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Abstract Comics

Imagine a book publisher had released a retrospective on “The Graphic Novel” in 1976, or that a cinema hosted a look back at France’s nouvelle vague in 1957, or that a gallery exhibit somewhere spotlighted American Abstract Expressionism in, say, 1946. The experience would have been not unlike reading Abstract Comics: The Anthology today. We would see the same stirrings of activity, the same preliminary exercises duly attempted, much to mull over, and some select moments of clarity—but the premise would remain tantalisingly incipient.

That there is work yet to be done in the abstract genre—“a sequential art whose panels contain little to no representational imagery”—is never in question here. In fact, editor Andrei Molotiu (also a practitioner: his whorling contributions are among the volume’s highlights) adopts it as something of a rallying cry. Abstract Comics exists as testament to the fact that comics like these—investigations of rhythm, colour, layout—can indeed be created; the volume acts more as a manifesto for the genre than a memorialisation of it.

Abstract Comics doesn’t really feel like the kind of wide-ranging survey that other similarly handsome, coffee-table-friendly books usually claim to be. Instead, it more closely resembles a compilation, gathering what few examples of these practices yet exist—if the picture this book provides is not quite complete, it must very nearly be. (Given my unfamiliarity with many of the artists included, though, it would have been interesting to see more information about the provenance of their strips: which artists led to the discovery of which others, where all this unpublished work turned up, which pieces if any were commissioned, which were created for the internet and which for print.) So, despite many examples not having made the cut, the material here doesn’t read as though it’s been curated so much as it seems to have been conserved or simply collected, more of a ragtag bunch than a refined selection. Inevitably, then, sensibilities clash from strip to strip, but the work is sequenced in such a way as to encourage this clashing, allowing the strips to inform and comment on each other.

The debate begins with an R. Crumb strip from 1968’s landmark Zap #1, “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics.” It’s a triumph of flow and page composition that gamely gives two fingers up to this notion of abstract comics at the same time as enacting it. From there the unrestrained undergrounders give way to ready-for-anything newavers and minicomics artists, or mainstream talents testing the waters (Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell’s pink suprematism butts up against superhero artist Mark Badger‘s kung fu futurism), or continental jesters (Ibn Al Rabin, Lewis Trondheim) toying with speech balloons and panel edges and blobby “character”s in order to push narrative to its limits.

The strips themselves run the gamut from biomorphism to strict geometry, from The Dot and the Line to The Dante Quartet, from inky splotchy handmade pieces (Gary Panter’s are, of course, vigorous fun) to regimented, hands-off computer effects. At times the connections between strips can come off as a little too likely, calling attention to the limits of their approach rather than the thought that goes into constructing those limits. So when Mark Gonyea’s squares lead into Greg Shaw’s squares, or when Shaw’s all-black climax prepares us for Alexey Sokolin’s all-black climax, or when Sokolin’s black page faces off with Jason Overby’s white one, we may be forgiven for seeing a gimmick rather than a technique, superficial qualities rather inner mechanics.

Which would be a shame—Sokolin’s and Overby’s pieces, in particular, are among my favourites in the book—if it weren’t that the stronger entries here stand out on their own, free from any rubric. So Overby’s decorous eruptions of activity, obsessively timed and penciled, make for rewarding comics, period. The same goes for québécois cartoonist Benoit Joly’s fluid and elegant constructions, or Derik Badman’s respectful détournement of classical cartooning, where he reproduces only the backgrounds of a Jesse Marsh Tarzan strip—these are all curious, inquisitive works of cartooning, regardless of their abstraction. I may wish more of the contributions retained some sign of their maker’s mark, or that fewer seemed to slump into the comics format only as the last step in their creation, but these are personal preferences, and there’s more than enough going on elsewhere in the book to otherwise satisfy me. I look forward to a second volume.

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