Every year, the Carnegie Art Museum holds what is called the “Carnegie International,” an exhibition of what are considered particularly relevant and influential pieces of contemporary art. I have an especially strong memory of one of these exhibitions about three or four years back when I entered the first gallery and was surprised to find that nearly the entire front part of the first gallery room was filled with R. Crumb’s works. Under glass cases, mounted on the wall behind protective glass, always with the requisite labels of artist and date, were page after page of excerpts and sketches from various comics Crumb had penned. What struck me most was how incongruous it seemed to have strips of Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, various buxom ladies, and other Crumb characters meticulously labeled and rubbing elbows with various other works that were clearly taking themselves a lot more seriously. Although I don’t think comics, especially comics as influential as Crumb’s, should only be seen by comic mavens in the know, it still struck me that perhaps this was not the intended audience, or at least a somewhat awkward venue, for such work. I am struck with a very similar feeling when presented with Fantagraphics’s latest anthology, Abstract Comics. At $39.99 (I audibly gasped at the register) and filled largely with less-than-familiar names, even in the graphic novel world, I was curious: who will read and buy Abstract Comics?
Abstract Comics, perhaps more so than any other recent comic release, highlights the way in which the comics world is markedly changing. Comics are indeed reaching across more disparate audiences and being found in a much wider selection of venues. But what might be the implications of this? What is the difference between going to see comics in a prominent art museum versus checking out the latest releases at your local comic book store? If nothing else, it seems that Abstract Comics makes explicit that the line between comics and high art is beginning to disappear.
Abstract Comics: The Anthology
(Fantagraphics; US: 29 Jun 2009)
What is perhaps initially most striking about the collection of comic artists that Andrei Molotiu (an abstract comics artist in his own right) has gathered here is that much of the book bears more resemblance to other abstract painting and collage than to traditional comics. For instance, Warren Craghead III, whose work graces a significant portion of the cover of the book, displays an artistic style that is particularly reminiscent of New York School painter, Philip Guston, who interestingly enough was often described as making art in a cartoon-like manner. Similarly, much of the rest of the book seems like it would not be out of place on a gallery wall, in fact, maybe even more at home there, than in a collection of comics. This may be because much of the work contained in Abstract Comics only seems to be comics insofar as they employ frames and, less frequently, speech bubbles and captions.
This, however, is a particular strength of the collection as it poses the question of what gives comics their essential essence? Or more clearly put, what makes a comic a comic? Abstract Comics posits that it is the idea of sequential art that is the most basic criteria for a piece of visual art to count as a comic. As noted in Molotiu’s introduction “with increasing frequency in recent years, cartoonists and other artists have played with the possibility of sequential art whose panels contain little to no representational imagery, or that tells no stories other than those resulting from the transformation and interaction of shapes across a comics page.” In this sense, Abstract Comics does a superb job of implicitly proving how comics make meaning without any real recourse to narrative. We glean meaning from comics instead via the juxtaposition and rhythm of frames placed alongside of each other. The placement of frames need not communicate a narrative, as the book shows, but instead might give a sense of movement or mood via the choice of colors and shapes displayed across a series of panels. Much like early film experiments by Hans Richter, Abstract Comics collects works by various artists who are indeed trying to work out the question what can be expressed through the specific medium of comics, without recourse to traditional narrative paradigms.
But I am particularly curious as to why now? Much of the work collected in the anthology was originally published some time ago, so what is it about this particular moment in the history of comics that we need a collection of abstract comics? It is my suspicion that, much in the same way that abstract modernist art came to prominence as a reaction to highly sentimental, idealized narratives that were seen as masking larger issues and atrocities at the time -in particular both World Wars- a history of abstract comics seems timely in relation to the hyper-autobiographical memoir comics that seem to be de rigeur over the past couple years. Abstract Comics instead puts form before the human, setting the focus squarely on the medium rather than on the story, and arguing that it’s the craft and not the sentiment of which we should take notice. Abstract Comics, too, gestures as to what the use of abstraction means specifically in a comics context, perhaps most importantly that comics need not be a form that is inextricably bound to narrative, and that like film and painting, comics are well-adapted to communicate mood and movement.
The question still remains, however, who is Abstract Comics for? I am tempted to say it is for anyone who is interested in comics, in that it marks an important shift in comics history, but that specific shift too indicates an even further breaking down of comics’ subcultures. Both with its hefty price tag, as well as the nature of the comics contained within, Abstract Comics definitely isn’t what you’d call immediately accessible. The comics don’t yield an easy meaning, if any, in some cases beyond demonstrations of what can be done with the comics form when a straight-forward narrative is taken out of the equation.
The book also leaves larger questions as to what exactly was the criterion for the artists contained within, as it sometimes seems like a veritable grab-bag, both in terms of style as well as the artists chosen. For instance, artists better known for more traditional and narrative-based comics like James Kolchalka and Lewis Trondheim are set against other lesser-known artists working more decidedly in the field of abstraction. In other instances, artists such as Gary Panter who are perhaps more explicitly working on the borderline between abstract and narrative-focused comics are included. It is also interesting to note there is not one female artist represented within the collection. This is briefly acknowledged on the blog for the release of the book, but which, despite the claim that there aren’t really any women working in the abstract comics field, I am still doubting its veracity, given the high use of abstraction and lack of a true narrative in newer, surrealist comics artists like Amanda Vahamaki or Julie Morstad. That said, while it is certainly not perfect, Abstract Comics is a necessary addition to the comics canon in that it forces us to continue to think what exactly constitutes the comics form.