Saturday, October 3, 2009

Unexpected precursors, part I

Here's an abstract comic; quick, who is it by?

...Well, it's a bit of a trick question. I "remixed" it a bit--mainly, removed the words. But I did so in order to stress that sometimes, when we look past the words, we can find abstract comics in the most unexpected places. In this case, I say "unexpected" not because the creator in question isn't interested in avant-garde sequential art--quite the opposite, he has created some of the most experimental comics of the last couple of decades--but because the panels above come from the one comic that I probably have most often read, Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics--a book that I bought as soon as it came out, in 1994, and which I have assigned to every class on comics I ever taught. But it wasn't until a few days ago that, cracking it open again (sometimes I feel I don't even need to do so, since I know it by heart; but obviously that's not the case), I looked at the first pages of chapter five and realized not only that, if you look past the captions, almost every panel on them is purely abstract (which is pretty obvious), but also that, if you squint just so, enough so that you can't read the captions anymore, you can actually scan them as an abstract comic. Judge for yourselves:

I have repeatedly said that, when I started making abstract comics, I knew of few previous examples--some drawings and paintings by Pierre Alechinsky, Crumb's three-pager from Zap no. 1 (the first piece in the anthology), a couple of examples from Saul Steinberg's The Labyrinth and Gary Panter's single page from Legal Action Comics (also in the anthology). Clearly, I need to add these pages to that list, though it has taken me a decade and a half to identify them as belonging to it. (And may I add that they also remind me, very distinctly, of Alexey's "vocabulary of emotions" project of a few months ago? Maybe McCloud inhabits the subconscious of every one of us.)

Here is one more page from that chapter, the one that I "remixed":

Note that, even though it does have text, the text largely describes what the abstract form is doing in each panel--and so, in a way, it's even closer to "abstract comics" per se than the previous pages.

Now, at the time I discovered Understanding Comics, I hadn't yet read Scott's earlier opus, Zot. Indeed, I've only done so recently, in the recently-published collection. The most striking (for me, at least) story arc in the Zot run is "The Eyes of Dekko," the tale of an artist, Arthur Dekker (known, especially in his later, machinic incarnation as Art Dekko--get it? Get it? Check out the shape of his head!), who slowly replaces part of his body with robot parts, ultimately to become fully robot, and a supervillain in the bargain. His perception of the world, then, changes from human vision to something much more alien and inhuman--which Scott portrays through abstraction. Here, from issue 17, is a sequence showing the psychiatrist who supposedly had "cured" Dekko's insanity, then showing how Dekko really perceives him, thereby disabusing us of the idea that Dekko was truly cured:

Here is the powerful and disorienting first page of the same issue:

And here is the last:

Finally, here is the cover of issue 18:

(I think it's supposed to show Zot as seen by Dekko.)

Now, I don't know exactly what, if anything, it says about abstract comics that Scott uses abstraction when he wants to represent the inhuman vision of a robotic supervillain. (I should add here that he--Scott, not the supervillain!--gave me a wonderful blurb for my book, Nautilus, and that he was an early supporter of this very blog.) On one hand, you can extrapolate from it that, while not inhuman, abstract comics may be anti-humanistic, or at least that they help critique the usually unquestioned humanism that stipulates that comics need to be narrative, and that such narratives need to center on human beings or highly anthropomorphic stand-ins for them. On the other hand, I find the page where Dekko expresses his love of nature quite moving--no matter how sinister the scene is supposed to be in context--and, ultimately, as showing us the very humanity of the machine. It's a humanity expressed in very unfamiliar terms, granted, but perhaps that much more powerful for it.


  1. Here is my tangential take (briefly as I am supposed to be making breakfast for my daughter): Pure abstraction isn't scary or irrational at all. Rather, it is that moment teetering on the edge of abstraction that freaks people out. That moment that still clings desperately to representation is a psychological phenomenon called "Pareidolia". Very cool word. It is what drives the Rorschach inkblot test. But this is my point: Like the "Uncanny Valley" in robotics and computer animation where the "more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion." Maybe there is a similar dip at the other end of the spectrum between "barely abstract" and "fully abstract". . . maybe I need to draw a graph. . . definitely I need to finish the waffles.

  2. I definitely keep 'Understanding Comics' in mind when thinking about abstraction and composition. McCloud is also not the first to think of emotional compositions--that stuff probably goes back to the twenties, if not to cave drawings!

  3. D'oh, you bet me to it Andrei.
    I was/am going to do a post about Scott McCloud, but what a absolutely fantastic post.

  4. For anyone who is interested in the history of Abstraction--the connection between line and emotion-- check out the book "Visual Thinking" by Rudolf Arnheim (1969). Betty Edwards usually gets the credit, but she noted in her book "Dreawing on the Right Side of the Brain" that her exercise was taken from Arnheim's book.

  5. Draw--I hope it's ok, I've been planning a second post on McCloud too...

    Damaris--you left two messages that basically said the same thing. I hope it's ok that I only published one of them.

  6. Just a bit of learning curve as a neophyte fan of sequential art. Damaris is my nickname. Didn't mean to post twice. Can't wait to get a copy of the book, "Abstract Comics: The Anthology." Want to learn more. Started a blog today at

  7. let put more on this. Check out Michel Henry's Seeing the invisible on Kandinsky. And of course, for pure abstraction and non-representational object depiction, Kandinsky writings should be considered.
    Abstract comics is surely about presenting un-presentable, its about Being, representing the invisible.


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