completely abstract shapes, which can't be construed as depicting anything recognisable.

As the objective tone used in the nouveau roman, by novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon was a new way of narrative storytelling, the most abstract comics offer a completely new realm: is it storytelling or not? Are they attempts to describe non-verbal states of mind? Are they triggers for unfamiliar ways of thinking? They certainly comprise a means of non-verbal communication, with its own (implicit) rules and possibilities.

French artist Lewis Trondheim is renowned for his books such as A.L.I.E.E.N. (English version, A.L.I.E.E.E.N.), Bleu, and La nouvelle pornographie, which unfortunately I don't enjoy.

Numbers 13, 14, 15 and 16 of Swiss journal Bile noire (Éditions Atrabile) contain a section titled LA BANDE DESSINÉE ABSTRAITE. Ibn Al Rabin, contributing artist and editor of this section, has written a few short texts, defining the area, in 13 and 14.  Andréas Kündig replies with LA BANDE DESSINÉE ALTERNATIVE in 14. Many of the works in Bile noire could be described as geometrical transformations (Fig. 3). The journal shares some contributors with other Swiss comics zines and journals, such as Bülb Comix, Strapazin, Drozophile, and Lapin.


 Rabin (Fig. 3)

Rabin's abstract series, "Cidre et Schnaps", can be viewed here.

Canadian comics artist Billy Mavreas's "Point Intégraa"l (in his collection The Overlords of Glee, Crunchy Comics/Conundrum Press, 2001) is an abstract classic, perhaps telling the tale of a seeker on a mystical quest. His more recent book Inside Outside Overlap (Timeless, 2008) is mainly full of recognisable images, although completely wordless except for a few panels, and interspersed with a handful of completely abstract panels (Fig. 4).


 Mavreas (Fig. 4)

Andrei Molotiu, artist and art history professor in the United States, is preparing Abstract Comics: The Anthology, the first anthology of purely abstract comics, to be published by Fantagraphics in 2009. Molotiu's blotcomics gallery presents a few approaches to creating abstract comics, even including the use of Google Earth photographs as starting material. His self-published minicomics include "Alcoholalia", abstract remixes of panels from Tony Millionaire's "Maakies" (Fig. 5 & 6).



  Molotiu (Fig. 5 & 6)

Musician and artist David Turgeon, of Montréal, composed Jardin botanique (Éditions Colosse, 2006), forty pages of rough pencil drawings, not quite recognisable, with a child-like feeling. He created them as a homage to the artists Paul Klee and Joan Miró, and the film-maker Norman McLaren, reaching for form and rhythm alone. It's out of print, but some sample pages can be viewed here.

Some European comics zine publishers use the term “noise comix”. David Birchall, raw comics creator, includes occasional noisy abstract pages in his narrative comics, such as in Extricate 6 (Black and White Cat Press) (Fig. 7).



 Birchall (Fig. 7)

Marc Van Elburg (sometimes Marc Van Helburg), of the Netherlands, has drawn many noisy pages, in comics published by his former enterprise De Hondenkoekjesfabriek, sometimes using the name Monobrain. His zine SE PA RA TO RI UM is more recent, and includes odd exploded views of what appear to be the narrator's body parts, which make me think of a severely dissociated form of Cubism. Some of Marc's work is reminiscent of the artist Pierre Alechinsky. The frames in SE PA RA TO RI UM are pretty whacked out (Fig. 8).



 Van Elburg (Fig. 8)

English artist and circuit-bending musician Tim Drage a.k.a Cementimental has composed a book full of low resolution software-generated visual noise, which he describes as an “untitled harsh noise graphic novel” or a “harsh noise album in paperback form”. A few pages include rows and columns of tiny square boxes, with dots and lines inside, which resemble miniaturised and pixellated comics (Fig. 9).


 Drage (Fig. 9)

3. OUTSIDE THE REALM OF COMICS

Graphic designer Françoise Rojare produced a graphic translation (traduction graphique) of part of French writer Maurice Roche's novel Compact, which she titled Mnémopolis, originally published in revue Change 5 (Éditions du Seuil, 1970). Roche's novels are highly experimental, and include typographical oddities, small black and white illustrations, non-alphabetical symbols and fragments of other languages (Fig. 10). Rojare's ingenious translation utilises many styles of graphics, including comics.


 Rojare (Fig. 10)

The French avant-garde group the Lettristes created compositions which included words, symbols and images. These included hypergraphic novels (romans hypergraphiques). Some pages in Alain Satié's hypergraphic novel Ecrit en prose (Éditions PSI, 1971) include speech balloons and thought bubbles from comics (Fig. 11).



 Satie (Fig. 11)

New York-based photographic artist Rosaire Appel's books include images set up in frames similar to comics, which could be taken to be abstract comics. The ones in OUTWITTERS / handbook (Press Rappel) appear to be denatured pages from assembly instructions (Fig. 12). The ones in Morpheme Pages look like snipped out fragments, small enough to be unidentifiable, of larger images, some of them plugged into frames. Her more recent book, Intersections – a travelogue, is described as “a non-sequential abstract comic”.


 Appel (Fig. 12)

My own pseudocomics includes abstract shapes set up in unruly frames. I would be overjoyed, and mightily surprised, if an intrepid reader could “read” these as conventional comics.

On a completely different tangent is the vocal composition Stripsody (1966), by Cathy Berberian. She vocalises the kind of onomatopoeic comics sound effects which Scott McCloud so dislikes.

Use of comics elements in poetry is a growing trend, which I'll now discuss.

 

GRAPHIC POETRY & VISUAL POETRY

The terms graphic poetry and graphic poem have been in use for a few years, with at least 3 quite different meanings:

1) non-narrative comics, which are cousins to graphic novels, and sometimes identical to abstract comics;

2) conventional poems set up in comics frames, and accompanied by images, which add a kind of harmony or counterpoint to the poem;

3) poems which go beyond conventional lines of text arranged on the page, this term used in ignorance of the rich history of concrete poetry and visual poetry.

Poet and critic Gary Sullivan probably has more knowledge of the area where comics and conventional poetry marry than anyone else.

Visual poetry is a broad term, which covers just about all forms of poetry which go beyond plain vanilla typographic design.

Some Brazilian visual poets who were active in the process/poem (Portuguese poema/processo) movement, founded by Wlademir Dias Pino and friends in 1967, used tropes from comics, such as frames and speech balloons. In particular, Alvaro de Sá composed Poemics (Edição Autor, 1991), which he described as “comics metalanguage” and 12 X 9 (edição particular, 1967) (Fig. 13 & 14).


       
Alvaro (Fig. 13 & 14)

Contemporary visual poets such as Jim Leftwich (Fig. 15), Carol Stetser, and Andrew Topel have occasionally used forms similar to comics, or even detourned pre-existing comics.


  Leftwich (Fig. 15)

LAST WORDS

This is not an exhaustive round-up of abstract comics, but hopefully offers enough hooks to enable more attention to be given to this fascinating area.