What is this a picture of?

Posted by on February 16th, 2010 at 5:50 PM

In his online conversation with Derik Badman on madinkbeard about Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics, Craig Fischer says he’s “bummed that [Lewis] Trondheim’s ‘abstract pornography’ didn’t make it into the book.” Two of Trondheim’s pieces did make the cut, including an excerpt from Bleu, but this orgasmic one-pager did not.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me whether the above strip is entirely consistent with Molotiu’s definition of abstract comics: “sequential art consisting exclusively of abstract imagery [as well as] those comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even a unified narrative space.”

Can the imagery in these panels be described as “abstract”? Only if the reader resists the rather powerful urge to turn Trondheim’s abstractions into symbols that occupy a “unified narrative space.” Once the reader makes the connection between the panels and sex, the compositional elements will most definitely “cohere into a narrative.” Despite its clever conceptualism, this page is all about the story.

By its very nature, Molotiu’s project raises tricky questions about form, narrative, perception and “comics.” Fischer and Badman, as well as Charles Hatfield, have given a lot of thought to Molotiu’s project, but I don’t know whether the hair-raising ambiguity of the very concept  of abstract comics has been fully confronted.

Let’s consider this from the perspective of a contemporary artist, Amy Pryor, who both paints and refashions found materials such as advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Numerous examples of her work, which include collages, paintings, sculpture, and installations, can be found here.

Much of Pryor’s artwork is concerned with the way in which the rhetoric and imagery of 24/7 commerce seeps into everyday life. In this 2007 piece, “new FREE (world map),” a riot of advertised prices threaten to overwhelm what my comics-trained eye reads as a severely abstracted urban landscape.

Additional examples of her recent work include “Amber Waves”:

And this marvelous collage (“Wicked”):

I like this one, “(Important News)”:

From the standpoint of Abstract Comics, with its implicit focus with comics that retain panels, grids and sequences, these pieces are most definitely Not Comics, not even in their abstract guise, not even close. For those more sympathetic to R.C. Harvey’s conceptual framework, however, with its stress on the verbal-visual blend, the case is perhaps not as clear cut. If the interplay of words and pictures is at the heart of comics, then these socially aware images have more to do with comics than many of the dreamy image-poems Molotiu picked out for his book. A Harveyite would come up with a very different collection than Molotiu’s McCloudesque tome, and might even give Pryor’s work a second look.

What should we make of Amy Pryor’s “Saver,” from 2008? While the image reproduction is not as large or sharp as I would like, the first thing that popped into my head when I saw this piece on the artist’s website was, “empty panels – ahah! – abstract comics.”

If Andrei Molotiu had included “Saver” in his book I think we all would have found in Pryor’s work an effort to grapple with the implications of McCloud’s insight that panels are themselves storytelling devices. As it turns out, the piece was fashioned out of coupons cut out of newspapers, magazines and ad circulars. If the piece is “about” something it’s about the ubiquity of capitalism’s hurry-act-now promises. It’s concerned with commerce rather than comics. An email exchange confirmed that the artist was unaware of McCloud’s book or the concept of abstract comics when she composed her piece.

Parenthetically, Pryor’s interest in the printed rectangle as a cultural icon similarly informed one of her recent installations, which consists of carefully arranged security envelopes:

The example of “Saver” raises, I think, comparable questions to those posed by Eddie Campbell when he famously said, in 2000, that comics “is simply a tradition.” If comics is best understood as an ensemble of practices and understandings, rather than a set of formal rules or guidelines, then Pryor’s “Saver” is not comics, abstract or otherwise, because it wasn’t nurtured in a comics environment or aimed at a comics audience. And yet, had I told you that Amy Pryor was an up-and-coming cartoonist, and that “Saver” offers a fine example of abstract comics, you probably would have believed me.

Some of the pieces in Abstract Comics may strike us as comics-like because they were produced by names we recognize from other comics-related settings. In a different context, and/or robbed of the perceived intentionality of the artist, and the connection between many “abstract comics” and comics as lived experience simply dissolves. Both context and intentionality matter more than they should when it comes to applying such a slippery concept.

One of Pryor’s larger pieces similarly poses interesting questions about McCloud, Harvey and abstract comics. The piece, “Dark Words, Red Dwarves, Yellow Giants, Blue Kings,” is 10′ x 18′ and is constructed out of magazine paper and a decade’s worth of found starburst ads. It doesn’t have panels, but it does tell a particular kind of story. Rather than being randomly scattered across the canvas, the starbursts represent actual constellations. “Dark Words…” is a map of the night sky, in other words, but with advertising slogans in place of star clusters. We project our commercial culture onto the stars:

A close up:

McCloud has trained us to look for panels and panel-to-panel transitions. Andrei Molotiu’s book is full of marvelous imagery, but says surprisingly little about comics as imagetexts.

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6 Responses to “What is this a picture of?”

  1. Caro says:

    this is terrific, kent.

    do you think molotiu’s definition means the abstract imagery should not cohere either? from what you posted it reads like that just limits the representational elements. if symbolism is disallowed, how do you tell the difference between a wordless abstract comic and plain old abstract art?

  2. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Both context and intentionality matter more than they should when it comes to applying such a slippery concept.”

    I think that “should” is pretty slippery itself. Context and intentionality are central to any medium or genre. What’s the difference between film and television? Poetry and prose? A lot of those boundaries are pretty arbitrary — and come down to context and intentionality.

    I think abstract comics doesn’t have much of a tradition, is maybe the problem, so it’s hard to see it as a thing. I think the book does a pretty good job of selling it though…anyway, it at least half-convinced me.

  3. […] at The Comics Journal, Kent Worcester offers some commentary on the Abstract Comics discussion from the other […]

  4. Andrei says:

    Kent–you’re absolutely right, “La Nouvelle Pornographie” has little to do with abstract comics. It’s just an extreme example of cartoony simplification, but once you recognize the forms it’s very clear what’s happening. This is very different from Trondheim’s “Bleu,” where, yes, things are happening to a blob, but it’s still just a blob on a page, it does not represent a vaginal opening or sperm…

  5. Andrei says:

    Also, I should add that I’ve never found Harvey’s definition of comics convincing, so I wouldn’t be able to see any of those things as convincingly comics. Words and images have been combined forever, but very few of the resulting images have much to do with comics. On the other hand, there is a much closer connection between the larger history of sequential art (or, let’s call it, art telling stories in a number of images placed in a deliberate sequence) and comics per se.