I've been enjoying the work and commentary over at Abstract Comics a lot this week. As with probably all artistic practices, there's a certain amount of disagreement as to what does or does not fit. Andrei Molotiu tackles this conundrum in the first paragraphs of his introduction to the anthology, Abstract Comics. First, he defines the genre: "sequential art consisting exclusively of abstract imagery" (1). Quickly, though, he adds: "the definition should be expanded somewhat, to include those comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even into a unified narrative space" (1). Fair enough.
In setting up the framework for what will be included in the anthology, Molotiu then moves to firm up the definitional boundaries from the other side of the fence, identifying what abstract comics are not. "What does not fit under this definition are comics that tell straightforward stories in captions and speech balloons while abstracting their imagery..." (1). Got it? Got it.
Still, disagreements at the blog continue to emerge, with the desire among some for a "unified rhetoric" and "clear definitions" that clearly mark what is and is not an abstract comic. Apparently, it matters whether you consume your abstract comic fat end first or narrow end first.
Okay, I kid (and with allusions to Swift), but I also find the conversation fascinating. I don't mean to disparage those who are working out the parameters of an emergent genre. I also think there are several unremarked assumptions in the discussion. For example, there is a kind of formalism at work here that wants to make these assessments of the work itself, but where are the boundaries of that work? Does it include the frame(s)? The title? What the artist says about the work?
Take the following work posted at the Abstract Comics blog by Rappel:
Seems to fit the definition, right? But what happens when you learn that the title (at least in the blog post) is "natural sequence/river"? Does that frame turn it from an abstract composition to a narrative of reflections on the water? If so, that seems like a lot of power for a title. Then again, George Lakoff has spent the better part of an academic career informing us about interpretive frames and how they guide our perceptions.
What Rappel's comic and the discussion that followed on the blog revealed for me is that the definition of abstract comics (and probably any art, for that matter) resides somewhere between the object/image and its reception (c.f. Roland Barthes distinction between "work" and "text"). If human beings really are the storytelling animal (Homo narrans), we will always at some level defy Molotiu's anti-narrative clause in the definition of abstract comics by reading narrative into the play of images, especially if they come in sequence. Yes, there is a difference between the clear cues of narrative content and the reading practices of individual viewers. Even so, the boundary between between those story-sources is murky.
I am not really invested in pinning (or penning) down a definition of anything. For me, the practice of naming and defining is about what it encourages me to see. In the art world, I think it is also a call to defy, to push at boundaries, to try something different. And so this discussion has.
Return to the top of the page and consider my abstract comic, "Stranger Phantoms." I am sort of hoping you already have, because now I am going to add another interpretive frame to it. This is a bricolage/collage piece, re-purposing and re-framing panels from classic "Phantom Stranger" comics. In their original context, the panels were elements of fantasy stories. Here, they have been reworked with more attention to composition and value progression than telling a story. The Stranger's powers are mystical and supernatural -- he is not your typical superhero and is a quaint anomaly in the DC universe. In depicting his stories, artists often rely on surrealist and even abstract representation. By no stretch of the imagination do I posit these comics as originally presented as fitting Molotiu's definitions for abstract comics. But in "remixing" the originals, I hoped to create a product that at some levels plays with process, with the idea of abstract comics as a way of viewing as much as a kind of art "thing." I do not discount what my selection, framing, and positioning have done in the creation of an abstract comic. On the other hand, I also note that the abstract qualities of this composition were, in part, always already available to me in the source material.
So, (how) did that paragraph change the way you view the comic?