Friday, October 9, 2009

Unexpected precursors: Scott McCloud, part II

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

Ok, ok, I know this won't work twice in a row, not to mention I already gave away the answer in the title to this post. Here is the page from "Understanding Comics" from which the above comes:

(It's page 137, the last page of chapter 5, "Living in Line.")

Scott was here in Bloomington this past Monday, giving an amazing talk to the largest and most enthusiastic audience I've ever seen at a university lecture; I fortunately had the chance to hang out with him both before and after his talk, and I'm still pumped up about all the artistic and technological possibilities we batted back and forth (and also with seven PhD students from Computer Science, over dinner!). (Scott was also kind enough to link on his blog to my earlier post on Understanding Comics and Zot, and I'd like hereby to thank him for both that and for his visit.)

Anyway, since that post, I have kept going back to Understanding Comics, and realizing more and more not only how extensive is the presence of abstraction in its overall argument, but also how UC itself opens up a space for the possibility, and reception, of abstract comics. To begin with, notice that McCloud's definition of comics says nothing about narrative or figuration:

Secondly, after discussing "iconic abstraction," the simplification inherent in cartooning that may reduce figures to very simple shapes which nevertheless still have meaning (this is something that I also mentioned, probably remembering this passage from UC, in the introduction to the anthology), McCloud goes on to mention the more traditional sense of "abstraction," the one we largely use here:

To talk about "ink on paper" is to talk about the dissolution of diegesis, of representation; and that "it means what it is" seems to me to echo (unconsciously?) Frank Stella's "You see what you see." This, then, completely opens the possibility of abstract comics, which can occupy the top of McCloud triangular schema:

Now, as you will notice, once McCloud begins to fill up his triangle with examples, he actually does not have any that go all the way up to (non-iconic) abstraction. The highest-placed example in his schema is "Mary Fleener at her most abstract," but that is still fully iconic abstraction:

So, in a way, McCloud functions here like a nuclear physicist positing the theoretical possibility of a particle--or, in this case, a genre, a kind of comic--even before having any empirical proof of its existence. (I should add here that the anthology does contain some examples of pre-1994 fully abstract and non-iconic sequential art, but most of them had not been published at the time--such as McDonnell's, Badger's, or Joly's--or come from other media, such as painting or graphic design; given my expanded definition of abstract comics, I also included earlier work by Crumb or Zenick that does include representative elements, but clearly that's not what McCloud is talking about here.)

Abstraction, once you look for it, is present everywhere in UC, as is the possibility of its being used for sequential-art purposes. Here are two example McCloud gives of non-sequitur panel-to-panel transitions:

(Come to think of it, it would be interesting to try such hybrid, figurative-to abstract-to-figurative comics.)

It is significant that abstraction is used specifically to illustrate the "non-sequitur" category of transitions. The previous five categories--moment-to-moment, action-to-action--clearly imply a fictional time ("moment"), represented actors and actions, etc. They are categories that only apply to traditionally narrative comics that construct a fictional diegesis (and, yes, even when such comics are based on fact, the diegesis is still fictional--think of "Maus"; but that's a discussion for another time.) In a way, the non-sequitur category is left to gather all (?) transitions featured in comics without such a diegesis; and it is our task, I would argue, to keep exploring that realm, and to try to understand all the possibilities inherent in it. (Including to study its apparent paradox, that of a "non-sequitur"--i.e., which does not follow--transition, in "sequential" art; and notice that "sequitur" and "sequence" derive from the same root.)

The possibility of abstract comics is broached repeatedly when McCloud's examples tend toward the abstract:

(This last sequence, though not fully abstract, does address an important issue that many of us have been dealing with--and even using to our advantage--in our abstract comics: when time is no longer clearly represented, how do you draw out a sequence from the abstract page layout? Do you even need to? Another question to be explored later.)

Even when not intended as such, some of McCloud's examples achieve a kind of formal sequencing that essentially turns them into abstract comics, or would do so if we were to remove the words; in this case, for example, the gradual multiplication of elements, together with the growing confusion of color, makes for a clear and simple sequencing principle:

There is one more way in which UC opened the possibility of abstract comics--not only theoretically, but by confronting the fanboy or fangirl who had opened its pages, trying to understand how The Dark Knight or Jimmy Corrigan functioned, with the visual evidence of abstraction in comic panels. Just look at McCloud's chapter titles:


Look at his extensive use of examples of abstract art (thereby, I should add, expanding the art-historical perspectives of his readers):


Look again at his restatement, in the final chapter, of the wide range of possible rendering styles in comics, from the nearly photographic to the cartoony to...

And look at the backgrounds--clearly intended to be comic panels--on this page (part of UC's conclusion) meant to celebrate the continuingly evolving language of comics:

Here we are, fifteen years in UC's future, and some of the possibilities of evolution that McCloud predicted have taken place, some of them on this very blog; and quite possibly because of that very prediction.

Thanks, Scott!


  1. I think this is a very interesting direction you are headed. As people will see in my up-coming post and the work you posted from Grant Reynold's there is alot (infinite in fact) of room within abstract comics for moment to moment, action to action based sequences. One question I have though is that once a line or form is shown in an action to action, or moment to moment it becomes a specific line or shape with a history and future. Does this come into conflict with it being "abstract?"

  2. Hi Aaron--

    first of all, I should point out that your guest post is in the pipeline and should be up in a few days.

    It's interesting that you talk about "moment to moment" and "action to action" sequences. But can you really have "moments" when you do not have a represented world with time in it? Can you really have "actions" when you do not have represented characters that act? I would say in abstract comics what you can have is gradual change from panel to panel, but that's not necessarily the equivalent of "moment to moment;" and different graphic events instead of actions. Indeed, maybe these are more primordial, so to speak--so, gradual change + represented time could equal "moment to moment," and different graphic events + notions of actors and actions could equal "action to action," (or they would if you could identify a shape from panel to panel that could be defined as a constant "actor" through the sequence). But I still believe that the first five categories, as defined by McCloud, apply only to representational, figurative comics. So, from that point of view, everything we do is "non-sequitur."

  3. I always thought that abstraction in traditional comics (Garfield, Peanuts, Superman) came about for completely different reasons than why painters chose to make abstract paintings.

    Two reasons why comics are abstract, are deadlines and reproduction. The drawings must be simple enough to be easily reproduced and the sheer volume of comics (such as daily strips) forced artists to develop a shorthand/symbolic way to draw the figure in order to meet the demands of the publisher.

    In this way they have more in common with Sumi-e paintings, which are more concerned with conveying the essence of an object rather than realism.

    Abstraction in western painting is more rooted in Cubism and Clement Greenburg's insistence that paintings should be about paint and embrace the flatness of the canvas.

    I've always been intrigued by Scott's pyramid, but I always thought he was looking at comics from Clement Greenburg's point of view and missing the commercial reasons why comics start to become abstract.

  4. Grant--I have family visiting and probably won't have the time to answer your comment fully for 24 h or so, but I just wanted to say that technological and economic reasons are one part of the explanation, but really not the entire explanation... After all, your own example, Sumi-e painting of all things cannot have such an economic explanation, as it was mostly done by gentlemen of leisure or priests, and for no commercial purposes whatsoever!

    More later--I can talk about this for hours! Sorry I don't have the time to engage in the conversation fully right now.

  5. As a visual journalist, I've always been struck by the blankness of the white page when I start a new journal. Nothing has yet been recorded, but the reality of 90 blank pages in sequence is representative of the potential of ultimate completion. The journal has a front cover and a back cover. By convention, in English, we read from left to right, so the book opens up with all of the blank pages yet to be filled on the right side. It seems that abstract comios has the potential to be become the global or universal language of all people. Abstraction does not necessarily mean lack of meaning. But, once we all agree about the meaning of a particular symbol, we are back to LANGUAGE. I have never been tempted but it might be interesting to start a journal entry in the middle of a journal, and then to fill up the pages randomly. I've also heard, do not know if it is true, that Marcel Duchamp would put a date on a completed that was out of sequence with his other work, just to thumb his artistic nose at those who take such things seriously. So, as with all art, I say Hooray for Gutter Art--Art is anything that you can get away with.

  6. Phyllis:

    Had too much to say
    He never could quite
    Leave the paper white"
    --W.H. Auden

  7. At the risk of making it more confusing, I am beginning to think that we need to add another dimension to Scott's pyramid. Maybe the x,y axis is not sufficient. Imagine something more like a globe. Like Scott says, there is the relation to the world dimension (x) which is based on a more or less scale, and then there is the (y) axis of craft or culture or picture plane which might be measured on a naive-to-informed scale? But the new kicker could be the (y) axis of intention, measured on a more or less scale. I am thinking of something like the Munsell Color Globe. This is mildly brain popping stuff and I swear, once I get my studio back in working condition I'm going attempt to tackle this with pre-linguistic thought and simply draw. And you are right Phyllis "Abstraction does not necessarily mean lack of meaning." In fact, I believe it has the most profound and universal meaning. . . it is just so hard to achieve that level of purity.

  8. Andrei-

    An artist can easily make it so the reader identifies a specific abstract form as a constant within or subject of an abstract comic. You see this in my "Some Circles Grow Some Circles Shrink" A non-sequitur is inherently more "abstract" because it is abstruse and removed from narrative content.

    Abstract can also mean theoretical, or removed from concrete existence.

    If one makes a story about abstract forms and puts it in an abstract word based only on theory of geometry. It seems wholly semantic to say it is less "abstract" The reader will no doubt experience it as abstract (not as abstraction mind you the way say "Peanuts" and other comic strips are experienced) There is nothing human or even lifelike to identify with.

    Now, I suppose I get your point. And I will even concede to this distinction:

    an abstract comic. (a comic that does not necessarily have abstract imagery or representational imagery but is read as an abstract, meaning it is abstruse or lacks narrative context)

    A comic of abstract subject matter. (a comic that contains only abstract imagery, but places it within some narrative context, i.e. one of the first five categories, as defined by McCloud)

  9. AZF - good point. Using abstract pictures to try to tell a "regular" story is problematic. In most of Andrei's book, we all told DIFFERENT KINDS of stories, ones that would be impossible to tell without abstract images. It's the difference between cubism and futurism.


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