Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Abstract Comics

Posted by on March 24th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Various; Andrei Molotiu, ed; Fantagraphics, 208 pp., $39.99, Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-1606991572

Here’s a book that was initially attractive as an intriguing, if intellectual, curiosity, only to reveal itself in short order as a continually fascinating experience.

Back in the paper Journal (#295) I got to review the catalog of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in which fine-art artists “abstracted” select aspects of comics and animation and incorporated them into their aesthetic works. With Abstract Comics, the influence promised to go in the other direction, of comics absorbing fine arts-cultivated sensibility, content and theme. The immediate question was: What exactly could be expected from comics with little or no conventional representation, and little or no conventional narration?

The book presents a number of ways of exploring that question. Perhaps the most accessible is to seek out familiar names as guides. Abstract Comics hosts a surprisingly diverse and robust roster of contributors, ranging from Robert Crumb to Patrick McDonnel, with the likes of Panter, Craghead, Hankiewicz, J.R. Williams, Kochalka and Trondheim between.

Or going in by way of words, the introductory essay by editor Andrei Molotiu frames out the taxonomic structure of what he calls – and makes stick! – a “genre” within comics. The book is subtitled “The Anthology: 1967 -2009” and Molotiu’s “Brief Prehistory” helps provide the conceptual legs for the inclusions.

But of course the best way to enter the material initially is just to open ’er up, wade in and be visually informed. As it turns out, you find your own feet quickly and intuitively. After all, with but a line, there’s the unavoidable hint of character (its characteristics). A second line suggests relationship and unavoidably provides a third feature, the space between. If there are panels or frames, sequence comes in, which means progression, development, action, something happening. Transformation explicitly triggers rhythm, a crucial ingredient. Along the way a sense of mood insinuates itself. With each new attribute the graphic field becomes denser, potentially richer, certainly more complex. Add forms, colors, borders, lack of borders, symbols, recognizable imagery and the visual interactions continue to multiply exponentially.

At some point it becomes difficult not to “read” these pieces as comics, projecting some kind of order and coherence, according to whatever degree of subjectivity seems appropriate. In his introduction, Molotiu provides an eminently sensible reading for Willem de Kooning’s four-part abstract painting Black and White (San Francisco) as comic strip with punch line, as if to get the interpretive ball rolling. Following along, the narrative lines of Trondheim’s three examples and several pages by Ibn Al Rabin prove completely intelligible as discrete episodes. But as should be expected with open-ended abstractions, “mistakes” in reading are also to be made. For example, segments of Molotiu’s own The Cave suggested to me, at first, a comic made of a videotaped colonoscopy, likely neither the artist’s inspiration nor intent. That’s fair game, part of the process, and later those same pages would change in my eyes. Maybe they’ll change again.

I hope this volume, despite its killer commercial potential, will inspire a second. There’s also the hope that in any subsequent edition the translation of prose into abstracted code will be resisted. The introductory material, which also appears in English, makes its dutiful point, but the symbolic pagination serves only to remind what a boon numbered pages have represented since the tail end of the 15th century. Citations for the art in that introductory material could also be better placed closer to the actual works. The contributor’s notes were welcome, especially for less familiar artists who chose to reveal something of themselves.

Otherwise — if I haven’t handed out the designation already — Abstract Comics is the most surprising book of the year.

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