Monday, April 6, 2009

My interest in "Abstract Comics" stems from my interest in the use of the term "Literary Comics." It seems to me, over the past several years this term has proliferated throughout the world of comics and beyond, and when I read the comics tacitly affiliated with this term I'm usually left wondering why they are "Literary Comics."

When I think of the term "Literary Comics" it makes me ask the question: how does literature work? Basic answer: reading literature compels me to make pictures in my head of what I'm reading. If I were to read "Huck Finn sat on his raft and floated down stream," I would form this scene in my mind... and what's cool to me about literature is that my Huck Finn probably looks different from your Huck Finn, and they're still both Huck Finn.

So I started a series of drawings that would hopefully compel people to form their own pictures. This led to the work titled "Mainstream Blackout" which appears in the forthcoming book Abstract Comics. I do not consider "Mainstream Blackout" to be a comic. As I was working on "Mainstream Blackout" I eventually began to consider each drawing a letter, which is why I stopped with the 26th drawing. After I finished "Mainstream Blackout" I immediately began drawing Medicine Show, which was my conscientious attempt to create an abstract or oblique narrative not unlike the Mixtec Codex Nuttall or the work of Henri Michaux. With Medicine Show I wanted to see if people would be compelled to form their own comics.


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  2. The glyphs work like a honeycomb: There's no linear axis to stretch across. The patterns combine and form information, all equally weighted.

  3. Those pages are really cool--you should make a mini of them. Do you know Tim Gaze (one of the contributors to the anthology, as it happens) and his journal, "Asemic"? They would really fit in there.

  4. " the boy stood on the burning deck"

    (A sentence typed by Mark Twain, who bought a typewriter only months after the first Remington
    went on sale. The saleslady who demonstrated the machine to Twain typed a fifty-seven word sample in sixty seconds, which so impressed Twain that he bought the machine immediately, only to realize later that the woman had memorized a formulaic phrase in order to maximize time and labor. The following passage is from Twain's Autobiography: " At home I played with the toy, repeating 'the boy stood on the burning deck' until I could turn out that boy's adventure at the rate of twelve words a minute; then I resumed the pen for business, and only worked the machine to astonish inquisitive visitors. They carried off reams of the boy and his burning deck. "

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    i like this Literary approach you've taken & how the sequences can be read in wordless visuality, almost purely emotive, in that the thickness or density of line gives prompt to visceral intensity, the uniform size of the glyphs/words/scribble reinforces that this is indeed a writing system, one which eschews semantic directive & allows the reader enter as equal partner in the enterprise of how the story takes shape, i like how there is discernible movement & stasis and how page by page, the narrative develops, it's interesting to think about how a paticular inhabitant of language, a person, how their cultural reality & overall worldview is affected by the language in which they inhabit, the many different forms of writing & reading and how legibility is often an opressive force in that it attempts to provide a definitive concrete conveyance with little room for personal interpretation.

    i also enjoyed the starkness of marks, the dense tight lines in black against the ever blank white page.

  5. From the foundation you describe---asserting how literature works---it seems the abstract comics have a few important differences.

    One is that even though 'your' Huck and 'my' Huck might look a little different, they probably both look a LOT more similar than different. The idea of a human character brings with it a lot of visual context.

    Another is that the kinds of texts you use as an example offer a LOT more contextual meaning to prompt readers to start generating images. It is the presence of a coherent story and engaging characters that lure a person into investing the energy to picture what Huck looks like and follow through his experiences.

    A third is that literature really doesn't work the way you describe. Some very sharp people have put a lot of time into investigating this, and have come to significantly different conclusions. One of the best is Susan Langer in her book _Form and Feeling_. She points out problems in lots of the common views of how literature works, then goes on to describe how textual art forms actually work by creating an experience of emotion arising from virtual events framed within a virtual history. The pictures we imagine are merely a little offshoot of what's really happening when we engage with creative writing.

    Abstract comics seems to me more closely aligned with aleatoric music---in both cases the theory behind the art is more interesting than the art itself. It's kind of a preaching to the choir art: people who 'get' it can get the same satisfaction from the random sensations surrounding them every moment of the day. And people who don't 'get' it don't want it.

    As for me, I think the calligraphic nature of the marks is much more substantial than any appeal to start making up stories to accompany the marks.

    I'll shaddup now.

  6. I should've stated that the images from my post are not from "Mainstream Blackout" or "Medicine Show."

  7. It's no surprise to me that my "definition" regarding how literature works is limited at best... and this is probably a detriment to the work in a context greater than myself. My post is the story of how I came to "Abstract Comics" and what I had to do at the time I made "Mainstream Blackout" and "Medicine Show." Nothing more.

  8. The comment I left before was too bullshit poetic, but I really feel like comics can work like maps or diagrams where the imagery, structural components, etc. function to describe an idea spatially instead of temporally. Lots of the general wisdom about comics seems to come at the medium from the McCloudian "sequential art" camp where some form of linearity is involved. What I see with "Medicine Show" or Michaux or Jason's piece above is more pictorial but probably still comics (as if that really matters). My wife told me today that she doesn't think the strips I make are much like comics. To me they're pretty conventional in the way that there is an idea I am describing or a story I'm telling in a form that can be parsed fairly easily. I get worried bout the plasticity of comics sometimes, and the purity of more abstract or "pure" comics seem so much less mediated. Like how Pollock, et. al, took all the bullcrap away from visual art. And maybe the idea itself is the way into the work - like how the ab ex guys as heroic, romantic figures was the subject of that work in a way. I think that's the appeal of Chippendale or Brinkman (for me, at least).

    Ramble, ramble, ramble...

  9. This is an edited and expanded version of a comment I made earlier:

    @ Scot--there is very little theory behind abstract comics so far; really, the work--by Crumb, by Gary Panter, by Saul Steinberg, etc.--is all there is, which brought us to try our hands at it. I was blown away by some of that stuff, just like I'm blown away by the work of some of the contributors.

    As Jason says, he is simply describing his own path to abstract comics, the intellectual process that led him to it, not a general theory about the genre. It seems pretty clear, from his words, that that is how literature works for him, no matter what Langer might have to say about it. And don't you think there is a contradiction between telling him "that is not really the way literature works" (as if there is only one way!) then going on to say that "some very sharp people... have come to significantly different conclusions"? (Unless you mean that all those very sharp people fully agree with each other, and they all disagree with Jason... Which, no matter how preposterous, if true would still not negate Jason's own experience.)

    You claim that "people who 'get' it can get the same satisfaction from the random sensations, etc." That's patently untrue in my own experience, and I imagine in that of most other authors here. Your "preaching to the choir" argument strikes me as unwarranted--an imputing of bad intentions to people whose work doesn't interest you. If you hang around here, hopefully we can bring you around, but it seems you have already made up your mind about it, in which case I imagine we won't see you around here much anymore.


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