Abstraction and Comics [1 ed.] 9782390080398

This is not a book about abstract comics. Conjunction and in 'Comics and Abstraction' is fundamental. It signa

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Abstraction and Comics [1 ed.]

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Abstraction and Comics Bande dessinée et abstraction Sous la direction de / edited by

Aarnoud Rommens avec la collaboration de/with collaboration of Benoît Crucifix, Björn-Olav Dozo, Erwin Dejasse & Pablo Turnes

Collection ACME

Contents O arco da noite branca, Diniz Conefrey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6 Introduction, Aarnoud Rommens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 Renaud Thomas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62

Archeologies | Archéologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 Peut-on parler d’abstraction dans les premières bandes dessinées (Cham, Nadar, Doré) ?, Jacques Dürrenmatt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77 Cliff Sterrett’s Jazz Age Abstractions , Katherine Roeder . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 Des chemins vers l’abstraction : la bande dessinée abstraite selon Ibn Al Rabin et Andrei Molotiu, Jean-Charles Andrieu de Levis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109

Practices | Pratiques . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What would Paul Klee say?, Kym Tabulo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Abstract Sequential Art: An Artist’s Insight, Kym Tabulo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The Drift of Impure Thoughts, Kym Tabulo . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A propos de deux possibilités de bandes dessinées abstraites, Jessie Bi . . . . . . . . . . Experiments in Comics: Kafka’s Aphorisms, Martha Kuhlman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Notes on Time and Poetry Comics, Bianca Stone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

135 136 147 166 179 201 211

Narration | Narration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

231 C’est fini. Ça commence. Notes sur WREK d’Olivier Deprez, Miles O’Shea et Marine Penhouët, Jan Baetens . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233 Abstracted Narration and Narrative Abstraction: Forms of Interplay between Narration and Abstraction in Comics, Kai Mikkonen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 263 Adding up to What? Degrees of Narration and Abstraction in Wordless Comics, Barbara Postema . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 285 Tangram, Berliac . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300 Abstract Panels and Sequences in Narrative Comics, Pascal Lefèvre . . . . . . . . . . . 313 The Possibility of a Ligne Claire Abstraction: From Jochen Gerner and Siemon Allen to Floc’h, Pierre Le-Tan and Patrick Caulfield, Hugo Frey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 329

Significations | Significations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

341 343 356 371 398

Abstraction and Non-Sequitur, Jakob F. Dittmar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tic Tac Comic, Tomás Arguello . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Abstraction and Comics from a Semiotic Point of View, Fred Andersson . . . . . . . . Comics Machine, Gene Kannenberg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . L’Image bande dessinée, entre figuration et abstraction. Le paradoxe qui fascine, Jean-Louis Tilleuil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 417

Epistemologies | épistémologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


The Epistemology of the Drawn Line: Abstract Dimensions of Narrative Comics, Lukas R.A. Wilde . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 451 Sequence, Tim Gaze . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 476 Abstraction and the Interpersonal in Graphic Narrative, Paul Fisher Davies . . . . . . . 487

Achieving Recognition: Affect and Imagining in the Work of Andrei Molotiu and Carlos Nine, Simon Grennan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 509 The Golden Age Of Comics According to Masotta, Un Faulduo . . . . . . . . . . . . . 526

Opacities | Opacités .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Oceano ardente, Jochen Gerner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Les Bandes dessinées opaques de Pascal Leyder, Erwin Dejasse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Comix Covers, Pascal Leyder . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Comics, Scissors, Paper: The bandes collées of Pascal Matthey and diceindustries, Pedro Moura . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4365, Pascal Matthey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cátia Serrão . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Francie Shaw . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, Richard Kraft . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Support The Revolution, Richard Kraft . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

543 544 551 560 573 598 604 614 622 632

Brut | Brut . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

645 Integral Mechanics, Mariano Grassi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 646 Ojo Mutante, Frank Vega . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 660 La del mundo, Lautaro Fiszman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 676

Variations | Variations .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Abstract gram pic et pic et pictogramme : OuBaPo, abstraction et Nouvelle Pornographie, Chris Reyns-Chikuma . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mere Details? Abstraction in the Comics of Ephameron and Olivier Schrauwen, Benoît Crucifix and Gert Meesters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . L’Abstrait et le figural dans les bandes dessinées d’Alberto Breccia, Laura Caraballo . . . Jack Kirby: In-Between the Abstract and the Psychedelic, Roberto Bartual . . . . . . . . The Kirby ‘Krackle’: A Graphic Lexicon for Cosmic Superheroes, Amadeo Gandolfo . .


Parallels | Parallèles . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Figures et détails : notes et détours comparés sur l’abstraction en bande dessinée, Denis Mellier . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Les Deux côtés d’un mur, Ilan Manouach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . La Valse des théorèmes : essai, Lukas Etter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Social Abstraction: Toward Exhibiting Comics as Comics, Erin La Cour . . . . . . . . . Emotional Intelligence Service, Ezequiel García . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


683 703 723 743 763

781 806 831 843 860

Notes on Contributors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 874

O arco da noite branca Diniz Conefrey


















Introduction Aarnoud Rommens This is not a book about abstract comics. The conjunction and in Comics and Abstraction is key, as it signals our intent to explore the in-between by combining the seemingly heterogeneous: comics with markedly different aesthetics, texts informed by decidedly different perspectives. The and is a means of encounter, and in this case, it points to an interaction between comics and abstraction so that both may be mutually refigured. This montage principle is intended to open up both the concept of ‘abstraction’ and that of ‘comics’ and loosen the grip of their respective canonical understanding, with—very broadly speaking—abstraction standing for the non-mimetic (in art historical discourse) and the conceptual movement of particularity to universality, while comics are most generally seen as a sequential visual-verbal medium of storytelling. By refracting abstraction through comics and vice versa, a multiplicity of other terms enters the picture, so that both are in turn inflected by additional operative distinctions. Ideally, Comics and Abstraction would thus occasion an engagement with the in-between of other distinctions such as high and low art; art history and comics studies; literature, poetry, drawing and writing; institutional and minor art; highbrow, lowbrow, nobrow, and so on. And so on… In the present volume, the logic of the ‘is’—of identity-thinking, of taxonomy and classification—makes way for the “inclusive disjunction” (Mullarkey 2007, 17) of the etcetera which eludes strict protocols of definition as well as genre and media boundaries. In doing so, we follow the injunction to “substitute the AND for IS. A and B,” where the “AND (…) makes relations shoot outside their terms and outside the set of their terms, and outside everything which could be determined as Being, One, or Whole. (…) [T]he AND gives relations another direction (…) Thinking with AND, instead of thinking IS, instead of thinking for IS” (Deleuze and Parnet 2007, 57). Too often, comics scholarship has been preoccupied with establishing a rigorous definition of its object of study. Structures, taxonomies, and genre boundaries have been erected in conjunction with the legitimation of comics as a valuable cultural form and a concomitant process of canon formation taking literature as its model (Beaty & Woo 2016; Worden 2015). This institutional process effects a reification of comics: rather than descriptive, definitions become prescriptive in the production of artefacts in accordance with the ‘law’ of the medium whose inner workings (the ‘structure of comics’) it supposedly



‘objectively’ describes. Comics theory in a sense perpetuates the kinds of comics that are produced and accepted academically. The ‘is’ becomes an ‘ought’: this is what a ‘comic’ should look like to be worthy of analysis. Against the association of comics with literature to garner cultural legitimacy as ‘graphic novels,’ a similar process of legitimation through proximity has taken place. Against literature, the genre of ‘abstract comics’ has been aligned with art historical discourse and the undisputed status of abstract art as one of the greatest Modernist achievements in visual arts, whose initial radicality has long since been exhausted through its museal consecration. The ‘aura’ of the avant-garde seems to have been passed onto these mainly non-figural comics, while at the same time revealing the supposed essence of the medium itself. Exemplars of comics at their purest, abstract comics ostensibly disclose the “formal mechanisms that underlie all comics, such as the graphic dynamism that leads the eye (and the mind) from panel to panel, or the aesthetically rich interplay between sequentiality and page layout” (Molotiu 2009, “Introduction,” n.p.). In this conception of abstraction as reduction to purity—echoing Clement Greenberg’s negative theology of painting as pure opticality and Flat Form—the essence of comics is revealed ex negativo: abstract comics are non-figurative and non-narrative, while at the same time only occupied with themselves, in an exclusively formal self-reflexivity. In counterpoint, this book approaches abstraction as a way of affirming ‘the outside,’ as a means towards heterodoxy. Indifferent to its specificity, the medium is now an occasion for inventing other spaces that “push art forms beyond and beside themselves, causing their very languages, as though possessed with the force of other things, to start stuttering ‘and ... and ... and ...’” (Rajchman 1998, 60-61). Comics are not a ‘system’ with a ‘code’: rather, it names a material poetic/technic that is instantiated in correlation with socio-political variables, in which narrative comics (or its non-narrative nemesis, abstract comics) are but one possibility amongst many. The comics published in this book certainly speak to (stutter towards?) this constitutive outside: instead of formal purification, they evince an anarchic engagement with other media, with the political, with the past and present, with whatever at hand; odds and ends are assembled into a more or less continuous segment making abstraction palpable as dirty, lived, concrete. We have no quarrel with definitions per se. If nothing else, they are useful: after all, they are there to be refunctioned, the matter for joyful détournement, an occasion for unlearning. What holds for reading Kafka equally holds for reading some of the comics in this 27

collection: “Reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction—not of learning more (the proper interpretive horizon of understanding his work), but of unlearning the standard interpretive references—so that we become able to open up to the raw force of Kafka’s writing” (Žižek 2006, 114). Abstraction is a kind of loosening up, of letting definitions go to make room for something unanticipated. This ‘lightening up’ chimes with abstraction’s etymology, i.e., its derivation from the Latin abstrahere: to withdraw. Abstraction then becomes a kind of ‘tactical retreat’ from dominant logics (cf. Lind 2011; 2013, 10-25). With respect to comics, this withdrawal can take the form of a disengagement from the medium’s usual mode of production and institutional frameworks as well as from its circuits of circulation and reception. This is evident in the autonomist ethos of the WREK collective for example, in its production of fanzines made from woodcut prints in workshop sessions open to the public. These woodcuts are then reused for making so-called cinégravures, digital clips made from a hybrid recombination of woodcuts, film and image post-processing, which are then posted on the web. As a form of media archaeology, the process combines ‘low’ and ‘high’ tech to explore utopian technological possibilities in the creation of alternate media ecologies, pointing to more sustainable ways of production. A similar distantiation is palpable in the work of Ilan Manouach, whose contribution to this volume is informed by a deskilling of the labour of drawing. The clumsy, inelegant, (re)drawing of figures infringes upon the grownup laws of perspective and narrative, and perhaps simulate a child’s ‘apprenticeship’ into today’s world through an aesthetic education which starts from making imperfect copies on tracing paper of professionally produced comics and photographs. In this new world disorder, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live side by side with the Ku Klux Klan: the work is an allegory of its own fragmentation presenting a dystopian, black and grey, ragged counter-mashup to the ever-colorful, participatory convergence culture and our supposedly ‘democratic’ prosumerist regime. Deskilling reaches a climax in the work of Pascal Leyder, who interprets, redraws and remediates pre-existing art to impose his own idiosyncratic style. The originals—drawings by Hokusai, Jack Kirby, Olivier Schrauwen, Alberto Breccia and many others—become all but unrecognizable, their ‘signature’ panels cannibalized and ultimately erased in Leyder’s heuristic practice. Frank Vega embraces the wild wisdom of punk with a DIY attitude of militant withdrawal. Made by simple blue bic ballpoint, the drawings refuse to give away the logic behind their sequencing. The result is a kind of mutant anti-comic that hijacks and distorts the direct, 29

unambiguous political thrust and aesthetic of underground comix, and mixes it with the disordering principle of surrealist collage novels. What we end up with is a grotesque phantasmagoria which seems to offer a political parable without a clear moral. This underscores that the combination of heterogenous elements following the logic of the ‘and’ is not just a formal exercise but demands thought; among the other methods adopted by the artists featured in this book, collage is another tactic for disclaiming authorship and absorbing the ‘outside’ in comics, putting pressure on narrative—not to mention aesthetic—coherence, while withdrawing from the strict distinction between the abstract and the figurative. Furthermore, it acts as a cypher for the interruption of the smooth flow of narrative, advertisement, and communicative capitalism as such, and gives us a glimpse of the everyday violence and precarity subtending the incessant, algorithmic flow of data that is replicated rather than communicated. The arbitrariness of relations is encoded into the very fabric of collage—absurdity is its surface effect. Francie Shaw’s poem-collages—poetry being a different ‘outside’ to the medium of comics—made in collaboration with writers Laura Elrick, Alan Bernheimer, Kit Robinson, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, and Rae Armantrout play upon this disconnect between the visible and the sayable as a tactic of opaquing that “challenges the enlightenment paradigm based on transparency” (Lind 2011, 31). Starting from the Polish, pre-perestroika comics series Kapitan Kloss, which followed the exploits of a secret agent infiltrating the Nazi forces, Richard Kraft cuts and pastes other images, punctuated by text fragments by author Danielle Dutton. Pascal Matthey’s contribution, a kind of epilogue to his book-long 978, seems to correspond perfectly to the formal requirements of an ‘abstract comic’; however, seeing it only as an example of the ‘abstract’ in its narrow sense is to dull its critical edge. In this case, abstraction is the result of the disfiguration of a mass of publicity material of major European publishers. It not only comments on editorial politics, but also on overproduction, hyper-commercialization and the wastefulness in an epoch where ‘paperless’ was touted as the inevitable, utopian effect of digitization. Rather than promoting openness, direct democracy and communication, the sheer speed and excess of data dissemination has generated an “information delirium” whose censoring effect is perhaps more successful than the traditional mode of concealing information (cf. Lind 2011). Mariano Grassi’s comic figures the complicated nexus between technology, precarity, and the digital, and how ‘noise’—or absurdity— 31

is no longer distinguishable from information within contemporary cognitive capitalism. Disguised in the sober aesthetic of a narrative comic, the story unravels, only to sink deeper and deeper into the swamp of idiocy of informational delirium. It is against this framework that the visual contributions by Cátia Serrão and Jochen Gerner take on a more definite outline. Both artists use ‘found objects’: Serrão uses Brazilian editions of Disney and superhero comics, while Gerner uses panels from an Italian version of a Flash Gordon comic published in the sixties. By covering parts of the originals in black ink or through pencil erasure, the work bestows ‘dignity’ onto secondary details—scenery, props, backgrounds—that initially would have been overlooked by readers with eyes for narrative only. These are “additive subtractions” (Jasper Johns qtd. in Cage 1967, 75), paradoxical negative operations that are simultaneously productive in that they create new paths towards meaning. Such gestures of withdrawal also critique the rule of intellectual property by making popular culture available again through disfiguration, an act that suggests that the commons are subject to constraints that have made it partly unrecognizable or simply inaccessible. Tomás Arguello’s comic goes furthest in this direction by turning the visualization of information into the work’s formal principle. It is a radically pedagogical collage of tables, statistics, and other non-artistic, informational images ending in an unambiguous moral. It disengages from the (hand-drawn) aesthetic of comics altogether, instead giving us something like a PowerPoint morality play in sequential images, warning of the impending ecological disaster at the close of the Anthropocene. What connects all these comics is the foregrounding of image-making (be it drawing, collage, colouring, etc.) as art, as a type of technology, of tekhnē. As such, they complicate the notion of ‘style,’ ‘signature’ or “graphiation” (Marion 1993) in comics scholarship, which is still surrounded by a certain mystique. The concept of graphiation refers to the plastic-narrative enunciation of comics, comprising the drawings, colouring, lettering, page layout, etc., which all contribute to the reader’s construction of an imaginary graphiator. The latter is closely linked to an artisanal, rather anachronistic image of production. This concern with direct physical touch, reminiscent of Henri Focillon’s nostalgia for the hand (cf. Focillon 1987), as somehow a guarantor of authenticity in a mass-produced artefact safeguarding the ‘uniqueness’ of comics, poses the danger of aestheticizing such supposed immediacy, barring an analysis which takes the mediation of immediacy—its political economy—as a starting point. If anything, the comics in this volume withdraw from this commonplace, to show how ‘graphiation’ 33

is itself a historically circumscribed concept that has been canonized in comics scholarship and involves the same threat as the logic of the ‘is’, i.e., it can become prescriptive. Ironically, as a medium taking off in the age of mechanical reproducibility, comics would be the last vestige of ‘aura’ in narrative art, since “alone of all of the narrative arts born at the end of the nineteenth century, the sequential comic has not effaced the line of the artist, the handprint of the storyteller. This fact is central to what makes the comic form unique” (Gardner 2011, 56). However, as Gardner repeatedly points out, graphiation is itself imprinted by technology: it is embodied yet always already under erasure by mechanical reproduction and printing, while the drawing and lettering hand cannot but anticipate and accommodate itself to the constraint of print technology. From a media archaeological perspective, comics are historical traces of an alternate future in which the artisanal and mechanical are supplements rather than antinomies. What is at stake today is not mechanical reproducibility however, but digital mutability. Of course, this is not to claim that print culture is receding, quite the contrary. Rather, what the comics in this volume attest to is the paradigm shift toward algorithmic variability, which is now subordinating the paradigm of mechanical reproducibility in which cultural production is approached in terms of a perceived loss of authorial embodiment and the erasure of the presence of the storyteller. Like in literature and various other non-natively digital media, ‘network aesthetics’ (cf. Jagoda 2016) become operative in comics, wherein the infinite malleability of digitality is approximated analogically. Graphiation then becomes a double articulation in which comics can be read in terms of recursivity and embodiment, algorithmic variation and authorship, manipulation (of a prior work) and invention, and so on. Either term in the reproducibility-mutability nexus can take precedence: Against Serrão and Gerner’s simulation of ‘impersonal’ operations through the embodied craft of additive erasure resulting in a kind of (anti-)signature style, Un Faulduo’s work pits the radical negation of authorial graphiation. As a ‘glitch comic,’ the latter radically negates any trace of nostalgia for the authenticity of craft-knowledge by making mechanical reproducibility explicitly visible through an error in digitisation. The majority of comics in this collection allude to the relay between the analogue and digital, showing how the hand is implicated in a long chain, going from drawing, cutting, pasting, to carving the wood, to printing, to digital post-processing, to writing, to filming, and so on. These processes can produce new technologies, new ways of making one’s mark, new-old machines that graphiate without there having to 35

be a drawing hand. In some of the comics, post-production is clearly visible, as for instance in the use of Photoshop filters which make digital, algorithmic manipulation of the ‘original’ hand-drawn pages quite conspicuous. On the other hand, the intentional deskilling of some of the comics included—through re-drawing of existing images, collage as not requiring professional skill as draughtsman, or the glitch art of Un Faulduo for instance—effect the demystification of graphiation. Furthermore, since some of the works came about collectively, it makes little sense to speak of a single body at the origin of the work. Not only is graphiation mediated through digital-analogue technologies, it is a process crystallizing the activity of multiple bodies. It engenders an anonymous graphiating instance, a kind of analogue algorithm, a strange type of human-machine hybrid as the title of Gene Kannenberg’s selection of comics implies: a Comics Machine. The digital-machinic graphiator is productive of a critical network aesthetics in which panels, pages and larger units are indifferent to sequentiality and narrative: abstraction is another name for this principled indifference. This indicates that the model of reading comics as a system is too ‘disciplinary’ in that it positions the reader as a kind of hermeneutic labourer expected to put things together into an overall semiotic commodity by following a sequence of discrete steps. Against this ‘Fordist’ model, abstraction in terms of seriality, repetition, recombination and recursivity foregrounds the artificiality of the sequence by operating on an illogic that forecloses the usual habitus of reading and viewing. Opacity, refusal and withdrawal are the true content of such works, and make abstraction concrete as foreclosure. Sequentiality is a specific regime of abstraction animated by the fantasy of the regulated flow of information, with an overall meaning as its final ‘product’ – you get something out of it, the investment of time has paid off. The comics in this volume make legibility and connectedness precisely the issue, perhaps evoking an enigmatic field of socio-political antagonism which contemporary, high-tech digital technologies of representation are incapable of making visible. For example, from this perspective we could recast graphiation, in its contemporary form as analogue-digital hybrid gesture, as a modus operandi that encodes, through cryptic mimicry, the information overproduction and precarity of contemporary semiocapitalism. The quirkiness of the hand is superimposed onto algorithmic operations such as subtraction, addition, and substitution (Gerner, Serrão, …); infinite variation and recombination of basic forms (Kannenberg, …); the frenetic redrawing of pre-existing material as if applying a radically disfiguring photo filter (Leyder, …); the precarity of ‘analogue’ material processed through collage and/or


digital post-processing (Matthey, Kraft, WREK, …); the substitution of panel sequencing with anarchic panel-combinatorics to effect information entropy instead of closure or tressage (Manouach, Fiszman, Vega, …); and so on (not to mention the precariousness of comics artists as surplus labour force in ‘creative capitalism’). As such, the works evince a counter-poetic to ‘allegories of control’ (cf. Galloway 2012), showing that, rather than just a matter of aesthetics, graphiation is an index of the communal. This communality is clearly visible in the détournement of readymade drawings, found objects and other images that had already been endowed with the ‘aura’ of the hand. The fact that pages from Mickey Mouse, Flash Gordon, or Bushmiller’s Nancy, or figures like Kasimir Malevich, Ad Reinhardt, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and others appear in contemporary comics reminds us that culture belongs to everyone. Drawing is not necessarily a matter of the expression of the artist whose trace is preserved in print, but of productive reception. In manga culture for instance, graphiation functions as a form of socially mediated reception-production and reading is the occasion for more drawing, since the latter is not restricted by “the idea that the hand-drawn graphic line ‘brings us back to the embodied author.’” Rather, “in manga the agency of the reader often counts more than that of the creator as ‘author,’” while the notion of ‘visual language’ “refers, above all, to the existence of specific communities that value less a single work’s aesthetic or ideological qualities than its facilitating relationships and support of reader participation, from empathy and immersion to fan art/fiction and Cosplay” (Berndt 2013, 365). Authorship is multiple, a more ‘machinic’ operation removed from the idea of the unique (bodily) presence of the auteur with his/her signature style. Abstraction as withdrawal from authority (as enshrined in copyright, intellectual property and so on) entails the redistribution of authorship, or at least a poetic of counter-control informed by an image of authorship as always already collective, and not in the more trivial sense of the studio system as collective, with its clear division of labour and overinvestment in licensing and copyright. Against the ‘paywalling’ of the general intellect, and the disciplining of the medium of comics, Comics and Abstraction pits a set of practices that show that intellectual property is the hang-over from exiting the epoch of print, of “linear thinking” (cf. Flusser 2007), associated with alphanumerical culture and mechanical reproducibility. Finally, a word on the organisation of this book. This collection is arranged in constellations, around which a number of texts and comics are clustered, i.e., Archaeologies, Practices, Narration, Brut, Significa39

tions, Epistemologies, Opacities, Variations and Parallels. As operative principle, abstraction counters the logic of the example, of one thing being an instantiation of something more general. Abstraction is not only a means to let the outside alter the makeup of genres and media, it equally generates a space of contradiction. This means that the essays and images stand in a relation of tension; a number of texts are more historically-oriented, some take a decidedly semiotic approach, while others are more concerned with formal features, and so. The art works commissioned for this volume do not necessarily ‘obey’—‘illustrate’— the theoretical frames of the essays, quite the contrary. It is this clash that makes demands of the reader, and this also explains why this introduction refuses to provide a convenient précis of the essays: it is to allow the comics to ‘talk back’ to the essays, of allowing their eloquent irreverence to withdraw from the discursive claims and contradict the (more or less) academic textual erudition and respond with their own. They have the last word.

Introduction Aarnoud Rommens Ceci n’est pas un livre sur la bande dessinée abstraite. La conjonction et dans Bande dessinée et abstraction est fondamentale. Elle signale notre intention d’explorer l’entre-deux en combinant ce qui d’emblée pourrait sembler hétérogène : des bandes dessinées aux esthétiques nettement différentes, des textes usant de perspectives clairement distinctes. Le et est un moyen de rencontre et, dans ce cas, il désigne une interaction entre bande dessinée et abstraction telle que les deux en sortent mutuellement refigurés. Ce principe de montage entend ouvrir à la fois le concept d’« abstraction » et celui de « bande dessinée » en desserrant l’étau de leurs définitions canoniques qui, globalement, calquent l’abstraction sur le non-mimétique (en histoire de l’art) ou l’utilisent pour désigner un mouvement conceptuel allant du particulier à l’universel, alors que la bande dessinée est, elle, généralement perçue comme un médium texte-image de narration séquentielle. En réfractant l’abstraction à travers la bande dessinée et vice versa, une multiplicité d’autres termes se trouvent ainsi convoqués d’une telle manière que les deux termes sont infléchis par des distinctions opératoires supplémentaires. Idéalement, Bande dessinée et abstraction cherche donc à offrir un lieu de rencontre entre culture savante et populaire ; histoire de l’art et recherche en bande dessinée ; littérature, poésie, dessin et écriture ; art majeur et art mineur ; highbrow, lowbrow, nobrow, etc.


Etcetera… Dans ce volume, la logique du « être » – la logique de l’identification, de la taxonomie et de la classification – donne place à la « disjonction inclusive » (Mullarkey 2007, 17) du etcetera qui élude les protocoles stricts de définition ainsi que les frontières entre genres et médias. Ce faisant, nous suivons l’injonction à « substituer le et au est. A et B. Le et (...) fait filer les relations hors de leurs termes et hors de l’ensemble de leurs termes, et hors de tout ce qui pourrait être déterminé comme Etre, Un ou Tout. (...) Le et donne une autre direction aux relations (...) Penser avec et, au lieu de penser est » (Deleuze et Parnet 1996, 71). La recherche en bande dessinée a trop souvent cherché à établir une définition rigoureuse de son objet d’étude, en érigeant des structures, des taxonomies, des frontières pour délimiter celui-ci. Tout en même temps, cette pulsion définitionnelle s’est faite en conjonction à la légitimation de la bande dessinée en tant que forme culturelle reconnue, un développement concomitant à un mécanisme de canonisation qui, du moins dans le monde anglo-saxon, a pris la littérature pour modèle (Beaty & Woo 2016 ; Worden 2015). Ce processus d’institutionnalisation réifie la bande dessinée : au lieu d’être descriptives, les définitions deviennent prescriptives et produisent des artefacts en fonction des « lois » du médium dont elles sont censées décrire objectivement les rouages internes (la « structure » de la bande dessinée). D’une certaine manière, les théories de la bande dessinée perpétuent à une acception de certaines formes de bande dessinée par l’université. Le « est » devient un « devrait être » : voici ce à quoi une « bande dessinée » devrait ressembler pour être digne d’attention. Prenant le contre-pas de la recherche de légitimité culturelle par l’association de la bande dessinée à la littérature à travers le « roman graphique », la bande dessinée abstraite rejoue parfois un processus similaire de légitimation par approximation. Contre la littérature, le genre des abstract comics s’est vu aligné sur le discours de l’histoire de l’art et le statut incontesté de l’art abstrait comme grand succès du Modernisme dans les arts visuels, et dont la radicalité initiale est depuis longtemps épuisée par sa consécration muséale. L’« aura » de l’avantgarde semble donc être transférée à des bandes dessinées avant tout non-figuratives qui, en même temps, sont supposées révéler l’essence du médium lui-même. Exemplifiant la bande dessinée sous sa forme la plus pure, la bande dessinée abstraite manifestent de façon ostentatoire les « mécanismes formels qui régissent toute bande dessinée, comme le dynamisme graphique qui mène l’œil (et l’esprit) de case en case, ou les riches interactions esthétiques entre séquence et mise en page » (Molotiu 2009, « Introduction », n.p.). Dans cette conception de l’abstraction comme réduction à une pureté – qui fait écho à Clement Greenberg


et sa théologie négative de la peinture comme optique pure et surface plane – l’essence de la bande dessinée y est révélée ex negativo : la bande dessinée abstraite est non-figurative et non-narrative, tout en étant préoccupée par elles-mêmes dans une forme exclusivement auto-réflexive. Par contraste, ce livre entend l’abstraction comme une façon d’affirmer l’« extérieur », un moyen d’appréhender l’hétérodoxe. Indifférent à sa spécificité, le médium devient une occasion pour inventer d’autres espaces qui « poussent les formes artistiques au-delà et à côté d’ellesmêmes, provoquant un bégaiement de leur langage propre, comme si possédé par la force de choses autres : “et… et… et…” » (Rajchman 1998, 60-61). La bande dessinée n’est pas un « système » avec un « code » : plutôt, elle désigne une poétique/technique matérielle qui se concrétise avec des variables socio-politiques, dans lesquelles la bande dessinée narrative (ou sa nemesis non-narrative, la bande dessinée abstraite) n’est qu’une des nombreuses possibilités. Les bandes dessinées publiées dans ce livre aborde cet « en-dehors » constitutif : plutôt qu’une purification par la forme, elles ouvrent un dialogue anarchique avec d’autres médias, avec le politique, avec le passé et le présent, avec tout ce qui est à portée de main ; des bribes et des morceaux sont assemblés en segments plus ou moins continus, rendant l’abstraction tangible, vivante, impropre, concrète. Ce ne sont pas les définitions en elle-même qui nous posent problème. Tout au mieux, elles sont utiles : après tout, elles sont là pour être révisées, devenir l’objet de détournements ludiques, elles offrent autant d’occasions au désapprentissage. Ce qui vaut pour la lecture de Kafka vaut tout autant pour la lecture des bandes dessinées de ce volume : « Lire Kafka demande un grand effort d’abstraction : il ne s’agit pas d’acquérir plus de connaissances (sur le cadre interprétatif adéquat nécessaire à la compréhension de son œuvre), mais de désapprendre les références interprétatives classiques, en sorte d’être capable de s’ouvrir à la force brute de son écriture » (Žižek 2008, 157). L’abstraction est une manière de laisser faire, d’abandonner les définitions pour faire place à quelque chose d’inattendu. Cette légèreté résonne avec l’étymologie même du mot et de sa dérivation du latin abstrahere : se retirer. L’abstraction devient alors une forme de « retraite tactique » hors des logiques dominantes (cf. Lind 2011 ; 2013, 10-25). En bande dessinée, ce retrait peut prendre la forme d’un désinvestissement de ses modes usuels de production, de ses cadres institutionnels, de ses circuits de circulation et de réception. L’ethos autonomiste du collectif WREK en fait la démonstration, avec sa production de fanzines fabriqués à partir de gravures sur bois réalisées dans le cadre d’ateliers ouverts au public. Ces gravures sont ensuite réemployées 45

pour façonner ce que le collectif nomme des cinégravures : de courts clips numériques issus d’une hybride combinaison de gravures, de film et d’images retouchées, qui sont ensuite mis en ligne. Pratiquant une forme d’archéologie des médias, ce processus combine le high tech avec le low tech pour explorer les possibilités technologiques utopiques d’une création d’écologies médiatiques alternatives, appelant à des méthodes de production plus durables. Une distanciation similaire est tangible dans le travail d’Ilan Manouach, dont la contribution au volume se base sur une déqualification du travail du dessin. Le (re)dessin maladroit, peu élégant des figures enfreint les règles adultes de la perspective et du récit, et simule peut-être l’« apprentissage » d’un enfant dont l’éducation esthétique commence par la réalisation sur papier calque de copies imparfaites de bandes dessinées et de photographies professionnelles. Dans ce nouveau désordre mondial, les Tortues Ninjas côtoient le Ku Klux Klan : l’œuvre est une allégorie de sa propre fragmentation qui présente un counter-mashup dystopique, un contrepoint « noir et gris » à la culture « colorée » de la convergence et à son régime « démocratique » de prosumers. Cette déqualification trouve son acmé dans le travail de Pascal Leyder, qui interprète, redessine et remédiatise des planches préexistantes en y imposant sa propre marque stylistique. Les originaux – des dessins de Hokusai, Jack Kirby, Olivier Schrauwen, Alberto Breccia et bien d’autres – deviennent tout sauf reconnaissables, leurs « signatures » se retrouvant cannibalisées et finalement effacées par la pratique heuristique de Leyder. Frank Vega adopte la sagesse sauvage du punk avec une attitude DIY de désengagement militant. Réalisés avec un simple Bic bleu, ses dessins refusent toute logique de séquençage. Le résultat est une sorte d’anti-bande dessinée mutante qui détourne la force politique et esthétique directe des comix underground en la mélangeant au principe de désordre des romans surréalistes en collage. On se retrouve ainsi avec une grotesque fantasmagorie, une parabole politique sans morale claire. Ceci démontre que la combinaison d’éléments hétérogènes, suivant la logique du « et », n’est pas qu’un exercice formel mais porte à réflexion ; parmi les autres méthodes adoptées par les artistes dans ce livre, le collage fonctionne comme une autre tactique pour renoncer à l’auctorialité et absorber ce qui est « extérieur » à la bande dessinée, faisant pression sur la cohérence narrative et esthétique tout en se retirant d’une distinction stricte entre l’abstrait et le figuratif. Le collage sert également de grain de sable dans la mécanique du récit, de la publicité, et du capitalisme de la communication ; il rend compte de la violence quotidienne et la précarité qui sous-tendent le flux incessant des don47

nées algorithmiques, répliqué plutôt que communiqué. L’arbitraire des relations est encodé dans la fabrique même du collage – l’absurdité, son effet de surface. Les collages-poèmes de Francie Shaw – la poésie étant un des autres « extérieurs » au médium de la bande dessinée – réalisés en collaboration avec les écrivain·e·s Laura Elrick, Alan Bernheimer, Kit Robinson, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, Lyn Heijnian, et Rae Armantrout jouent sur la distension entre le visible et le dicible comme tactique d’opacification qui « interroge le paradigme des Lumières basé sur la transparence » (Lind 2011, 31). En se basant sur la série de bande dessinée polonaise Kapitan Kloss, d’avant la perestroïka, qui narre les exploits d’un agent secret infiltré au sein des forces nazies, Richard Kraft découpe et y colle d’autres images, ponctuées de fragments de texte par l’auteure Danielle Dutton. La contribution de Pascal Matthey, une sorte d’épilogue à son livre 978, semble correspondre parfaitement aux canons formels de la « bande dessinée abstraite » ; on se rend cependant très vite compte à quel point l’entendre uniquement comme un exemple de l’« abstrait » émousse son tranchant critique. Dans ce cas, l’abstraction résulte d’un processus de défiguration d’une masse matérielle de publicité émise par les éditeurs européens de bande dessinée. En creux, on y trouve donc non seulement un commentaire sur les politiques éditoriales, mais aussi sur la surproduction, l’hyper-commercialisation et la production de déchets à une époque où la « dématérialisation » est prônée comme un effet utopique et inévitable de la numérisation. Plutôt que de promouvoir l’ouverture, la démocratie directe et la communication, la rapidité et l’excès de dissémination des données a généré un « délire informationnel » dont l’effet de censure est peut-être encore plus efficace que les modes traditionnels de dissimulation de l’information (Lind 2011). La bande dessinée de Mariano Grassi représente ce nexus complexe entre technologie, précarité et numérique, et plus spécifiquement la manière dont le « bruit » – ou l’absurdité – fait un avec l’information dans le capitalisme cognitif contemporain. Déguisé sous les traits sobres d’une bande dessinée narrative, le récit se déroule mais seulement pour plonger de plus en plus profondément dans l’idiotie de ce délire informationnel. C’est dans ce même contexte que les contributions graphiques de Cátia Serrão et Jochen Gerner définissent leurs contours. Les deux artistes travaillent sur des « objets trouvés » : Serrão s’empare des éditions brésiliennes de Disney et de récits de superhéros, tandis que Gerner s’approprie une version italienne de Flash Gordon datant des années 1960. En recouvrant des parties des originaux avec de l’encre noir ou 49

par raturage, ces œuvres accordent une « dignité » à des détails secondaires – certains éléments de décor, arrière-plans, accessoires – qui auraient autrement échappé à l’attention du lecteur concentré sur le récit. Ces « soustractions additives » (Jasper Johns, in Cage 1967, 75) sont des opérations paradoxalement négatives et productives, en ce qu’elles ouvrent de nouvelles pistes à l’interprétation. Ces gestes de retrait tracent aussi une critique de la loi sur la propriété intellectuelle en ce qu’ils rendent une culture populaire à nouveau accessible par la défiguration, un acte qui assujettit cette culture partagée à des contraintes qui la rendent partiellement opaque ou simplement inaccessible. La bande dessinée de Tomás Arguello va encore plus loin dans ce sens en transformant la visualisation de données en principe formel de son œuvre. Son travail présente un collage radicalement pédagogique de tableaux, statistiques et autres images non-artistiques, à vocation informationnelle et terminant sur une morale sans équivoque. Il se désengage de l’esthétique graphique de la bande dessinée, offrant quelque chose qui ressemble plus à une moralité sous PowerPoint et en images séquentiels, avertissant ses lecteurs au désastre écologique imminent à l’orée de l’anthropocène. Toutes ces bandes dessinées mettent ainsi en lumière la fabrique même de l’image – qu’il s’agisse d’un dessin, d’un collage, etc. – en tant qu’art, c’est-à-dire comme un type de technologie, une tekhnē. Ainsi, ils compliquent les notions de « style », de « signature » et de « graphiation » (Marion 1993) fondamentales aux théories de la bande dessinée et qui restent aujourd’hui encore chargées d’une certaine mystique. Le concept de graphiation renvoie à l’énonciation plastico-narrative de la bande dessinée, englobant le dessin, les couleurs, le lettrage, la mise en page, etc. – autant d’aspects qui contribuent à diriger le lecteur dans sa construction mentale d’un graphiateur. Ce dernier est de fait intimement lié à un mode de production graphique artisanal, plutôt anachronique. Cette préoccupation pour la touche physique directe, qui rappelle la nostalgie d’Henri Focillon (1987) et qui sert de garant d’authenticité pour un artefact produit en masse, sauvant ainsi d’un même geste la « spécificité » de la bande dessinée, porte en soi le problème d’une esthétisation de cette immédiateté et de son économie politique. Les bandes dessinées de ce volume se retirent de ce lieu commun et dévoilent la « graphiation » comme étant elle-même un concept historiquement circonscris, canonique au sein des théories de la bande dessinée et répliquant cette même menace du « est », c’est-à-dire risquant toujours de devenir prescriptif. Il est ironique qu’un medium qui s’est établi avec l’époque de la reproductibilité technique serait justement le 51

dernier vestige de l’« aura » dans l’art narratif, puisque « parmi tous les arts narratifs nés à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle, seule la bande dessinée séquentielle n’a pas effacé la ligne de l’artiste, l’empreinte du narrateur. Ce fait est au centre de ce qui rend la bande dessinée unique » (Gardner 2011, 56). Pourtant, Gardner souligne en même temps à quel point la graphiation est elle-même marquée par la technologie : elle est corporelle et en même temps cette corporalité est toujours effacée par la reproduction mécanique et l’impression, tout autant que le dessin et le lettrage ne peuvent qu’anticiper et s’adapter aux contraintes posées par les technologies d’impression. Dans une archéologie des médias, la bande dessinée offrirait alors des traces historiques d’un futur parallèle, dans lequel l’artisanal et le mécanique forment des suppléments plutôt que des antinomies. L’enjeu d’aujourd’hui n’est cependant pas la reproductibilité mécanique, mais bien la mutabilité numérique. Non pas que la culture de l’imprimé soit en voie de disparition, bien au contraire ; mais les bandes dessinées de cette collection témoignent du changement paradigmatique vers la variabilité algorithmique, qui est en train de subordonner le paradigme de la reproductibilité technique et la perception d’une perte de présence auctoriale et narrative dans la production culturelle. Tout comme la littérature et d’autres médias pré-datant le numérique, une « esthétique réticulaire » (cf. Jagoda 2016) devient opératoire en bande dessinée, qui mimique de manière analogique la malléabilité infinie du numérique. La graphiation devient alors une double articulation suivant laquelle la bande dessinée peut être lue à la fois comme répétition et incarnation, variation algorithmique et auctorialité, manipulation (d’œuvres précédentes) et invention, etc. Chacun des termes de cette connexion entre reproductibilité et mutabilité peut prendre le premier pas. Contre la simulation d’opérations « impersonnelles » par l’artisanat corporel d’un effacement additif, qui résult chez Serrão et Gerner en une sorte de style (anti-)personnel, l’œuvre d’Un Faulduo propose une négation radicale de la graphiation auteurisante. Un glitch comic, il se refuse radicalement à toute trace de nostalgie pour l’authenticité d’un savoir-faire en rendant visible la reproduction mécanique par le biais d’une erreur de numérisation. La plupart des bandes dessinées de cette collection font appel au relais entre l’analogue et le numérique, resituant la « main » au cœur d’une longue chaine allant du dessin, découpage, collage, gravure à l’impression, la retouche, l’édition, la capture filmique, etc. Ces processus peuvent donner lieu à de nouvelles technologiques, de nouvelles façons de laisser sa marque, des machines à la fois innovatrices et obsolètes qui « graphient » sans avoir recours à la main du dessinateur. Certaines des 53

bandes dessinées rendent la postproduction particulièrement visible par l’usage de filtres Photoshop qui mettent en évidence la manipulation numérique et algorithme de pages ‘originales’, dessinées à la main. D’un autre côté, cette déqualification intentionnelle – telle qu’on la retrouve par exemple par le redessin d’images existantes, le collage qui ne demande pas l’habileté professionnelle d’un artisan, ou le glitch art de Un Faulduo – entraînent une démystification de la graphiation. D’autant plus, plusieurs bandes dessinées sont issues d’un processus collectif de création, ce qui rend l’appréhension d’un « corps » unique comme origine de l’œuvre encore plus problématique. Non seulement la graphiation est médiatisée par le biais de technologiques analogues-digitales, il s’agit en plus d’un processus qui cristallise l’activité d’une série de corps actants. Cela engendre une instance graphiatrice anonyme, une sorte d’algorithme analogue, un étrange hybride entre homme et machine tel qu’imaginé par Gene Kannenberg avec sa sélection de planches regroupées sous le titre Comics Machine. Ce graphiateur numérique-machinique produit une esthétique réticulaire selon laquelle les cases, pages et autres unités sont indifférentes à la séquence et au récit : l’abstraction est un autre nom de cette indifférence principielle. Cela indique à quel point lire la bande dessinée comme système est « disciplinaire », en mettant le lecteur dans une position d’ouvrier herméneutique, dont on attend à ce qu’elle assemble, par une séquence de mouvements orchestrés, les fragments ensemble pour fabriquer une marchandise sémiotique cohérente. Contre ce modèle « Fordiste », l’abstraction – en tant que sérialité, répétition, recombinaison et récursivité – met en relief l’artificialité de cette séquence en suivant une raison illogique qui détourne notre habitus de lecture. L’opacité, le refus et le retrait sont en soi le véritable contenu de telles œuvres, et rendent concrète la « saisie » opérée sur nos habitudes de lecture par l’abstraction. La séquentialité est un régime spécifique d’abstraction, investi du fantasme de la circulation régulée du flux d’information, avec un sens cohérent comme produit « fini » : le lecteur obtient quelque chose, l’investissement de temps est rentable. Les bandes dessinées de ce volume critiquent justement cette lisibilité et cette connectivité, évoquant peut-être un champ énigmatique d’antagonisme socio-politique que les technologies numériques contemporaines de la représentation n’arrivent pas à rendre visible. Par exemple, cette perspective reformule l’idée de graphiation, dans sa présente forme comme geste hybride entre analogue et numérique, et l’adopte comme un modus operandi qui encode, par un mimétisme crypté, la surproduction d’information et la précarité du sémio-capitalisme contemporain. L’excentricité de la main est alors surimposée à


des opérations algorithmiques telles que la soustraction, l’addition et la substitution (Gerner, Serrão, …) ; la variation et la recombinaison infinie de formes basiques (Kannenberg, …) ; le redessin de matières préexistantes à travers un filtre radicalement défigurant (Leyder, …) ; la précarité d’une matière « analogue » faisant l’objet d’un collage et/ ou d’une postproduction numérique (Matthey, Kraft, WREK, …) ; la substitution de séquence de cases par une combinatoire anarchique de cases débouchant sur une entropie d’information plutôt qu’un processus de clôture ou de tressage (Manouach, Fiszman, Vega, …) ; etcetera (sans mentionner la précarité des auteurs de bande dessinée comme force de travail en surplus dans un contexte de « capitalisme créatif »). Ces œuvres fonctionnent alors comme des contre-poétiques aux « allégories du contrôle » (cf. Galloway 2012) et montrent qu’au-delà d’une question d’esthétique, la graphiation peut devenir la trace du collectif. Cette collectivité est rendue parfaitement visible par le détournement de dessins, d’objets trouvés et d’autres images qui avaient déjà été habités par l’« aura » d’une main. Le simple fait que les pages de Mickey Mouse, Flash Gordon et Nancy, ou des figures comme Kazimir Malévich, Ad Reinhardt ou les Tortues Ninja, soient reprises au sein de la bande dessinée contemporaine nous rappelle que la culture appartient à tout le monde. Dessiner n’est pas seulement l’expression d’un artiste dont la trace est préservée par l’imprimée, mais implique également un acte productif de réception. Dans la culture manga, par exemple, la graphiation opère un processus social-médiatique de réception-production où la lecture est inséparable du dessin, puisque ce dernier ne se restreint pas à « l’idée que la ligne graphique tracée à la main ‘nous ramène au corps de l’auteur’ ». Plutôt, « en manga, l’agentivité du lecteur importe souvent plus que celui du créateur en tant qu’‘auteur’ », alors que la notion de ‘langage visuel’ « renvoie, avant tout, à l’existence de communautés spécifiques qui trouvent moins de valeur dans les qualités esthétiques ou idéologiques d’une œuvre que dans sa façon de faciliter des relations et de soutenir l’implication participative des lecteurs, de l’empathie à l’immersion à des pratiques de fan art, fan fiction, ou de cosplay » (Berndt 2013, 365). L’auctorialité est alors démultipliée, une opération plus « machinique » et loin de l’idée d’une présence corporelle unique de l’auteur et de son style personnel. L’abstraction offre un retrait de l’autorité-auctorialité (telle qu’elle est consacrée par le copyright, la propriété intellectuelle, etc.) qui implique sa redistribution, ou qui se base du moins sur une poétique de contre-contrôle et une image d’auctorialité comme toujours déjà collective, et pas au sens trivial du système de studio qui 57

reste investit dans un système de propriété. Prenant le contre-pas de la privatisation de l’intellect collectif, et la disciplinarisation de la bande dessinée, Bande dessinée et Abstraction met en valeur une série de pratiques qui entendent la propriété intellectuelle comme un résidu de l’époque de l’imprimé, de la « pensée linéaire » (Flusser 2007), associée à une culture alphanumérique et à la reproductibilité technique. Un mot de fin sur l’organisation du livre. Cette collection est organisée en constellations agglutinant différentes séries d’essais et de bandes dessinées : Archéologies, Pratiques, Narration, Brut, Significations, Épistémologies, Opacités, Variations et Parallèles. Comme principe opératoire, l’abstraction contre la logique de l’exemple, par laquelle un objet devient représentatif de quelque chose de plus général. L’abstraction n’est pas seulement un moyen de laisser l’« extérieur » changer la constitution des genres et des médias, elle génère aussi un espace de contradiction. Ceci implique que les essais et les images entrent ici en tension ; une série de textes sont plus historiques, d’autres prennent une approche résolument sémiotique, d’autres encore se concentrent sur des caractéristiques formelles, etc. Les œuvres réunies dans cet ouvrage n’illustrent ni n’obéissent aux cadres théoriques des essais, au contraire. Ce clash demande une exigence du lecteur, ce qui explique également pourquoi cette introduction refuse d’offrir un utile résumé des essais : il s’agit de permettre aux bandes dessinées de « répondre », talk back, aux essais, de leur accorder leur droit à se retirer, avec leur éloquence irrévérente, des discours théoriques et à contredire l’érudition textuelle académique en répondant avec leur propre voix. Ce sont elles qui ont le dernier mot.

Références Beaty, Bart et Benjamin Woo. 2016. The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books. New York : Palgrave. Berndt, Jaqueline. 2013. “Ghostly: ‘Asian Graphic Narratives,’ Nonnonba, and Manga: On ‘Asian Graphic Narratives.’” In From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels, dir. Daniel Stein and Jan-Noël Thon, 363–84. Berlin : de Gruyter. Cage, John. 1967. A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT : Wesleyan University Press. Deleuze, Gilles et Claire Parnet. 1996. Dialogues. Paris : Flammarion, coll. « champs ». Flusser, Vilém. 2007. “Crisis of Linearity.” Traduit par Mers Adeleheid. Bootprint 1 (1): 19–21.


Focillon, Henri. 1989. The Life of Forms in Art. New York : Zone Books. Galloway, Alexander R. 2012. The Interface Effect. Cambridge : Polity. Gardner, Jared. 2011. “Storylines.” SubStance 40 (1) : 53–69. Jagoda, Patrick. 2016. Network Aesthetics. Chicago : University Of Chicago Press. Lind, Maria, ed. 2011. Abstract Possible: The Tamayo Take. Mexico City : Museo Tamayo. ———, ed. 2013. Abstraction. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press. Marion, Philippe. 1993. Traces en cases : Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve : Academia. Molotiu, Andrei, dir. 2009. Abstract Comics: The Anthology, 1967-2009. Seattle, WA : Fantagraphics. Mullarkey, John. 2007. Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline. London : Bloomsbury Academic. Rajchman, John. 1998. Constructions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Worden, Daniel. 2015. “The Politics of Comics: Popular Modernism, Abstraction, and Experimentation.” Literature Compass 12 (2) : 59–71. Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. La Parallaxe. Paris : Fayard. ———, 2006. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Renaud Thomas















Peut-on parler d’abstraction dans les premières bandes dessinées (Cham, Nadar, Doré) ? Jacques Dürrenmatt

Abstraction ou abstractions ? Quand, dans Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni introduit une séquence représentant l’explosion d’une maison luxueuse avec, dans un long ralenti aux couleurs somptueuses, des débris qui flottent comme autant de symboles de la société américaine des années 60 à laquelle les personnages veulent s’arracher, la critique parle d’irruption de l’abstraction dans un film qui semblait jusque-là se cantonner à la narration d’une histoire d’amour hippie somme toute assez banale dans le désert californien. Le régime scopique du spectateur change brutalement, passant de la consommation presque immédiate des images dans la construction avide d’une continuité à l’obligée contemplation de formes soudainement déliées de toute nécessité discursive (plus rien ne se raconte vraiment) pour proposer le plaisir (pur ?) d’une harmonie inattendue de formes et de couleurs à travers la destruction du continuum fonctionnaliste qui caractérise le décor social. Quand Cham utilise le même type d’image dans la version redessinée en 1846 pour l’éditeur Dubochet du Monsieur Cryptogame de Töpffer, en va-t-il de même ?

Bien évidemment, non ! L’image s’insère dans une série sans imposer de 76

Figure 1 Töpffer & Cham, Monsieur Cryptogame, page 38, case 1. BnF.


changement de mode d’appréhension : c’est la visée narrative qui continue à primer, de sorte que la confusion apparente du dessin, constitué de fragments qui semblent autonomes et inharmonieusement associés, reste immédiatement interprétable. L’utilisation de l’adverbe aussi dans la légende pointe le lien avec ce qui précède tandis que le texte de la case suivante débute par le connecteur et et comporte un lui-même qui signale le lien entre le mouvement circulaire des objets sur le pont et celui du bateau en entier, dans un rapport métonymique étroit. Philippe Willems avance que : l’intérêt de Cham pour le minimalisme et la subjectivité a déterminé sa contribution majeure à l’art séquentiel : les variations de cadrage et de perspectives que le cinéma aurait à redécouvrir par lui-même un demi-siècle plus tard. Dès Monsieur Lamélasse, il s’est écarté de la norme du plan de demi-ensemble et du plan moyen qui régnait depuis toujours dans l’image narrative pour inclure des plans rapprochés, des gros et très gros plans, et des plans de détail. Même si le cadrage serré du portrait remonte à l’antiquité, comme le montrent certains portraits funéraires de l’Egypte romaine datant du 1er siècle avant Jésus-Christ, la séquence octroie au gros plan une dynamique inconnue dans l’image isolée. Ainsi, les tableaux minimalistes de Cham – un coin de table dressée, une chandelle éteinte encore fumante, un vêtement, une main peignant une image ou tournant une clé dans une serrure, des pieds flirtant sous une table – explorent des variations rendues possibles par la multiplicité d’images (Willems 2014, 22).

De fait, la pratique du détail corporel isolé au sein d’une case le plus souvent blanche semble contraster violemment avec les habitudes de représentation et relever là encore d’une pratique moderniste que Willems qualifie de « minimaliste » mais qu’on pourrait aussi envisager comme « abstraite » en ce qu’elle radicalise la pratique de simplification de la figuration. Daniel Arasse a montré comment le célèbre tableau de Géricault intitulé Fragments anatomiques (1819)1 rompait avec la pratique des images constitués d’accumulations de détails corporels (mains notamment) qui servaient jusque-là, le plus souvent sous forme de dessins, à exhiber la virtuosité de l’artiste. Il s’agit, en effet, d’imposer cette fois « une peinture sans sujet » en « évacuant le corps lui-même » pour aller vers une forme de « déraison de la peinture » (Arasse 1992, 176). Dans la bande dessinée, le détail est, selon Willems, favorisé par la séquentialité narrative. On est loin, en effet, chez Cham tant de la démonstration de virtuosité que de l’évacuation revendiquée du sujet : la présence dans la case d’un fragment corporel est toujours justifiée par le contexte narratif et s’inscrit dans une conception spécifique du point de vue. N’est montré que ce qui est visible par un observateur réduit à des capacités banales dans la mesure où le reste du corps est recouvert d’une matière qui le rend invisible ou en partie dissimulé par des obstacles à la vue. L’idée est qu’il est, chaque fois, facile de suppléer le manque, comme l’a théorisé Töpffer, et donc de saisir la totalité du corps via sa partie par métonymie visuelle. On peut aussi penser, par ailleurs, que l’autonomisation du détail relève de la mise à nu ironique par un art supposément naïf des pratiques d’atelier. Comme le rappelle, en effet, Daniel Arasse, « au niveau le plus élémentaire, l’élève [qui entre dans l’atelier d’un maître pour y apprendre à peindre] copie des gravures représentant des traits particuliers du corps humain et son travail 1  Montpellier, musée Fabre. 78

est organisé selon une progression systématique. Il commence par une série de nez, d’yeux et de lèvres dessinés séparément ; puis il passe à une série combinant ces trois éléments » (Arasse 1992, 116). Il en va différemment dans une bande dessinée peu connue de Nadar de 1848 intitulée « Vie politique et littéraire de Vipérin » : le récit s’achève par deux cases centrées, pour la première, sur un pied chaussé écrasant une vipère et, pour la seconde, sur une main tirant un rideau.

Il n’est pas question cette fois de reconstituer par l’imagination le reste du corps : pied et main fonctionnent comme de purs vecteurs d’action dans un cadre clairement moral et s’apparentent ainsi à certaines images pieuses. Les légendes ne laissent pas d’ambiguïté : 1) « Conclusion pleine de moralité » ; 2) « Et sur combien de choses avons-nous dû tirer le voile de la pudeur !!! ». On notera, de fait, que, dans le premier cas, le pied d’homme botté et guêtré qui écrase le serpent, représentation symbolique de l’immonde politique Vipérin, ne peut que faire penser le lecteur de 1848 à l’« apparition miraculeuse de la Vierge Marie à Catherine rue du Bac » qui a été publicisée quatre mois après les journées révolutionnaires de 1830 pour déclencher un violent renouveau de ferveur dans la capitale et a donné lieu à des séries d’iconicisations sous la forme de médailles, essentiellement, mais aussi de gravures, tableaux, sculptures et autres produits dérivés. Ce qui frappe, en effet, Catherine en premier, c’est le serpent que la nouvelle Eve en majesté écrase sous ses pieds. En empruntant à une iconographie pareillement chargée dans le contexte d’une nouvelle révolution nettement plus critique encore à l’égard du rôle politique joué par l’Église que la précédente, Nadar pointe-t-il la récupération qui menace déjà ou substitue-t-il une morale politique moderne à une autre religieuse et datée qui s’est montrée incapable

Figure 2 Nadar, « Vie politique et littéraire de Vipérin », La Revue comique novembre 1848-avril 1849, Dumineray, p. 92. BnF. 79

d’empêcher les exactions des puissants ? On est bien loin de Cham et plutôt du côté de Baudelaire dans ce travail complexe d’allégorisation du trivial moderne. Quant au topos de la pudeur et du voile, c’est un lieu commun de la caricature inspiré de pratiques picturales bien connues et anciennes : une forme de comble en est donné par l’Américain Raphaelle Peale avec sa Venus Rising from the Sea : A Deception (After the Bath) en 1822.2 Le tableau s’inscrit dans la mode des trompe-l’œil et représente un drap qui semble dissimuler une Vénus dont on ne voit que les mains levées et les pieds, mais qui recouvre en réalité un tableau. Dans l’Amérique du début du dix-neuvième siècle corsetée par les interdits religieux, le tableau manifeste le début d’un mouvement occidental de retrait devant les licences prêtées aux siècles précédents. Portes fermées qui dissimulent une intimité que l’on ne peut qu’imaginer, sauf dans les livres pornographiques illustrés que Charles Philippon publie dans les mêmes années, sans mention de la maison Aubert qu’il dirige,3 ces cases blanches qui manifestent le refus de représenter et rideaux tendus n’ont rien à voir avec minimalisme ou abstraction mais jouent le plus souvent avec les limites éthiques de la figuration, qu’il s’agisse d’obéir directement à la doxa ou d’en dénoncer le caractère décevant, voire trompeur (deceptive possède les deux sens) : quand Doré reprend le principe de la case blanche dans son Histoire de la Sainte Russie, c’est pour signaler qu’il n’a rien à dire, dénonçant peut-être du coup ce que le procédé peut avoir de facile chez ses confrères. Dans tous les cas, les images valent indépendamment de tout statut narratif comme des icônes : il ne s’agit pas d’un travail d’abstraction mais plutôt de symbolisation. De ce point de vue, on s’inscrit dans la lignée des jeux excentriques de Sterne dans Tristram Shandy (1759), qui fait se succéder, intercalées à l’intérieur du texte imprimé, pages noires, marbrées et enfin blanches. En s’appuyant sur L’Analyse de la beauté du peintre Hogarth, traité bien connu de Sterne, et sur ce que le narrateur dit lui-même de la nécessité de lire attentivement ces pages particulières, Jean-Claude Dupas propose de considérer qu’il s’agit d’épreuves successives d’images qui cherchent à émerger de l’obscurité, « comme l’équivalent pictural de cette « rhapsodisation » par quoi [Sterne] définit son livre et son écriture » (1994, 161), mais qui est aussi, de fait, au fondement de la bande dessinée telle qu’elle s’invite sous l’égide amplement revendiquée de Hogarth. Les cases blanches de Cham ou de Doré ne sont pas plus des monochromes à la Malevitch que les tableaux noirs dont se gaussent les caricatures de Salons (Yang 2011). Perdu au cœur d’un cadre exubérant, le tableau entièrement noir que Raymond Pelez introduit dans sa Première impression du Salon de 1843 est légendé par « Effet de nuit qui n’est pas clair… de lune, acheté subito par Mr Robertson fabricant de cirage ».

2  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. 3  Dans la série de « lithographies à transformations » Portes et fenêtres, portes, rideaux et fenêtres d’images en apparence banales constituent autant de volets découpés que l’on peut soulever pour découvrir des scènes pornographiques. 80

Sous l’influence du traité de Burke sur le sublime, vantant les mérites des effets de nuit, les paysages n’ont eu de cesse de s’assombrir : « une judicieuse obscurité répandue sur quelques parties du tableau contribue à son effet : parce que les images de la peinture sont exactement semblables à celles de la nature ; et, dans la nature, les images sombres, confuses, incertaines, ont plus de pouvoir sur l’imagination pour former les grandes passions, que n’en ont celles qui sont plus claires et plus déterminées » (1803, 112). La légende rabat l’effet de représentation sur la matérialité de la peinture mais de façon dégradée à travers l’idée de « cirage ».4

4  On notera que le fabricant de cirage Robertson a bien existé et a pignon sur rue à Paris dans les années 1840.

Figure 3 Le Charivari, 19 mars 1843. BnF.


et triangles) ; la seconde, une efflorescence de virgules plus ou moins longues et épaisses et de hachures qui semblent vaguement représenter de la végétation et est intitulée « Œuvre d’un savant coloriste ». Dans les deux cas, il s’agit de représentations qu’on pourrait qualifier d’abstraites : l’une par réduction stricte des moyens pour atteindre à une sorte d’essence des formes empruntées à une réalité par ailleurs bien connue à travers les innombrables gravures qui en circulent, l’autre par abandon presque entier de la figuration au bénéfice d’effets supposés de couleurs, invisibles bien évidemment puisque la gravure est en noir et blanc, et donc surtout d’une liberté totale du trait. On aurait bien du mal à trouver quoi que ce soit qui aille vraiment dans l’un ou l’autre de ces deux sens chez Cham ou Nadar.5 Doré, lui-même, fournit en revanche de beaux exemples dans sa production bédéique.

Doré reprend l’idée du paysage noir mais en s’en jouant autrement dans son Salon de 1848. Cette fois, le tableau se compose d’un bas noir taché d’une longue ligne blanche verticale et zébrée qui figure le reflet d’une lune dont on ne voit que l’extrémité supérieure, blanche elle aussi sur fond noir. La légende, « Lever de lune sur mer (fiat lux !) », pointe ironiquement l’effet de lumière comme sujet principal de la représentation, préfigurant le travail futur d’un artiste qui privilégiera, tant dans ses peintures que ses illustrations, le travail du clair-obscur au point de pousser Zola, grand amateur pourtant des effets violents de contrastes, à le critiquer vertement bien plus tard dans ses commentaires sur le Salon de 1875 : Le tableau le plus vaste de l’exposition paraît être celui que Gustave Doré a baptisé Dante et Virgile visitant la septième enceinte. Il n’a pas moins de dix mètres de longueur et quatre de largeur, les mêmes dimensions que Les Noces de Cana de Véronèse. Imaginez un gouffre noir, au-dessus duquel flotte de la fumée et où grouille un tas de corps nus de couleur terreuse. Les pécheurs roulent par terre, leurs membres enlacés de serpents gigantesques. Et ainsi pour l’éternité, et à part cela rien, à l’exclusion des tristes silhouettes de Dante et de Virgile, perdues parmi tous ces corps. On dirait une caricature de Michel-Ange. Et le pis est que Gustave Doré a un talent artistique des plus originaux. Il a dessiné d’excellentes illustrations pour de nombreux livres (Zola, 1875).

La caricature de Doré montre aussi combien les effets de recouvrement par le brouillard ou la fumée sont devenus des lieux communs de la peinture romantique : « Un effet de brouillard fort bien rendu ». Plus intéressantes apparaissent deux autres charges : la première vise, sous le titre d’« une imagination poëtique », une vue des pyramides presque entièrement réduite à un ensemble strict de figures géométriques (horizontales 82

Si le terme de « poétique » pour une représentation qui semble à première vue simpliste et stéréotypée d’un paysage trop connu peut paraître ironique, on peut aussi se demander s’il ne révèle pas un secret désir. Réduire au maximum les moyens utilisés pour une lisibilité parfaitement efficace est un des objectifs de Töpffer, dans une perspective de prime abord pédagogique. Dans la plupart de ses albums, Doré oscille de son côté entre une profusion dans le détail, qui montre une maestria de dessinateur dont Töpffer n’est évidemment pas capable, et une simplification naïve, voire régressive qui semble faire écho aux caricatures de Perez entre « Vue basse de Bretagne » que l’on croirait dessinée par un enfant de 7 ans et « Entrée triomphale des Français dans Constantine » réduite à un quadrillage de remparts surmonté d’une série de traits obliques pour figurer les baïonnettes. Cette dernière manière d’abstraire les batailles héroïques en quelques lignes plus lisibles que visibles se retrouve tant dans l’Histoire de la Sainte Russie que dans ses premiers tableaux d’histoire. Elle sera ensuite abandonnée mais laisse le sentiment qu’une voie était possible, qui restera longtemps en attente. Dans Un génie incompris (Mr Barnabé Gogo), Cham va, de son côté, très loin dans l’exploitation du dessin d’enfant : nombres de vignettes représentent en effet les productions maladroites du sieur Gogo, qui ne s’améliorent jamais malgré tous les efforts de ses professeurs de dessin. Règle-t-il ses comptes avec les préceptes de son maître ? Gogo lui-même finit par ressembler à ses propres productions anguleuses et 5  Cham s’en approche avec les lignes d’arbres de la page 7 de ses Impressions de voyage de Mr. Boniface (1844) mais ce qui peut apparaître comme un premier pas vers l’itération iconique qui fera les beaux jours de la bande dessinée dite minimaliste s’inspire directement des plans utilisés alors par les paysagistes et le génie civil qui privilégient l’information sur l’esthétique : si geste poétique il y a, il s’agit donc plutôt d’emprunter à des formes non artistiques pour interroger les hiérarchies, une des constantes de l’œuvre de Cham, y compris dans son rapport à la littérature (cf. Dürrenmatt 2013).

Figure 4 Gustave Doré, « Salon de 1848 », Journal pour rire n°9, 25 mars 1848.


ne cesse de grandir au point de ne plus pouvoir rentrer dans les cases avant de mourir en regrettant de le faire comme Monsieur Lamélasse, personnage principal de l’album très töpfférien que Cham a publié deux ans plus tôt chez le même éditeur. Gogo ne trouve un peu de reconnaissance qu’en devenant caricaturiste, ce qui conduit David Kunzle (2015) à voir dans l’album une composante semi-autobiographique, mais cette dernière carrière tourne aussi court de sorte que ce qui se dégage de l’ensemble est une volonté de régler ses comptes avec tous les milieux tant artistiques qu’éditoriaux, le dessin enfantin n’étant en aucune façon revendiqué comme une possibilité positive.

dans le dessin de la végétation : le trait à la plume prend notamment la forme, à l’extrémité gauche, d’une arabesque extrêmement serrée qui exhibe immédiatement la violence du geste sans reprise qui l’origine, l’engagement entier, à travers la main, du corps du dessinateur dans la nécessité de ce que certains pourraient considérer comme un simple griffonnage.

Quant à la fascination pour les formes géométriques pures ou le trait libre, elle se retrouve dans nombre de petites vignettes bien connues de Des-agréments d’un voyage d’agrément et de l’Histoire, qui prennent uniquement sens par leurs légendes, mais aussi dans d’autres albums moins connus. Dans ses très influents discours académiques prononcés à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, Reynolds commente la méthode du peintre anglais Gainsborough en ces termes : Il est certain que tous ces traits bizarres et toutes ces hachures qui sont si remarquables dans les tableaux de Gainsborough, quand on les examine de près, et qui, même à des peintres consommés dans leur art, semblent être plutôt le résultat du hasard que de la volonté de l’artiste ; ce chaos, dis-je, cette apparence informe et grossière, prend, par une espèce de magie, à une certaine distance une forme régulière, et toutes les parties semblent aller se ranger aux places qui leur conviennent : de sorte qu’on ne peut refuser de reconnaître, pour ainsi dire, tout le résultat de l’application et de l’art dans ce qui ne paraît d’abord que l’effet d’un cas fortuit ou d’une négligence précipitée. Que Gainsborough regardait lui-même cette singularité de sa manière, et la surprise qui en résultait, comme une beauté dans ses ouvrages, peut se conclure, selon moi, du désir qu’il a toujours montré, comme nous le savons, que ses tableaux fussent placés, à nos expositions, de manière à pouvoir être vus de près, aussi bien qu’à une certaine distance. (…) Son faire ou sa manière de coucher les couleurs ; ou, en d’autres mots, la méthode qu’il employait pour produire de l’effet, ressemblait beaucoup à l’ouvrage d’un artiste qui n’aurait jamais appris d’un autre la pratique ordinaire et régulière de l’art ; mais, en homme qui possédait une forte perception intuitive de ce qui était nécessaire, il trouva par lui-même le moyen d’atteindre son but (Reynolds 1806, 25-26). L’importance donné à la hachure, à la tache, visibles de près, fondues de loin, pointe la naissance d’un art nouveau : Titien ou Rembrandt ne demandaient pas, pour autant qu’on le sache, comme Gainsborough, que l’on s’approche du tableau pour voir le morcellement, l’effervescence de la maculation, qui vaut autant que la forme harmonisée et proprement figurative, une fois placé à distance. Chez Töpffer, les hachures sont limitées à leur utilisation indispensable pour créer ombres et relatif relief ; elles n’ont donc pas d’intérêt autre que fonctionnel. Doré, en revanche, en fait un usage neuf et ce dès Les Travaux d’Hercule, que d’aucuns considèrent pourtant comme un travail de commande peu inventif au regard des albums qui ont suivi. Dans la troisième planche, la première case montre à qui veut s’y arrêter une extraordinaire virtuosité


On pense à la remarque de Barthes qui, parlant d’écriture manuscrite, rêve que « [s]a main aille aussi vite que [s]a langue, [s]es yeux, [s]a mémoire vivante : rêve démiurgique ; toute la littérature, toute la culture, toute la « psychologie » seraient différentes si la main n’était pas plus lente que l’intérieur de la tête » (Barthes 2003, 337). Or cette arabesque devient le centre de la case qui suit en se changeant en spirale, tourbillon, toupie : le dessin se préparait ainsi à l’autonomisation du mouvement du trait pour lui-même. S’il y a évidemment récupération comique à travers la légende très distanciée, le geste de Doré en affirmant le pur plaisir graphique comme possiblement auto-suffisant ouvre un espace particulier de l’abstraction en bande dessinée en tant que mise en spectacle du geste de création, dans lequel pourraient s’inscrire nombre d’exemples fournis par Franquin, voire Uderzo. Le procédé est repris dans la vingt-sixième planche.

Figure 5 Gustave Doré, Les Travaux d’Hercule, Aubert, 1847, p. 3. BnF.


fragile, ou qui permet une vignette d’une puissante poésie dans Les Vacances du collégien, le noir envahissant le dessin sous toutes sortes de formes (lignes, hachures, large aplat) pour ne laisser visibles que les jambes de l’enfant au-dessus de cette étonnante légende : « Épuisé par tant de travaux, le jeune Achille s’endort sur ses foins pour 15 jours et 15 nuits. » (Doré 1852, 5).

Cette fois-ci, c’est la chevelure d’Hercule dessinée en longs traits parallèles à peine ondulés qui semble s’autonomiser en une étonnante figure hachurée, transcription abstraite là encore d’un mouvement violent (« L’attelage acquiert une vitesse incroyable. »). Dernier exemple : l’extraordinaire transformation d’Hercule à la sortie des écuries d’Augias dans la planche 33.

L’encre semble littéralement dégouliner sur la page et la figure quasi méconnaissable est avant tout prétexte à un étonnant travail du noir. C’est ce même noir d’encre qui tendra à recouvrir le texte imprimé, du fait d’un encrier renversé, dans l’Histoire, obligeant à regarder le texte historique dans sa matérialité 86

Cette tendance à montrer le dessin pour lui-même se retrouve dans la reprise d’un motif de quadrillage dans Trois Artistes incompris et mécontens. Un des artistes se dissimule derrière une grille pour voir le spectacle sans être vu : Doré en profite pour travailler au fusain les effets de surface et de profondeur. Une fois de plus ce qui l’intéresse, c’est la possibilité de préparer, grâce à la séquence, l’image finale qui ne représente plus que le grillage tandis que la légende signale l’incapacité du narrateur à narrer : « Sombremine a quitté sa loge, on ne sait quel conseil son désespoir lui a donné. »6 Travail de la forme géométrique que reprendra beaucoup plus tard, sans doute sans connaître l’album de Doré, Larcenet dans Dallas cowboy.

La fascination de Doré pour le point d’exclamation auquel il donne une autonomie à l’intérieur de la vignette tant à la fin de l’Histoire qu’à celle des Trois artistes en travaillant les effets de relief manifeste non seulement sa compréhension de la bande dessinée comme art de la vilisibilité mais aussi sa perception du dessin comme pouvant aller dans le sens de l’écriture et donc de l’abstraction. L’un et l’autre pouvant se percevoir simultanément dans leur matérialité de procédés mis en œuvre et de vecteurs de représentation. 6  On goûtera le jeu de mots sur le nom même du personnage, la « sombre mine » renvoyant autant à son apparence qu’à l’instrument qui le dessine.

Figure 6 Gustave Doré, Les Travaux d’Hercule, Aubert, 1847, p. 26. BnF. Figure 7 Gustave Doré, Les Travaux d’Hercule, Aubert, 1847, p. 33. BnF. Figure 8 Gustave Doré, Trois artistes incompris et mécontens, Aubert, 1851, p. 10. BnF.


Cette vision approfondit ce qui est en germe chez Töpffer et dépasse largement les tentatives plus ludiques que réellement intellectualisées de Cham ; elle ne se retrouve pas chez Nadar, chez qui la nécessité symbolique et idéologique est trop forte pour lui laisser assez d’espace. Tant dans ses illustrations, trop nettement inscrites dans l’édition de luxe, que dans ses tableaux, qui visent très vite la « grande peinture », Doré renonce à cette voie, qui sera celle de Manet et de nombre d’autres peintres, mais que le neuvième art mettra du temps à emprunter.

Récits/tableaux. Sous la direction de Jean-Piere Guillerm, 151-62. Lille : Septentrion. Dürrenmatt, Jacques. 2013. Bande dessinée et littérature. Paris : Classiques Garnier. Gombrich, Ernst. 1996. L’Art et l’illusion. Psychologie de la représentation picturale. Traduit par Guy Durand. Paris : Gallimard. Kunzle, David, dir. 2015. Gustave Doré: Twelve Comic Strips. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Nadar. 1848-1849. « Vie politique et littéraire de Vipérin ». La Revue comique, novembre 1848-avril 1849, 92. Reynolds, Joshua. 1806. « Quatorzième discours académique ». Dans Œuvres complètes, tome II, 25-26. Paris : Arthus-Bertrand. Willems, Philippe. 2014. « Rhétorique texte/image, minimalisme et jeux de perspective : l’héritage de Cham ». Comicalités. 18 avril. Yang, Yin-Hsuan. 2011. « Les premiers Salons caricaturaux au XIXe siècle ». Dans L’Art de la carcicature. Sous la direction de Ségolène Le Men, 73-86. Paris : Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest. Zola, Émile. 1875. « Lettres de Paris ». Le Messager de l’Europe, juin.

Trois conditions apparaissent de fait, pour conclure, essentielles à l’émergence d’une bande dessinée abstraite : Accepter de penser qu’une composante idéologique puisse aussi passer à travers le travail plastique (cf. Manet) ; Reconnaître que le texte n’est pas un concurrent au dessin mais une forme parallèle et complémentaire d’abstraction (cf. Redon) ; Penser autrement que de façon simplement narrative la séquentialité en tant que mode de résonance visuelle (cf. Redon). C’est aux États-Unis avec McCay et Herriman que s’opérera l’ouverture.

Références Arasse, Daniel. 1992. Le Détail. Pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture. Paris : Flammarion. Burke, Edmund. 1803. Recherches philosophiques sur l’origine de nos idées du sublime et du beau. Traduit par Lagentie de Lavaïsse. Paris : Pichon & Depierreux. Cham. 1841. Un génie incompris (Mr Barnabé Gogo). Paris : Aubert. Cham. 1844. Impressions de voyage de Mr. Boniface. Paris : Aubert. Doré, Gustave. 1847. Les Travaux d’Hercule. Paris : Aubert. Doré, Gustave. 1848. « Salon de 1848 ». Journal pour rire 9, 25 mars 1848. Doré, Gustave. 1851. Trois artistes incompris et mécontens. Paris : Aubert. Dupas, Jean-Pierre. 1994. « Sterne et Hogarth, la ligne serpentine : chimère ou récit ? ». Dans


Figure 9 Gustave Doré, Trois artistes incompris et mécontens, Aubert, 1851, p. 25. BnF.


Cliff Sterrett’s Jazz Age Abstractions  Katherine Roeder Cliff Sterrett’s body of work, though repeatedly praised by cartoonists ranging from R. Crumb to Chris Ware, has not received the level of critical attention afforded to several of his noteworthy contemporaries, Winsor McCay and George Herriman among them. Polly and her Pals, the career-defining comic strip by Sterrett, peaked in its invocation of modernism, by way of its colourful, syncopated abstraction, in the nineteen twenties and thirties. This robust decade of experimentation has been linked to Sterrett’s association with an artist’s colony in Ogunquit, Maine, and with a six-month hiatus taken by the artist in 1925, during which time he travelled to Europe. Of further note in tracing the trajectory of Sterrett’s abstract compositions are the ways in which the artist absorbed mass cultural influences, from photography and film, as well as popular music and advertising. Sterrett co-mingled these references into a comic strip that casually inoculated audiences to modernist ideas by using a mass media vernacular.

Early Career Born in Fergus, Minnesota, to a Scandinavian druggist, Sterrett’s mother died when he was two years old. Cliff’s father left him and his brother in the care of his aunt and grandparents, while the elder Sterrett went west in search of work. It has been noted that the extended and multigenerational family unit that raised Cliff and his brother loosely resemble the extended family of aunts and cousins, not to mention Maw and Paw Perkins, who populate Polly and her Pals (Heer 2010, 7). Sterrett was not an avid student, but had a propensity for drawing anywhere and everywhere. With the backing of a local minister, he left Minnesota at eighteen in order to study at the Chase Art School in New York. After two years of art school he was hired as a staff art assistant at the New York Herald. At the New York Herald, Sterrett counted Winsor McCay among his colleagues. McCay’s influence is persistent in his work, as particularly evidenced by his attention to full-page design. While the artists were stylistically dissimilar, several points of commonality are clear. The heroine of Polly and her Pals, as in McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, is the comic’s least interesting character. In both series, the titular characters serve primarily as ciphers or strawmen for other, more boisterous characters to riff off of within the comic. Sterrett’s respect for 90


McCay’s artistry and work ethic is apparent in the caricature he drew of McCay at the drawing table, published in the New York Telegram on January 8, 1907. The picture demonstrates Sterrett’s familiarity with McCay’s career by alluding to two of McCay’s creations; the dull care valise in the background refers to the protagonist’s unshakeable burden in his comic A Pilgrim’s Progress, while the steaming tureen at the artist’s feet suggests the popular melted cheese dish referenced in the title Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. Sterrett details McCay’s notoriously snappy dressing style, complete with a prominently featured diamond tie pin, but also his propensity for spending hours upon hours at the drawing table, as indicated by the shaggy hair and five o’clock shadow. McCay’s work ethic was well known in the Herald art department, and certainly had a formative impact on Sterrett as a young artist. In the caricature, McCay’s hand and drawing implement form a singular line, as though the pen was an extension of the hand, while the smoke emanating from his cigarette transforms into a devilish face, suggesting a fiendish artistic inspiration (Figure 1). The resulting image implies that comic art genius stems from equal parts hard work and creative vision, an approach that clearly meshed with Sterrett’s own pragmatic sensibility.

characters as “visual aliens” (Jones 2010), noting that it functions as both a way to differentiate particular characters and to showcase the artist’s creative range and virtuosity. However, in examining Sterrett and McCay’s embrace of visual aliens, there is a distinctly gendered aspect of their usage as well. In both cases, the artists sketched their young, female characters through the filter of commercial and fashion advertising. In this way, each character becomes a literal embodiment of female consumption, a veritable walking fashion plate. Just as the popularity of Mucha’s art nouveau designs were supplanted by the angular, art deco styling of the nineteen twenties, so did the female form evolve to reflect the commercial tastes of each respective period. Jeet Heer (2010,10) positions Polly as the missing link between the Gibson Girl and John Held’s flappers. At the same time, the rise of women as consumers in the nineteenth century was accompanied by a wider cultural backlash against young women for excessive interest in fashion. Polly and the Princess are generally distanced from the humour and pratfalls of the comic, but are instead rendered as living fashion advertisements; they reflect an idea of womanhood that is one-dimensional but also deeply enmeshed in the visual culture of advertising and mass media.

Cosmopolitanism versus Provincialism

One final similarity in the work of McCay and Sterrett concerns their conception of young, female characters. Both McCay’s Princess and Sterrett’s Polly are differentiated from the other characters in the comic in terms of their style of drawing. The Princess of Slumberland, who is regularly shown in profile, has a very stylized appearance, reminiscent of the commercial advertisements of Alphonse Mucha, and devoid of any of exaggerated features common to other characters like Flip, Impie and Dr. Pill. Similarly, Polly and her acquaintances are drawn in a style reminiscent of fashion illustration and advertising, which creates a contrast with the cartoonish exaggerations of her family and their friends. This strategy is apparent in the work of George McManus and Frank King as well. A blogger has referred to this phenomenon of stylistically distinct 92

Polly and her Pals debuted as Positive Polly on December 4, 1912, in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. The name change to Polly and her Pals allowed Sterrett to expand his focus to incorporate Polly’s friends and relations into the mix. Indeed, it was Polly’s parents, Sam (Paw) Perkins and Suzie (Maw) Perkins, who provided much of the comedic action within the strip. Polly remained the picture of grace and elegance, in contrast to her relations who were drawn as caricatures prone to buffoonery, Paw Perkins most of all. The stylized and exaggerated line work used for these characters devolves into racist caricature in the form of the African-American cook, Liza, and Cocoa the handyman, and, to a far lesser extent, the Japanese-American servant Neewah. Racial stereotyping was intended to flatter and reassure the intended readership, just as Paw’s clownish antics did, by placing the viewer in a position to look down on the mistakes and mishaps of others. Sterrett, along with George McManus, whose comic Bringing up Father began in 1913, was at the forefront of a wave of domestic comedy-oriented strips. The trend would inspire Sidney Smith’s The Gumps, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley and Chic Young’s Blondie among others. Both

Figure 1 Cliff Sterrett, Portrait of Winsor McCay, New York Telegram, January 8, 1907. 93

McManus and Sterrett focused on the conflict between traditionalism and the quickly changing social order. By the early 1910s, factors including urbanization and the rise of the automobile, led to concerns over the family unit’s ability to retain its influence on the younger generation. In 1913, Dorothy Dix observed: So many changes in the conditions of life and point of view in the last twenty years that the parent of today is absolutely unfitted to decide the problems of life for the young man and woman of today. This is particularly the case with women because the whole economic and social position of women has been revolutionized since mother was a girl. (Dix 1913, 12)

Women had increased their presence in the workforce by nearly 5% in the years between 1900 and 1910, further increasing their autonomy (McGovern 1968, 320). Yet, tensions arose over these changing roles and the resulting intergenerational strife. Sterrett’s comic presents Polly as a new woman, whose independence and modernity cause no end of consternation to her parents. Indeed, promotional material for the comic focus on how modern Polly is, proclaiming: Well, Polly is just an American girl of NOW. One chap says that she’s ‘the prettiest, provokingest pippin that ever looked out from a newspaper’…’Pa’–he’s the Father that always has been and that always will be possibly, especially in America. But POLLY–she’s TODAY’S girl. No girl who feels the call of TODAY–no girl who pulses with the vitality of this generation of bubbling goof humor–fails to find in POLLY something of herself. (The Daily Telegram, November 17, 1914)

Significantly, Polly’s modernity is tied to her identity as a consumer of fashion, as yet another advertisement posits: “Do you know Polly? Of course you do; but perhaps you are unaware that she is the most up-to-date girl in America. The last word on fashions. Dressed to the minute. Coiffed to the hour. Gloved and booted to the day…The Daily Fashion Plate in the next Sunday Republic” (Heer 2010, 10). Polly is described first and foremost in terms of her shopping habits and ability to remain current. Sterrett was fairly progressive in terms of his views on women’s skills. He treated his wife, Natalie Bronwell Cocks, as a collaborator, saying that she “made his success possible by acting as censor, proofreader and idea-giver.”1 Yet the social messages in Polly and her Pals are decidedly mixed, positioning Polly’s cosmopolitanism and progressiveness against the provincial and conservative Paw. While Paw is the butt of many a joke, he is also a character that audiences are intended to sympathize with. Paw Perkins, otherwise known as Sam Perkins, shares a name with the artist, whose legal name was Samuel Clifford Sterrett. Sterrett would have been acutely aware of regional differences, as he encountered them first hand upon leaving small town Minnesota for New York. After his marriage, Sterrett moved to Garden City, Long Island (then a sleepy village) to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It is possible that Sterrett channelled some of his own anxieties about social change and urbanization into the character of Sam Perkins. It is equally likely that Sterrett was actively trying to cultivate a broad, national audience by giving voice to common tensions. The rise of national syndication on a large scale in the 1910s was accompanied by a push towards safer, more bourgeois content. Sterrett described 1 “Polly,” The Literary Digest, Volume 117, Part 2, 75. 94

the changeover himself, claiming that until 1912 cartoonists had the ability to tailor content to local audiences, but by 1915 he was compelled to generalize his allusions: We couldn’t mention Florida without getting rebuffs from Californians. We couldn’t mention the Fourth of July without hearing from our Canadian readers. What else could we do but follow a middle-ofthe road attitude? (qtd. in Westbrook 1999)

The quote exposes the impact that syndication had on creators, in terms of shaping content for an expanded and geographically diverse audience. And yet, despite the conservatism of the comic’s subject matter, its visual style and embrace of abstract elements suggest a willingness to push the audience in new directions, artistically if not socially. As Coulton Waugh pointed out in 1947, “Another very interesting point about his work is that it has definite abstract art value, and the value appeared in ‘Polly’ long before modern art was accepted by American art critics. This is one of the conspicuous cases in which the humble little ‘funny papers’ often forecast important later developments” (Waugh [1947] 1991, 42). Indeed, perhaps the folksiness of the humour was part of a deliberate strategy to put viewers at ease while at the same time Sterrett’s abstract visual language took significant risks.

Abstraction for the Masses Critical to understanding the drift toward abstraction surfacing in Sterrett’s work in late 1925 was his involvement with an artists’ colony in Maine from 1924 onward. The word colony is a bit of a misnomer, as Bruce Canwell (2013, 8) makes clear in his introduction to the Library of American Comics collection on Sterrett. Located in Ogunquit, Maine, the close-knit group of artists living there were a vital part of the larger town that included fishermen and an active, dynamic theatre community.2 Among the artists Sterrett associated with in Ogunquit were modernists Bernard Karfiol and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. The colony was founded by a Boston-based art teacher named Charles Herbert Woodbury who had discovered the charms and light effects of the fishing village in 1888. In 1898, Woodbury bought five acres of land, which he converted into studio space, and began offering a six-week summer art course that continued until his death in 1940 (Canwell 2013, 9). Other art schools would crop up in the years that followed, including 2  The Ogunquit Playhouse, established by Walter and Maude Hartwig as part of the Little Theatre Movement of the twenties and thirties, was part of the Straw Hat Circuit, also known as Summer Stock. It featured Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, William Powell and Ethel Barrymore among its temporary players; see Daphne Winslow Merrill’s A Salute to Maine (1983, 61). 95

the Summer School of Graphic Arts, established in 1911 by Hamilton Easter Field, with the intention of introducing modern art to Ogunquit’s summer visitors. Sterrett bought a property in Ogunquit in 1932, but he had been visiting the area for years prior, having been introduced to the town by his friend and golf partner, cartoonist Rudolph Dirks. Like Sterrett, Dirks was interested in contemporary art. In addition to helping to popularize the grid-form of sequential images with his wildly successful comic, The Katzenjammer Kids, Dirks also painted in his free time, favouring a style reminiscent of the Ashcan school. The community of creators that Sterrett found in Ogunquit was unbound by medium or high art prejudices. Part of Sterrett’s appeal lay in his ability to marry both high and low references in his comic page, remixing film, photography, and cubist painting, to create his own distinctive visual language. Signature motifs include the use of silhouettes, checkerboard patterns, expressionist, biomorphic amoebas, stylized flowers, as well as repetitive patterns of checks and dots. References to cubism, art deco, surrealism, and German expressionism abound in his large-scale Sunday drawings.3 Artistic allusions to Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger share the page with nods to Krazy Kat. The lonely streets, repeating, cryptic architectural features in Sterrett’s work are reminiscent of de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of the 1910s, while the crooked rows of gable front houses, the menacing shadows cast by staircase railings and window frames all suggest the set designs of the German expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Figure 2).

As in the aforementioned works, Sterrett’s use of checkerboard patterns anticipates these same motifs in a 1944 work titled The Upper Side of the Sky by surrealist Kay Sage. Fernand Léger juxtaposed patterns in a similar way, playing off Picasso’s use of collage 3  Sterrett’s original drawings on Bristol board were quite large, often measuring at 24 x 17 inches in size, allowing the space for his line work to flourish. 96

to explore form as a signifier, as in his Still Life with a Beer Mug from 1921-2, which reads as a jazzy riff on Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912). Léger’s colour palette of the twenties favoured black and the primary colours, as well as bold pattern combinations, and art deco streamlining, all elements that appear in Sterrett’s work as well. Léger, however, favoured hard edges and geometric forms while Sterrett favoured an organic, biomorphic line more reminiscent of the surrealist compositions of Joan Miró. References to cubism, surrealism and German expressionist film appear on the page, demonstrating Sterrett’s facility for combining visual references and remixing them to create a visual language that was distinctly his own.

The Rhythm of the Page Sterrett’s musical interest manifests itself in his page design, which finds him playing with the grid and primary colours in syncopation, in a manner reminiscent of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, yet infused with greater liveliness and vitality. Sterrett understood the musicality and rhythms of page design better than any of his contemporaries. Thierry Groensteen describes reading comics as a “rhythmic operation of crossing from one frame to the next (…). Each new panel propels the narrative forward and, simultaneously, contains it. The frame is the agent of this double maneuver of progression/retention” (2007, 45). Duration is essential to understanding Sterrett’s work; his interest in intervals, timing, harmony, and dissonance all play out within the grid of the comic. “The multiframe is, then, an instrument for converting space into time, into duration. It is entirely appropriate to describe it in terms of rhythm” (Groensteen 2013, 138). Music was important to the Sterrett family, as references abound to Sterrett and his wife playing music together in their home: Sterrett played half a dozen instruments, and would perform on the bass fiddle at annual revues put on by the Society of Illustrators and the Dutch Treat Club.4 This musicality, in his life and on the page, connects the artist to Chris Ware, a ragtime aficionado and banjo player, who similarly imbues his page design with a dynamic verve, and who credits Sterrett as a formative influence (Raeburn 2004, 24). R. Crumb has a similar long-established connection to the music of the nineteen twenties and thirties, evidenced by his compilation of graphic biographies and accompanying CD, R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (Crumb 2006).5 4  “Cliff Sterrett, Cartoonist, Dead; Creator of ‘Polly and Her Pals’: Comic Strip Was Published in Over 200 Newspapers and in 12 Languages,” New York Times, 30 Dec 1964: 21. 5  Another great resource for exploring the connections between comics and jazz can be found in “Brilliant Corners: Approaches to Jazz and Comics,” a

Figure 2 Film still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, 1920.


Chronophotography: The Interval and the Frame

single exposure, inform Sterrett’s comic strip, which silently depicts the mass exodus of a series of tuxedoed men to the water fountain during a concert intermission (Figure 3). The identical-looking men ascend the stairs in unison, queue for water and descend en masse, with their synchronized movements recalling both chronophotographs and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), the painting, inspired in turn by Marey’s work, which sparked controversy and press attention when it was exhibited in New York as part of the Armory Show in 1913.6

At the Movies

Sterrett’s interest in the multiframe as a sequential series depicting units of time is on full display in a January 30, 1927 episode of Polly and her Pals, which showcases the influence of chronophotography on Sterrett by way of Muybridge and A. B. Frost. Muybridge had famously photographed animal and human locomotion at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1880s. Arthur Burdett Frost, illustrator and comic strip progenitor, was living in Philadelphia at the time and studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins. Eakins was fascinated with Muybridge’s work, and undertook his own experiments with chronophotography at the time, and undoubtedly played a role in introducing the photographer’s work to Frost, who referenced it directly in his 1884 work, Stuff and Nonsense. Thierry Smolderen (2014, 123) takes this relationship a step further, postulating that Frost derived the comic strip grid from Muybridge’s chronophotographs, thus establishing the importance of the interval for generations of cartoonists that followed. The influence of Muybridge, and his French counterpart, Étienne-Jules Marey, who recorded movement within a special collection of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, edited by Nicolas Pillai and Ernesto Priego. http://www.comicsgrid.com/collections/special/brilliant-corners/ 98

The popular narrative surrounding Sterrett is that after he took a sabbatical in 1925 he returned to work with a new enthusiasm for abstraction. Certainly, this argument can be made: Sterrett took more chances and pushed his visual vocabulary further towards abstraction upon his return. And yet it could be argued that elements of his new style were present from the beginning of his career and are merely amplified in the latter half of the twenties. For instance, on August 8, 1926, Sterrett experimented with wordless comics, employing the broad physical gestures popularized by the silent comedies of the era (Russell 2010, 5). The scene is set underwater, with a black band across the top of the panels, masking the head and shoulders of the characters, cutting the viewer off from dialogue and facial expressions. And yet, this was not Sterrett’s first attempt at this unusual point of view. A Polly and her Pals comic dating back more than a decade earlier, appearing on August 8, 1913, depicts a scene set entirely underwater, with black bars indicating the surface above. While both comics were coincidentally printed on the same date, the first appearance was in a single strip comic in a Friday edition, whereas the 1926 version was a full-page colour comic in the Sunday supplement. I would argue that Sterrett’s propensity for experimentation was there all along, from the beginning of his career. As he entered his second decade as a cartoonist he may have taken greater risks and hit his creative stride, but his style was growing and evolving over time and was not merely the result of his stay in Ogunquit or abroad. Sterrett used black as a consistent design element, particularly in the Sunday comic spreads where it works as a contrasting element to his primary colour palette of reds, yellows and blues. The black helps to visually bridge scenes in different parts of the house, for instance by 6  Among the most famous of the Armory Show cartoons was J. F. Griswold’s parody of the painting, captioned The Rude descending a staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway), published in The New York Evening Sun, March 20, 1913.

Figure 3 Cliff Sterrett, “Polly and her Pals,” New York Journal, January 30, 1927.


using the curving black staircase railing as a backdrop in a panel taking place on the ground floor, as the scene shifts upstairs we see a glimpse of the top of the staircase, which now connects to the black mullions of a nearby window. Thus, the home’s black architectural features structure our movement through its space as much as the physical movements of the characters. This becomes especially important in soundless comics, as in an episode dated October 23, 1927 (Figure 4), which begins with a panel showing the family cat perched upon the mantelpiece. The face on the mantel clock points to two, no other numbers are present on the clock, for added emphasis on the lateness of the hour. The cat knocks a vase off the mantle, sending Paw and Ashur down the stairs to search for the source of the ruckus, with neither aware that the other is also investigating the noise. The two figures meet in the doorway, mirror images of one another (anticipating the Marx brothers mirror scene from the 1933 film Duck Soup). The origin of the bit dates back to a Chaplin sequence in a 1916 movie called The Floorwalker.7 While the Marx brothers were clearly indebted to Chaplin’s routine, they also seemed to pick up elements from Sterrett in terms of setting and costuming, in that both scenes feature men in their pyjamas, encountering each other in the threshold between two rooms. It is finally determined that the cat was the source of the noise, and he receives the boot, with this final panel serving as an homage to the last panel of every episode of McCay’s Little Sammy Sneeze, which always ended with Sammy getting a kick in the pants. The family cat bears a striking resemblance to Herriman’s Krazy Kat, a likely nod to Sterrett’s friend and colleague.

In the Shadow of Herriman Al Capp, in recalling his artistic heroes once said, “now, Sterrett–that’s the guy who was the greatest. To think that a whole generation has grown up worshipping Picasso when the guy who did it far better was Sterrett! Far better than Picasso–and Herriman. I love Herriman–he has his own special place. But I love Sterrett–he belongs someplace else…”8 Capp’s praise aside, Sterrett’s reputation as an artistic innovator suffered from comparisons with Herriman, whose command of the visual form and linguistic verve far exceeded the period. George Herriman pushed at the very fabric of language and meaning by transmuting it into something close to existential longing. Witness an exchange between Krazy Kat and Ignatz, in a comic dated April 16, 1922 which anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd, as the two characters talk around one another and reflect on their existence inside the comic page that they are themselves examining (Figure 5).

7  The back and forth exchange between film and comics moved in both directions, with Chaplin becoming the subject of a cartoon called Charlie Chaplin’s Capers in 1915. 100

8  Al Capp, Cartoonist PROfiles #37 (March 1978).

Figure 4 Cliff Sterrett, “Polly and Her Pals,” Seattle Sunday Times, October 23, 1927.


The absurdly beautiful poetry of Herriman never appealed to a broad audience but it had its loyal fans, Sterrett among them (as well as E. E. Cummings). Herriman dismantled what Groensteen refers to as the “waffle-iron grid” approach to page design, by removing frames entirely, and reinserting them randomly within the space of the page, contributing to the sense of Coconino county as a vast, empty expanse of space (Groensteen 2013, 43-44). He broke the frame, both visually and in terms of content. One of the clear distinctions between Herriman and Sterrett is apparent in page design. Herriman’s work is considered more daring and challenging to the reader, in part because of his willingness to abandon the grid in his early black and white strips.9 Sterrett instead embraced the grid, and made it a key component of the page’s rhythm and flow. Sterrett managed to disarm the reader while keeping within the seemingly ordered framework of the waffle-grid page. This proclivity for mining chaos out of order can be seen in the Polly and her Pals episodes that deal with visual disorientation. The source of the impairment varies, sometimes it is alcohol, or a misplaced pair of glasses, other times it is the result of a blow to the head. Regardless of the cause, such occasions are an excuse for the artist to exaggerate his already stylized and extravagant surroundings. Typically, Paw is the victim of these altered perceptions, and his head traumas are visualized by a nimbus of flower-like stars and moons. Clearly the artist delights in these exercises, as he returns to them again and again. It also allows him to partake of the trope of modernity as representing a world gone mad, illegible and unknowable.

9  Jan Baetens (2011, 111-28) artfully describes how Herriman adapts his style and reinvents page design when color was imposed on the strip in 1935. 102

Sterrett’s attention to full-page design is apparent when Polly is compared with the header strip Dot and Dash that topped the page. Dot and Dash was a wordless comic, featuring a cat and dog pairing (which eventually became two dogs). In an episode dated April 8, 1928 (Figure 6), the pair encounters music emanating from a nearby pond. They discover that the sound is coming from a band of frogs, who attempt to escape their notice by jumping into the water. Dot and Dash serenade the frogs, in hopes they might reveal themselves. When they don’t respond, the two stride away, paws extended in unison and drawn from a worm’s eye view. Sterrett favoured that point of view, and repeats it in the character of Paw just a few panels down in the Polly comic. As one visually tracks the directional strides, from the second panel of Dot and Dash down to the final panel of Polly, one can see the movements

Figure 5 George Herriman, “Krazy Kat,” New York Journal, April 16, 1922. Figure 6 Cliff Sterrett, “Dot and Dash” and “Polly and Her Pals”, Sunday Oregonian, April 8, 1928. 103

tacking back and forth, left to right, down the entirety of the page. The musical notes create another connection between the topper and the main comic, with Paw’s humming to himself echoing the chorusing frogs up above. The Polly comic further creates a sense of repetition and unity by way of its use of framing. Within each panel, we see a rectangle framing element of some kind, whether it be a picture frame, a window, or doorway/garage door. These repeating rectangles connect one panel to another, as do the sequence of repeating circles of suns, windows, car wheels, and the circular-amoeba pattern adorning the walled entryway. Both the header and main page comic are entirely wordless, relying on physical gesture and implied sound effects to carry the weight of the story. In the Polly feature, the crux of the story involves Paw underdressing for the elements, in spite of the protests of his wife. Paw encounters the bracing wind, and returns home to sneak a warmer coat out of the house. Sterrett includes a nod to his Ogunquit Modernist pal, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, in the form of an abstract painting of a cow signed with the artist’s name. Kuniyoshi depicted cows and oxen frequently in his work of the nineteen-twenties and identified closely with the animal, as it was associated with his birth year according to the Japanese lunar calendar. Kuniyoshi’s approach drew upon cubism, as he was interested in reducing form to its component parts. He also frequently used a tilted-up picture plane, another feature that finds its way into Sterrrett’s work. It seems an unlikely choice of painting for the Perkins, but it allows for Sterrett to promote his friend’s work.


A comic that appeared on May 31, 1936 (Figure 7) demonstrates Sterrett’s facility with combining a subversive visual style with retrograde content. The comic opens with Ashur Perkins happening upon an exhibit of modern art. Intrigued, he enters the art gallery and encounters dozens of abstract paintings and sculptures of female nudes. The aggressive expressions and angular poses unnerve Ashur, who becomes increasingly agitated; at times he cowers in fear of the artwork. He leaves the gallery with his head spinning and lunges at the first woman he sees, a middle-aged matron whose plump curves make her the antithesis of the frightening, aggressively modern women inside. He plants a kiss on the unsuspecting woman, and goes humming and strolling about his business, with his sense of normalcy and order thus restored. On the surface, the comic castigates modern artists who take the beauty of the female form and render it abstract and unrecognizable. It also suggests an alignment of modern art with an emasculating, aggressive femininity. In this regard, the comic is similar to a wave of comic art reactions to the Armory Show in 1913, which was the first exhibition to present European modernism to American audiences on a broad scale. Several cartoonists made comics parodying the art in the show–while at the same time, the exhibition included several cartoonists as participants, Sterrett’s golfing buddy, Rudolph Dirks among them–yet they delighted in rendering the cubist forms that they were seemingly mocking. Comic artists both participated in the show and helped to mediate it for a mass audience. A similar dynamic is at play here. Upon closer examination, the viewer is forced to recognize how similar the modern art is to Sterrett’s prototypical drawing style. In panel after panel, we see that the pose of Ashur in some way echoes or mirrors the art hanging on the walls. As Ashur enters the gallery, striding forward across a checkerboard floor, with his mid-stride foot rising toward the viewer, we see a visually similar sculpture on the right side of the panel. In each, the left elbow is raised and bent at a 45-degree angle while the legs are positioned as a diagonal, with one foot raised so that the underside of the foot faces the viewer. Each figure has been stylized and reduced to geometric essentials. The panels that follow similarly feature a mirroring of poses between the art works and cowering Ashur. The reiteration of the forms acts to both affirm a provincial suspicion towards abstraction, while visually reinforcing the idea that Sterrett’s dynamic line drawing exists on the very same continuum alongside the cubist art that so frightens Ashur.

Figure 7 Cliff Sterrett, Polly and Her Pals, May 31, 1936. The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. 105

Conclusion Cliff Sterrett was adept at finding humour in oppositions, playing off the tensions between the young and old, the urban and provincial, the progressive and conservative. At the same time, the comic’s style embraced abstraction, using avant-garde art, popular music, film and mass media as inspiration for a rich and distinctive visual aesthetic. Sterrett’s folksy humour diffused the radicalism of his artistic project. Sterrett disarmed audiences with his wit and wordplay, while slyly introducing an abstract visual vocabulary to mass audiences. Sterrett’s modernism for the masses was an overlooked yet persuasive advocate for the cause of abstract art in American newspapers.

References Baetens, Jan. 2011. “From Black & White to Color and Back: What Does It Mean (Not) to Use Color?” College Literature 38 (3): 111-28. Canwell, Bruce. 2013. “The Downeaster,” Polly and Her Pals 1933, edited by Dean Mullaney, 7-17. San Diego: IDW Publishing. Crumb, Robert. 2006. R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country. New York: Harry Abrams. Dix, Dorothy. 1913. “The Extent of Parental Authority.” San Francisco Call, September 9. Groensteen, Thierry. 2007. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. –––. 2013. Comics and Narration. Translated by Ann Miller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Heer, Jeet. 2010. “Sterrett’s Symphony.” In Polly and her Pals, 1913-1927, edited by Dean Mullaney, 6-18. San Diego: IDW. Jones. 2010. “Visual Aliens, Part II.” The Hooded Utilitarian, October 29, http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2010/10/visual-aliens-part-ii/ McGovern, James R. 1968. “The American Woman’s Pre-World War I Freedom in Manners and Morals.” The Journal of American History 55 (2): 315-33. Merrill, Daphne Winslow. 1983. A Salute to Maine. New York: Vantage Press. Raeburn, Daniel K. 2004. Chris Ware. New Haven: Yale University Press. Russell, P. Craig. 2010. “An Artist’s Artist.” In Polly and her Pals, 1913-1927, edited by Dean Mullaney, 4-5. San Diego: IDW. Westbrook, David. 1999. “From Hogan’s Alley to Coconino County: Three Narratives of the Early Comic Strip.” American Quarterly: Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies, http://chnm.gmu.edu/aq/comics/nocss/start.html Smolderen, Thierry. 2014. The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Waugh, Coulton. [1947] 1991. The Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.


Des chemins vers l’abstraction : la bande dessinée abstraite selon Ibn Al Rabin et Andrei Molotiu Jean-Charles Andrieu de Levis Au cœur de ce processus [de modernité], les œuvres modernes se sont développées à l’encontre du régime sémiotique dominant basé sur la fonction (fiction) de communication et régi par la fameuse contrainte de la «lisibilité» - qui a depuis toujours pesé (et pèse encore) sur un art dont on a voulu qu’il relevât stricto sensu du domaine des « mass média» et qu’il fût asservi à une forme d’utilitarisme assez peu compatible avec la conception et la pratique généralement répandues de l’art. Jacques Samson (1988, 120) La bande dessinée s’est constituée à travers des langages graphiques variés mais qui ont tous cultivé une grande lisibilité dans la représentation du monde qu’ils donnent à voir. Il a été admis que, pour suivre le courant narratif d’un récit, le dessin doit être rapidement identifiable ; l’œil doit glisser d’une case à l’autre sans heurt.1 Le lecteur doit pouvoir immédiatement reconnaître et distinguer les différents personnages qui se meuvent dans les pages et de cases en cases. Il en va de même pour les lieux, les objets, les époques etc… autant d’informations qu’un dessin figuratif est à même de proposer, avec plus ou moins de justesse et de détails selon le dessinateur. Prenons l’exemple éloquent de la ligne claire, style graphique dont la paternité est attribuée à Alain Saint-Ogan et véritablement institutionnalisé par Hergé, et qui a longtemps largement prédominé dans le paysage de la bande dessinée. Lors de l’exposition « L’aventure de la ligne claire » qui eut lieu au Cartoonmuseum à Bâle entre octobre 2013 et mars 2014, les commissaires d’exposition définissaient le terme introduit par Joost Swarte en 1977 comme ceci : « La ligne claire désigne une manière de dessiner qui implique les principes suivants : les surfaces sont délimitées par une ligne d’épaisseur constante, avec des contours francs, elles sont mises en couleur par aplats, sans ombrage ni hachures ». La lisibilité du dessin est ainsi le principe fondamental de ce style. Philippe Marion parle même de transparence du dessin en évoquant la ligne claire : « Ces deux mots résument assez bien l’idéal de lisibilité et de transparence qui, sur 1  Chris Ware expliquait : « Je ne veux pas que le lecteur s’attarde sur les dessins, je voudrais qu’il les survole sans vraiment les voir en tant que tels (…) » (Peeters 2010, 67). De son côté, Christian Rosset déplorait que « Le plus souvent, la bande dessinée est conçue, pensée, fabriquée, pour être lue très vite » (Rosset 2006, 75). 108


le plan plastique, se traduit notamment par la linéarisation du trait de contour et le réalisme schématique des décors » (Marion 1993, 131). Cette exposition montrait bien l’étendue de cette tradition graphique, qui finalement, peut toujours s’appliquer à un très grand nombre de productions contemporaines, la définition s’élargissant quelque peu : prenons l’exemple de Cow-boy Henk de Herr Seele et Kamagurka ou encore des nombreux livres de Trondheim ou même Chris Ware. Que ce soit la ligne claire ou l’école de Marcinelle, les différents courants de dessins en bande dessinée ont toujours préservé cette nécessité de lisibilité, qui a pesé sur le dessin au prix d’une certaine liberté plastique. Il est éloquent qu’un auteur comme Lyonel Feininger, dont les premières productions graphiques sont des planches de bande dessinée, les Kind-der-kids et Wee Willie Winkie’s World en 1906-1911, au travers desquelles il introduisait un graphisme audacieux et en marge, n’abordera jamais l’abstraction dans ces pages, lui qui pourtant s’illustrera par la suite par ses peintures qui versent dans l’abstraction et qui le feront côtoyer l’avant-garde européenne, notamment le Bauhaus des années 20. Face à cette prédominance d’un dessin figuratif se soumettant à la clarté du récit, des auteurs ont voulu prendre de la distance avec la sacro-sainte lisibilité du dessin. Gustave Doré, dès ses premières histoires (Les travaux d’Hercules, 1847, et Histoire pittoresque, dramatique et caricaturale de la sainte Russie en 1854) introduit, l’espace d’une page ou d’un dessin, des compositions abstraites. Il démontrait alors la possibilité et même la facilité de poursuivre une narration en bande dessinée avec du matériel iconique abstrait. Mais ces écarts restaient ponctuels, s’inscrivaient entre des pages entièrement figuratives, et venaient se poser sur le récit comme un trait d’humour. D’autres auteurs plus contemporains s’y sont aussi essayés, discrètement pour certains comme Mattotti (Feux, Albin Michel, 1986) ou Caza (Arkhê, Les humanoïdes associés, 1983), ou de façon plus affirmée comme Eberoni (John & Betty, Les humanoïdes associés, 1985). Mais ces incursions loin de la figuration demeuraient discontinues, l’espace de quelques cases ou quelques pages. Si ces explorations dans le domaine de l’abstraction sont révélatrices de la curiosité des auteurs d’investir une tradition graphique à l’opposé de la leur, elles posent aussi la question de la potentialité de faire durer cet exercice à l’échelle de tout un récit mais aussi comprendre en quoi la bande dessinée est particulièrement propice à ce genre d’expérimentations. Nous verrons aussi que si l’on parle de bande dessinée abstraite, les modalités dans le processus de création et de lecture des diverses expériences sont pour beaucoup fondamentalement différentes. Afin d’englober l’étendue des différentes propositions tout en sauvegardant leur spécificité, nous pourrions parler de bandes dessinées constructives, pour reprendre le terme de Serge Lemoine (1992). Rompre avec ce dictat du figuratif est une manière d’explorer une des spécificités du médium (certainement la plus importante), la séquentialité ; c’est aussi éprouver l’élasticité de la redondance iconique et observer comment, en abandonnant des formes figuratives clairement identifiables, la solidarité iconique est préservée ; enfin, comment, à travers la séquence, des suites de cases non figuratives mais solidaires parviennent-elles à esquisser un récit ou au contraire transcender la notion de récit. Au-delà de ces questions théoriques, l’auteur, en se libérant de ces conventions graphiques contraignantes, et


pour reprendre les mots de Barthélémy Schwartz, cherche à « retrouver la force poétique intrinsèque aux images ». Si peu d’auteurs ont véritablement essayé de faire des bandes dessinées uniquement avec des dessins abstraits, deux dessinateurs contemporains ont particulièrement travaillé cette approche du médium. Ibn Al Rabin et Andrei Molotiu vont initier et faire émerger la notion de bande dessinée abstraite, bien qu’ils développent deux conceptions diamétralement opposées. Ces expériences, si elles peuvent paraître trompeuses sur certains points, n’en restent pas moins passionnantes par le discours qu’elles engagent sur la bande dessinée.

Des figures géométriques comme premiers pas vers l’abstraction Dans l’histoire de l’art, la notion de peinture abstraite a été le fruit d’une longue évolution qui a emprunté de nombreux chemins. Le terme d’abstraction a recouvert différentes significations avant l’acception que nous en avons maintenant, plus d’un siècle après son apparition dans les écrits de peintres et critiques d’art (Roque 2005). En bande dessinée, il en va autrement. Avant que le terme de bande dessinée abstraite n’apparaisse véritablement à partir des années 2000, des auteurs ont ponctuellement envisagé la possibilité de raconter des histoires uniquement avec des images abstraites, et plus précisément à l’aide de figures géométriques (rappelant ainsi les débuts de l’art abstrait). La géométrie est en effet un système de représentation abstrait par excellence. Serge Lemoine décrivait un tableau de Fernand Léger (Contrastes de formes, 1913) par ces mots : « l’espace y est bidimensionnel, les formes sont géométriques et ne représentent rien, les couleurs en petit nombre, les rythmes dynamiques : l’œuvre est dégagée de toute allusion au réel » (Lemoine 1992, 17).


C’est en 1922 qu’a été réalisée la première expérience significative de séquence dessinée abstraite. El Lissitzky, célèbre constructiviste russe, raconte, dans son livre pour enfant Les deux carrés, l’histoire de deux carrés à travers six compositions abstraites. Les protagonistes de ce récit ne sont pas nommés, leur aspect visuel suffisant à les définir et les identifier. Ce qui nous intéresse particulièrement dans ce livre, outre l’essence du constructivisme qui émane des images, est l’usage fait de la redondance iconique. Chaque double page présente un dessin encadré qui se lie aux autres à travers des formes, des couleurs et même des matières qui se répètent et permettent d’identifier les protagonistes et de suivre l’évolution du récit. Le texte, certes succinct, introduit de la poésie et de la richesse graphique aux pages mais n’ont pas de nécessité diégétique. L’espace qui sépare les cases est suffisamment faible pour bien comprendre le récit mais, dans le même temps, préserve une certaine distance pour conférer à ces images un lyrisme qu’un cadre trop stricte enserrerait. La composition des images semble autant intéresser l’artiste que les liens qui peuvent se tisser entre elles. Il démontre que, même dénuées de toute référence au réel, des formes plastiques peuvent prendre vie lorsqu’elles se succèdent et sont ainsi mises en séquence. Bien entendu, El Lissitzky n’avait pas pour ambition d’éprouver le principe de solidarité iconique propre au médium, mais ses recherches font pourtant écho à des préoccupations propres à la bande dessinée. Il faut ensuite attendre février 1973 pour retrouver une planche entièrement abstraite. Dans le numéro 692 du journal Pilote, Jean Ache entame sa fameuse série Les débutants célèbres de la bande dessinée. Dans ces pages, Jean Ache décline en une planche un récit bien connu, Le petit chaperon rouge, en pastichant l’univers graphique de grands peintres modernes, du Douanier Rousseau en passant par Picasso. La planche qui nous intéresse ici est celle « accréditée » à Mondrian. Dans cette page, les personnages du récit sont représentés par des carrés de couleurs différentes. Les lieux et autres objets du décors (panier, arbres, maison) sont autant de figures géométriques qui composent l’image comme Mondrian pouvait segmenter ses toiles.2 Des traits de vitesses, des onomatopées et des bulles sont différents éléments graphiques appartenant à la sémantique de la bande dessinée (donc étrangers à l’univers plastique de Mondrian), qui animent les figures et leur font jouer leur rôle (bien qu’ils n’apparaissent que sur quatre cases sur neuf ).

2  Les toiles de Mondrian pourraient elles-mêmes être considérées comme des prototypes de bande dessinée abstraite jouant sur les rythmes du multicadre. 112

Figure 1 El Lissitzky, Les deux carrés, page 4. © 2013 MeMo.


de fables de Lafontaine, l’auteur alterne des doubles pages de texte (les fables) et leur adaptation en strips composés uniquement de modèles géométriques. Les principaux protagonistes sont immédiatement identifiés à la figure qui les représente. Il se crée alors un aller-retour entre les transformations subies par ces figures géométriques et les parties du texte auxquelles elles se réfèrent. Les actions explosent et recomposent les images abstraites, produisant ainsi de nouvelles images. Ces perturbations sont associées aux conséquences d’une action de l’histoire. La succession de nouvelles compositions abstraites constitue la séquence du récit, décodée à la faveur de son association avec le texte précédemment lu. Les limites de l’exercice de Jean Ache se situent justement dans cette nécessité de l’écrit, pourtant clairement séparé des images : sans texte, les strips resteraient un mystère pour le lecteur.

Le lecteur interprète les compositions abstraites à travers la redondance des formes, les différents signes graphiques qui leur sont attachés et leur place dans le découpage du récit dont le déroulement diégétique est semblable sur toutes les planches de la série. Il déchiffre les cases et identifie les personnages et situations représentées. Le récit opère ainsi par une traduction des images. L’expérience semble avoir suffisamment intéressé l’auteur pour qu’il la réitère un an plus tard avec Des carrés et des ronds. Dans ce recueil


En janvier 1989, Massimo Mattioli dessine pour la revue Corto Maltese un récit de six pages uniquement composées de formes géométriques (à l’exception de trois cases).3 Il développe une histoire d’amour entre un triangle rectangle bleu prénommé Arthur et Mcr., « une superbe triangle rectangle jaune », romance qui sera mise à mal par Gorgoy, un cube orange. Le lecteur entre dans un univers où les formes géométriques sont des personnages et ont toutes des fonctions narratives. Le mouvement d’identification est alors inversé par rapport aux planches de Jean Ache : dans Des carrés et des ronds, le lecteur doit reconnaitre et identifier les personnages alors que dans Love, Mattioli dessine des compositions abstraites qu’il explicite dans un second temps. Prenons la dernière case de la première planche comme exemple.

3 Cette histoire se trouve dans le recueil B stories publié par L’Association en 2008.

Figure 2 Jean Ache, Les débutants célèbres de la bande dessinée, dans Pilote 692, page 41. © 1973 Dargaud. Figure 3 Jean Ache, Des carrés et des ronds, pages 38-39. © 1974 Balland.


Le but de la Bd abstraite est de s’abstenir le plus possible de représenter des objets concrets (personnages, animaux, décors, mais aussi toute écriture) tout en développant un récit qui soit compréhensible (…) et qui « fasse sens » (…). Les seuls objets « concrets » que l’on s’autorise sont ceux qui font partie du langage de la bande dessinée (cases, phylactères, etc.).5

Dans sa thèse de doctorat, Jean-Christophe Menu les décrit ainsi : « on cherche à éliminer tout référant figuratif, et à montrer que le dispositif de la bande dessinée peut produire une narration uniquement avec des cases au contenu abstrait » (Menu, 2011 409).

Nous pouvons lire dans le récitatif : « Ce que nous observons à présent est un concert de rock des « Motorcity Cobras » devant un public de droites en extase ». Le lecteur ayant eu ces informations va alors percevoir l’image en l’organisant selon les indications données: le carré blanc devient la scène du concert, les triangles rectangles roses au bout noir le groupe de musique « Motorcity Cobras », et les lignes droites parallèles ne forment plus une trame mais une foule venue écouter le groupe. En somme, les récitatifs sont pour Mattioli autant un outil narratif qu’une légende pour les images. Les figures géométriques ne représentent pas mais incarnent des personnages du récit. Il est à noter que textes et dessins sont clairement séparés et que les images ne contiennent aucun signe graphique relevant de la sémantique de la bande dessinée. Massimo Mattioli avait déjà réalisé une planche abstraite composée de figures géométriques en 1987 intitulée « Pourquoi tu m’aimes ».4 Nous pouvons constater que lorsque l’auteur italien, plus connu pour son art de la parodie et de la transgression, aborde un sentiment aussi abstrait que l’amour, son dessin devient lui aussi abstrait.

Les débuts d’Ibn Al Rabin En 2000, Ibn Al Rabin, dessinateur suisse, autoédite un fanzine de bandes dessinées abstraites intitulé Cidre et Schnaps. C’est la première fois que le terme « bande dessinée abstraite » est clairement employé. Il ne propose pas vraiment de définition à ce qu’il envisage comme de la bande dessinée abstraite, mais expose plutôt les règles qu’il s’était fixé pour la réalisation de son fanzine dans une conversation sur Google lancée au même moment que son fanzine. Il y explique que : 4  Pour une analyse approfondie de cette planche, nous renvoyons à l’article d’Aurélien Leif, « Les yeux à fond de trou », publié dans le quatrième numéro de la revue Pré carré. 116

La dynamique des planches qu’il propose procède principalement de l’auto-engendrement des images, ou « de la physis, c’est à dire d’une génération de chaque image par la précédente » (Groensteen 2011, 11). Elles possèdent une logique interne que le lecteurs découvre et appréhende selon les interactions que les formes, présentes dans les cases, auront entre elles. Les séquences sont bien narratives, mais les formes 5  Cette discussion est disponible à l’adresse suivante : https://groups.google. com/d/topic/fr.rec.arts.bd/ULXvejYURNE/discussion

Figure 4 Massimo Mattioli, Love, page 1, panel 1. © 2008 L’Association. Figure 5 Ibn Al Rabin, Cidre et schnaps, page 3. © 2001 Me Myself.


ne sont pas pour autant détachées d’un processus d’identification. Dans la planche L’Empire contre-attaque, d’une forme A se détache une forme B, de laquelle va alors se détacher une forme C. Nous suivons ensuite les péripéties de ces trois formes noires. Au fur et à mesure du récit ces trois protagonistes se chargent narrativement et réagissent même émotivement aux situations auxquelles elles sont confrontées : nous pouvons observer à la case 19 des emanata provenir de la plus petite forme, angoissée à l’idée de se faire manger par la plus grande.6 Nous personnifions ainsi ces formes, leur attribuant des émotions bien humaines. Ces masses noires commencent par être abstraites mais leurs interactions, et ainsi la narration qui naît de ces interactions, les remplit d’une certaine consistance. Elles incarnent des entités que nous observons se mouvoir et obéir à des « lois » propres à l’univers dans lequel elles se trouvent et dont l’apprentissage devient l’enjeu de la lecture. Bien qu’Ibn Al Rabin se défende d’utiliser du texte, il accompagne ses planches de titres. Ces titres, attribués a posteriori, donnent une grande orientation dans l’interprétation de ces histoires, d’autant plus qu’ils sont placés sous les planches et donc, d’une certaine manière, les sous-titrent. Dans la conclusion du fanzine, l’auteur s’accuse d’anthropomorphisme pour cette raison. En réalité, les dessins auxquels il fait référence ne deviennent anthropomorphiques qu’après lecture des titres. Dans d’autres planches, plus rares, l’auteur cherche à ne représenter que du mouvement, comme dans la treizième page intitulée « moving picture ». Ces figures géométriques se mouvant dans l’espace de la case ne sont pas sans rappeler les films d’animations expérimentaux comme Rythmus 21 d’Hans Richter. Nous sommes alors plus dans une volonté de montrer que de raconter. Le cadre trop étroit de la case ne peut contenir une forme dans sa totalité et donc la parcourt. La lecture de la page va donc donner à voir cette forme. Un double mouvement se produit ici : la lecture donne à voir une forme que ses mécanismes (la séquence et la spatialité des cases) ont déconstruite. Ce genre de mécanisme narratif sera assez souvent repris dans ce genre d’expérimentations, les auteurs s’amusant à découper des formes simples qui apparaissent complexes lorsqu’elles sont décrites à travers le système de la bande dessinée.

Afin de poursuivre ses recherches de concert avec d’autres dessinateurs, l’auteur genevois va introduire dans la revue Bile Noire, aux éditions Atrabile, une rubrique dédiée à la bande dessinée abstraite qui s’étendra du numéro 13 au numéro 16, de 2003 à 2007, et qui comptera à chaque fois entre dix et seize pages, toutes en noir et blanc. Si de nouveaux schémas narratifs sont développés (notamment par Jessie Bi et David Vandermeulen), ces carnets présentent principalement des variations aux planches d’Ibn Al Rabin. Ces carnets se posent aussi comme un espace de débat autour de la notion de bande dessinée abstraite, trois ans après la conversation Google (débat qui consistera surtout en un dialogue entre Andréas Kündig et Ibn Al Rabin), que nous allons dès à présent étudier.

Premiers essais de théorisation 6  Emanata est un terme « proposé par Mort Walker dans son manuel Lexicon of Comicana (1980) pour désigner les traits, gouttelettes, spirales, étoiles et autres signes graphiques placés à proximité du visage d’un personnage pour traduire une émotion, voire un état physique » (Groensteen 2011, 136). 118

Dès le début de ses expérimentations, Ibn Al Rabin est conscient de se trouver devant un problème théorique. Il tentera par le biais de différentes plateformes de publication d’ouvrir des lieux de réflexion sur ce

Figure 6 Jessie Bi, « Sans titre », dans Bile noire 14, page 62. © 2004 Atrabile.


qu’il nomme « bande dessinée abstraite ». Le 9 mars 2000, il inaugure le débat dans un forum qui trouvera sa conclusion le 27 mars de la même année. Ibn Al Rabin, de son vrai nom Mathieu Baillif (qu’il utilise sur le forum) explique vouloir dévoiler les « mécanismes » de la bande dessinée, exposer et découvrir son « squelette brut », pour reprendre JC Menu (2011, 413), sans oublier la part ludique de telles expérimentations. Nous retrouvons l’engouement propre à la modernité décrit par Marie-Odile Briot : « Trouver une forme nouvelle, inconnue tel est le défi de toute la peinture abstraite, qu’elle soit lyrique et gestuelle ou pure et géométrique… Inventer de nouveaux codes, en jouer à l’infini » (Briot 1994, 57). Dans cette démarche, il souhaite explorer les spécificités du médium : « La BD abstraite est une manière de se débarrasser de tout ce que la BD a en commun avec les autres arts narratifs ». Le suisse va tout d’abord diriger le débat sur la différence de lecture que l’on fait d’un dessin abstrait en bande dessinée par rapport à un dessin figuratif. Il reprend alors ce qu’il avait déjà évoqué dans l’introduction de Cidre et Schnaps, c’est-à-dire la nécessité d’avoir l’expérience d’un objet pour comprendre la représentation figurative de cet objet. Il prend l’exemple d’un homme qui marche : une personne ne pourra pas reconnaître un homme qui marche dans un dessin si elle n’a pas préalablement observé un homme marcher. Ibn Al Rabin cherche à démontrer que la bande dessinée peut donner du sens à un objet abstrait à travers la narration. Il se crée un aller-retour entre la naissance d’une narration et le sens donné à un dessin abstrait : c’est la séquence qui, au début donnera une signification au dessin, et, dans le même temps, c’est l’interprétation de ce dessin (rendu donc possible par la séquence) qui va permettre à la narration de s’installer. Il développe cette idée dans un post : La bande dessinée (…) permet de raconter une histoire faite uniquement d’objets abstraits, c’est à dire n’ayant ni nature, ni fonction à priori : il suffit de dessiner un truc qui ne ressemble à rien, et de faire en sorte que la narration fasse comprendre au lecteur quelle est sa nature et sa fonction (en tout cas, de lui donner suffisamment d’indices pour que le lecteur puisse appréhender le « sens » du récit).7 

Le système de la bande dessinée permettrait ainsi au lecteur de se passer de l’expérience du monde, tout comme le regardeur se passe de référence au réel pour admirer une toile abstraite.8 La bande dessinée abstraite présente au lecteur une image informe qu’il ne saurait investir de son expérience. Mais, cette chose informe présentée dans une première case se retrouve dans une seconde case. La seconde image est alors une représentation de la première image, en ce sens où, par identification formelle, la seconde case présente à nouveau, donc re-présente, la forme qui nous a été présentée dans la première case. Patrick Vauday développait : « si la représentation renvoie au représenté dont elle tient lieu en son absence, elle a la vertu de le présenter à, au monde ou à quelqu’un : présence de…à, dans toute la distance d’un espace et/ou d’un temps qui séparent » (Vauday 2010, 35). La bande dessinée, elle, est un art de la répétition, de la 7  Cf. https://groups.google.com/d/topic/fr.rec.arts.bd/ULXvejYURNE/discussion. 8  « Or l’art abstrait tourne le dos à la figuration, à la représentation du monde. Pourtant, c’est le plus déroutant pour le spectateur qui perd ici toutes ses habitudes de lecture directe et immédiate de l’œuvre d’art » (Sers 1989, 9). 120

présentation à chaque case d’un même objet. La redondance iconique dans la bande dessinée abstraite s’assimile au processus de représentation qui permet d’installer une narration. Ce que dévoileraient ainsi les expérimentations d’Ibn Al Rabin, c’est que la bande dessinée serait un art ontologiquement représentatif. La seule expérience dont a dès lors besoin le lecteur est celle de la lecture séquentielle. Si la bande dessinée abstraite permet d’éliminer la notion d’expérience de l’image pour appréhender et suivre des formes qui se meuvent dans la page, elle nécessite tout de même une connaissance minimale des mécanismes du médium. Ibn Al Rabin propose alors une définition axiomatique de la bande dessinée, peu convaincante, qui sera développée par ailleurs par Andréas Kündig (2004) sans plus de succès. Dans une conversation entre Ibn Al Rabin et Alex Baladi retranscrite dans le troisième numéro de Comix club sorti en 2006, Baladi fait part de sa défiance envers le terme « abstrait » qu’il substituerait plutôt à celui de « concret » : « Dans la bande dessinée concrète, un ensemble de trait n’est qu’un ensemble de traits et se suffit en tant que tel, peut être un personnage en tant que tel. Je veux dire qu’un ensemble de traits ne représente pas une chaise ou un être humain mais s’assume en tant qu’ensemble de traits, voilà pourquoi c’est concret » (Al Rabin & Baladi 2006, 77). Il persistera en 2009 dans son livre Encore un effort, réaffirmant que « la bande dessinée abstraite utilise des formes non figuratives. Dans la bande dessinée concrète, les formes sont prises pour ce qu’elles sont, un trait est un trait » (Baladi 2007, 42). Baladi réactive un débat terminologique datant des années 30, aux prémices de l’art abstrait. Matisse, Picasso ou Miró se défiaient de la notion « d’abstraction ». Jean Arp déclarait en 1931 : « L’homme appelle abstrait ce qui est concret ». Mais c’est Theo Van Doesburg qui a le plus défendu la notion d’art concret avec la revue Art concret. Il écrivit dans son unique numéro : « Peinture concrète et non abstraite parce que rien n’est plus concret qu’une ligne, qu’un surface, qu’une couleur ». Les arguments d’Alex Baladi se fondent donc dans les raisonnements énoncés par les peintres de la modernité favorables à un « art concret ».9 Néanmoins, faute de vigueur et de soutien dans cette confrontation avec son compatriote helvète, le terme « bande dessinée abstraite » est resté pour devenir l’acception commune des expériences conduites par ibn Al Rabin.

9  Sur la dénomination d’art concret, voir Georges Roque (2003, 120-34). 121

Andrei Molotiu et Abstract Comics: le refus de la narration C’est véritablement le recueil Abstract Comics : The Anthology, 19672009 qui fait entrer la bande dessinée abstraite dans le champ de l’édition. Publié par Fantagraphics books en 2009, cet ouvrage a été dirigé par Andreï Molotiu, historien de l’art américain mais aussi dessinateur, qui travaille sur la bande dessinée abstraite depuis de nombreuses années déjà. Avec ce recueil, Molotiu espérait avant tout créer un fondement pour ce type d’expérimentations.10 Il réunit 43 auteurs (dont une grande majorité d’américains) au sein d’un épais volume de 208 pages.11 L’historien propose dans l’introduction de cette anthologie une définition de ce qu’il nomme bande dessinée abstraite : La bande dessinée abstraite peut être définie comme un art séquentiel comprenant exclusivement des images abstraites (…). La définition peut être étendue pour inclure les bandes dessinées qui contiennent des éléments figuratifs, tant que ces éléments n’adhèrent pas à une narration où à un espace narratif.12

Il semble donc que Molotiu soit plus attaché à l’absence de narration des planches qu’au degré de ressemblance des dessins à une réalité objective du monde. Sa conception de la bande dessinée abstraite rejoint ce que Thierry Groensteen a définit comme « planche primitive », à savoir un « modèle hypothétique de page régie par une grille mais où la consécution des vignettes échapperait à toute détermination narrative a priori » (1988, 49). Molotiu suggère la possibilité pour ces bandes dessinées d’avoir un début et une fin qui seraient définis par un « arc séquentiel » : le dynamisme de la séquence engage une force visuelle qui entraîne le lecteur dans le parcours de la planche. L’américain sauvegarde ainsi la notion de lecture en considérant que le rythme des cases, des dessins et/ou des couleurs (en somme tous les constitutifs graphiques d’une planche) provoque un mouvement et une tension qui emmènent et dirigent le lecteur de la première à la dernière case. Il explique par ailleurs que la présence d’une dynamique de lecture n’est pas indispensable ; une bande dessinée abstraite peut être seule10 « The present book is intended to bridge such gaps and to establish, largely post facto, a tradition for this genre » (Molotiu, 2009). 11 Cette anthologie reprend aussi des planches d’Ibn Al Rabin et de Lewis Trondheim. À noter que Molotiu participa à la dernière rubrique consacrée à la bande dessinée abstraite de la revue Bile Noire. 12  Première page de l’introduction traduite par mes soins. Pour la citation originale : « abstract comics can be defined as sequential art consisting exclusively of abstract imagery (…). The definition should be expanded somewhat, to include those comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even into a narrative space » (Molotiu, 2009).

Figure 7 Andrei Molotiu, Abstract Comics, couverture. © 2009 Fantagraphics Books. 123

ment construite par une succession de formes. On trouve ainsi dans Abstract Comics des expérimentations très variées, au sein desquelles le travail de la matière prédomine largement ; malgré l’élargissement volontaire de la définition introduisant le recueil, il n’y a que très peu de planches qui présentent des dessins figuratifs. La narration ayant été balayée de cette même définition, les jeux graphiques sont au centre d’un grand nombre de pages. Les auteurs distordent et se réapproprient la sémantique de la bande dessinée, l’utilisant uniquement pour ses qualités plastiques. Les cases encadrent autant les images qu’elles deviennent elles-mêmes images.13 Pour prolonger avec le texte de Groensteen, la grande majorité des expérimentations entrent dans les différentes fonctions distributives primaires qu’il énumère en 1988 lors du colloque de Cerisy : l’inventaire, la déclinaison, la variation, la décomposition et la fragmentation sont les principes fondamentaux qui régissent bon nombre d’expérimentations comprenant des images abstraites. Pour les planches qui présentent des dessins figuratifs, c’est l’amalgame qui opère (Groensteen 1998, 55). Avec Abstract Comics, Andrei Molotiu rend compte d’une énergie pour ce genre d’expérimentations qui dépasse les frontières. Cependant, cette anthologie comporte quelques apories théoriques qui invitent à s’interroger sur la façon dont l’historien américain conceptualise la bande dessinée abstraite. Dans une interview accordée à Catherine Spaeth,14 Andrei Molotiu, expliquant que la succession de photographies qui montrent l’évolution d’une toile de Jackson Pollock en cours de réalisation peut constituer une bande dessinée abstraite, ajoute qu’il ne considère pas l’évolution d’une forme d’une case à une autre comme quelque chose de narratif. Il soutient ainsi que l’espace inter-iconique n’a pas de fonction diégétique. Cet interstice blanc servirait donc uniquement à séparer les images entre elles sans créer de lien véritable. Mais affirmer que l’évolution d’une forme de cases en cases ne ressort pas d’un processus narratif revient à dire, par extension, qu’une planche dans laquelle un personnage (en tant qu’un personnage est une forme graphique) se meut de cases en cases n’est pas narrative. De plus, la transformation d’un élément d’une case à une autre indique qu’entre les deux cases, c’est-à-dire dans l’espace inter-iconique, un évènement s’est produit dont a résulté la transformation de cet élément. Le lecteur comble ce vide de suggestions narratives que la séquence dans toute sa continuité confirmera ou infirmera. Pour finir, dans l’introduction d’Abstract Comics, Molotiu appuie son choix de donner un titre aux planches afin d’aiguiller le lecteur dans leur interprétation. Au sein de sa démarche, cette importance du titre peut paraître paradoxale: comme nous avons vu auparavant avec les planches d’Ibn Al Rabin, les titres sont justement porteurs de sens et permettent de suivre plus facilement la narration mise en place (ce qui pourrait provoquer un anthropomorphisme des éléments abstraits). En même temps, Molotiu suggère 13  L’importance graphique de la case n’est pas propre à la bande dessinée abstraite, nous pensons notamment à des auteurs comme Rodolphe Töpffer, Joann Sfar ou encore Alex Baladi qui ont aussi travaillé l’expressivité du cadre dans des bandes dessinée aux dessins figuratifs, mais dans cette anthologie, les manipulations et déformations peuvent être l’élément principal de la planche. 14  L’interview n’est malheureusement plus disponible, le nom de domaine du site ayant expiré. 124

qu’une interprétation des planches est possible. Cette idée d’une narration à traduire persiste à travers les étranges glyphes qui peuplent le livre et dont la présence est particulièrement imposante dans l’introduction. Les premières pages de l’anthologie, au cours desquelles Molotiu introduit son concept de bande dessinée abstraite, sont découpées en deux; la partie supérieure (qui occupe environ les deux tiers de la page) est remplie de glyphes alors que la partie inférieure contient le texte en anglais: ce dispositif tend à mettre en place un rapport de traduction des glyphes de la partie supérieure par le texte d’introduction. Deux langages différents, utilisant deux alphabets distincts se trouvent en coprésence. Ce rapport de contiguïté peut faire penser à la composition de la pierre de Rosette, et le lecteur se retrouverait alors dans la peau d’un Champollion découvrant les arcanes de la bande dessinée abstraite. Mais dans ce cas, ce langage visuellement abstrait porte en lui une signification. Ces glyphes étant omniprésents dans le volume, il en découle que, si le texte abstrait se traduit, les images aussi, ou du moins que la succession des images est significative. Le lecteur se doit donc de déchiffrer les planches abstraites afin d’en tirer la clef d’interprétation. Cette notion de compréhension est pourtant incompatible avec la manière dont Molotiu envisage la bande dessinée abstraite. Le discours de Molotiu peut ainsi paraître assez paradoxal. Enfin, ce que l’on pourrait aussi reprocher à la démarche de Molotiu est de considérer la bande dessinée uniquement comme motif graphique, et non comme un système structurant des images entre elles. Les auteurs investissent la sémantique de la bande dessinée comme outils plastiques et non comme vocabulaire de la bande dessinée. Ils travaillent la bande dessinée en tant qu’image. Si un auteur n’utilise le multicadre que pour des propriétés plastiques, le médium est inopérant. Dans cette acception, la plupart des pages d’Abstract comics sont plutôt des variations autour du motif « bande dessinée » qu’un véritable travail sur la bande dessinée.

Autonomie d’albums entièrement abstraits Les bandes dessinées abstraites se sont donc tout d’abord développées dans des revues ou recueils collectifs à travers des formes courtes (la plus longue atteint 16 pages). Pour autant, elles ne se cantonnent pas à ce format contraignant. L’impulsion et l’énergie d’Ibn Al Rabin ont essaimé des projets plus ambitieux chez des auteurs qui pousseront l’expérimentation jusqu’à un album entier. Dans ces ouvrages, les auteurs explorent de nouvelles manières d’envisager l’abstraction dans la bande dessinée ainsi que la possibilité de faire durer de tels projets sur


un album entier. Nous diviserons ces productions en deux catégories : celles qui sont strictement narratives tout en utilisant du matériel iconique abstrait, et d’autres qui remettent en perspective la notion de récit. Deux auteurs se place dans la droite lignée de la notion de bande dessinée abstraite proposée par Ibn Al Rabin et développée dans les carnets de Bile Noire (auxquels ils ont d’ailleurs participé dès le premier numéro) : Lewis Trondheim avec Bleu (2003) et Alex Baladi avec Petit trait (2008). Dans ces deux livres, nous suivons les péripéties de formes, un trait pour Baladi et des tâches mouvantes pour Trondheim, qui vont interagir avec d’autres formes semblables. Les différentes temporalités de la séquence sont clairement séparées, par des cases pour Baladi et par un gaufrier dense mais non tracé pour Trondheim. Il se crée un mouvement intéressant dans ces deux récits : si les formes sont abstraites, les histoires n’en restent pas moins anthropocentrées. Ce sont des réactions et des désirs humains qui animent les formes, l’amour pour les tâches de Bleu et la survie et la sauvegarde de son individualité pour le Petit trait (du moins en voici notre interprétation). Cette identification permet au lecteur de se projeter dans ces séquences et de les suivre comme une narration classique. De plus, le passage d’une case à une autre, c’est-à-dire d’un instant du récit à un autre, est facilement descriptible en quelques mots. Un développement intellectuel se met en place dans la lecture de ces pages. Dans une certaine mesure, nous sommes face à des récits classiques mais dont les protagonistes sont des formes abstraites.

Deux autres livres peuvent être ici abordés : Veuve poignet (2006) de Greg Shaw et La nouvelle pornographie (2006) de Lewis Trondheim. Dans ces deux livres, les planches abstraites sont comprises à travers un protocole de lecture qui éclairera les compositions. Dans le premier, les pages présentent des gaufriers de très petites cases monochromatiques de couleurs variables. Dans le second, nous découvrons des formes géométriques qui se modifient, apparaissent et disparaissent : l’enjeu de la lecture sera alors de traduire ces images abstraites afin de comprendre la séquence dans laquelle elles s’inscrivent. Pour ce faire, les auteurs vont livrer dans leur album la clef de lecture qui permettra de les déchiffrer. Dans Veuve Poignet, Greg Shaw présente en introduction un dictionnaire des cases colorées : une case beige signifie « peau », une rose signifie « gland », une blanche signifie « sperme », etc. Ces suites répétitives de cases colorées sont en fait un véritable éloge à la masturbation, que le titre du livre avait annoncé. Lewis Trondheim attendra quant à lui la fin de La Nouvelle Pornographie pour donner au lecteur l’indice qui lui permettra de percer le mystère de ses planches : la dernière planche montre un accouchement vue de l’intérieur d’un vagin. Le lecteur comprend dès lors que le point de vue est donné de l’intérieur du corps d’une femme dont le pénis d’un partenaire vient obstruer les ouvertures. Encore une fois, le titre corrobore l’interprétation que nous faisons des formes et de leurs variations. Dans les deux livres, les pages procèdent de la variation d’une matrice, la première page, qui se pose comme protocole de lecture. Les deux auteurs jouent ainsi sur une manière singulière de dessiner des séquences pornographiques de manière crue. Cette notion de déchiffrement est centrale dans la compréhension de ces livres : c’est la traduction des images qui va permettre de dévoiler le récit. Nous ne sommes pas éloignés du dispositif développé par Jean Ache, à la différence qu’ici, le lecteur ne connaît pas à l’avance le récit qui lui est raconté.

Figure 8 Lewis Trondheim, La nouvelle pornographie, page 1. © 2006 L’Association.



Ces livres narratifs aux dessins abstraits se lisent donc de manière intellectuelle, à travers une conversion des variations entre deux images en mots. D’autres auteurs ont travaillé à élaborer de nouvelles formes de récits en utilisant des dessins abstraits. Prenons comme exemple trois livres graphiquement très différents mais qui se rapprochent pourtant dans le projet de lecture qu’ils mettent en place : Parcours Pictural de Greg Shaw, Abstraction (1941-1968) de Jochen Gerner et 978 de Pascal Matthey, tous trois sortis respectivement en 2005, 2011 et 2013. Les trois auteurs ont emprunté des chemins distincts pour rendre leurs images abstraites. Greg Shaw utilise des trames de points puis de carrés pour délimiter des surfaces géométriques. Ces dernières vont se croiser ou se superposer, se confronter en opposant leurs intensités de couleurs et le bruit des éléments grouillants contenus dans chacune d’elles. Pour Abstraction (1941-1968), Jochen Gerner est intervenu à l’encre sur un pocket datant de 1968 relatant une bataille naval de 1941 (d’où le titre) : il en a noirci les pages d’encre de chine, ne laissant apparaître que quelques mots ainsi que des motifs abstraits restituants l’énergie et la dramaturgie qui se jouent dans la case. Pascal Matthey a quant à lui découpé divers supports de publicité de bande dessinée disponible dans les librairies spécialisées pour ensuite les assembler et créer des compositions qu’il met en séquence dans un gaufrier de six cases. Ces trois livres, bien que très différents, se retrouvent dans l’appréhension d’une lecture allant vers le sensible. Il n’est pas question ici de « sens » à trouver. Le lecteur est emporté par la variation des couleurs, des énergies contenues dans les cases, mouvantes au fur et à mesure que l’œil les parcours et que les pages se tournent. Il est plus ici question d’affect que produit la succession des cases que de récit intelligible. Nous sommes proches de l’arc séquentiel envisagé par Andrei Molotiu. Mais pour autant, ces pages ne rejettent pas l’idée de narration : s’il n’est pas véritablement définissable, un courant narratif emporte le lecteur de page en page, l’incite à explorer les cases et de passer de l’une à l’autre ; par exemple, dans 978, la violence succède à des instants de plénitude, à l’évocation de frasques sexuelles qui précèdent des confrontations pour se diriger vers la douceur.15 Le lecteur est ainsi transporté d’émotions en sensations, finalement, comme dans une lecture traditionnelle. Seulement, ces émotions se communiquent ici par l’empreinte sensible que provoque la succession d’images abstraites et non par la progression d’un scénario à rebondissements conduit par un dessin figuratif.

15  Nous avons analysé un peu plus profondément les livres de Pascal Matthey et de Jochen Gerner sur le site du9 (Andrieu de Levis 2014a et 2014b).

Figure 9 Jochen Gerner, Abstraction (1941-1968), page 3. © 2011 L’Association.




Nous avons donc vu qu’après de ponctuelles expérimentations de bandes dessinées abstraites, deux pôles réflexifs se sont formés autours d’auteurs qui envisagent ce travail du médium de manière radicalement différente : Ibn Al Rabin cherche à utiliser le système de la bande dessinée afin de créer une narration avec du matériel iconique abstrait tandis qu’Andreï Molotiu évite à tout prix la notion de narration, que les dessins soient figuratifs ou non. Ces auteurs ont été des moteurs importants et ont entrainé dans leur sillage de nouvelles expériences qui mettent en place des processus de lecture aux antipodes les unes des autres.16 Malgré les différences fondamentales de ces productions, ces dernières se retrouvent réunies sous une même terminologie : bande dessinée abstraite. De cet amalgame vient la difficulté de trouver une définition qui engloberait toutes ces expériences. Thierry Groensteen proposait de séparer les bandes dessinées abstraites en deux catégories : celles qui utilisent des dessins figuratifs qui n’ont pas de liens entre eux, qu’il nomme bandes dessinées infra-narratives, et celles qui utilisent des dessins abstraits, qu’il nomme bandes dessinées abstraites (Groensteen 2011, 8). Mais avec une telle classification, il ne marque pas de différence entre des planches d’Andrei Molotiu et des planches d’Ibn Al Rabin. De la même manière, les planches d’Ibn Al Rabin, qui se défendent d’utiliser du texte, et celles de Massimo Mattioli, dont l’identification des formes se trouve justement dans le texte, sont elles aussi rangées dans le même groupe. Jean-Christophe Menu (2011, 414) reprend les catégories proposées par Groensteen et en rajoute deux : pictogrammique et extra-terrestre. De cette manière il poursuit l’amalgame entre Molotiu et Ibn Al Rabin, et manque encore les bandes dessinées monochromatiques de Greg Shaw et les expériences de Jochen Gerner et Pascal Matthey. Finalement, la recherche d’une définition et appellation globalisante pour toutes ces expériences ne nous semble pas des plus fécondes. Nous avons préféré nous attarder sur la diversité des approches de l’abstraction dans la bande dessinée. La difficulté de trouver un terme définitoire paraît d’autant plus difficile que nous ne nous sommes intéressés ici qu’à l’aspect graphique du médium. Certains albums ou expériences plus courtes proposent des approches narratives proches de l’abstraction qui utilisent pourtant des dessins figuratifs. Les images gardent des liens entre elles. Ces liens sont autant d’indices qu’elles s’inscrivent dans une trame narrative sans pour autant que cette dernière soit clairement énonçable. Nous pensons par exemple à des ouvrages comme SPUK (2004) de l’allemand Niklaus Rüegg, Brutalis (2003) de Thierry Van Hasselt et Karine Ponties ou, par certains aspects, Here (2014) de Richard McGuire, qui ouvrent de nouvelles pistes de réflexions enthousiasmantes. Qu’elles versent dans le figuratif ou dans l’abstrait, ces expérimentations de bande dessinée abstraite stimulent par cette utilisation des ressources fondamentales du médium.

Ache, Jean. 1973. « Les Débutants célèbres de la B.D. ». Pilote 692 : 35-41. –––. 1974. Des carrés et des ronds. Paris : Balland. Al Rabin, Ibn. 2000. Cidre & schnaps. Genève : Me Myself. Al Rabin, Ibn et Alex Baladi. 2006. « Bd abstraite, bd concrète ». Comix Club 3 : 77-9. Andrieu de Levis, Jean-Charles. 2014a. « 978 ». http://www.du9.org/chronique/978/. –––. 2014b. « Abstraction (1941-1968) ». http://www.du9.org/chronique/ abstraction-1941-1968/. Arp, Jean. 1931. « A propos d’art abstrait ». Cahiers d’art 6 : 357-8. Baladi, Alex. 2008. Petit trait. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2009. Encore un effort. Paris : L’Association. Briot, Marie-Odile. 1994. Nécessité de la peinture, de la liberté de l’art moderne. Paris : Cercle d’art. Collectif. 2000. Bande dessinée abstraite. Forum en ligne, consulté le 23 mars 2013. https://groups.google.com/d/topic/fr.rec.arts.bd/ULXvejYURNE/discussion –––. 2003. « La Bande dessinée abstraite ». Bile noire 13 : 57-70. –––. 2004. « La Bande dessinée abstraite ». Bile noire 14 : 59-74. –––. 2005. « La Bande dessinée abstraite ». Bile noire 15 : 98-108. –––. 2007. « La Bande dessinée abstraite ». Bile noire 16 : 119-28. Gerner, Jochen. 2011. Abstraction (1941-1968). Paris : L’Association. Groensteen, Thierry. 1988. « La Narration comme supplément ». Dans Bande dessinée, récit et modernité. Sous la direction de Thierry Groensteen, 45-69. Paris : Futuropolis. –––. 2011. Bande dessinée et narration. Paris : Presses universitaire de France. Kandinsky, Wassily. 1989. Du spirituel dans l’art et dans la peinture en particulier. Paris : Denoël. Kündig, Andréas. 2004. « La Bande dessinée abstraite alternative ». Bile noire 14 : 72-3. Leif, Aurélien. 2014. « Les Yeux à fond de trou ». Pré carré 4 : 25-31. Lemoine, Serge. 1992. Art constructif. Paris : Centre Georges Pompidou. Lissitzky, El. 2013. Les Deux carrés. Paris : Memo. Marion, Philippe. 1993. Traces en cases, travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve : Academia. Matthey, Pascal. 2013. 978. Bruxelles : 5ème couche. Mattioli, Massimo. 1987. Joe Galaxy & Cosmic Stories. Paris : Aedena. –––. 2008. B Stories. Paris : L’Association. Menu, Jean-Christophe. 2011. La Bande dessinée et son double. Paris : L’Association. McCloud, Scott. 2007. L’Art invisible. France : Delcourt.

16  Pour autant, ce genre d’expérimentations reste en marge. Jean-Christophe Menu témoignait dans sa thèse de doctorat de la difficulté de publier ce genre d’œuvres, notamment par l’exigence éditoriale qu’elles demandent (Menu 2011, 411). Quelques collectifs et structures éditoriales persistent pourtant, avec plus ou moins de vigueur, de développer cette approche du médium. Nous soulignons notamment l’intéressant travail des éditions Hécatombes (http://www. hecatombe.ch/blog.php) et de Thomas Perrodin. 130


McGuire, Richard. 2014. Here. New York : Pantheon. Molotiu, Andrei. 2009. « Introduction ». Abstract Comics. Seattle : Fantagraphics books. Peeters, Benoît. 2010. « Entretien avec Chris Ware ». Dans Chris Ware. La Bande dessinée réinventée. Sous la direction de Benoît Peeters et Jacques Samson, 39-67. Bruxelles : Les Impressions Nouvelles. Roque, Georges. 2003. Qu’est-ce que l’art abstrait ?. Paris : Gallimard. Rosset, Christian. 2006. « Avis d’orage en fin de journée ». L’éprouvette 2 : 69-80. Rüegg, Nikklaus. 2004. SPUK. Zürich : fink. Sers, Philippe. 1989. Préface à Du spirituel dans l’art et dans la peinture en particulier de Wassily Kandinsky. Paris : Denoël. Shaw, Greg. 2005. Parcours pictural. Genève : Atrabile. –––. 2006. Veuve poignet. Bruxelles : 5ème couche. Trondheim, Lewis. 2003. Bleu. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2006. La Nouvelle pornographie. Paris : L’Association. Van Hasselt, Thierry et Karine Ponties. 2003. Brutalis. Bruxelles : Frémok. Vauday, Patrick. 2001. La Matière des images : poétique et esthétique. Paris : L’Harmattan.






What would Paul Klee say? Kym Tabulo










Abstract Sequential Art: An Artist’s Insight Kym Tabulo

Introduction Abstract sequential art is an emerging genre of twenty-first century visual culture that needs to be documented if it is to find its niche in the evolving history of contemporary abstract art and comics culture. Clearly abstract art and comics are not new but when they combine a new aesthetic form is created, namely, abstract sequential art. In Comics and Sequential Art (1985), Will Eisner uses the term “sequential art” to refer to comics that use a sequence of images. However, because sequential images can be identified in other areas of art, I consider that abstract sequential art is more than just comics presented in abstract form and, indeed, can take many forms, such as abstract polyptychs (Tabulo 2013, 7-10) and artists’ books (Drucker 2004, 2). To facilitate an informed discussion about this genre, I propose this working definition: An abstract sequential artefact is the configuration of sequentially juxtaposed abstract images that focus on form and technique to induce a sequential rhythm that suggests sequence, movement, transition, change and/or the passage of time, which may elicit from the viewer an aesthetic response, a notional narrative and/or a possible theme. This definition includes all forms of abstract sequential art that display abstract subject matter across a series of panels, often with the intention of generating a temporal illusion and creating narrative rhythm rather than an identifiable story. However, the artist cannot control the viewer’s intuitive desire to invent narratives, themes or a sense of time. To help others understand the genre, I offer this personal reflection on creating a specific abstract sequential artefact, a fusion of abstract comics and abstract polyptychs. I use the term ‘artefact’ because I create the work as one entity, and then present it in multiple formats. As an abstract artist, it has been a unique opportunity to create my first abstract graphic novel and abstract gallery comics and share the experience at a time when others are still forming their opinions about the genre. In August 2012, I began to draw my abstract sequential artwork, entitled The Drift of Impure Thoughts, which would take me two years to complete and another four months to fashion into an abstract graphic novel and an abstract gallery comics. The concept of gallery comics 146


was first conceived by comics artist Chris Hill (Hill 2007, 6-10), and by 2007 it was the featured topic in the International Journal of Comic Art (2007). Gallery comics are the result of artists intentionally presenting a sequential or quasi-sequential exhibition, positioned between book-based sequential art and made-for-the-wall fine art. Unlike traditional exhibitions, gallery comics should be able to replicate the aesthetic layout and rhythmic energy of comics. This was my intention when, in February 2015, my work was exhibited at the University of the Sunshine Coast Gallery in Australia, and this marked the end of a long creative journey. I feel that the creative process put me on a path to somewhere new, and I needed to express myself accordingly. It was not always an easy journey as it was an uncharted expedition and at times it felt like looking for a distant light. From the outset, I intended my creative process as an exploration of the multi-dimensional world of abstract sequential art. In the search to intuitively and constructively find the right way to depict this new world, and also as a way to extend the work and connect the consecutive pages, I continually united the earlier phases of my journey with the pages of that of the day’s work, while anticipating the thrill of finding a new panorama of images around the next bend. As such, the process felt like the stages of a journey, anticipating that eventually the daily pictures would coalesce into a whole vista–an aesthetic totality. My desire to embark on this journey was based on my need to find new creative frontiers through experiential exploration. This desire sustained the necessity to keep the images fresh to maintain my creative momentum and to anticipate what lay ahead on this abstract expedition. The actual physical site of the expedition was my home studio; as a consequence, my home life influenced the process. My work could be related to autobiographical sequential artworks, for example, those graphic novels that record a time and the emotions in an artist’s life. Though not intentionally autobiographical, it clearly does portray some candid and cautious echoes of my emotional life. It also records my solution to media and genre problems. The work thereby records the processes of change arising from a challenging endeavour–changes in the understanding of the genre and myself. The pages of the artefact show how the qualities of a certain time can transform quickly into those of another, and both renditions may represent the past, present or future. Without leaving the studio, the place where the exploration begins, I can arrive at another intrinsic destination and my work records the impression of doing so. With time and experience compressed into panel images across numerous pages, my work easily lends itself to a linear reading. It brings out a concern with the union of abstract comics and abstract polyptychs practises as well as my preferred media and techniques. Also embedded in the work, along with my creative thoughts, is my aspiration that, by juxtaposing panels and gutters with different images, page layouts and media, something magical may happen between the beginning and the end–keeping in mind that sometimes the magic can be found in the limbo of the gutters. These are places where traces of thematic events may be glimpsed–making the intrinsic, extrinsic.


Presenting the Artefact This section contains both a reflection on my creative process and a discussion of the work’s images. Given the large number of pages, the artefact is divided into five arbitrary sections. These divisions are not used anywhere else and are purely for clarification. In the following discussion, pairs of artworks are referred to as spreads–each spread being a pair of pages as they appear in the graphic novel. The work can also be viewed on the dedicated website abstractsequentialart.com.

Section 1

With birth, many living creatures come out of the darkness and into the light of life. These first pages represent such new beginnings. Out of the darkness my creative journey begins, as shown in Figure 1. The initial page number is zero, painted black in the density of Indian ink to suggest the void that precedes the beginning. Next, the nebulous effect in the first pages, which was created by layering graphite powder, represents the fragile formation of a new entity. The main medium used in these twenty-four pages is Indian ink, with the introduction of ink washes on pages 5, 6 and 7. Washes are used to transition from graphite powder to Indian ink only, which is perfect for creating the notan effect, a Japanese technique and philosophy I favour. Notan is an artistic compositional principle regulating the balance between positive and negative spaces–light and dark. Moreover, notan artists strive

Figure 1 Kym Tabulo, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, pages 0-23. (c) 2014 Blurb.


to create work that conveys human experiences, which is precisely what I wanted to achieve. When looking at the pages in Figure 1, I see newly emerging forms struggling to materialize as whole entities, summoning the themes of struggle, evolution and identity. In my visual diary, where I recorded the progress of my creative process, I wrote that I accepted the fact that the emerging entity or motif was unstable, and told myself not to worry if it did not fully form because I anticipated that it would appear when the time was right. I understood that the transforming motifs indicated that I was genuinely experiencing something new.

Section 2

During the creation of the second section (Figure 2), I felt more confident about using sequential art techniques. For example, it was beginning to feel natural to use spontaneous line drawing within prepared panels. I felt confident enough to introduce new tools, such as masking fluid and calligraphy brushes because these provided an immediate response to my spontaneous gestures while I was also trying to produce detailed compositions. In this segment, I attained my goal of creating positive and negative spaces, as well as forms that complement each other rather than dominate the page to create visual harmony. Another aim was to balance the structured pages with the more whimsical strokes, and


then to go from tightly drawn pages to open, larger panel formations. It was difficult to transition in and out of free form non-panel pages into ones with panels. A solution is evident on pages 39 to 41, where I simply used black gutters to link them. Also, the panel images on pages 41 to 44 connect vertically and horizontally, effecting the stylistic devices of sequential dynamism and iconostasis of abstract comics (Molotiu 2012, 89-91). By contrast, on pages 29 and 34 for example, the abstract polyptych stylistic devices of continuity and unity are dominant (Tabulo 2013, 7-10). In an abstract polyptych composition, continuity is created by using the flow of the subject matter and sequential transitions to generate a rhythmic energy, ensuring the work’s inner connections. An abstract polyptych artist can also create stronger visual linkages through manipulating the interplay of elements within the panel images. If effective, these connections merge the images into a cohesive hyper-image, turning the many into one. This stylistic device of unity sustains the viewers’ attention while they contemplate whether the multiple panels connect into a single image. Unity is important for an abstract polyptych, but for an extended abstract sequential artwork, which relies on sustaining the viewers’ attention for many pages, there is a danger that if the effect of unity is too strong, it may stem the flow of the sequential rhythm. This is avoided in abstract comics through the use of the stylistic devices of sequential dynamism and iconostasis. Andrei Molotiu, one of the foremost practitioners and theorists of abstract comics, defines sequential dynamism as a “formal visual energy, created by compositional and other elements internal to each panel and by the layout, that in a comic propels the reader’s eye from panel to panel and from page to page, and that imparts a sense of sustained or varied visual rhythms” (2012, 89). Conversely, he states that iconostasis is “the perception of the layout of a comics page as a unified composition; perception which prompts us not so much to scan the comic from panel to panel in the accepted direction of reading but to take it at a glance, the way we take in an abstract painting” (ibid., 91). Molotiu suggests that in abstract comics, even though dynamism and stasis may seem to be opposite forces, “iconostatic perception, rather than conflicting with sequential dynamism is a prerequisite for it; the two go hand in hand” (ibid., 93). This is the same for the devices of continuity and unity. Thus, it can be argued that a core aesthetic strategy of both abstract comics and abstract polyptychs is the “harmonization and reconciliation” (ibid.) of these two pairs of stylistic devices. However, in my work, I found that continuity and sequential dynamism could occur on a page without their respective pairing.

Figure 2 Kym Tabulo, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, pages 24-47. (c) 2014 Blurb.


It was at this stage in the studio process that I first realized that, more often than I had anticipated, the work not only generated stylistic devices characteristic of abstract comics but also those of abstract polyptychs. From these observations, I arrived at the idea that a non-panel page could be regarded as one large panel. This idea motivated me to monitor the way I balanced panel and non-panel pages in my future planning. Yet, as I preferred not to interfere with the intuitive aspect of the work, I did not deliberately control the balance.

Section 3

The first significant shift in the third section concerns the use of media. As shown in Figure 3, pages 48 to 55 continued the sequence of notan images using Indian ink. When I felt it was time to change media I re-introduced ink washes, this time with an overlay of marker pen designs. Unfortunately, the fumes from the pens were too strong for me, and I had to change media quickly, in this case to Conté pastel patterns over the washes by page 58. Due to unforseen family circumstances I had to stop my studio work at page 61, and when I later returned to create page 62 I unconsciously changed to softer, darker pastels and charcoal, which I also found difficult to manage because of the texture of the cold press Aquarelle Arches paper. Though not intentional, in retrospect the dark images and the differences in density and texture of the applied media seem to convey my emotions, with my distress leading to poor media choices. However, what I learnt from these experiences is that decisions about the content or composi152

tional style should be made first, and that media should be chosen to suit these decisions. The media should not dictate the compositional style, but it may inform the way transitions are made between changing styles and pages. Once again, due to family responsibilities, time passed between completing page 69 and creating the next two pages. On my first attempt, I produced the pages that have now become spread 72-73, but after reflection it became clear that they did not connect well with page 69. At first, I considered simply discarding these pages. However, because I believed it was important to keep the work in its original form as much as possible without substantial alterations, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find an alternative. My solution was to move them forward and insert two new pages after page 69 thereby providing a better connection, as well as linking with spread 72-73. To achieve this, spread 70–71 shows the same subject matter and panel layout as page 69, as well as the same media in page 72. This approach allowed me to adjust the media and change the layout of the pages and it was important to me to include panel pages in the solution.

Figure 3 Kym Tabulo, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, pages 48-71. (c) 2014 Blurb.


Section 4

the point of view zooms out to reveal a mosaic of miniature dynamic panels, which, as I can see now, reflect my fervor to keep creating panel after panel so that I could bring some order back into my life at a time when other issues were out of my control. Page 84 shows how this state of mind fractures as it had reached its climax, prompting me to explore other creative ways to depict my journey. Before I found new means, I returned to the safety of Indian ink and single page spreads where shapes, which were previously active panels, had become blank silent passages or blocks of a fractured fortress. The circle reemerges from behind it, bigger than before, but still under the threat of fracturing as it continues its progress into the approaching panel pages. The passage is mired by complications but by page 91 there is a breakthrough of sorts, perhaps a biological one because the circle becomes a cellular form–an organic symbol of life. Then by page 93 it breaks free of the safety of the panels and floats freely into a world of colour and hope. However, this feeling remains tenuous, reflected in the ominous grey wash that confines the new form. A retrospective analysis of these pages reveals that panel pages and the stylistic devices of abstract comics felt like safe havens providing order as well as the joy of creativity. Making these pages was engrossing and restorative, and I eventually chose pages 84 and 88 for the covers of the graphic novel. Although in this section I deliberately set out to make panel pages and was enjoying the experience, I subconsciously reverted to open non-panel structures for eleven colourful pages, which continued into the next section. Once again, in retrospect, I can see how the medium dictated the work’s content and composition. In my diary I observed that creative and practical solutions go hand-in-hand; for the sake of remaining as spontaneous as possible, I was prepared to take the risk of intuitively producing non-panel pages. I also continued to be interested in the idea that each page can be regarded as a single panel.

The first important event of this fourth section was my failure to continue to use panels, and I felt troubled that by page 75 the work had mutated into three pages of confusion, as Figure 4 attests to. This was a time when I was overwhelmed by professional and personal commitments, and I experienced an episode of creative dysfunction. I wobbled for two pages and needed to step back and review the work. As a result, from pages 78 to 83, I sought refuge in the safety of panel pages, black even gutters and simple subject matter–watercolour circles. As the pages progress, these elements are repeated and


Figure 4 Kym Tabulo, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, pages 72-95. (c) 2014 Blurb.


Section 5

To paraphrase a saying credited to Orson Wells, happy endings depend on where you stop your story. When I began the final section of the work, I did not imagine that it would be the ending. I originally intended to complete 150 pages, yet without planning it the work would end here. Until I conceived the ideas for pages 124 and 125 (Figure 5), I thought I would continue. It was a real trouvaille when I looked at these drawings and realized that I had finished the work. So how did I get to this ending? My diary reveals that I was thinking about media, composition and painting styles to 156

continue to work intuitively but at the same time I wanted to return to panel pages, especially after creating eleven consecutive seemingly non-panel pages. I say seemingly, because the ominous grey wash on pages 94 and 95 begins to form panel structures that continue, develop and change colour along the way as far as page 100. These panels have no identifiable content but the way they solidify and push toward the middle of the composition, directing the path of the cells, gives them a sequential drive. Although the diagonal squares in pages 100 and 101 are not traditional panels, they contain moving white dots. These pages are evidence of my preoccupation with complex compositional problems and attempts at creating new panel ideas while also moving back to the sequentiality of abstract comics. I also changed from watercolour to acrylic paint, which, to me at least, connotes solidity and reliability, even though the images are made of floating dots. They could be viewed as images that depict a new idea about to emerge or something new waiting to be created. Pages 104 and 105 are panel pages that have implied gutters. The first of these pages has twelve panels, and each one replicates a section of the outer dots of the large circle on page 103. Page 105 has four panels, each depicting a close-up view of the repeated green and purple dots. These connections are not obvious, and the colours are subdued and not dark and foreboding. Once again, although it was not my intention, the panels disappear. An optical illusion emerges in pages 106 to 109, adding a sensation of disquiet or anticipation, as if something magical is about to be revealed. The idea of magic is reinforced by the introduction of gold paint; however, all that glitters is not gold, as mixed emotions were unconsciously affecting the flow of creativity, as evident in pages 110 to 113. The latter reveals another lull in my creative thinking, but I simply continued slowly, without much direction. I reduced the shapes to open up the spaces around hoping to find something genuinely inspiring in these areas to motivate forward movement, which I did. At that moment, I remembered that the shine of the metallic paint would make a good ending because to me it is a symbol of eudaimonia–the attainment of well-being and prosperity–and I wanted to end the work in a positive way with images that reproduce the emotional ups and downs of my creative journey. Pages 114 to 117 show how the reflective pause of the preceding spread enabled me to gather my thoughts and move forward. Here the themes last seen in spreads 100-101 and 102-103–the reversal of figure and ground and the page filling circular compositions–re-emerge, but this time in a much bolder and more confident form. The white circles are now revealed against much larger areas of colour and the shapes

Figure 5 Kym Tabulo, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, pages 96125. (c) 2014 Blurb.


they form as they intersect with the background grid deriving from the circular compositions begin to take on a life of their own. The emerging palette, though limited, is more self-assured than in the earlier spreads. By spread 118-119, both left and right panels seemed to almost perfectly counterbalance each other. In my view, harmony had been attained and a sense of eudaimonia was achieved. While reflecting on this pair of pages, I first thought page 119 might be a fitting conclusion to the project. However, I ultimately decided that the page was in fact the climax of the narrative structure rather than the finale. In order to bring about a satisfactory ending, more images were needed achieve a sense of completion. It could be argued that the large gleaming bronze circle emerging on page 119 is the climax, while the following four pages constitute the resolution leading to the double-page ending of spread 124-125. The primary subject of the final pages is a shimmering bronze and gold disk which, across pages 120-123, struggles to materialize as a complete form. The return to a panel structure reveals this struggle in greater depth, whereas the constraint of the gutters adds to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere. The final spread reveals the disk in its entirety–but it is once more seen as if behind a lattice, which, to me, suggests that the graphic journey has concluded without foreclosing the possibility for a sequel.

The Abstract Graphic Novel and Abstract Gallery Comics The work’s creative process did not end when the final page of the artefact was completed, collected and printed in book format. For the publication, the original pages were scanned and uploaded to Blurb, an online self-publishing company. To hold a physical copy is a special experience, made even more meaningful in that abstract graphic novels are rare and that this was my very first. Figure 6 shows the book’s covers. I felt a great sense of satisfaction and achievement when I received my first copy in the mail. At this point, the book was ready for others to purchase online. Copies were also sold at the exhibition and at conferences, and are now catalogued in the collection of the University of the Sunshine Coast Library, the Queensland State Library and the National Library of Australia and are available there like any other book. My abstract sequential art website also provides free online access to the whole work for those who do not want a hard copy or cannot afford it. The book and website are accessible to the general public, suggesting at least the possibility that the work might have social and cultural implications.

The abstract graphic novel was exhibited alongside the original pages presented in a gallery comics format. They were shown unframed so that viewers could take in every detail (Figure 7 and 8). Using pins to hang the pages on the wall, a specialist gallery staff member and I installed the work, which took seven hours (Figure 9). The pages were arranged sequentially to suit the size and shape of the room (Figure 8), and I was delighted with the result. During opening night, I was approached by several private collectors asking to purchase pages for their collections. The sale of the work was unexpected and gratifying, and may point to its significance. The collectors asked me how to frame and hang the pages. My advice was to group and space them as if they were a sequence of comics pages viewed on a wall. The act of framing and hanging pages raises the question about the differences between fine art and comics: from my perspective, abstract sequential art is a fusion of both.

Figure 6 The abstract graphic novel, front and back cover. Figure 7 The abstract graphic novel exhibition format.



it is material that invites rational discourse and critique, to be situated and appreciated within generic, cultural, and socio-political contexts.

Genre Context

Not knowing how an exhibition will look like as a whole is a risk all artists take, and I was happy with the positive reception of the exhibition. Even if someone confessed to not liking abstract art, he or she expressed appreciation of the uniqueness of the two formats. Most had never seen anything like it before, especially the abstract graphic novel. I also found that the sequentiality of the work gave those people who usually only appreciate representational work something to identify with as they could perceive the sequential rhythms of the pages and panels and follow them along the gallery wall (or through the book) to the end, and were eager to share their impressions. Most visitors were not comic book fans and I observed that their interest in both abstract art and comics was stimulated upon viewing the work. The Drift of Impure Thoughts testifies to my passion for abstraction, appreciation for sequential art and ongoing apprenticeship as a practitioner of the form. The panels and pages can be regarded as a series of exploratory illustrations of my encounters with the genre, and my personal responses to its challenges, as it tests my resourcefulness as well as my intellectual, emotional and creative strength or weakness. The object was conceived in thought, then transferred into creative action within a specific genre. Now


There are two terms I found especially significant to my work, and they deserve some explication: ‘pure art’ and ‘automatic art.’ In discussing abstract art, poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire first used the term “pure painting” in 1912 (Bernstock 1991, 22) to refer to artworks that use abstract or non-representational subjects that convey the artist’s emotions and/or sensory perceptions. The other term, automatic art, refers to spontaneous works made without preconceived ideas, at least as envisaged by František Kupka around 1912 (Fauchereau 1998, 20). Essentially, pure and automatic art can be seen as sets of practices wellsuited to the creation of abstract works without the fixed intention of producing recognisable forms. The opposite of this is approach is pre-planned ‘constructed’ art, like the use of comics book storyboards for example. The title, The Drift of Impure Thoughts, plays on these conceptions in that it refers to my emotional interaction with the work as well as these painting and drawing processes– for instance, the opening page was planned and has a semi-realistic subject matter. Of course, the concepts I am invoking are not new, but from my experience, it seems abstract sequential art has a distinctive twenty-first century flavour to it in its fusion of modernist and postmodernist attitudes, while also mixing fine arts and comics without feeling the urge to justify this mixing. Although I believe abstract sequential art is an example of how, since postmodernism, artists are readily creating work that combines high art and low art, pure art and impure art, barriers still exist. In Comics Versus Art (2012), comics theorist Bart Beaty provides insights into the ways in which contemporary visual culture is beginning to integrate comics into the domain of the fine arts. Beaty suggests that although some comics are accepted into the art world, this shift is not without resistance (2012, 13). Rather than the direct appropriation of their conventions (Roy Lichtenstein comes readily to mind), the acceptance of comics, is, according to Beaty, the result of a compromise forged from need rather than a warm welcome. He points specifically to the growing interest in the work of comics artists Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, along with their representation in prominent gallery collections and the increasing value of their work at auctions, as examples of the selectivity of this acceptance. Although Crumb and Ware are just two of the high-profile comics artists ‘elevated’ to the

Figure 8 The abstract gallery comics hung at the University of the Sunshine Coast Gallery. Figure 9 Installing the abstract gallery comics.


world of fine art, Beaty argues that the process of granting only a few specific comics artists entry into the fine arts domain is central to ensuring that “the art world [is able] to preserve old hierarchies while using a more celebratory language in keeping with its own version of postmodernism” (ibid., 209). Similarly, the comics domain may also want to preserve its traditions, and as I found from personal experience, many comics artists and academics are bemused by abstract comics. For example, when I presented a paper on abstract comics at the Third International Comics Conference, Comics Rock, at Bournemouth University in 2012, I was mainly greeted with polite indifference. Since then, more has been written about abstract comics, such as Thierry Groensteen’s chapter in Comics and Narration (“Comics and the Test of Abstraction,” 2013) and Daniel Worden’s article “The Politics of Comics: Popular Modernism, Abstraction, and Experimentation” (2015), just to name two. Yet, the discussion of abstract comics by mainstream comics theorists and enthusiasts is proportionate to the number of people making them, which is relatively low. I also believe that without the artist’s personal insights, theorists only make assumptions about the process of creation, the artist’s intentions and the finished works.

Selected Contextual Concepts To repeat, my intentions for creating The Drift of Impure Thoughts were to undertake a lengthy creative endeavour, to learn more about producing abstract sequential art, to improve my art practice, and to enjoy the process of making cutting-edge contemporary art. As an artist, I pay little attention to the high art and low art debate, and readily combine pure and impure practices, and I would suggest that the issue of whether abstract sequential art is fine art or ‘just’ comics has already been largely resolved by the artists practicing the art form. The latter share an interest in both domains, as Rosaire Appel and Nina Roos do, for instance. Perhaps, as in my opinion, they may simply regard abstract sequential art as an art form in its own right–neither high nor low, fine nor graphic–and simply the offspring of both, nurtured by the contemporary context of visual culture. Abstract sequential art is not an obvious way to promote social or political change. For example, The Drift of Impure Thought does not display images that are disturbing in content. There is nothing sexual, political or brutal. It does not deliver an explicit message in the way representational sequential artworks can. People may find it too restrained or too difficult because the themes are not obvious. But other than saying that abstract sequential art is not a direct call to arms so to speak, I do believe there are social and political matters that can be gleaned from my work and abstract sequential art in general. The Drift of Impure Thought reflects my pace of life at the time it was created. The rhythm of life is a significant factor in this accelerating world, and obviously sequential art is an appropriate and popular genre to express these themes. Local and global links, and interest in facets of popular culture, such as comics and the Internet, can help 162

create social connections across different cultures. Even though these developments can be seen as progressive, perhaps our society has in fact become hyper-mediated. If so, it is possible that abstract sequential art could serve as a mild antidote to the hype, as a calming interlude or a peaceful way to connect with others. Viewers from other cultures may understand abstract sequential artworks because they do not rely on words or figurative images, and as such they are open to interpretation. Sharing of this type of art can create intercultural relationships that may help generate understanding and acceptance of others, culturally, socially and politically, keeping in mind that not all people have the democratic right to communicate freely with others. In a small way, abstract sequential art, especially in the form of abstract comics more than gallery-based works, assists democratic ideals because it allows viewers the freedom and time to absorb the work at their pace, giving them the power to create meaning in the work. As such, this form of art would support Gude’s (2007, 14) assertion that the “abilities to investigate, analyse, reflect, and represent are critical skills for citizens of a participatory democracy.” It could be said that because of the hybrid nature of abstract sequential art, the accessibility of forms such as abstract comics and abstract webcomics, and the mass appeal of figurative comics, (as compared to the elitist status of modernist abstract art), more people may gain an insight into contemporary abstract art. In a world of social and political instability, art and books can provide a sense of security through their tangibility. Treasured items have a value that is not necessarily monetary; it can be metaphysical or intellectual. I consider my work as tangible, accessible, inclusive and cerebral. It offers the opportunity to express social themes such as impermanence, change and transition in one’s culture and selfhood. The multiple panel pages evoke the complexities of contemporary society and personal life. The Drift of Impure Thoughts shows how my life and my art became entwined. It records a time of flux in my personal life that could have been expressed in a conventional, representational painting or graphic novel but here my responses were coded into abstract sequential imagery. The panels were not created as an impulse to reveal actual personal experiences but were simply motivated by the desire to be creative, complete my abstract sequential artefact and retreat from the pressures of daily life. The fact that, while making the work, my teenage daughter became gravely ill and was eventually diagnosed with a chronic disease obviously influenced every aspect of my life. Although the studio work slowed down, I found it to be a welcome distraction and continued creating. The evidence of dark days can be seen in the panels and pages as shown in Figure 10, while the joy of life returns in


Figure 11 as she was in remission and her health improved, heralding a different way of life. As such, the work could be described as a mother’s illustrated diary. Since most parents experience the joys and sorrows of caring for their children, the artwork is intimately linked to others and society in general.

magic of capturing the passage of time. These panels are part of a navigational system that guided and recorded the creative moments in the studio, not knowing exactly when the finale would come. Moreover, when the end presented itself, I had to decide whether the expedition’s ending was a wish for unity and conclusion, or the journey’s continuation. Ultimately it was both.


The possible outcomes of my daughter’s illness were unknown. Uncontrollable forces may have prevented me from completing the artefact, but they also motivated me to carry on. Out of personal experiences come reactions and solutions, which are revealed in the panels and gutters, but these do not have to be self-referential and the viewer may find their own personal themes. Thinking about themes in abstract art could help individuals push past traditional conventions, help them to think independently, foster new solutions to problems, and aid them to “begin to imagine the possibility of another way of living” (Worden 2015, 65). If so, then my work may foster political thinking if it leads others to consider how they can “produce meaning, identity, and value” (ibid.) in their communities. Throughout The Drift of Impure Thoughts, there are collections of pages that are connected yet different in style, subject matter and media. Each page is a record of its time of creation. There is no explicit relationship holding the separate collections together except for the hand that composed them. Nevertheless, they somehow combine to produce a sense of anticipation, climax and resolution. Hopefully, the resolution leaves the viewer with a feeling of optimism, as I believe I succeeded in making a thing of beauty from a mélange of moments, a range of emotions infused into the mix. For me, the pages and panels bespeak an unpredictable and meaningful existence as well as the


Beaty, Bart. 2012. Comics Verses Art. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press. Bernstock, Judith. 1991. Under the Spell of Orpheus: The Persistence of a Myth in Twentieth-Century Art. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Eisner, Will. 1985. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarag, FL: Poorhouse Press. Drucker, Johanna. 2004. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books. Fauchereau, Serge. 1989. Kupka. Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa. Groensteen, Thierry. 2013. Comics and Narration. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Gude, Olivia. 2007. “Principles of Possibility: Considerations for a 21st Century Art & Culture Curriculum.” Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association 60 (1): 6-17. Hill, Chris. 2007. “Gallery Comics: The Beginnings.” International Journal of Comic Art 9 (2): 6-12. Molotiu, Andrei. 2012. “Abstract Form: Sequential Dynamism and Iconostasis in Abstract Comics and Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man.” In Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, edited by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith, 88-100. Oxon, UK: Routledge. Robertson, Jean, and Craig McDaniel. 2013. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Tabulo, Kym. 2013. “Abstract Sequential Art.” The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 5 (1): 29-41. Worden, Daniel. 2015. “The Politics of Comics: Popular Modernism, Abstraction, and Experimentation.” Literature Compass 12 (2): 59-71.

Figure 10 The evidence of dark days can be seen in the panels and pages. Figure 11 The evidence of the joy of life can be seen in the panels and pages.


The Drift of Impure Thoughts Kym Tabulo











A propos de deux possibilités de bandes dessinées abstraites Jessie Bi En juillet 2004 furent publiées dans le numéro 14 de la revue Bile Noire deux bandes dessinées abstraites commises par l’auteur de ces lignes. Elles faisaient suite à une conversation par courriels avec Ibn Al Rabin.1 Le sujet de cet échange était bien évidement ce type de bandes dessinées dont les éditions Atrabile faisaient une promotion régulière dans leur revue. Mon point de vue était alors de ne pas trouver les travaux précédemment publiés suffisamment abstraits. A mes yeux, ils privilégiaient un concret, où – décrit très schématiquement – ce qui était revendiqué « abstrait » naissait principalement de l’absence de toute figure humaine, et d’une attention à des détails de rendus de matériaux mis en scène à travers certaines techniques perçues comme propres à la bande dessinée. Le plus emblématique de cette approche était un travail montrant des effets de coulure d’une matière semblant gluante, débordant et retombant de case en case. Considérer cela comme abstraction revenait, pour moi, à voir une macro-photographie comme un tableau abstrait. Sachant que l’abstraction, née et théorisée en peinture, était un questionnement des propres caractéristiques de celle-ci, allant d’une interrogation de la juxtaposition de pigments sur la toile à la fin du XIXe siècle, jusqu’à celle de son support lui-même dans les années 70 (avec les travaux du groupe Supports/Surfaces par exemple), je me demandais si un tel questionnement ne serait pas transposable à la bande dessinée. L’idée a tout d’abord été de privilégier des figures simples, géométriques, mais aussi « le point, la ligne et le plan » pour reprendre le titre d’un des livres de Wassily Kandinsky (1991). Le plus petit dénominateur commun de cette recherche a semblé être le rendu du mouvement par séquence, caractéristique qui a fait qualifier la bande dessinée par certains de « cinéma de papier ». Le jeu sur la « tabularité » de la planche, le fait que l’œil se joue de l›échelle entre le détail d’une case et la vision panoptique d’une planche, a été aussi un autre critère retenu comme une des particularités de la « neuvième chose ». De ce dernier point a aussi germé une réflexion sur ce que l’idée de mouvement peut avoir de relatif. Plutôt que de faire bouger une ou des formes à l’intérieur de cases, ce serait les cases qui se déplaceraient 1  Alias Mathieu Baillif, célèbre pour ses bandes dessinées minimales. 178


autour d’une forme, un peu comme un voyageur dans un train à l’arrêt peut avoir le sentiment de déplacement en regardant le train adjacent se mettre en route2. Cette perspective faisait écho, dans mon esprit, à la notion de « tableau en miettes » évoquée par Benoît Peeters dans son livre Lire la bande dessinée (2003). Elle me permettait aussi de pousser l’abstraction jusqu’au titre, d’en faire la légende et la reconstitution d’une image parcellaire et émiettée dans les rets d’une planche de bande dessinée. Une première planche de bande dessinée abstraite est née de cette réflexion (Figure 1). La forme retenue était un hexagone difforme. Le « récit » est rythmé par les ascendances, descendances ou horizontalités, ainsi que par l’accord des angles. Logiquement, il s’achève par un horizon répété sur trois cases, montrant un calme, un retour à la normale après une succession de bouleversements. En agençant chaque case on pourrait reconstituer la forme hexagonale, mais évidée de son centre. Celle-ci est visible dans son entier, dans la petite image en haut à gauche qui se veut être le titre, dans la mesure où elle est la clé, la légende, à la fois l’énigme et la réponse. Si le récit s’était poursuivi selon la même logique, c‘est-à-dire continuer de suivre les bords de la forme, la première case pourrait immédiatement suivre la dernière. La planche est donc aussi une boucle qui se ferme. Par la suite, il a été privilégié des formes plus simples comme le rectangle (Figure 2). Ici, le récit se termine par un glissement du regard qui, après deux tours, se perd dans la forme, dans un rapprochement suggérant un vertige monochromatique final. Tout cela fit l’objet de plusieurs variations. La première fut de jouer sur le fond sur lequel repose la forme (Figure 3). Là, il a été divisé en un dégradé de quatre couleurs. Cela a permis d’établir un « récit » qui soit moins linéaire, qui puisse suggérer un mouvement inverse à partir de la troisième case de la troisième bande. La fin n’est plus un regard qui se perd dans la forme mais dans « le décor », c’est-à-dire le fond, tout en permettant de faire écho au début du « récit » commençant lui aussi dans le fond. L’image-titre montre logiquement la forme rectangulaire sur son fond multicolore et devient plus clairement un moyen de se situer. En quelque sorte, elle apparaît comme une carte, « un navigateur », avec des déplacements potentiels dont la bande dessinée qui suit représente une des possibilités. La deuxième variation fut de juxtaposer deux « récits » (Figure 4), de faire se rejoindre deux mouvements autour de deux formes commençant de manière symétrique. Cet exemple fonctionne comme la bande dessinée de la Figure 2 mais avec deux rectangles, un bleu et un jaune. L’histoire se déroule sur trois planches. Les deux formes ont été juxtaposées pour faciliter la lecture. Enfin la troisième et dernière variation fut de jouer avec des formes géométriques différentes. Après le rectangle, furent utilisés le triangle (Figure 5), puis le cercle (Figure 6). Ce dernier a profité d’une liberté plus grande, de mécanismes mieux maîtrisés. Le 2  Notons que cette réflexion a aussi été favorisée par l’usage de la fenêtre dite « navigateur » du logiciel Photoshop, permettant de se situer à différentes échelles dans une image que l’on crée ou que l’on retouche. 180

cercle arrive, fait trois tours et repart. Trois fois quatre quarts de cercle symbolisant chacun un quart de tour de 90°. Habituellement sans titre autre qu’une image, cette planche abstraite fait exception et est sous-titrée : « Trois petits tours et puis s’en vont ». Montrant de ma part un détachement lié à la plus grande maîtrise des postulats de départ, elle rejoint aussi une forme de légèreté, d’humour et de jeu créatif vis-à-vis de l’abstraction, tel que l’on peut en rencontrer dans l’œuvre de François Morellet. Le choix de ce titre, ce jeu sur la répétition, tout cela résonne comme un hommage à un artiste dont j’affectionne toujours particulièrement le travail. La bande dessinée de la Figure 7 est un aboutissement de ce premier périmètre de recherche. Le récit est une déambulation dans une série de carrés aux deux couleurs alternées et formant un damier. La présence plastique de la planche y est particulièrement affirmée. Les cases en carré font écho au damier parcouru, et la toute première est l’inverse de la dernière pour donner l’idée d’un début et d’une fin. Un second espace de recherche s’est ouvert en ne privilégiant plus le contour d’une forme mais en suivant une ligne, en la suivant à la trace pourrait-on dire. Dans le premier exemple de la Figure 8, on suit une ligne dans une case, qui part du coin en haut à gauche pour aller vers celui en bas à droite dans une parfaite diagonale. Dans la seconde case, la course du trait se poursuit en émergeant en haut à gauche pour repartir cette fois au milieu de son côté droit. Dans la troisième, il émerge logiquement dans le milieu du côté gauche pour aller presque en bas du côté droit. Ainsi de suite, le trait se déploie de case en case dans une lecture gauche droite que perturbe la « tabularité » de la planche. Une perturbation volontairement encouragée et recherchée, puisqu’une grande oblique contre-intuitive semble barrer toute la planche. Celle-ci est aussi conçue comme une boucle, et dans sa dernière case le trait part dans un coin où il pourrait émerger dans la toute première. Les planches suivantes de la Figure 9 à la Figure 13 sont des variations sur cette méthode. A partir de la Figure 11 le nombre de cases a été augmenté pour mieux se jouer de la « tabularité ». Cette planche de la Figure 11 est une forme d’aboutissement dans cette démarche puisqu’un trajet de trait formant deux créneaux laisse voir de façon panoptique deux rectangles. C’est aussi pour cette raison que cette bande dessinée est sous-titrée exceptionnellement : « Créneaux ». La notion de titre en image n’a pas été abandonnée avec cette nouvelle possibilité. La Figure 14 est, par exemple, le titre de la planche de la Figure 13. Il représente la forme/trajet du trait suivi dans la planche. 181

Mais ces titres ne peuvent plus être disposés de la même manière, du moins si ces planches était publiées dans un livre. De fait, si ces planches étaient imprimées, l’idéal serait qu’elles le soient sous forme de posters, affiches ou sérigraphies. Le titre serait alors visible comme une légende de cartel, se rapprochant ou évoquant une écriture inconnue et déliée pour ceux ou celles qui n’en percevraient pas immédiatement le rôle visuel. Il serait d’ailleurs placé en bas à droite.

Figure11 Figure

La planche de la Figure 12 montre que l’on peut complexifier davantage cette méthode en suivant le trajet de deux traits. Enfin, la dernière planche, celle de la Figure 15, montre que l’on doit représenter ce trait en mouvement si l’on veut que celui-ci imprime des trajets plus complexes et dynamiques, qu’il puisse faire des retours ou des boucles dans les cases. Le trait ne va plus d’un côté à l’autre mais possède une « tête ». Il est interrompu avant d’atteindre le côté qui est son objectif. Il ressemble à ces jeux vidéo dit du « serpent » que l’on trouve sur les téléphones ou les tablettes. Cela permet des effets autrement plus riches, se jouant là aussi de la « tabularité ». La planche vibre d’une autre manière. Avec un recul d’une douzaine d’années, ces deux méthodes ou possibilités de réalisation de bandes dessinées abstraites me semblent toujours intéressantes par leur accessibilité et leurs potentialités peu explorées. Elles posent aussi des questions qui me semblent n’avoir rien perdu de leur pertinence, comme celle du rapport titre/légende, ou bien celle de la publication de bandes dessinées sur d’autres supports imprimés que le livre.

Références Kandinsky, Wassily. 1991. Point et ligne sur plan. Contribution à l’analyse des éléments de la peinture. Paris : Gallimard. Peeters, Benoît. 2003. Lire la bande dessinée. Paris : Flammarion.



Figure 22 Figure


Figure 3

Figure 3


Figure 4

ure 4



Figure Figure 5 5



Figure bande dessinée aussi intitulée Figure 6:5 :Bande dessinée aussi “Trois petits tours et puis s’en vont” intitulée « Trois petites tours et puis s’en vont »


Figure 6


Figure 8 8 Figure


Figure 9 9 Figure


Figure 10

Figure 10


Figure 11: Bande dessinée aussi intitulée « Créneaux » Figure 11 : bande dessinée aussi intitulée “créneaux”


Figure 12

Figure 12


Figure 13

Figure 13


Figure 1414 : : Titre labande bande dessinée Figure titre de de la dessinée de la figure 13 de la figure 13.


Figure 15

Figure 15


Experiments in Comics: Kafka’s Aphorisms Martha Kuhlman While convalescing from tuberculosis, Franz Kafka spent an extended period of time in the Czech countryside of Zürau between 1917-1918. According to his letters and diaries, this was one of the most tranquil and happy periods of his life. He was working on a series of aphorisms, some only one sentence long, each numbered and written on a slip of onion-skin paper. This lesser-known trove of Kafka’s writing was rediscovered by Kafka scholar Roberto Calasso over the course of his research on the author. “The more I studied those thin slips of paper and their connections with the notebooks and letters written in the Zürau months,” writes Calasso, “the more strongly I felt that those texts, like shards of meteorites fallen in a barren land, should be read in exactly the form Kafka gave them” (Calasso 2006, x). Although the aphorisms had been previously published, Roberto Calasso was the first to assemble these fragments into a single, stand-alone volume, which lends them a certain gravity and significance.1 The aphorism itself is a curious form––it promises truth in a compact knot of wisdom, albeit indirectly through analogy or metaphor. And yet the defining feature of Kafka’s work is that the truth is always elusive, just beyond reach. “Before the Law stands a doorkeeper,” begins the story-within-a story in The Trial (Kafka 1975, 61). A man from the country waits patiently to enter, growing increasingly old and frail. The ending is unexpectedly abrupt: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was only intended for you,” taunts the doorkeeper. “Now I will shut it” (ibid., 65). Kafka posits a division between the physical and the metaphysical, but in a sudden reversal or change of perspective, denies the reader a satisfying redemptive ending (Corngold 2002, 105). Regardless of whether we consider a one sentence aphorism or a larger work like The Castle, Kafka’s writing regularly confounds our expectations regarding cause and effect, truth and semblance, logic and dream. Given their obscure nature, it would seem that Kafka’s aphorisms would be an unlikely subject to adapt to comics form. Nonetheless, wanting to assume this challenge, I selected aphorisms for their brevity and ambiguity. Although some of them mention real-world objects, they are in service to some greater metaphor, and thus lend themselves to abstract interpretation: 1  Roberto Calasso’s collection of Kafka aphorisms was originally published in Italian in 2002. 200


The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope. (Kafka 2006, 3) A cage went in search of a bird. (ibid., 16) I have never been here before: my breath comes differently, the sun is outshone by star beside it. (ibid., 17)

They defy an easily identifiable answer, subverting our readerly expectations for closure and certainty. Peter Mendelsund, the book designer for the English edition of Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms, scribbled the following notes when developing his cover ideas: “Kafka: elliptical, esoteric, off-putting? funny, unified, colorful, penetrating (gaze)” (Mendelsund 2014, 44). The book of Zürau aphorisms is deceptively simple, with a heavy black paper cover and Kafka’s name in a non-serif dark red font above a light rectangle of cream with the title centered inside. Over time, however, the rectangle comes loose and opens to reveal one of four possible aphorisms. In a sense, Mendelsund was able to make the cover perform what the contents implicitly promise: the revelation of a secret.

The Experiments From the beginning, these comics were not about conveying a story in the traditional sense, and therefore I needed some parameters to give the project shape. Although it may initially seem counter-intuitive, I wanted to use the principle of rules or constraints as a springboard for creation, an idea I had gleaned from the French group of comics artists OuBaPo (L’Ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle). Inspired by the literary movement Oulipo, these cartoonists specialize in comics “experiments” that apply various constraints–literary or new inventions–to produce witty, clever compositions as type of artistic game (Meesters 2011, 132; Beaty 2007, 77-82). According to Thierry Groensteen’s introductory essay in Oupus 1, constraints can be generative (that is, they provide rules as to how the comic is to be constructed), or transformative (in cases when détournement is used to manipulate existing texts) (Groensteen 1997, 18; 41). While I did not want to venture anything as ambitious as a comics palindrome or scrabble game reconceived with comics panels, just two of the many feats pulled off by these artists (cf. Meesters 2011, 136), I employed generative and transformative constraints on a smaller scale. The comics were generative in that each had to use a Kafka aphorism in a four-panel page layout, but transformative because I collaged different elements together–texts, images, and paper, placing them into new contexts. I gathered any materials that I thought might be relevant to the project: photos, postcards, drawings, photocopies, books, and different types of paper in a variety of colors and textures. Intrigued by Calasso’s description of the slips of semi-translucent onionskin paper upon which these aphorisms were handwritten, I decided that I would make collages that include this quality of transparency and overlapping. My method at this stage was to be relatively loose and spontaneous in assembling these various materials on the page, and I often used watercolor paint to add an element of unpredictability. The 202

aphorisms were photocopied, cut into segments to create line breaks, and then positioned with the fragments of text among the pieces of paper, copies, photos, and watercolor wash. Each finished collage was pinned up on the wall as a reference as I composed the next one. Certain colors and design elements were repeated to unify the series of aphorisms as a visual whole; in this way, the compositions were harmonized with each other as the process continued. For the next stage, I looked at the collages up close and then from a distance, deciding which sections of the composition draw the viewer’s gaze. Using color photocopies, I cropped these sections into panels of four by four inches, and considered how I would reposition the text around them to create four panel comics for each aphorism. Word balloons were added to suggest that the aphorisms could be read as miniature dialogues. The resulting comics were more compact but also more playful variations on the collages from which they originated. As an example of how this would look in practice, I will discuss the collage and comic I composed based upon the aphorism, “A cage went in search of a bird.” I often refer to this phrase when teaching my Central Europe class because Czech writer Milan Kundera cites it in his essay on Kafka “Somewhere Behind,” taking it to mean that powerful institutions seek offenses and imprison the innocent (Kundera 1993, 99-117). Although Kafka is not explicitly ideological and predates the totalitarian system that would take hold in Czechoslovakia between 1948-1989, he somehow intuits the microsocial mechanisms that led to the insidious self-condemnations that took place during the Stalinist show trials of the 1950s. Innocent people were forced into elaborate confessions of their disloyalty to the state when they in fact had done nothing wrong, and this practice of intimidation produced a form of terrorized conformity. Kundera writes: Kafka made no prophecies. He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the stage of history. (116)

This is why Kafka’s work is so often cited as a metaphor for life under totalitarianism. In 1963, a group of professors held a special conference on Kafka in Prague. In this context, Kafka’s work was praised for its surreal and subversive qualities, “so contrary to the morally and politically simplistic socialist realism” of official communist party literature, and consequently the proceedings from the conference were suppressed (Burton 2003, 96). “The defense of Kafka,” writes Burton, “became a scarcely veiled attack on the regime’s intellectual repression as a whole” (96). 203

In my reimagining of this phrase, I sought to disengage it from this particular history, and examine how it might play as a fundamental contradiction. A cage is an inanimate object that cannot ‘search,’ whereas a bird can fly, so I decided that I would not represent the cage at all. I retained a photographic image of a bird to allude to the phrase, and added an abstracted landscape in watercolor below, suggesting that the bird is ostensibly free. To include the quality of semi-transparency from Kafka’s original slips of onion paper, I overlapped translucent pieces of colored paper to suggest the sky, and the intersection between land and sky. The diagram, printed on translucent velum, depicts the golden spiral based upon the Fibonacci series–a design found in nature in shells, ferns, and other living things. In contrast to this vision of invisible order hidden in nature, I placed the spiral over a wet-on-wet watercolor of a spiral that spreads and bleeds in unpredictable directions. Finally, I connected one corner of the Fibonacci series diagram to the eye of the bird to hint that it is also caught in an invisible order determined by nature. I played with the syntax as well, placing the beginning of the sentence in the center, and creating a counter-spiral outwards to encompass searching for the bird on the left and the right (Figure 1). For the next stage in this experiment, I wanted to isolate portions of the composition that draw the gaze in, and resituate them in another format to see how that might affect the interpretation of the phrase. The golden spiral and the bird’s eye, key focal points of the original collage, became the first and last panels of a four-inch by four-inch comic. I decided to manipulate the original syntax even further by reversing subject and object, such that the bird is searching for the cage. Paradoxically, the phrase retains the idea of an innocent victim despite this reversal, although here the emphasis is placed on the bird’s illogical choice to seek imprisonment.2 Word balloons reinforce the impression that this is a monologue, or perhaps a staccato dialogue between two unseen speakers. The meaning of the aphorism remains metaphorical and enigmatic, with the addition of a few literal references to the bird, the blue translucent sky, and the original green of the landscape (Figure 2). This particular example is the only one in which the text of the aphorism was altered to produce a different sequence; in the other comics from this series, the texts remained the same but were surrounded by images suggestive of the aphorism without being direct illustrations. Common elements that bring the series together include geometrical drawings, transparency, and the repetition of colors, textures, and patterns. Each comic can stand alone, and yet together they form a puzzle, a set of variations on Kafka’s inscrutable writings. An additional aphorism, (“I have never been here before”), with its corresponding collage and comic, is included to demonstrate how these themes are dispersed across the series (Figure 3 and 4). In his correspondence with his publisher for The Metamorphosis, Kafka was passionate in his entreaty that the insect not be shown (Bernofsky 2014, 121). These comics are 2 Richard Gray, quoting Gerhard Neumann, cites this specific aphorism as an example of a “gliding paradox” because the inverted phrase has much the same meaning as the original (Gray 1987, 158). 204

not so much about mimetic representation as they are about process, remixing, and suggestion. Reaching back to the original Greek derivation of the word “aphorism” is concealed the notion of division, boundary, or horizon line, terms that elide with lines, gutters, and boundaries of comics panels.3 By investigating the imaginary space between the physical and the metaphysical, the line and the gutter, these comics invite viewers to conduct their own “experiments” to find their own unique interpretations of Kafka’s aphorisms.

References Beaty, Bart. 2007. Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic book in the 1990s. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Bernofsky, Susan. 2014. “Afterward: The Death of a Salesman.” In The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, 119-26. New York: Norton. Burton, Richard. 2003. Prague: A Cultural and Literary History. Northampton, MA: Interlink Books. Calasso, Roberto. 2006. “Marginalia.” In Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, translated by Geoffrey Brock, vii–x. New York: Schocken Books. Corngold, Stanley. 2002. “Kafka’s Later Stories and Aphorisms.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kafka, edited by Julian Preece, 95-110. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gray, Richard. 1987. Constructive Deconstruction: Kafka’s Aphorisms, Literary Tradition, and Literary Transformation. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. Groensteen, Thierry. 1997. Oupus 1. Paris: L’Association. Kafka, Franz. 1961. Parables and Paradoxes. Translated by Heinrich Mercy Sohn. New York: Schocken Books. ___. 2006. Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka. Edited with a commentary by Roberto Calasso. Translated by Michael Hoffmann. New York: Schocken Books. Kundera, Milan. 1993. The Art of the Novel. Translated by Linda Asher. New York: Harper and Row. Meesters, Gert. 2011. “L’OuBaPo.” In L’Association: Une utopie éditoriale et esthétique, edited by ACME, 132. Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles. Mendelsund, Peter. 2014. Cover. Brooklyn: PowerHouse Books. Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House.

3  From the Greek, aphorismos: a definition, a pithy saying, from aphorizein, to divide, to mark off, from horizein, to separate, as in horizon (cf. Partridge 1983, 21).




Figure 3 Martha Kuhlman, “I have never been here before,” collage. © 2015 Martha Kuhlman. Figure 4 Martha Kuhlman, “I have never been here before,” comic. © 2015 Martha Kuhlman. 208


Notes on Time and Poetry Comics1 Bianca Stone In a poetry comic, the image serves as another line of the poem. It is self-sufficient, working in tandem with the words. The possibilities are infinite when ‘illustrating’ a poem. For me this is the critical difference, the defining feature of what makes something a poetry comic: the images function autonomously, as a line of a poem would, to the other lines of the poem. The images are not there to translate what is already there. They’re not there to visually help you understand what’s ‘happening’ in the poem. They are there to seamlessly interact and allow the readers the space to feel and create meaning on their own. The movement of time becomes more abstract in art because the creator is dictating the rules. And how powerful a thing that is, to dictate time. It’s like reading about the complex nature of the universe: once an astrophysicist begins explaining things, we realize that the rules in space are very different than those we seem to experience on earth. Sometimes we simply cannot comprehend the rules at all–our tiny idea of time is just a means of convenience, and I think art resists convenience. Once we lessen our grip on learned patterns of conceptualizing time, we start to see more around us. Poetry offers a good opportunity to depart from routine temporal encounters and perceptions. A poem is very brief compared to most prose works. And yet, the poem demands a much slower approach. Robert Pinsky says “the medium of poetry is a human body” (1998, 8). A poem’s metre is based on the body’s music, which–rooted in breathing and the sounds manipulated by means of our larynxes and our mouths–subconsciously dictates the pace at which the poem is read. And poetry comics should be imbued with that same unique, physical musicality. If we think of comics as defined by what is called “sequential imaging,” we see the comic as moving forward, telling a story, driving us to the end–but the poetry comic form can demand you to stop and inspect the intricacies of the image, while also taking in the meaning of the words. In other words, you’re being both propelled forward and stalled simultaneously. John Keats’ “negative capability,” intimating how, as writers and readers of literature, we have to be capable of embracing uncertainty–that there has to be mystery, things that are missing–fits A part of this text was published in The Georgia Review, July 2015. 210


into the abstract comic form. In a poetry comic, there are so many things missing. You have the white space on the page, the ‘gutters,’ as well as the subsequent connections our minds will make while seeing the image and reading the text–so much happens in those small spaces that demands time slow down. All of this happens very subtly, powerfully. In experiencing art, you might be taking in a lot of information, trying to make sense of it, but while doing so there is room for awe and curiosity.

References Pinsky, Robert. 1998. The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.






















C’est fini. Ça commence. Notes sur WREK d’Olivier Deprez, Miles O’Shea et Marine Penhouët Jan Baetens

Abstraction et narration La bande dessinée abstraite, en pratique d’abord, en théorie ensuite, a d’abord étonné. Non pas en raison de ses images, souvent d’une banalité extrême, à la limite (voulue) du supportable et presque toujours inféodées à la contrainte de la grille typique de la bande dessinée conventionnelle, mais à cause de son existence même, jugée incompatible avec ce qui fonde pour beaucoup l’essence du médium : le récit, puis la figuration qui donne à l’action un visage concret (des personnages, un décor, un contexte situé dans le temps et l’espace, bref une diégèse). Récemment, plusieurs voix ont donné une prééminence à ces manières de « faire-monde », au détriment des piliers classiques du récit que sont l’actant-personnage et l’événement-action (Jenkins 2006, Boillat 2014). La perplexité des premiers lecteurs s’est dissipée dès qu’on a saisi l’étroitesse de pareille définition. Envisagé comme la transformation non fortuite et non mécanique d’un état de choses à l’autre, comme l’eût dit, certes avec plus d’élégance, le structuralisme traditionnel, le récit n’est en effet pas nécessairement fonction d’un personnage ou d’un espace-temps figuratif. Des formes « plastiques », pour suivre ici la terminologie du Groupe µ (1993), peuvent également assumer cette fonction. Il n’est même pas nécessaire de voir en ces « formes » les représentations symboliques de certains personnages ou types de personnages – comme il est sans doute possible ou tentant de faire, par exemple lorsqu’on découvre une tension binaire entre certaines couleurs, certains formes, contours, textures. Les qualités visuelles et rythmiques de leurs arrangements respectifs sur la page suffisent à susciter une dynamique, voire une véritable séquence temporelle à même d’être interprétée d’un point de vue narratif. La définition d’Andrei Molotiu, qui s’est vite imposée comme canonique, est très explicite sur ce point : La recherche pour cet article a bénéficié de l’aide généreuse de BELSPO, dans le cadre de son programme PAI. Voir LMI, Literature and Media Innovation, PAI 07/01: http://lmi.arts.kuleuven.be/.



[Le terme de “bande dessinée abstraite”] touche au manque d’un prétexte narratif qui relierait les cases ensembles, favorisant plutôt une attention plus soulignée aux éléments formels de la bande dessinée qui, dans l’absence d’un récit (verbal), peuvent créer un sentiment de poussée narrative, le simple rythme d’un récit ou le début et fin d›un arc narratif (Molotiu 2009, s.p.).2

En fait, comme l’observe Douglas Wolk dans son compte rendu de l’anthologie de Molotiu, telle récupération narrative de compositions à première vue purement plastiques n’a rien de surprenant. Nos habitudes de lecture tendent à imposer sur n’importe quelle matière un filtre narratif, qui nous fait trouver du récit indépendamment de toute intention, y compris dans des œuvres qui semblent s’ériger en défi contre le dogme du tout-narratif : Les artistes rassemblés par Andrei Molotiu dans son anthologie Abstract Comics (...) pousse la bande dessinée à ses limites. (…) C’est un ouvrage fascinant à contempler, et comme pour d’autres formes d’art abstrait, la moitié du plaisir se trouve dans l’observation de ses propres réactions : quiconque habitué à lire des bandes dessinées plus conventionnelles se verra consciemment imposer un récit à ces abstractions, afin de comprendre ce que chaque case a à voir avec la suivante (Wolk 2009, 14).3

La bande dessinée abstraite n’est donc pas ce qui s’oppose à la bande dessinée narrative, puisque l’une et l’autre peuvent raconter une histoire–quand bien même l’histoire racontée n’est pas forcément la même de part et d’autre. Maintenir la coupure entre ces deux types de bande dessinée serait confondre le niveau de la figuration, où la distinction entre abstrait et figuratif (ou si l’on préfère entre plastique et iconique) fait sens, et le niveau du récit, où d’autres antinomies se font jour, par exemple celle entre description et narration (Baetens 2011). De cette observation il serait toutefois imprudent de déduire que la bande dessinée abstraite ne serait qu’une bande dessinée comme les autres. Cette bande dessinée singulière soulève une série de questions fondamentales qui obligent à réfléchir sur le langage du médium tel qu’on croit le connaître. En voici deux exemples. Pour commencer, la bande dessinée abstraite aide à revenir sur la distinction un peu facile et mécanique qu’on a faite jusqu’ici entre abstraction et figuration. Comme l’indique Molotiu, l’abstraction est contagieuse : elle ne se limite pas aux seuls cas abstraits proprement dits, mais touche à la figuration même, qu’elle invite à lire sur le mode abstrait. Prendre la bande abstraite au sérieux excède donc la seule reconnaissance d’œuvres non-figuratives, pour signifier qu’on tente de déceler également la puissance abstraite de certaines configurations non-abstraites. Ce geste inverse la logique ancestrale qui nous fait retrouver des personnages ou des objets dans toutes sortes de formes naturelles : nuages, taches sur un mur, écorces des arbres, et ainsi de suite 2  “[The term ‘abstract comics’] applies to the lack of a narrative excuse to string panels together, in favor of an increased emphasis on the formal elements of comics that, even in the absence of a (verbal) story, can create a feeling of sequential drive, the sheer rhythm of narrative or the rise and fall of a story arc.” 3  “The artists assembled by Andrei Molotiu for his anthology Abstract Comics (…) push ‘cartooning’ to its limits. (…) It’s a fascinating book to stare at, and as with other kinds of abstract art, half the fun is observing your own reactions: anyone who’s used to reading more conventional sorts of comics is likely to reflexively impose narrative on these abstractions, to figure out just what each panel has to do with the next.” 234

(on se rappelle l’usage qu’en a fait Fredric Wertham dans Seduction of the Innocent (1954), où l’ennemi juré des comics d’horreur n’a aucun mal à produire les « preuves » de messages subliminaux cachés dans des formes apparemment plastiques et rien d’autre). En second lieu, la distinction entre abstraction et figuration nous force aussi à imaginer sur de nouvelles bases l’équivalent du pôle abstrait au niveau du récit. En effet, il ne suffit pas de traduire narrativement l’opposition de base iconique versus plastique à l’aide du couple narration versus description. Au-delà du fait, aujourd’hui largement admis, que les frontières entre ces domaines sont étanches et mobiles, il est urgent d’élargir le champ de ce qui s’oppose au récit. Car la description peut suspendre le récit ou au contraire s’y intégrer (au point de s’y substituer, comme dans certains exemples du Nouveau Roman), prolonger le récit ou adopter le régime de la digression (dont l’étude de Bayard (1996) sur les digressions dans À la Recherche du temps perdu a montré à quel point elle peut être au cœur d’un projet narratif ), ou encore prendre la forme de nouveaux types de récit, comme par exemple la narration par liste ou la narration non-séquentielle–on pense ici à la notion de « database narrative » lancée par Manovich (2000), puis reprise et nuancée par Hayles (2007). En résumé, les premières analyses de la bande dessinée abstraite démontrent avec force que le rapport entre figuration et abstraction ou action et inaction ne peut être pensé sur le mode de l’exclusivité. Les deux catégories sont imbriquées, aussi bien à l’intérieur des images que dans les juxtapositions ou enchaînements qui en déterminent l’arrangement. WREK, une des nombreuses collaborations du graveur Olivier Deprez et de l’auteur et comédien Miles O’Shea (Deprez, O’Shea et Penhouët 2015), ici en étroite complicité avec la jeune artiste Marine Penhouët, responsable entre autres de l’ordre paginal et d’autres interventions plastiques, permettra d’illustrer quelques aspects clé de cette nouvelle problématique, préparée entre autres par des bandes dessinées du seul Olivier Deprez, dont Lenin Kino (Baetens 2011) et d’autres travaux à quatre mains, dont la création multimédia BlackBookBlack (Baetens 2013).

Figuration « X » Abstraction Lire WREK–on reviendra sur le mot-titre–c’est d’abord s’exposer à un choc violent entre l’abstraction la plus complète, le noir intégral, et une série d’images extraites d’une tradition populaire tout à fait figurative : la bande dessinée américaine, et en l’occurrence Nancy, personnage créé par Ernie Bushmiller en 1933. La page de couverture de WREK est 235

un aplat noir sans la moindre irrégularité ni nuance : non pas une pâte de peinture étendue, écrasée, étalée sur la toile qui reste présente sous la couleur, mais un noir d’encre très dense sur un papier couché très mince, presque immatériel. Quant à l’intérieur, également mince en dépit de ses vingt pages, il se voit occupé par des images inspirées de Bushmiller qui nous sont parvenues à travers un intertexte touffu. WREK offre l’histoire d’une enfant pas trop sage (« naughty » pourrait se traduire par « vilain », avec dans certains contextes la connotation supplémentaire de « grivois »), personnage inventé en écho et hommage à tant d’autres enfants de la rue dont raffolait la première bande dessinée américaine depuis le Yellow Kid. Pour s’en convaincre, il suffit de jeter un coup d’œil à l’anthologie personnelle réunie par Art Spiegelman dans la seconde moitié d’À l’ombre des tours mortes, livre qui réserve aussi une place d’honneur à la Nancy de Bushmiller (Spiegelman 2004). La culture visuelle du XXe siècle se souviendra diversement de Nancy, à la fois à l’intérieur de la bande dessinée (la petite Malfalda de Quino en est une sosie moderne, il est vrai moins vilaine que revue, nouvelle sensibilité politique incluse, à la lumière des Peanuts) et dans le monde de l’art et du design, souvent avec des accents surérotisés (pas tellement dans les sérigraphies de Warhol, mais à coup sûr dans le fréquent réemploi de Nancy et de ses copains dans les détournements des pulps).4 Olivier Deprez et Miles O’Shea s’inscrivent dans cette tradition du « naughty » tout en la poussant à son paroxysme. Ils exhibent en effet la double dimension de la mort et du sexe que ce paradigme convoque et refoule en même temps. Dans WREK, Nancy et son ami Sluggo Smith assistent à une scène de pendaison, que l’on pourrait entendre aussi comme une scène de décapitation, tandis que la double page interne du fascicule est un insert « X » qui met en scène Blanche-Neige et les Sept Nains dans les positions prototypiques du film pornographique. Que signifie ce mélange pour le moins impur, si ce n’est, dans un premier temps du moins, la dichotomie absolue du plastique et de l’iconique, les deux pôles que réunit paradoxalement leur conflit irréconciliable. Il est difficile de proposer un cadre plus abstrait que la couverture absolument noire du livre, qui résiste à toute forme de récupération–d’où notamment l’absence de toute inscription paratextuelle (les première et quatrième de couverture sont vierges de toute mention), puis aussi de toute épaisseur (le fascicule est si mince qu’il paraît fait d’une feuille unique, pure étendue où n’a lieu que la non-couleur du noir). Et il est plus difficile encore d’imaginer une suite de dessins et de gravures qui empêchent aussi rudement toute récupération formelle ou formaliste. Le contenu des dessins est si violent que leur sens, quand bien même il reste opaque, ne se laisse jamais réduire à un jeu de lignes et de couleurs. Dans WREK la figuration autant que l’abstraction sont radicalement autres parce que radicalement identiques. La première ne fait que représenter, la seconde ne fait que s’auto-présenter : différence absolue, qui devient possible parce que les deux régimes sont employés de manière littérale. L’abstraction est ultra-abstraite ; la figuration, hyperfigurative.

4  À titre d’exemple  : http://accelerateddecrepitude.blogspot.be/2009/03/naughty-nightstand-novels.html. 236

Le clash initial de l’abstrait et du figuratif est posé dès le seuil du livre, tel le cadre conceptuel à l’intérieur duquel la lecture est appelée à se déployer. Elle se maintient aussi tout au long de ses multiples trajectoires. Lorsque Nancy et Sluggo passent à l’action, sans qu’on sache très bien en quoi elle consiste, l’abstraction n’est jamais complètement absorbée par leur entrée en fiction. Loin d’assimiler à son profit la matérialité de l’encre ou de la confiner aux marges du fascicule, le récit se voit comme étouffé–durablement. Par ses auteurs WREK est qualifiée d’« histoire en éclats », et ici encore il convient de prendre la formule au pied de la lettre. L’œuvre n’est pas une mosaïque, ce « tout en morceaux » où les fragments finissent par composer une figure d’ensemble (Belloï et Delville 2007). Elle est une suite discontinue de fractions, un ensemble qui n’en est pas un et dont les pièces, pourtant prélevées du même univers, ne s’ajointent plus harmonieusement les unes aux autres. La disjonction l’emporte sur le rassemblement. L’inévitable effet de suture entre deux fragments qui se suivent ou se jouxtent dans un livre n’est plus capable de parer aux ruptures de ton, de thème, de rythme, d’un « éclat » à l’autre. Ou si l’on préfère : la « closure » est moins forte que le « breakdown », si l’on emprunte la terminologie de Charles Hatfield (2005), bien connue des spécialistes de la bande dessinée, qui doivent y retrouver une double allusion à Scott McCloud (1993), puis à Art Spiegelman (2008). Il serait caricatural de proposer une lecture destinée à remplir les vides entre les dessins. Loin d’être l’adjuvant d’une réception narrative des images, la « gouttière », la passerelle qui aide à passer sans heurts d’une case à l’autre, est dans WREK un instrument antinarratif. Elle ne pointe pas vers ce qui manque aux dessins pour se convertir en séquence narrative. Elle affiche au contraire la difficulté de relier les images entre elles. Elle constitue vraiment un vide, un écueil impossible à franchir. Dans cette stratégie antinarrative, le dysfonctionnement de la gouttière n’est pas seul à jouer. D’autres techniques interviennent aussi, qui assurent ou renforcent l’évitement du récit. Parmi elles, la mesure la plus radicale est sans doute le bizarre corps étranger au milieu du livre, qui apparaît là où l’objet WREK fait pli. Cette double page à tonalité pornographique est certes une illustration du champ sémantique du « naughty », mais la mise ensemble de Blanche-Neige et des Sept Nains d’un côté et de Nancy et Sluggo de l’autre demeure comme impénétrable. En effet, loin de fonctionner comme une mise en abyme du livre, le détail central éclairant le tout qui l’accueille, ces deux pages sont un exemple de montage « pur », générant des hypothèses et des interprétations qui ne déposent jamais en signification solide. Le changement de couleur dans cet insert, le fond de l’image passant tout à 237

coup du blanc au jaune, est l’indice ultime de son caractère rebelle : l’image pornographique fait tache, elle n’est pas tout simplement la révélation du non-dit des images apparemment plus innocentes ou plus enfantines de Bushmiller. Mais s’il ne réfléchit pas l’ensemble de WREK, le corps étranger au milieu du fascicule se réfléchit parfaitement lui-même. La double page en question est construite en miroir, le dessin de la page droite répète littéralement, par une inversion complète, le dessin de la page de gauche. Cette structure n’est pas mise au service d’un dessein narratif. Elle divise le livre en deux moitiés qui par là même paraissent symétriques. Cependant, toute tentative de lire l’amont et l’aval de WREK sur le mode palindromique, par exemple, tourne vite court. Les « éclats » continuent à l’emporter sur l’« histoire ». Il serait prématuré d’en conclure que la double page centrale sert avant tout à décevoir ou, plus exactement, à frustrer les attentes du lecteur. De manière de nouveau très littérale, la technique de l’inversion dénote un autre aspect clé de WREK : non pas le récit–comme on l’a vu, la fiction racontée ne compte qu’à peine : c’est une liste de thèmes, non une véritable séquence–mais la matérialité de sa genèse–en l’occurrence la matérialité du contact de la gravure encrée et de la feuille d’impression. Cette leçon technique pose de nouvelles balises à l’interprète. Tout comme les deux pages centrales naissent au contact l’une de l’autre, sans qu’on sache laquelle suit ou précède l’autre, les feuillets du livre se manifestent comme le résultat d’une panoplie de formes de noircissement : crayonnages, esquisses, griffonnages, incises, impression… Tout se passe un peu comme si le monde fictionnel de WREK était d’abord un prétexte à décliner tous les possibles du paradigme. Comme si le véritable récit de l’œuvre était l’alignement de ces possibles, qui nous fait ressentir à tout moment le chemin du trait à la gravure, de l’entaille au remplissage, littéralement et dans tous les sens. Car WREK n’est pas l’équivalent expérimental d’un manuel ou d’un autocommentaire didactique (« Comment faire un livre, de l’idée à la réalisation »). On saute sans arrêt d’une étape de la genèse et de la production à l’autre, dans un désordre très voulu que renforcent aussi les écarts matériels du texte et de l’image. Dans WREK, traces linguistiques et inscriptions visuelles n’évoluent pas au même rythme–quand les unes tendent vers la précision, les autres se disloquent, ou inversement–et leur union peut être rompue à tout moment. Ce manque de symétrie est d’autant plus voyant que l’écrit n’échappe en rien aux manipulations de la matière visuelle. À l’instar des dessins qui oscillent entre brouillon et produit achevé ou encore entre reproduction à l’endroit et à l’envers, les mots dérivent parfois en direction de la tache, de la pure matière plastique, s’ils ne se donnent pas à lire eux aussi à l’envers. C’est dire combien les mots aussi peuvent se rapprocher de l’abstraction et combien le noir des lettres est toujours sur le point de se noyer dans des zones d’encre plus obscures.

Genèse de l’abstraction Dans WREK l’insistance sur la genèse de l’œuvre touche aussi à la question de l’abstraction. Celle-ci n’est pas désignée comme l’opposé du figuratif ou de l’iconique. Rien d’étonnant dès lors qu’on le retrouve aussi comme un objet interne au monde de la fic238

tion. Cependant, la manière dont elle y figure en fait non pas un objet ou un état, mais un processus, un devenir. On voit par exemple comment Sluggo couvre un tableau de peinture noire jusqu’à en faire un rectangle entièrement monochrome dont on suit les aventures–accrochages et décrochages successifs–dans les dernières pages du fascicule. Ces aléas d’un tableau « noir sur blanc », peuvent-ils être lus comme une image du travail d’Olivier Deprez et Miles O’Shea ? Sans aucun doute, mais l’observation est trop banale pour qu’on s’y attarde trop longtemps. Dans une large mesure, elle est même fausse, puisqu’elle néglige les variations de la matière. Car là où Sluggo peint, Deprez et O’Shea écrivent, dessinent, gravent, impriment. Mais quelque chose de plus essentiel émerge dans cette thématisation de la peinture noire finissant par faire tableau : le passage du produit à la production, c’està-dire du motif au processus, au temps, au rythme. Traditionnellement, l’analyse du temps s’opère selon trois axes, qu’on a pris coutume, depuis Figures III de Gérard Genette (1972), de nommer ordre, fréquence et rythme. Soit : dans quel ordre les événements de l’histoire sont-ils représentés dans le discours narratif ? Combien de fois ces événements sont-ils racontés ? Et selon quel régime rythmique, de ralentissement ou d’accélération, apparaissent-ils dans le discours ? De ces trois aspects temporels, la vitesse du récit et les questions de rythme sous-jacent bénéficient en général de moins d’attention que la fréquence et, surtout, d’ordre–la question qui se taille presque toujours la part du lion. Est-ce à dire que le rythme est un paramètre marginal ? Pas du tout. Mais à la différence de l’ordre et de la fréquence, son appréciation dépend souvent d’élément très subjectifs qu’il est plus délicat de formaliser que les observations relatives à l’ordre ou à la fréquence (Baetens et Hume 2006, Baetens 2015). Dans le corpus de la bande dessinée abstraite, la situation est tout autre. En l’absence d’une histoire ou d’un récit proprement dits, il est moins aisé d’aborder les transformations matérielles du point de vue de l’ordre narratif, tandis que fréquence et davantage encore rythme s’imposent d’emblée à l’attention. À suivre les analyses d’Andrei Molotiu, le rythme de l’œuvre serait même ce qui tient lieu de véritable récit. Ce sont en effet les modulations de vitesse tout comme les changements de rythme qui créent la tension particulière que nos attentes culturelles, toujours assoiffées de récit, sont tentées d’interpréter en termes narratifs. Mais que se passe-t-il dans une œuvre comme WREK, qui renouvelle la discussion sur la bande dessinée abstraite par le mélange non réconcilié d’éléments abstraits et de fragments narratifs ? Un récit et une histoire


sont là, c’est évident, au moins de manière inchoative. Seulement, on ne sait pas trop comment les configurer pour en faire de vraies structures narratives. L’histoire proposée reste fatalement « en éclats », on n’arrive pas à franchir le seuil du récit même minimal, puisque chaque nouvelle cellule détruit autant qu’elle façonne la cohésion supposée du déjà lu. D’une part, WREK n’est pas une œuvre où l’on est invité à « traduire » un jeu formel, par exemple celui du noir et blanc, en motifs, en thèmes, et finalement en séquence narrative, pour la bonne et simple raison que cette traduction est déjà faite par les auteurs mêmes : il y a des personnages, il y a un décor, il y a des événements, tantôt futiles, tantôt graves. D’autre part, si la matérialité de WREK ne doit plus être allégorisée, il est tout aussi problématique de trouver une véritable signification aux cellules thématiques ou aux cases narratives de l’œuvre. Alors que tous les ingrédients pour faire récit sont bel et bien en place, l’histoire ne « prend » pas. Et bien entendu c’est cela justement qu’il convient d’interroger : le blocage narratif de la figuration qui est là uniquement pour faire comprendre que les images visent moins à faire naître un récit qu’à rendre sensibles un rythme, une réflexion sur la genèse de l’œuvre, une traversée parfois brutale d’associations d’idées. WREK s’insinue comme un récit vraiment abstrait : un paradoxe rare, sans doute, mais tenu ici d’un bout à l’autre du fascicule, puis maintenant au-delà des diverses relectures.

Retour au titre Dans une œuvre abstraite–film, tableau, bande dessinée–l’écart est souvent net et toujours hautement problématique entre l’œuvre (abstraite) et son péritexte (figuratif ). Donner à une peinture abstraite un titre comme « La création du monde », « Venise, 7 juin 1916 » ou « Tendresse naissante » est un geste anodin, mais de grande portée : le titre normalise, c’est-à-dire annule l’œuvre. Quant aux pis-aller que sont les variations de type « Sans titre » ou « Composition n° 17 », ils ont perdu beaucoup de leur force et ne font que déplacer l’attention de l’œuvre à l’artiste, ce qui n’est guère plus satisfaisant, du moins du point de vue de l’abstraction. WREK est, de ce point de vue également, un titre à la fois habile et approprié. D’une part, le mot est sans dénotation, mais il connote richement, notamment par langues étrangères interposées. Les anglophones, comme Miles O’Shea par exemple, y entendront peut-être une allusion à wrecking ball (« boule de destruction »). Les néerlandophones et, plus généralement, les Belges, comme Olivier Deprez, peuvent y retrouver une déformation de wrak (« épave »)5 ou une anagramme de werk (« travail »). Bref, le mot-titre WREK préfigure à merveille, non pas la tension entre figuration et abstraction à l’intérieur du livre, mais la coïncidence ou le chevauchement de ces deux modes. D’autre part, le mot WREK est traité par les auteurs comme un pur objet typographique, c’est-à-dire comme une configuration de caractères susceptible de basculer vers l’icône, un peu comme dans les signes entretissés de la NRf ou les lettres ornées sym-

bolisant une marque d’imprimerie, selon une coutume qui remonte à la Renaissance déjà. Les quatre lettres de WREK apparaissent dans une composition faite de rectangles emboités, qui met en valeur un grand nombre de propriétés matérielles du mot-titre. 1) La couleur : le contraste du blanc et du noir (lettres blanches sur fond noir, carrés noirs encadrés de blanc) est la première occurrence d’une couleur autre que le noir et rompt le noir monochrome de la première et la deuxième de couverture. 2) La taille : les lettres de WREK occupent presque toute la page et ce faisant elles ne constituent pas un simple logo ou un titre, mais s’imposent au contraire comme une sorte d’illustration. 3) L’emplacement dans le livre : qu’elles soient titre ou illustration (mais en fait les deux en même temps) focalise le regard sur le « vide » de la première de couverture, non pas vierge de couleur, mais vide d’illustration aussi bien que de titre. Ainsi le mot WREK conduit à une interrogation sur les limites de l’œuvre et la distinction entre intérieur et extérieur, tout en activant le sens littéral de ce qu’est une « couverture » de livre (qui en l’occurrence n’est « rien que ça »). 4) L’ordre des lettres : l’arrangement des caractères se fait en carré, ce qui casse la lecture linéaire ; en l’absence d’une signification immédiate de « wrek », qui pourrait suggérer un sens de la lecture « naturel », il est possible de lire d’au moins deux manières, soit horizontalement, ligne par ligne : « WR/EK », soit verticalement, colonne par colonne : « WE/RK ». 5) Le tracé des lettres et des cadres, tantôt visiblement manuel, pour ce qui est des lettres et des cadres internes, tantôt machinal, massicoté, le bord externe de la figure incluant les quatre lettres étant aussi droit et pur que celui de la page qui l’accueille. En résumé, WREK apparaît de tous points de vue comme une œuvre exemplaire. D’une part en raison de ses propriétés intrinsèques, qui en font un objet ouvert à de nombreuses relectures et garant de multiples surprises. D’autre part à cause de sa position stratégique dans l’histoire de la bande dessinée abstraite. Le travail d’Olivier Deprez et Miles O’Shea excède la visée « négative » des premières tentatives abstraites, qui ne retrouvent la narration qu’après avoir rejeté la figuration. WREK est une œuvre d’emblée abstraite et figurative, qui ne cherche pas à raconter en dépit de sa non-figuration, mais à interroger le récit même. C’est là une avancée dont l’importance mérite d’être soulignée.

5  Sans vouloir exagérer (mais au fond exagère-t-on jamais assez face à ce type d’œuvres ?) il n’est pas interdit d’y sous-entendre même une petite allusion à « wrakhout » (« bois d’épave » ou « bois flottant »), ce qui permet de fusionner le titre de l’œuvre et la technique utilisée… 240


Références Baetens, Jan. 2011. “Abstraction in Comics.” SubStance 40 (1) : 94-113. –––. 2013. “Light in Black: On Olivier Deprez’ BlackBookkBlack.” Dans Light Image Imagination. Sous la direction de Martha Blassnigg, Hanna Schimek et Gustav Deutsch, 221-35. Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press. –––. 2015. “Adapting and Displaying Multiple Temporalities: What Became of Trollope’s John Caldigate and Maupassant’s Boule de Suif in Simon Grennan (Dispossession) and Battaglia (Contes et nouvelles de guerre).” Dans Transforming Anthony Trollope. Dispossession, Victorianism and Nineteenth-Century Word and Image. Sous la direction de Lawrence Grove et Simon Grennan, 15-32. Leuven : Leuven University Press. Baetens, Jan et Kathryn Hume. 2006. “Speed, Rhythm, Movement : A Dialogue on K. Hume’s Article ‘Narrative Speed.’” Narrative 14 (3) : 351-57. Bayard, Pierre. 1996. Le Hors-sujet. Proust et la digression. Paris : Minuit. Belloï Livio et Michel Delville, dir. 2007. L’œuvre en morceaux. Esthétiques de la mosaïque. Bruxelles : Les Impressions Nouvelles. Boillat, Alain. 2014. Cinéma, machine à monde. Essai sur les films à univers multiples. Lausanne : Georg. Deprez, Olivier. 2009. Lenin Kino. Bruxelles : FRMK. Deprez, Olivier et Miles O’Shea. 2008. BlackBookBlack. Bruxelles : FRMK. Deprez, Olivier, Miles O’Shea, et Marine Penhouët. 2015. WREK. The Naughty Girl & The Naughty Boy. Bruxelles : Le Kabinet. Genette, Gérard. 1972. Figures III. Paris : Seuil. Groupe µ. 1993. Traité du signe visuel. Paris : Seuil. Hatfield, Charles. 2005. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Hayles, N. Katherine. 2007. “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts.” PMLA 122 (5) : 1603-8. Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York : New York University Press. Manovich, Lev. 2000. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press. McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics : The Invisible Art. Northampton, Mass. : Kitchen Sink Press. Molotiu, Andrei, dir. 2009. Abstract Comics. Seattle : Fantagraphics. Spiegelman, Art. 2004. À l’ombre des tours mortes. Paris : Casterman. –––. [1983] 2008. Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!. New York : Pantheon. Wertham, Fredric. 1954. Seduction of the Innocent. New York : Rinehart and Cie. Wolk, Douglas. 2009. « Comics ». The New York Times, December 6, sec. Sunday Book Review.




















Abstracted Narration and Narrative Abstraction: Forms of Interplay between Narration and Abstraction in Comics Kai Mikkonen The phrase ‘abstract comics’ has been used as an umbrella term for different kinds of comic art that do not portray recognizable objects, characters, situations or milieux. Much attention has been given to the non-narrative aspect of abstract comics, that is, the lack of narrative potential (or narrativity), as well as the anti-narrative aspect, the resistance to narrative form and coherence. For instance, there is Andrei Molotiu’s much-referenced formulation which emphasizes, first and foremost, that abstract comics lack narrative sense and coherence. Molotiu defines abstract comics as sequential art that consists “exclusively of abstract imagery” (2009), in line with conventional definitions of the rather vague notion of abstract art. Yet, he then states that abstract comics can, in fact, contain some representational elements, “as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even into a unified narrative space” (ibid.). The emphasis on the question of narration in Molotiu’s definition has not gone unnoticed by comics scholars and theorists. Jan Baetens has discussed the qualities of the notion of abstraction in comics from the viewpoint of narrative analysis and argues that the non-abstract needs to be split into two categories: the ‘figurative’ or ‘representational’ on the one hand, and the ‘narrative’ on the other (2011, 95, 101; 2015).1 Consequently, the non-figurative in comics can be evaluated in terms of the single abstract image or panel that lacks figuration, while the non-narrative–the absence of sufficient narrative potential or overreaching narrative sequence2–needs to be evaluated in relation to a larger sequence or the work as a whole. In this model, furthermore, abstraction in comics remains in dialectical tension with these two opposites: the abstract panel image and the abstract image sequence. 1 Similarly, Jean-Christophe Menu has pointed out in his dissertation, La bande dessinée et son double (2011, 409-10), that there are two basic tendencies in abstract comics. First, they can retain a certain level of figuration, that is, a sense of recognizable figures, while abandoning any sense of narrative linearity and continuity (similar to Scott McCloud’s category of non sequitor in his taxonomy of panel relations). Second, abstract comics can seek to eliminate all representation and figuration, yet continue to narrate using abstract figures and images. 2  We could also speak of the lack of narrativity. ‘Narrativity’ is a relative term that refers, in narratology, to the set of formal and contextual properties characterising narrative; those features in a (narrative) text, document or work of art that make it more or less narrative (Prince 2003, 65). 262


Thierry Groensteen, by contrast, has reserved the term abstract comic, in the strict sense, for those comics where the drawings are non-figurative while assigning those comics that lack narrative coherence to the large category of primary distributive functions of panels, or what he calls infra-narrative comics (rather than including them as abstract comics).3 The distinction between abstract image and abstract sequence can help us to specify what we mean by abstract comics, and differentiate between the main uses of the term, but it also opens up new questions about the relationship between abstraction and narration. One difficulty with focusing on abstraction at the level of the image is that it may be possible to identify different kinds of abstraction here. These range from an abstract figure, caricature or style–as in the wooden blockhead of Ernest Riebe’s Mr. Block (created in 1912) or Gary Panter’s character Valise in Jimbo’s Inferno (2006)–a technique of abstraction (a distortion of an originally figurative or narrative image),4 to an abstract panel image as a whole (as is the case with many works included in Molotiu’s anthology). In other words, abstraction at the level of the image can be evaluated as a component of the image, but also in terms of the panel as an undivided visual field or a kind of abstract painting on its own. Moreover, what counts as figurative representation in comics needs to be evaluated in relation to the visual conventions of the art form. For instance, certain forms of simplification and exaggeration through caricature in comics may be easily perceived as abstractions in other contexts.5 This not only concerns the way the figures are drawn, but also the background fields and other visual features of the composition. Images in comics are also highly flexible in their depiction of the third dimension (depth), or lack of it, without this having any necessary effect on their narrativity. The use of two-dimensional surfaces, including text or a plain ‘abstract’ background behind the figures, are common conventions that do not undermine the sense of a narrative world. This flexibility is preconditioned by the dual relation that each panel has with the story–the expectation of a three-dimensional, fictional space–and the page layout that integrates the panels in a continuous two-dimensional whole.6 What counts as an abstract image, 3  Groensteen’s ‘infra-narrative’ comics is a wide-ranging category of pre-narrative and pre-logical distributive functions of the panels on the same page, such as amalgam (a collection of different images without any clear connection), inventory, variation, inflection, and decomposition, as well as seriation and fragmentation (2011, 16). 4  Groensteen distinguishes between ‘indigenous’ abstraction and abstractions that are achieved by operations such as erasure, blurring, or covering over an image that was initially figurative (2011, 13). 5  For example, in gallery art that uses comics. Caricature can occur with or give way to abstraction in comics, but it is not helpful to treat all conventional and arbitrary signs in comics as abstractions, in the sense that McCloud defines ‘iconic’ (representational) and ‘non-iconic’ (non-representational) abstraction for instance. The reductions, simplifications and exaggerations of caricature, or what McCloud calls ‘iconic abstraction,’ contrast with pictorial realism–the level of specificity and detail, for example–rather than figuration or representation. Hannah Miodrag points out that the issues of abstraction and arbitrariness are often confused in comics criticism (2013, 181-2). Nevertheless, it should also be noted that the kinds of arbitrariness that are common in figuration in comics also influence our evaluation of what counts as an abstract comic. 6  See also Fresnault-Deruelle (1976, 17) on the relationship between story and page layout. 264

then, to some extent depends on the visual medium in which it is deployed. Another problem in splitting abstraction in comics into two categories–the panel and the sequence–and associating the latter with the non-narrative, is that the non-narrative is a highly versatile category in itself. Besides abstraction, narrative comics have many other non-narrative elements with which they may establish meaningful forms of interplay. Such frontiers of narrative include the text types of description, exposition and argumentation.7 Strictly non-narrative comics are rare, but pedagogical and instructive comics, along the lines of Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990-2009), as well as political and propagandistic comics, follow an argumentative, informative or documentary purpose rather than a storytelling purpose.8 Moreover, so-called abstract comics are not the only form of comics that have the potential to challenge narrative expectations or the reader’s sequential reading habits. Comics poetry and gallery comics, i.e., comics meant to be viewed in an exhibition space, can make visible certain non-narrative elements that are sometimes overlooked in more traditional narrative comics, such as the painterly aspects of individual panels, or the materiality of the image and the page. The art gallery context, where you can see the whole work on the wall for instance, also influences the way in which a comic is perceived. Here, comics can be viewed more as paintings or art works than as arrangements of panels to be read in a particular order in book format.9 Given that many types of poetry are not narrative in nature, comics poetry or lyrical comics constitute another departure from narrative comics that may highlight, for instance, the conceptual qualities in the text and image relationship.10 Popular comic strips, especially humour and gag comics, also often lack the characteristics of an overall narrative. The Peanuts strips, for instance, typically build their humour on situations, juxtapositions between the main characters, discrepancies 7  For a thorough discussion of the linguistic categories of various text types see Aumüller 2014. 8  Description, exposition and argumentation can also be studied as aspects of narrative comics rather than as separate non-narrative types of comics. See Cates 2010 on the metaphorical, metatextual, thematic and symbolic juxtapositions in the diagram form in Chris Ware’s work and elsewhere. As will become clear in this article, I disagree with Thierry Groensteen’s point in “Narration as Supplement” ([1988] 2014) that the hypothesis of non-narrative comics is only fertile “on a purely theoretical level” (2014, 165). 9  See also Groensteen (2011, 12) on the meaning of such viewing contexts. 10  If we define abstract comics mainly in terms of the non-narrative, there is bound to be much overlap, and also potential confusion, with the category of ‘comics poetry’ (or ‘poetry comics’). See, for instance, the works included in Comics as Poetry (Einspruch 2012). 265

between what is said and what is seen, metaphoric associations, puns, and dialogue scenes. Their situations may have narrative potential, but they serve a purpose other than storytelling: to make a humorous point, for instance, or to describe an incident in a character’s everyday life. Similarly, autobiographical diary strips may focus on separate incidents, where the main purpose is to convey a thought, an emotion, an experience or a perspective, rather than tell a story.11 Yet another problem in associating abstract comics closely with the category of the non-narrative is that many of them are not always particularly engaged with the question of narration. Derik Badman’s redrawing of a selection of panels from Jesse Marsh’s “Tarzan and the Flying Chief ” (Tarzan Comic, 1950) as “Flying Chief,” where the backgrounds of the drawings are transformed into abstract shapes, clearly undermines narrative expectations and meanings. Badman’s redrawing rejects various key features of narrative in this medium: character development, the unity of scene and location, the illusion of three-dimensional space, the sense of an event, continuing action, dialogue, verbal narration, and the impression of temporal continuity from one panel to another. However, other abstract comics, and several that are included in Molotiu’s Abstract Comics, are not focused on narrative devices and expectations, or on the distortion of the narrative dimension of existing comics. Instead, they may explore visual or spatial conventions and qualities of comics for their own sake, focusing for instance on the formal aspects of the layout, the frame, the speech balloon, or the rhythm of reading. Furthermore, many abstract comics may also be perceived as telling a story with abstract shapes and images.12 For instance, in the comics of Janusz Jaworski, Roman Schaub and Warren Craghead III–all included in Abstract Comics–both narrative and non-narrative readings are possible at the same time.13 Whether we wish to see them as narratives, then, is our choice as readers. By limiting the concept of abstraction to non-figurative images in comics, we may be able to avoid some of these conceptual problems, such as imposing narrative form and coherence on all abstract comics. However, the idea of abstract sequence is useful in narrative analysis in that it allows us to investigate the interaction between narration and abstraction in a great variety of examples, in particular in comics that only make limited, strategic use of abstraction. 11  Experientiality is indicative of narrativity for most narratologists today, but the representation of personal experience does not have to assume a narrative form. See, for instance, Cates (2011, 214-16), who discusses James Kochalka’s daily diary strip American Elf. 12 Despite his rather generalized claim that the relationship between abstraction and narrative is that of active conflict, Jan Baetens does not conceive narration and abstraction as polar opposites. On the contrary, he argues that “the link between abstraction and non-narrative is less automatic than is usually presumed” (2015, 183), and refers to the possibility of “abstract storytelling,” that is, storytelling with the help of abstract panels. Elsewhere, Baetens has also emphasized that abstract elements can play a narrative role as they highlight an enigma that has to be solved (2011, 106), while the non-narrative blocking of sequentially arranged pictures may also better focus the reader’s attention on each separate image, page, and double-page spread ‘“as a story in itself” (2009, 283). 13  We may, for instance, narrativize the transformations of some visual form or shape, as do Menu and Groensteen in relation to the treatment of the object (little drawn trace) in Alex Baladi’s work Petit Trait (2008), as a story or an adventure (Menu 2011, 411; Groensteen 2011, 10). 266

In what follows, I will examine the relationship between narrative comics and abstraction from a narratological perspective by briefly analysing three representative cases of such interplay. First, I will read a popular comic strip series for abstraction, where narrative is conceived as a dynamic event that must move forward.14 Despite the irresistible sense of narrative development in the story arcs of Tove and Lars Jansson’s Moomin strip (1954-59),15 the series includes certain elements, such as the representational use of framing, which thematize the act and process of narration and playfully investigate the relationship between the space of the page and that of story.16 These elements transform abstract building blocks that structure the comic strip’s narrative surface into parts of the story. Reading for abstraction highlights the interplay between narrative space and the space of the page, and between image foreground and background, rather than undermining the narrative meaning or order of the story. Second, I will discuss the narrative function of abstract and non-figurative images in an otherwise figurative comic, focusing on characterization and a key scene in Brecht Evens’s 2014 graphic novel Panthère (Panther). The characters’ de- and re-materialization in the abstract panels of this story, and the abstracted key sequence, serve the narrative by expanding interpretive possibilities. Abstraction here creates and enhances narrative tension, that is, the interest in the events and perspectives of the story. Third, I will read an abstract comic for narration, discussing the interrelations between figuration, abstraction and narrative in Niklaus Rüegg’s SPUK (2004), an abstract comic that works at the level of the non-narrative sequence (abstract sequences and panel relations). Devoid of events, characters, voice and subjective perspective, SPUK lacks sufficient narrative coherence between its panels. At the same time, however, the absence of narrative, underscored by the fact that the work is a redrawing of four Disney comics, enjoys a privileged position in the work. The relationship between the title of the work and the image sequence further contributes to the effect of narrative jamming, that is, the continuous raising and undermining of narrative expectations. The following readings will suggest that abstraction and narration relate to each other along a wide scale of options in the medium of 14  See James Phelan’s definition of “narrative progression” (2002, 211). 15  Lars Jansson continued the series on his own from 1960 to 1975. 16 They can thus be conceived as metanarrative elements, like comments and expressions that are concerned with the act and/or process of narration, in the sense that Ansgar Nünning (2004) and Monika Fludernik (2003) define the term. 267

comics. I will expand upon and qualify the distinction between an abstract image and abstract sequence in two important ways. First, abstraction in comics can be evaluated in relation to other formal elements of the work beyond the panel and the sequence, such as characterization and page layout, and the relationship between the work’s title and the contents. Secondly, the abstract elements need to be considered in relation to the work as a whole, thereby raising the question as to whether the work is expected to be read as a narrative or not.

Considering Abstract Elements: Frames in the Moomin Comic Strips In the first Moomin comic strip series that Tove and Lars Jansson drew for London’s The Evening News in 1954, Moomin and the Brigands, Moomin and his friend Sniff accidently create a modern abstract painting and a sculpture by pasting together pieces from works of art broken by a jealous ghost. Sniff, who decides that he wants to get rich with ‘modern art,’ suggests that he and Moomin take one of these works, a Cubist sculpture of a female figure, which used to be a Classical Rebecca sculpture (the biblical figure), to a local art gallery. At the gallery, they sell the sculpture for a hefty sum. Most of the profit, however, goes to the pockets of the art dealer, who charges an outrageous fee and gallery costs. Sniff then tries to convince Moomin to create more money-making modern art, join the modern art scene, and wear a velvet beret. Moomin is not at all interested in becoming rich and famous and throws himself in protest over a cliff, declaring dramatically, as he sometimes does, “I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!” The contrast between the narrative art of the comic strip and the Cubist or non-figurative works of visual art in this story arc complements Tove and Lars Jansson’s good-natured mockery of the self-importance of modern artists and greed of art dealers. However, the butt of the joke is not modern abstract art, even if it is implied that you can just assemble it on a whim; it is the commercialization of art that is the real target. Both Sniff and the art dealer use the catch phrase ‘modern art’ as a selling point. Moomin is not necessarily unrealistic in his vehement rejection of money-making as Sniff believes, but holds other, uncompromising views. The passage reveals Moomin’s resistance to materialism and conformism, as well as his romanticism–he explains that he does not feel particularly artistic, but could do “something romantic”–in contrast to what Sniff calls “baffling, bewildering” modern art. For Sniff, the notion of “looking reality in the face” simply means making a profit. At the same time, the passage is indicative of Tove and Lars Jansson’s personal engagement with the conventions of the comic strip as a form of artistic experimentation. This especially involves a focus on the frames of the strip sequence as fundamental to the composition. The expressive and narrative uses of the frames between the panels, echoing the contents of the strip, were an ongoing feature in the Moomin strip series


throughout the decades of its existence. In the passage about modern art in Moomin and the Brigands, the device of the representative frame is employed even more frequently than usual. More than half of the frames in this passage are images that represent something: a broken broom, paintbrushes, a door, and laurel leaves.17 Thus, the frame lines function as metaphors of the milieu of the story, or the evolving theme in these strips, such as modern visual art and artists. However, the frames also depict objects that could be found–and in some cases are also clearly present–in the scenes of the story. Thus, by turning the abstract form of the panel frame into an image, the objects as frames (or frames as objects) make visible the auxiliary force of the gaps between the panels in the sequential arrangement of the strips. The image frames in the Moomin series sometimes function in close association with the depicted action or a character’s mental state. For instance, a frame representing a nail becomes gradually more bent as Moomin keeps hitting a nail in the image sequence. Frame lines can also bend due to heavy wind or rain. A figure can react to a frame that is being bent from the subsequent panel. A character’s body may function as a frame thus connecting two panels of the strip,18 or a character’s anger, for example, might be reflected in the shape of the frame. In these cases, the frame echoes the narrative action and the characters’ experience or mental state, or becomes part of it, thus playfully undermining the distinction between the space of the story world and the frames of the image, the abstract formal elements of the strip. In some cases, the humorous undermining of this distinction also suggests that the spatial divide between the spaces of the respective panels is, in fact, ambivalent. An extended metanarrative treatment of the frame image can be found in the story arc Club Life in Moominvalley (1957). In the first regular vertical panel, a dog looks outside the panel towards the reader, saying: “Dear reader, today the frames are different–of necessity!” and then starts to run with a ball of yarn that unravels in an unusual way, in three long horizontal panels (Figure 1).19

17  Elsewhere in the series, the frames are drawn as falling rain, planks, poles, saws, plants in a field, tree trunks, water hoses, bars of a cage, doors, a spider on its web, spades, flowers, swords, drying lines for laundry, walking sticks, chains, candles, pencils, matches, cutlery, oar blades, rope, icicles, and so on. 18  See, for instance, Sniff (vol. 1, 30). 19  The Moomin strips consist of regular strips, mainly with three or four panels, with a continuing story arc of between 50 and 100 strips. The series occasionally includes one-, two- or five-panel strips. 269

the anonymous figure calls for help while holding a balloon on a string that also functions as a panel frame. In a sense, then, the figure occupies the space of the frame and communicates from the frame to the image field. Not acknowledged by the other characters of the story, the figure calls attention to itself as the neglected margin and points out formal components such as background images and frame lines.

The width of the panels–which are numbered to emphasize the change in the layout – reflects the length and the unravelling of the yarn. At the same time, the length of the frames is associated with the thread that is seen in the panels. The characters who come across the yarn interpret it in various ways: The Superintendent sees it as the line of his fishing rod; Fillyjonk thinks of it as her new washing line; it reminds Stinky of the loot he has stolen; Moomin perceives it as a potential new fishing line. The characters also relate to the yarn as a clue to the crime that has happened: The Superintendent and Fillyjonk believe that the yarn will take them to the thief ’s (Stinky’s) loot, which indeed happens in the story, while it also provides a warning to Stinky that his treasure may be discovered. The dog and the yarn simultaneously function as elements of the story world as well as plot devices to move the story forward. Their movement symbolizes the plot movement, tying characters and scenes together, revealing the thief and his loot, then leading the Superintendent and Fillyjonk to the false thief (Moomin). The artificiality of the sequence’s plot progression is emphasized by various formal means: initially by the changing panel arrangement, accompanied by the metanarrative comment about the necessity of this change, and subsequently by the unfolding visual connection between the yarn and the frame. In the ensuing strips, the self-parody of the page’s spatial division is further explored by expanding on the playful association between the unravelling yarn and the progression of the plot. However, this does not result in a blockage of the sequential flow. On the contrary, the sequential flow is artificially and humorously accelerated. While this passage includes an unusual design for a Moomin strip, it also contains another metanarrative element that can be found in Moomin and the Brigands and other stories in the series from the mid-1950s. I am referring to a minor, nameless character capable of moving between the space of the story and the surface of the page, and who therefore has an ambivalent status in relation to the world of the story and its outside. In Moomin and the Brigands, this nameless marginal figure accompanies the protagonists Moomin and Sniff on their adventures, and sometimes mimics their actions and reactions, and yet he appears to remain unseen by them. In amplifying the main characters’ actions, feelings, and situations as a kind of empty foil, the figure acquires a role as a narrative device. One particularly remarkable feature of this ‘parasitic’ character is that it can pass through the frames, seemingly neglecting the spatial division of the page more freely than can other characters. In the passage about modern art, for instance, 270

In the subsequent Moomin and Family Life (1955), this marginal figure temporarily becomes an agent in the story world. The figure interacts with the other characters for the first time when it warns Sniff of a large bomb, which turns out to be the perfectly round behind of Moomin, who is crouching down in a field studying very large footprints. Underneath the humour of the misunderstanding, there is a potential comment on the art of caricature: not much substance is required to become a character in a comic strip–an abstract round shape suffices.20 The drawing of round shapes is further emphasized by the repetition of the circular shape in the pebbles on the shore and, especially, the small balls (or possibly round fruits) that Sniff is threading onto a string that doubles as a single inner frame of the strip. It is in fact a convention in the comic for the first panel to show Moomin’s round shape from behind–it is simultaneously a feature of the story space and an abstract marker for the story’s beginning. The opening question in Moomin and the Brigands–“What’s this?”–strategically placed above Moomin’s ample behind, can be attributed to Moomin himself, who is looking for something in a field of grass. In addition, it can also refer to anyone, including the reader, who is looking at this perfectly round shape and wondering what it is. The anonymous marginal character’s close association with the frames and margins of the story combined with the shifting position between the character’s mimetic quality (character as a possible person) and synthetic quality (character as an artificial construct) comes to the fore in a strip in Moomin and Family Life.21 Here we see the figure speaking from the frame across the space of a narrow panel to a cousin called Shadow who stands by the opposing frame. Reflecting the family theme of the story arc, the figure discusses its own forthcoming marriage: “Oh, I’m so glad to see you, cousin Shadow! Would you take my place in the story, I’m getting married!” In this way, the dispensability of the figure is emphasized: its identity is irrelevant, what matters is its 20  Moomin characters can also perfectly function as characters even when they lose gravity and start floating in the air, or when they become invisible due to Martian machines or magic potions. The ‘empty nothing’ then in fact reaffirms narrative continuity and the diegetic function of characters. 21  See James Phelan’s distinction between mimetic, thematic, and synthetic components in narratives, particularly pertaining to the representation of characters and their world (Herman et al. 2012, 7-8, 113-16).

Figure 1 Tove and Lars Jansson, Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Vol. 3, page 100, strip 45. (c) 2008 Drawn and Quarterly. 271

role and function in the plot. Shadow then takes on the same role of mute companion with no actual impact on the story events. The two figures can only be distinguished because Shadow is completely black, whereas its cousin has a wide white stripe on the chest. When Moomin later recognizes the figure it only confirms that he does not perceive any difference between the two of them. When the desperate Moomin, who has lost his family, suddenly notices Shadow he asks: “WHO ARE YOU? You have been at my heels for the past three months!” This recognition, which reveals that Moomin knew he was being followed all along–even without noticing the change in the follower’s identity–temporarily transforms the marginal figure into an agent in the plot. The delighted Shadow responds: “I am Shadow! Nobody has ever taken any notice of me before! / Oh! I’m so flattered! May I save your life? Or be of any other small service?” Shadow maintains his ability to speak for approximately one-and-a-half strips after this scene, and goes looking for Snorkmaiden, convinced that it could do anything for Moomin out of the great joy of being recognized. After Moomin and Snorkmaiden are reunited, the figure falls silent again and returns to its role as a foil to the main characters, a kind of pet, a narrative device for amplification, and a shadowy figure of the frames, backgrounds and margins.22 Reading for abstraction in the Moomin strip series brings out the humorous play with the frames, the logic of sequence and the process of characterization. Formal, abstract elements of the strip are incorporated into parts of the story world at two levels by treating frames as representational and by depicting a character who can move between the frame, the surface of the strip layout, as well as the narrative space of the story. The tension between the abstract formal unit of the frame–indicating separation/connection–and the image as representation, or between the character as a synthetic figure of the margin and a recognizable individual, contributes to the storytelling in that it adds witty commentary on the conventions of sequential ordering and on the way comics are read. Instead of resisting narrative figuration and coherence, to parody such conventions in fact reaffirms their significance for the medium and turns them, through humour, into something that can be enjoyed as an integral part of the story.

Abstraction as Means of Narration in Brecht Evens’s Panthère In Brecht Evens’s graphic novel Panthère (Panther), Christine, the six-year-old girl living alone with her father, has just learned that her sick cat has been put to sleep. She starts having visits from a shape-shifting panther who emerges from the bottom drawer of her dresser. The panther, whose name is Octave Abracadolphus Pantherius–the self-styled crown prince of the Kingdom of Panthésia–consoles the young girl by telling stories he believes she wants to hear. This big cat also invents amusing games and tricks, plays Twister with her, and invites a group of his friends (or subjects) from Panthésia to cele22  This also holds true for most of Moomin’s Desert Island. 272

brate Christine’s birthday. In his storytelling, showmanship and antics, the panther uses his protean body to captivate the girl. However, the reader gradually discovers that he is a jealous and dangerous manipulator who devours Christine’s favourite teddy bear, while his friends and minions are even more dangerous and violent than he is. Abstract, non-figurative images, superimpositions and shapeless figures appear frequently in the work’s numerous dream scenes.23 Whenever Christine sleeps and dreams in the panther’s lap–presumably under his influence or ‘protection’–her room is filled with a multitude of shape-shifting figures and phantoms depicted in a skewed perspective. This is an unpleasant experience for the girl, and things become gradually worse as indicated by the shift in her nightly visions from colour to black and white. Abstract figures are not limited to the dream scenes, however. They also appear during some of the panther’s magic shows and when he appears and disappears again. The panther is constantly shape-shifting–taking on different forms in each panel–as well as shifting between abstraction and figuration. He also transforms the interiors of Christine’s room, where most of the story takes place. For instance, the panther appears in the form of colour dots that gradually merge into a figure, or as abstract fragments that are scattered around the panel. His shape can also merge and dissolve into the two-dimensional shapes of the wallpaper or a shadow. This brings us to the narrative function of these non-figurative elements and scenes, and whether they move the story and its reading, in terms of the panel sequence, towards the non-narrative.24 There are at least three ways in which the abstract panels and passages in Panther contribute to the story beyond merely changing the rhythm of narration: they introduce a more subjective perspective into the image; they add interpretive possibilities to the events and/or the characters; and, accompanied by other local stylistic effects or transformations in layout, they change the narrative atmosphere. By ‘narrative atmosphere’ I refer to the dominant emotion that pervades a story. This is related to Christine’s experiential and emotional perspective, though it is not identical to it. My argument is that the abstract elements of the story alter the reading mode and direction for some of the passages. All in all, the non-figurative shapes, panels and sequences in this work can be seen as subjective images in their own right–subjective in the 23  These scenes vary in size from one page to a double-page spread and three spreads. 24 Jan Baetens observes that narrative ‘“flaws’” or pockets of non-narrativity in comics can strengthen the impact of stronger narrative zones, such as cliff-hangers or surprises, while they also contribute to the work’s overall rhythm (2011, 106). 273

sense of aspectuality, i.e., they employ a distinct visual language to expresses the qualities of the character’s experience rather than merely indicating a point-of-view. The abstract, superimposed or fragmentary shapes, and the accompanying changes in perspective and colouring, are potential markers for the protagonist’s emotional and mental states. These abstractions, accompanied by changes in the layout or other stylistic alterations, accentuate the protagonist’s shift between waking and sleeping consciousness, or denote, say, fear and shock. This becomes apparent as Christine is regularly shown to fall asleep before the ‘abstract’ scene–once she is drugged with anaesthetics–or reacting in horror when she sees the panther appear from the drawer. But are the images products of Christine’s (traumatized) mind or are they forms of visual spectacle and confusion masterminded by the panther? Is the panther himself a figment of Christine’s imagination? It is even possible that the transformations are an indication that the panther is seen only by Christine. The dream images and the abstractions also add anxiety: is Christine safe around the panther?

bear Bonzo, whom the panther apparently had devoured, and who reappears as an impulsive, violent and sadomasochistic character. The Little Chicken has a curious hole in his throat through which he utters simple sentences; Mr. Trashcan is a kind of medical, anaesthetic apparatus; the expressionless Little Monkey emits cigar smoke from his ears until he explodes; the Giraffe has neither eyes nor mouth. The Monkey and the Giraffe seem unable to speak, while the language skills of Mr. Trashcan and the Little Chicken are rudimentary and mechanic. Their foregrounded artificiality and lack of sentience raises questions as to interpretation: are they independent characters or perhaps the panther’s creations and abstractions? Are they puppets belonging to his arsenal of trickery and spectacle he puts on for the girl? Are they part of Christine’s nightmares? These questions remain necessarily open and the synthetic qualities of these characters emphasize that uncertainty.

The panther’s ability to resist form and fade into abstraction adds to the uncertainty about his reality. Another obvious reason to doubt that he is real is that, apparently, no one else in the storyworld can see him except Christine. When the father looks into his sleeping daughter’s room while the panther is supposedly present, the feline figure dissolves into a shadow around the bed. This could be the result of the panther’s magical powers, but the shift between abstraction and figuration could also cast doubt on his reality. The panther could be Christine’s imaginary friend, a figment of her imagination, like Hobbes in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Or he could be a dream image, perhaps inspired by the demise of the family pet that Christine’s father had put in the freezer and that the girl had found by accident (the frozen cat and the panther have some features in common). All these options are plausible, but none is certain. It is also possible that in the world of the story the shape-shifting panther is real and that shapelessness and invisibility are just some of his theatrical tricks.

Moreover, Panthère’s abstraction of the image and the layout evoke questions about the nature of the events, which engenders narrative mystery. In particular, this concerns a violent key scene towards the end of the book depicted in three double-page spreads with no text (Figure 2).

While the physical form of the panther is ambiguous, the reality of his Panthesian friends, as well as their status as independent characters (in relation to the panther), are even more compromised. The Little Chicken, the Little Monkey, Mr. Trashcan and the Giraffe are not as sentient as the panther–not even the reconstructed teddy 274

Here the panther’s supposed friends take over Christine’s birthday party, drug the girl and appear to violate her while the Giraffe holds the panther back. The weight and dramatic importance of this scene is indicated by drastic changes in graphic style and layout: colour gives way to black and white, and the sequence of panels is replaced by fullpage or double-page spread images. Moreover, in the course of the scene there is a gradual movement from figuration to abstraction and back. When Christine is drugged, the contours of Bonzo’s face become mere dots on a double-page spread while in the following spread a dotted circle gradually transforms into the panther’s face. Images and figures thus become mere shapes melting into abstraction before becoming images again. Abstraction has several potential narrative functions in this scene. Along with the stylistic and layout changes, it marks a change of narrative atmosphere–an entrance into a world of fear, nightmare, violence, terror, and hallucination. These changes dramatize the climax of the story, and further contribute to the interpretive openness and mystery of the scene: What is this passage about? The question is closely tied to the implied subjective perspective and experiential frame of the sequence. In the final violent scene, the images can be taken as the girl’s subjective experience and vision. The panther’s companions violently capture the girl, pull off her dress, drug her and force her to lie down on a table. The scenario, thus, suggests a scene of rape. The sequence

Figure 2 Brecht Evens, Panthère, pages [110-11]. (c) 2014 Actes Sud.


of wildly skewed or abstract images that follows simultaneously allows for a narrative reading based on this scenario–the changes between figuration and abstraction signal the girl’s extreme fear and suffering, or her hallucination as she is subjected to violence– and may increase the uncertainty about the event. The ambiguity of the abstractions in this scene expands interpretive possibilities rather than the narrative: What is happening to Christine? What is the panther doing? Are we witnessing the girl’s hallucination or reality? The panther’s explanation, after Christine has woken up, offers another version of what has happened. He claims that when Christine was unconscious he fought Bonzo and his friends, who turned out to be evil agents in disguise and who wanted to kidnap her; he was wounded, but managed to chase them away. Given that the panther has lied before, and is responsible for bringing the new Bonzo and his companions into Christine’s room in the first place, his reliability is questionable even if there is no particular reason not to believe him either. The events in the narrative immediately preceding and following the abstracted key scene suggest how this passage, where the images also draw attention to themselves as units of design, could be narrativized. At the same time, the stylistic changes and non-figurative qualities of the abstracted images allow for several plausible but not necessarily compatible storylines. However, this does not amount to a narrative jamming, in the sense of refusing to satisfy narrative expectations, neither does it constitute a non-narrative ‘pocket’ in the story. On the contrary, the shifts between figuration and abstraction in this passage expand the scope of narrative interpretation and thus increase narrative potential. Abstraction here enriches the interpretive possibilities by making it more difficult to hold onto one explanation and storyline as the true version of the story.

Narrative Jamming in Niklaus Rüegg’s SPUK Niklaus Rüegg’s wordless comic SPUK, Thesen gegen den Frühling (“Ghost: Theses against the Spring,” 2004) is a redrawing of four Disney comics that can be conceived in terms of narrative jamming, that is, in the sense of frustrated expectations about narrative sense and coherence.25 The recognizable milieu of the original Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse comics and the typical graphic style of these action-centred series arouses storytelling expectations that SPUK frustrates by not featuring any characters or action. Devoid of events, voices, and signs of movement,26 the redrawings succeed in stripping the original comics of most of their narrative content. Narrative understanding of the composition is difficult, if not impossible. However, we can still read for narration by investigating the work’s means of abstraction in terms of the sequence and especially the way the comic arouses and frustrates narrative expectations.27 25  See Abbott 2008, 10. 26 However, there are some potential, subtle exceptions, in particular the fabric around the openings of some of the circus tents in the third comic that show possible lines of movement. 27  While related to narrativization, ‘reading for narration’ differs in that it does not involve drawing abstract, non-narrative elements into a story, or imposing a narrative form on the text. Instead, 276

In this case, abstraction is to be understood in terms of abstract or non-narrative sequencing rather than non-figurative images. Most of the images and panels in SPUK are figurative (representational), depicting interiors and exteriors of houses, furniture, fences and trees in a yard, or suburban street scenes. However, the relations between these representations do not cohere in a narrative sense. At times, the effect of non-narrative abstraction is emphasized by non-figurative panels, especially those comprising plain colour fields and the abstract shapes in the backgrounds of the original Disney comics.28 Beyond the abstract sequence, the meaning of the title and the subtitle and their relationship with the absence of text in the comics also arouse and frustrate narrative expectations in SPUK. ‘Spuk’ is German for a ghostly apparition, spectre, or nightmare. This has several meanings in relation to the work’s ‘stories.’ We can think of the ‘ghost’ as what is absent in the images: characters, actions and events. We could indeed argue that the missing narrative in general is the ghost of the image sequences, haunting the vacant scenes of the story. Then again, it is possible to associate the idea of the ‘ghost’ with the background images of Disney comics, in particular the interiors, exteriors, and colour fields that usually lack detail and are given little or no attention, mostly going unnoticed. SPUK has brought them to the fore, turning them into the focus of attention. 29 The subtitle Thesen gegen den Frühling explores a more abstract connection between text and image. The relationship between the subtitle and the visual content is open-ended and disjointed: how could these comics function as theses against the spring or even illustrate such theses? The idea of spring could be taken as a key to reading the work as a whole, but the results of such a reading are not altogether convincing. One element in all four comics that could relate to the subtitle is that they feature images of grass and trees–potential signs of spring, at least at a banal level. The coming of spring might also be a way to narrativize the subtle changes. In the first comic, the tree in the garden has no it is a reading strategy that highlights aspects in non-narrative comics that may raise narrative expectations. 28  The last page of the third comic is one of the most abstract ones, consisting of three plain colour panels–one with a circle, and two that denote rectangles, possibly the corner of a room. 29 On his site “MadInkeBeard/Derik Badman,” Derik Badman has an insightful post on Rüegg’s work (August 25th, 2008) describing his experience of trying to narrativize the comic. He argues that the “ghosts of the title could be multitudinous: the absent characters, the absent narration, the absent identifying hand of the original artist.” He speculates that “(p)erhaps the ghost is all those forgotten backgrounds, those abstract rooms, buildings, and landscapes that form a trope of comics, ever present yet ignored by not being present enough.” 277

leaves; the second comic contains images of budding plants; and the last one depicts the lushest greenery. Yet, these images show only weak signs of narrativity. The narrative meaning of the potential spring-time images remains uncertain: how do the prominent images of home interiors relate to the potential images of spring? How could these comics be conceived as theses against spring? The open-ended relation between the title and the work stimulates the interpretive imagination and suggests potential narrative meanings for the whole. In the end, however, the sequences and the visual contents of the work do not affirm any narrative meaning. Narrative readings of SPUK are not obvious and are, in fact, difficult to produce. Furthermore, the subtitle conceptualizes the redrawn comics as theses and thereby reimagines narrative sequences in terms of argumentation. This may, of course, be simply an ironic gesture and the very idea of a thesis has no deeper meaning. Yet, even as an ironic gesture, the naming distances the comics from their original narrative text type. In contrast to their weak and frustrated narrative meanings, the four SPUK comics, each separated by a blank page, suggest a strong sense of spatial and stylistic coherence. This coherence is based on the repetition of similar shapes and colours, and the continuing descriptions of suburban homes and gardens recalls, to anyone familiar with Disney comics, the fictive towns of Duckburg or Mouseton where the main Disney characters live. Furthermore, these repeated features create the impression of a continuous space. Similarly, the work’s colouring and colour fields function as important means of coherence and connectivity. This effect, however, is to some extent created by the erasure of characters, actions and dialogue that, as a kind of by-product, turns the colours and background images into the focus of attention.

We can attempt a verbal description of the visual repetitions to point out additional ways in which these works raise narrative expectations but at the same time frustrate all attempts at narrativizing the whole. In the first comic, we can see a white house with a red garden fence, yellow walls inside the house, and various recurring pieces of furniture, including a red armchair, a bookshelf, a dresser and a green couch. The unusual details in the description are likely to attract the reader’s attention: the holes in the interior surfaces of the house, the door that is off its hinges. One panel depicts a perfectly circular aperture in the middle of a floor and, later, we are shown a sharp-edged hole


in a wall with the pieces of the wall lying on the floor below. These are clear signs of events and agency, not of gradual dilapidation. However, there are no evident ways to narrativize them or associate them with an agent of action. The various shapes, pieces of furniture, trees and other objects in the comic are not prominent enough to be treated as characters. The house itself is a continuous object of description, but there is no obvious way to give this description a narrative sense. The second comic features a yellow house with a hedge to one side, a wooden fence to the other, and a small garden, but the images of the interiors suggest even less coherence than in the previous comic. This is partly due to fact that there are more ‘abstract’ panels with plain colour fields here. In the third comic, the description of a number of recognizable spaces in a circus–tents, a trapeze and a safety net in a big top–are followed by a series of images about the interiors of two suburban houses. Two dissimilar spaces are thus juxtaposed without any obvious connection. Some general narrative scenarios certainly seem possible, such as ‘going to a circus,’ ‘coming from a circus’ or ‘working in a circus,’ but there are not sufficient grounds to perceive these spaces in terms of a narrative (Figure 3). The fourth and last comic includes recognizable spaces in three or four houses: a house with pink walls, a house with yellow outside walls and blue interior walls, a shack used by children as a pirates’ den, a house with bright red outside walls, yellow interior walls and pink curtains, as well as a house with pink outside walls, yellow interior walls and a garden with a wooden fence. The multiplicity of spaces without any connection except for the repeated colours and shapes undermines clear narrative meaning. The redrawing of narrative comics with its elimination of basic narrative elements such as characters, action and events radically shifts our attention to the background images, shapes, and colours. However, while abstraction operates on the narrative elements and expectations, SPUK does not constitute a simple rejection of narrative. The details in the images arouse and frustrate narrative expectations; they are shot through with constant hints of absent characters and possible actions: holes made in the floor and wall, the unhinged door, a trapeze in the air, a pillow on a bed, open doorways, a close-up of an empty easy chair, and so on. The persistence of the narrative frame in this abstract comic is also dependent on the technique of erasure and the ‘ghost’ of the intertext, the stylistic presence of narrative Disney comics. This could suggest the typical actions and chains of events that take place in such settings despite their uncertainty and openness. The erasure and distortion of the narrative content also draws attention to the traces

Figure 3. Niklaus Rüegg, SPUK (Thesen gegen den Frühling), page 33, panels 5 and 6. (c) 2004 Autorinnen und Autoren, edition fink, Zürich. 279

of that erasure. In so doing, the re-drawings also highlight the narrative significance of those less conspicuous elements, in particular background images and colours, which belong to the storytelling apparatus in the comics medium.

coherence highlights the issues of narrative form, meaning and narrativization. This is not necessarily the case with all types of narrative jamming through abstraction, but here the absent narratives are the omniscient ghost of the work.


Furthermore, non-narrative comics and the use of non-narrative components is a much wider phenomenon than I have been able to illustrate. Abstraction in comics can take many forms, and various types of interaction with narration occur. Above I have investigated some non-narrative features of comics in relation to some dimensions of abstraction: the transformation and function of abstract elements within popular comic strips, the strategic use and narrative function of abstraction in characterization and the building of a scene in a graphic novel, and the implications of narrative jamming in abstract comics that draw on popular forms of storytelling. Much more could be said both about the uses of abstraction in narrative comics and comics that go beyond narrative.

Given that many comics classified as abstract are non-narrative, they shift our attention from the domain of narratology. However, the important question that abstract comics poses is how comics narratology can address the limits of its key concept, i.e., narrative. To focus only on what is conspicuously narrative in comics or on the most obvious narrative genres (such as plot-centred action stories), is bound to create a myopic vision of comics as narrative art. To better appreciate what makes comics a narrative art and medium, narratology also needs to shed light on the limits and departures from narrative, including those domains and features of comics which undermine narratological concepts. My analysis of the three comics suggests that the interplay between abstraction and narration occurs along a wide range. Abstraction can, for instance, complement narration, it can add new interpretive dimensions to the story, expand the connotations of the story events, contribute to narrative tension, or explore the distinction between the space of the story and the space of the page/composition. The examples also suggest that abstraction in comics can be evaluated beyond the individual image and panel sequence: form and content can be considered in terms of the relation between the title and what is shown or narrated in the work, the means of characterization and the layout of the composition. Whether reading for abstraction in narrative comics, or, conversely, narration in abstract comics, both can explicate various ways in which abstract images and abstracted sequences can serve narrative (or metanarrative) functions. These include the alternation of narrative rhythm and narrative atmosphere; the expansion of interpretive possibilities; the introduction of a subjective perspective; the description of mental states. There are also the effects of humour, curiosity, suspense and horror, the ironic treatment of the basic building blocks of comics, the alteration of the mode of reading, and so on. Storytelling through abstraction, and the incorporation of abstraction as a component of storytelling as my first two examples show, suggest that storytelling and non-narrative elements are more closely connected in comics than we think. In the light of these examples, the idea of a conflict between abstraction and narration has relatively limited value. The focus on abstraction in comics does not in itself constitute a critique of comics as a narrative medium. This is not only due to readers’ tendency to impose narrative meaning on the abstractions, but also because abstract comics are not always particularly focused on narrative expectations. It is also possible that their anti-narrative thrust relies on the erasure of the basic means of narration that paradoxically draws attention to those means. For instance, in predominantly anti-narrative works such as Rüegg’s SPUK, the resistance to narrative expectations, sense and 280

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Einspruch, Franklin. 2012. Comics as Poetry. New York: New Modern Press. Evens, Brecht. 2014. Panthère. Arles: Actes Sud. Fludernik, Monika. 2003. “Metanarrative and Metafictional Commentary: From Metadiscursivity to Metanarration and Metafiction.” Poetica 35 (1/2): 1-39. Fresnault-Deruelle, Pierre. 1976. “Du linéaire au tabulaire.” Communications 24 (1): 7-23. Groensteen, Thierry. 2011. Bande dessinée et narration. Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. –––. “Narration as Supplement: An Archaeology of the Infra-Narrative Foundations of Comics.” 2014. In The French Comics Theory Reader, edited by Ann Miller and Bart Beaty, 163-81. Leuven: Leuven University Press. Herman, David, James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol, eds. 2012. Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Jansson, Tove, and Lars Jansson. 2008. Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip. Vol. 3. Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly. Menu, Jean-Christophe. 2011. La Bande dessinée et son double. Langage et marges de la bande dessinée: perspectives pratiques, théoriques et éditoriales. Paris: L’Association. McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press. Mikkonen, Kai. 2017. The Narratology of Comic Art. New York and London: Routledge. Miodrag, Hannah. 2013. Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Molotiu, Andrei, ed. 2009. Abstract Comics: The Anthology: 1967-2009. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books. Nünning, Ansgar. 2004. “Towards a Definition, a Typology and an Outline of the Functions of Metanarrative Commentary.” In The Dynamics of Narrative Form: Studies in Anglo-American Narratology, edited by John Pier, 11-57. Berlin: W. de Gruyter. Phelan, James. 2002. “Narrative Progression.” In Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames, edited by Brian Richardson, 211-16. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Prince, Gerald. 2003. A Dictionary of Narratology. Revised edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Rüegg, Niklaus. 2004. SPUK (Thesen gegen den Frühling). Zürich: Edition Fink.


Adding up to What? Degrees of Narration and Abstraction in Wordless Comics Barbara Postema The wordless graphic novel h day by Renée French tells a story, but what exactly happens in this story may not be entirely clear. Readers are in fact guided in how to make sense of the book by the text on the cover, which clarifies, “in h day (...) the artist illustrates her struggles with migraine headaches and Argentine ant infestation.” Without this textual key to interpreting the work, h day would be a challenge indeed, or would remain abstract to a much greater degree. When there is no (verbal) text to perform the common anchoring functions that readers are used to, wordless comics, even ones that somehow signal a narrative intent, can come across as vague or ambiguous. At the very least, wordless comics often confront readers with nameless protagonists, deliberately or not denying readers that small guidance. These wordless comics demonstrate Jan Baetens’s assertion that “narrative and antinarrative are not so much different forms as different strategies of reading and looking, and that the dominance of narrative norms should not prevent us from seeing the perhaps more covert role of nonnarrative aspects” (2011a, 110). Many silent comics can be made up of representational images, and yet be highly abstract in a narrative sense, as in the case of h day. The abstraction of these works overall, and their concomitant difficulty for readers, is not determined by the relative abstraction of their art. The comic h day, once again in the cover text, is described as “an often tense narrative of invasion, repulsion and liberation [that] can be read both as an oblique autobiography and as a suspenseful fantasy story.” Thus, the cover offers readers further pointers on how to grapple with this graphic work, highlighting a number of the visual motifs the comic establishes in order to give readers ways of gleaning some kind of narrative continuity. And readers are generally happy to grasp at such straws. In “Abstraction in Comics,” Jan Baetens notes that “not only are we capable of reading nonfigurative material in a narrative manner, we are also very keen to do so, since narrative is such an efficient and satisfying strategy for handling problems and difficulties in any material we may be reading” (2011a, 101). Since in the case of h day the material was apparently more difficult than usual, the cover established strategies for dealing with the work in advance by drawing attention to the recurring visual motifs Renée French employs, creating continuities that confer a degree of narrative on the comic. 284


Examples of these motifs include buildings, water, a dog, a bed, and rope or the element of constriction. The work opens with a series of single images on the recto page showing a stinger-shaped object inside a head and then developing the motif of that stinger. The viscerally spiky point communicates the sense of a sharp pain in the head, germinating the seed of the migraine that was planted by the cover text. The next section of the book, “Stage 1,” starts with images on both the verso and the recto page, and establishes two streams of pictures in slightly different visual registers.

The verso page shows simple outline drawings set on the blank page without any background, and without a frame or a real panel indication. The recto pages show shaded drawings with more depth and detail, with a clearly indicated panel area on the page (though no formal framing lines). The verso side almost always shows a full human figure, standing or lying on a bed. The recto image offers much more variation in point of view, angle, distance, and in the contents of the panel. Here we encounter tall buildings, rising water, a dog that gets encapsulated by strands of material that solidify out of smoke or streams of ants. While the sequences of images on the two sides of the two-page spread are very different in character, the work continuously creates links between them. When the human figure pulls strands of material out of its head on the verso pages, the recto pages visually echo these strands in the shape of floating swaths of smoke or ants. The two sides of the page are not exactly parallels, but their juxtaposition throughout the work invites comparison and connection. At “Stage 5,” the figure’s head is being tied to the bed, while the recto page shows a series of complicated cages. All the changes to the human figure up to this point pertain to the head, not the body, allowing one to associate the cages with various kinds of feelings of stricture and confinement within the head on the bed, which at this point is shrouded in some kind of curtain. 286

In “Stage 6,” the final chapter, a mass that had separated from the head earlier in the book and had disappeared under the bed comes back out and works its way into the belly of the human figure, joined by an additional mass separating from the head. This leaves the head still bloated but freer now, and the patient finally sits up and leaves the bed. This is the sequence on the verso pages. On the recto pages, after the interlude of cages in “Stage 5,” the buildings and the dog return, the dog finally freeing itself from its bindings and boarding a ship that takes off into the distance. The two image streams meet on the last pages of the book, where a simple line-drawn bed, empty now, is shown on the verso side, matched by a more detailed, shaded bed on the recto page. The relation between the two sides is made explicit here, though it had been implied throughout the work. It was hinted at in the first place through the visual echoes I already discussed, but there had been a second, underlying connection between these pages all along: the verso pages have no panels or frames drawn on them, but there is always the ‘ghost’ of a panel visible, shining through from the other side of the page, so that the panel of the recto page is always implied ever so slightly on the verso, as a lightly shaded background. The materiality of the book, in this case the translucency of the pages, generates connections between the separate images of the work. If the cover text of the comic had not drawn attention to the minimal lines of narrative that can be identified in the book (or if a reader approached the work without consulting the cover for guidance), the connections between the panels would still have been significant enough for signalling sequentiality and its corollary, i.e., narrative intent. The division of the work into something like chapters–the socalled ‘stages’–adds another layer of narrative structure by implying a progression. These stages function similarly to the “days” that structure the comic Influenza by Ulrich Scheel. In combination with the title, breaking this otherwise visually and sequentially fairly abstract work into “days,” gathers the individual images into a narrative of the eponymous disease running its course. The notion of chapters, whether reformulated as “days” or “stages,” draws out associations with traditional narrative, as do the days that supply the chapter titles in Max Ernst’s surrealistic collage novel Une semaine de bonté, for instance. Even–or perhaps especially–in wordless narrative, the few textual interventions that are present take on greater significance. Titles always suggest narrativity. Chapter titles like the days of the week or “stages” add a sense of time and progression. Furthermore, the main title, the very minimum of text associated with a work, is more or less inevitable and cannot but steer our reading. For example, the

Figure 1 Renée French, h day, pages [38-39]. © 2010 Renée French.


title Conversation supplies the only necessary key for Beth Hetland’s fold-out comic, allowing readers to assemble strings of disembodied speech balloons filled with icons into a rambling dialogue, most likely between a man and a woman, as signalled by the blue and pink balloons. The easily available narrative key of Hetland’s short comic can be contrasted with the more obliquely titled 100 Scenes by Tim Gaze. In 100 Scenes, the images are completely abstract, there are no chapter titles, and even the title is abstract. This work pushes abstraction to such a degree that it is difficult even to identify connections between the individual images based on visual or graphic matching, the “plastic” dimension that Baetens identifies (2011a, 97). As a result, there is little impetus to keep reading and finish the work. As a specific form, wordless comics add a wrinkle to the discussion of abstract comics. As Groensteen points out, most abstract comics are wordless, not even employing speech balloons (12). Gene Kannenberg Jr.’s abstract comics are a notable exception. Collected in Comics Machine #1, his comics are wordless in the strict sense, but they include speech balloons filled with asemic writing: made-up, meaningless letter shapes. These comics reference the vocabulary of comics in their use of panels, formats such as daily strips and single-page gag strips, through title banners, captions, balloons, outline drawings, emanata, and conventions on the size and thickness of letter shapes, all the apparatus of comics except for actual verbal text and representational imagery. The comics suggest there is meaning, yet they resist definite signification. Instead, meaning is centred on the form of comics: devoid of concrete content, Kannenberg’s comics allude to the history of comics using particular formats like strips and single image ‘gags.’ In addition, they also evoke the cover image of a Superman comic in the cover illustration for Comics Machine #1, and panel layouts with resonances of The Family Circus by Bill Keane (not included in Kannenberg’s first collection), just to give two more specific examples. The comics and other graphic works discussed so far display a range of visual styles with varying degrees of representationality. I have addressed these works as abstract comics, or at least comics with abstract dimensions in terms of their narrative. However, the dearth of narrative meaning may not be enough for all comics theorists to identify these works as abstract. Thierry Groensteen, for example, distinguishes between abstract comics, which are made up of “sequences of abstract drawings” (2013, 9), and infranarrative comics, “sequences of drawings that contain figurative elements, the juxtaposition of which does not produce a coherent narrative” (ibid.). Mimesis has no place at all in abstract comics, according to Groensteen’s approach. Instead, the non-representational images of abstract comics create a space to interact with each other in other ways, “establish[ing] relationships of position, contiguity, intensity, repetition, variation, or contrast, as well as dynamic relationships of rhythm, interwovenness, etc.” (12). Andrei Molotiu draws attention to the same kinds of relationships in abstract comics, but importantly, also in narrative comics. In fact, he argues that abstract comics can teach us new habits of reading; we will pay closer attention to the sequential dynamism of the page or could become aware of the possibility of iconostasis. In turn, this would 288

allow readers to engage with images in narrative comics in a different way, reading them not only for story, but also for non-narrative design elements (2012, 85). In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud shows a clear bias towards narrative comics, but he leaves the door open for the possibility of abstract comics. He touches on abstraction in two ways: where it concerns the image, abstraction is represented by the right side of the triangle that he calls the map of the universe of comics (1994, 52-3). The points along the bottom are “reality” on the left and “meaning” on the right. The abstraction or visual simplification along the bottom leads to increasingly simple images and eventually crosses over into words in McCloud’s conception. At the top of the triangle, loss of representationality leads to The Picture Plane, “ink on paper” (50), which comes down to completely abstract shapes that offer no form of referentiality at all. With regards to narrative, McCloud allows for the possibility of abstract, non-narrative comics with the sixth of his panelto-panel transitions. He classes this transition “non-sequitur,” saying it “offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever” (72). Yet, in his analysis of panel-to-panel transitions from various comics traditions, and in the work of several cartoonists, McCloud does not give us one single example of a non-sequitur transition. He did already predict this outcome though, as he comments on the non-sequitur transition: Is it possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other? Personally, I don’t think so. No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations. (73)

McCloud does attribute instances of non-sequitur transitions to Art Spiegelman’s “Ace-Hole, Midget Detective” (2008, n.p.) but does not show these examples. From reading Spiegelman’s short story, I would question whether any of the transitions are indeed non-sequitur. In terms of imagery, some of them may seem to be, but all panels are connected by Ace-Hole’s ongoing hard-boiled ‘voiceover.’ Furthermore, the few panels that at first glance seem inexplicable in their combination make sense in the context of the larger page and overall story, which give them the “single overriding identity” that McCloud identifies within sequences (73). McCloud’s method of basing his panel-to-panel transitions on units of two adjacent panels is severely limited since it does not account for relations that can exist between panels at a greater remove, such as the translinear connections characterized as “braiding” (Groensteen 2013, 181). Furthermore, as Groensteen points out, all of McCloud’s transitions are based on “nar-


rative technique” (ibid., 41), and do not account for purely visual connections because the page functions “as a visual unit as well as a unit of narration” (181). From a narrative perspective, all panel transitions in an abstract comic would be non-sequitur. However, based on the visual impact, there can be strong progressions between panels in terms of texture, direction, and shape, for example, which could also be covered under McCloud’s “logical relationships.” When Andrei Molotiu and Thierry Groensteen use the term “abstract comics,” they always contrast it with narrative: abstract comics cannot be narrative comics. For Groensteen, abstract comics also entails abstract drawings, images that do not represent anything (9). For Molotiu, abstract comics can be made up of sequences of drawings that can be either abstract or representational, figurative, “as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even a unified narrative space” (2009, n.p.). For Groensteen, abstract comics “jettison narrative art, sequential relationships, and the production of meaning” (2013, 10). However, meaning need not be narrative, and sequences can create strong relations, progressions, without being beholden to a storyline. For Groensteen, such sequences work to show off the spatio-topical apparatus of comics (12), here identified as “the foundation of the comics medium, as the cardinal element of its ‘primary machinery’” (13). Molotiu makes a similar claim, noting that “every aspect of the mechanism of comics can be exploited and made the vehicle for sequential development (…) [creating] potent formal dramas” (2009, n.p.). Molotiu draws attention to the potential of formal, abstract visual play of the representational comics page. However, this process works in two ways, as Baetens demonstrates. In his article on colour in comics, he points out that in many cases choices in comic art are completely at the service of communicating the narrative as clearly as possible. Baetens gives the example of Hergé’s clear-line style for Tintin, in which each creative choice, from page layout to colour, was chosen for maximum legibility. He writes:

tion does not negate narrative, why should representationality assert it? The drawing in comics ranges from the realistic to the highly stylized. Any of these styles, independent of their level of abstraction, can be used to create narrative images or resist narration. One example of detailed representational imagery that nonetheless resists clear narrative meaning is Max Ernst’s collage novel Une semaine de bonté. Themes and motifs are easily discernible, with the use of recurring imagery for each day of the week, including bird’s heads for one and reptilian wings for another. At certain times we even get the impression there are continuous protagonists, owing to the lion-headed figure in the “Sunday” section, or the rooster in the “Thursday” section. Still, while readers always have a strong impulse to try and glean narrative from juxtaposed images (cf. Baetens 2011a, 101), Ernst’s work resists anything but a general sense of dread and a “mood of catastrophe” as the publisher’s note observes (1976, v). While abstract comics can highlight the form of comics, as Groensteen asserts and Kannenberg’s comics demonstrate, they can also draw attention to themselves as printed works, as books. Le fils du Roi by Éric Lambé is a large format square book that includes full-page panels and pages with four equal-sized panels. All the art is in black and blue ballpoint pen.

[T]he ‘clear line’ aesthetics is actually a narrative more than a visual device. If it is so important for Hergé to obtain immediately the direct recognition of the figures and their background, it is not in order to impose a certain kind of ‘pure drawing’ but in order to achieve their narrative usefulness. Each panel of a comics book must be immediately readable and understandable, i.e., capable of being integrated into the larger whole of a storytelling that is unavoidably elliptic, given the importance of the ‘gutter’ and the ‘untold’ in the space between the discontinuous panels. (2011b, 117)

Here, figurative art is not automatically equated with narrative: representational art is used in the service of narrative and has degrees of legibility.1 If representational art can be more or less legible, allowing for greater and lesser degrees of narrativity, then the same can hold true for art that is less representational. A high degree of abstraction in comics art still allows for narrative, as Nicolas Mahler’s work demonstrates. If abstrac1  Debbie Drechler’s graphic novel The Summer of Love shows just how important colour is for narrative legibility. The work is printed in a rusty brown colour hold, with a mossy green as the contrast colour. There is no use of black at all. Since the colours are close together in shade and intensity, the work does not display a great deal of visual contrast, and reading it takes an extra effort. Thus, while the work is still clearly narrative, its legibility is affected. 290

This comic is non-narrative and the images work through contrast. The intensity of hatching conveys a darker or lighter environment with less or more depth. Variations in rendering highlight different tonalities in the depicted world: the contrast between hard and angular shapes like the walls and zebra crossing contrast with the soft organic shapes of animals, shells, and liquid. Throughout, a contrast is established between male and female: figures of a man (the king’s son?) and a woman, as well as phallic and vaginal imagery. The contrast between dark and light is used to foreground one of the elements that gives con-

Figure 2 Éric Lambé, Le fils du Roi, [n.p.]. © 2012 Éric Lambé and FRMK.


tinuity within this work of contrasts: a clean, bright white line (a cord, or rope?) which is made visible on the page once again using contrast: it is usually the only area on the page that is left completely blank. This is especially noticeable due to the hatching technique Lambé uses: long lines that cover the page horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Generally, these lines are continuous, but they are interrupted to allow for lighter areas on the page, an effect that is most striking when they remain completely blank, as on the white lines. At the end of the work, the same technique in which emptiness creates luminosity, is used to create the spots of light and the blank eyes that are the motifs that close the book. Spots of light seem to fade, and suddenly our attention is drawn to the simple drawing technique: the page looks like an obsessive doodle, as if a child had been playing with a ruler. But then the hatching builds up again, showing how the layering of diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines creates depth and texture, and the blank eyes begin to stand out again. The work has no narrative. It is a book-shaped object to be touched and leafed through. Oversized, the book is awkward to hold. The bare cardboard covers with their sharp edges dig into the hands. The spine of the book is bare too, showing binder’s glue and the stitching that holds the signatures of the book together. This unfinished quality draws attention to the book as a material object that has been designed and assembled.2 All the edges of the book are dyed blue, the cuts of the paper as well as of the cardboard covers. This blue is the same shade as that of the ballpoint lines that make up the art throughout the work, inside and out. This overload of blue again draws attention to the process of making this book, the endless tracing of straight lines with simple ballpoint pens – the work almost makes me want to check my hands for smudges from the ballpoint ink, such is the extent of the Bic ballpoint essence of the book, from the precise colour blue to the particular raggedness of the lines. Certainly, Le fils du Roi is a work to be read, but it is about experiencing certain aspects of the making of the work, not about story. This quality is enhanced by the wordless nature of the work, which creates picture planes uninterrupted by written words, a much more prosaic use of ballpoint pens. Silent Worlds by Carlos Santos shares a focus on “drawnness” with Lambé’s comic. Silent Worlds is a wordless comic that repeats the same nine-panel grid across all its forty or so pages. The nine-panel waffle-iron grid is regular but the framing lines have a handdrawn wobble to them; often, hatching from the art within the frames slightly crosses over the panel boundaries. The drawing has an organic quality to it, repeating natural imagery such as stalactites, flowing water, tree trunks, whorls and ridges as those left by 2  The emphasis on the book as object is what Le fils du Roi shares with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. Mazzucchelli’s work has the same ‘unfinished’ cardboard covers. It has a dust jacket that is a touch shorter than the book itself, leaving the top and bottom edges of the cardboard covers exposed. The printing colour scheme of Asterios Polyp also draws attention to the materiality and manufactured nature of the work. Cyan, magenta, and yellow appear throughout, and their mixture in the creation of additional colours in the palette is foregrounded. One of Asterios’s tenets is that function dictates form, which, referring to a pair of Oxfords, he dubs the “essence of shoeness” (n.p.). Similarly, I will adopt the term the ‘essence of bookness’ to bring out the materiality of the printed work. 292

erosion, and textures like scales, growth rings, bark. In places these textures verge on the abstract, but other panels contain representational figures: insects and fish, ancient ruins and prehistoric life, and medieval town-scapes. Some recurring elements in the drawings are skull-like faces and sex organs, sometimes only indicated suggestively, but often shown in detail.3 The sequences of panels do not combine into a story, but they build across pages to create an ebb and flow of tension. From one page to the next, and across the multiframes of individual pages, panels lead to other panels in a flow created by repeated textures and patterns. Other pages are united by animal and forest imagery, parts of castles, and H.R. Giger-like tubes and ridges. There is a doodle-like quality to the way details from one panel are picked up and repeated in the next panel, eventually turning into the next theme. Both Molotiu and Groensteen comment on the applicability of musical terminology to discussions of abstract comics (Molotiu, 87; Groensteen, 34), and I will add my own variation on this theme here, since Santos’s drawings can be seen as improvisations riffing on certain themes and motifs. Several pages in Silent Worlds use iconostasis to unite the separate panels even more clearly into a unifying composition that covers the entire page, with pages 29 and 34 as the clearest examples. On the one hand, pages with iconostasis foreground the tabular reading of the multiframe over a sequential one. Alternatively, sequential dynamism draws the eyes onwards, not by combining single panels into larger images, but by creating a rhythm and direction that connects one panel to the next. Silent Worlds is immersive by virtue of this hypnotic flow, of endlessly morphing shapes that come together and fall apart again. In his essay on Silent Worlds included at the end, Eric Bouchard points out that the sequence, at least in the sense of order, is practically meaningless here: Santos delivered the comic as a stack of unnumbered pages, leaving it to the publisher to put them in a particular order, but the final order is as arbitrary as any other (2013, 54). Similarly, Bouchard argues, the book’s standard waffle-iron grid could be treated as the squares on a Rubik’s Cube, or the tiles on a sliding puzzle (53), which can be endlessly shifted around to create new apparitions on the page. As did Le fils du Roi, Silent Worlds draws attention to the work’s ‘bookness,’ albeit a bookness revealed as inadequate by its own materiality. Indeed, as Bouchard argues, “Santos’s comics forced the book-as-object to recognize its limitations in serving these types of works, as if the 3  The ghostly faces and skulls in Silent Worlds bring to mind Scott McCloud’s notion of the “universality of cartoon imagery” (1993, 31). This would allow readers to recognize human faces in just “a circle, two dots and a line” (ibid.) because “we see ourselves in everything [and] assign identities and emotions where none exist” (33). Silent Worlds inserts (semi-)human faces in the most unlikely and inhuman of environments. 293

latter should have been published via a complex system of pivots, or a four-dimensional medium” (54). Fata Morgana by Jon Vermilyea is another work that tests the limits of narrativity and abstraction with images that contain a degree of representationality. Completely composed of full two-page spreads, Fata Morgana shows a child sleeping in a bed floating in the darkness of space, followed on the next spread by the same child greeting a friend, a little block man, as he comes out of the front door of a house. The implication is that the child in bed is dreaming as he sets off on a dream journey. Comics readers have been trained for this oneiric narrative for over a hundred years by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and other variations on the theme. The child in Fata Morgana makes his way through a series of scary landscapes, always accompanied by the rock manikin, and joined on the way by other oddly matched friends, including a holiday ham, a stack of candy corns wearing sunglasses, and a corgi-like dog with a pointy hat. Yet this accumulation of travelling companions is not necessarily evident in the work until the page where the child bids his new friends goodbye, standing once more on his doorstep. Earlier in the book the eight additional friends were tricky to spot, because the companions were not necessarily close together on the page. Unlike the newfound traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz, these companions did not join arms and walk together. The clearest indication of the boy picking up a new companion is when he is shown carrying the dog in his arms and walking towards the edge of the page. Moreover, the way colour is used contributes to the obfuscation of this accumulation: the colouring of Fata Morgana is bright and surreal and not realistic at all. Furthermore, the colours are not used to highlight the continuing characters, the child and his friends. Instead, the contrasts in colour highlight the scary aspects of the worlds he passes through: eyes of monsters, streams of goo, squirting wounds. While the colour combinations are striking, they are not picked for contrast or the type of legibility discussed by Baetens (2011b). If comics can signal their narrative intent, then Fata Morgana signals the opposite, indicating that narrative takes a backseat. Can (and should) Fata Morgana be classified as an abstract comic? It has figurative imagery and implies a developing narrative. However, this narrative does not seem to be the point of the work. There is no sense of a quest or a goal, and the one element that develops over the course of the pages, the increasing number of traveling companions, is practically concealed by the dispersal of the companions across the entire surface of the page and the unrealistic colouring of the images. The opening and closing pages of the work, leading up to the child in bed

Figure 3 Carlos Santos, Silent Worlds, page 29. © 2013 Carlos Santos and Éditions TRIP.


and following the closing image of him in bed, mirror each other. They show a chimeral dragon disappearing into black space and a pastel coloured world with floating geometric shapes, images that frame the child’s journey. It is not clear how these pages relate to the boy’s dream journey, or what their relation is to the mirage in the title of the work, the Fata Morgana. These opening and closing pages unsettle the possibility of realism upon seeing a boy in bed, thus destabilizing the reading of the work as a straightforward dream journey. The work is not about the journey, but rather about emotions like fear and fascination raised by the encounters with fantastical environments; perhaps it is about the comfort of having friends around in trying circumstances. Like Fata Morgana, Luke Ramsey’s IS? [Intelligent Sentient?] uses an unrealistic colour scheme and single-page, full bleed images–not double-page spreads as in Vermilyea’s comic. While Fata Morgana has a cursory narrative, an overall narrative is harder to ascribe to IS? Ramsey’s work is similar to Santos’s in the way it establishes visual motifs and riffs on them. The comic introduces worm- or snakelike shapes that recur on all pages, often crowding any open space left on the page. Sometimes the worm shapes are large, even morphing into a river meandering through a landscape, while at other times the form is reduced to no more than an S-shaped line. Another recurring element is a blank human outline, apparently waiting to be filled. Ramsey provides some introductory comments on the copyright page, which is another key to guide readers in wordless narratives. He draws attention to the importance of the line, “the same line in time–a line that’s been with humans since the beginning” (Ramsey 2015, n.p.), and to something he calls the “anti-character.” Some of the works discussed earlier in this chapter, such as Silent Worlds and Le fils du Roi, drew attention to the process of their making by highlighting the ‘bookness’ in which the drawings are embedded. IS? does not share those qualities, but nonetheless foregrounds the creation process in that Ramsey acknowledges that IS? is the result of a collaboration. Fellow artists contributed two-page “environments” which included their version of the anti-character, a “de-evolved human from a grey race” (ibid.). He notes that he chose his contributors based on stylistic affinities: “I identify with their line work” (ibid.). And indeed, while the pages with the guest artists are quite different in terms of visual style, in general there is a striking homogeneity in the weight of the line, accentuated by the continuity in the colour palette. While the work has recurring figures, there is no identifiable line of narrative to match the importance of the line in the visuals. Indeed, the blurb on the back cover tells us that the images “tie together not in narrative but in progressive theme–the takeaway that everything is connected. This book is meant to be read forward and back, returned to, and treated like a mystical text.” This notion of things being connected and to be returned to is shared by most works I have discussed in this chapter. As narrative progression is diminished in these texts, they become works to be dipped into, with individual pages to be pored over and read out of context and out of order. Their wordlessness encourages this practice, since there are no sentences to interrupt or verbal cues to be missed. It is as if the lack of verbal syntagms begins to erase the common syntagmatic function of the sequential comics image. 296

These images no longer testify to what Thierry Groensteen (2007) has called “iconic solidarity”: they do not presuppose one another and could be reordered without changing their overall signification in any meaningful way.4 The page structure in these works supports this reading. Many of the examples discussed use only single images per page, whether with margins or bleeding off the page. Several texts use full and two-page spreads throughout. These single-image pages weaken iconic solidarity, and there are fewer gutters demanding closure. Even in Silent Worlds, with its deliberate grid, the multiple panels subvert the sense of narrative sequence, since though they exist in praesentia, these panels do not in fact presuppose one another: there are no proairetic codes suggesting action or recurring characters to indicate a protagonist. Connections between these images are based on what Bouchard calls “poetic substance” (51) and a “sense of sequence based on graphic forces” (Molotiu 2012, 93), not narrative. Even if a minimal amount of narrative is identifiable in these works, this is not what they are about. h day, by virtue of the pattern it sets up between verso and recto pages, builds reader expectation, an anticipation that inevitable leads to a kind of narrative. However, the point of the work is not the story–a migraine comes and goes, that is not what the book is about. One could summarize Fata Morgana as a story about a boy who dreams and makes new friends. These very simple narrative-focused synopses fail to capture the fascination of these wordless texts. As Baetens contends, “any story encompasses elements and devices whose narrative pertinence may vary between ‘high’ and ‘low’” (Baetens 2011a, 106). Another scale functions in parallel, measuring abstraction from “low” to “high.” By lacking text, wordless comics display a higher degree of abstraction than comics that use verbal dialogue and captions. Beyond that however, there are many factors that determine how specific and representational, or how abstract, a work–and any form of narrative within that work–is going to be. What the images in a comic finally add up to depends on the kinds of connections that can be made between them, whether they come together as sequences or not. Such sequences may be based on a narrative logic, but where degrees of abstraction are high, such sequences may be linked through formal and graphic logics, the “shifting forms, whose sequential arrangement starts creating a network of material relationships among drawings instead of providing us with elements to 4 In The System of Comics, Groensteen suggests iconic solidarity as a foundational principle of the form of comics. He provides a definition: “interdependent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separated (…) and which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia” (Groensteen 2007, 18). 297

be integrated into a higher-level narrative” (ibid., 97). In the works I have discussed, narrative is abstracted into the impression of emotions and a sense of time passing. This sense of a developing situation derives from the sequentiality of the images, since each individual image is abstract.

References Baetens, Jan. 2011a. “Abstraction in Comics.” SubStance 40 (1): 94-113. –––. 2011b. “From Black & White to Color and Back: What Does It Mean (not) to Use Color?” College Literature 38 (3): 111-28. Bouchard, Eric. 2013. “Tabular Worlds.” In Silent Worlds, by Carlos Santos, 51-4. Chelsea, QC: Éditions Trip. Drechsler, Debbie. 2003. The Summer of Love. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly. Ernst, Max. [1934] 1976. Une semaine de bonté. New York: Dover. French, Renée. 2010. h day. Brooklyn: Picturebox. Gaze, Tim. 2010. 100 Scenes: A Graphic Novel. Kent Town, Australia: Asemic Editions. Groensteen, Thierry. 2007. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi. –––. 2013. Comics and Narration. Translated by Ann Miller. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi. Hetland, Beth. 2012. Conversation. Chicago: Self-published. Kannenberg, Gene. 2015. Comics Machine #1. Chicago: AbdaComics. Lambé, Éric. 2012. Le fils du Roi. Brussels: FRMK. Mazzucchelli, David. 2009. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon. McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins. Molotiu, Andrei, ed. 2009. Abstract Comics. Seattle: Fantagraphics. –––. 2012. “Abstract Comics: Sequential Dynamism and Iconostasis in Abstract Comics and in Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man.” In Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan, 84-100. New York: Routledge. Ramsey, Luke. 2015. IS? [Intelligent Sentient?]. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly. Santos, Carlos. 2013. Silent Worlds. Chelsea, QC: Éditions Trip. Scheel, Ulrich. 2004. Influenza. Poitiers: Éditions FLBLB. Spiegelman, Art. 2008. “Ace Hole, Midget Detective.” In Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, n.p. New York: Pantheon Books. Vermilyea, Jon. 2013. Fata Morgana. Toronto: Koyama Press.


Tangram Berliac











Abstract Panels and Sequences in Narrative Comics Pascal Lefèvre How narrative graphic sequences deal with seemingly abstract imagery is the focus of this contribution. Of course, such nonrepresentational passages, in the form of a single panel or a (short) sequence, are still largely unconventional in graphic narratives since the latter are by definition based on the narrative connections (suggested chronology, causality, etc.) between representational panels. In graphic narratives, it is only via the static and drawn representations of scenes that the reader/spectator gets access to the plot (or sjuzhet) and can construct the fabula–the chronological sequence of events as they are supposed to have occurred in the time-space universe of the narrative (Lefèvre 2000, 2011). When readers do not perceive the graphic representations as interesting or meaningful, they will not be inclined to continue their reading. Thus, abstract panels, and especially abstract sequences, may present a threat to this conventional reading process. Nevertheless, as I will argue, it matters little to our visual system–at least in the first moments of perception–whether it is confronted with representational or nonrepresentational imagery. In addition, not every line or patch of colour in a drawing or painting denotes something: some lines or patches are just there as formal elements without a clear or precise representational mission. My thesis is that abstract panels in narratives often function only temporarily in this way, because as the reader continues reading, these abstract panels usually gain meaning in retrospect. I will trace the main ways in which abstract imagery is used in narrative comics, which will lead us to identify four different categories. Subsequently, I will nuance the difference between the abstract and figurative (or representational), because the frontier is not always clear-cut; at the very least it is provisional, and can shift during the reading. Finally, an analysis of Yokoyama’s (2008) Travel will elucidate how the more abstract qualities of representational scenes can be used throughout a complete visual book.

Two Preliminary Considerations on Human Perception Firstly, it is important to note that every perception starts with ‘abstract’ stimuli on our retinae. From a multitude of different flecks of 312


light intensities and colours projected through the eye lenses onto our retinae, the visual part of our brain can ‘see’ and interpret our field of vision, whereby various visual attributes are processed mostly in parallel and independently of each other (Mather 2014, 50; Arstila 2012, 557). Though it may seem natural and effortless, the process is in fact extremely complex. Already in the early 18th century in An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), George Berkeley pointed out that the various parameters that give the world its features are conflated in our retinal image. As Dale Purvis paraphrases Berkeley’s insights, a two-dimensional image projected onto the receptive surface of the eye could never specify the three-dimensional source of that image in the world. (…) The same projected image could be generated by objects of different sizes, at different distances from the observer, and in different physical orientations. As a result, the actual source of any three-dimensional object is inevitably uncertain. (Purves 2010, 120)

The problem is not simply that the retinal images are underdetermined and thus ambiguous: “the deeper issue is that the real world is directly unknowable by means of any logical operation on a projected image” (ibid.). This inability of the visual system to access the properties of the world is known as the “inverse problem” or the “underdetermination problem” (Orlandi 2014, 24). The behavioural significance of any visual stimulus is uncertain, but the “visual system uses constraints developed from past exposure to overcome the inverse problem” (ibid., 68). Through various procedures, the visual brain makes sense of the retinal images, for instance by trying to detect and differentiate objects. Crucial to this process is finding contrasts in luminance because those can inform us about the basic contours of an object. Experiments have proven that our visual system will increase the differences between light and dark.

The Wertheimer-Benary effect offers a demonstration (Figure 1): depending on the surrounding context, we experience subjectively an objectively uniform square of grey (with the same luminance) at various locations in the larger rectangle with a varying gradient of luminance as having a different brightness. While a light meter will not register any difference between the four small grey squares, to human perception it seems as if the brightness of the grey squares gradually varies: from lighter on the right to darker on the left. When the surrounding regions are lighter than the grey square, that particular square will appear darker than when the surrounding area is darker. 314

From other experiments (think of the Mach band for instance) it has become clear that the human visual system is not specialized in assessing the measurable luminance of a grey surface. There is thus a crucial difference between luminance, physical dimension and objectively measurable data, and brightness, which is a subjective perceptual dimension (Wade and Swanston 2013, 152). The differentiation or the filtering already starts on the level of the retina: The retinal ganglion cells respond to changes in the pattern of illumination, rather than to steady states of uniform illumination. The changes can be spatial and temporal. (…) The excitatory and inhibitory interconnections in the retina are the basis for the receptive field properties of the retinal ganglion cells. (ibid., 148-49)

The light values that reach our brain are modified from the start, already subject to a kind of Photoshop filter, and offer a picture with exaggerated differences between values. Furthermore, the first stages of the visual processing in the primary visual cortex are involved in finding discontinuities in brightness, colour, and depth. There are, of course, many other important aspects to visual processing, but in the context of this contribution, it suffices to stress that at the basis of every perception is the engagement with two-dimensional patterns of light (abstract shapes of colour) on our retinae (Palmer 1999, 9). In the case of cinema or printed graphic narratives, the spectator has to form, on the basis of a two-dimensional printed or screened picture, a three-dimensional space wherein the characters are supposed to act– only exceptionally is a really two-dimensional world suggested (like in Trondheim’s Bleu). Furthermore, as everyday perception has naturalized our environment, in panels of graphic narratives we expect to find forms and shapes that we can recognize and identify. Our natural environment has already trained us to decipher abstract visual impressions. For instance, our need for identification stimulates us into ‘seeing’ recognizable objects or persons in essentially formless clouds. When opening a graphic narrative book, the reader already expects to find various static pictures representing consecutive phases or fragments of an event, and that these images are organized in a specific way on the page. Regardless of graphic style, the reader expects a panel to show a representational scene. In almost all cases this assumption will be gratified, but exceptionally there are panels in a graphic narrative that defy an easy or unambiguous interpretation. While different from completely abstract sequences or single abstract paintings, such momentarily abstract panels in narratives can usually be given meaning in the context of the larger sequences. But many differences remain. There is quite an extended field between pure abstraction and complete figuration.

Figure 1 The WertheimerBenary effect.


The second important issue to consider is that even in figurative pictures (like drawings or paintings) not every line or patch of colour refers to a detail of an object or a creature. For example, it is possible that a particular line does not refer to the edge, cracks or textures of an object. In art, drawing and painting marks may also be used for purely formal reasons, to suggest a kind formal rhythm for instance. So, while some lines may denote the contours of something, other lines may function independently of this system of references to reality (or a fictive scene). The same goes for shapes: for instance, in some comics (like Beyrouth by Michel Duveaux) the screen tones do not always obey the contours of objects or represent shadows.

Categories of Abstract Panels or Sequences in Graphic Narratives Predominantly narrative comics can include narratively weaker zones like blank panels or short sequences of abstract imagery, but generally they do not pose an insuperable problem for the story-driven reader, because–often in retrospect–they can eventually be identified and given meaning. Such narratively weaker zones can even strengthen the impact of narratively stronger zones, as Baetens argues (2011). Following a suggestion by Barthes, he sees the role of abstract elements as hermeneutical, since they foreground an enigma, which has to be solved. (…) [N]arrative and antinarrative are not so much different forms as different strategies of reading and looking, and (…) the dominance of narrative forms should not prevent us from seeing the perhaps more covert role of nonnarrative aspects. Second, and more importantly, what abstraction finally shows is also the possible frailty of narrative. (Baetens 2011, 106; 110)

There are at least four important categories of abstract panels or sequences in narrative comics. Though the categories cover divergent purposes, they will always stand in relation to the figurative panels/sequences that surround these instances of temporary or local abstractness.

1. Combinations of Abstract and Figurative Zones within the Frame of One Panel When ‘dissecting’ a picture, it may turn out that while some features are more figurative, other features tend to be abstract. For instance, a close-up photo by long-lens can present someone’s head crisply, while the background, out of focus, becomes a rather vague colour field. Comics artists can also work with such contrasts in focus between figure and ground, as Lorenzo Mattotti does in Fires (on page 18) for instance. While the figure of the soldier is clearly outlined, the environment is represented by unstable, indeterminate colour fields. Of course, these colour fields are not completely unidentifiable, because the reader can assume from the context that the green colours probably refer to grass and the bright yellow and orange patches probably refer to groups of


flowers. Contrary to what I stated in an earlier publication (Lefèvre 1999), I would now be less categorical in arguing that in this particular case these forms frustrate rational interpretation and referential comparison. As I suggested above, these forms, even in their less precise definition, still relate, to a greater or lesser degree, to some aspects in nature. The contrast between well-defined and less defined elements, between figure and ground, is exploited in many comics, especially those in a more cartoony style: the backgrounds often lack details and are suggested by a solid colour field around the characters. Paradoxically, these artistic choices seem quite natural to us because our visual perception continuously puts some things in focus while others are blurred in the background since our peripheral view is less colourful and sharp than what our eye lenses focus on (Wade and Swanston 2013, 233).

2. ‘Blank’ Panels From the moment a frame is drawn on a page, the viewer expects that something is represented within the borders of that frame. Frames have a long cultural history. A frame signals that there is something to see, but as in certain abstract paintings, some panels in a graphic narrative can, on the one hand, offer a completely blank picture consisting of the same colour as the page around the panel, or, on the other, a uniform field of colour. We find early examples of both in graphic narratives from the middle of the 19th century: In Gustave Doré’s Histoire pittoresque, dramatique et caricaturale de la sainte Russie, we find five panels organized in three tiers. Below the page is a short text: The following century continued to present a series of colourless facts, which, dear reader, I’m afraid would only irritate you with my work from the beginning by pestering you with drawings that are all too tedious. But my editor, conscientious as he is, urged me to leave the indicated space alone, to prove that a skilled historian can tone things down without leaving anything out. (Doré 1854, 7; my translation)1

An example of a uniformly ‘coloured’ panel can be found in an earlier graphic narrative by Cham, M. Lajaunisse. The last two panels have the same square form and are completely black. Both the caption and the previous figurative panel explain why they are black. The previous figurative panel shows a man blowing out a candle and the captions 1  The original text reads: “Le siècle suivant continuant à présenter une suite de faits aussi incolores, je craindais, ami lecteur, de vous indisposer contre mon œuvre, dès le début, en vous accablant de dessins trop ennuyeux. Toutefois mon éditeur, en homme consciencieux qu’il est, m’a vivement engagé à en laisser la place indiqué, afin de prouver qu’un historien habile peut tout adoucir sans rien passer.” 317

under the panels read as follows: “Exhausted, he blows out the candle with immense effort, goes to bed, and is astonished to discover it lacks pillow and blankets and is hard as a bench” (English translation in Kunzle 1990, 77). In both cases, seemingly blank or abstract panels are used as pictorial devices for humorous purposes, with the captions helping the reader to understand why they are left white (the colour of the page) or completely filled with black ink. In more recent graphic narratives such completely black panels also appear in non-comical contexts: for instance, the first page of the second chapter in Moore and Campbell’s From Hell consists of 6 black panels (not counting some text balloons and captions). Only on the following two pages it becomes clear that, as in Cham’s case, this is caused by the absence of light (in the sewer). The ‘scene’ is repeated more succinctly on page 5 of chapter 14. There are many other examples in this graphic narrative of black panels motivated by the lack of light. In addition, they can also refer to a black object: while the black panel on page 8 of chapter 2 conveys the point of view of the blindfolded person, on the next page, the black panel seems to frame the black blindfold seen from the front. So, while the implied viewpoint has changed, it still results in a similar black panel. Black panels can also mark a jump in space and time (chapter 14, pp. 4-5) which remains unseen at first. It is only in retrospect that the possible meaning of the black panels becomes clear. There remains, however, always some ambivalence in the interpretation of a particular panel, which does not apply to the same degree to figurative panels. So, ‘blank’ panels can be used as a means of telling narratives in interesting ways.

3. Panels with Abstract Shapes More often we encounter panels consisting of shapes that are not immediately recognizable, or only recognizable through the information found in panels in the immediate neighbourhood of the abstract panel(s). For example, when zooming in on something, a great deal of the telling context is lost. Context is also an important element in the recognition of objects; experimental research in perception has shown that a stereotypical context facilitates recognition, while a truly unusual or atypical context (or location of objects) complicates recognition. As Palmer (1999, 428-29) explains: [a] tradeoff exists between the amount of part-structural detail that is needed for object categorization versus the amount of context that is provided. A given object, such as a nose, eye, or mouth, can be depicted with only its approximate global shape when it appears in the proper context. When seen alone, however, its own part structure must be articulated more fully and accurately to achieve the same level of categorization.

Together with context, the viewpoint on an object matters as well, because as experimental evidence has demonstrated, some views (canonical perspectives or typical views) will facilitate recognition (Palmer 1999, 421; Deregowski 1984, 45-57). Comics artists are well aware of this principle. For instance, in Les Éthiopiques (1973) Hugo Pratt first presents black, seemingly abstract patterns, and only by ‘zooming out’ (in the case of graphic narratives by various static shots) in the following panels can 318

the reader interpret them as the stripes on a zebra. But there is a complicating factor, at the end of the page; two panels show similar black and white patterns on the shields of the African hunters, which may undermine our earlier interpretation of the first two panels: possibly those panels did not show a close-up of a living zebra, but fragments of the zebra’s skin on a shield. Lecigne and Tamine analyzed it as a sort of appearance/disappearance play supposing “the dissolution of phenomenological world” (1983, 39). A variation on the previous technique is found in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns: a ‘zoom in’ on a detail is followed by a ‘zoom out’ on a similar detail as a way of jumping from one scene to another. For instance, on page 84 the American flag is zoomed in on, till only the colours white and red (and black contour lines between the colours) are visible, followed by a similar pattern of waving colour fields in which the red reappears, and the white has changed to yellow. The following panel zooms out to finally reveal the symbol on Superman’s chest. We understand that the perspective has moved from the outside of the White House (the flag) to somewhere inside the presidential residence where Superman is talking with the president. Such transitions by visual association are often used in cinema. Bordwell and Thompson (2010) explain that similarities and differences in the purely pictorial qualities of two shots allow the latter to interact: “The four aspects of mise-en-scene (lightning, setting, costume, and the behaviour of the figures in space and time) and most cinematographic qualities (photography, framing, and camera mobility) all furnish potential graphic elements” (225). Such graphic configurations–including patterns of light and dark, line and shape–are largely independent of the image’s relation to the story’s time and space, and can also be used in static graphic narratives.

4. Representational Panels and Sequences Resisting Narrativization As in the case of abstract cinema, static abstract sequences may also include recognizable objects isolat[ing] them from their everyday context in such a way that their abstract qualities come forward. (…) [S]ince the filmmakers then juxtapose the images to create relations of shape, color, and so on, the film is still using abstract organization in spite of the fact that we can recognize the object as a bird, a face, or a spoon. (…) But, in watching an abstract film, we don’t need to use the shapes, colors, or repetitions that we see and hear for practical purposes. Consequently, we can no-


tice them more fully and see relationships that we would seldom bother to look for during the practical activities of everyday life. In a film, these abstract qualities become interesting for their own sake (Bordwell and Thompson 2010, 369).

A fine example of such an abstract film is Ballet Mécanique that Bordwell and Thompson (2010, 369-74) analyse in more detail. Furthermore, in the case of static sequences, the notion of the ‘abstract’ not only stands in counterpoint to figurative or representational, but also to narrative. As Jan Baetens puts it, referring to Vincent Fortemps’s Cimes (1997) and Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage (1973): “Abstraction seems to be what resists narrativization, and conversely narrativization seems to be what dissolves abstraction” (2011, 95-6). As comics readers, we engage quite rapidly in reading sequences, even if they consist of very heterogeneous panels and are presented in a narrative manner, as Groensteen (1988) has demonstrated. Such abstract looking panels are not only used for transitions (in time and place), as in the case of Frank Miller, but also during a sequence, as we will now consider in more detail through a close reading of Yuichi Yokoyama’s wordless manga Travel (2008).

The Pattern Play of Yokoyama’s Travel While the majority of manga production is quite formulaic and strongly genre-oriented, occasionally manga are published that differ strongly from mainstream production. This is the case in works by Yuichi Yokoyama (°1967), who was trained to become a fine art artist at the oil painting program of Musashino Art University. His wordless Travel (originally published in 2006 in Japan, published in English in 2008) is not a graphic narrative where cause and effect relationships build up an interesting plot. Above all, it is a contemplation on formal patterns in time and space. Initially, the graphic narrative seems to offer a chronological plot organization because it starts with three males buying a ticket for a train trip and at the end of the publication they arrive at their destination, somewhere at the seaside. In-between the opening and closing scene are some 190 pages purely devoted to the train ride, yet nothing dramatic seems to happen. Firstly, the narrative focus is not totally organised around the three main characters of the opening scene; many views of the surroundings of the railroad are presented. At first, we move along with the three characters through various carriages, until the three men decide to sit down in the twelfth carriage (on page 44). Notwithstanding its chronological order, the action does not lead to conventional plot points. Only the mutual glances and stares between the three walking men and other passengers generate tension. What immediately strikes the eye is that both train and passengers have an outspoken design. Though Yokoyama spends a lot of attention on the texture of the objects represented, his graphic style itself is not textured (Yokoyama’s graphic style is foremost based on clear outlines). Almost every carriage is meticulously designed in a completely different way (with other kinds of seats, windows, etc.), just like all passengers (or group of passengers) are drawn in great detail, from their hairdo to their clothing, the way they are sitting, walking or standing. As to the order in which the 320

three men are walking, for instance: they always keep the same order, and it is only at the end, when they leave the train, that the order in which they walk is suddenly reversed. Furthermore, the number three is highlighted at various times: there are not only three ‘protagonists,’ but also three identical train drivers, and three motifs on the caps of the soldiers. Numbers seem to play an important role, because they are clearly visible like the number of carriages (no. 10 on p. 29, no. 7 on p. 96, no. 12 on p. 187), or the code (A2, A3) on the briefcases (pp. 30-31), or the number 600 of the destination railway station (pp. 1 and 191). Patterns are thus of crucial importance. Right from the start we see three characters with three different patterns on their shirts: the first wears a shirt with circles, the second one with crossing lines, the third has a waistcoat with horizontal lines of various sizes and shapes and a shirt with a pattern of small birds. In a way, these specific patterns will return in many scenes and work as a visual rhyme: circles in clouds, as naps, and so on. The most figurative, but least frequent pattern is the one with the birds; it can be found on the following pages: p. 4: on a bottle p. 59: birds in the air pp. 132-33: birds in the air p. 180: just one bird on the shirt of a bystander

Like the train, the world outside is also strongly stylized and even modified in comparison to our world. This occurs for example when the train passes a house (Figure 2), with somebody standing in a rigid frontal pose in every window, looking straight at the passing train.


Moreover, this is repeated as a visual rhyme at other locations along the railway (on page 50 and 161). As in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis there is sometimes also a robotic feel to the characters and extras. The environment of the railroad is put in scene as if it were a set designed for the theatre rather than the accidental appearance of a slice of nature or human culture. This may suggest that the reader should not take the represented world as a realistic depiction of our world, though many details, taken in isolation, may look quite naturalistic. A few times an almost identical view is repeated, as in these rhyming close-ups of mundane activities: p. 2: buying a ticket pp. 41-3: buying cigarettes pp. 120-22, 126 and 129: smoking the cigarette

Such visual rhymes (Lefèvre 2006) create translinear relations between panels that are physically spread over various parts of the book (Baetens and Lefèvre 1993, 7); this operation is also called “braiding” (Groensteen 2009, 144). In fact, the abstract qualities of these representational images function as variations on a theme (see Groensteen 1988, Bordwell and Thompson 2010, 368-69): think of the series of close-ups of faces, or a series of similar long shots of the exterior. There seems no evident narrative motivation for these decisions (though readers can make up their own). The mise en scène, framing of the diegetic world and the author’s notes invite the reader to pay attention to the various types of designs, textures, and so on. In addition to representational patterns, there are also numerous patterns that tend toward an increased degree of abstraction. Especially natural phenomena like sunlight reflections, harsh shadows, rain and smoke provide views that would be hard to identify without the semantic context. This is a list of such rather abstract sequences: pp. 33-35: sunlight p. 71: rain on the windows p. 83: speed pp. 84-7: sunlight and smoke (see Figure 3) pp. 118-19: mountain pp. 123-25: smoke pp. 146-47: structures pp. 178-83: wall Figure 2 Yuichi Yokoyama, Travel (2008, 50). © 2008 Yuichi Yokoyama.


In sum, the insistence throughout the book on patterns (representational or not) and their formal variations is central to Yokoyama’s Travel. This holds not only for static design patterns (like those on clothes or carriage floors), but also for fleeting patterns, such as those caused by light rays, smoke, and water reflections, among others (Figure 3). Since the reader does not have to deal with the dramatic or practical purposes of the elements put on the scene, he or she can focus on the formal, abstract qualities and “see relationships that we would seldom bother to look for during the practical activities of everyday life” (Bordwell and Thompson 2010, 369). In this process, the abstract qualities become interesting for their own sake, but it remains a rather cold, distant, almost autistic perspective. There is not much room for empathy.

Conclusion This chapter began with two basic considerations. On the one hand, I pointed out that the differences in the first stages of visual perception do not depend on whether one looks at natural, figurative scenes or purely abstract images. On the other hand, handmade drawings or paintings often include marks or traces without a direct representational mission. Subsequently, I outlined the main categories of nonrepresentational panels or sequences in graphic narratives: firstly, a combination of abstract and figurative zones within the frame of one panel, secondly, ‘blank’ panels, thirdly, panels with rather abstract shapes, and lastly, representational panels/sequences that resist narrativization. The difference between abstract and figurative images was nuanced by demonstrating that panels that initially may look abstract can become figurative as the reader learns about the context and can retrospectively make an adjusted interpretation of such panels or sequences. Finally, an analysis of Yokoyama’s Travel demonstrated that while the majority of its panels are clearly representational, there is not much in it for a purely story-oriented reader. On the contrary, the choice of the panels and the construction of sequences invite the reader to consider the more abstract qualities of reappearing patterns and variations. Though apparently representational, this work by Yokoyama invites us to notice and enjoy formal variations. Figure 3 Yuichi Yokoyama, Travel (2008, 85). © 2008 Yuichi Yokoyama.


Acknowledgements I would like to thank Kodama Kanazawa.

References Arstila, Valtteri. 2012. “Vision.” In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Psychology, edited by John Symons and Paco Calvo, 556-67. London: Routledge. Baetens, Jan, and Pascal Lefèvre. 1993. Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessinée. Bruxelles: CBBD. Baetens, Jan. 2011. “Abstraction in Comics.” Substance 40 (1): 94-113. Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. 2010. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill. Bruce, Vicki, and Andy Young. 2000. In the Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception. Oxford: Oxford University Press Campana, Florence, and Catherine Tallon-Baudry. 2013. “Anchoring Visual Subjective Experience in a Neural Model: The Coarse Vividness Hypothesis.” Neuropsychologia 51 (6): 1050-60. Deregowski, Jan B. 1984. Distortion in Art: The Eye and the Mind. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Hegdé, Jay. 2008. “Time Course of Visual Perception: Coarse-to-Fine Processing and Beyond.” Progress in Neurobiology 84 (4): 405-39. Goffaux, Valerie, Judith Peters, Julie Haubrechts, Christine Schiltz, Bernadette Jansma, and Rainer Goebel. 2010. “From Coarse to Fine? Spatial and Temporal Dynamics of Cortical Face Processing.” Cerebral Cortex 21 (2): 467-76. Groensteen, Thierry. 1988. “La narration comme supplément.” In Bande dessinée, récit et modernité, edited by Thierry Groensteen, 60-80. Paris and Angoulême: Futuropolis-CNBDI.2 Groensteen, Thierry. 2007. The System of Comics. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Kunzle, David. 1990. History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press. Lecigne and Tamine. 1983. Fac-similé. Essai paratactique sur le Nouveau Réalisme de la Bande Dessinée. Paris: Futuropolis. Lefèvre, Pascal. 2000. “Narration in Comics.” Image (&) Narrative 1 (1): http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/narratology/pascallefevre.htm –––. 2006. “Overlooked by Comic experts: The Artistic Potential of Manga as Revealed by a Close Reading of Nananan Kiriko’s Kuchizuke.” In Reading Manga: Local and Global Perceptions of Japanese Comics, edited by Jaqueline Berndt and Steffi Richter, 177-90. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag. –––. 2011. “Some Medium-Specific Qualities of Graphic Sequences.” Substance 40 (1): 14-33. –––. 2014. “8. The Plot.” Tools for Analyzing Graphic Narratives & Case Studies. https://sites.google. com/site/analyzingcomics/plot-structure –––. 2016. “No Content without Form: Graphic Style as the Primary Entrance to a Story.” In The Visual Narrative Reader, edited by Neil Cohn, 67-88. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. 2  There is also a recent English version with the title “Narration as Supplement” available in Ann Miller and Bart Beaty, eds., The French Comics Theory Reader (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014), 163-81. 326

Mather, George. 2014. The Psychology of Visual Art: Eye, Brain and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Melcher, David, and Patrick Cavanagh. 2011. “Pictorial Cues in Art and in Visual Perception.” In Art and the Senses, edited by Francesca Bacci and David Melcher, 359-94. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Molotiu, Andrei. 2009. Abstract Comics. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books. Orlandi, Nico. 2014. The Innocent Eye: Why Vision Is Not a Cognitive Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Purves, Dale. 2010. Brains: How They Seem to Work. New Jersey: FT Press. Palmer, Stephen E. 1999. Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Purves, Dale, Brian B. Monson, Janina Sundararajan, and William T. Wojtach. 2014. “How Biological Vision Succeeds in the Physical World.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111 (13), 4750-55. Rensink, Ronald A. 2002. “Change Detection.” Annual Review of Psychology 53: 254-77. Vuilleumier, Patrick, and Gilles Pourtois. 2007. “Distributed and Interactive Brain Mechanisms during Emotion Face Perception: Evidence from Functional Neuroimaging.” Neuropsychologia 45 (1): 174-94. Wade, Nicholas J., and Michael T. Swanston. 2013. Visual Perception: An Introduction. London: Psychology Press.

Comics Cham. 1839. M. Lajaunisse, reproduced in Kunzle 1990. History of the Comic Strip: The Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 76-77 Doré, Gustave. 1854. Histoire pittoresque, dramatique et caricaturale de la Sainte Russie, d’après les chroniqueurs et historiens Nestor, Nikan, Sylvestre, Karamsin, Ségur, etc. Edited by Noël Eugène Sotain. Paris: J. Bry aîné. https://books.google.com/books/reader?id=cZpQAAAAcAAJ Duveaux, Michel. 1984. Beyrouth. Grenoble: Glénat. Fortemps, Vincent. 1997. Cimes. Brussels: Fréon. Pratt, Hugo. 1973. Corto Maltese: Les Éthiopiques. Tournai: Casterman. Mattotti, Lorenzo. 1988. Fires. London: Penguin Books. Miller, Frank. 1986. The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC. Trondheim, Lewis. 2003. Bleu. Paris: L’Association. Yokoyama, Yuichi. 2008. Travel. New York: PictureBox. Vaughn-James, Martin. 1973. The Cage. Toronto: The Coach House Press.

Films Lang, Fritz. 1927. Metropolis. Murphy, Dudley, and Fernand Léger. 1924. Ballet Mécanique.


The Possibility of a Ligne Claire Abstraction: From Jochen Gerner and Siemon Allen to Floc’h, Pierre Le-Tan and Patrick Caulfield Hugo Frey When the American experimental writer Frederic Tuten brought out his original novelization based on the Tintin series of comics, Tintin in the New World (1993), the hardback first edition of the work was graced with illustrations from one of the fathers of pop art, Roy Lichtenstein. The dust jacket illustration features the screen-print Tintin Reading, in which the eponymous boy-hero is depicted pouring over a newspaper while all around him are the sounds and images of action and adventure. Behind his seat a door opens and just above it we can read the words ‘Crac’ framed by wobbly action lines that emphasize the echoes of sound. There is also a dagger flying through the air that one may infer has been aimed at Tintin. In the same work, Milou is pictured sitting at Tintin’s feet with his eyebrows raised in anticipation of a new adventure. The portrait of the canine companion corresponds to Lichtenstein’s reimagining of Tintin himself. His representation of the boy-journalist implies that a new mystery reported in a newspaper column has grabbed his attention. Hanging on the wall behind the boy and his dog Lichtenstein includes his own interpretation of Matisse’s The Dance (1909) intimating that the Belgian strip is comparable to high art. In the same novel, a second illustration by Lichtenstein serves as the frontispiece. Therein, Lichtenstein continues to emphasize the narrative qualities of the original Tintin strip by repeating the word ‘Crac’ and drawing Tintin and Milou engrossed in thought. These pastiches of the Tintin books offer a loyal homage to the original works and their creator. In each case the importance of the hero is emphasized and a strong narrative context is evoked. The works are far more traditional and positive about their subject matter than Lichtenstein’s blow-ups of the Disney, war and romance comics that had made him first famous in the 1960s. In those pictures the appropriated comic images were radically changed by the artist’s editorial intervention. In so doing Lichtenstein played with the possibility of a critique of mass consumer culture, leaving open a suggestion of contempt for the original comic strips (especially for the banality of their stories). By contrast, Lichtenstein’s later representations of Tintin and Milou celebrate the pairs’ adventures and maintain Hergé’s ligne claire aesthetic style without a significant challenge. This was not appropriation through the classic enlargement of the original (with reduction of 328


content detail) but instead in the form of a composite of typical Hergéan iconography that celebrated the stories and started to tell a new one. Lichtenstein’s admiration for Hergé is further underlined by the inclusion of the Matisse painting in the background which further associates comics with ‘high’ fine art. The ligne claire style is rarely separated from strong narrative emphasis. Since Hergé’s death this has mainly occurred through satirical re-workings that flatly ignored the father of Tintin’s testament that proclaimed ‘no more new Tintin books–ever.’ Such titles have been a consistent element of the underground press. For example, in the UK there was the left wing The Adventures of Tintin: Breaking Free (J. Daniels 1988) that used the original characters for rhetorical purposes to support anarchism. As Jan Baetens and I have discussed at length elsewhere (Baetens and Frey 2016), it is also the case that artists from the US and Canadian graphic novel community have adopted their own approaches that renew the heritage of Tintin through primarily intertextual and narrative based reformulations. Thus, for Seth in his It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken (1996), the Tintin strips form an important backdrop to the core autobiographical storyline and are evoked to generate a sense of nostalgia for older comics. Therein the referencing of Hergé is also part of a deeper romanticized notion of the idea of the artist. Using a different tone to Seth, Charles Burns upgrades Tintin and the ligne claire style into his own nightmarish visions of contemporary North American youth culture (see Burns 2010; 2012; 2014). Nonetheless, Burns remains firmly wedded to situating his exploration of Tintin-like material inside a narrative context: a nightmarish horror satire mashed up with teen romance themes. Roy Lichtenstein is another important fine artist who has reworked images from Tintin, by also predominantly engaging with the original story worlds of the albums and then remixing them with a new explicit theme. I am also thinking of Anton Kannemeyer whose provocative works fuse commentaries on the politics of post-apartheid South Africa with an ironic pastiche of material from the Tintin books (see Kannemeyer 2010). In fact, returning to Tintin au Congo to comment on its underlying imperialist-conservative vision has become somewhat of a well-trodden path. A personal favourite of this type of political satire is Claire Bretécher’s pastiche of the original Congo album cover and her reinvention of its title into ‘Heidegger in the Congo’ (1988). Her blurring of the Nazi party member and philosopher, Heidegger, with Hergé’s colonial propaganda comic, is a brilliant joke that not only makes us smile but points up the troubled political history of both figures. In light of the predominance of narrative material in the works discussed above is a more ‘abstract’ ligne claire tradition ever a real possibility? What does a ligne claire style in the abstract resemble? Are the bright colours, realist but bold black outlines of Hergé’s graphic style eternally to be married to narratives of action, detection, or satires and pastiches (political or otherwise)?1 All of the well-known artists and graphic novelists who are appropriating material from the Tintin strips today continue to use 1  For heuristic purposes, I will equate Hergé’s work on the Tintin books with ligne claire, and vice versa. Of course, this does not mean that I am unaware of the variety of sub-styles within the much wider school, or the important contributions of Hergé’s contemporaries, E.P. Jacobs, Jacques Martin, and Bob de Moor, among others. 330

narration alongside the ligne claire style. Even for a creative force such as Charles Burns who indulges in an extreme détournement of the Tintin books, there remains a very strong narrative impulse. After all, there is a purified realism about the Hergé style that makes it especially suited for communicating stories. The black lines, the bold and contrasting colours, all work together to directly show the reader what is happening, what has occurred and what will make sense for the reader next. The detail that the form provides also means that as readers we can very quickly engage with the fictional characters because they live in a world that is just like ours–albeit where objects, places, and things are clean, clear, bold and simplified. Our ability to read stories told through the ligne claire mode, to engage with the characters, is always helped and never hindered by this aesthetic. Pictures, words, style, everything is aligned to achieve a functioning communication of a narrative message: action-adventure, comedy, implicit, and explicit political values, usually a mixture of all three. Conversely, when one turns away from the traditional sites of graphic narrative (underground comics; contemporary graphic novels and so on) to survey the borderland spaces that exist between the worlds of fine art, graphic design, poster art, or dust jacket design, it seems to me that one begins to find traces of two kinds of ligne claire abstract art. The subject of the rest of this chapter is precisely this zone of artistic activity. Here, there have been works of abstract-like appropriation of the Tintin strips. Equally, there are fascinating cases of artists whose works make uncanny connections to the ligne claire style. To my knowledge, two major and successful abstract appropriations of Hergé’s oeuvre have emerged to date. Here I am thinking of TNT en Amérique (2002) by the French fine artist and OuBaPo member Jochen Gerner, and Siemon Allen’s fine art installation In the Land of Black Gold. Each artist and their work demonstrate that ligne claire materials can and do inspire forms of abstract art–generally in the form of new abstract comics. For Gerner this meant redrawing the album Tintin en Amérique so as to remove all visual material and original text. Famously, his new work is composed of page after page of black panels that only include iconic symbols (daggers, exclamation marks, and so on) or single words to indicate any kind of narrative content. Here abstraction also means an implicit political critique of what has gone before. Now, the charming worlds of the Tintin books are removed from view completely and instead they are reduced to nearly nothing. Fan readers who so wish can however continue to read the work by comparing its blacked out and restricted content with the original full panels. For me there is a real beauty about the work precisely because


it so directly engages against the core of ligne claire–its detail, realism, and storytelling–making it a fascinating alternative to more typical satires or pastiches that literally reprint or redraw Tintin. What is perfect about the work is that the removal of all the traditional imagery makes us think thoroughly about what was once in its place and that process poses the question as to the ideology of the strips, as much as their aesthetic. A similar analysis can be made of Siemon Allen’s work of just two years later. As the title of his piece indicates, the focus here is the album Tintin au pays de l’or noir. What Allen creates is a huge (8 feet by 16 feet approx.) collage installation of Tintin panels that he has re-mixed so as to place side by side the panels from the several different editions of the album (it was amended through a number of reprints, notably in 1950 and 1971). To emphasize the changes to the images all text is removed from the panels. What is left is a spectacular wall-mounted set of multiple panels that cannot be read in any kind of traditional mode. Instead, the viewer is invited to ‘read’ the work as something akin to a tapestry or painted cloth, taking in well over 500 different panels running in sequence with each other; to repeat, the earlier and later panels are set next to each other in rows. One cannot but also consider the work as looking like a mounted animation film reel– all the panels in multiple sequences being all viewable all at once just like a film spool on a table, rather than to be read week after week or page after page in the normal delivery systems (newspaper, magazine, or book) the strips were originally intended for. As in Gerner’s work, the process of making Tintin into an abstract form holds an ideological subtext: Allen’s systematic collage of the multiple versions of Pays de l’or noir reveals the changing Western attitudes towards the representation of Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. At the same time the dual representation of the different editions critiques the notion of any stable or pure ‘first edition.’ Contrary to Walter Benjamin’s famous critique on mechanical reproduction as the end of art, Allen is celebrating the instability and flexibility that comes when machines can print and reprint multiple versions of works. It no longer matters which of the Tintin books is correct; what is interesting is two processes. First, the abstract image of the whole piece (a tabular reading) is there to consider. Second, the micro detail of historical and cultural change that stands out in the differences or similarities between the parallel editions. There are also several artists and works that have a more uncanny connection to ligne claire. What do I mean by uncanny? These artists make no explicit reference to the Tintin books at all, but are evocative of them through resemblances of style or echoes of coincidentally shared content. In my opinion, this very uncanny neo-abstract imagery is evidenced in subtle ways in the works of Patrick Caulfield, Pierre Le-Tan and Floc’h. Much of their work shares a very loose connection to the ligne claire mode without telling any new stories or evoking the ones from the past. While they do not make up any kind of collective group, one can identify similarities between each artist, and with Hergé, in terms of their subject matter and technique. To my knowledge this is the first time these three important figures have ever been discussed together so for now it will be a priority to build up a better picture of how we can begin to read them together 332

as an informal group and in so doing explain what constitutes their relationship to an abstract ligne claire form. Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) was a fine artist, loosely associated with the British pop art movement, but whose works were more influenced by the European tradition (notably, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger) than any of his contemporaries (see Finch 1971; Livingstone 2005; Wallis 2013). He is known to have enjoyed comics–specifically a British daily newspaper strip, Frank Dickens’s ‘Bristow’ (see Dickens 1966). According to art historian and biographer Clarrie Wallis, he was never really interested in European comics, although he did collect and use postcards and ephemera such as recipe card illustrations or architectural photographs as models for his work, some of which he picked up hitchhiking across Europe in 1960 (see Wallis 2013, 11-12; 19-20; 56; 77; Wallis 2015). Caulfield’s subjects were often objects and spaces of seemingly no importance–hotels, bars, villas, tables and chairs–yet by rendering these in bright colours, complete with bold black outlines, they captured a sense of respect and acceptance for everyday modern life, including its simple fantasies and pleasures (among further recurring themes there are also restaurants, bars, food and drink). Although lacking any direct reference, the look and impression of the work so strongly suggests the world of Tintin that it compelled art historian William Feaver to point out this similarity on two occasions in his extended obituary of Caulfield for The Guardian newspaper (2005). Pierre Le-Tan is an illustrator and fine artist who has worked in partnership with the French novelist Patrick Modiano, providing illustrations for two of his works (Modiano and Le-Tan 1981; Modiano and Le-Tan 1983). I mainly focus on Le-Tan’s cover illustrations to the paperback editions of Modiano’s novels that were published by the Folio house in Paris until a change of design post-2000. These cover-images attracted a loyal following and when Folio ended the collaboration in favour of black and white photographic stills for their new reprints of the same novels some disappointment was expressed (see website Reseau Modiano). For specialists of the bande dessinée, Floc’h’s work is by far the best known of our three subjects here, particularly for his collaborations with the writer François Rivière. Together they have co-authored graphic novels, written an illustrated a novel together on the life of Somerset Maugham, and the artist’s work is frequently used for dust jacket covers for publications of the same writer’s detective fiction. These often interconnected collaborations have been frequent and longstanding, the best known of which remains their comic strip satire on Tintin and other detective comics that used the ligne claire style, 333

Une Trilogie Anglaise (see also Frey 2008). That work will not be referred to further in this essay, but instead, I will discuss Floc’h commercial illustrations, and more specifically the many single image covers he has designed for the French men’s luxury fashion and lifestyle magazine Monsieur. Generally speaking, Caulfield, Le-Tan, and Floc’h make images that share aspects of the style of the ligne claire. They share a preference for precision and detail, they isolate and magnify objects and places. They hold some residual affinity to photography, the source material that Hergé himself used to capture information and detail for his drawing. They offer neutral images of spaces, places, objects, furniture, clothes and costume, without ever making too clear a story. As one would expect, bold colours and colour schemes are essential to Caulfield and Floc’h’s image making, a little less so for Le-Tan whose images are usually night-time scenes. As noted above, each artist seems strongly influenced by photography. Caulfield used similar research techniques and several works have their origins in photorealist material.2 Floc’h’s cover images for magazines look like photographs and are designed as such, competing with the classic magazine covers of fashion photography. Le-Tan similarly has played with the idea of his work being linked to photography (notably, see his cover to Modiano’s Villa Triste). This connection allows him to evoke Modiano’s own concerns with lost memories, the photograph being the artefact par excellence for that theme. There are further subtle thematic intersections and overlaps as well. Caulfield is especially fascinating precisely because a number of his works seem to almost accidentally slip into the very topography of the Tintin universe. Both Caulfield and Hergé share a fascination with what might be called European exoticism. In Hergé this can be found in his imagined Central European Syldavia–an invented Balkan state. It was also provided in his touristic depictions of Switzerland, all mountains, lakes and railways (see L’Affaire Tournesol; and perhaps the first pages of Tintin en Tibet). Caulfield demonstrates a comparable fascination with the Alpine, including direct representations in two works: After Lunch (1975), which features a postcard of Lake Geneva and a fondue set, and Inside a Swiss Chalet (1969), a quasi-architectural depiction. Similarly, there is his later detailed representation of a Bavarian beer krug, Souvenir (1999). There are further overlaps between the two artists in their mutual interest in the modern world around them. Caulfield’s focus on modern leisure environments in works that focus on restaurants and café bars often evoke similar spaces that feature as meeting points for future adventures in the Tintin series. In fact, these spaces are a regular location in the post-war comics, featuring significantly in Coke en Stock (cinema, hotels, hotel reception desks) and the beginning of Vol 714 (the airport lounge). In particular, Caulfield’s treatment of an exotic restaurant–Tandoori Restaurant (1971)–might remind Tintin aficionados of the Syldavian eating-house in Brussels featured in Le Sceptre d’Ottakar. Finally, another clear intersection between the worlds of Hergé and Caulfield concerns drinking and alcohol. Caulfield’s symbolic imagination repeatedly returned to 2  According to Wallis (2013), it was the printed black outlines in 1960s postcards that attracted the artist to the style. 334

bar rooms, glasses, waiters and wine bottles. In other words, the same subject matter Hergé endlessly played with in his characterizations of his heavy drinker, Captain Haddock. In summary, while Caulfield’s oeuvre occasionally plays upon ligne claire aesthetics, it also includes passing overlaps with some of the same material spaces and objects found in the Tintin books. It is this coincidence that probably encouraged Feaver to make the connection. With Caulfield it is not an exaggeration to say that we are provided with paintings of a world where Tintin could have lived and had adventures but in which he is absent: Caulfield gives us images of emptiness, or of objects without people. This is precisely what I mean by an uncanny abstraction of the ligne claire because it is unnerving how close and apart the two artists seem to be, yet always missing each other because of one’s narrative need to entertain and the other’s penchant for stillness and bare spaces. En passant, Floc’h’s magazine covers for Monsieur echo some of the above intersections. Monsieur magazine is targeted at high living or aspirational readers and the images Floc’h creates are always suitably exotic. This is the world of private luxury hotels, seaside or ski destinations. The images are displays of expensive things and fantasies of luxury lifestyles. Ligne claire without any Tintin has a powerful disposition to capture some of our capitalist dreams. Caulfield of course was not doing this in any kind of commercial sense, but rather like in Hergé’s backdrops, he was cataloguing sociology rather than commenting on it or adding to commerce in the way glossy lifestyle magazines do. There is an irony about Floc’h’s contract for Monsieur. By providing clear line drawings for a glossy picture magazine he is inserting this aesthetic form back into the visual world Hergé used as a resource to inspire his images. After all the Hergean ligne claire repeatedly redrew images taken from photographs in magazines. If Caulfield and Floc’h are both concerned with clear line representation of objects, all three artists are shaped by a poetic that emphasizes emptiness, absence, and, by implication, loss. More specifically, Caulfield and Le-Tan use their emphasis on clear drawings of objects or places without people to suggest this emotion. In their depictions of empty space or single bold objects, we can say that they are implicitly asking us as viewers ‘what is left?,’ ‘is there more than this to know?’ Maybe unintentionally Floc’h’s advertising images are sometimes too beautiful and clear to be real, thereby suggesting a comparable tone of sadness (unintended but inevitable given that not all readers of Monsieur can afford its luxury lifestyle). This is the reason why the work of these three artists is concerned with nostalgia. Le-Tan’s covers for Mo335

diano are the primary case in point. These pictures usually capture empty street scenes and night-time light, they evoke the passing of time, and as such they are redolent with Modiano’s thematic predilections on memory and regret. Grosso modo, many of the works by each artist hold this same relationship to time: the emptiness of the images or the isolation of the viewer’s eye on a single clear image of an object implies a condition of historical change. Seeing these images, we cannot but think of what has passed or what will be. Action has occurred or will come soon, though it seems much less likely in our historicist culture where we are first disposed to ask what has happened rather than what will be. Yet in most cases we cannot begin to infer a narrative resolution to the question. Stories are prompted but they are never fixed, let alone resolved or explicitly explained. Once again, the idea of the world of Tintin comics is never included in the direct ways in which Gerner and Siemon maintain that relationship. Nonetheless, there are echoes and allusions. This is especially pronounced in the work of Le-Tan and Caulfield. For Le-Tan there is always an explicit acknowledgement of a debt to the tradition of drawing and illustration. Thus, for La Ronde de Nuit there is just a very thin drawn shape of a figure (maybe male but maybe female), while for Rue des Boutiques Obscures there is a cartoon-like depiction of a person with their hands in their pockets. Caulfield’s relation to the comic strip is far less deliberate than Le-Tan’s overt style that shouts out ‘drawing and illustration.’ In fact, it is probably just another uncanny coincidence. Bringing Caulfield and comics together in one place, one discovers that along with the Hergéanlike ligne claire style, and some broad thematic overlap on the ground of the European exotic, the artist also had a disposition toward using grids and grid-like patterns in his pictures. Obviously, Caulfield is not writing comics and has no use for panels in any technical sense, yet throughout his career his realist works are penetrated by and shaped through patterns akin to the nine panel style grids so essential to framing a classic comic page. Thus, one can quickly see the motif forming as a backdrop to his early Landscape with Birds (1963; Figure 1); occurring as floor tiles in Smokeless Coal Fire (1969) and repeated as multiple and coloured window tiles in Stained Glass Window (1967). What is really fascinating is that Caulfield was not only working with a formal style akin to Hergé’s bold black outlines and bright colour palette, but that also in his world there was a repeated engagement with grids, meshes and panel shapes. It is therefore almost as if Caulfield’s ‘abstract comics look’ took all these different elements from ligne claire albums but then refused to align them neatly together. To repeat, in Caulfield one finds bold lines, bright colours, photographic substrata, and the repeated grids and panel imagery, but nothing is aligned or made whole. Instead, each aspect is disconnected while remaining inside the same work.

Let us pause briefly at Caulfield’s Lit Window (1969), which exemplifies much of what I have indicated. This is a picture of a window frame with an orange light shining into a black night, a window divided into fifteen smaller, grid-like panes. The look is classic Caulfield: precise, bold, combining colour and black outline. In addition, through the small panels in the window an abstract grid (think Piet Mondrian) or a comic like page layout (think Hergé) is metaphorically also included into the total design. In fact, the image would not look at all out of place in a Tintin comic, especially in one from the later and finest period of the 1950s to 1960s. Caulfield’s window resembles the famous panel from Castafiore in which Tintin looks into the black night to pronounce in words the existential theme of emptiness so prevalent in Caulfield’s picture, “Mais il n’y a rien”–“There is nothing there.” What is different from Lit Window is that for Hergé the window frame is a direct echo of the panels on the page. In Caulfield’s work the implicit panel has no real meaning other than to provide the work with greater visual power, to hint at modernism without repeating Mondrian. Caulfield’s images have even been reprinted and arranged in book form in such a way that they have come to resemble comic strip pages–completely by chance. This is the case in Clarrie Wallis’s fascinating recent


Patrick Caulfield, Landscape with Birds, 1963. Pallant House Gallery. Wilson Gift through The Art Fund, 2006. © Janet Nathan Caulfield 337

study (2013). Let me explain. In 1973 Caulfield produced a series of screen print as illustrations to selected poems by the French writer Jules Laforgue (1973). Printed in a luxury, small run edition, the work is an exceptional example of how Caulfield’s limpid and still images of close-ups of daily life objects complement the poet’s vision. Either intentionally or accidentally, Wallis’s recent monograph on Caulfield reprints and edits twelve of these prints into a new single page (2013, 36), the individual images being tiled three by four into a twelve-panel grid (Laforgue’s texts removed entirely). In this powerful editorial act, Wallis remixes Caulfield’s art into what can only be called an original abstract comic page. Thus, we see Caulfield’s depiction of a lampshade, next to a menu on a table, beneath a green railing bar. All connections or intentions between images are left to our imaginations. Our ideas bounce between the panels but no single message takes the upper hand. My point here is in fact not a flippant one at all. What I am showing is that through one small editorial decision by Wallis, Caulfield’s oeuvre is now directly an abstract comic in its own right. An act, and imposition, that lends weight to my suggestion to read Caulfield as a special kind of abstract inheritor and manipulator of the ligne claire style, no doubt via Mondrian, and Léger, but ending up rather close to a world of Tintin without Tintin. To conclude, this chapter has sketched the abstract after-life for the ligne claire. Let me emphasize again, pastiche narrative, satire or celebration of the comics of the 1930s to 1960s, are still the most common formats, as the success of Lichtenstein, Burns and others indicates. However, when fine artists, illustrators, and graphic designers take a different stance, there are cases of abstract and neo-abstract development. Gerner’s and Allen’s approach provides us with a classic example of almost complete reduction of narration. Images are made black and therefore blank (Gerner), or words and standard sequences removed (Allen), the Tintin stories and their political subtexts are obliterated; though as viewers we cannot but also appreciate their haunting presence since the new works do depend on a working knowledge of the original series and its ideology. Quite differently, I have also been arguing for the importance of Caulfield, Le-Tan and Floc’h. These artists–especially Le-Tan and Caulfield–specialize in making worlds of absence, images of moments that have passed, objects left behind, remembered photographs re-discovered, stage sets or meeting places awaiting people, bar rooms at opening time. Here, adventure has been replaced by regret and reflection on the banality of modern life. At the end of his career, Hergé did not want to continue the Tintin series, but pressed on nonetheless to keep his readers happy. For this critic, the work of LeTan and Caulfield holds open the possibility of a Hergéan art without the burden of character or explicit plot.

References Baetens, Jan and Hugo Frey. 2016. “​Modernizing ​Tintin: From Myth to New Stylizations.” In The Comics ​of Hergé: When the Lines Are not so Clear, edited by Joe Sutcliff Sanders, 98-112. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Bretécher, Claire. 1988. Aggripine. Paris: Casterman. Burns, Charles. 2010. X’ed Out. New York: Pantheon. ___. 2012. The Hive. New York: Pantheon. ___. 2014. Sugar Skull. New York: Pantheon. Caulfield, Patrick, and Jules Laforge. 1973. Quelsques poèmes de Jules Laforgue/planches de Patrick Caulfield. London: Petersburg Press. Daniels, J. 1989. Breaking Free. London: Attack International Organization. Dickens, Frank. 1966. Bristow. London: Constable. Gerner, Jochen. 2002. TNT en Amérique. Paris: Ampoule. Feaver, William. 2005. “Patrick Caulfield: Obituary.” The Guardian 3 October. Available online:http://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/ oct/03/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries (last accessed 17 December 2015) Finch, Christopher. 1971. Patrick Caulfield. London: Penguin. Frey, Hugo. 2008. “Trafic d’Outre-Manche: réflexion sur Une trilogie anglaise de Floc’h et Rivière.” Lendemains: Études comparées sur la France 33 (129): 43-60. Kannemeyer, Anton. 2010. Pappa in Afrika. London: Jacana Media. http://lereseaumodiano.blogspot.co.uk (last accessed December 2015). Livingstone, Marco. 2005. Patrick Caulfield - Paintings. London: Lund Humphries. Modiano, Patrick, and Pierre Le-Tan. 1981. Memory Lane. Paris: Hachette POL. ___. 1983. Poupée Blonde. Paris: Hachette POL. Seth. 2003. It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly. Tuten, Frederic.1993. Tintin in the New World. London: Marion Boyers. Wallis, Clarrie. 2013. British Artists: Patrick Caulfield. London: Tate Publishing. ___. 2015. E-mail message to author.

Acknowledgements Special thanks to Jan Baetens, whose ongoing collaborations greatly influenced this essay, and to Clarrie Wallis for her kind interest and feedback on the Caulfield-European comics connection. Neither is responsible for the argument and content above.







Abstraction and Non-Sequitur  Jakob F. Dittmar

Introduction This essay examines abstract meaning and references in comics to better understand the limitations on storytelling in comics that might result from increased narrative abstraction. The central question is under what conditions a sequential reading of juxtaposed images stops working. By examining a number of examples, I will investigate what necessary features a group of images must have to be identified as a comic. Given that there are different definitions of the abstract, I will combine literary and art historical definitions to discuss what abstraction in comics can be. With individual images, applying the definition of the abstract used in fine arts is easy enough: Abstraction is not concerned with concrete figurative representation. But with sequences of images, the form and content of each image is as important as the form of the sequence itself. The diegesis of a comic is created through its sequencing of images, in the interweaving of representations of forms: images link and relate to other images. In comics, formal or narrative abstraction can be understood as the lack of connection between individual, neighbouring images. This is in essence the quality that has been described as “non-sequitur” by Scott McCloud for sequence-building in comics narration (McCloud 1993, 70ff.). However, I argue that non-sequitur does not really exist. Readers always construct some kind of meaning into sequences of images as examples of non-intended sequences show. Formal abstraction in comics is also possible: the panel grid and frames of a page can be abandoned for an abstraction of their forms. In comics theory, four page styles have been identified, with many mixed forms existing in practice. Pages are either regulated (or constant), for instance by using a uniform panel grid; decorative, designed as if the page could stand as graphic art on its own; rhetorical, giving as much room to each image as needed to ensure the best effect for the development of the story, or productive, with productive pages dictating the development of the narrative, for instance when objects begin in one image and influence the following or previous images by overlapping. In the latter, shapes continue through several images while the narration follows a different sequence on the page (cf. Paillarse 1988, 10ff.; Peeters 2003). Some of these “productive pages” can seem rather abstract com342


pared to standard comics pages (cf. Peeters 2003). Abstract forms or content in comics makes for markedly different styles and narrative. In the following section I will present definitions of abstraction from literature and the fine arts to gauge which approach is most suited to the study of comics and their narrative techniques.

Storytelling in Comics How abstract a comic can become before its story becomes incomprehensible mainly depends on the individual reader’s cultural and intellectual background. References to topics and cues for meaning are read into material that was not intended to carry these significations, but are activated if readers find them in the signs and images used to tell the story. Under what conditions does the reading of sequentially juxtaposed images stop making sense? Very little is needed to have readers contextualise images with other, juxtaposed images, and arrange these in sequences and thereby awaken narrativity. Readers make sense of whatever image sequences are set up within the same narrative: an interrelation of images presented in close proximity is what the reader expects and is therefore constructed into the material. This becomes clear when looking at different sequences of images: Intended as a narrative or not, they are viewed in the same overall context that unites them. Vasily Kandinsky’s Zarte Bagatellen (1937), an upright strip of paired images in six rows, proves my point: relations between the images are easily constructed owing to the return of individual forms and colours which link or rather interweave the specific places within the piece. As with all comics, this example shows that the structural basis for comics storytelling is rather simple, while complexities arise through interweaving (tressage, cf. Groensteen 1999), that is to say, by the way in which images link and relate to other images on the same and/or other pages, setting the tone and quality of each comic. This juxtaposition of images into a context generates meaning and detail; it constructs relations between individual places in the narrative through placement on the specific page (spatio-topie in Groensteen’s terminology), and between narrative elements and themes in the development of the story (arthrologie) (Groensteen 1999): “The first is about spatial relations and the second about semantic relation” (Magnusson 2005, 42). This is what we deal with when we analyse or plan the dramaturgical development of comics. This is equally what we expect as a logical background when encountering sequences of images, which might have been intended as abstract comics or which just happen to allow for reading them as comics (chance sequences continue to be one of the major problems in the placement of ads, for instance).

Abstraction The abstract is the opposite of the concrete. But what do these terms refer to when we look at comics? Comics are graphic literature and deliver dialogue embedded in pictorial information indicating that the text presented is spoken out loud–just as theatre scripts. But the following definition used for literature seems difficult to apply to comics. As Cuddon explains: abstract (...). Not concrete. A sentence is abstract if it deals with a class of things or persons: for example: ‘All men are liars.’ On the other hand, ‘Smith is a liar’ is a concrete statement. The subject of a sentence may also be an abstraction, as in ‘The wealth of the ruling classes.’ Something may be said to be abstract if it is the name for a quality, like heat or faith. Critics use the terms abstract and concrete of imagery (...). For the most part poetry is the language of concreteness; prose that of the abstract. At any rate prose tends to be better able to deal with the abstract because it is more precise; not necessarily, therefore, more accurate. (Cuddon 1991, 3) Images usually depict specific states and relations between things, inanimate objects, and people. They seem to illustrate more abstract concepts by giving them concrete shape. Apart from information graphics that use pictograms and the like, images in comics seem to make concrete statements. However, as the limitations already indicate, comics visualise and narrate on an abstract level as well. The question whether comics are closer to poetry than prose cannot be decided since most use reduction of details in their imagery, thus suggesting personhood while they in fact engage in typification, i.e., abstraction in Cuddon’s sense. If one would follow this idea dogmatically, the amount of visual detail would determine individuality and thus the concreteness of images, while on the other hand, the reduction of figures to types would indicate abstraction. However, most comics–apart from photorealistic ones–reduce visual details and narrate by means of (stereo-)typical figures. Consequently, keeping the definition as it pertains to literature in mind, Batman, Tintin and many other comic characters are to a greater or lesser extent abstract figures. Many of the stories featuring these figures follow the typical paths of fairy tales and have become staple characters in Hollywood mainstream cinema. In visual art, abstraction refers to the purposeful design of a work of art as a means to suggest the essence of something–the work becomes gestaltet, so to speak, assuming a specific, concrete form. At a fundamental level, each piece of abstract art refers to and depends on a context. It is never without expression as expression is always given



in form, with the modulations and ductus of the artistic tools and materials (Lützeler 1967, 78-88). While the creator of abstract art might have intended a specific reference or message, it is the audience’s reading of the artefact that matters in a narrative sense, as meaning is based on cultural knowledge and the specific framing of the work. As with all forms of communication, the dependency on shared cultural knowledge between author and reader, i.e., in encoding and decoding applies here as well (cf. Hall 1980). The artwork itself invites description and the contemplation of its form, its measurements and balance–or lack thereof. Its cultural connotations are produced depending on its specific setting, which may give rise to contradictory interpretations given the variety of the audience’s cultural background and experience with forms, colours, and so on. Moreover, the specific process of production is of importance in this regard, as surfaces for example give an insight into the way the artefact was made. With abstract drawings or paintings for example, traces of production tools on the surfaces and the finish of details are crucial style elements. The style of image production used for a comic is central to its aesthetic frame of reference. The way in which images are placed alongside each other determines the rhetoric and stylistic qualities of the resulting comic, no matter whether the image sequence was intended as a comic or not.

Examples To examine formal abstraction, I will now turn to a few examples and discuss the narrative function of abstract images and pages.

Jarl Hammarberg (who publishes in Esperanto as Jarlo Martelmondo) experimented with sequential visual storytelling by blending concrete poetry with images that otherwise contain very few drawn pictorial elements. These images are put into sequences, with often six images per page, printed into the bleed, that is to say, without an outer frame on the page but the end of the page functioning as the frame to the outer edges of the images. In each strip, the textual elements are set in the same type, placed in accordance with a strategy that cannot be deduced from the resulting images. Hammarberg himself points to the influence of concrete poetry in his comments at the end of rutapåruta (1993, 103). The words in the images are sometimes synonyms, referring to the same topic, sometimes only connectable by association, and sometimes not related to each other at all. While neither a clear message nor a general meaning can be read into the example, the style creates a specific atmosphere that emerges through possible associations awakened in the reader upon seeing the typeface; the words, drawings, the placing and composition of the images might invoke concrete poetry in certain readers, for instance (Figure 1). Where drawn elements are given, these are usually extremely reduced and only partly recognisable as references to a specific sign or object. Cuddon’s characterization of concrete poetry also applies to this work: “In the more way-out examples of this kind of verse sense is abandoned; there is no syntax or grammar” (Cuddon 1991, 184). Swedish artist Elis Ernst Eriksson was familiar with comics, and produced a number of exceptional and important artistic comics that refer in their partly reduced, seemingly chaotic events and machinery constructions to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, while individual pages can be seen as precursors to Chris Ware’s complex logic of references on the same page (see Eriksson’s Pavanhäftet of 1965; Figure 2). Eriksson worked with abstraction of visual content as well as abstraction of the accompanying or inserted texts: The illustrated novella Tårar (2002) shows several rectangular entities living in an urban setting. Even though we all look different from these forms, we can recognise them as representations of human beings, abstracted from individuals to be condensed into types with reduced individuality. In 2003 Eriksson exhibited and published Åkk, a sequence of framed black and white images and texts dealing with the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In this work, the sequence of images was constructed from the individual parts of the series, and while its narrative infrastructure resembled that of a comic it was not intended as such. The exhibition displayed juxtaposed images that were placed individually but made up a sequence, while the printed version emphasized the sequentiality


Figure 1 Page from rutapåruta by Jarl Hammarberg (1993, [41]). In this example, sound words and wordplay are mixed with drawn forms, which may or may not refer to symbols from physics, astrology, and visual telegraphy. Jarl Hammarberg, rutapåruta, page 41. © 1993 Jarl Hammarberg.


that informs the narrative pulse of Åkk. Here, too, pictorial and textual content complement each other in each image and within the series of images; they invite the reader to make sense of each individual image on its own and in the context of the sequence. Some of the images contain small bits of typed text on paper that is glued on, while others are written in large block letters, and still others merely consist of texts listing references, incidents, and so on. As Cuddon indicated, text allows for abstraction. Abstract concepts can be expressed by simply using the words that stand for it. Concepts like ‘democracy’ can be written down easily, but are much more difficult to express in drawings or illustrations. Allan Haverholm follows a completely different approach by experimenting with comics genres and structures. In the anthology When the Last Story Is Told (2015), he focuses on the page as a whole, as he partly presents pages filled with frames full of similar crosshatchings or other painted structures or patterns. There is no development nor are there substantial differences between the images placed in direct juxtaposition, apart from a few pages where the panel grid has been filled with paper squares of different paper quality and hues. A few pages simply show a panel grid drawn on top of a photo-collage or overlaying one large image. Considering the title, it is possible that Haverholm intended emptiness as the main theme of the anthology. All pages show almost exactly the same panel grid, and the book does not even play on different page styles–with page styles allowing for different styles of story development in comics–nor does it invite reflection on the process of storytelling itself since there is nothing to put into the form at all. The repetition of the same formula throughout the book does not lead anywhere; it does not lead to increased insight. The same approach to page construction works well in manga and longer narratives that show content that can be read as a development of a narrative, but in When the Last Story Is Told, this visual strategy falls short. This is mostly because Haverholm avoids filling the frames with content, and as a result, the pages of the anthology remain experiments on textures and patterns without stimulating the reader’s imagination. While on a formal level the style suggests that the pages are comics, their content does not tell any story, nor does it invite any flights of association. No developments can be read from the sequence of images; no sense but repetitiveness can be made of the sequence of individual images. This is completely different in Clay Ketter’s photographs of frames and panel grids which reproduce a host of objects such as shelves, kitchen cupboards and wall and tile patterns left behind in demolished houses (cf. Ketter 2016). The reader is thus able to simultaneously recognise

Figure 2 A page from Elis Ernst Eriksson’s Pavanhäftet (1965) illustrating his reduced and rather special narrative style. Here, the hero and his horse roll themselves up while commenting on the tightness of the resulting rolls. Then they accelerate and get into a pipe going through a mountain. (Eriksson in Hultberg 2006, 265). © 1965, 2006 Elis Ernst Eriksson. 349

the original objects as well as grasp the reference to panel grids and sequences of frames so characteristic of comics. The details invite the reader to imaginatively reconstruct the ruined building. Remnants of wallpapers, differently tiled sections and the like are recognisable and enable cultural referencing, and create a relation to the content of the image, while many of the images can even be read as sequences. Thus, in this case as well, we see abstract patterns that do not amount to comics but only allude to this literary form via page layout and framing. Whereas Ketter manages to get the reader to relate to the material, Haverholm’s work does not allow for this because of the lack of hooks for the readers. Haverholm’s anthology highlights the limitations for abstract content: There needs to be visual content that invites the reader to engage mentally, to decode it in whatever way possible, to recognise something in the forms and colours. The employment of a uniform panel grid without any other reference to the nature of comics storytelling–i.e., juxtaposed sequential images of some kind–does not suffice on its own to turn visual material into a comic. Olivier Marbœuf takes the opposite approach in his comic La Sainte Face. It too employs a uniform panel grid. However, it starts as a rather classical comic only for the visual style established at the outset to dissolve later in the story. La Sainte Face is one of three comics adaptations of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck that are featured in the comics magazine Le heval sans tête (no. 1) and employs increasing reduction of detail. The visual style is first reduced from overall dark images in black and white (using crosshatching for grey tones). White and black lines profile simplified forms and take over the visual style of the pages. The story ends with the panel grid over an almost empty page, resembling the result of a glass bead game that has taken over the discourse of the story’s figures, transforming them into ink-blots at the extremities of the lines that seem to record (or indicate) movement (Figure 3). The breakdown of the visual style, or rather, its change from one style to another while keeping the page structure intact, is also an allusion to Woyzeck’s main theme. As the visuals are significantly reduced, their references change with this process. But the content of the story, the message of the play that is used as the basis for the comic, is kept intact and is narrated in a way that is unique to comics. In this case, it is not the story that dissolves, but the reduction of the visual style that is used as a narrative device. The comic in fact poses a dilemma: is it abstract at first, to become concrete in the final recording of movements on paper, or is it concrete in its depiction of a dreary landscape with shadowy figures, only to become abstract in its reductionist figuring of the story’s message?

Figure 3 Final page of “La Sainte Face” by Olivier Marbœuf. It resembles the outcome of a glass bead game while keeping the comic’s uniform panel grid as its main structuring device. Olivier Marbœuf, “La Sainte Face”, Le Cheval sans Tête n°1, page 88. © 1996 Olivier Marbœuf.


Units of Storytelling As comics are drawn or assembled and finally printed on more or less flat surfaces or presented on screens, they all share this dependency on surfaces. Abstract comics are in no way different: a defined space is used for the juxtaposition of multiple images. They are recognisable as a sequence of images; if the work only had one single image it would not be a comic. No narrative plot or story is necessary, a synthesis of the different images is a possibility but not a requirement, but the reader must at least be able to differentiate between pictorial units contained by the ‘page’ (let us consider such a unit as a page, even if it might be placed on a wall or in any other setting). The page is a basic unit in the structure of comics storytelling (cf. Groensteen 1999, 26ff.), and each page is an image containing multiple images. Accordingly, pages are referred to as “hyperframe” (hypercadre, cf. Peeters 2003), “meta-panel” or “super-panel” (Eisner 2004), while the narrative constructed from the different pages can be seen as a “multiframe” (multicadre, multicadre feuilleté ; cf. Van Lier 1988). This is the comic’s skeleton around which its narration develops and against which all its other decisive qualities are defined (cf. Magnusson 2005). Consequently, the rhetoric of each comic is grounded in the use and combination of frames: they allow for the punctuation of the story, for the visualization of narrative rhythm and structure. Otherwise the material might just be a collage instead of a sequence of images.

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Non-Sequitur’ One side effect of the way in which we read meaning into sequences of images is that McCloud’s definition of “non-sequitur” (McCloud 1993, 72) is impossible in comics storytelling because the reader makes sense of whatever sequences of images appear in the same narrative. Interrelations between images are expected and therefore constructed into the material, especially in the case of short cartoons, but also in longer visual narratives. The fact that images are placed in juxtaposition within the frame of a page or under a shared title creates an expectation in the reader who now constructs relations between images that might never have been intended to make sense together. I will give just two examples to illustrate my point: today, the placement of advertisements in newspapers, blogs and other media is decided by a publisher’s algorithm. Thus, unfortunate combinations of articles on whatever subjects alongside advertisements for all kinds of products and services can be seen side by side, and readers will make links between the two. These incidents usually result in free additional advertisement for the same company as a way to compensate for the ‘misplacement’ of the original article (one of the most striking examples of the algorithmic misplacement of adverts is perhaps the appearance of gas company ads next to holocaust-related texts). Another example is Mikael Fisk’s Odd Panels: A Comic Strip Generator Prototype. The generator combines pre-produced single images, and randomly adds comments and speech balloons. Each resulting strip is presented on a webpage in slot-machine style (Figure 4). The reader (or user) only has to determine whether the strip should consist of two, 352

three or four images and if it should contain comments and/or speech balloons. The rest is done by random selection, and the reader always makes sense of the resulting strip. It seems there is no way around the expectation and performance of narrative in the reader’s imagination.

Conclusion The meaning of ‘abstraction’ differs in literature and fine arts. While the first is concerned with generalisations and conceptualisation, the other focuses on the visual aspects of abstraction in terms of non-figurative expression. In comics, both concepts can be applied meaningfully, especially as abstraction in the sense of generalisation from individual to typical forms is used in the design of most comics characters, be they fictional or non-fictional. Also, many comics concern themselves with reflections on abstract qualities that are important for societies. As mentioned earlier, text readily accommodates generalisations, while it is considered difficult to express abstract concepts in pictures. Many comics negotiate abstract issues on the pictorial plane as well, visibly not content with restricting themselves to the specific. With regards to abstract storytelling, the examples discussed show that comics need to offer material for possible connotations and/or associations in terms of content, and, to a lesser extent, in terms of form. Eriksson’s Åkk shows that it is not the placing of images in specific juxtapositions that makes a sequence of images a comic: the juxtaposition of images itself is sufficient. When the Last Story Is Told teaches us that it is not sufficient to use comics-specific page structures without providing the content that would incite at least some flights of the imagination. It must be stressed that abstraction is a quality attributed to descriptions or visualisations that depend on the individual reader’s background, which the work of Hammarberg attests to. The uncertain references of the drawn elements together with the text placed in the tradition of concrete poetry invite the reader’s imagination to make sense of the mystery and make the comic more interesting.

Figure 4 One example of a comic strip produced by random selection from a stock of images, comments, and speech balloons in the Odd Panels Comic Strip Generator by Mikael Fisk. “Odd Panels: A Comic Strip Generator Prototype.” http://oddpanels. bitballoon.com/. © 2014 Mikael Fisk. 353

Background knowledge of certain codes and signs determines whether something is meaningful or not. There can be no communication when signs are used that are unknown to the reader or not relatable to known forms. Marbœuf ’s Woyzeck adaption attacks a conventional pictorial style with overlays of mock tribal line work, abstracting from realistic representation of figures, before the picture plane dissolves into a recording of disoriented gestures within the orderly pattern of the comic’s grid. It shows how abstract concepts such as identity can be visualised in comics. In sum, humans are storytelling animals (cf. MacIntyre 1981, 216); we are trained to invent and discover stories in all kinds of materials and contexts, be they concrete or abstract. We read structure into the chance sequences of advertising and media in general. Our penchant for narrative is exemplified by the ways in which we construct a kind of hypertext out of snippets of information (cf. Murray 1998); interrelations are forged on the basis of what is seemingly incongruous. This ability to create strings of information is only limited by restrictions in signification: every individual reader improvises and, according to the specific context, puts two and two together as he or she sees fit.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Reprint edition. Amherst, Mass.: Kitchen Sink Press. Murray, Janet H. 1998. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press. Paillarse, Dominique. 1988. Eine Grafische Kunst: Der Französische Comic. Berlin: Elefanten Press. Peeters, Benoit. 2010. Lire la bande dessinée. Paris: Editions Flammarion. Van Lier, Henri. 1988. “La Bande Dessinée, Une Cosmogonie Dure.” In Bande dessinée, récits et modernité, edited by Thierry Groensteen, 1–16. Paris: Futuropolis-CNBDl. http://www.anthropogenie. com/anthropogenie_locale/semiotique/bande_dessinee.pdf.

References Cuddon, J. A. 1991. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books. Eisner, Will. 2004. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press. Eriksson, Elis Ernst. 2006. “Åkk.” In Håll tjeften. Elis Ernst Eriksson: 100 år av åtlydnader, edited by Teddy Hultberg, 417–27. Stockholm: Schultz Förlag. –––. 2006b. “Pavan.” In Håll tjeften. Elis Ernst Eriksson, 247-79. –––. 2006c. “Tårar.” In Håll tjeften. Elis Ernst Eriksson, 416. Fisk, Mikael. 2014. “Odd Panels: A Comic Strip Generator Prototype.” Odd Panels: A Comic Strip Generator Prototype. http://oddpanels.bitballoon.com/. Groensteen, Thierry. 1999. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: Presses universitaires de France. Hall, Stuart. 1980. “Encoding/Decoding.” In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79, edited by Stuart Hall, Doothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis, 128–38. London: Hutchinson. Hammarberg, Jarl. 1993. Rutapåruta: 3 serier. Stockholm: Författares Bokmaskin. Haverholm, Allan. 2015. When the Last Story Is Told. Malmö: C’est Bon Kultur. Hultberg, Teddy, ed. 2006. Håll tjeften. Elis Ernst Eriksson: 100 år av åtlydnader. Stockholm: Schultz Förlag. Ketter, Clay. 2016. “Clay Ketter.” Clay Ketter: Works. http://www.clayketter.com/works.html. Lützeler, Heinrich. 1967. Abstrakte Malerei. Bedeutung und Grenze. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann. MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1981. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth. Magnusson, Helena. 2005. Berättande bilder: svenska tecknade serier för barn. Göteborg: Makadam. Marbœuf, Olivier. 1998. “Woyzeck, La Sainte Face .” Schreibheft, no. 51: 151–56. Originally published as “La Sainte Face.” Le cheval sans tête, 1996, no. 1.



Tic Tac Comic Tomás Arguello













Abstraction and Comics from a Semiotic Point of View Fred Andersson One particular question framing this publication caught my immediate attention: “How do comics modify our understanding of the abstract?” (Rommens 2015). Note that this question is not about ‘abstract comics’ specifically, but rather about comics in general. The question invites us to address not only ‘the abstract’ as a Modernist and historically specific phenomenon in visual art and design, but also more general notions of abstraction. This chapter will therefore address ‘abstract comics’ and cognitive abstraction from a semiotic point of view.

Abstraction and the Six Functions of Communication What I have in mind can be seen in Funtus, a comic drawn by Rolf Sandqvist which appeared in Finnish and Swedish dailies in the fifties and sixties (Figure 1). In this episode, Funtus is surprised because he suddenly faces what seem to be two previous moments of himself after accidentally falling through time and space in the three-panel sequence, the latter always providing the strict material limit of his appearances.

Figure 1 Rolf Sandqvist, strip reproduced in Nya Argus, Vol 105 (2012), no 10-11, page 279. © 2015 Tom Sandqvist. 370


In semiotic and functional terms, this strip evinces the meta-linguistic function in communication, i.e., it is drawn in a visual language which refers to itself. The gag is funny because it makes fun of the very semiotic code that compels us to accept black lines on paper as borders between different moments and/or places. Simple as it is, the gag thus also presupposes a capacity for conceptual abstraction. Instead, the word ‘abstract’ usually refers to the prominence of the aesthetic and expressive functions. In the functional theory semiotics inherited from the Prague school and Roman Jakobson, the aesthetic function is related to the sign vehicle in communication, or in other words, the ‘message’ proper (cf. Jakobson 1960, 350-77). It refers to how the communicated meaning is inflected by the way in which an image–or rhetoric in language–is composed. Refining the message qua message can even become the main objective of communication. If we see a black square on a white surface, and if we accept that this is a statement on the universal value of certain shapes, we have by the same token accepted the dominance of the aesthetic function in the reception and understanding of the work. If, on the other hand, we look at Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm and feel that this abstract visual ‘rhythm’ expresses the unity between nature and humanity allegedly summarised by Pollock himself as “I am nature” (Krasner 1967), then we are dealing with the expressive function.1 The expressive function is related to the sender of a message and sometimes calls for an emphatic identification with the sender as an individual being with emotions and intentions. Some works called ‘abstract’ might also show a prominent phatic function, i.e., the sharpened sensitivity and attention at the receiving end. In such cases, the structure of the work is less indicative of a meditative or emphatic attitude, and more akin to the quick decoding of basic colours and shapes which characterises the function of ordinary traffic signs and similar semiotic systems. For example, certain paintings by the American artist Kenneth Noland are similar to shooting targets. They are not used for target practice but elaborate the visual structure of the target in the context of aesthetic appreciation. If such examples are evocative of the inner workings of a visual structure or a creative mind, and sometimes of a reduction of communication to simple signals and responses, it is much harder to find external references in abstract art or to translate its manifestations into verbal messages aimed at rational understanding. Consequently, the remaining functions of reference (to things external) and conation (adaptation to the receiver) are weak in abstract art. This is no doubt due to certain aesthetic ideologies taking shape during the formative years of abstract art in Europe and the US, as in the art philosophy of Clement Greenberg for instance, which viewed the development of 1 As Lee Krasner recalls in an interview dated December 14, 1967: “I brought Hofmann to Pollock’s studio, as I knew Hofmann, I had studied with him; and I thought he would certainly, you know, dig this. And this is the initial visit that he’s confronted with Pollock’s work. He said, ‘Ach! You work by heart, not from nature.’ And Pollock’s answer: ‘I am nature.’” Transcript from Oral History Interview with Lee Krasner, November 2, 1964–April 11, 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-lee-krasner-12507 372

Modern painting as a historically necessary reduction of the means of painting to its two-dimensional essence. To simplify, the tradition of the ‘abstract’ in visual art can be seen as a highly coded and specialised form of communication–a form in which the aesthetic and expressive functions are so dominant they are now regarded as almost synonymous with abstraction. This is no different in the case of ‘abstract comics.’ In an equally schematic manner, one can say that the aesthetic and expressive functions are associated with two different and antagonistic tendencies within ‘the abstract.’ These tendencies can be exemplified by, on the one hand, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square from 1915 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), and on the other Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) from 1950 (Metropolitan Museum, New York). As a symbol of radical reduction, escaping comparisons with individual expression, external reality, conventional symbolism or utilitarian functions, Malevich’s square has become the emblem of an extreme aestheticism approaching absolute anonymity. By contrast, Pollock’s free and gestural painting, in which the chirographic traces of every sensory-motoric impulse during the painting process are on display, is seen as a form of art expressive of individual existence. Against the backdrop of both extremes within a highly specialised field, I now introduce my second case study (Figure 2), a work by the Canadian cartoonist Benoît Joly from 1987, featured in Andrei Molotiu’s acclaimed anthology Abstract Comics (2009, n.p.). In his search for artists who at some point in their career had made what could be defined as ‘abstract comics,’ Molotiu found people like Joly and Patrick McDonnell, who, in their student years, had created pages such as this one without always publishing them (Rudnick 2009). What we see here is a mere placement of panels, ink blots, small strokes and circles: this structure corresponds to the aesthetic function rather than the expressive. It is evocative of tracks, trails or cinematic movement and zooming. The title of the work is Parcours [tracks]. Just like Sandqvist’s Funtus strip, it is a comic commenting on drawing comics, but it is not a meta-linguistic joke that breaks the rules of fiction because it contains no fiction to begin with. What it offers is materiality, just like Malevich’s painting with the square. Still, there is a different level of abstraction present here, constituted by the reader’s habit of reading successive frames as pictures with a continuous rhythm and movement. Making sense of the structure of Joly’s work creates an oscillation between seeing it as only ink on paper and as some sequential narrative. Maybe the young Joly was occupied with


finding the simplest and most basic conditions for something to be experienced as a comic or almost a comic, conditions I will turn to further on in this essay.

Abstraction and Visual Information Whether and how comics can modify our understanding of the abstract could be further advanced if we add different conceptions of what abstraction can mean. When other kinds of images are classified to be retrievable in databases or on the Internet, it is commonplace to base the classification on a taxonomy of image content. One such taxonomy, proposed by British information scientists Briggs, Burford and Eakins, defines nine levels of visual information (2003, 123-61). Of these, four are considered levels of ‘abstraction,’ i.e., levels of content which are not available in the picture but must be abstracted by the viewer against the background of previous knowledge and experience. Consequently, the levels commonly referred to as ‘abstract’ in art criticism–colour, lines, geometrical shapes, and so on–are not abstract according to Briggs, Burford and Eakins. For them, abstraction is a feature of higher levels of the cognitive process, not of the visual object. More basic levels of the cognitive process, such as the perception of depth cues in a picture or the identification of simple semantic units such as ‘house’ and ‘man,’ do not require abstraction in this sense. Basic visual elements, geometrical elements, depth cues and semantics are instead referred to as “perceptual primitives,” “geometrical primitives,” “visual extension” and “semantic units” (ibid.). In the context of cognitive science, it is a purely logical choice not to regard them as abstract. They are on the contrary quite concrete in that they can be apprehended at a glance with little cognitive effort. Contextual abstraction requires a capacity for recognising a specific scene from reality or from other images. Cultural abstraction is possible if the viewer is familiar with the mythological, historical and other culturally-specific themes in images. Emotional abstraction presupposes empathy and an ability to interact with fellow humans, whilst technical abstraction can be a highly developed cognitive skill in someone who teaches art, or someone who can name every piece of machinery in images of steel factories for instance. This taxonomy underlines the relevance of the question posed by many artists who called themselves Concretists or Constructivists: Why call a type of art abstract when it could just as well be defined as the most concrete? Today, even the most elusive products are accessible electronically through systems based on the theories of computer and information

Figure 2 Benoît Joly, “Parcours” in Abstract Comics, page [42]. © 2009 Benoît Joly.


science. It is therefore important to take this systemic thinking seriously for understanding the dissemination and reception of visual culture in general. The impact of digital reproduction and retrieval is often dicussed in contemporary art criticism and visual culture studies, but rarely in academic art history. It is also interesting that a theoretical framework such as that of Briggs, Burford and Eakins seems to harmonize with Concretist ideas, the latter having become completely marginalized by the general notion of ‘abstraction’ in visual art. Still, there may be other reasons for the persistence of the term ‘abstract art’ than a general confusion concerning the abstract and the concrete. As a matter of fact, even the art which “depicts nothing” may involve abstract content in the sense of Briggs, Burford and Eakins. In interpretations of works similar to Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, an emotional abstraction is often operative, regardless of whether it agrees with the artist’s intentions or not. Whenever an artist works with the symbolic function of colours and geometry, cultural abstraction is important. If a work is intended as a visual interpretation of a musical piece for instance, the intention cannot be understood without cultural abstractions concerning the ruling norms in music composition and appreciation. Regarding contextual abstraction, reading comics involves a constant mental construction of imagined contexts whose depicted scenes represent only fragments. What remains of this when ‘reading’ a page such as Joly’s Parcours is the capacity for contextual abstraction.

The Abstraction of Content versus the Abstraction of Expression

There are many ways in which a phenomenon or a cognitive process can be defined as abstract. To highlight the complexity, I will introduce some additional semiotic concepts and turn to my third example (Figure 3). It is a spread from Roland Sabatier’s hypergraphic novel Gaffe au golf (1964). Today we speak of graphic novels as a more literary form of comics, but when such novels break the gridded regularity of straightforward narrative, they sometimes approach the hypergraphies of Sabatier and other practitioners of Lettrism. The term hypergraphie is derived from hypergraphia, which was originally a psychiatric diagnosis applied to patients obsessed with scribbling words and symbols with no apparent sense and with no other objective than the fulfilment of a drive to write. In its most genuine manifestations, Lettrism disposed of all semantic content in poetry–even words. What remained were letters and other signs from varying, decontextualized semiotic systems which were then recombined. This means that what we see on Sabatier’s pages is neither a narrative, nor a rebus that should be interpreted according to a hidden code, but a suggestion for the possibility of codes yet to be invented. Still, the pages are not devoid of content. Certain kinds of content might be absent, but semiotic analysis can account for other kinds. Most semiotic analyses treat the sign as comprising two aspects or sides, united in solidarity, like the two sides of a sheet of paper. These aspects are the signifiant and the signifié, which is mostly translated as signifier (or ‘expression’) and signified (or ‘content’). I will henceforward refer to them as expression and content, but it must be stressed that the term expression should not be confused with the expressive function or with emotional aspects of language. What we see in the speech bubble are shapes reminiscent of letters, written in an inexistent language and hence incomprehensible. Those shapes have no linguistic content. If they had, it would be impossible to view them as mere shapes. They would then turn into readable ‘letters,’ i.e., they would no longer be apprehended as material shapes but as linguistic signifiers/expressions. Even without the possibility of linguistic signs, we can still recognise signs here–but these are different kinds of signs. One recurring shape is similar to that of a keyhole. This is then a pictorial sign, i.e., a sign that depicts. Some shapes are neither legible, nor recognisable as pictorial signs, but still describable as for example triangles and squares. These elements are referred to as plastic signs, i.e., signs of colour and shape. The term ‘pictorial’ may seem strange for francophone readers used to the established dichotomy of signes icôniques and signes plastiques. However, if we use the terms ‘icon’ and ‘iconic’ in C. S. Peirce’s


Figure 3 Roland Sabatier, Gaffe au Golf, pages 26–27. © 1979 Roland Sabatier.


sense, both pictorial and plastic signs are to be considered iconic. A more precise but cumbersome terminology would lead us to speak of ‘pictorial iconic signs’ and ‘plastic iconic signs.’ Depending on their context and their appearance in different kinds of sign systems, pictorial and plastic signs may also function as indexical signs, but never as symbolic signs. Both pictorial and plastic signs have an expression side and a content side, respectively. This simply means that an object in a picture is not the real object but a representation of the object, and that any drawn or painted circle is not the circle (as an idea or a cognition) but an attempt to represent it. The difference between perceived optical information and systematic visual concepts can be compared to the difference between sounds and phonemes: “Between the typical shape and the perceived shape, the typical colour and the perceived colour, the typical object (which could be further defined as icon) and the perceived object, there is the same relationship as that between the phoneme and all the sounds which might be associated with it” (Groupe µ 1992, 97; my translation).2 This division between the expression side and the content side of both pictorial and plastic signs is important for the semiotic analysis of abstraction in pictures. On the left page in Sabatier’s spread we see a lot of pictures. They are organised as a table, almost as if the page were taken from a comic with the famous standard ‘waffle-iron grid’ layout. Not all pictures in the table contain pictorial and plastic signs–we can also see French words, cuneiform Mesopotamian script, musical notation, Morse code and alphanumeric braille. In the middle of the third row is the braille sign for ‘W.’ The four Morse signs in the previous panel stand for “ANMI,” which does not make any sense. The pictorial signs are simplified when they resemble pictographs or even traffic signs. Obviously, the table is a text message in which both linguistic, musical, numerical and visual écriture is used. That an image is turned into a simplified pictograph and used in visual writing implies abstraction. However, it does not refer to ‘abstraction’ in the sense of pictorial signs being dispensed of in favour of plastic signs, as in most accounts of ‘abstract art.’ Rather, the abstraction of pictographs must be thought of as mentally climbing a semantic ladder–from the more specific to the more general. The ‘ladder’ is ‘semantic’ because the place where this ‘climbing’ takes place concerns the content of the pictorial sign (the signified). Impersonality and generality result from this abstraction, leaving little space for the individual stylistic traits and connotations that belong to the expression side of the sign. In plastic signs, achieving geometrical refinement and purity is likewise a result of climbing the semantic ladder. For example, the general idea of a circle is very different from the crude and therefore individual circles we see in Figure 2, or later on in Figure 9 (Roberto Altmann). In the most uncompromising instances of geometrical art, 2 “Entre une forme type et la forme perçue, la couleur type et la couleur perçu, l’objet type (qui sera plus loin défini comme icône) et l’objet perçu, il y a donc le même rapport qu’entre le phonème et tous le sons qui peuvent lui être associés.”


as in Figure 8 (Mark Gonyea), the plastic sign is almost identical to its geometrical content. About such signs, C.S. Peirce observed that the similarity (i.e. iconic relationship) between them and their ideal models in geometry is so close that they are “almost instances” of the models (Peirce 1998, 13). Here, the expression side of the sign has very little salience, and there are very few traces of any individual style. This analysis adds a qualification to the two antagonistic tendencies of ‘abstract art.’ In a work like Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, the attentive viewer may identify plastic signs, but they are imprecise and circumstantial. Abstract expressionism as practiced by Pollock and his fellow Americans (and André Masson before them), stresses the material process of painting and the global or ‘overall’ organisation of a surface. If this is abstraction, it does not occur at the content side, as the works lack clear pictorial or plastic content. The expression side is salient. If a Lettrist creates illegible letters that still look like letters, the abstract expressionist creates unrecognisable visual structures that still look like pictures. Such works challenge the viewer to recognise things which are not clearly there but which might be there. As an act of abstraction, this effort to recognise the unrecognisable takes place at the expression side of a phenomenon that oscillates between signification and brute materiality. The phenomenon qua phenomenon occurs as a result of the confrontation between the abstract pattern and the individual spectator. Paradoxically, when the spectator is unable to see anything but mere matter–and when the phenomenon lacks signification for this individual mind–the perceived visual pattern never reaches the semiotic status of an expression/signifiant. Compare this to Joly’s page (Figure 2), where semiotic stability is secured by the drawn frames and their conventional status as signs of spatiotemporal division. However, the blotches and markings enclosed within the frames are more readily interpreted as cut-outs or zoomed-in details of arbitrary gestures with ink, brush and pen on a surface, lacking consistent signification. To imagine some kind of consistency or even narrative in accordance with the title Parcours would be to mentally reconstruct a path and a rhythm in the process of making these material traces–to read the page as a document of the creation of patterns which might (or might not) function semiotically as expressions/signifiants. If this imaginative act consists in trying to abstract a larger context or a continuous series of events from a collection of material fragments, it is both an act of mental abstraction and an act in which we remain preoccupied with the expression side or signifiants of semiotic processes. Compare such works and imaginative acts with Malevich’s square or 379

works by El Lissitzky (Figure 6) and Mark Gonyea (Figure 8) where plastic signs and their content are immediately present for the spectator. The difference shows that the common notion of ‘abstract art’ confuses two completely opposite kinds of abstraction: on the one hand abstraction as the abstract or ‘typical’ content of plastic signs, and on the other abstraction associated with an intensified salience of the expression/signifiant, conveniently indicated by the established art historical term abstract expressionism.

Triadic Models of Visual Abstraction For another account of abstraction in pictorial and plastic signs, especially in comics, I now turn to an image taken from Scott McCloud’s work Understanding Comics (McCloud 1993, 51; Figure 4). Incidentally, this must be one of the most meta-linguistic works existing in comics–a theory of comics as a comic.

pictorial step before linguistic generality. At the apex of the triangle we see elements of The Picture Plane–i.e. what I refer to as plastic signs. Wittily, McCloud abstracted the drawing in the previous panels of himself as a comic figure, walking the ‘stairs’ towards the apex, until nothing remains of him except the three shapes there. The black square represents his black hair, the white circle his white face, the checked triangle his characteristic checked jacket. Representing the narrator, the three shapes speak, telling us that “This is the realm of the art object, the picture plane, where shapes, lines and colours can be themselves and not pretend otherwise” (McCloud 1993, 51; emphasis in original). As the shapes actually ‘pretend’ to be McCloud and speak, the message is ambiguous, which is not the only ambiguity in the diagram. McCloud never explains to what extent letters and language may also undergo transformations along the right axis between “language” and “picture” to become pure shapes on the picture plane. Maybe Sabatier’s image (Figure 3) provides a key to the answer. We may also ask whether the ‘realistic’ picture in the ‘reality’ corner is supposed to be a realistic picture or reality. As we can see, the word “FACE” at the opposite corner represents language itself. The faces along the axis between “reality” and “picture” represent an increasing degree of what art historians tend to describe as ‘formal abstraction.’ Nevertheless, what does this formal abstraction mean? We can see that the faces become more and more sketchy and hard to recognize; they are ‘abstracted’ in a ‘cubist’ or ‘planar’ fashion. This means a loss of individual detail, not that different from the ‘conceptual abstraction’ along the bottom axis which ends with the word “FACE.” Obviously, the ‘abstraction’ along the Reality-Picture axis involves both a ‘conceptual abstraction’ resulting in a generalization of pictorial content and a ‘formal abstraction’ in which pictorial signs are gradually dissolved into a multitude of plastic signs. Thus, the ‘formal abstraction’ here implies both a simplified pictorial content and a complication of the pictorial expression. It seems that these ambiguities could have been avoided if McCloud had developed separate models for pictorial, plastic and linguistic signs.

The image is a simplified version of a collage filling the next spread in the book (cf. McCloud 1993, 52-3). In the collage, McCloud has taken drawn faces from different comics and classified them in systematic rows, showing combinations of different degrees of generality and de-figuration along separate axes. The simplified version visualises McCloud’s idea that pictures and shapes and letters are images, albeit differentiated along the three axes of his triangle. In the bottom left corner, we see a realistic picture of a face, and at the bottom right corner we see the word “FACE.” A simplified, pictographic face is shown as the last 380

Information scientist Alan D. Manning wrote a favourable review of Understanding Comics, claiming that McCloud’s triad language, reality, picture plane could be regarded as equivalent to one of the trichotomies on which C. S. Peirce based his semiotic theories (Manning 1998, 669). The trichotomy in question is that between types, tokens and tones (also called qualisigns). Peirce’s type, token and tone can be regarded as three different ways in which a signifiant or expression can manifest itself within the commonplace significant-signifié distinction, thus only

Figure 4 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 51. © 1993 Scott McCloud and HarperCollins Publishers. 381

bearing on the expression plane of signs. However, I believe that Manning’s comparison is a misreading of McCloud’s theory: the latter is intuitive and does not have the ambition to provide a rigorous semiotic model. Peirce’s scientific theory of the sign is a part of his larger philosophical system and is often referred to as his doctrine of signs. It shows great subtlety, part of which seems to have escaped Manning’s attention. This is not to say that Manning’s equation of the language corner of McCloud’s triangle to Peirce’s type has no validity. According to Peirce’s doctrine, the expression side of the sign (be it a type, a token or a tone) is determined by the generality of the content which the sign is intended to express. If the content is very general, the expression will also be general. It will be a type. As an expression, the neutral ‘smiley’ sign in McCloud’s language corner is a type. However, the shapes on the picture plane, which according to Manning would be examples of tones or qualisigns, are also types in Peirce’s sense. They are plastic types, expressing the content of concepts in geometry. Peirce summed up what he had in mind when he identified certain elements as tones or qualisigns in this succinct definition: “a Qualisign is any quality in so far as it is a sign” (Peirce 1998, 294). This becomes evident if we consider the colour red and all the things it can signify in culture and ideology. However, not every perceived or sensed quality is a sign as there must be a content the quality can express. The quality need not be immediately visible or audible; it suffices that the mere idea of ‘red’ signifies ‘socialism’ or ‘love’ in a process of inner reasoning. This is also the main reason for its difference with other kinds of expressions in the Peircean model. The ‘tone’ is an expression which need not be realised to exist. This makes it distinct from the ‘token’ (also called sin-sign) which exists only if it is realised–think for example of a footprint or an arrow signifying a direction (Peirce 1998, 294; 296; 483; 488). When Alan D. Manning and Nicole Amare equate McCloud’s picture plane to Peirce’s tones, calling them “decoratives,” they disregard both the immaterial character of the Peircean tone and the primacy of content for its status as a sign (Amare and Manning 2013, 9; 27-59; cf. Peirce 1998, 296). To identify the creative and interpretive processes manifest in ‘abstract art’ and ‘abstract comics,’ I believe Peirce’s concepts are indispensable. The difference between a structure with only vague areas of transparent colour and one with eidetic shapes is encapsulated in the distinction between tone (as in an aural tone) and type. As for the token, any visual structure can have shapes whose placement and direction make us follow certain paths and make certain inferences. They thus function as tokens as they only function in a specific context and position. The most obvious example in comics is the speech balloon, instantly connecting thoughts and words to their source. When the blots and strokes in Figure 2 compel us to recognize them as foot tracks they also function as tokens. The only sign among the three categories that can be transformed and ‘abstracted’ in the way visualised by McCloud is the type. There are, however, important differences


between types that are plastic signs and those that are pictorial signs. Plastic signs “have no referent by definition” (Groupe µ 1995, 584): they have no reality to refer to. Plastic signs simply do not conform to the triadic model in McCloud’s drawing, which is valid for pictorial signs, but only with the important modifications in Figure 5, the latter illustrating the signe icônique as put forward by Groupe µ (1992, 136).3

Instead of McCloud’s picture plane, we find the type at the apex of the triangle. As clarified by the inscribed arrows and terms in Figure 5, the type is recognised [reconnaissance] in the visual stimuli provided by the signifiant at the bottom right corner. It is stabilised [stabilisation] in relation to the référent at the bottom left corner as it conforms to the visual appearance of certain objects in reality. The signifiant can however be more or less conceptually abstract or language-like, and therefore the axis between référent and signifiant is one of transformation. This corresponds to the equivalent axis in McCloud’s scheme. However, it makes no sense to imagine iconic signs (or the special kind of iconic signs called pictorial signs) as being closer to types than others, since types are the same in all signs conforming to them. This is indicated by the arrows and terms to the left and right in the diagram, signalling that both the type-référent and the type-signifiant relationship is one of conformité. Imagine, for example, the difference between a portrait of a ‘real’ person and a simplified ‘smiley’ sign, as in McCloud’s diagram. Although different, they both belong to the same category because both contain the type ‘human face.’ My sixth example, though it features colour, has a palette restricted to red, grey, black and white, due to technical limitations and the subject of the narrative. The work might be one of the earliest examples of ‘ab3  Incidentally, the use by Groupe µ and most francophone authors of the term ‘icon’ or icône as synonymous with depiction is problematic from a Peircean perspective, as an iconic sign in Peirce’s sense need not be representational or even visual. I therefore prefer to view Groupe µ’s diagram in Figure 5 as a demonstration of the special kind of iconic signs dubbed ‘pictorial signs.’

Figure 5 Groupe µ, Traité du Signe Visuel, page 136. © 1993 Seuil. 383

stract comics:’ El Lissitzky’s story about two squares, Pro dva kvadrata. Suprematicheskii skaz v 6-ti postroikakh (Of Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale in Six Constructions)–the constructions referring to the number of pages–made at UNOVIS in Vitebsk, and later printed by Skythen Verlag in Berlin in 1922.

one Red and one Black square which “fly to Earth” where they meet a “black anxiety.” They smash the black anxiety. Next, Black is intact but Red is deconstructed, and “RED IS STRONGLY BUILT UPON BLACK.” Last, Red has been reborn as a square and Circle/Earth has absorbed the colour Black, whilst a new Black square has appeared in outer Space: “HERE / IT ENDS / AND CONTINUES.” Figure 6 shows the second “construction” in which the Squares fly to Circle/ Earth which is still Red but features Construction/Society is Black, White and Grey. In the last two “constructions,” Society turns Red and White. All colours and shapes have political meanings, conveyed to children together with the simple verbal elements. Molotiu mentions Lissitzky’s work in his introduction to the anthology Abstract Comics (Molotiu 2009, n.p.). Its “constructivism” is at least partly in accordance with Molotiu’s principal definition that “abstract comics can be defined as sequential art consisting exclusively of abstract imagery” (ibid.). However, Molotiu both expands and restricts his definition, complicating it significantly. It is not entirely clear what he has in mind when he uses the terms “sequential art” and “abstract imagery.” According to Will Eisner’s and Scott McCloud’s well-established definitions, a sequential work of art is a series of pictures in which each new picture contains elements from previous pictures in such a manner that a story can be inferred. Thus defined, sequential artworks cannot be abstract comics in Molotiu’s sense, because he also imposes the restriction that elements must “not cohere into a narrative or even into a unified narrative space” (ibid.). Yet, he clearly seems to think that a work can have a sequential character without being narrative, which would differentiate abstract comics from abstract art: While in painting the term [abstract] applies to the lack of representational objects in favor of an emphasis on form, we can say that in comics it additionally applies to the lack of a narrative excuse to string panels together, in favor of an increased emphasis on the formal elements of comics that, even in the absence of a (verbal) story, can create a feeling of sequential drive, the sheer rhythm of a narrative or the rise and fall of a story arc (ibid.).

The thin but wide booklet, printed on twelve sheets in 28 x 22,3 cm quarto, starts with a dedication “to all children” and continues with a typographical poem stating “DO NOT READ / TAKE / PAPER, BEAMS, WOOD / FOLD, PAINT, BUILD” (Lissitzky 1990). In letters and shapes, the six “constructions” then tell the story of 384

Because of Molotiu’s restrictions, El Lissitzky’s story about two squares cannot be an abstract comic in this sense. Not only because it clearly tells a story with an ideological message, but also because of Molotiu’s additional stipulation that “[w]hat does not fit under this definition are comics that tell straightforward stories in captions and speech balloons while abstracting their imagery into vaguely human shapes, or even into triangles and squares” (ibid.). On the other hand, he does accept comics with “some representational elements,” as long as they “do not cohere into a narrative” (ibid.). Apart from showing historical

Figure 6 El Lissitzky, Pro dva kvadrata, sheet 5. © 1922 Skythen Verlag. © 1990 Artists Bookworks. 385

affinity with the work of artists like El Lissitzky, Kurt Kranz and even Willem de Kooning, Molotiu considers abstract comics as “a genre without a proper tradition” which did not begin until 1968 with a page that was already an amusing parody of the genre (ibid.). The latter is Robert Crumb’s “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics” (extract in Figure 7), first printed in Zap Comix in 1968, which opens the anthology Abstract Comics. Crumb’s parody is an emblem of the general attitude towards ‘abstract art’ in popular culture and society at large.

Because of the vagueness of the term ‘abstract,’ many artists have instead chosen labels such as the Russian Konstruktivism and/or Suprematism (El Lissitzky et al.), the French Art concret (van Doesburg et al.), or the Dutch Nieuwe Beelding (Mondrian and De Stijl). In the sixties, the art world was abuzz with the Minimalism of a new generation of American artists who were ‘hardcore’ in their preference for geometry and a systematic approach. As opposed to this new generation, the older artists saw their constructivism not only as the construction of a new kind of art, but also of a new kind of design, architecture, city and society: in short, a new way of life. In art history, it is virtually impossible to maintain clear and straightforward distinctions between abstract, concrete and constructivist art because these terms were used by various artists in different contexts and with widely divergent aims. The Konstruktivism of El Lissitzky and his Soviet comrades should not be confused with the Arte Constructivo or Universalismo Constructivo developed by Joaquín Torres-García in Paris and Montevideo at roughly the same time. The concrete idea that a modern work of art should neither represent, nor signify or tell, but create a visual sensibility does not chime with today’s sensibilities because it wants to ban all aspects not pertaining to visual and spatial design. This also relates to a highly utilitarian view of the role of art in society, which, incidentally, caused the schism between two groups of artists in Paris during the Spring of 1930, one side known as Cercle et Carré and the other as Art concret, associated with Torres-García and Theo van Doesburg, respectively. Initially, van Doesburg and Torres-García had tried to gather all radical, non-figurative tendencies in art. However, talks broke down due to ideological differences that had surfaced much earlier in van Doesburg’s conflict with his former De Stijl friend, Piet Mondrian. Compared to artists like Mondrian and Torres-García and critics like Michel Seuphor, van Doesburg wanted an extremely rationalist and even mathematical program for art and education. In protest, the majority of non-figurative artists joined Mondrian, Seuphor and Torres-García in Cercle et Carré, and participated in the exhibition with the same name at Galérie 23 during April and May 1930. Only four artists (Carlsund, Hélion, Tutundijan and Wantz) joined van Doesburg and signed the uncompromising Art concret manifesto deriding the exhibition. The manifesto was published in the first and only issue of the journal Art concret (April 1930) and comprised only six short paragraphs, aimed specifically at the mysticism van Doesburg observed in the work and theories of Kandinsky, Mondrian and other Cercle et Carré artists. The second and fifth paragraphs are crystal clear: a


Figure 7 Robert Crumb, “Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics,” excerpt from Abstract Comics. © 2009 Fantagraphics. 387

concrete work of art must be executed mechanically according to a preconceived plan, while it can leave no room for what a semiotician would call the expressive function:

cannot be a necessary one for the definition of comics. But what are these conditions?

1) The work of art should be entirely conceived and formulated in the mind before its execution. It should retain nothing of the formal observations from nature, nor any sensuality, nor any sentimentality. We want to exclude the lyricism, the dramatism, the symbolism, etc. (...) 5) The technical means should be mechanical, in other words exact, anti-impressionistic (quoted in Doesburg et al. 1930, n.p.; my translation).

Thierry Groensteen must be credited for having advanced the analysis of comics as a semiotic system, focusing on other criteria than narrative ones. In Groensteen’s perspective, comics are a system for dividing and organising two-dimensional space. Seen as a system, comics generate effects of rhythm and order, giving rise to the spatiotemporal relationships which we infer when we read the elements of a layout as images in a sequence (cf. Groensteen 2007, 24-57). Instead of limiting the definition of comics to cases with a manifest narrative, we may then look at formal conditions which exist before a narrative is realised or apprehended. We may refer to these conditions as quasi-narrative or infra-narrative.

However, this sectarian stance was hard to maintain. The Cercle et Carré and the Art concret groups soon dispersed, and members from both groups later joined the more inclusive Abstraction-Création group uniting artists with a program centred around abstraction, création and art non figuratif. As the original statement of 1932 released by the organising committee of Abstraction-Création in 1932 states: we have chosen these words as names for our group and for our activities, because we have found no others which are less obscure or less controversial. the collection of reproductions in this book can serve as a definition of these terms. we are not committed to them in other respects. non-figuration a purely plastic culture which excludes every element of explication, anecdote, literature, naturalism, etc... abstraction, because certain artists have come to the concept of non-figuration by the progressive abstraction of forms from nature. creation, because other artists have attained non-figuration direct, purely via geometry, or by the exclusive use of elements commonly called abstract such as circles, planes, bars, lines, etc... (quoted in Harrison and Wood 1992, 357-58).

Here, the term “creation” is reserved for the more radically non-figurative works, and the writers acknowledge that purely plastic elements are often referred to as ‘abstract’ in common parlance. Obviously, the distinction between mere abstraction and works which are genuinely creative was important for the group. In Abstract Comics, Molotiu pays little attention to such distinctions. While writing that abstract comics should consist “exclusively of abstract imagery” (Molotiu 2009, n.p.) he later refers not only to non-figurative art but also to pictures with abstracted or fragmentary traces of figuration, which are hence not non-figurative. The contributions by Derek Badman and Gary Panter for instance are a case in point. However, Molotiu secures a safe exit for himself by writing that “the use of ‘abstract’ here is specific to the medium of comics, and only partly overlaps with the way it is used in other fine arts” (ibid.).

The Conditions of Sequentiality If abstract comics are indeed comics, and if we accept Molotiu’s restrictions that neither narrative nor verbal elements can be included in an abstract comic, then we must also accept that the condition which Molotiu terms “narrative space” (Molotiu 2009, n.p.) 388

The term infra-narrative is Groensteen’s, as defined in Bande dessinée et narration (Groensteen 2013, 17), where he identifies five sub-categories of infra-narrativity, two of which are akin to Scott McCloud’s categories aspect to aspect and non sequitur (McCloud 1993, 72-9). Robert Crumb’s page (Figure 7) is essentially a parody of non sequitur comics, or what Groensteen terms amalgame. In aspect to aspect sequences, the panels show successive parts or details of the same object or environment without forming a narrative. For Groensteen this corresponds to his term décomposition. In the category he calls inventaire [inventory], the pictures are not random but united by a thematic appeal to amuse or inform. In the 19th century, this could be found in the macédoines of European cartoonists and in Katsushika Hokusai’s manga albums. The categories of inflection and seriation are closely related and both suggest that pictures are repeated in a regular manner. In seriation, the pictures are identical replicas, and this creates a ‘wallpaper effect.’ Inflection adds changes either at the content side or at the expression side of the pictorial sign. Changes at the expression side may involve alterations of colour and/or contrast, as famously exemplified in Warhol’s Marilyn and Electric Chair series. Inflection and seriation are akin to serial composition, which exists not only in visual art but also in music and poetry. In visual constructivism and avant-garde music, serialism involves the repetition and variation of a constellation or module, often resulting in replacements and other manipulations of elements in the work. We can see this in constructivist works such as Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (1924), which is one of the earliest examples of ‘abstract cinema,’ composed in analogy with the sonata form in music (Edlund and Werner 1997, 59-91). If presented as sequences of film stills, works by Eggeling, Walter Ruttman and others would be similar to some of Kurt Kranz’s experiments in graphic design at 389

the Bauhaus school in the thirties–experiments which Andrei Molotiu counts among the early precursors of ‘abstract comics.’ For a more recent and somewhat different example of serial methods in visual composition, we now turn to a ‘story poster’ by Mark Gonyea, who is also a cartoonist (Figure 8). Gonyea’s ‘story posters’ are playful and instructive visualisations of various kinds of knowledge, and he sells them cheaply online. This example is a brilliant demonstration of numbers and counting, probably well-suited as a teaching aid for schoolchildren with learning problems. The ‘objects’ visible within the ‘frames’ are not depicted objects as in pictorial signs, but the mathematical objects of geometry. The meaning of natural numbers from 1 to 100 is made concrete and visible by means of the number of circles. One of the most obvious parallels between Gonyea’s poster and the constructivist/concretist art of Eggeling, Kranz and their contemporaries is that it has no connection whatsoever to external reality or pictorial signs. Constructivist visual composition is closer to mathematical problem-solving and the analytics of digital image manipulation. It has a bearing on the selection and manipulation of a selected number of parameters such as shape, size, orientation, position, hue, brightness, saturation and so on. To execute all possible combinations of a limited number of elements or parameters is in effect a permutation in the strict sense of the term. In Gonyea’s poster, some parameters are constant–all shapes are circles and almost all arrangements are symmetrical (except for the one representing the number eleven). The variable parameters are size and number–the numerical variation being strictly linear, from one to a hundred (or from one hundred to one, if the poster is viewed upside-down). Molotiu’s Abstract Comics also features works by Gonyea. Although clearly constructivist in style, they are different from Figure 8 in that they are in colour and more reminiscent of the art and methods of Josef Albers. As a visual artist and educator, Albers became famous for his works on the theme “Homage to the Square,” all based on the same constructive grid with the square as its unifying principle. The division of the painted surface thus being constant, the serialism of these works consists in the artist’s variation of colour combinations and his almost scientific study of how different colours influence one another. Similarly, the works by Gonyea in Abstract Comics experiment with the colour variations of a ‘squares within squares’ structure which is serially repeated, magnified and reduced, with the variations looking like the panels of a comic page (Molotiu 2009, n.p.). When viewing these works in Molotiu’s anthology, one might be tempted to accept them as exceptionally pure manifestations of what

Figure 8 Mark Gonyea, One to One Hundred Circles, poster. © 2015 Mark Gonyea (www. storyposters.com). 391

he dubs the “feeling of sequential drive, the sheer rhythm of a narrative” (ibid.) in abstract comics. But is the “drive” which Molotiu speaks of really a sequential one? Is it not merely serial, as in the serial principle of constructivist art? Indeed, I maintain that Groensteen’s five categories of infra-narrativity–with the categories of seriation and inflection akin to serial composition–help explain crucial differences between the works by Gonyea and all the other ‘comics’ I have discussed thus far (keeping in mind that Groensteen does not refer to abstract or constructivist art in his examples of seriation and inflection). Both seriation and inflection are based on the repetition of elements, with inflection adding a variation which can occur at the expression side, the content side, or both. When changes only occur at the expression side, the perceived object (i.e., the pictorial content) remains the same: Marilyn is seen in different colours, but she is still Marilyn. Changes at the content side affect the perceived object, which is altered in ways that change its essence. A living man can turn into a statue, and a human character may suddenly appear with an animal’s head. We may likewise regard the serialism of Gonyea (Figure 8) as a case of inflection, albeit not of pictorial signs but of plastic/geometrical signs. The series involves a constant repetition of the same geometrical object–the circle–and the inflection is visible as the linear progression of the number of circles and the inventiveness of the patterns formed. This process only concerns the mathematical content side of the work, whilst the expression side remains unchanged as it consistently shows the same neutral contrast between black and white. By contrast, the serial works by Albers evince no variations in geometrical structure, and the inflection solely concerns the colours. To some extent, the same could be said of Gonyea’s contributions to Abstract Comics. If we compare this work to those of Joly (Figure 2), Sabatier (Figure 3) and Crumb (Figure 7), we notice that none of these engage the systematic and serial methods of Gonyea or Albers. There is no consistent repetition of motives; consequently, there is no inflection. Nor do we see the ‘wallpaper effect’ Groensteen associates with pure seriation. The thematic consistency which he observes in the inventory is probably present in the ‘table’ at the left side of Sabatier’s spread (Figure 3), at least if we regard it as a kind if inventory of signs. The successive aspects of the same object or environment implied by Groensteen’s term décomposition are absent in both Sabatier and Crumb, and in Joly’s work it is present only in a metaphorical sense. Of Groensteen’s five categories of infra-narrativity, amalgame (or non sequitur) is the one that most fittingly describes the works by Joly, Sabatier and Crumb. Concerning the (overly?) common notion of comics as ‘sequential art,’ Groensteen advocates a more unbiased definition of comics and a stricter delimitation of the realm of sequentiality. He does not regard the infra-narrative alternatives as narrative sequences in a proper sense. This becomes clear from his distinction between three additional general categories which, as he emphasizes, should not be confused: the sequence, the series and the suite (Groensteen 2007, 146). We speak of a sequence when a visual area is subdivided and filled with images which are sufficiently related to create a syntagm and 392

a reading experience. A series is only a succession of images governed by a theme or a principle, as an inventory or an inflection. A suite, finally, has no apparent consistency or order. It seems to be synonymous with amalgame. If we accept these premises, it would follow that in all their diversity, Joly’s, Sabatier’s, Crumb’s and Gonyea’s works may all be called art or even comics, but do not qualify as ‘sequential art.’

Abstraction as Comedy To conclude I return to the comical aspect of comics with which I began, Rolf Sandqvist’s Funtus. That modern comics originated in the ‘funnies’ of newspapers and satirical magazines is easily forgotten when discussing such unfamiliar topics as ‘abstract comics.’ This is the lighthearted play with words, images and situations which we find in very simple examples such as this extract from a work by Roberto Altmann4 who participated in the Lettrist movement in the sixties and organised artistic events in his Liechtenstein hometown Vaduz. In 1967 he finished a manuscript with the title Geste hypergraphique, which could be translated as either ‘hypergraphic gesture’ or ‘hypergraphic play.’5 The page (Figure 9) is taken from a thirteen-page excerpt in the Cuban journal Signos (Altmann 1970, 241). What can be deduced from the ‘hypergraphic language’ of this excerpt is a story of a feudal society whose inhabitants assume various kinds of funny shapes depending on mood and identity, and where an extra-terrestrial language is spoken. Human semiotic debris like question marks, numbers, stars, arrows, musical notes, astrological symbols, logotypes, chemical formulae and a-semantic exclamations like “EHÖ” are still recognisable. What seems to take place are lively debates, or perhaps even a political revolution or civil war. Ideas and feelings sometimes float around in an amorphous mud of curved lines and shapes, now and then coagulating into symbols and letter-like forms that disturb the debates. One could just as well say that we see semiotic tones (in the Peircean sense) coagulating into types. On the title page, a disc or ball formed by this ‘emotional mud’ seems to be carried as a tribute to the King. As grotesque as Altmann’s pages are, they still fit the idea of comic theatre implied by the French word geste in the title Geste hypergraphique. The 4  Not to be confused with film director Robert Altman. 5  At least two editions of Geste Hypergraphique can be found in library catalogues. One has 87 pages and was published in Vaduz (Centre internationale de creation, 1968). The other has 91-92 pages and is published in Paris (Bouffant, 1967). Both editions are rare. Copies of the Paris edition can however be found at Bibliothèque Kandinsky and Bibliothèque Nationale. One copy was sold at the Kahn-Dumousset auction in Paris in April 2014 for 250 Euros. 393

word geste therefore does not refer to a merely random gesture, but to the notion of theatrical performance, here realized in the medium of pictorial and typographic hypergraphia. There might even be an interesting parallel between this geste and Alfred Jarry’s absurd Ubu Roi plays.6 That Altmann’s Geste hypergraphique is not an abstract comic according to Molotiu’s definition is evident, because it clearly tells a story in a narrative space. However, if taken seriously, Molotiu’s restrictions would exclude many genuinely funny abstract comics–and in fact even some comics printed in his own anthology. I am thinking in particular of Ibn al Rabin’s, Andy Bleck’s, Mike Getsiv’s and Lewis Trondheim’s contributions, which clearly have narrative and/or meta-linguistic elements. It seems that in practice, not even Molotiu is able to reject the importance of narrative as a defining characteristic of comics, including so-called ‘abstract’ comics.

References Altmann, Roberto. “Zr + 4HCl -> ZrCl4 + 2H2, U + 3Fe2 -> UF6.” Revista Signos Vol 1 (no 3 1970): 230-243. Amare, Nicole and Alan D. Manning. A Unified Theory of Information Design. Amityville: Baywood Publishing Company, 2013. Burford, Bryan, Pam Briggs and John P. Eakins. “A taxonomy of the image: On the classification of content for image retrieval.” Visual Communication Vol 2 (2003): 123-161. Doesburg, Theo van et al. Art concret: Journal et revue fondés en 1930 à Paris no 1 (1930). Edlund, Bengt and Gösta Werner. Viking Eggelings diagonalsymfonin: Spjutspets i en återvändsgränd. Lund: Novapress, 1997. Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. ––– . Comics and Narration. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Groupe µ. “Toward a general rhetoric of visual statements: Interaction between Plastic and Iconic signs” [extracts from Traité du signe visuel]. In Advances in Visual Semiotics, edited by Thomas A. Seboek and Donna J. Umiker-Seboek, 581-599. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995. ––– . Traité du signe visuel: Pour une rhétorique de l’image. Paris: Seuil, 1992. Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, ed. Art in Theory 1900-1990. Oxford and 6 A direct connection is not wholly unlikely considering Jarry’s role as the founding father of the mock science pataphysics, and the fact that many avant-garde artists and poets active in Paris were honoured members of the Collège de ’Pataphysique.

Figure 9 Roberto Altmann, from “Zr + 4HCl -> ZrCl4 + 2H2, U + 3Fe2 -> UF6” in Revista Signos, Vol. 1, page 241. © 1970 Revista Signos. 395

Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 1992. Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” In Style in Language, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, 350-77. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1960. Krasner, Lee. In interview, December 14, 1967. Transcript from Oral history interview with Lee Krasner, November 2, 1964–April 11, 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Manning, Alan D. “Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” [review]. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication Vol. 41 (March 1998): 66-69. Markovich Lissitzky, Lazar [“El Lissitzky”]. PRO DVA KVADRATA. Forest Row: Artists Bookworks 1990 [facsimile of the original edition from Skythen Verlag, 1922]. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1993. Molotiu, Andrei, ed. Abstract Comics: An Anthology 1967-2009. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2009. Peirce, Charles Sanders. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol. 2. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. Rommens, Aarnoud. E-mail message to author, March 3, 2015. Hardcopy in the research archive of Visual studies, Åbo Akademi, Turku. Rudnick, Nicole. “500 Words with Andrei Molotiu.” ArtForum (online), August 10, 2009. Accessed September 24, 2015. http://www.artforum.com/words/id=23422. Sabatier, Roland. Gaffe au Golf. Aubervilliers: Publications PSI, 1979.


Dust Storms

Comics Machine Gene Kannenberg


Cover Version


Darkness Falls Across the Land


States of Being


Spots of Dialog


I Need the Noises of Destruction


I Liked It So I Put A


Zebraville Station


Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam


Short Story


I Love You More


Welcome to Paraville


Few Can Inform


Quality Control


Where Everything Ends


You Don’t Say


L’Image bande dessinée, entre figuration et abstraction. Le paradoxe qui fascine Jean-Louis Tilleuil S’interroger en 2016 sur les affinités de la bande dessinée avec l’abstraction, est-ce bien raisonnable ? La consultation du numéro spécial que le magazine d’information Le Vif/L’Express a consacré à l’année 2015 fait apparaître que c’est le « réel » – ce qui existe concrètement (opposé à ce qui est abstrait) – qui a fait l’actualité de l’année écoulée : La fiction a décidément du souci à se faire en bande dessinée : le réel prend chaque année un peu plus de place dans les rayons. Une “bande dessinée du réel” qui a le vent en poupe depuis plusieurs années, mais qui, en 2015, pousse le curseur un peu plus loin encore : elle ne se contente plus de témoigner ou de raconter, elle enquête, fouille et parfois, dénonce. À l’image du magazine La Revue dessinée qui n’hésite plus à mêler journalistes et dessinateurs, auteurs et enquêteurs (Van Vaerenbergh 2015, 149). Il n’y a pas que la presse d’information qui tape sur ce clou du concret dans la bande dessinée. Des ouvrages de vulgarisation se sont multipliés ces dernières années pour confronter la fiction bande dessinée aux événements du réel qui l’inspirent. La critique savante n’est pas en reste pour célébrer dans des articles le mariage de la bande dessinée et du reportage (Geneix et Guennoc 2011 ; Bourdieu 2012) ou pour étudier les inférences du contexte de production, tel que l’exemplifient les ouvrages collectifs Objectif bulles (Porret 2009) ou Hergé reporter (Grutman et Prévost 2010). Ces deux derniers titres offrent un bel enchaînement pour un rapide retour sur l’histoire du genre bande dessinée, puisque, dès ses premiers pas, il est manifestement question d’impliquer la réalité contemporaine dans l’imaginaire du récit : on pense bien évidemment au Tintin au pays des Soviets (1929). Au rayon des évidences à rappeler pour contextualiser ma propre réflexion, on ajoutera que la fiction, quelle qu’elle soit, ne peut se passer du réel, mais que cette réalité se trouve toujours transformée. Texte et image, dans la bande dessinée, prennent, avec leurs moyens spécifiques, leur distance avec la réalité sociale qui s’ancre en eux. Pour user d’un jeu de mot somme toute facile, ils font sémiotiquement abstraction du réel, même lorsque l’intention est, comme aujourd’hui, de renouer avec lui de manière existentielle, qu’il soit dramatiquement historique ou imprégné de la banalité du quotidien. C’est à cette pratique d’abstraction sémiotique, dans le représenté comme dans la représentation, à l’échelle de la vignette comme de la séquence, que je voudrais me consacrer. 416


Le texte dans la bande dessinée : les vertus subversives du dialogue « Le langage tend à l’abstrait », précise le Nouveau Petit Robert. Précision supplémentaire : la relation texte-abstraction est bien ancienne. Elle est même consubstantielle à la naissance de l’écriture. Pour assumer sa fonction de « mémoire des hommes » (Jean 1987) et ainsi rendre possible le savoir historique, l’écriture a progressivement abandonné sa capacité de figuration. Jusqu’il y a peu (c’est-à-dire fin dix-neuvième, début vingtième siècle pour l’Europe occidentale francophone), cette maîtrise de l’abstraction écrite a été réservée à une élite, sociale et intellectuelle, qui avait fait sienne l’équation – toujours d’actualité – entre savoir et pouvoir. Parmi les effets collatéraux de cette distinction symbolique du texte écrit, l’image figurative, restée (trop) proche du réel et pour cette raison (pédagogique) souvent sollicitée lorsqu’il s’agit de toucher un public plus large (populaire ou enfantin), aura à se mettre aux ordres de ce langage dominant, tant fonctionnellement parlant (l’image qui illustre le texte, souvent, au mieux, ne fait que le doubler), que formellement (l’image est séparée, voire isolée du texte). Il est toujours important de rappeler cette axiologie différenciée entre texte et image quand on s’intéresse à l’histoire du genre bande dessinée et à ses spécificités. La bande dessinée, qui fait ses premiers pas avec les aventures de Zig et Puce dans Le Dimanche Illustré (1925), celles de Tintin dans Le Petit Vingtième (1929), mais mieux encore avec la diffusion du Journal de Mickey (1934), doit son originalité sémiotique à sa prise de distance à l’égard de l’histoire illustrée, qui a été pratiquée par Rodolphe Töpffer dès la première moitié du dix-neuvième siècle ou plus largement par l’imagerie dite « d’Épinal » dans la seconde moitié et au début du vingtième siècle, et qui fera de la résistance dans la presse illustrée pour la jeunesse jusque dans la seconde moitié du vingtième siècle1. Lorsqu’elle interroge les raisons du succès du dispositif narratif de l’histoire illustrée, Annie Renonciat fait état d’un argument, soutenu par les prescripteurs de l’époque, qui repose sur les vertus pédagogiquement distinctives de l’abstraction textuelle : La formule d’Épinal présente l’avantage, aux yeux des parents et des éducateurs, de favoriser l’apprentissage et la pratique de la lecture, de maintenir la part du texte dans ses formes et fonctions traditionnelles : une sollicitation de l’esprit, des facultés abstraites et intellectuelles, de la mémoire et du jugement, à la différence de l’image, dont on estime qu’elle ne touche que les sens (Renonciat 2002 : 41-42).2

Avec la bande dessinée se produit ce qui relève d’une véritable révolution copernicienne, qui mettra longtemps à être appréciée à sa juste valeur. Le texte n’est plus le centre d’attraction du récit, l’image a pris le relais par l’intégration de celui-là dans son espace à elle. Indice d’une modernité qui doit beaucoup au modèle culturel américain, cette réduction des espaces (image/texte sous l’image > tout dans l’image) favorise une lecture 1  Parmi les supports de la presse spécialisée pour la jeunesse, toujours adeptes, après 1945, de l’histoire illustrée, on peut citer les français Bernadette, Pierrot, Vaillant ou Le Journal de Nano et Nanette. 2  Je remercie mon collègue Benoît Glaude de m’avoir fourni cette référence. 418

plus rapide des informations fictionnelles et narratives. Pour compléter l’inventaire des bouleversements liés à ce déplacement sur le texte, il faut ajouter que ce dernier prend essentiellement la forme du dialogue dont la proximité fonctionnelle avec l’oral diminue d’autant les prétentions au caractère « écrit » du texte bande dessinée. Mais la plus grande spontanéité de ce texte, qui doit sans doute beaucoup au succès de ces nouveaux médias que sont alors la radio et le cinéma parlant, n’achève pas là son programme révolutionnaire. Les implications ne sont plus sémiologiques ou linguistiques, elles sont désormais idéologiques. Exception faite des récitatifs, le texte n’est plus porté par un narrateur extradiégétique et omniscient, il responsabilise des personnages qui se construisent devant les lecteurs. En d’autres mots, il s’est démocratisé3. Et il peut être pertinent d’avancer que ce bouleversement qui touche cette fois à la narration textuelle et à ses enjeux politiques est pour quelque chose dans la marginalisation persistante de la bande dessinée dans le champ des pratiques culturelles du vingtième siècle. En fait, la bande dessinée s’impose, dès le milieu des années 1930, comme un lieu privilégié pour l’observation de la concurrence de paradigmes qui marque le siècle dernier. Cette fonction emblématique repose précisément sur son opposition générique avec l’histoire illustrée. Mais que faut-il entendre par paradigme ? Le concept n’est pas nouveau et a fait l’objet, ces dernières décennies, d’un grand usage qui a pu en réduire l’intérêt épistémologique. Une évidence pour entamer la description de l’acception : la nature ne parle pas d’elle-même. Pour le scientifique qui en parle, un paradigme correspond à un modèle de pensée, une façon de voir les choses, qui fait que ce chercheur pourra voir certaines choses… et pas d’autres. D’un point de vue diachronique, les paradigmes participent à notre compréhension de l’évolution des sciences, entendu que celles-ci progressent au sein d’un même paradigme qui, par définition, reste fermé sur lui-même ou par ruptures, par changements de paradigme : Avec l’accumulation d’anomalies et d’incohérences théoriques, les sciences passent parfois par des périodes exceptionnelles de crise durant lesquelles le paradigme est progressivement remis en question. Le problème ne consiste plus à résoudre les énigmes posées par le paradigme mais à repenser le paradigme lui-même. Le chercheur remet en 3 Ces différences entre histoire illustrée et bande dessinée ont été très bien décrites par Irène Pennacchioni (1982, 121-123) dans son ouvrage intitulé La nostalgie en images. Consciente des modifications narratives et socio-culturelles introduites par la bande dessinée, Pennacchioni ne recourt cependant pas à la formule de « révolution copernicienne » et au terme de « démocratisation », leur préférant celle de « résistance culturelle » et celui d’ « émancipation ». Question de contexte de publication, qui se doit d’être relativisé par rapport aux ambitions épistémologiques que l’on est en droit d’avoir en ce début de vingt-et-unième siècle. 419

question les règles du jeu et se retourne contre les autorités de sa tradition. On observe alors une effervescence intellectuelle durant laquelle les scientifiques se passionnent pour la recherche de nouveaux paradigmes. Finalement, un nouveau paradigme s’impose (Vink 1995, 96).

Nous n’en sommes sans doute pas encore à l’imposition du nouveau paradigme, mais il est pertinent de poser que tant dans nos stratégies de connaissance du monde (sciences) que dans nos façons de le raconter (fictions), nos sociétés d’Europe occidentale ont de plus en plus tendance à remettre en cause le culte d’une Vérité indicible, invisible, longtemps dominant, pour favoriser la croyance en l’accessibilité du sens, en la transversalité des savoirs plutôt que le primat de l’intransitivité ; le dialogisme généralisé plutôt que le monologisme autosuffisant. Cette dernière possibilité de rendre compte de la concurrence entre paradigmes4 nous remet sur la piste du texte de bande dessinée, de sa polyphonie définitoire qui prend ses distances par rapport au monologue omniscient du narrateur extradiégétique de l’histoire illustrée. L’originalité sémiotique de la bande dessinée sera davantage perceptible si on la compare à la pratique de la narration dans le roman de Jean-Paul Sartre, La nausée, publié, faut-il le rappeler en 1938 et donc contemporain des premiers pas du Journal de Mickey et de ses clones en France et en Belgique. Pour prendre position dans le champ littéraire de son époque, Sartre abandonne la narration omnisciente, caractéristique de la fiction réaliste légitime, pour lui substituer l’autonomie énonciative qui permet à son personnage principal, Antoine Roquentin, de s’affirmer comme conscience libre. Dans son étude sur le champ littéraire français au vingtième siècle, Fabrice Thumerel (2002, 168-210) a très bien mis en évidence cette stratégie esthétique subversive qui permet d’en apprendre sur la socialité sartrienne. Notre synchronie et son nouvel « implicite social » paradigmatique nous a donné l’occasion de compléter aujourd’hui notre analyse sociocritique des initiatives en matière de narration textuelle prises par la bande dessinée classique de l’entre-deuxguerres et, corollairement, de réévaluer l’histoire du genre. D’autres faits, relevant cette fois de l’observation scientifique, ont aussi fait l’objet, en cette fin de vingtième siècle et ce début de vingt-et-unième siècle, de réorientations qui paraissent relayer celle opérée par la concurrence des pratiques énonciatives de l’histoire illustrée à la bande dessinée dans le deuxième tiers du vingtième siècle (cf. Tilleuil 2005). Philippe Coulangeon (2005, 9) a également repris à son compte le couple démocratisation/démocratie culturelle pour décrire les transformations des politiques culturelles en France, davantage adeptes désormais du second terme (il revient aux individus de proposer, « d’en bas », 4  L’inventaire non achevé des couples de contraires incite à les rassembler sous les formules subsumantes de paradigme de l’idéalisme abstrait et de paradigme du pragmatisme réaliste, ce dernier adjectif étant à libérer de ses connotations artistiques immanentes. Dans son article intitulé « Le roman du peintre », Annie Mavrakis (1998) défend, en termes très poétiques, l’état de crise qui frappe l’ancien paradigme : « L’artiste qui a affaire aux formes, aux couleurs, aux sons, perd le contact avec le public dès lors qu’obnubilé par l’idée il néglige la fenêtre du monde. Il n’y a plus alors d’harmonie céleste mais des grincements à faire fuir les chats, plus de déesse incarnée mais une “muraille de peinture“. » Dans la phrase qui précédaient ces deux-ci, Mavrakis envisageait une conciliation, pour peu que l’on inverse l’ordre des connaissances : « La fenêtre donnant sur le monde y communique sans efforts avec la fenêtre ouverte sur le ciel. » (1998, 431). 420

leur propre modèle culturel) plutôt que du premier. De son côté, s’intéressant au « récit d’histoire nationale », Anne-Marie Thiesse a fait état du débat international qui concerne la science historique et qui voit les partisans du discours monologique omniscient traditionnel de plus en plus contestés par de nouvelles voix, hostiles à l’énonciation de surplomb et à la fallacieuse neutralité du discours scientifique : Il faudrait alors substituer, à la focalisation zéro du discours savant, celle que produit le narrateur externe à son récit, la complexité des points de vue. C’està-dire renoncer au confortable monologisme du discours scientifique pour s’inspirer des techniques de la polyphonie narrative expérimentées par la fiction littéraire du XXe siècle (Thiesse 2008, 107).

Outre qu’elle atteste la hiérarchisation revue et corrigée entre science (historique) et littérature, cette citation nous invite à revenir à notre problématique de la polyphonie énonciative de la bande dessinée et d’y apporter quelques compléments d’information. Au fil des décennies, le texte des personnages a gagné en expressivité. On pourrait s’arrêter longuement sur l’exploitation de plus en plus variée et étonnamment créative, de l’onomatopée. À ce propos, un parcours historique à travers l’œuvre d’un des grands animateurs de la bande dessinée classique, à savoir André Franquin, offrirait un fil conducteur des plus convaincants. On se contentera d’une illustration qui condense les multiples usages d’un type de message (Fig. 1), dont la proximité avec le langage de l’image autorise des effets de signification qui mélangent eux-mêmes iconique et plastique : lettre qui compose l’image, cadre le personnage, programme la lecture narrative, etc.

Si l’onomatopée constitue une des grandes spécificités graphiques de la bande dessinée, elle côtoie d’autres pratiques strictement linguistiques

Fig. 1. André Franquin, Gaston Lagaffe. T. 12. Le gang des gaffeurs, Marcinelle, Dupuis, 1976, p. 46, v. 9. (Gaston, Labévue et l’O rouge). © Dupuis 1976 421

qui ont contribué, au fil du temps, à rendre le texte bande dessinée plus expressif, à le rendre plus concret, plus proche de l’oral, en s’appuyant sur des conventions par définition abstraites. Un des indices de la « modernité » des productions bande dessinée francophones des années 1960 et 1970 réside dans cette volonté de mimer au mieux et à l’écrit la dimension vocale de la parole en variant les registres de sa communication verbale. Avec Hergé, l’esthétique classique passait aussi par un usage maîtrisé de la langue : ce souci d’énoncer ses pensées avec clarté et simplicité s’impose d’autant plus que Tintin est confronté à des personnages qui, à l’occasion et à des fins comiques qui leur échappent, pratiquent le dérèglement linguistique. Comme Haddock, grand créateur de jurons, mais dont Albert Algoud (2004, 12) nous rappelle qu’ils n’ont rien de grossier et visent même à remettre en circulation des mots vieillis ou inusités. Ou comme les Dupont/d, qui pratiquent le lapsus avec un réel bonheur (pour le lecteur), ou Tournesol, parfois tenté par une rhétorique pompeuse, ou la Castafiore, incapable de prononcer correctement le nom du capitaine Haddock. Lorsqu’au début des années 1980, Enki Bilal, animateur de la première « modernité » en bande dessinée, s’inspire de la fiction policière pour composer un récit complet en deux planches (Bilal et Grange 1981), le registre linguistique est foncièrement familier (« la garce », v. 1-2), voire vulgaire (« tronche de nave », v. 3-4)5. D’autres possibilités seront de circonstance avec la « nouvelle bande dessinée classique », qui se met en place dans la deuxième moitié des années 1980 ; il s’agira par exemple de diversifier les indices qui transcrivent, à l’écrit, les variations de la vocalité. Ainsi, lors de leur première rencontre dans La Conque de Ramor (Le Tendre et Loisel 1983, 21), les dialogues de Pélisse et Bragon multiplient les marques prosodiques, par un travail soutenu sur la ponctuation (points d’exclamation pour marquer l’insistance, v. 1+2+3+4+5+8 ; points d’interrogation pour signifier l’étonnement, v. 3+4+6), la présence de ratés (v. 6), le recours à l’interjection (« mhm ? », v. 7) pour souligner le ton ironique d’une réponse… Afin de donner une plus grande épaisseur prosodique au texte écrit, on peut aussi accentuer la graphie par un élargissement du caractère, coloré d’une manière particulière (rouge ou noir, v. 2+3+4+6+8). Mais l’indice empiète une nouvelle fois sur le territoire de l’image. Dans cette même perspective d’un renouvellement du texte qui s’appuie sur des critères plastiques, il faut encore noter l’originalité du placement des textes. Dans La Mort permissionnaire, comme dans La Conque de Ramor, la continuité narrative est moins installée par la suture iconique et/ou plastique (qui triomphe dans la bande dessinée classique) que par la présence fréquente de blocs de texte à cheval sur deux vignettes successives. Se substituant fonctionnellement à l’image, le texte de bande dessinée « moderne » ou « nouvellement classique » peut envahir l’espace d’une autre manière. On sait que les personnages de bande dessinée maîtrisent leurs discours, mais il leur arrive souvent d’occuper des lieux en marge de l’image, traditionnellement (classiquement) réservés à des informations à caractère narratif non communiquées par les dialogues ou les dessins. Dans le récit de Bilal et Grange, l’essentiel du texte de la première planche 5  Il va sans dire qu’il n’y a pas que le lexique qui se popularise ; la syntaxe, pour le coup, n’est pas en reste. 422

prend ainsi place non dans des ballons/bulles/phylactères, mais dans une forme revisitée du récitatif. Dans son programme de démocratisation de la parole, le texte de bande dessinée s’approprie ainsi le dernier espace réservé à la transcendance extradiégétique. Si l’on s’intéresse au contenu de ces mots du personnage de Simon (Bilal et Grange 1981, 70), on constate qu’il s’agit non pas de paroles, mais de ses pensées et que la forme, empruntée au récitatif, qui nous les restitue rend encore compte d’une distance : celle qui sépare l’être physique de Simon (d’abord dans un bar, puis dans une rue) de son être mental (ailleurs, c’est-à-dire dans un passé vieux de onze ans et un futur qui se rapproche : Simon va profiter de sa permission pour se venger de Suzy, qui l’a trahi). Distance intradiégétique entre deux figures de Simon, mais proximité avec le lecteur dont la dimension de « lisant » expérimentera d’autant plus facilement l’identification secondaire au personnage de Simon que la narration textuelle fonctionne sur le mode de la focalisation interne. Vincent Jouve (1992, 121-131), auquel on doit la distinction de cette instance, ajoute que ce mode joue un rôle fondamental dans la valorisation affective du personnage, et ce, malgré les indices d’antipathie éventuellement attribués à ce même personnage (en l’occurrence : bar louche, vêtement défraichi, projet et exécution d’un meurtre). A priori, la relation texte-lecteur s’établit autrement dans la planche de Loisel et Le Tendre (1983, 23). On pense moins aux textes dialogués, cette fois, qu’aux textes identifiables à des récitatifs. S’agit-il pour autant d’un retour à une pratique « classique » ? Certes, ces textes manifestent une grande économie de moyens prosodiques, ce qui souligne leur caractère plus « écrit », voire littéraire. Mais le décalage de ton, entre une grande retenue dans les récitatifs et une grande spontanéité dans les ballons, induit plutôt une intention parodique qui remet en cause l’usage classique du récitatif. Par ailleurs, si la présence d’un narrateur extradiégétique paraît dans un premier temps (celui de la lecture de la planche) attestée et renforcée par l’autorité qu’il se donne par rapport aux événement rapportés dans la planche (il nous en donne le fin mot), la lecture du quatrième tome (début et fin du tome) révèle que ce narrateur est bien intradiégétique : c’est Touret, le valet de ferme, présent au premier plan de la première vignette de la planche. Il faudrait bien évidemment compléter ces analyses ponctuelles par beaucoup d’autres, en allant voir notamment du côté du renouveau de la bande dessinée qui se crée à partir des années 1990. Mais je fais l’hypothèse, m’appuyant précisément sur une expérience de lecture de bandes dessinées qui ne s’est bien sûr pas arrêter à ces quelques études de cas, que le texte de bande dessinée n’est pas seulement un vecteur clé pour décider de la naissance du genre, mais que l’histoire de ses


variations contribue grandement à en faire l’histoire. Elle permet en effet de suivre l’évolution du profil du lecteur de bande dessinée dans le développement de son hyperlecture et induit une implication de plus en plus soutenue de celui-ci dans son acte de lecture. Au terme de leur ouvrage collectif consacré à une réévaluation de la rhétorique à la lumière du structuralisme, le Groupe µ (1970, 173) avançait qu’il devait être possible d’étudier l’évolution des normes de la bande dessinée, en portant son attention sur les rapports entre l’image et le texte. Ici se clôture provisoirement ce qui peut en être dit à partir du seul texte. Il nous faut maintenant y associer l’image.

L’image dans la bande dessinée : pour une relecture de sa polysémie ontologique De l’image, il a déjà été question dans les précédents développements relatifs au texte, et ce, pour cause de porosité des frontières entre ces deux langages, attestée somme toute dès la naissance du genre bande dessinée, qui les voit étroitement associés à la destinée figurée et dialogale des personnages. De cet entre-deux-guerres à aujourd’hui, l’image a gagné de l’espace et du galon dans les biens culturels produits et consommés en Europe occidentale francophone (au moins). On ne compte plus les prises de position qui vont en ce sens. On se contentera de celle-ci, qui nous intéresse parce qu’elle implique la destinée du texte dans son face-à-face avec l’image : L’expérience n’a plus d’existence qu’attestée par les images qu’on en rapporte. Les mots, face à la crédibilité dont on cautionne l’image, ne sont plus qu’un instrument détourné qui canalise le monde dans des significations a priori, correspondant de moins en moins à cette connaissance devenue iconique (Clerc 1989, 295).

L’objet d’étude sur lequel Jeanne-Marie Clerc observe les effets de ce « règne généralisé des doubles iconiques » est le roman contemporain. Pour ce qui nous concerne, il s’agit bien sûr de la bande dessinée qui, à la différence du roman, impose la cohabitation de l’image et du texte et dont les enquêtes menées depuis 1973 sur les pratiques culturelles des Français font apparaître une implication certaine de ce mode d’expression dans leurs changements de comportement à l’égard de la culture et des médias6. Dans son analyse des « images modernes », Jeanne-Marie Clerc soulignait cette fonction de l’image, enviée par le texte « enfermé dans le carcan abstrait de ses concepts » (1989, 295), de présenter à l’horizon de l’homme contemporain la possibilité d’une représentation, certes trompeuse, de la réalité. Un projet que la production bande dessinée contemporaine n’aurait pas perdu de vue. Mais ces indices d’émancipation du genre 6  Dans les résultats d’enquête valant pour les années 1973-1989, « [l]a bande dessinée n’est pas seulement le genre que lisent le plus les 15-19 ans […] : elle fait désormais largement partie des habitudes de lecture des Français puisqu’elle est présente dans 47% des foyers (41% en 1981) […] » (Donnat et Cogneau 1990, 96). Pour les résultats de l’enquête 2008, la bande dessinée, qui reste une lecture plus masculine que féminine, est citée comme genre préféré (par les hommes) jusque vers 30 ans, mais « désormais environ un quart des lecteurs de 45-54 ans en lisent » et, sur le plan sociologiquement qualitatif, cette lecture de bande dessinée et de mangas concerne prioritairement « les catégories de population les plus fortes lectrices » (Donnat 2009, 154-158). 424

bande dessinée, touchant à sa forme analogique et à sa réception, en côtoient d’autres, de nature à relancer le jeu de tensions entre illusion réaliste (pour l’image) et culte de l’abstrait (pour le texte). En effet et au risque du paradoxe, on observe que les théoriciens qui s’intéressent aujourd’hui à la figuration de l’image s’accordent pour lui reconnaître des dimensions abstraites. Il a été rappelé d’emblée que l’image matérielle artificielle transforme, comme toute re/présentation, ce qu’elle nous donne à voir. On doit au Groupe µ (1992, 115-119) d’avoir imposé, à la fin du vingtième siècle, la distinction, qui n’était pourtant pas nouvelle, entre signes iconiques et signes plastiques. En d’autres mots, d’avoir libéré le plastique de sa subordination à l’iconique en les constituant théoriquement tous les deux en classes de signes autonomes. Cette prise de position a contribué de manière non négligeable au déplacement du centre de gravité des réflexions portant sur l’image : plutôt que « fenêtre ouverte sur le monde », l’image relève d’une abstraction et sa prétention au réalisme est déclarée non pertinente (Comar 1992, 95). Envisagée de plus en plus souvent dans une perspective interdisciplinaire, l’image est notamment étudiée dans ses spécificités perceptives, ce qui conduit à la différenciation entre l’objet perçu dans la réalité et sa perception dans l’image : la chose imagée, entièrement donnée dans son apparence visible qui la manifeste et synthétise toutes les apparences possibles, est quasi hors du temps et hors de l’espace – en un mot : irréelle – , alors que la chose réelle ne dispense jamais d’une exploration complète, ne se découvre que peu à peu et par le temps (Meunier 1980, 28-39). Mais c’est précisément parce que l’image figurative ne se confond pas avec l’objet qu’elle est intéressante ; c’est dans la différence que se faufile le sens de l’image (Comar 1992, 94). Le renouvellement du discours sur l’image doit aussi beaucoup à l’apparition de l’art abstrait, qui remet en cause l’exigence ontologique de représentation de l’image. C’est à la sémiologie plastique, attentive à l’expressivité de l’image, d’analyser ses modalités de « présentialité », avec comme corollaires éventuels la mise au jour de nouveaux paradoxes : l’image abstraite se fait concrète, voire plus concrète (parce qu’immédiatement tangible : elle est un matériau, qui a de l’épaisseur, de la couleur, etc.) que le concret, c’est-à-dire que l’image attachée à la transparence de la réalité (qui suppose le respect de conventions abstraites) (Aumont 1990, 202-212). Plus récemment, Jan Baetens est revenu de son côté sur la question de l’iconicité de l’image, mais c’est pour mieux souligner ses prédispositions à l’abstraction. Son propos retient tout particulièrement notre attention, car il porte sur des corpus bande dessinée. Contrairement à la photographie, le dessin de bande dessinée « n’est pas forcément déterminé par son rapport plus ou moins


ressemblant à une donnée externe ». Par conséquent, « la possibilité d’une bande dessinée abstraite paraît tout à fait plausible » (Baetens 2013, 55). Immanquablement, le rapide passage en revue de ces quelques positions théoriques en faveur d’une abstraction de l’image figurative fait apparaître une convergence, à savoir une avancée conséquente dans le processus de légitimation de l’image, en général, et de la bande dessinée, en particulier. Ce qui induit de manière tout aussi évidente une réévaluation du dialogue sémiotique entre l’image et le texte, la première comblant ainsi une part importante de son retard symbolique sur le second. Mais il est un autre discours théorique, sans doute plus ancien, qui, ayant aussi l’abstraction comme enjeu, entretient la possibilité d’un rapprochement a priori contre-nature (sémiotique) entre représentation analogique et représentation digitale. Il suffit, pour ce faire, de changer de point de vue et de se focaliser plutôt sur ces règles de transformation visuelles qui permettent de reconnaître certains « objets du monde » dans la représentation iconique (Joly 1994, 96) ou, en d’autres mots, d’interroger les mécanismes grâce auxquels l’image figurative crée son propre espace. Il nous faut en fait revenir à la fameuse métaphore de la fenêtre pour constater que, si elle ne nous offre pas à voir le monde, l’imitation qu’elle nous en donne a de quoi tromper. Nous touchons là – une première fois – à la fascination de l’image, c’est-à-dire à son pouvoir de nous faire prendre des vessies pour des lanternes, qu’il nous faut considérer de manière positive, non pour le stigmatiser, mais pour en (ré)apprécier les subtilités de fonctionnement. Un devoir élémentaire de réflexivité épistémologique me conduit à identifier ce souci comme résultant de la concurrence paradigmatique décrite précédemment… Un des mots clés de cette interrogation est bien évidemment celui de « ressemblance » dont on sait qu’elle repose sur l’usage de la couleur et de la lumière (pour les images de grande diffusion). Les lois de la géométrie ont aussi une part importante dans la production de l’illusion représentative. Tout d’abord parce que le support de l’image est un espace géométrique et qu’il en subit dès lors les lois (on rappellera à ce propos que « [l] es points naturels de l’image se situent très exactement à l’intersection des diagonales et des grandes lignes de force issues de la règle des tiers » ; Duc 1992, 143) ; ensuite, parce que la géométrie, qui s’y entend bien en matière d’abstraction, est à considérer comme la science même des ressemblances : C’est là son objet principal : établir entre les formes des similitudes, des affinités, des correspondances, tout un monde sous-jacent de relations qui permettent de mieux comprendre, à la fois, les formes elles-mêmes et la nature de l’espace où elles se déploient (Comar 1992, 13).

Quand il est question de rapprocher historiquement géométrie et fenêtre, il est difficile de passer à côté de la perspective à centre, qui, s’appuyant sur des procédés de la géométrie euclidienne, réduit notre expérience subjective de la vision directe des objets et de l’espace réels à une projection centrée où tout système de droites parallèles coupant le tableau converge vers un même point de fuite situé sur l’horizon (celui-ci rassemblant tous les points de fuite issus de tous les systèmes de droites parallèles). Mise au point au quinzième siècle, la perspective centrale a accompagné, voire contraint la figuration de l’espace dans la peinture occidentale jusqu’à la seconde moitié du dix-neuvième 426

siècle (Panofsky 1975, 19-20). Les réserves qu’il faut formuler à son encontre sont bien connues : il existe d’autres pratiques perspectives7 et celle, portée sur les fonts baptismaux par Alberti, ne reproduit pas notre vision des choses, mais en propose une transformation philosophiquement marquée. Cela étant, c’est précisément cet ancrage dans la révolution culturelle renaissante qui offre à la « fenêtre d’Alberti » ce supplément d’âme dont peuvent profiter le créateur de l’image comme son spectateur, à la fois présents (convoqués par l’image) et absents (exclus de la réalité iconique), pour rivaliser avec la transcendance divine. Cerise supplémentaire sur le gâteau d’un sujet déjà bien triomphant, l’image perspective (à centre) modifie le rapport qu’il entretient avec le monde. Donné comme inaccessible, ce monde devient mesurable, cohérent, unifiable grâce aux lignes d’horizon et aux points de fuite. Une maîtrise certes artificielle, mais qui constitue un indice manifeste de l’orgueil humaniste, à prendre en considération pour relancer une deuxième fois le pouvoir fascinant de l’image. D’une légitimité tout aussi « moderne », mais plus terre à terre, il faut distinguer cet effet de réel, souvent associé à la représentation perspective, qui profite à l’image qui illustre le livre. Les innovations techniques mises en place à l’aube des temps modernes (on pense aux techniques de gravure sur métal) ont pour conséquence de retourner désormais à son avantage ce qui l’avait pénalisé jusqu’alors : sa meilleure proximité avec le réel rend l’image plus crédible, lui accorde une fonction documentaire qui l’autonomise par rapport au texte, trop distant. Avec l’époque contemporaine, la technique photographique poussera plus loin l’illusion référentielle. Elle s’imposera progressivement dans les supports de grande diffusion (d’abord ceux de la presse écrite, si l’on s’en tient à l’image fixe) et incitera la peinture, libérée de l’obsessionnelle ressemblance, à retrouver l’abstraction légitimante. Autre temps, autre philosophie : au sujet triomphant et centré, installé depuis la Renaissance, adepte d’une image comme construction, s’oppose le sujet crisant et décentré d’une nouvelle modernité, préférant l’image comme expression (Aumont 1990, 165-168). Dans son ouvrage de synthèse sur l’imagination, Jean-Jacques Wunenburger rassemble plusieurs des arguments exposés précédemment (vision ≠ perspective ≠ expression) et revient sur ce que ce changement de point de vue philosophique a eu comme conséquence sur les modalités d’expression figurative légitimes : Si la peinture classique occidentale, née des règles de la perspective géométrique au XVe siècle, semble avoir soumis l’imagination à une représentation des ap7  Perspective à axe (central), perspective aérienne ou atmosphérique, perspective parallèle ou militaire, et autres. 427

parences de la réalité perçue, ce canon figuratif n’est qu’une fiction, qui ne dérive pas de l’espace vécu, et qui fait place, dès la fin du XIXe siècle, à un autre système de représentation encore moins réaliste (impressionnisme, expressionnisme, art abstrait) (Wunenburger 1991, 12)

La production bande dessinée francophone n’échappe pas à la synchronie du débat opposant image-construction et image-expression. Et ce, d’autant plus que la bande dessinée dispose depuis la fin du XXe siècle d’une légitimité suffisante (à défaut d’être achevée) pour entretenir des modalités d’appropriation plus égalitaires, voire concurrentiels avec ses modèles tant picturaux que littéraires, longtemps dominants dans le champ culturel. Encore que, comme dans les années 1960 et 1970, on puisse rencontrer de ces auteurs hybrides reconnus pour leur pratique classique et moderne (comme Jean Giraud, alias Moebius, dessinateur de la série de western classique « Blueberry » et animateur du journal Métal Hurlant) ; en ce début de vingt-et-unième siècle, Manu Larcenet par exemple (dessinateur de Retour à la terre et du Rapport de Brodeck), a pris le relais de cette créativité qui refuse les frontières symboliques. En fait, tout artiste de bande dessinée, qu’il pratique le récit réaliste ou comique, classique, moderne ou expérimental, a à se situer par rapport aux codes analogiques pour figurer ses personnages, représenter ses décors et géométriser leur spatialisation respective. Parce que le dessin, à l’opposé de la photographie, relève de la caricature (elle est toujours dé/formation régulée du réel), il suppose une maîtrise technique, fut-elle élémentaire et subjective. « L’appareil photo prend sans considérer. Le dessin oblige l’œil à apprendre », se plaît à souligner Zep (cité dans Bagault 2012, 30).

De l’image unique aux images en séquences : l’abstraction comme trou noir de la fiction Le mot s’est glissé de manière discrète, au détour de typologies très générales des productions, à la fois synchroniques et diachroniques, exposées en fin du développement précédent : la bande dessinée, c’est du récit. Raconter une histoire constitue même un des traits définitoires du genre. Cette narrativité est observable dès l’image unique et fixe. La présence de texte la prédispose à se gonfler d’une durée potentiellement nécessaire au fonctionnement basique du récit (un état et sa transformation, virtuelle ou réalisée). Vide de texte, l’image bande dessinée peut cependant user de l’espace pour figurer du temps, par une articulation judicieuse des choix iconiques avec l’exploitation du paramètre de la profondeur (loin/près = avant/après ou l’inverse), du paramètre du cadrage (en jouant sur l’opposition montré/caché) ou encore du paramètre de la composition (effet narratif de complétude/d’incomplétude). La tentation d’une narrativité centripète pourrait même constituer un critère de distinction des bandes dessinées ayant pris leur distance à l’égard de l’esthétique classique (c’est-à-dire « modernes », « nouvellement classiques » et « nouvellement modernes »)8. Sans pour autant remettre en cause 8  Ce qui est vrai pour l’image unique peut être extrapolé, à l’occasion (« moderne », « nouvellement classique » ou « nouvellement moderne »), à la planche ou à la double planche de bande dessinée.


fondamentalement l’inertie centrifuge de la vignette bande dessinée, indispensable à l’installation de la continuité narrative. Quoique l’attention que je voudrais avoir pour ce dernier moment de ma réflexion porte sur les modalités du micro-montage des vignettes (l’articulation de vignette à vignette) au sein d’une planche bande dessinée, je ne souhaite pas revenir sur des considérations désormais bien connues relatives à la logique métonymique qui y préside et qui repose sur l’opposition suture/rupture, entendu que l’illusion d’une coulée « naturelle » des images, qui nie leur statut fondamentalement discontinu distingue – une nouvelle fois – une pratique classique du récit. Le fil conducteur des analyses qui vont suivre est constituée par la narration comme « acte de raconter », par le texte et par l’image, et donc conséquemment par les relations entre énoncé et énonciation (pour le texte), iconisé et iconisation (pour l’image). Petit rappel théorique : aucun texte ne s’énonce tout seul et ne peut échapper aux marques laissées par cette énonciation dans son énoncé ; il en va de même pour l’image qui ne s’iconise pas toute seule et porte les traces de son iconisation dans son iconisé (Tilleuil 2005, 107-117). Ces actes d’énonciation et d’iconisation sont pris en charge par un narrateur (extra- ou intradiégétique) qui s’adresse à un narrataire (extra- ou intradiégétique), deux instances virtuelles qui opèrent dans les limites du texte et de l’image et dont les traces qu’ils laissent de leurs implications respectives dans les narrations servent à la construction des éthos (du narrateur comme du narrataire). Si, depuis Rimbaud, nous sommes tous bien convaincus que « Je est un autre » – qu’une frontière existentielle sépare la personne civile du personnage et du monde fictif9– , il n’est pour autant pas impossible que ces jeux de narration ne puissent nous apprendre aussi, en amont comme en aval (du texte et/ou de l’image), sur l’auteur réel et le lecteur réel, ainsi que sur les contextes de production et de réception : « Tout énoncé, et tout récit, porte les marques de sa situation de production, de ses conditions d’énonciation et fait entendre la voix de celui qui l’énonce » (Verrier 1985 : 174). Cette dialectique fiction/réalité qui vient d’être mise au jour nous met sur la piste d’une nouvelle expérience de l’abstraction dans notre lecture de la bande dessinée. Pour ce faire, j’ai d’abord besoin de m’arrêter devant un effet d’archi-discursivité (la remarque qui suit vaut pour tout type de discours) que j’identifie, à la suite d’Alain Bergala, au « moment du code ». Le moment du code, c’est le moment où les choix ne se posent plus par rapport à la panoplie objective des paramètres (et au dégradé in9  En bonne méthode, « [l]e narrateur […] est à distinguer radicalement de son auteur » (Genette 2004, 36). 429

fini et homogène des possibilités qu’ils proposent) mais se réduisent à un paradigme de quelques choix possibles réellement inscrits dans le langage, marqués par leur retour, leur répétition, leur reprise, dans l’ensemble des textes qui constituent, à un moment donné, un état historique de ce langage.

lustrent exemplairement la bande dessinée classique, les deux vignettes suivantes recourent tantôt à l’aparté monologale, emprunté au théâtre, tantôt au texte de pensée et au récitatif (Fig. 2 et Fig. 3):

[…] Le langage iconique (et ses codes) n’est pas inscrit dans les paramètres de l’image : il est inscrit dans l’ensemble des productions iconiques d’une époque et d’une société, dans les habitudes culturelles (idéologiques) qui en règlent les figures, les structures, les modèles effectivement disponibles parce qu’effectivement recevables, lisibles par cette société (Bergala 1979, 12-13).

Appliquée à la bande dessinée, cette prise en compte du « moment du code » conduit à une réappréciation des variations qui ont marqué par le passé et marquent aujourd’hui tant les usages des paramètres textuels, iconiques ou plastiques de la bande dessinée, que ceux de ses modalités narratives qui m’intéressent ici au premier chef. Tout a déjà été dit sur la fonction subversive du dialogue dans la naissance de la bande dessinée. Sur le plan de la narration textuelle classique, la généralisation de ces « paroles » échangées entre personnages fait que ceux-ci s’échangent aussi leurs rôles de narrateurs/ narrataires intradiégétiques en fonction des nécessités du récit. Cette pratique textuelle contribue à autonomiser la fiction, comme si « les événements […] se racont[aient] eux-mêmes » (Benveniste 1966 : 241), par la grâce de ces deux instances abstraites, complémentaires par essence et interchangeables en l’occurrence. Mais les marquages de leurs énonciations respectives peuvent aider le narrataire extradiégétique, extérieur au monde de l’histoire racontée tout en y étant implicitement présent, et au-delà, au lecteur réel que je suis, invité à se modeler sur cette instance virtuelle, à reconstruire les éthos des personnages en question10. Ainsi, dans ces deux vignettes qui représentent Tintin et Haddock en discussion lors d’une promenade (L’Affaire Tournesol, p. 1, v. 9-10), les propos du capitaine ne font pas que réactualiser le stéréotype du déni d’aventure ; ils entretiennent aussi son rôle privilégié de déclencheur du comique : il suffit qu’Haddock réclame « le calme, le repos, le silence » pour qu’un grand bruit se manifeste (p. 1, v. 11) et mette fin à ce moment de sérénité tant apprécié. La réserve de Tintin (« Vous dites ça, capitaine, mais… ») atteste sa science héroïque infuse : il sait bien, lui, qu’une nouvelle aventure les attend… quoique l’issue même du récit (p. 62 : les plans de la machine à ultra-son du professeur Tournesol, convoités par les Bordures et les Syldaves, sont restés à Moulinsart !) incite à nuancer le rôle thématique du capitaine, qui dispose d’un pouvoir cognitif et pragmatique de moins en moins négligeable. Mais la bande dessinée classique connaît d’autres manifestations textuelles que le dialogue. Comme les bulles de pensée ou de monologue de personnages, sans oublier les récitatifs qui fournissent des informations de régie. Dans ces différents cas, la narration s’ouvre exclusivement à l’extradiégétique et à la curiosité du lecteur concret. Toujours reprises aux aventures de Tintin, qui il10  À la suite de Vincent Jouve, dans sa synthèse des théories de la lecture, on peut identifier ce narrataire extradiégétique ou lecteur virtuel à un relais, voire un double idéal du lecteur réel (Jouve 1993, 29-31). 430

La narration classique de l’image bande dessinée a aussi sa norme dont la fonction autonomisante rejoint celle du dialogue. Ce qui est montré paraît l’être spontanément, comme si la figuration s’animait toute seule. Les personnages se meuvent et agissent dans un monde qui leur est propre, a priori sans contact avec le monde du lecteur réel. En fait, l’image à narration extradiégétique adopte, après transposition et cette fois à la différence du texte dialogué, « une forme ancienne, naïve et fondamentale » (Raymond 1988, 115)11, du récit romanesque à la troisième personne. Cette iconisation qui « naturalise » son acte de représentation figurée, c’est-à-dire qui tente de neutraliser les marques de son iconisation, induit cependant une relation toute particulière avec son spectateur (virtuel > réel) qui remet une troisième fois sur le métier de l’analyse sémiotique de l’image son pouvoir de fascination. Déjà lectrice indiscrète des paroles et pensées (écrites) des personnages, la double instance placée en aval du spectacle offert par l’image (abstraitement dedans > concrètement dehors) expérimente une forme complexe de voyeurisme : elle est non seulement amenée à voir quelque chose qui ne lui est pas destiné, mais elle peut jouir de ce qu’elle voit sans être vue… qu’elle voit ! L’expérience fantasmatique se complique encore du fait que l’iconisé, produit de l’iconisation naturalisée, réserve pourtant sa place à ce voyeur impénitent. Du moins en théorie. Pour saisir ce paradoxe (absent/présent de la diégèse visuelle), il nous faut revenir à l’abstraction géométrisante de l’image perspective : « Notre présence est requise dans cette construction de l’espace, nous y avons notre place. Nous devons tenir notre rôle de spectateur » (Comar 1992, 87). En fait, la perspective centrale invite le spectateur – rappelle 11  Je remercie mon collègue Laurent Déom (Université Charles de GaulleLille 3) de m’avoir communiqué cette référence.

Fig. 2. Hergé, Objectif Lune, Tournai, Casterman, 1953, p. 20, v. 9. © Hergé/ Moulinsart 2016 Fig. 3. Hergé, Tintin au Tibet, Tournai, Casterman, 1960, p. 2, v. 4 © Hergé/ Moulinsart 2016 431

Philippe Comar (1992, 43) – « à adopter le point de vue qui a présidé à la construction du tableau, sans quoi l’image apparaît déformée ». Mais, en pratique, poursuit l’artiste plasticien et théoricien de la perspective : le point de vue à partir duquel cet espace plan libère son volume est rarement montré. Sa découverte est laissée à l’appréciation du spectateur. C’est à nous – et à nous seuls – qu’il appartient de se repérer par rapport au tableau en tant qu’observateur. Nous devons émettre des suppositions sur la manière de le voir pour nous placer correctement, nous confondre avec le point de vue (Comar 1992, 87).

Il existe bien évidemment des exceptions à cette règle tout en souplesse, à commencer par l’expérience inaugurale de Filippo Brunelleschi (début quinzième siècle), qui impose au spectateur de se soumettre à la condition du point de vue unique, à laquelle on peut ajouter les images en trompe-l’œil ou encore certains tableaux dont la mise en scène programme par un détail (le miroir bombé dans le Portrait des époux Arnolfini de Jan Van Eyck ; Comar 1992, 42-43) ou par la représentation dans son ensemble (Les Ménines de Vélasquez ; ibid. 114-117), la place du peintre et/ou du spectateur. Mais, pour prendre Comar au mot, on peut avancer qu’une observation attentive de la mise en espace dans une image unique et fixe, en l’occurrence de bande dessinée, aussi banale soit cette image sur le plan de la linéarisation du récit, peut conduire au repérage du positionnement du couple complémentaire narrateur extradiégétique-narrataire extradiégétique, ainsi qu’à la reconstruction de leur éthos respectif12. Car, aussi neutralisante soit-elle, une iconisation n’arrive jamais à faire disparaître toute trace de son acte et, corollairement, de la construction de l’espace propre de l’image et de l’incarnation des co-iconisateurs qui y ont pris place. Concrètement, le repérage de ces marquages discrets de l’iconisation dans l’iconisé suppose que l’on soit attentif au traitement iconique de l’image (la figuration des personnages, du décor, etc.), mais aussi aux usages des différents paramètres plastiques qui sont faits dans l’image étudiée. Mais le souci qu’a l’image de bande dessinée classique de masquer son iconisation, combiné à la « vieille » habitude du spectateur à être confronté aux manipulations d’images qui sont propres à sa culture, font qu’il se retrouve souvent impliqué dans cette représentation d’espace sans en être bien conscient. Des cas de marquage de la narration visuelle peuvent cependant être rencontrés dans la production classique, qui, vu leur caractère exceptionnel, attirent l’attention. Il en est ainsi de l’illustration de première de couverture des Bijoux de la Castafiore (1963) dont l’originalité de la mise en abîme de la situation de communication repose cette fois non plus sur la relation de personnage à personnage, mais bien de personnage à personne, via l’instance du narrataire extradiégégétique. Reprenons : c’est bien à lui (et au-delà, à la personne du spectateur/lecteur réel) que Tintin adresse son regard et son invitation à faire silence, le faisant ainsi entrer plus encore dans la fiction, comme personnage virtuel (narrataire intradiégétique). Dans son étude bien connue sur « l’image manipulée », Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle suggère de prolonger en amont l’implication des 12  Cf. notre analyse de la vignette 3 de la page 56 des Sept boules de cristal, qui conclut au partage d’une ocularisation zéro omnisciente aux effets cependant symboliquement différenciants pour le narrateur et le narrataire extradiégétique (Tilleuil 1995, 301-326). 432

instances de narration et, dans une étude portant sur l’image publicitaire, propose de doubler le rôle du personnage qui me regarde de celui du destinateur, « un groupe de décision ou une firme », avec comme conséquence fantasmatiquement pertinente de transformer en communication (pseudo-) directe une communication ontologiquement vécue en différée : Présentement, le manifeste publicitaire va tout mettre en œuvre pour me donner à croire […] qu’il n’y a plus cette distance entre l’émetteur et le récepteur matérialisée par l’existence même de l’annonce ; qu’au contraire tout semble se passer dans l’instantanéité d’une communication transparente (je/tu). Face à face, sans écran, ni obstacle. (Fresnault-Deruelle 1983, 65).

Ce mime de la communication, qui implique cette fois les instances tant virtuelles que réelles de la narration, peut s’appuyer, dans le cas de l’illustration de première de couverture des Bijoux, sur les propos mêmes de son auteur : « Oui, à travers Tintin, c’est moi qui m’adresse au lecteur et qui lui dis : “Vous allez voir la comédie… Chut ! Et maintenant, place au théâtre ! » (cité dans Sadoul 1975, 115). Si l’on s’en tient aux aventures tintinesques, d’autres situations similaires de « face à face » peuvent être rencontrées : Tintin s’adressant par les mots et le regard à ses « Chers Amis » lecteurs au terme du Secret de la Licorne (1943, 62) ou Milou par les pensées qu’il nous destine et la tête tournée vers nous dans une des dernières vignettes de Vol 714 pour Sydney (1968, 62). D’autres séries classiques ont utilisé cette forme verbo-iconique de narration ; on citera par exemple les adresses au lecteur/ spectateur assumées alternativement par Spirou et Spip au tout début de Spirou et les héritiers (1952, 1). L’inventaire est à compléter, mais, pour les raisons exposées précédemment (la nécessité classique d’une « naturalisation » de la dynamique du récit et de son corollaire, la conjuration de l’entrée de l’espace hétérogène à celui de la fiction), il restera toujours bien en deçà des pratiques, fréquentes et variées, de marquage de la narration dans les productions bande dessinée dites « modernes ». On pourrait même avancer que ces pratiques constituent un des critères de distinction de cette « nouvelle bande dessinée », à côté du renouvellement des formes linguistiques, des contenus thématiques et fictionnels, ainsi que de l’expressivité graphique : le dessin n’est plus seulement un support du récit, il rend compte de l’investissement d’un artiste. Cette dernière revendication, qui rend déjà compte d’un marquage de la narration, est à l’occasion associée au clin d’œil du narrateur extradiégétique (textuel) au lecteur, comme chez Jacques Tardi (dans Le démon des glaces ou Le démon de la Tour Eiffel par exemple). Mais le jeu se complique alors d’une intention parodique à l’égard du roman-feuilleton et de ses relances du suspense,


en fin d’épisode. La créativité tardienne en matière de subversion des relations traditionnelles narrateur (intra/extra)-narrataire (invoqué) mériterait à elle seule une étude fouillée. Lors de ma première étude (Tilleuil 1987) du court récit en deux planches d’Enki Bilal intitulé La mort permissionnaire (1981), je m’étais focalisé sur le déroulement du récit et l’exploitation des figures de rhétorique (expression et contenu). Cette seconde attention m’avait permis de mettre au jour des effets de sens qui résultaient d’une lecture tabulaire des deux planches. Le premier complément d’information que je peux apporter aujourd’hui consiste à faire de cette tabularité qui fonctionne à fleur de planche, avec des appels de vignette à vignette tout à fait explicites, un trait distinctif non seulement de cette courte bande dessinée de Bilal, mais plus largement de la « modernité » dont elle relève, pour laquelle la coexistence des lectures linéaire et tabulaire suppose un lecteur plus actif, à même – au moins – de s’interroger sur les enjeux sémantiques (narratifs, thématiques, esthétiques) de ces croisements de lecture. Pour distinguer davantage ce que ce récit peut avoir de moderne, je me propose d’adopter une position de lecture médiane, entre linéaire et tabulaire, pour isoler une suite de vignettes (v. 3-4-5-6-7), encadrée par les vignettes de début (v. 1-2) et de fin (v. 8) qui installent un premier écho visuel. Comme on le devine, suite à ce qui précède et qui a installé un cadre de réflexion inspiré de la pragmatique et de la théorie du discours, le point de vue à privilégier restera celui du lecteur (virtuel/réel), pôle décisif s’il en est – à en croire Jan Baetens (2013, 60) – lorsqu’il est question d’abstraction et de bande dessinée. L’implication du récit de Bilal dans les développements relatifs au texte de bande dessinée visait à pointer une originalité formelle, un espace en marge et à cheval sur les vignettes qui appelait à doubler la lecture du texte (à la fois à lire de manière horizontale : de gauche à droite, mais aussi verticale : de haut en bas, à travers les vignettes et les strips). Cette prise de distance à l’égard de la métonymisation classique du récit était encore entretenue par un contenu qui, dans la première planche (et exception faite d’une brève information de régie, isolée en tout début de première vignette), était exclusivement réservé à l’expression des pensées de Simon. Cette sollicitation soutenue de la dimension lectrice du « lisant » favorisait une identification forte du lecteur au personnage. On peut maintenant ajouter que la mécanique identificatoire exploite au mieux les stratégies cognitives du partage du savoir, mais aussi de l’épreuve du manque (Jouve 1992, 130). En effet, si, toujours dans la première planche, nous sommes au plus près du passé (la trahison de Suzy et le désir de vengeance de Simon), du présent (la permission que Simon compte mettre à profit pour se venger), voire du futur (l’acte de vengeance lui-même) de Simon et du Suzy, ce texte ne nous dit rien sur la manière de retrouver Suzy après onze ans d’emprisonnement. C’est à l’image qu’il revient de nous renseigner à ce sujet. En fait, c’est moins par ce que l’image nous montre qu’elle comble le manque que par la relation toute particulière que celle-ci installe avec son narrataire extradiégétique/spectateur réel. De la vignette 3 à la vignette 7, l’iconisation organise un marquage qui absorbe progressivement les instances extradiégétiques (narrataire et lecteur) dans une aventure 434

spectaculaire dont la fascination, investie cette fois de signification existentielle, repose sur la qualité de l’expérience perceptive : « Pris au jeu de la fiction, le sujet percevant ne peut plus se détacher de son objet. Coïncidant avec lui-même dans une appréhension totale du spectacle, des choses, des personnages, rien ne le rappelle plus à lui : il est fasciné ; il lui est devenu presque impossible de se dégager » (Meunier 1980, 150). Par la captation, je ne suis pas seulement amené à m’oublier mais je suis aussi, corrélativement, conduit à vivre sans recul, comme plénitude, la vie du personnage (Meunier 1980, 176). Tout cela conduit à reconnaître dans l’image un des moyens inventés par l’homme pour tenter de surmonter son irréductible incomplétude (Meunier 1980, 189)

Dans le cas qui nous occupe, ce qui est exceptionnel, c’est que ce pouvoir d’immersion fascinante de l’image fait l’objet d’une mise en abyme scénarisée. L’initiation du destinataire de la narration visuelle commence à la vignette 3, par ce que l’on pourrait identifier à une sorte de punctum barthésien inversé : ce n’est pas un détail de l’image qui m’attire (Barthes 1980, 71), mais je suis aspiré par un détail construit iconiquement et plastiquement (Fig. 4).

Le champ installé par la vignette (Simon me regarde) active la lecture (comme le punctum), jusqu’à menacer l’homogénéité de l’espace fictionnel. La menace est conjurée dès la vignette 4, mais par une

Fig. 4. Enki Bilal et Dominique Grange, La mort permissionnaire, dans (À suivre), horssérie : Polar. Noces de sang, 1981, Paris/ Tournai, Casterman, p. 70, v. 3-4. © Casterman 1981 435

convocation moins paradoxale qu’à l’habitude (du champ/contre-champ). En effet le raccord de demi-espace (champ) à demi-espace (contre-champ) ne se fait pas par l’apparition d’un personnage de la fiction, vu à son tour de face et qui viendrait boucler sur lui-même l’espace imaginaire de la fiction, mais par la réapparition de Simon, représenté de dos, comme s’il avait poursuivi son mouvement et refusait l’évacuation conventionnellement attendue du narrataire (extra->) intradiégétisé de la vignette précédente : celui-ci reste virtuellement impliqué (il n’est pas qu’ « un pur regard, délégué en miroir et sans fin » ; Bergala 1979, 43), puisque c’est de son point de vue, retourné à 180°, que nous voyons Simon s’éloigner dans la profondeur de l’image. La poursuite du marquage de l’iconisation est pour beaucoup dans la suture, pourtant délicate, qui assure la continuité narrative entre la vignette 4 et la vignette 5. Comme dans la dernière vignette de la première planche, celle qui entame la seconde adopte un point de vue de dos, mais avec un cadrage resserré sur Simon et, corollairement, avec un narrataire désormais comme accroché aux basques de celui-ci (Fig. 5).

Simon n’est plus seulement l’organisateur fictif de l’image (qui me fait voir ce que j’ai à voir depuis la vignette 3), il y ajoute la fonction de médiateur fantasmatique, qui me sépare du monde extérieur – m’en abstrait ! – pour m’attirer dans un autre, un peu à la manière du joueur de flûte de Hamlin auquel on ne peut résister. La vision « avec » qui prévaut dans la vignette 5 et dont l’appellation entretient heureusement la soumission du narrataire, plus intra- qu’extra-, donne l’occasion de participer à ce moment attendu depuis onze ans par Simon : se retrouver en présence de celle qui l’a trahi et dont la consternation, rendue par l’attitude de prostration et par la lucidité laconique des paroles, préfigure une suite tragique… déjà suggérée, faut-il le rappeler, par la référence au conte de Grimm, à ceci près que c’est Suzy et non pas le suiveur de Simon qui se voit menacée. D’abord convoqué (v. 3), avant d’être dépassé (v. 4), puis embarqué (v. 5) et finalement subjugué (v. 6), le lecteur virtuel/réel connaît en effet l’acmé de son expérience initiatrice dans cette grande vignette verticale (v. 6) de la seconde planche (Fig. 6). Il ne voit plus avec, mais aux côtés de Simon et en plongée rapprochée sur le corps dénudé et désormais sans vie de Suzy, dont il est le spectateur privilégié. 436

Après avoir dynamisé une séquence de vignettes, le fantasme s’appuie en fin de parcours sur des thèmes symboliques canoniques, Eros et Thanatos, qui, dans ces circonstances figuratives, ont la potentialité d’activer toute une chaîne d’images picturales (Le cauchemar (17901791) de Heinrich Füssli), photographiques (Primat de la matière sur la pensée (1929) de Man Ray) et photogrammiques (La marquise d’O (1976) d’Éric Rohmer). Actualisée par le lecteur, elle relance l’objectivation paradoxale du corps de Suzy, à la fois célébrée et banalisée. Comme on s’en aperçoit, cette ouverture de la vignette 6 à une intericonicité riche et variée permet au lecteur réel d’harmoniser ses réactions, comme « lisant » (une dimension très sollicitée depuis la vignette 3), mais aussi comme « lu » et comme « lectant », tous deux sensibles, mais de manière à la fois opposée et complémentaire (inconsciemment ou avec de la distance critique), aux investissements culturels implicites. Lorsqu’il décrit les effets du punctum, Roland Barthes fournit ce détail qui intéresse la présente analyse de vignette : le punctum peut « fantasmatiquement [faire] sortir le personnage (c’est le cas de le dire) de la photographie, il pourvoit cette photo d’un champ aveugle », que le théoricien phénoménologue explicite en usant de la formule de « horschamp subtil, comme si l’image lançait le désir d’un au-delà de ce qu’elle donne à voir » (Barthes 1980, 91-93). Le fait que cette dernière

Fig. 5. Enki Bilal et Dominique Grange, La mort permissionnaire, dans (À suivre), hors-série : Polar. Noces de sang, 1981, Paris/Tournai, Casterman, p. 71, v. 5. © Casterman 1981 Fig. 6. Enki Bilal et Dominique Grange, La mort permissionnaire, dans (À suivre), hors-série : Polar. Noces de sang, 1981, Paris/Tournai, Casterman, p. 71, v. 6. © Casterman 1981 437

précision concerne une photographie érotique apporte davantage de pertinence à la référence réitérée au concept barthésien. C’est avec la vignette 7 que l’expérience de fascination séquentialisée prend fin. Dans son étude sur la perception de l’image, Jean-Pierre Meunier (1980, 150) insiste sur la difficulté de se dépendre des choses et des personnages fictifs : « Souvent, il faut le mot “FIN” pour que nous nous récupérions ». En l’occurrence, la fin, qui conduit au démarquage de la narration visuelle, est annoncée par un effet de bouclage tabulaire, la vignette 7 reproduisant le point de vue frontal de la vignette 3, avant que la vignette 8 en fasse de même, tabulairement parlant, avec les vignettes 1 et 2, mais avec un retour à la norme de l’iconisation masquée (Fig. 7).

En bonne bande dessinée « nouvellement classique », Le cahier bleu d’André Juillard reprend certains modes de fonctionnement de la bande dessinée « moderne » illustrée par La mort permissionnaire, mais s’en distingue aussi sur certains points. Je voudrais insister sur l’implication de la narration et ses effets d’immersion abstractive dans ce processus de différenciation. Mais relevons, pour commencer, quelques similitudes entre ces deux productions ; celles que je retiens concernent leur pratique du récit. En effet, même si celui du couple Bilal-Grange doit se contenter de deux planches alors que celui de Juillard peut miser sur plus de soixante planches, les deux récits partagent certaines caractéristiques : ils nous plongent tous les deux dans la réalité contemporaine13, ils développent une intrigue amoureuse tragique et proposent une fin ouverte. 13  Ce qui est inhabituel avec Bilal, qui préfère les univers science-fictionnesques et/ou fantastiques, et nouveau pour Juillard, qui s’était spécialisé jusqu’alors dans la bande dessinée historique. 438

Au rayon des différences, il faut ranger la question du graphisme. Comme chez Jacques Tardi, autre grand animateur de la bande dessinée dite « moderne », Enki Bilal recourt à un graphisme marqué, caractéristique de l’artiste. Même s’il se prive pour la circonstance de la couleur (polar oblige), Bilal pérennise dans ce court récit en noir et blanc son esthétique de la déglingue, selon l’expression de Jean-Pierre Andrevon (date), qui traduit son malaise à l’égard de son époque et qui imprègne en l’occurrence toute la réalité dessinée : bâtiments, vêtements, mobiliers… Ce parti pris esthétique, expression de l’éthos bilalien, participe manifestement à la dramatisation du récit et impose par voie de conséquence une distance qui abstrait d’autant plus le récit dessiné de la réalité extérieure. Si la transformation de la réalité à sa représentation est ainsi affirmée avec Bilal et Grange, elle fait au contraire l’objet d’une naturalisation qui en réduit l’effet dans l’album de Juillard, animateur d’une « nouvelle bande dessinée classique ». Son graphisme soutient l’intention réaliste grâce à l’héritage tout à fait assumé de la ligne claire. L’auteur évite toute ambiguïté à ce sujet : « Le plus important c’est la lisibilité, la fluidité narrative. La façon dont les images s’enchaînent les unes par rapport aux autres » (Jans et Douvry 1996, 78). Et au sein de chaque image prise isolément, une même exigence : « garder la lisibilité de l’image, éviter la surcharge » (ibid. 80). Le corpus retenu atteste cependant une nouvelle intention de « modernité » intégrée dans une pratique qui renoue, comme cela vient d’être rappelé, avec quelques grands principes de la « bande dessinée classique ». Elle touche au découpage du récit et au montage des vignettes : découpé en trois chapitres, Le Cahier bleu entame son chapitre 1 par une vignette isolée en bas de planche, sous le titre du chapitre, Louise, et se prolonge par une planche entière, qui constitue la première planche du chapitre 114. C’est à cette suite de vignettes-là que je m’attacherai dans ces derniers développements (Fig. 8).

14  L’originalité du découpage repose aussi sur une vignette mise en exergue, déjà en bas de planche, avant celle qui mentionne le début du 1er chapitre. On y découvre Louise au sortir de son lit. Cette vignette est censée précéder narrativement la vignette isolée de la planche suivante, mais, comme elle figure hors de la subdivision en chapitres, elle ne sera pas retenue dans le corpus.

Fig. 7. Enki Bilal et Dominique Grange, La mort permissionnaire, dans (À suivre), hors-série : Polar. Noces de sang, 1981, Paris/Tournai, Casterman, p. 71, v. 7. © Casterman 1981 439

L’ensemble de huit vignettes fait la part belle à l’image, seuls un point d’interrogation, circonscrit par une bulle, et une bulle de pensée viennent troubler ce quasi-monopole iconique et plastique. On peut y voir une récupération supplémentaire d’une attitude de création fréquemment rencontrée avec la « bande dessinée moderne », mais dont l’initiative revient originellement à la naissance même de la bande dessinée, qui impose l’image comme unité première de son langage. Quoique laconique, le texte présent dans la première planche suffit à rendre compte d’une volonté de marquer l’énonciation, par la modalité même de sa communication (un état mental : une surprise, une réflexion). Comme le rappelle Éric Lavanchy (2007, 89), la bulle qui contient un point d’interrogation (ou un point d’exclamation, voire les deux associés) et une bulle-pensée participent « à l’expression de la vie psychique des individus » et donc à la focalisation interne sur le personnage de Louise, ce qui a pour effet d’activer au mieux la dimension du « lisant » chez le lecteur et de permettre à celui-ci d’être au plus près, mentalement, de celui-là. Cette possibilité d’identification du « lisant » au narrateur intradiégétique, offerte par le texte, trouve un écho (si on peut l’écrire) dans l’image qui entame la séquence de vignettes par une iconisation elle aussi marquée. Cet essai de redondance texte-image est cependant atténué par le fait que c’est le corps de Louise, et non plus son esprit, qui fait l’objet de la focalisation (externe). Comme le fait remarquer Lavanchy (2007, 84), les sept premières vignettes du chapitre 1 entament le récit de manière traditionnelle, en le faisant coïncider avec un début de journée pour Louise. Ce qui n’a pas non plus échappé à la critique est que ce début de lecture et de journée est proposé au lecteur avec une intensité dramatique particulière, caractéristique du in medias res. Pour le coup, c’est dans l’intimité de Louise que 440

ce lecteur-spectateur est de suite impliqué : « La scène d’ouverture est une scène de voyeurisme-exhibitionnisme » (Lador 1996, 109). À l’évidence. Mais on précisera que l’érotisation de la scène doit beaucoup – outre l’iconisé en lui-même : Louise nue – aux usages des différents paramètres plastiques qui marquent l’iconisation de la présence du narrataire extradiégétique et du lecteur réel, et activent en eux tant le « lisant » que le « lu ». La première vignette (isolée en page 6) fait très fort à ce propos. Un point de vue de dos, un cadrage serré sur les fesses et privant le personnage de sa tête : l’objectivation corporelle est élevée et entretient d’autant mieux le fantasme érotique qu’elle place doublement le spectateur en position de voyeur qui voit sans risque d’être vu. L’érotisation de la scène se prolonge durant les deux premières vignettes de la page 7, la vision de dos étant suivie d’un point de vue de face qui découvre et fait découvrir la poitrine de Louise. Le détachement affiché par Louise, tant par ses attitudes (elle paraît bien à l’aise dans son corps, malgré l’absence de rideaux aux fenêtres de son appartement) que par ses pensées (une initiative à prendre, poser des rideaux, reportée à un futur hypothétique), entretient par ailleurs une consommation déculpabilisée de la scène érotique. Il est cependant possible d’en apprendre davantage sur Louise, sa destinée fantasmatique et son partage au bénéfice du spectateur-voyeur si l’on creuse un peu l’organisation formelle de la première planche du chapitre. Lorsqu’il commente la deuxième vignette de cette planche, Éric Lavanchy (2007, 90-92) propose d’y voir fonctionner une vision avec, c’est-à-dire que nous voyons « avec le personnage » la fenêtre au second plan de l’image et, au-delà, la rame de métro arrêtée. Mais je doute aujourd’hui que cette vision avec conduise à une ocularisation interne attribuable au personnage de Louise pour la 3e vignette de la planche. Ce qui nous est montré dans cette vignette centrale est destiné à une instance particulière, immanquablement extradiégétique (virtuelle et réelle), comme l’attestent l’usage du cadre et le jeu dont il fait l’objet, mais qui, dans un cas comme dans l’autre, imposent des conventions qui échappent ontologiquement au personnage de Louise, présent dans la diégèse. Les conséquences de cette iconisation telle que pratiquée dans la vignette 3 est que la fenêtre fermée n’ouvre pas seulement sur un au-delà identifié à la rame de métro et à ses éventuels voyageurs, mais qu’elle constitue une médiation qui met face à face voyeurs intra- (les voyageurs susceptibles d’assister à la sortie de bain de Louise) et voyeurs extradiégétiques (narrataire et lecteur réel). En d’autres mots encore, cette iconisation, par fenêtre interposée, nous renvoie de manière spéculaire à ce que nous sommes, des voyeurs, surpris et dénoncés parce que confrontés à ceux qui nous ressemblent. Voilà donc

Fig. 8. André Juillard, Le cahier bleu, Tournai, Casterman, 1994, p. 6-7. © Casterman 1994 441

une planche de bande dessinée qui fait tout et son contraire (exhiber une érotisation stéréotypée du corps féminin et surprendre ceux qui s’en ressassent). Mais est-ce là la seule surprise à laquelle engage la narration visuelle ? Si l’on relance l’activité du « lectant », celui-ci est à même de repérer une organisation tabulaire dans la planche, qui, selon une doxa de la critique bande dessinée identifiée par Jan Baetens (2013, 56), fait « accéder à une forme d’abstraction ». La fenêtre-miroir de la vignette 3 cumule les distinctions, puisque le paradoxe qu’elle révèle occupe aussi le centre de la planche. Cette centralité n’est pas sans effet sur la construction de l’éthos de Louise. Il y a une Louise avant cette vignette centrale, à l’aise dans son corps (v. 1-2), et une Louise après cette même vignette, la tête libérée de la serviette et enfin nettement visible de profil, de dos ou de face (v. 4-7). Ces deux images de Louise, dont la complémentarité est soulignée par des indices textuels, iconiques et plastiques, ne font pas que nous informer sur le personnage, elles annoncent l’essentiel des actions à venir (la séduction que ces charmes féminins ont déjà opérée sur deux amis masculins, Boris et Victor ; la résistance d’une tête féminine bien faite, qui se montrera libre de choisir et de repousser ses amants comme elle l’entend). On peut légitimement se demander si ce début, qui informe sur un des personnages principaux de l’album tout entier et qui apporte quelques données essentielles du drame à venir, peut voir son statut d’incipit renforcé par d’autres commentaires. Il nous faut, pour ce faire, quitter le contexte visible de la planche pour le confronter au contexte invisible, en l’occurrence les éléments absents ou fantômes de cette suite d’images15. Plus précisément, il faut engager une nouvelle aventure intericonique, voire hypericonique, tant les documents à citer imprègnent la planche. Pierre-Yves Lador (1996, 108) ne croyait pas si bien dire lorsqu’il constatait que l’ « [o]n baigne et en communique dans l’art ! », en lisant Le Cahier bleu. En fait, ce ne sont pas seulement les décors des appartements, les professions des héros ou leurs passe-temps qui rendent compte de ce bain artistique. Dès les toutes premières vignettes du premier chapitre, l’image exerce son pouvoir – trop rarement souligné lorsqu’il s’agit d’images de grande diffusion – de renvoyer à d’autres images. S’y intéresser ressort tout à fait de la problématique de cet article, si l’on veut bien se souvenir que Gérard Genette faisait de la transcendance textuelle de l’œuvre littéraire l’objet même de la poétique (De Biasi 1990, 1105) et qu’il est convenu d’identifier celle-ci à une approche à la fois abstraite et interne (Todorov 1968, 19). Parmi les premières vignettes, c’est dans celle qui inaugure le récit du premier chapitre, mais à sa marge, c’est-à-dire la vignette isolée sous le titre du chapitre que l’on trouve le point d’appui du jeu citationnel. Cette sortie de baignoire transpose à l’époque contemporaine le célébrissime thème pictural de « la femme au bain ». Dans la monographie récente qu’il consacre à cette thématique, Jacques Bonnet (2006 : 29) insiste sur la fréquence avec laquelle, à travers les siècles, ce thème a été exploité. Pour le seul sujet de « Suzanne et les vieillards » (traité notamment par Massimo Stanzione, Suzanne et les vieillards vers 1545), que l’auteur étudie aux côtés de ceux du 15  « Contexte invisible », « éléments “fantômes“ » : les formules sont empruntées à Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (1983, 18). 442

« bain de Bethsabée » (cf. entre autres Le Roi David et Bethsabée, Maître de la Chasse à la Licorne, fin du quinzième siècle) et de « Diane et Actéon » (cf. Diane et Actéon (1607) de Joachim Wtewael), plus ou moins deux cent œuvres ont été répertoriées. Les huit premières vignettes du Cahier bleu présentent quelques analogies essentielles avec ces trois sujets picturaux. À commencer par le bain comme prétexte au déshabillage féminin, à ceci près que la transposition en bande dessinée, suite à l’évolution des mœurs, est débarrassée du prétexte mythologique ou historique pour représenter le nu féminin. Louise, aussi belle et nue que Suzanne, Bethsabée ou Diane, est montrée dans sa banalité domestique et intime quotidienne, sortant du bain et s’essuyant. Autre point de rencontre important entre la peinture et la bande dessinée : la présence des témoins-voyeurs, qu’il s’agisse des deux vieillards pour Suzanne, de David pour Bethsabée ou d’Actéon pour Diane ; pour Louise, ce sont les passagers de la rame de métro immobilisée qui sont concernés. Au-delà de ces points de convergence, la confrontation, pour être utile à l’étude de ces premières vignettes comme incipit de l’album tout entier, doit être prolongée par la prise en compte des textes bibliques et mythologique qui inspirent en amont ces œuvres picturales, au caractère conventionnellement narratif. On apprend ainsi que les témoins-voyeurs sont à chaque fois punis pour leur acte de voyeurisme. Les deux vieillards sont lapidés après avoir été confondus par le jeune prophète Daniel (Daniel Grec, 3, 13), David perd l’enfant qu’il a eu de ses amours avec Bethsabée (Livre 2, Samuel, 11-12) et Actéon se voit transformé en cerf, avant d’être dévoré par ses propres chiens (Livre 3, 138-254). Qu’en est-il des voyeurs du Cahier bleu ? Deux d’entre eux, présents dans la rame de métro parisien, sont à distinguer, puisqu’ils auront l’occasion de prolonger leur première rencontre visuelle à distance par d’autres plus intimes avec Louise, à savoir Armand Laborie, dit Bobo, et Victor Sanchez. La mort violente du premier, qui restera inexpliquée au terme de l’album, est à l’origine des ennuis du second (cf. tout le chapitre 3), un moment emprisonné parce que la justice parisienne le croit coupable du meurtre de Bobo. Quant à Louise, objet des regards voyeurs et donc a priori exclue de la distribution punitive, on peut cependant observer que son parcours narratif de femme amoureuse n’est pas des plus heureux, à l’exemple de la destinée de Bethsabée : elle choisit de quitter Boris pour Victor, mais elle se sépare douloureusement de ce dernier lorsqu’elle prend connaissance du contenu du cahier bleu déposé par Boris dans sa boîte aux lettres (cf. chapitre 2) et découvre que sa rencontre avec Victor, qu’elle croyait fortuite, a été soigneusement préméditée par celui-ci16. 16  Dans l’interview qu’il a accordée pour Juillard. Une monographie, l’auteur lui-même confesse qu’il a voulu créer, avec Louise, une héroïne qui « croyait 443

En fin de récit, elle prend la décision de retrouver Victor, mais, comme expliqué précédemment, elle se fait distancer par Héléna, sorte de double opposé de Louise. Il nous reste une instance à commenter, celle du voyeur extradiégétique (virtuel et réel), pour conclure ce que ce jeu de citations (iconiques et textuelles) apporte comme complément d’information à notre lecture de la zone inaugurale du récit et de sa suite. Jacques Bonnet a remarqué que Susanne, Bethsabée et Diane étaient souvent davantage déshabillées pour le spectateur du tableau que pour le(s) voyeur(s) diégétisé(s). Cette situation privilégiée reste de circonstance dans Le cahier bleu. Mais, à la différence de ce qui se passe dans le corpus retenu par Bonnet, le spectateur-voyeur de la bande dessinée ne sort pas tout à fait indemne de son intrusion dans l’intimité de Louise. Certes, il partage, mais brièvement (p. 7, v. 2), avec le spectateur-voyeur des tableaux bibliques et mythologique, cette sorte d’impunité qui résulte de sa découverte, dans la mise en scène érotisée, d’acteur(s) voyeur(s) dont la présence (dans le tableau ou la rame de métro) le dédouane aussi de sa curiosité. Mais dès la vignette suivante (p. 7, v. 3), le voyeur de la bande dessinée est mis face à son semblable dans la diégèse, ce qui est de nature à le réveiller (un peu ? beaucoup ?…) de son expérience fantasmatique. Par défaut, Héléna se chargera elle-même, par un effet d’iconisation intradiégétisée, de rafraîchir la mémoire du spectateur par le regard non convenu qu’elle lui adresse, au début (p. 59, v. 6) et à la fin (p. 62, v. 6) de la séquence qui lui érotise le corps dans la chambre de Boris…

Conclusion L’abstraction qui poétise la bande dessinée au moyen de citations iconiques et plastiques a relancé l’analyse narrative du Cahier bleu, sans prétendre l’épuiser, bien évidemment. Par contre, on en est resté à un stade de complément thématique avec les commentaires proposés pour La mort permissionnaire. Faut-il y voir une conséquence des priorités respectives des types de production bande dessinée auxquels ils appartiennent, « bande dessinée moderne » ou « Nouvelle bande dessinée classique » ? Chez Bilal, un investissement qui se focalise esthétiquement sur l’image (perspective centripète)17, au fondement sémiologique de la bande dessinée ; chez Juillard, un souci du récit (perspective centrifuge), qui répond à une autre exigence fondamentale du genre, raconter une histoire ? Ce n’est là qu’une hypothèse qui devra être vérifiée par d’autres études portant sur ces deux catégories, sans oublier celles qui les encadrent, chronologiquement parlant (« bande dessinée classique » et « Nouvelle bande dessinée moderne »). Une chose paraît plus assurée. Analyser la bande dessinée en prenant l’abstraction comme fil conducteur s’avère payant, quelle que soit l’actualité fictionnelle donnée comme dominante (un ancrage dans la réalité événementielle qui se serait confirmé mener le jeu et [qui] tout à coup se rend compte qu’elle a été manipulée » (Jans et Douvry 1996, 54). L’analyse de l’incipit précise que cette dualité est attestée dès la première apparition du personnage. 17 « La bande dessinée chez Bilal devient donc avant tout spectacle, c’est-à-dire non plus uniquement narration, mais aussi tout ce qui attire le regard, jeu stylistique dont la couleur [abondamment et savamment exploitée en général chez Bilal] est l’élément fondamental. » (Lecigne et Tamine 1983, 31). 444

en 2015). L’abstraction, qui est au cœur de la mise au jour des lois générales du fonctionnement de la bande dessinée comme mode d’expression littéraire et artistique, a été encore en première ligne de cet article lorsqu’il a été question de tabularité et de narration. Tout comme la prise en compte de la mémoire sémiotique (au sens peircien du terme), ces deux problématiques de la spatialité signifiante et du récit en acte ont donné lieu à de nombreux commentaires scientifiques dont les champs d’application sont restés longtemps éloignés de la bande dessinée (réservées à la poésie, le roman, la peinture, le cinéma). L’article a tenté d’exploiter certaines de ces pistes critiques qui ont pour elles de combiner immanence (syntaxe) et transcendance (pragmatique), tout en veillant à les confronter aux spécificités formelles et sémantiques respectives du texte (écrit) et de l’image (fixe et en séquence). Relue et complétée à partir de leurs affinités paradoxales avec ce qui abstrait de la réalité, l’histoire de la rencontre de ces deux langages dans la bande dessinée, redevable elle-même d’histoires plus anciennes, a montré comment l’écriture, ancrée dans le digital et le symbolique, avait évolué en s’encanaillant de plus en plus avec la trivialité et l’expressivité de l’oral, tandis que la figure troquait ses prédispositions analogiques contre d’autres, symboliques et indicielles, pour mieux « tromper son monde ». Tout n’est pas si simple, ni systématique : il y a du texte bande dessinée qui se littérarise et du dessin bande dessinée en quête de non-représentation. Mais c’est précisément cette ouverture de la bande dessinée, contemporaine en tout cas, à cette diversité signifiante, combinée à une créativité thématique et narrative (presque) sans limites qui font de la bande dessinée une place to be, pour la critique comme pour le public, mais aussi les éditeurs, les libraires ou les enseignants, tous adeptes d’une nouvelle redistribution des légitimités culturelles. Un engouement largement partagé qui peut trouver sa source dans l’activation de ce nouveau paradigme épistémologique présenté en cours d’article.

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The Epistemology of the Drawn Line: Abstract Dimensions of Narrative Comics Lukas R.A. Wilde Over the past few years, a small but growing set of abstract comics have led to a debate about the specificity of comics. In his seminal “Abstraction in Comics,” Jan Baetens argues that ‘abstraction’ points to a different set of concepts depending on the respective opposition it functions in. Abstraction covers at least two different categories, one pertaining to the level of the panel, the other to the level of the sequential arrangement of panels: “Abstract’s opposite is not only ‘figurative’ or ‘representational’ but also (…) ‘narrative.’ Abstraction seems to be what resists narrativization, and conversely narrativization seems to be what dissolves abstraction” (Baetens 2011, 95). Baetens’s understanding of narrativity is informed by the minimal condition of a coherent storyworld, “a world populated by individuated existents” (Ryan 2007, 29; cf. Thon 2014a; 2016, 35ff.; Ryan 2014; Wolf 2003). If most of the pictorial representations can be attributed to such a matrix of spatial and temporal relations, then they cannot be abstract–not in the latter understanding and certainly not in the former (cf. Wilde 2017a). There are other understandings of abstraction, however. Most notably, ‘abstraction’ is used to distinguish a certain style of visual representation, as described by Alan Blackwell and Yuri Engelhardt for instance: “Concerning the depiction of physical objects or scenes, a continuum of pictorial abstraction can be observed, from the very realistic via the schematic to the completely abstract” (Blackwell and Engelhardt 2002, 51; emphasis in original). When Scott McCloud presented his “comprehensive map of the universe called comics” (Figure 1), he distinguished between two ways of deviating from “realistic” representations: the one concerns stylistic simplification (perceptual abstraction), and the other the “picture plane” itself.1 This difference is sometimes referred to as iconic versus non-iconic abstraction (cf. Schüwer 2008, 339). Non-iconic abstraction, the move towards the picture plane, poses the ‘semiotic paradox’ of a sign without referential meaning (cf. Nöth 2002). A third–and altogether different–use of the term refers to conceptual abstraction, where a situation, term, or category is reduced to cognitive relations alone (cf. Grodal 2002, 70). The 1 At least that seems what McCloud intends to differentiate, up to a point. However, the ‘jump’ from perceptual abstraction (or visual simplification) to ‘language’ on the horizontal axis concerns something completely different. Nonetheless, his observations serve as my heuristic starting point. 450


three resulting oppositions, distinguished by Erwin Feyersinger for animated film (cf. Feyersinger 2013; 2017), can be formulated as stylistically-abstract versus realistic, conceptually-abstract versus concrete and non-representationally-abstract versus figurative.

Non-Iconic Abstraction and the Qualitative Forms of Comics “What are you really seeing?”–McCloud’s seemingly innocent question (Figure 2) serves as our starting point for distinguishing the different layers of abstraction at play. The content of the panel is, of course, easily described as ‘a face.’ It is composed of simple qualitative forms, which “refer[ ]to the merely material features of a phenomenon, its physiological, visual, acoustic, or otherwise perceptible structures in space and time” (Nöth 2002, 154).

This chapter will clarify how all three types of abstraction are crucial to the semiotics– and our understanding–of comics in general, even in examples that clearly would not fit in any collection of ‘abstract comics’: superhero and autobiographical comics, funnies or web comic strips, which do not dissolve narrativization in the way Baetens described. Furthermore, my claim is that these three abstractions are instrumental in understanding the mediality of comics as such and I will show how they are all based on a specific epistemology, namely that of the drawn line, which can be regarded as a base operation of comics. To be perfectly clear, I am definitely not arguing for a form of essentialism. Rather, I consider these ‘features’ prototypical for most comics, underlying many of our theoretical and artistic perspectives on the medium. In other words, I view them as basic distinctions for identifying and reflecting on the mediality of comics.2

The qualitative forms perceptible in the materiality of comics are of a very particular kind. Typically, we expect them to be (a) hand-made and (b) drawn with lines rather than presenting a continuum of colours, gradients or shades. These aspects are often used to differentiate the pictoriality of comics from that of photography, painting and computer games: “[E]ven as digitized production techniques have become widely available, many comics still take their shape and form through the visible slant of the creator’s hand” (Stein 2015, 425). While from a technological point of view, it is easy to reproduce photographic material within comics (and is done so frequently),3 this procedure is usually considered an intermedial reference or a remediation (cf. Bolter and Grusin 2000; Wilde 2015). The property of being hand drawn, of appearing to be handmade (cf. Packard 2009, 113) thus differentiates

Figure 1 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 51, panel 1 (c) 1994 HarperCollins

2  I am generally following Hannah Miodrag’s proposition for a gradated assessment of how ‘comicsy’ a given artefact might be (cf. Miodrag 2015). Mediality, then, is not so much a set of properties but a set of distinctions between alleged mono-media through ‘differences that make a difference’ (be they technological, semiotic, institutional or purely contextual). A discussion of this “ontological intermediality” (which paradoxically always precedes “given, already defined

media”) is given by Schröter 2012, 29. For detailed surveys of the ‘mediality’ of comics, see Bartosch 2016; Rippl and Etter 2013; Thon and Wilde 2016; Wilde 2014; 2015. 3  For discussions of the many functions of photography within comics, see the contributions in Pedri 2015, Schmid 2015 and Schmitz-Emans 2012.

Figure 2 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 31, panel 5 (c) 1994 HarperCollins



comics from other forms of visual media. For W. J. T. Mitchell, “[a]s media, comics are (…) a transmedium that, in contrast to the modern media, maintain a direct link to the most primitive forms of mark-making, from cave-painting to hieroglyphics” (Mitchell 2014, 260). Following Charles S. Peirce’s semiotic theory, the drawn line discloses an indexical dimension, or more precisely, the line shows aspects of a genuine index (cf. Peirce CP 5.75; 2.283).4 In contrast to the indicative or designative relations of pronouns or pointing fingers (degenerate indices), genuine indices mark existential, causal or reactive relations (cf. Peirce CP 2.306; 8.335).5 While the indexicality of visual media is most prominently discussed with reference to photography–think of Roland Barthes’s “That-has-been” (Barthes 1981, 76; cf. Sonesson 1989a, 61ff.) for instance–it is exactly the indexicality of comics that has recently come to the fore in scholarship: “Of all media that developed in technical modernity, graphic narrative alone has not effaced the line, thereby indexing its embodied creation” (Horstkotte 2013, 33; cf. Etter 2016; Gardner 2011, 33; LaMarre 2010; Natsume 1997, 66ff.). Whether attributed to the actual, hypothetical or implied author (or collective), or to a narratological instance specific to comics,6 its recognition is central to the understanding of a host of contemporary works: “because comics (…) are hand-drawn, they seem to work as an immediate representation of the experience of the author” (Kukkonen 2013, 56). Karin Kukkonen emphasizes the importance of this indexical dimension in her discussion of Craig Thompson’s Blankets: “The Craig who paints in the storyworld is also the Craig who draws on the pages of the comic. Here, the inside and outside of the storyworld (...) merge, and both acts of painting become one” (ibid., 65). In the context of manga studies, however, Jaqueline Berndt argues that the material quality of the line plays a very different role, not so much pointing to an individual author but rather to its potential for being easily reproduced by its readers, thereby blurring the distinction between copy and original. The materiality of the line thus highlights the reader’s agency in ‘secondary productions’–but again, in contrast to photographic material, painting or computer generated imagery (CGI). The appropriation of the represented objects, characters, or scenes is much more difficult to achieve in those other forms of visual media (cf. Berndt 2013, 365; Itō 2005, 128ff.; Wilde 2016). In any case, this quality of the line often goes unnoticed (cf. Gardner 2011, 57), especially if the focus is on figurative forms from the beginning. But “even the most straightforward little cartoon has a ‘meaningless’ line or two!,” as McCloud observed (1994, 51). This is the deviation in the vertical direction of McCloud’s “comprehensive map” (ibid.). When these qualities lack figurative (iconic) referentiality, they point to the gesture which gave rise to them. They inevitably bear the stamp of the marks as they were produced and can be reproduced again and again (cf. Braga 1988, 72; Peirce CP 2.283).7 4  References to Peirce indicate the volume and paragraph in the Collected Papers (1931–66). 5  Compare this to Liszka 1996, 38ff.; Nöth 2000, 186ff.; Wirth 2007. 6  As in Phillippe Marion’s Traces en Cases, 1993; cf. Baetens 2001. For detailed discussions of these questions, see Kuhn and Veits 2015, as well as Thon 2013. 7  Furthermore, even elements that have a figurative ‘meaning’ (like the smiley face) are often composed of sub-iconic units: their iconic function is dependent on their assemblage (cf. Sachs454

But can a line be truly meaningless? Taken as ‘a line’ we did assign some definite identity to the inscription–precisely as a qualitative form. With respect to a smiley (like McCloud’s) semiotician Winfried Nöth notes: “This drawing shows how the combination of four purely qualitative forms, two little squares, one bow, and one circle, result in a meaningful figure (…). Thus, we have a sign with both qualitative form and meaning” (Nöth 2002, 154f.). Baetens also addresses this second approach to pictorial semiotics and takes up the distinction between plastic and iconic signs, “two inextricably intertwined dimensions or aspects of the visual signifier” (2011, 97). If form, in the qualitative sense, is not only opposed to ‘meaning’ but also to chaos, it can be taken as a synonym for structure (cf. Nöth 2002, 155). Plastic signs of qualitative forms refer to the semantic categories they possess. To Nöth, the difference between figurative and plastic meaning is thus “the more fundamental semiotic distinction between reference and self-reference, or more precisely between alloreference and self-reference” (161; cf. Nöth 2007a). To Peirce, self-reference is a case of genuine iconicity. Contrary to the popular belief that iconicity is a matter of similarity or resemblance between two entities–a special case of iconicity Peirce sometimes dubbed “hypo-iconicity” (Peirce CP; cf. Braga 1988, 66; 1996, 201)–the genuine icon fulfils its semiotic function “by virtue of characters which belong to it in itself as a sensible object, and which it would possess just the same were there no object in nature that it resembled” (Peirce CP 4.447).8 If an element of Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Black, Blue, Yellow and Grey appears to us as an abstract sign whose meaning is ‘red square,’ we state that this element is a signifier whose signified, ‘red square,’ is also true of this very signifier, the segment of this picture (cf. Braga 1988, 69; Nöth 2002, 161).9 The genuine icon thus shows or exhibits qualities in itself,10 but in order to do so “the quality must be considered as such–as a mere possibility abstracted from its actual occurrence in time and space” (Braga 1996, 205; my emphasis; cf. Packard 2006, 57). It is especially abstract painting that comes close to genuine iconicity or self-referentiality if it is framed as exemplifying visual structures of tones, colours, blotches, highlights, outlines, Hombach 2003, 118f.; Schier 1986, 66ff.; Wilde 2016b). The same line or the same dot can be used to represent many different things, depending on its topological orientation and its combination with other sub-iconic units (cf. Oomen 1975; Packard 2006). 8  Compare to Nöth 2002, 161; Ransdell 1967, 139; 1979, 55; 1986. 9 “Thus the purest form of quality as law appears in Constructivism, in Concrete Art, and above all in the paintings of Mondrian, where form and color reduced to straight lines and primary colors with exact determinations place the pictorial value of the composition entirely in the harmony and rhythm of the elements” (Braga 1988, 3). 10  Sometimes those qualities are referred to as the grounds of the icon, but Peirce’s use of the term is ambiguous (cf. Liszka 1996, 117; Nöth 2002, 157). 455

shapes, movements, rhythms, textures, proportions, dimensions, volumes, and so on. If we then consider these abstract qualities in relation to each other, they form a structure, “a network of internal references (…): the colorful red thus necessarily points to its non-colorful opposition, the color black, one square points to another to which it is similar in shape but not in size” (Nöth 2005, 59; my translation; cf. Nöth 2007b). As an identifiable structure, we assume it can represent a great many things which possess a similar structure. Having identified a singular (although abstract) structure we have already reduced the sign’s potentiality (its pure iconicity).11 We must thus think of iconicity in degrees (cf. Braga 1996, 205): the closer a sign is to the ‘pure’ or ‘genuine’ end of the spectrum, the more its reference becomes a ‘mere possibility’ (cf. Braga 1988, 66; Spinks 1991, 54). “A diagram, indeed, so far as it has a general signification, is not a pure icon,” Peirce noted (CP 3.362). On the other hand, it by no means represents a specific (let alone a concrete or tangible) object or entity. To return to McCloud’s question, we could ‘see’ the two little squares, the bow, and circle as just that: geometrical figures.12 These two ways of ‘looking’ at the same inscription–face versus circle–can be characterized by Richard Wollheim’s and Flint Schier’s term ‘seeing-as’: a figurative or iconic form (cf. Schier 1986, 13, 196; Wollheim 1980, 205ff.). This contrasts with Michael May’s diagrammatic ‘seeing-in,’ which indicates a conceptual structure (May 1995; 1999; cf. Krämer 2009, 113): “Where the seeing as phenomenologically is an experience of an identified particular, the seeing in is an experience of a state of affairs seen in the particular” (May 1999, 175; emphasis in original).13 That both are equally possible here is due to the relation with the drawn line. To ‘understand’ a diagram, a material line must be considered as a conceptual border demarcating epistemological zones: “The seeing of a mark is thus transferred into the understanding of a border,” as Christian Stetter puts it (2005, 124; my translation). Borders and delineated areas are not inherent to information ‘passively’ available to perception. Rather, the visual world is a continuum of optical information, an ‘ecology of perception’ (cf. Gibson 1979; Sonesson 1989b; Sonesson 1994)14–a continuum that most pictorial media such as photography and many types of painting and CGI also try to represent through a continuous spectrum of colours, gradients and shades. Comics 11  Or the other way around: we have added an element of signifying indexicality by interpreting it as a representation of a singular (albeit ‘abstract’) entity (cf. Braga 1988, 64ff.; Liszka 1996, 50; Packard 2006, 101; Spinks 1991, 64; Stjernfelt 2011, 211). 12  This is not at all identical with their purely material properties, as Frederik Stjernfelt points out: “Taking a drawn rectangular triangle as a sign for rectangular triangles as such involve, among others, the following: abstracting from the lines having breadth, abstracting from their not being perfectly linear, abstracting from right angle not being precise, abstracting from the particular colour, size, and orientation of the figure–thus intending an idealized, general rectangular triangle” (Stjernfelt 2010, 58). In other words, we have to be acquainted with the symbolic side of the diagram in order to interpret the inscription correctly as a token of a general type. Any diagrammatic inscription consists of these ‘two parts,’ a diagram token and a set of reading rules for the understanding of it as a type. 13  For Wollheim’s use of both terms, see Sonesson 1989b; cf. Ernst 2014. 14 See also Potysch and Wilde 2017 for a longer discussion of different picture-theoretical approaches (from phenomenology to analytical philosophy and cognitive semiotics) to the analysis of visual representations in narrative media. 456

scholar Pascal Lefèvre highlighted the importance of this remarkable difference: Unlike the optical denotation system of a photograph or painting, where marks stand for different colours and intensities in the optical array, in the figurative line drawing denotation system (…) marks stand for permanent features of the scene, like true edges. (…) In nature, by contrast, there are not black contour lines around people or objects. (Lefèvre 2016, 69) In contrast, the “epistemology of the line” (Krämer 2010, 28) has lately become the object of inquiry in disciplines ranging from cultural history and palaeontology to art history and cognitive semantics (cf. Melcher and Cavanagh 2011). Philosopher Sybille Krämer has dedicated a considerable amount of work to what she calls “pictorial operativity” (Schriftbildlichkeit)–the rationality of script phenomena that cannot simply be relegated to the categories of either language or picture (cf. Krämer 2003). For Krämer, the foundation of all epistemological and operative inscriptions and notations is the ‘graphism of the line’: the cognitive transformation of a two- (or three-) dimensional inscription into the ideal entity of a one-dimensional line, abstracting from width, irregularities and colours: Lines constitute the archetypal form of clear shape-forming: they delimit and they exclude. Every mark on a surface creates an asymmetry that becomes the source of potential distinction: the circular line separates points within and outside of the circle; a line segment separates what is left or right of it, above or below it. (Krämer 2010, 29) The line must be considered the elemental medium of operational iconicity, the “primal scene of logical operations” (Krämer 2009, 101; my translation; cf. Krämer 2012, 85).15 Instead of focusing on the optical continua of colours, gradients and shades that are for pictoriality in comics, we will get a better understanding of why diagrammatic iconicity plays such an important role in comics if we examine this form of mark-making as “line-pictures” (Itō 2005, 145; my translation; cf. Natsume 1997, 69) with clear “outline borders” (122; my translation).

15  Compare to George Spencer-Brown’s calculus of forms which starts with the instruction “draw a distinction” (cf. Spencer-Brown 1979, 3). 457

Conceptual Abstraction and the Diagrammatic Iconicity of Comics Firstly, diagrammatic representations are central to comics: The segmentation of the page into a network of internal relations, or rather into a “spatio-topical system” (Groensteen 2007, 24; cf. Nöth 2005, 59), is a purely diagrammatic operation.16 “The ‘objects’ of diagrammatic depiction are always relations and proportions, which are not ‘inherent’ but are created by intellectual practices in the interaction of eye, hand and mind” (Krämer 2010, 31). Thierry Groensteen considers this “rhythm” of mereological relations essential to the language of comics (2013, 133ff.). Speech bubbles and other conventional signs not only possess a symbolic ‘meaning,’ but also a relationality that translates acoustic qualities like loudness, pitch or timbre into qualitative oppositions like size, orientation or regularity (cf. Bachmann 2013, 306; Magnussen 2000; Schüwer 2008, 359ff.). The same line can thus easily switch between the codes of perceptual and diagrammatic iconicity. ‘Actual’ diagrammatic representations–or “diagrams proper” (cf. Stjernfelt 2010; Wilde 2017b)–are a second field of application of diagrammatic iconicity within the vocabulary of comics. If we interpret a diagram as representing ‘something else’ (like a state of affairs), we enter the realm of hypo-iconicity, which Peirce sharply distinguishes from ‘genuine’ (i.e., self-referential or ‘abstract’) iconicity (cf. Ransdell 1979, 55ff.). ‘Diagram’ is often used as an umbrella term to include different kind of graphs, infographics or “informational images” (cf. Elkins 1995). Klaus Sachs-Hombach offers the label “structure images” because diagrams visualize only intelligible structures of qualitative or quantitative information and not perceptible ‘things out there’ (cf. Sachs-Hombach 2003, 201ff.). Sometimes this difference is described in terms of the distinction between ‘first-order’ and ‘second-order representations,’ the former representing single elements and their properties, the latter only conceptual relations between them.17 Peirce–now within the sphere of (alloreferential) hypo-iconicity–distinguished between images and diagrams: “Those which partake of simple qualities (…) are images; those which represent the relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their own parts, are diagrams” (Peirce CP 2.276). The controversies surrounding this typology notwithstanding (cf. Braga 1996; Farias and Queiroz 2006; Nöth 2000, 195ff.), it is safe to say that “[hypo-]iconic relations range from sensorially strong to sensorially weak, but complex, relations between representamen and object” (Elleström 2014, 102; cf. Elleström 2013). 16  This argument could be explored historically as well. Friedrich Weltzien did so with a reconsideration of Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, whose lines oscillate freely between the symbolic code of script, the iconic power of imagery and the diagrammatic logic of frames (cf. Weltzien 2011). For a survey of diagrammatics as an interdisciplinary field of research, see Bauer and Ernst 2010; Pombo and Gerner 2010; Schneider, Ernst, and Wöpking 2016. 17  For further discussions, see O’Brien and Opie 2004; Sachs-Hombach 2003, 202; Shepard and Chipman 1970; Wöpking 2010, 43. The idea of structural similarity can be further elucidated through the distinctions in Barwise and Hammer 1996. 458

While perceptual iconicity (‘images’) represents tangible ‘things’ situated in time and space, diagrammatic iconicity reduces ‘things’ (or ‘states of affairs’ that were ‘abstract’ from the beginning) to cognitive relations and represents these by visual means (cf. Ernst 2014; Grodal 2002, 70).18 Diagrammatic representations, which “employ two-dimensional spatial configurations as the matrix and medium to depict theoretical matters and ‘objects of knowledge’” (Krämer 2010, 29; cf. Giardino 2010) have grown into one of the richest fields of experimentation in comics. In the work of Chris Ware especially, various kinds of ‘info graphics’ serve to communicate supplements to the main story and offer hidden explanations and complications. Isaac Cates discerns a fundamental formal connection, a common grammar, between comics and diagrams (cf. Cates 2010, 90) which consists of a shared reliance on juxtapositions and continuities in two-dimensional spaces–and in Ware’s case also a simplified drawing style close to pictograms or ideograms. Many other works from different genres and cultural origins employ charts, maps, infographics or graphs as well; these include Fabrice Neaud’s Journal 2 (1993), Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News (2006-7), Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges (2008), Craig Thompson’s Habibi (2011) and the Eisner award winning issue of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye: Pizza Is My Business (2013; cf. Wilde 2017a). In web comics, humorous diagrams and parodies of scientific infographics are becoming a new subgenre; examples can be found in Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper: PhD Comics (1997-present), Randall Munroe’s XKCD (2005-present), Mathew Inman’s The Oatmeal (2009-present), and Will Samari, Ray Yamartino and Rafaan Anvari’s Doghouse Diaries, (2009-present) (cf. Wilde 2015; Wilde 2017b). Maps, charts and diagrams have also been used in filmic narration as a tool to visualize quantitative data and relational information. However, in film they are always kept distinct from the photographic imagery. Christoph Ernst has analysed how diagrammatic iconicity is mostly differentiated from perceptive (figurative) iconicity in film and television: Diagrams are appointed a restricted position within the diegesis, as for instance in the Star Trek holodeck (cf. Ernst 2014). Additionally, diagrammatic representations in film and television are usually not attributed to the same (hypothetical) author as a representation of facets of the storyworld, but are framed as communicative tools within this 18  It is important to stress that Peirce’s notion of diagrammatic (hypo-)iconicity is unique in that it is completely transmedial: he is generally insensitive to the ‘medium’ of representation and its modalities, so that even ‘diagrams of music’ are a possibility (cf. Pietarinen 2010). His understanding of diagrams also disregards differences in the ‘ontology’ of the objects represented–be they tangible, fictional or purely conceptual. 459

world.19 In comics, diagrams and perceptual representations can be more intimately intertwined (and are often both attributed to the same extradiegetic source), exploring “new possibilities for metaphor, meta-narrative, and other more ‘poetic’ devices for the still-developing language of comics” (Cates 2010, 102). One of the most interesting experiments is McCloud’s ‘educational comic’ on the Google Chrome browser (2008). It combines diagrammatic and perceptional iconicity (seeing-as and seeing-in) up to the point where the same lines represent both (or rather alternatively) a physical toy attached to a programmer’s finger and a diagram of the functions of Google’s browser (cf. McCloud 2008, 3). While photography posits perceptual iconicity (representing tangible things in a continuously optical world) as a competitor to diagrammatic iconicity (representing conceptual structures in the “abstract state space of an infogram,” Schirra 2005, 74), there is much less conflict between both ‘realms’ for line-pictures that can easily apply both modes of signification: “Even topographical maps do not simply depict a landscape, but rather a knowledge of a landscape” (Krämer 2010, 31).20

Perceptual Abstraction and the Phenomenality of Storyworlds in Comics Finally, we return to our most intuitive answer to McCloud’s question “what are you really seeing?” (1994, 51). His smiley, obviously, is not just an assemblage of lines; it is also not a diagram representing some ‘abstract epistemology.’ Most likely, it represents a human face. Since there are certainly no people who look ‘like that,’ we naturally assume there is iconic or perceptual abstraction at play: The further we move to the right on the horizontal axis of McCloud’s “comprehensive map” (1994, 51), the more we “interpret the lack of visual features in line drawings as a form of pictorial ellipsis” (Schirra 2005, 78). Paradoxically, we must abstract from the very lines that often represent characters, objects, and situations: “[I]t seems uncontroversial to assume that characters represented in contemporary comics (usually) do not consist of lines (as their pictorial representation generally does)” (Thon 2016, 89). Iconic abstraction thus pre19  The most notable exception is the conventional trope of representing a character’s journey by extradiegetic maps, as in Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) and the Indiana Jones films (see, for instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, Steven Spielberg). Compared to comics, however, the operational ‘power’ of a diagram in film is drastically restricted due to the limited reception time: “In a map, you may judge the distance between two sites on the map by measuring the map distance between the two and divide by the map’s scale. You may extract propositions about the relative size of land areas, you may draw conclusions as to the geopolitical position of countries relative to each other, and much more. All these propositions are but implicitly present in the diagram but may be made explicit by diagram experimentation” (Stjernfelt 2010, 59). Isaac Cates demonstrates how Chris Ware systematically exploits this potential to hide relevant information about the protagonist’s family histories in diagrams (cf. Cates 2010, 93)–almost impossible to achieve in film where you must pause the DVD to ‘experiment’ in the same way. 20  If we attribute such maps and charts to the same narratological instance or (hypothetical) author as the rest of the inscriptions (and not to some ‘extradiegetic character,’ as might be the case in Habibi, cf. Thon 2014b), they are in many cases more adequately described as objective rather than intersubjective representations since the represented knowledge seems inaccessible to the characters (see Thon 2014b for the terminology, as well as Cates 2010). 460

supposes the existence of a phenomenally distinct storyworld ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ the given representations. This narratological underpinning distinguishes comics from graphic design, advertisement, pictograms and emoticons. Even if they evince a similar visual style as comics, the latter are usually not considered in a way that prompts us to “willingly engag[e] in a game of make-believe in which we pretend that there is a spatio-temporal domain in which the [characters] exist and act independently of and prior to any narrative about them” (Margolin 2007, 71; cf. Potysch and Wilde 2017; Wilde 2017a). A notable exception is of course The Emoji Movie (USA 2017, Tony Leondis) in which emoticons are indeed represented as individual characters ‘living’ in some diegetic realm. I would argue that the comical promise of the film rests precisely on the inversion of all the otherwise ‘unmarked cases’. Narratologists mostly agree with Mary Laure-Ryan and David Herman that the represented world and its entities lie entirely in the signified (cf. Herman 2002; 2004; Ryan 2005; 2007; 2014). Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca put it this way: “[N]arrative is a certain type of mental image, or cognitive construct which can be isolated from the stimuli that trigger its construction. Therefore narrative is independent of the medium in which it is represented–it is a ‘script’ which is evoked” (Klastrup and Tosca 2004, n.p.).21 This is not to argue that all aspects of every storyworld can be ‘translated’ into all possible media, or that the same story (or storyworld) cannot be represented in different narrative media: “Synthesis posits that medium-specific differences between narratives are nontrivial but only more or less firmly anchored in their respective media; intertranslation between story media will be more or less possible, depending on the particular formats involved” (Herman 2004, 50; cf. Lefèvre 2011). One of the most striking features of represented worlds and their respective inhabitants is their ‘ontological incompleteness’: “Since media can only show selected aspects of a world, storyworlds would be fundamentally incomplete entities” (Ryan 2014, 34). With respect to our knowledge about characters, for example, Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Ralf Schneider observe: “If the medium that constitutes them provides 21  For the concept of ‘storyworld’ (and especially its intersubjective aspects which I cannot address given the scope of this chapter), see Thon 2016, 35ff.; Thon and Ryan 2014. Herman’s definition of a ‘storyworld’ is more limited, focusing on “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which recipients relocate–or make a deictic shift–as they work to comprehend a narrative” (Herman 2002, 9). For additional discussions on the important shift in scholarship from stories to storyworlds–or from storytelling to world building–see the contributions in Beil, Sachs-Hombach, and Thon 2014. 461

no information on a certain property, this property is simply lacking in the fictional world–there is a gap, as it were, in that world” (Eder, Jannidis, and Schneider 2010, 11; cf. Margolin 2007). A canonical example is the question whether Sherlock Holmes has a birthmark or not–it is something we cannot know. Since this ‘incompleteness’ does not affect the represented characters within their worlds but rather our intersubjective knowledge about them, ‘epistemological incompleteness’ might be a more appropriate term (see also Doležel 1995). In reception, this usually proves unproblematic. Scholars assume that recipients simply draw upon their everyday experiences to fill in (or ‘embellish’) the gaps. Ryan’s “principle of minimal departure” holds that most of our real-world knowledge is also the basis of storyworld laws unless the narrative tells us differently (Ryan 2014, 35; Thon 2016, 56ff.).22 The respective state of completeness of a represented world–and the subsequent necessity for inferential gap-filling–is essentially subject to the affordances and constraints of the medium. Pictures are special in that respect, as they seem to provide infinitely more information about the represented world’s appearances than can be expressed verbally. The affordances of pictorial media allow for a more detailed representation of spatial and perceptual information than any account in a propositional format. To Sachs-Hombach, pictures are “perceptoid signs”–signs close to perception (Sachs-Hombach and Schirra 2007, 40; cf. Krebs 2015). This means that our perceptional competences are paramount in all levels of pictorial comprehension and interpretation. We are usually right to assume that most of what we see ‘in’ a picture is relevant for our storyworld construction as well. Following Jan-Noël Thon, “[a]t least in contemporary feature films, graphic novels, and computer games, intersubjective representation may be considered the unmarked case” (Thon 2014b, 70; cf. Thon 2016, 223ff.). ‘Intersubjectivity’ here indicates that, if there are no additional content-related, contextual or representational markers to highlight the subjective nature of a picture (by using filters, soft focus, or various kind of ‘psychedelic’ effects in feature films for instance), we expect to have the same perceptual access to the storyworld as the characters. Different from film, however, ‘gap-filling’ plays a greater role in the comprehension of comics, especially when it comes to the appearances of the things represented. Media and comics scholar Stephan Packard has studied cases where pictures in comics do not reveal what the things they represent look like (cf. Packard 2006, 246ff.; 2013). Consider, for starters, superhero comics and the constant changes of artists across issues: The inconsistencies in appearances seem to have no effect on the phenomenality of the storyworld–allowing for some medium specific “charity,” we will find “external explanations” more appropriate, as Thon argues (2016, 61, 85ff.). The protagonists drawn by one artist show greater resemblance than the same character by two different artists, even though both creators contribute to the same story in the same storyworld.23 22  This idea is derived from the cognitive approaches of the so-called ‘natural’ narratology (cf. Fludernik 2006); for a detailed discussion of medium specific challenges in comics, see Fehrle 2011. 23  This entails that the discourse, the means of narrative representation (cf. Ryan 2007, 24), consists not only of the material sign, its qualitative forms–lines and shapes on paper or a screen– 462

To Groensteen, one reason why such inconsistencies–an effect of the seriality of comics–are usually seen as unproblematic derives from sequentiality and repetition: “merely an arbitrary code, once it is repeated from one image to the next” (Groensteen 2013, 114).

However, things are not that straightforward. Unity of style–within an issue, a page, or even a single panel–is not always there (cf. Mikkonen 2013). Contrary to Groensteen’s assessment that “the image’s degree of precision stays more or less equal, whatever the represented motif may be (site, object, character)” (Groensteen 2007, 123), McCloud gives examples where the graphic style between characters and backgrounds differs greatly (McCloud 1994, 44; cf. Packard 2006, 121ff). Moreover, a very detailed and ‘realistic’ sword can turn into a ‘cartoony’ depiction between one panel and the next (Figure 3), transforming into an object of iconic focalization (cf. Groensteen 2007, 118; Packard 2006, 171ff.). This feature is prominent in manga studies. Consider the stylistic device of chibi or S.D. (super-deformed) representations: characters turning into (abstract?) emoticon-versions of themselves during moments of emotional duress (cf. Berndt 2013, 378; Wilde 2016). In his ground-breaking study Anatomie des Comics (Anatomy of Comics), Packard analyses additional examples from many genres and cultural backgrounds, suggesting that this ‘iconic unreliability’ might be a feature inherent to comics’ mediality per se (cf. Packard 2006). The perceptoid component of comics in one panel (or even one element of a panel) can provide a lot of information about the supposed phenomenality of a represented object within its storyworld, whereas the next panel (or element) allows only for a pictorial classification as, for instance, ‘some kind of sword.’ Such pictures therefore function more like predicates or pictograms: their pictorial properties are only relevant in that they denote the existence of something in the storyworld that corresponds to a concept (for instance, a ‘sword’), but they do not but also of the phenomenological sensation of what we see ‘in’ the picture (cf. Wilde 2016b).

Figure 3 Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, page 44, panels 6, 7, 9. (c) 1994 HarperCollins 463

necessarily give access to its appearances. This semiotic logic extends to the conventionalized metaphorical pictograms in comics (cf. Eerden 2009; McCloud 1994, 131) that have been analysed under various terms like “comicana” (Walker 1980), “keiyu” (Natsume 1995), “pictorial runes” (Forceville 2011) or “bound morphemes” (Cohn 2013, 34ff.).24 Usually, they are considered distinct from the ‘vocabulary’ of comics.25 Their common ground, however, is what Groensteen may have had in mind when he argues that comics are more interested in telling than in showing (2007, 121ff.; cf. also McCloud 2006, 14). He attributes this to five key characteristics, four of which are related to iconic simplification or abstraction (162ff.). Our knowledge about the storyworld, in all these cases, is more propositional than phenomenal: we know that something existed or happened, not how it is perceived by the characters. Especially in manga discourse, the visual representations are considered much closer to script or writing than to painting (cf. Berndt 2013, 366; Cohn 2013, 153ff.; Ingulsrud and Allen 2009, 27; Wilde 2016). Many examples can also be found in Western comics where artists reduce their characters to ‘iron wire’ or matchstick men (the Spanish artist Calpurnio and, again, XKCD come to mind). This approximates the use of personal pronouns in texts (cf. Klar 2011, 223; 2013, 129). The perceptual ‘incompleteness’ of storyworlds and characters is not only more radical than in many other narrative visual media; it is also extremely flexible. With respect to pictorial representations in comics, it therefore makes sense to speak of double predication, or two layers of predication (cf. Reicher 2010, 117; Wilde 2016, 635ff.) which often evince high “representational correspondence” (Walton 2010, 58): Not everything we experience phenomenologically in a comics picture can be attributed to the diegetic characters and situations (although, what we see in a picture can also be called something ‘represented’ by the materiality of lines on paper). In any case, the reader’s narrative comprehension (how a character, an object or a scene within the storyworld ‘actually’ looks like) must rely on a relational interpretation: they are, for instance, represented as bigger, older or stronger than other people within that storyworld. This is to paraphrase Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle’s point that the medium of comics hinges on the art of suggestion, not mimesis (cf. Lefèvre 2011, 29). Drawing on the semiotics established in the first part, we can now rephrase this observation in Peircean terms: Phenomenologically, the ‘pictures’ of comics might be adequately de24  Compare this also to “hermeneutic images” which serve as a kind of comment on the diegesis (Duncan and Smith 2009, 160). In some experimental comics, pictograms may even replace all dialogue (cf. Groensteen 2013, 118). 25  Charles Hatfield is an exception here: “In most comics, the symbols that show are representational drawings while the symbols that tell are words, balloons, and a few familiar icons (…). But the potential exists for comics creators to push this tension much further, even to incorporate representational drawings as ‘dialogue’ and to blur the difference between alphabetic symbols and pictures. At its broadest level, then, what we call verbal/visual tension may be characterized as the clash and collaboration of different codes of signification, whether or not written words are used” (Hatfield 2009, 134, emphasis in original). While I agree with Hatfield that there is a tension between codes, I do not think it necessarily pertains to the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic: The XKCD matchstick men and the super deformed (chibi) characters are physically ‘there’ as well, our knowledge about them is just drastically reduced. In other words, I argue for a gradated assessment of ‘perceptoidness’ instead of a clash between a distinct number of codes. 464

scribed as images in that we see them ‘as’ figurative forms of objects, characters or situations (perceptional iconicity). Epistemologically, however, they are more adequately described in terms of diagrammatic iconicity (seeing-in):26 “Many diagrams resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists” (Peirce CP 2.282). Anne Magnussen articulates a similar insight when suggesting that two characters can be icons in a diagrammatic relation: The ‘fatness’ of one character in relation to the other designates who is who, for instance (cf. Magnussen 2000, 203). Consequently, abstraction in comics should not only be thought of as “challenging normally dominant features of comics” (Baetens 2011, 104). If we are not used to pay attention to the storylines that make up the medium of comics as Gardner notes (cf. 2011, 57), we are even more accustomed to comics ‘images’ since we do not recognize their inherent levels of abstraction; the latter in fact constitute their dominant features. These features can be considered a kind of pictoriality grounded in a medial base operation: The drawn line and the gesture of mark making enables cognitive operations that differ from the optical continua of photography, certain styles of painting and CGI, since lines constitute conceptual borders delineating epistemological areas. While the cognitive power of the line and its epistemology has come under investigation from various perspectives, comics scholars still hold onto the assumption of a visual/verbal divide and its attendant dichotomies: discursive versus iconic, telling versus showing, representing versus presenting, arbitrariness versus resemblance, and so on. In this chapter I outlined three interconnected approaches that cannot be placed on either side of the divide (cf. Bauer and Ernst 2010; Pombo and Gerner 2010; Schneider, Ernst, and Wöpking 2016). By drawing a line, “the difference between the perceptible and the intelligible is thus at the same time bridged–and constituted” (Krämer 2010, 13). From this perspective, comics not only represent things, situations or worlds in singular ways, but are primarily objects of knowledge–conceptual entities.

26  Further study should consider two rivalling models for pictoriality in comics, namely illustration versus caricature, sometimes contrasted as different ‘modes’ of comics: the ‘naturalistic mode’ as opposed to the ‘cartoon mode’ (cf. Witek 2012). For the purposes of this text, I am primarily interested in the latter. 465

Acknowledgements I am indebted to Erwin Feyersinger for valuable suggestions, as well as to the editors of this volume, especially Aarnoud Rommens. Their feedback and criticism were more than useful and helped to shape the argument.

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Sequence Tim Gaze








A Note on the Images Tim Gaze I have created hundreds of improvised abstract pages, using black acrylic paint on white A4 size paper. From some of the unpublished pages, I selected a number which appear (to me) to have one or more actors doing something in some sort of surroundings. Then I found the most comfortable order in which to arrange them into a sequence. My intention is to stimulate the reader’s imagination into filling in characters, settings and actions, and derive a narrative plot from the order in which these occur. The human faculty used for ‘reading’ suggestive, abstract forms such as these is pareidolia, which could also be described as pattern-completion. This faculty seems to operate differently in different people, both with respect to the strength of the ability to resolve ambiguous shapes into fixed, concrete pictures and as to the content of the pictures seen. My graphic novel 100 Scenes (asemic editions/Transgressor) and everything in Andrei Molotiu’s collection Nautilus (Fahrenheit) spring to mind as examples of abstract comics which operate in a similar way to this sequence. Readers tend to arrive at highly subjective reactions to this kind of abstraction. Some enjoy it much more than others, and those who can put their visions into words tend to express widely divergent storylines.



Abstraction and the Interpersonal in Graphic Narrative Paul Fisher Davies In an earlier work on abstract comics (Davies 2013), I proposed that in order to make sense of the comics text, the reader has to enter with the creator into a collaborative pact to engage actively in investing the text with narrative, akin to Grice’s co-operative principle of conversation (Grice 1975, 45). This engagement function of meaning-making is what Michael Halliday (2005) calls the “interpersonal metafunction” of a language. There are two more such functions: the second is the ideational metafunction, which deals with the representational and logical work of language–precisely what is challenged in ‘abstract comics’; and the last is an underlying textual function, which describes how texts must hold together, structuring themselves and the information they carry. The interpersonal metafunction covers what Halliday calls “the speaker’s ongoing intrusion into the speech situation” (Halliday 2005, 206). Not only does the speaker assign and act out ‘speech roles’ (demanding or providing information or goods-and-services), but also necessarily involves in the text his or her attitudes, beliefs and judgements about the content of what is said. Halliday’s metaphors for describing this function are tellingly visual: “the interpersonal meaning (…) is strung out through the clause as a continuous motif or colouring” (ibid., 205). It is this notion of continuity, of a continuum of meaning, and the idea of ‘colour’ in terms of stylistic variation, that will be explored below.

Mood, Modality, Modalization and Modulation Halliday subdivides the interpersonal function of meaning-making into two broad categories, mood and modality. The first, interactive, component is mood, which covers interrogative forms for question-asking, imperative forms for giving orders, and declaratives for making statements. The second component is modality, and it is realized in language through the use of modal verbs such as ‘must,’ ‘could’ and ‘should,’ and other lexical items with modal meanings such as ‘possibly,’ ‘maybe’ or ‘necessary.’ This second component is the focus of the present chapter. Halliday describes modality as existing between the two poles of polarity. Between ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’, ‘do!’ and ‘don’t!,’ lie in486


termediate degrees of possibility and necessity or obligation (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004, 147). Halliday characterizes this, then, as no longer a matter of either-or options, but as a ‘cline’: a continuum of possibilities with variable gradation available to the speaker. Modality breaks down into two types, depending on whether a proposition is being modalized (information exchange) or a proposal modulated (for action). Modalization is the continuum between ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ in propositions. It may be characterized in the image by resources such as intensity, attenuation, colour saturation, stylization or amount of detail. Michael O’Toole glosses modalization as “the ‘slant’ the painter gives to the reality being depicted,” incorporating uncertainty, ambiguity, fictionality, which may be realized by visual qualities of paintings (O’Toole 2010, 13). These qualities include light, perspective, framing, and rhythm; scale, prominence and centrality; contrastive features and the ‘gaze’ of figures (see Kress and van Leeuwen 2006); and finally, ‘stylization’ features, by which O’Toole appears to mean ‘level of abstraction,’ which I will return to later. Kress and van Leeuwen identify a number of “modality markers” for modalization (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006, 160-62), which are variable along a cline, though they acknowledge that the interpretation of ‘high’ or ‘low’ modality may be reversed along the same cline in different contexts (166). They list: • Colour saturation (from black and white to richly saturated colour) • Colour differentiation (diverse to monochrome) • Colour modulation (varied shading and tinting to flat colour) • Contextualization (with detailed background to no background) • Representation (abstract to detailed pictorial) • Depth (perspective, isometry, flatness) • Illumination (shadowing and sculpting vs unshaded line art) • Brightness (which appears to be contrast, from sharp black and white to shades of grey) Many of these can be applied to discussions of graphic narrative, with close attention paid to the specific traditions of the medium and of subgenera within it. Some, as El Refaie argues (2010), are starkly different in meaning when applied to graphic narrative. Kress and van Leeuwen’s visual resources are for establishing “what counts as real” (2006, 163), exploring the is-or-isn’t cline of modalization. Less available in visual forms is the notion of resources for ‘modulation’: the do-or-don’t, should-or-shouldn’t axis of modality. This sort of judgement is not available to the visual in Kress and van Leeuwen’s model: they take eye contact, gaze and angle, representing degrees of involvement in the content, to be the extent of image ‘mood.’ Mood is outside the present remit, and I will therefore set it aside here.


Clines of Appraisal, Clines of Modality Halliday’s account of the resources available to serve the interpersonal metafunction in language has been extended by later writers. Here I adopt Martin and White’s account of The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English (2005) to capture some more useful dimensions of what images can do to embed creators’ assessments of their material in graphic narrative texts. These extended concepts will be valuable when we turn to the visual resources of abstraction below. Martin and White break down interpersonal semantics into three aspects (2005, 35): negotiation, appraisal and involvement. Negotiation is their term for speech functions and exchange, the resources of mood. Involvement they gloss as “solidarity” or “contact,” the adoption of registers, largely of lexis, which affiliate the speaker to a sociocultural group–slangs, technical language, taboo usage, naming, accent and “secret scripts.” This no doubt has a place in comics discourse; it might be argued that the collective resources of comics and assumptions of readership roles implicitly assume membership of a community of readers. The focus for Martin and White, however, and the material which I will take up here, is appraisal, organised into three broad areas, one of which is then further subdivided into three. The first area is engagement, and it deals with “sourcing attitudes and the play of voices around opinions in discourse” (Martin and White 2005, 35). This therefore incorporates ‘projection’ in discourse (as accomplished via word balloons in comics) and the attribution of certain views, beliefs and ideas to other speakers. It is typical, if not essential to graphic narratives, that they incorporate a range of voices, the speaking characters, narratorial voices, and the ‘visual’ narrator–whether the “monstrator” in Groensteen’s terms (2009), or the (somewhat different) “graphiator” in Philippe Marion’s (1993). These voices may be ‘framed’ in visual markers as well as ‘bookended’ by contextualising material that may judge the text creator’s attitude to and valuation of each voice. The second type of appraisal, attitude, is “focal” for Martin and White (2005, 39), covering emotion, ethics and aesthetics (42). It can be broadly classified with positive or negative polarity (71), but subdivided into affect (emotions); judgements of persons’ capacity, propriety, normality, truthfulness and so on; and appreciation (of the values and qualities of things). Affect is expressed across the range of lexicogrammatical resources in language (Martin and White 2005, 45), scaled along a set of clines, illustrating a complex web of shading and intensities of emotions. Judgement is also essentially human: one individual appraising the value(s) of another (ibid.). Appreciation, on 489

the other hand, evaluates things rather than people, whether natural phenomena or works of art (ibid., 36), including assessments of their “value” to us, their “composition” in terms of complexity and balance, and how we react to them, how powerfully, positively or negatively (56). This last is most obviously allied to emotional affect, with the others more circumspect in their evaluations. The emotional expressiveness available to visual rendering may then demonstrate evaluations along all these lines. This framework can be adapted to suggest more specifically what sort of emotional content is being expressed through what visual means; aiming to map the functional impact of particular visual choices onto not just ‘reality status’ in a cline of modality from real to unreal, but evaluations of objects, persons, and emotional reactions. Graduation of these feelings, judgements and reactions is the last of Martin and White’s categories of appraisal. This means “modulating meaning by degree,” and may be a matter of intensification (force) or adjustment of boundaries (focus). Since it is applicable to all the other systems, it is central to the system of appraisal (Martin and White 2005, 136). There are a wide range of resources available to both, perhaps especially to force (141-8), wherein intensification may be realised through lexis of emphasis, quantifiers, repetitions, and may be multiplied through combinations of these. The complexity of these interacting systems move the levels of graduation finely up and down scales of force and focus. Martin and White suggest that this scaling “may in fact be a distinctive feature of interpersonal semantic systems in general” (16). That notion of a ‘cline,’ a range of variations along which interpersonal meanings can be arrayed, is crucial to mapping these functions to visual resources. It is a feature of drawing that it is not ‘notational,’ separable into minimal units, but rather semantically dense or “replete,” to use Nelson Goodman’s term (Goodman 1976). On the face of it, this makes pictures unlike language, which is discrete (broken down into symbols and words) at a grammatical level–but we see that, at the discourse semantic level of analysis, language may not be so all-or-nothing, but rather may display arbitrarily fine degrees of differentiation, and so may be mappable onto drawing–though the realizations may be different.

Images are pictures to the extent to which they portray things located at a lower level of abstractness than they are themselves. They do their work by grasping and rendering some relevant qualities–shape, colour, movement–of the objects or activities they detect. Pictures are not mere replicas, by which I mean faithful copies that differ from the model only by random imperfections. A picture can dwell at the most varied levels of abstractness. A photograph of Dutch landscape of the 17th century may be quite lifelike and yet select, arrange, and almost unnoticeably stylise its subject in such a way that it focuses on some of the subject’s essence. On the other hand, totally non-mimetic geometrical pattern by Mondrian may be intended as a picture of the turmoil of New York’s Broadway. A child may capture the character of a human figure or a tree by a few highly abstract circles, ovals, or straight lines. (…) Abstraction is not, then, a ‘withdrawal’ or removal from sensory experience, but an active work of selection and condensation of the objects of experience into a generalisable set of concepts. It is the art of drawing essentials from a given kind of entity. (Arnheim 2004, 173; 173)

It is apparent from the wording that Arnheim views abstraction as a ‘cline,’ and that it is a concept that is applicable not only to images but to the things that are depicted, the objects of experience. Indeed, Arnheim arranges abstraction on a cline in a diagram representing these two dimensions of abstraction, not in an array, but as two competing levels which may be compared against each other (Figure 1).

Abstraction as a Set of Clines In the next section, I would like to return to the notion of abstraction, and consider the multiple definitions of abstraction, initially presented as polarised binaries (Davies 2013), as a range of clines which lay out an array of possibilities which is analogous to those in the modal systems of language, including the systems of appraisal. I will first lay out the foundations in discussions of abstraction as a scaled phenomenon from Arnheim (2004), and then explore the range of scales uncovered when setting this notion against the dimensions identified in the previous discussions of abstraction. In Visual Thinking (2004), Rudolf Arnheim explores in detail the relationship between images, abstraction and “pictures.” He finds degrees of abstraction essential to what makes an image a picture. It is worth quoting him at length on this: 490

The image, then, becomes more abstracted as it withdraws from mimesis, through an intermediate zone of “stylization.” Experience is considered more abstract as it moves away from “particulars” to higher-level ‘chunks’ of experience. The one represents the other: specific, mimetic “symbols” representing higher level concepts (the rose for love, for example), and pictures, always to some degree representing a selection and condensation of features, an effacement of specifics,

Figure 1 Diagram of Abstraction from Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, page 151.


representing more or less particular objects of perception despite this abstraction in the signifier. Arnheim uses two tracks on which to array his ‘clines,’ but I identify four poles on which the term has been used, defined against what is taken not to be ‘abstract.’ Indeed, Arnheim’s own discussion begins with “What Abstraction is Not,” noting that its meaning is negative, denoting drawing-away, removal from experience (Arnheim 2004, 153-54). These may then be arrayed to represent four clines.

Four Clines of Abstraction The four antitheses to abstraction outlined in relation to abstract comics were as follows: 1. 2. 3. 4.

Non-signifying: thing-in-itself Non-mimetic: not resembling, operating symbolically Non-specific: categorical, descriptive of connections or general properties Non-concrete, non-visible: conceptual (in the signified).

The first two are focused on the nature of the signifier and how it functions; the second pair attend to the nature of what is signified. These may be arranged and brought together not just on two parallel continua of abstraction, but two complementary planes of abstraction, as in the following diagram (Figure 2).

charted in the lower right corner of the square array, alongside the lower left corner of the triangular array, a point which I have marked the “origin of figuration.”1 The Signifier array is represented here as triangular, since as a signifier moves away from its ability to signify at all, the differentiation between mimetic and non-mimetic will accordingly be diminished. It should be noted that the diagram might be further complicated by differentiating the non-mimetic into, say, symbolic and indexical, following Peirce (2011, 98-115); but the aim here is to chart what is abstract, and both such forms of signification may be treated as abstract in different ways, so we may excusably efface the distinction. The Signified is a square two-dimensional array since an item of experience may be both “Categorical,” non-specific, and “Conceptual,” non-concrete, or gradations of each; for example, ‘emotion’ may be both general and conceptual, whereas ‘schadenfreude’ is a rather specific sort of emotion; and ‘buildings’ perfectly concrete but broadly general in its application. The chart then identifies not one ‘abstraction,’ but a zone of abstraction at the outer end of these clines across the different dimensions. This is indicated as an “abstract edge”–not an absolute, but a limit to which a given image may tend, in a range of possible ways. In the following sections, I will explore each dimension, giving examples of graphic narrative which seem to stretch along one of them, but which may also vary across the others simultaneously. I argue that these shifts of abstraction carry interpersonal meaning. They modalize the image in the sense of placing it in the intermediate zone between ‘real’ and ‘unreal,’ between ‘concrete’ and ‘conceptual,’ and in the affordances of indexical marks of the creator amongst other resources, they may acquire more or less appraisal of what is drawn, encoding judgements, appreciations, graduations of value, and modulations of engagement with what is drawn.

Non-Specific For McCloud, the more “cartoony” or generalised an image is, particularly the image of the human face, the more people it could be said to describe; hence it invites a reader to invest themselves in it, since it is perceived not as the image of another, which would be distancing, but the emotion as felt in oneself (McCloud 1993, 30-1; 36). This con-

The two figures are here arranged so that the least abstract representation would be


1  In its most ideal form it would exist outside the diagram; absolute reproduction of something without any abstraction would cease, on Arnheim’s account, to be representation in the sense of picturing at all, but pure reproduction or identity.

Figure 2 Diagram of Abstractions.


trasts with Kress and van Leeuwen’s view that more realistic images and more specific representations encourage empathy by individuation. (I will comment below that this is also the view of Wilhelm Worringer.) It is certainly a challenge of comics, given the commitment to specify features of a depicted image which may be ignored in language, to describe the abstract in the sense of general categories. The use of stick figures as in xkcd (Munroe 2016), or in Chris Ware’s diagram of comics in the endpapers to Jimmy Corrigan (Ware 2001), approach this generalizing function, accompanied by the sort of distancing modalization described in Kress and van Leeuwen. If the utterly general, the utterly abstract, is impersonal, and the specific is human but perceived as ‘other,’ then the space between the two, the semi-abstract, is modal. The type of empathic “masking effect” that McCloud describes (McCloud 1993, 43) is perhaps not found in the extremes of simplification as he argues, but in the modal area along the cline of abstraction in this dimension; Jeff Smith’s Bone (2004), for instance, features right next to McCloud’s neutral face in his triangular diagram of abstraction (McCloud 1993, 5253), but there expressive, indexical qualities of line lend a human quality that is missing from the neatly diagrammatic.

Non-Concrete Arnheim is interested in the use of drawing to capture non-concrete conceptualizations of notions and relationships in Visual Thinking (Figure 3). He reports on “experiments with drawings” (Arnheim 2004, 120-29), wherein participants are asked to render concepts such as “democracy” or “good and bad marriages.” These are rendered with expressive lines, parallel and divergent; shapes grouped in abstract enclosures, brought into apposition with each other, varied in shape but controlled in size, and so on. The vigour evident in the mark-making reveals some of the “force” with which it has been thought through (121); looseness of the drawing (122-3) versus careful balancing of shapes (124) may reflect a gradation between “sharpening” and “softening” of focus, as well as recruiting qualities of the line to represent the non-concrete affect in question. Metaphorical “spikiness” or “gentleness” may approach mimesis (130, 132), though still not of any specific spiky thing; affordances of the figures in general, like the ‘meshing’ on display (Figure 3), capture elements such as “conjugation,” and multiple drawings may be presented, with matchable elements, so that processes of change and becoming may be read by ‘spot-the-difference’ inference between images.


In graphic narrative, the conceptual and material may be captured through similar means. Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003) makes a motif of the patterns on the titular gift blanket given to protagonist Craig by his lover Raina, attributing to them the meanings of sound: breathing, snowfall, “the gentle murmur of spirits” (Thompson 2003, 434-35). The abstract circles, feathery semi-organic patterns, paisley and mandalas combine overlaid on the mimetic image of the room in which the characters dwell (and, to adopt Kress and van Leeuwen’s take on modality, this view appears to be from the perspective of protagonist Craig’s viewpoint in the bed in which he finds himself ). These abstractions are contiguous with rendering of winged angel figures, collocating with the term ‘spirits’ in the narrative, to be read as metaphor, capturing the environment of sounds and emotions, modalized as immaterial. This, then, is abstraction on a cline or continuum: the images are to some degree mimetic, to some degree decorative; and what is represented is in part material–the motions of air, sounds– and in part immaterial, the meanings and affective value Thompson attaches to them, communicated by qualities of line and shape, the physical trace of the artist’s brush and the care taken in rendering.

Figure 3 Diagram from Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, page 131.


Non-Mimetic In the foregoing discussion of ‘abstract’ qualities to be signified, I have found myself already encroaching upon ‘abstract’ qualities of the signifier: the degree to which it is mimetic, and ways in which it may be non-mimetic, including indexical qualities and symbolism, conventional metaphorical value of curves, spikes, decorative patterns. The semi-mimetic appears in the modalization of image in the sense of capturing modalities of vision as well as the qualities of lines as indexical mark of the creator. In Blankets, Thompson draws himself torn and thrashing with emotion (Thompson 2003, 59), rendered with a line that enacts the rapid strokes of the movement that he is in part mimetically representing, but also exploiting the ‘motion blur’ experienced by looking at a fast-moving object.2 In Andrei Molotiu’s collection of Abstract Comics (2009), many of the works operate like this, in play between ‘pure’ abstraction and possible mimesis. In the anthology, the work of Troy Lloyd, Elijah Brubaker, James Kochalka, Trondheim’s “Bleu,” and Ibn al Rabin’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Toads Welcome” represent a range of locations on the continuum between mimesis and the expressive, with the line representing motion through abstraction. The indexical opposition to mimesis has been the main focus here, but the symbolic, or coded form of abstraction is also available. Both al Rabin and Trondheim exploit these coded abstract resources of comics, and most of the works in the collection use abstract enclosures–panelization–as a basis for generating implicature, and as a textual identifier that stakes the work’s claim to be a comics text, and invites reading as such. Trondheim’s ‘protagonist’ is a shape-shifting form (there are no panels, but we assume identity through similarity as comics readers) who ‘speaks’ through projected balloons, which contain the shape it will later become (by assumed progression of time). Though the shapes are abstract, there is nonetheless co-resemblance that is crucial to making sense of the story. On the other hand, codes such as size = volume, and qualities of the balloon tail signifying qualities of speech, are also at work here; non-mimetic, though nonetheless meaningful. Ibn al Rabin’s “Stop Quibbling, Please” uses the abstract coding principles of ‘word’ balloons to achieve sophisticated nesting in a complex hypotactic structure of reported speech, also complicating our management of reading order, as well as our understanding of the status of what we read: reported or not. These projective balloons operate as heteroglossic devices, attributing to the drawings the content of the thoughts or speech of the characters. Other works play with enclosures by moving them towards the concrete end of the modal scale, away from the abstract. Al Rabin’s “The Cannibal Frame” plays with the frame’s status as abstract indicator outside the text, promoting it to the status of protagonist, and in Andy Bleck’s work the frames are sculpted and made almost as concrete 2  It is likely that these features became a resource for artists through the exploration of photography; the same applies for soft focus and other technologies of seeing and image capture.


as the figures rendered within, modalizing it back towards the mimetic as the figures are modalized away. Anders Pearson’s work likewise plays with the materiality of the frame (Molotiu 2009). As a more mainstream tool for communicating modality, the normally non-mimetic frame may take on concrete or mimetic qualities when it appears frozen in ice, dripping with blood, or otherwise takes on topical shapes which more or less mimetically communicate emotional content or motifs related to the story they contain. Metaphorical material which is semi-mimetic, such as spikiness, cloudiness, attenuation, and so on, may be communicated from the frame to the content enclosed. In this way, the abstract enclosure is a key tool of modalization and appraisal–affect, judgement and appreciation.

Non-Signifying Some accounts of abstraction identify it with a lack of all signification, where the abstract artwork is to be appreciated for its own sake, a thing-in-itself, without further meaning. This is perhaps impossible to control, since it is in part in the hands of the onlooker to invest meaning in the work. Carl Andre’s minimalist sculpture Equivalent VIII (1966) might serve as a prototypical example of this tradition. In the Abstract Comics collection (Molotiu 2009), some works tend towards this pole. In Bill Boichel’s “Jim Jam Job,” the line is not at all mimetic, nor concrete, nor especially meaning other than itself: it is a path for the reader to follow, playing ‘maze’ in the pleasurable tracing of its lines and curves, organized into clusters that approximate the shape of panels, but with a single link from knot to knot. Grant Thomas’s “Color Sonnet #3” problematizes the limits of mimesis and meaning; the form is clearly meant to reflect the form of a sonnet (10 ‘panels’ on 14 ‘pages’ in groups of eight and six, to reflect the 10-syllable, 14-line, octave-and-sestet structure of the sonnet), and the shifts of colour in the paint patches may be read as marking shifts in tone, including the ‘turn’ expected of the sonnet genre; but since what is ‘represented’ here is just form, does this count as mimesis? As signification? The patches and patterns of colour are pleasing in themselves, as with the following “Eggs, Eggs, Eggs” by Casey Camp, the title of which suggests no obvious mimesis or meaning. The pleasure of the drawing itself, and the scopophilia associated with viewing drawings for themselves, is present in all comics work. One of Robert Crumb’s fans reportedly told him that he enjoyed Crumb’s crosshatching more than getting high (The Guardian 2005). Non-signifying drawing might be said to communicate an appreciation for 497

the art of comics creation, as well as to inspire it. Lynda Barry decorates her work with geometric abstract shapes, filling the borders with interest. This enacts the pleasures of drawing for its own sake, as well as inscribing the indexical mark of the artist, imbuing it with the affects of attention, concentration, handmade care. The use of found materials concretizes the page, too, and draws attention to its status as a real-world object, to be interacted with. In Syllabus (Barry 2014), and in her workshops, Barry recommends marking the page ‘meaninglessly’ with an X, to avoid it acquiring a status as precious or untouchable. She similarly recommends the drawing of spirals while listening, enacting an of-itself mark on the page. This marks the material of the comics as a ‘real’ space, and the act of marking as a felt pleasure, to be reflected in the reading. Her geometric lines and shapes communicate a playfulness and pleasure in drawing, and they efface the distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic; some of the images (page 7 of Syllabus, for instance) look like leaves, or perhaps eyes, though perhaps they are mere decorative abstraction. Barry’s work is instructional, but this decorative abstraction may adorn more narrative works too. In Craig Thompson’s Habibi (2011), the geometric patterns in the borders are in part topical (they are derived from the traditions of the world he is representing, and he explicitly discusses their construction on 562-3), but also devotional in a similar way to Barry’s decorative edging. At times, they modalize projective material, identifying the narration of nested stories in many places (e.g., 26-7, 121-2, 578-9, 609-11, and many more); at times, they appear just to fill space (36, 132, 253, etc.); they may take up background to communicate intensity of emotion (90, 166, 208, 264); they may be indeterminately topical or emotional (141, 156); they manage the text’s structure in the marking of chapter transitions. Examples are numerous, and those given are not exhaustive. They do not signify real things in the diegesis, but foreground themselves as present in the discursive world of the material text. The evident pleasure of the creator in the exquisite detail of the decoration, and the reader’s fascination enacts an ‘erotics’ of the comics text. Both sets of forms used by Thompson and Barry, are on their own cline between geometrical abstraction and the use of somewhat mimetic natural forms: leaves, vines, branches, sometimes creatures. This calls to mind the investment of emotion in abstraction discussed by Wilhelm Worringer in Abstraction and Empathy ([1908] 1953) and Form in Gothic ([1911] 1957). For Worringer, the link between abstraction and empathy is that, in more confident and secure periods of human existence, people seek empathy in art that represents the self mimetically; they can enjoy the reflection of who they are. In more unstable and anxious periods, people seek the security of abstract forms which are ‘absolute’ and transcendent from the world. The underlying shared thought here is the use of art for interpersonal means: to empathise with. Worringer’s ideas here emerged from his interest in Gothic art, the “Northern line,” which operated in an intermediate space between these two extremes, and revealed a civilization in transition: the abstract form of the Gothic took on organic features, with a freely expressive line which, whilst being abstract, invites empathy with the form, which em498

bodies and communicates organic emotion. That the shapes in this intermediate space, the sort of transitional in-between which I have been calling ‘modal space,’ are taken, though enacted in the visual line, to offer space for the investment of human values and emotion, supports my proposals about the connection between the visual modalities of abstraction across its range of clines, and the various dimensions of modalization as human appraisals of content in a multifunctional system. Perhaps also, a cultural moment that is interested in the play in this space of intermediate abstraction embodied in comics, reflects likewise a culture in transition.

Resources for Modalization To summarize, then, let me outline here some key resources for modalization in graphic narrative. Firstly, the image may be abstracted, across all the dimensions here outlined. For Arnheim, this is inevitable in all pictures. This may be accomplished by simplification, a tendency to break down the image into geometric forms, the ellipsis of detail, attenuation of line and flattening of shape, foregrounding of the indexical, and so on. This may serve the purposes of graduation of force, downplaying the salience of elements of the image, or pure modal judgement of the reality status of an image: the more abstract, the more unreal, non-concrete, imaginary, mental. Secondly, attenuation of the line may be varied, judging status and importance, and expressing the indexical presence of the creator where this is freely handled, inviting affective response and empathy. Brushwork is perhaps especially conducive to this form of modality, though all marks of physical presence of a creating individual may serve this. Next, abstract line and abstract enclosures may be concretized; mimetic or material elements may be introduced into these, making them more present, drawing attention to them and their role, and communicating valuations, whether judgement or appreciation, of what is enclosed or indicated by the line. This feature may work alongside the last, indicating the indexical presence of the creator and emotional content communicated through the enactment of the line in space–force or delicacy of brush strokes, for example, making the line material on the page. Fourthly, the creator may attempt mimesis of modalities of vision, rendering fleeting visual artefacts, whether already conventionalized as in motion lines or improvised in the drawing style; this may problematize what is concrete and what is abstract, and thereby modalizes the image. It presents a subjectively perceived ‘monstration,’ and draws attention 499

to a viewing subject, also potentially marking appreciations of the relative motion of a figure, or communicating unreality or uncertainty by representing the mental state of the monstrator, as in representations of drunkenness by double vision, for instance. Also conventional, the use of abstract forms such as the enclosures of frames and word balloons can modalize an image, indicating that it is a projection from another character than the narrator/monstrator, ‘attributing’ the drawn image and contributing to the engagement and heteroglossia of the text. These enclosures may be further modalized by concretization as noted above.

space rather than kept into the ‘phatic’ contact space of the margins/ gutters. Finally, the use of brushwork on the lettering allies them to the indexical line used to create the image, thereby indicating a closeness, and adopting some of the aggression of the line–further supported by the instance of capitalisation in the key word ‘buRN.’

Finally, colour modulation, including tonal values in monochrome work, may operate along the lines that Kress and van Leeuwen have proposed, though not with the same evaluation of reality status that they suggest: the 35mm colour photograph is not the “reality standard.” Changes in saturation, tone control, restricted palettes, may all be markers of reality status and attitudes/affective value, with some conventionalized resources available to be adopted (such as sepia or black-and-white for the past), but others that may be improvised through the logogenesis of the work. These, then, are not the ‘rules’ or a definitive prescriptive ‘grammar’ of graphic modality. What is offered here is a way of organizing the visual resources by means of which creators of graphic narrative can communicate modal content in their work, and through which it will be understood by readers. The framework is intended to enable a reader or critic to articulate how modality is realized in a graphic narrative text, and thereby how appraisals are made of the reality status, affective value, or semantic force of what is rendered. Let me attempt a couple of applications. In pages 59-60 of Blankets (2003), Craig Thompson modalizes the images in a range of ways. In the third panel enclosure, the frame is given indexical weighting, symbolising a textual force to the image, but also through the texture of the emboldened brushwork on the border an index of the artist’s presence and a heightening of emotion is effected. This roughened brushwork is shared with the rendering of the barrel in which he is to burn his work–modalizing it from the opposite direction, from mimetic towards abstract indexical qualities. The three drawings at the bottom of page 59 (Figure 4) use a modalized line to indicate the (metaphorical) thrashing of Craig’s head, in the representation of part-abstract, part-mimetic modalities of vision in the blurring/motion lines that indicated head and hair. The backgrounds, featuring ellipsis of detail in the pure black, continue this hand-moulded quality of the line and seem to indicate motion there too; background circumstance thereby carries affective qualities we impart to what is depicted. Even the mimetic lines sculpting the T-shirt and sweater Craig is wearing carry this indexical quality, and the rendering of the hand is sketchier in the central panel to chime with the indeterminacy of the face, especially in the third panel, where the chin tends towards geometric abstraction. The use of doubled enclosures here serves both to mark this rendering as a transition into a more metaphorically modalized sequence, not to be treated as ‘real,’ and also to group together the three images as subordinate, projected as part of his reportage, which is now enclosed together within this


Figure 4 Craig Thompson, Blankets, page 59. © 2003 Craig Thompson.


Page 60 (Figure 5) is revealed with a page turn, and exploits a range of abstractions to indicate unreality and emotion. The dominant image blends the representational (sharks, birds, monsters) with the abstract (circles, linking lines, carets) and the indeterminate (wheels, arrows, droplets), in a flattened, unsculpted rendering eschewing the shadows and brushwork of the rest of the image. This attenuation marks the image as metaphorical, unreal; the line itself appears to be avoiding indexical emotion, though the shakiness of some of the line (like the upper edge of the shark) may communicate nervous affect. The face of Craig, vomiting out this modalized image of feeling, shares the indeterminacy and blurring of the previous sequence. The eye is also prominently simplified into a geometrical circle though rendered with loose, anxious line. In the background, the trees, previously rendered with an organic, fluid brushwork typical of the graphic novel as a whole, with sculpturing and shading in panel one on page 59, take on a geometricality with sharp angles and flat hatching, foregrounding the mark-making and further signalling unreality; the sharp edges supporting metaphorically the negative affect the character is feeling (and we should bear in mind that this is Thompson rendering his younger self ). There are interesting transgressions of the framing border, with not only the memento mori of the lower right skull exceeding the boundaries of enclosures which contain this ‘text-world,’ encroaching on the ‘discourse-world’ of the page, but also the shading lines, suggesting that these expressive lines are loose and ‘uncontrolled,’ and again casting the text world as non-hermetic, foregrounding the contact marks of the creator. Finally, the billowing smoke shares that rough, expressive line that has been used to describe the barrel: it is partly mimetic, indicating a roughness of texture or rustiness in the object depicted, but partly abstract, indexical, expressive of the affect invested in the object by the creator: it is modalized line. In marked contrast, Kenneth Koch’s experimental comics poetry (Koch 2004) predominantly uses words and abstract enclosing lines to organise the text, lines usually neutral and simple. This work tests the boundaries of what might count as ‘graphic narrative,’ given that it largely eschews the visual. But nonetheless, in its handling of the modalities of line, it partakes of the resources of comics, even beyond its overt adoption of the panel and enclosure as a structuring device. “Tugboat Ted Comics” (Koch 2004, 62) is one of a few to use semi-mimetic images. Often Koch’s comics are text fragments laid out in regular grids without gutters, with only the occasional use of nested enclosures modalizing the projection of thought or speech, as in “Omar Bongo Comics” (32).

Figure 5 Craig Thompson, Blankets, page 60. © 2003 Craig Thompson.


The enclosure of Janice’s words below, shared as a heart, communicate partly by mimesis, partly by convention the affective value afforded to the quotation; the star-shaped enclosure repeats the assertion of “beautiful stars” it encloses, with “night” composed in the ‘background’; and “we go out” is both framed in part and supplied in part with content by the stair-shaped stepped line underscoring it–suggesting a descent as they depart. Mimetic? Abstract? These lines exist in the modal space, where they are intermediate and simultaneous, serving both purposes. In their sketchy roughness, along with all the line work in Koch’s comics poetry, they reflect spontaneous, direct contact, in common with the work of other New York poets of his group such as Frank O’Hara.

Conclusion I have outlined two frameworks and shown how they constitute a significant aspect of the interpersonal metafunction available to graphic narrative. The key framework is modality, and in particular the modalization of represented experience as more or less ‘real’ versus ‘possible’ or ‘imaginary.’ The notion of modalization was extended from judgements of reality status into the more detailed extension of Halliday’s work, in Martin and White’s appraisal framework. I demonstrated how the resources of comics might indicate engagement with heteroglossic voices through conventions of projection enacted by the abstract enclosure such as thought and speech balloons; graduation via indexical aspects of the line, brushwork, attenuation and emboldening; and how abstract qualities of the line may combine with mimetic functions to indicate creators’ attitudes: affect, judgement and appreciation. I explored a range of ways in which modalization, as a cline between the polar extremes of yes/no, real/unreal, maps to clines of abstraction, along a range of dimensions that have constituted understandings of abstraction: non-/mimetic, non-/signifying, non-/concrete and non-/ specific. I have illustrated and exemplified how the location of elements in graphic narrative along these clines of abstraction can thereby realize modal functions. Occasionally, as in this case (Figure 6), simple geometricalized drawings bring mimetic qualities to Koch’s enclosures: the approximation of a boat enclosing “tugboat Ted,” which appears to be engaged in a relational process with rounded “aunt Bertha Beverly”–is the rounded enclosure mimetically depicting Bertha, or signifying a judgement of her qualities? The hotel sign enclosure seems mimetic at least in part, and the lines along “Rue de Seine” seem at least in imitation of map lines (a second-order mimesis of an abstraction); mimetic renderings of foodstuffs line it in a description of the street. 504

Figure 6 “Tugboat Ted Comics” from Kenneth Koch, Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures, page 62. © 2004 Kenneth Koch. 505

References Arnheim, Rudolf. 2004. Visual Thinking. 35th anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. Barry, Lynda. 2014. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Montréal: Drawn and Quarterly. Davies, Paul Fisher. 2013. “‘Animating’ the Narrative in Abstract Comics.” Studies in Comics 4 (2): 251-76. El Refaie, Elisabeth. 2010. “Visual Modality versus Authenticity: The Example of Autobiographical Comics.” Visual Studies 25 (2): 162-74. Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Hackett. Grice, H. P. 1975. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics. Volume 3, Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, 41-58. New York: Academic Press. Groensteen, Thierry. 2009. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Halliday, M. A. K. 2005. On Grammar: Volume 1. London: Continuum. Halliday, M. A. K, and Christian Matthiessen. 2004. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 3rd ed. London: Hodder Education. Ibn al Rabin. 2013. Lentement aplati par la consternation. Geneva: Atrabile. Koch, Kenneth. 2004. Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press. Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. 2006. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Marion, Philippe. 1993. Traces en cases: travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur : essai sur la bande dessinée. Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia. Martin, J. R, and P. R. R White. 2005. The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial. Molotiu, Andrei, ed. 2009. Abstract Comics: The Anthology. Seattle: Fantagraphics. Munroe, Randall. 2016. “Xkcd: Time Travel Thesis.” Xkcd. http://xkcd.com/. O’Toole, Michael. 2010. The Language of Displayed Art. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. Peirce, Charles S. 2011. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications. Smith, Jeff. 2004. Bone: One Volume Edition. Columbus, OH: Cartoon Books. The Guardian. 2005. “Robert Crumb,” March 18, sec. Film. https://www.theguardian.com/ film/2005/mar/18/robertcrumb.comics. Thompson, Craig. 2003. Blankets. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions. –––. 2011. Habibi. London: Faber and Faber. Ware, Chris. 2001. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. London: Jonathan Cape. Worringer, Wilhelm. 1953. Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style. London: Routledge. –––. 1957. Form in Gothic. Revised edition. London: Alec Tiranti. 506

Achieving Recognition: Affect and Imagining in the Work of Andrei Molotiu and Carlos Nine Simon Grennan

Views on Depiction In brief, depiction is a unique type of visual representation defined by both seeing the activities/marks that constitute the depiction whilst also seeing the object of the depiction. This definition follows Richard Wollheim (1987, 21; 46) and Nigel Thomas (1999) and carries the useful shorthand description ‘seeing-in’ or ‘seeing-as.’ In this sense, depiction is an iconic function, in that its significance lies in some type of resemblance between a topology of an array of actions/marks and a signified object which is ‘seen-in’ the topological array. However, the specific mechanics of this function are still contested. Four approaches to depiction dominate: those theorising concepts of illusion and partial illusion (Gombrich 2002), those seeking to tease out optical/motor resemblances between depictions and their objects (Rawson 1987 and 1997, Willats 1990, Podro 1998 and Hopkins 2009), those proposing a purely syntactic or ‘conventional’ mechanism (Goodman 1968) and those theorising the role of imagination (Sartre 2010, Walton 1990). Depiction is also relatively under-theorised in terms of the study of visual narrative. Often, the significance of the achievement of depiction itself is overlooked in narrative terms, with the result that depictions in comic strips, for example, are often approached immediately as arrangements of self-evidencing, ‘seen-in’ views.1 This general oversight persists despite increased narratological focus on the status of the drawn mark, with a few notable exceptions (for example, Baetens 2011). If we consider philosopher Patrick Maynard’s long list of depictive drawing “resources” (2005, 137) we find a formal, multi-categorical group of geometric, taxonomic and corresponding affects described in the work of Philip Rawson, John Willats and Peter Booker.2 For 1  For example, see the theorisation of “attention units” in Cohn (2013, 56-9) and of “panels” in Saraceni (2016, 118), in which the activity of ‘seeing-in’ is considered brute. 2  Maynard (2005) does not systematically theorise relationships between categories of affect. Although he separately discusses spatial projection systems and correspondences, for example, he does not consider ways in which the affective functions of these and the other techniques collected in what he calls a “kit” might or might not be part of an encompassing temporal, proprioceptive or intersubjective situation (cf. Maynard 2005, 139). See also Rawson’s 508


Maynard, this group of affects constitutes the technologies of depictive drawing, the ‘stimulus’ in a ‘stimulus/response’ model in which the bundles of material characteristics constituting a depictive drawing are identified with perceptual effects that are demonstrable and repeatable. These affects include, in no significant order, untouched surface areas, the shape of a drawn mark, relationships between lines, contour, visible evidence of production, dimension, enclosure, temporal index, depth-slices, plan-sections, ‘bracelet’ shading, the ‘oval,’ facelets, ovoids, shading, modelling tones, regions, enclosures, axis, extendedness, connectedness and continuity, symmetry, contour qualities, occlusion and superimposition, rhythm, primary geometry (projection systems) and ‘secondary geometry’ (surface distribution).3 Before turning his full attention to theorisations of the ways in which these stimuli become depictions, Maynard includes in his technical kit a number of non-iterative effects, the inclusion of which point to Rawson’s, Willats’s and his own struggles with their pre-theoretical categorisation: direction, shadow, light source, reader motor habits, tension between perception and imagination, location, gravity, point of view and perceptual ‘feedback.’4 It is difficult to argue that ‘gravity’ is an affective element of a depictive drawing in the same way as ‘axis’ might be, for example, or how shadow, as a quite distinct property from shade, can be anything apart from interpretation of contrasting shades in a particular context in a drawing. No matter. Maynard’s is a representative, although not exhaustive, list of the technologies of depictive drawing. To summarise: Maynard provides a list of technical elements that can be accumulated as formal arrays, identified through instances of repetition and considered as components, from the appearances of existing drawings, on the basis of the perceptual effects that they afford. If we add to this list affects ascribed in particular to narrative drawings on the same basis, then the production methods of the comic strip, if not narrative itself, are seamlessly included in the technical drawing toolkit––the means, if not yet the method, by which to stimulate depictive recognition encompassing recognition of the medium of comics.5 The definition of these resources, in this way, is itself the basis for a theory of Drawing (1987), Willats’s Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures (1997) and Booker’s History of Engineering Drawing (1963). 3  See Rawson’s Seeing Through Drawing (1987) for the shape of a drawn mark (84, 92), direction (84), relationships between lines (92), contour, visible evidence of production (81-83), dimension, enclosure, temporal index (15), depth-slices (105), bracelet shading (107, 109–110), facelets (160-61), ovoids (160), shading and modelling tone (109-10), plan-sections (37) and shading (39-40). See Maynard (2005) for untouched surface areas (165) and the ‘oval’ (39). For a detailed summary of John Willats descriptions of regions, enclosures, axis, extendedness, connectedness and continuity, symmetry, contour qualities, occlusion and superimposition and rhythm, see Maynard 2005, 73-82. See Booker’s History of Engineering Drawing (1963) for primary geometry (projections systems) and secondary geometry (surface distribution). 4  See Rawson’s Seeing Through Drawing (1979) for direction (84), shadow (113), reader motor habits (88-89), location (201). See Rawson’s Drawing (1987) for location (14) and Maynard’s Drawing Distinctions (2005) for light source (170), gravity (76), emic and etic positions (80) and perceptual feedback (82). 5  For example, Groensteen distinguishes the frame, the multiframe and site according to this approach: “To draw an ordinary multiframe is to consider (...) comics itself (...) the device upon which the language is founded” (2007, 27-9). See also Peeters (2000) and Fresnault–Deruelle (1972). 510

depictive or narrative drawing. According to the idea that each tool elicits its perceptual effect (as the specific stimulus of a specific response), perception ought to guide the artist to manipulate these tools, in relation to each other, to produce depictions. The same perceptual functions that guide the use of these tools to produce a depiction are those by which the viewer perceives what is depicted. As a basis for a theory of depiction, stimulus/response is unfeasibly one-sided without a structured account of the specific perceptual operations that respond to stimuli. Consideration of the subject, rather than the object, is almost completely absent in Maynard’s, Gombrich’s, Rawson’s and Willats’s discussions of depiction, notwithstanding the application of general ideas of ‘reader response.’ In this context, the perceptual operations of the subject are considered to be entirely physiological and hence identifiable in some detail through a wide and sophisticated range of response experiments. Implicit in stimulus/response models is the idea that physiological perception and the world of stimuli are not only co-dependent but are also spontaneously meaningful. For Cohn (2013), specific neural responses are mapped to accumulate a model of a ‘human’ world, at least in relation to reading comics, Cohn’s specific field of research. But there are problems with this model applied as a theory of depiction. In the sense of stimulus/response, an elision of perception and depiction cannot account for even a small part of the experience of making and viewing depictions: if it could, then depictions would always be true illusions. We would mistake a depictive drawing for its object. Hence, categories of knowledge, such as ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ would contradict our perceptual senses: we would be deceived. More mundanely, even considering the possibility that this type of stimulus might be rhetorical, this model of depiction cannot account for any epistemological contradictions that reveal the relative level of skill of the artist (because in this sense, an illusion is either complete or it is not an illusion), or for style of facture, genre, movement, change, supposition or memory. It is illuminating here to consider what Hugo Frey calls “tactics for illusion” (Frey 2015, 60), a deft term that toys with the concept of possible tools in a toolkit, as an exemplar of the idea that illusions are always rhetorical, in the sense that they constitute the contradiction of perceptual knowledge with other types of knowledge, so that they “push for a particular vision of thing, while simultaneously offering knowledge that contradicts it” (ibid., 56). The tactics that Frey discusses categorically do not belong to the stimuli in Maynard’s toolkit. Rather, they are perceptual/cognitive paradoxes that disrupt viewing 511

whilst cuing the viewer to expect, or even scrutinise, perceptual/epistemological contradictions themselves. The handful of tactics that Frey mentions are all interpretative instances of cognition interposing stimulus/response whilst response is maintained: disorienting changes in scale, unexpected shifts in story-time, the retrospective signification of coded images, story paradoxes and radical changes in the style of facture. On this basis alone, the theoretical elision of perception and depiction cannot stand. But there is no reason why the toolkit should not remain. Specific technologies have specific uses–that is why they appear as technologies. We do recognise a scene in a few ink marks or the passage of moments or years in a sequence of panels. Errors theorising production/perception tautologies from the functions of these technologies do not invalidate the identification of the technologies themselves (cf. Frey 2015, 59). But as Gombrich writes: “The question is not whether nature ‘really looks’ like (...) pictorial devices, but whether pictures (...) suggest a reading” (2002, 360). Rawson concurs that “drawing never copies things; it creates a conviction of reality in our minds” (1979, 35). Maynard sums up: “There is our perceptual experience of shapes on a surface and there is an ‘experience of the mind’ of a situation” that these shapes depict (2005, 188). Depictive drawings do not, even in part, resemble the situations they depict, where ‘resemblance’ constitutes eliciting perceptual responses that create the illusion of perceiving something other than a depiction. The fact that we recognise depictive drawings as objects within familiar systems of the categorisation of objects provides a fundamental example of the function of cognition relative to perception. Cognition, or Maynard’s ‘experience of the mind,’ contextualises perception even as it occurs as a constituent part of the phenomenal world in which it appears. Depictive drawings are made to be viewed as depictive drawings, notes Maynard, because “they operate by being understood as presented for that function” (2005, 111; emphasis in original). As a result, he says, “Looking at a drawing as a depiction has us look at the pattern of marks differently than it does looking at it for other reasons” (ibid., 119). Noting the implications of this, we can also recognise both the functions of recognition and use in depiction and the relationship that these create between stimulus and cognition, so that the functions served by the depiction contribute to its internal organisation. However, we must be careful not to assume from this that purposeful-depiction-for purposeful-viewing, undertaken in the broadest context of our perceptions, is only a question of a fine calibration of knowledge and habit. Philosopher Kendon Walton and Maynard have little time for what Walton calls “conventionalist” theories of depiction, such as Nelson Goodman’s (1968). Walton rather confusingly uses the term ‘conventionalist’ to mean semiotic, rather than socially conventional, but in this sense, writes Maynard, conventionalism proposes that “the difference between the depictive and the diagrammatic is purely syntactic” (88), because it “takes picture perception as a kind of reading of symbols, like a reading of texts” (211). Their first objection, the opposite of objections to assumptions underlying stimulus/response (that depic-


tive drawings do not elicit perceptual responses without constitutive cognitive interventions), is that a signifier’s relationship to signified is disembodied, phenomenally distinct and random and, second, that depiction doesn’t function via denotation and connotation, as semiosis does. Walton writes that: “Conventionality is incompatible with depictiveness, moreover, if it is understood to imply that the perceiver must explicitly figure out, on the basis of (...) colours and shapes (...) what a picture is a picture of ” (1990, 301).

Mandates for the Imagination A particular type of cognition, however, is central to Walton’s general theory of representation, within which a theory of depiction nestles. He provides a compelling theory of fiction that systematises the relationships between cognition and perception, on which the ‘illusion,’ ‘resemblance’ and ‘convention’ approaches to visual depictions founder. His own summary is so comprehensive and succinct that it is worth quoting at length: Representations (...) are things possessing the social function of serving as props in games of make-believe, although they also prompt imagining and are sometimes objects of them as well. A prop is something which, by virtue of conditional principles of generation, mandates imaginings. Propositions whose imaginings are mandated are fictional, and the fact that a given proposition is fictional is a fictional truth. Fictional worlds are associated with collections of fictional truths; (...) the world of a game of make-believe (...) or that of a representational work of art. (Walton 1990, 69; emphasis in original)

The act of imagining, then, is the cognitive function that systematises a relationship between perception and cognition without either denaturing particular stimuli, such as Maynard’s drawing resources–and perceptual responses to them–or overlooking social convention (the situations in which acts of imagination are ‘mandated’), or falling back on stimulus/response. Of course, this brief summary hardly explicates the ways in which such mandates to imagine are acted upon, and many objections can be raised, particularly regarding the noetic aspect of the mandate. However, the theory accounts for all types of metatexts, theories of genre, stylistic differences and differences of media, because it proposes a single mechanism for the creation and identification of types of fiction, according to which specific social circumstances require acts in which participants imagine that they see, read or hear themselves looking at or hearing the things represented. Stimulus fulfils its affective capacities relative to physiological perception. Response occurs in every case, of course, but is only meaningful if there 513

is a social ‘mandate’ to utilise these affects in order to imagine–that is, to create fictions. Semiosis is subsumed by, rather than contradicted by, this theorisation. Although Walton argues that specific types of activity generate specific opportunities for creating specific types of knowledge, he does not describe why people might imagine this or that. He does not see the need to do this. According to him, as a type of knowledge, imagination itself is unconstrained, except by socially agreed or habitual mandates for the act of imagining, utilising designated or designed objects as props, prompts, or objects of imagination (or all three). He approaches cognition as displaying structures that make meaningful different media and different types of fiction, in the sense that specific categories of imagination utilise affects to generate specific types of fiction, but he is not interested in what is imagined. In Walton’s terms, what are the ontological limits of the imagination? Is the activity of imagining relative to, even subject to, social convention? Is a sociology of the imagination possible? One answer to these questions introduces two examples that I want to discuss in the work of Molotiu and Nine. Many possible answers could be proposed, deriving from psychoanalysis on the one hand or theories of intersubjectivity on the other, for example. However, we need to keep in sight the central achievement of Walton’s theory itself–its capacity to generalise the relationships between affect, perception, cognition and social convention by systematising a role for each. In this sense, imagining cannot be a personal matter because social convention is not only a matter of ‘public’ action, but also acts to constrain–and make conventional–private possibility. Rather, imagining is a constituent part of the reflexive function of seeing oneself and seeing-oneself-as, locating and defining the subject in a network of affective relationships with objects, sensations, fictions and other subjects. Here I follow Valentin Vološinov in describing the psyche as a catalyst of socialisation, in order to pursue the idea that self-knowledge, cognition and imagination are as socially conventional as ‘public’ actions.6 6  Vološinov writes: “What is the reality that pertains to the subjective psyche? The reality of the inner psyche is the same reality as that of the sign. Outside the material of signs, there is no psyche: there are psychological processes, processes in the nervous system, but no subjective psyche as a special existential quality. (…) [P]sychology in fact is not located anywhere within (...) but entirely and completely without––in the word, the gesture, the act. There is nothing left unexpressed in it, nothing ‘inner’ about it––it is wholly on the outside, wholly brought out in exchanges, wholly taken up in material, above all in the material of the world” (Vološinov 1973, 19). We must be careful here to understand Vološinov’s word ‘sign’ as affect or even phenomenon, on the one hand, and not to confuse his word ‘psyche’ with the function of ideology,

Figure 1 Andrei Molotiu, panel from Nautilus, page 41. Farenheit, 2009. © Andrei Molotiu 2009. 515

Even in these very broad terms, approaching imagining, as well as the act of imagining, as socially conventional, allows us to exploit the model’s clear mechanisms for connecting the function of affect relative to perception, cognition and social convention. Then, in Walton’s terms, imaginings can be analysed as constituents in the production of affects and the types of meaning accorded to particular perceptions and cognitions,

alongside those social conventions that mandate acts of imagining, guided by strict reciprocity. We will see how Walton’s theory is then not so very far from theorisations of the relationships between ideas and institutions, that is, theorisations of ideology. Let us first consider a page by Andrei Molotiu from his comic album Nautilus, and a page from Carlos Nine’s bande dessinée Saubón le petit canard, both from 2009.

Of Ducks and Terrain I have chosen these two pages because, together, they demonstrate differences and similarities that both illuminate Walton’s theory of depiction and allow exemplary discussion of both items from Maynard’s drawing ‘resources’ of semiosis and the effect of conventions on imagination. These two pages facilitate this largely because they make use of a small and similar range of ‘resources’ in their facture, whilst self-consciously undermining these as part of their depictive strategies within a crude nominal designation that one of them is distinct from the other because it is ‘abstract’; that is, that we are directed to think of the word and a set of ideas because of our knowledge of its current use in the context of the history of comics, in the history of occidental art and the history of depiction in particular. Of these, the idea that the facture of both Molotiu and Nine’s pages undermine the association and recognition of types of drawing resources with types of comics production is the most relevant (so that, brought together, the terms ‘abstract’ and ‘comics’ currently produce a dissonance of reader expectation). It is useful to say that, according to Walton’s model, the term ‘abstract’ might simply mean that there is no mandate to make use of the marks on the page as objects for imagining visual fictions, such a mandate being a reciprocal correlation between types of facture (both perceptual ‘stimulus’ and the context in which it appears) and habits of use. We should also remember, with Frey, that these designations can always also operate as both literal affects and, at the same time and with much greater complexity, as rhetorical devices.

on the other. It is the bifurcation between inner and outer experience to which he objects, in the structure of a ‘psychic’ model. He does not explain his use of the words and his sense may be tautological, particularly as he insists that meaning is solely generated in social interactions. 516

There are a number of topics to discuss: a) the purpose of looking, b) story approached through Groensteen’s ‘citation effect’ in comic strips, c) facture, d) the use of Maynard’s ‘resources’; stylistics (and in particular, the foundational ideas of parallelism and foregrounding); and finally e) what mandates imagining in these particular pages, according to Walton. This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but I hope it will allow the possibility of thinking about depiction within the widest framework of theorisations of the relationships between ideas, actions and forms.

Figure 2 Carlos Nine, Saubón dans Voyage sentimental in Saubón le petit canard, page 84. Les Rêveurs, 2009. © Carlos Nine 2009. 517

The purpose of looking at these pages, as part of comic albums, is categorically similar, in that they conform to register. Our expectations position us as more or less experienced readers of comics. Although this might seem platitudinous, two aspects of the experience and activity of comics reading are especially relevant to our comparison: the expectation of the appearance of a plot presented more or less in conformity with the formal structure of albums that we have read in the past, and the fact that comics have been habituated to reading on one’s own. These aspects of the comics register are particularly significant for the function of depiction for two reasons. First, expectations of the existence of a plot guide the way in which we imagine seeing ourselves seeing places, characters and changes to them (that is, events). Second, when the credibility of a depictive ‘mandate to imagine’ is undermined by formal, affective dissonances, so that imagining-seeing-oneself-seeing becomes a struggle, given the depictive resources, it is alone that we struggle to imagine. This is the dissonance described in Jan Baetens’s identification of two searching strategies in comic strips––towards the reading of plot and towards seeing an arrangement on the page, where “the foregrounding of the plastic dimension of visual signs is always a possibility for those who either do not ‘enter the story’ or who try to go beyond the narrative surface” (2011, 110). For Baetens, this struggle to produce or resolve story is a definition of abstraction in comics and a strategic path for readers. It takes very little terminological movement to match this struggle with the struggle to imagine seeing oneself seeing depicted objects in arrays of activities/marks, that structures ‘seeing-in.’ Struggling to achieve a mandate to imagine is infinitely more difficult with communally read literature, such as picture books, in which the habitually shared or “chaperoned” activity of reading, to use Joe Sutliff Sanders’s word, mandates shared imagining (2013, 57-90). Given depictions in which the credibility of the mandate to imagine is undermined, communal readers would have to share not their imagining, but their struggle to imagine, through a kind of mutually interrogative ‘can you see (yourself seeing) it?’ in which the imagining itself would become the object, rather than the depiction. In both Molotiu’s and Nine’s pages, expectations of the appearance of a plot are also substantiated by what Groensteen calls a “citation effect” which readers “attach to each of the panels insofar as they refer, or seem to refer, to implicit sources” (2014, 163). The formal arrangement of the panels of both pages confirm expectations of imagining seeing oneself seeing a past and future, both as a sequence of events shown on the page and as knowledge of the existence of the un-shown past and subsequent history of the world of the plot, whatever that might be. In other words, in expecting plots in both Molotiu’s and Nine’s comics, we expect each page to facilitate our activity of imagining seeing one. As much as the ‘resources’ of Molotiu’s page appear to contradict or omit narratological components of plot (such as the identification of similarities that maintain reader recognition of a discrete object at different times), making the act of imagining ourselves seeing a plot difficult, other ‘resources,’ such as the panel frames, ensure that this act of imagining is not impossible.


Both pages were produced by offset lithographic printing, so these are reproductions of another source. Notwithstanding this, the arrays of marks on each page are quite different. In the page by Nine, we recognise marks made by hand with an implement, with encoded direction and visible information about the time that elapsed between the moment when that implement touched the surface to be marked and the moment when it left the surface. Alternatively, Molotiu’s mark appears to be the result of manipulation of photo-digital vectorisation, in which a line is a notional (and not necessarily visible) algorithmic path between two points that form an enclosure. Although their arrays of marks are quite different, the pages share many of Maynard’s ‘resources’ of depiction. Enclosures that could be perceived as shapes, plans or elevations, even within a plot-cuing regime of panel relationships, prompt imaginings of voluminousness by the addition of other, encroaching curves. This can be seen, for example, in the white enclosure on the left of the first panel on Molotiu’s page, in which two encroaching curves, in combination with the enclosure’s parallel edges, cue the imagining of oneself seeing volume. Exactly the same technique operates in the edge of what I must call the ‘character’s arm’ and ‘glove,’ in the first panel of Nine’s page (for the simple reason that I spontaneously imagine myself seeing this arm and glove). This technique, the ‘depth-slice,’ constitutes the convergence of two distinct and contradictory imagined views. As in Cubism’s design of two-dimensional surfaces according to the combination of conventional methods of depicting ‘front,’ ‘side’ and ‘top’ derived from spatial projection systems, this technique affords the fiction of seeing volume through the device of perceiving parts of the same thing from two distinct points of view at once. Similarly, perceived contrasting tone in Molotiu’s page and colour in Nine’s page, allow us to imagine ourselves seeing a range of specific spatial, epistemological and object-categorical phenomena through the use of the occlusion and superimposition of enclosures. We can struggle successfully to imagine ourselves seeing the white enclosures in Molotiu’s panel one and panel three as areas of light relative to the encompassing darkness of the panels, whereby we imagine ourselves seeing a three-dimensional object, spatially, in raking light, parts of which are in deep shadow. In Nine’s page, similar shapes depict either ‘fragments of Saubón’s clothes and body’ (in Nine’s panel one) or ‘sweat’ or ‘breath’ (in Nine’s panel three). We could undertake an extensive analysis and description of both pages according to their use of depictive ‘resources,’ if space allowed. What is significant is that the arrays of marks and affective resources seen on 519

both pages are utterly conventional, in the sense that the pages’ drawing technologies, as distinct from the specific depictive functions on these pages, meet every expectation. We know that comics have in the past used, and can use, these specific drawing technologies and depictive resources. Hence, they conform entirely to register. The same can be said of both pages if, according to the most basic stylistic principles, we identify instances of deviation and parallelism, constituting foregrounding (Jakobson 1990). In Nine’s page panel two, the types of marks used to depict shadow on the body of the character at her dressing table are the same as the types of marks used to depict the contour of her body, the edge of her dressing mirror and the chest of drawers. However, the systematic matching of different colours to particular drawn enclosures creates a hierarchy of significance in which ‘body’ and ‘shadow’ have a different status to each other, and we imagine that we see ‘body’ and ‘shadow’ in a hierarchy of ‘of ’ and ‘on.’ In Molotiu’s page, panel three, the appearances of small black enclosures inside larger, contrasting white enclosures also have unequal status. In the case of this page, the occlusion of white enclosures by the panel frame generalises the white shapes much as Nine’s colour system does. They are ‘things,’ whereas the black shapes are ‘on’ them but not ‘of ’ them, rather as the shadow is not of Nine’s character’s body, but on it. Further, in foregrounding–that is, creating a rhetorical hierarchy in which ‘resources’ are contextualised–parallelism also appears in both Nine’s and Molotiu’s pages, as the repetition of hierarchically high-status things. Once we imagine that we see ourselves seeing that a mark amongst similar marks depicts a body rather than a shadow, or depicts a petrol pump rather than its surface pattern, then arrangements which maintain consistency whilst undergoing even radical taxonomic changes are imagined to be seen as the same thing in different circumstances. Saubón the duck in panel one is the selfsame Saubón the duck in panel three because our specific mandate to imagine is cued by perceived high-status arrangements within the recognisably hierarchical field of the page and book. Molotiu’s page might seem to differ from Nine’s in this respect, but it does not. We are mandated to imagine seeing ourselves seeing terrain, light, objects and movement on this page and, doing this, we imagine seeing ourselves seeing some of these foregrounded (such as the large white enclosures as terrain), whilst imagining ourselves seeing ourselves seeing other things relative to them (such as the small black marks within them as shadow). In light of this brief discussion of these two pages as affect, what are we mandated to imagine seeing ourselves seeing, in each page? My discussion has stressed the broad affective similarities between them. Returning to my initial comment that there is a conventional, nominal distinction between the pages, that one is ‘abstract,’ I am open to a charge of disingenuousness: the pages might use similar resources, but Molotiu’s page is ‘abstract’ and Nine’s (and of course we struggle here…) isn’t. However, in terms of depictive function, of Walton’s mandate to imagine, they are similar, despite the fact that each page mandates us to imagine ourselves seeing quite different things. Molotiu’s page depicts (that is, mandates us to imagine that we see ourselves seeing) a unified ter520

rain or surface, over which either we travel or which moves beneath us, maintaining a regular distance. A raking light illuminates this terrain, casting impenetrable shadows which, themselves, we can imagine ourselves seeing as surface modulations, highs and lows, textures and even rhetorical visual gestalts: is that the figure of a ‘ghost’ that we imagine ourselves seeing in panel one, with a white sheet and two eye holes, but which we know to be a ‘trick of the light,’ a depiction within the depiction? Nine’s page depicts a duck in a sailor suit being throttled by a bull that is a petrol-station attendant; then a cow at her dressing table; then the petrol-toting bull smashing the duck against a petrol pump. With great succinctness, verbal language reveals some of its profound structural limitations and types of imprecision in these two descriptions, both of them describing what we imagine ourselves seeing. Notwithstanding the fact that I chose and contrived these two verbal descriptions, notice the difference in types of information that verbal language provides in describing each set of images, clasping Nine’s ‘duck’ to itself qua ‘duck.’ as much as the description pushes Molotiu’s images into an epistemologically vague ‘terrain.’ Verbally, Nine’s duck is more duck than Molotiu’s terrain is terrain. So much for verbal language because, visually, Molotiu’s ‘terrain/surface’ is as specific an imagined experience of seeing oneself see as Nine’s duck, and imagining oneself seeing the movement of light over this terrain is as specific as the petrol attendant’s grip or punch. Even in these very broad terms, within Walton’s model of depiction, approaching imagining–as well as the act of imagining–as socially conventional, allows us to exploit the model’s clear mechanisms for connecting affects to perception, cognition and social convention. Then, in Walton’s terms, imaginings can be analysed as constituents in the production of affects and the types of meaning accorded to particular perceptions and cognitions, alongside those social conventions that mandate acts of imagining, guided by strict reciprocity. Walton neglects to describe or theorise a system of the imagination, even as he describes in detail how imagination and affect are the major components of representation, including visual depiction. But his theory does not prohibit the application of broader theories of the relationships between ideas and institutions to its central ‘imagining seeing that we see.’ Rather, such applications are suggested by his theory, because its central achievement is to account for the role of mind relative to phenomena.


Imagination and Ideology Given Walton’s theory, I would like to suggest a general idea prompted by Vološinov’s claim that the psyche is socially conventional: that imagination is also phenomenal in the sense that it promotes or resists different types of imagining on the basis that types of imagining either reproduce or contradict a dominant social structure–that is, that imagination is ideologically phenomenal. Ideology, of course, does not describe any one set of ideas but describes either the coadunatory or inimical interrelation between systems of ideas or ascribed meanings, and phenomenal and social experiences of the world, which these systems either affirm or belie. Here, I am following Althusser (1971) and Bourdieu (1991), and Hodge and Kress (1988), developing theories of Karl Mannheim (1985), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1967). Struggle, dominance, resistance and compliance are then as important in mapping the possibilities and limitations of imagining as they are in theorising the creation of social institutions and, in particular, in discussing a significant manifestation of his struggle: the adoption of the practices and ideas of members of one social group by members of others for whom the adoption constitutes compliance or active submission, termed cultural hegemony. Hegemony, in this sense, is an operation in the field of a struggle to imagine, in which adopted meanings embody the perceived world and all of its changing possibilities and impossibilities. Imagining completes a social model in which embodied discourse, in the form of institutions and social practices, generate and perpetuate systems of ideas, by proposing both that imagined relationships reciprocally motivate practice and that what is imagined is always encompassed and characterised by the dynamics of this ideological struggle. In the context of depiction, the capacity to imagine oneself seeing then becomes ‘misrecognition,’ an internalised submission to the status of the depiction that also insists on its own truth. When we ‘misrecognise’ a depiction, our process of cued self-imagining included, we make a solipsistic projection of invariability on the function of recognition itself. Depictions show ‘recognisable’ things because we ‘recognise’ what is depicted. Because we imagine ourselves seeing, we think that we are recognising what we see, even if we know that we are not actually seeing what is depicted at all. This theorisation allows for such authoritative statements, but also subsumes the possible poetic functions of representation. There is no reason why encounters with novel forms, for example, contradict the structure of thinking that we recognise what we see, because we imagine ourselves seeing. This hegemonic function, within which we continually struggle and to which we submit, inculcates an imaginative as well as cognitive consensus, characterised by solipsism, identifying particular situations and behaviour as pan-historic, a-temporal and pan-social. Concepts such as ‘abstract’ or ‘nature’ fall into this category, for example. As a result, different propositions about the world insist on their truth in opposition to others as a prerequisite of struggle itself, so that both ideas and imagining become fixed instruments in social struggles between different types of misrecognition. 522

As a corollary of ideology, what does this misrecognition have to do with Walton’s theory, or Nine’s or Molotiu’s pages? For Walton, the mandate to imagine oneself seeing something is cued by perceived affects and social habits. These cues mandate imagining within the broadest ideological contexts, most tellingly revealed in instances in which either a struggle to fully utilise visual depictions as prompts (that is, to use them to imagine), or the achievement of recognition or the failure of recognition is rhetorically contentious. I have already touched on an aspect of this, being the significance of the idea that Molotiu’s page is ‘abstract,’ expressed in its nomenclature. Again, however, the situation is more profound and more general than naming indicates. A further reason for choosing to compare these particular pages lies in the fact that the comparison illuminates the possibilities of recognition and misrecognition: as a mandate to imagine oneself seeing things, Nine’s page involves almost as much struggle to imagine on the part of the reader as Molotiu’s, and as much possibility for misrecognition. In the case of these pages, this is not only a matter of the relative absence or presence of perceived and expected cues that mandate imagining, but also of the similarity in the stance that the reader finally adopts towards them in particular. Within a conventional milieu of comics, both sets of images confound reader expectations of comics, both rhetorically and as phenomena. Because of this, using them as prompts for imagining requires being successful in a struggle with an idea that underpins all so-called populist concepts of depiction and abstraction: that abstraction is a lie, in so much as, faced with an abstraction within the milieu of visual depictions (such as within a comic album), we are required to imagine that we see, and to say that we see, and finally to literally see, what palpably isn’t there. Considering Nine’s page in this way, resolution of this struggle is aided by the cues that mandate imagining that I have touched on in comparing his page with Molotiu’s: as soon as we realise that we are imagining ourselves seeing Saubón, we always subsequently imagine ourselves seeing Saubón, more readily than we initially realise and subsequently imagine ourselves seeing Molotiu’s ‘terrain’ or ‘light,’ however specific they are. Finally, we must not omit bodily practices and every type of social manifestation and institution from this model. The promotion or resistance to ideas, as a function of the imagination, occurs in a dynamic relationship with the production of material practices through habituation, not only through cognition or acts of imagination, but though the perpetuation and reproduction of types of actions and responses, even at the most micro level, such as gestures, and certainly depictive drawings. 523

Nine’s and Molotiu’s pages functionally conflate specific, similar depictive affects with types of self-imagining within a framework in which one page is ‘abstract.’ Comparing the pages in terms of Maynard’s ‘resources’ and Walton’s theory of make-believe allows both a radical close reading that systematises relationships between mind, phenomena and meaning, and consideration of visual depiction and narrative drawing relative to a broad theory of ideology, in which imagining reciprocally reconciles, reflects and produces subjects, behaviour, conventions and institutions.

References Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press. Baetens, Jan. 2011. “Abstraction in Comics.” SubStance 40 (1): 94-113. Booker, Peter. 1963. History of Engineering Drawing. London: Chatto & Windus. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press. Cohn, Neil. 2013. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Visual Images. London: Bloomsbury. Fresnault–Deruelle, Pierre. 1992. La bande dessinée, essai d’analyse semiotique. Paris: Hachette. Frey, Hugo. 2015. “The Tactic for Illusion in Simon Grennan’s Dispossession.” In Transforming Anthony Trollope: Dispossession, Victorianism and Nineteenth-Century Word and Image, edited by Simon Grennan and Laurence Grove, 55-68. Leuven: Leuven University Press. Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. Gombrich, Ernst. 2002. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. London: Phaidon Press. Groensteen, Thierry. 2014. “Narration as Supplement: An Archaeology of the Infra-Narrative Foundations of Comics.” In The French Comics Theory Reader, edited by Anne Miller and Bart Beatty, 163-81. Leuven: Leuven University Press. –––. 2007. The System of Comics Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Hodge, Robert and Gunther Kress. 1998. Social Semiotics, Cambridge: Polity Press. Hopkins, Robert. 2009. Picture, Image and Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jakobson, Roman. 1990. Language in Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Maynard, Phillip. 2005. Drawing Distinctions: The varieties of Graphic Expression. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. Peeters, Benôit. 2000. Case, planche, recit: lire la bande dessinée Paris: Casterman. Podro, Michael. 1998. Depiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Rawson, Phillip. 1987. Drawing. Philadelphia: University Press of Philadelphia. –––. 1979. Seeing Through Drawing. London: BBC Books. Sanders, Joe Sutliff. 2013. “Chaperoning Words: Meaning-Making in Comics and Picture Books.” Children’s Literature 41 (1): 57-90. Saraceni, Mario. 2016. “Relatedness: Aspects of Textual Connectivity in Comics.” In The Visual Narrative Reader, edited by Neil Cohn, 115-27. London: Bloomsbury. 524

Sartre, Jen-Paul. 2010. The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. New York: Routledge. Thomas, Nigel. 1999. “Are Theories of Imagery Theories of Imagination? An Active Perception Approach to Conscious Mental Content.” Cognitive Science 23: 207-45. Walton, Kendon. 1990. Mimesis and Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Willats, John. 1990. Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press. Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press.


The Golden Age Of Comics According to Masotta Un Faulduo




















Oceano ardente Jochen Gerner





Les Bandes dessinées opaques de Pascal Leyder Erwin Dejasse La feuille de papier est un territoire que le feutre conquiert peu à peu, laissant sur son passage des traces formant des agglomérats d’encre plus ou moins compacts selon les zones. Chez Pascal Leyder, dessiner s’apparente à la production d’un flux qu’il accompagne d’une « musique » personnelle formée de sons difficiles à décoder. Les sujets sont directement exécutés sur le support avec une apparente désinvolture. Pas de crayonné préparatoire, aucune trace de gommage, de rature ou tout autre forme de repentir : ses réalisations ne semblent pas connaître le doute. La majorité d’entre-elles s’inspire d’images préexistantes : entre autres, affiches de cinéma ou de propagande, cartes de géographie, manuels d’anatomie, pages de livres illustrés… Son penchant pour les ensembles qui convoquent images et textes invite naturellement à penser que la bande dessinée est un réservoir quasi inépuisable de compositions dont il pourrait également s’emparer. Comix Covers est né de cette idée. Depuis 2008, Pascal Leyder fréquente La « S » Grand Atelier à Vielsalm dans les Ardennes belges. Dans ce laboratoire de création, les artistes handicapés mentaux sont encadrés par des animateurs, euxmêmes artistes professionnels. Ceux-ci ont un rôle d’émulateur : ils n’interviennent jamais directement sur les réalisations mais apportent un support technique tout en privilégiant le dialogue. Chaque personne étant différente, les modalités de l’échange doivent être à chaque fois réinventées. Pascal Leyder s’exprime essentiellement à travers un ensemble de phonèmes et de mots isolés. Des différences d’intonations lui permettent cependant de faire passer des sentiments tels que l’excitation, la satisfaction ou la lassitude. Enfin, il paraît toujours accepter les suggestions qui lui sont faites. Invariablement, si on l’invite à redessiner une image, il s’exécute avec la même bonne volonté placide. Toutefois, l’expérience accumulée par les animateurs leur permet d’orienter leurs propositions. La relation s’établit à force de tâtonnements en tenant compte de ses réussites antérieures et des réalisations qui lui ont procuré une satisfaction manifeste. Avec les animateurs/artistes Bertrand Léonard et Fabian Dores Pais, nous avons tenté d’établir un protocole qui ne soit pas directif et qui permette à Pascal Leyder d’être autant que faire se peut autonome dans ses choix. J’ai imprimé une soixantaine de planches au format A3 constituant un échantillon aussi varié que possible en termes 550


d’époques, d’origines géographiques, d’alphabets, de styles graphiques, d’articulations texte-image (des planches muettes, avec ou sans bulles, avec texte sous l’image…). Des créations immensément populaires alternent avec des productions largement méconnues. Le tout forme un ensemble volontairement hétérogène allant d’Hokusai à Olivier Schrauwen en passant par Jack Kirby ou Alberto Breccia.1 Les animateurs/artistes ont soumis cette masse de dessin en laissant à Pascal Leyder toute latitude quant à celles qu’il souhaitait réinterpréter. À l’heure où s’écrivent ces lignes, une trentaine de planches ont été produites. Elles forment un ensemble qui a été baptisé par mes soins Comix Covers. Pascal Leyder redessine les lettres avec une fidélité toute relative, les espaces entre les mots sont rarement respectés, les caractères peuvent se superposer et parfois « bégayer »– une syllabe ou un groupe de syllabes est répété comme un tir de mitraillette. Les pages de Comix Covers sont des ouragans graphiques ; de ces bourrasques d’encre ne nous parviennent plus que des échos étouffés du message original. Le spectateur attentif pourra décrypter ici et là une phrase, un mot ou un fragment familiers : « Pendant ce temps… », « Ha ! Ha ! Ha ! », « deathly », « curstupid fool », « tant dans son unrepos bienmerté », « il ne faut confp et flcocofloubleub ». Ces ultimes reliquats laissent à peine deviner un élément d’intrigue, une vague articulation temporelle ou un registre fictionnel. Dans son usage conventionnel, le message doit faire oublier sa matérialité pour y substituer une information que l’on décrypte. Pascal Leyder, en revanche, pervertit la fonction transitive du texte. L’« opacification du corps de la lettre » (Thévoz 1989, 109) dresse une cloison qui empêche le passage du visible au lisible. Le lecteur/spectateur ne peut s’immerger dans le discours verbal, il est systématiquement rejeté, renvoyé à l’impénétrable mystère des signes. Chez Pascal Leyder, les lettres sont des dessins. L’acte d’écriture proprement dit se limite à quelques mots–notamment ses noms et prénoms ou ceux de sa compagne Marie Bodson–résultat d’un apprentissage idéo-visuel qui ne tient pas compte de la dimension phonétique des caractères. La lecture, par contre, lui demeure largement inaccessible. Il serait dès lors tentant d’envisager ses graphies comme le témoignage pathétique d’une forme de désœuvrement. Ce serait oublier un peu vite que tout un chacun éprouve un sentiment d’impuissance comparable dès lors qu’il est face à un texte rédigé dans une langue dont il n’a pas la maîtrise, à fortiori lorsque celle-ci s’incarne dans un autre alphabet que celui qu’il utilise habituellement. Devant un manuscrit en arabe ou en chinois, le lecteur occidental pourra apprécier les calligraphies comme autant des motifs abstraits qui fascinent d’autant plus qu’ils demeurent inin1  Pascal Leyder a, dans l’ordre de réalisation, réinterprété les auteurs suivants : Willem, Shigeru Mizuki, Fred, Raymond Macherot, Dino Battaglia, Shotaro Ishinomori, Chris Ware, Charles Brurns, Hergé, Guido Crepax, Jack Kirby, Seiichi Hayashi, Jean-Christophe Menu, Maki Sasaki, Milton Caniff, Hokusai, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlein, Antonio Rubino, George Herriman, Osamu Tezuka, André Franquin, Frank Hampson, Will Eisner, Alberto Breccia, Rory Hayes, Seiichi Hayashi, Javier Mariscal, Yvan Alagbé et Olivier Schrauwen, Jacques Tardi, Bob Kane, Hokusai, Alain Saint-Ogan, Winsor McCay, Moebius, Robert Crumb. 552

telligibles. Ce type d’expérience fusionne deux sentiments que l’on aurait tort de juger inconciliables : fascination et impuissance sont ici indissociables comme les deux faces d’une même médaille. C’est bien vers cette émotion complexe et paradoxale que nous renvoient les réalisations de Pascal Leyder. Si son œuvre témoigne du plaisir de redessiner des écritures qui depuis la Belgique sont vues comme « exotiques » – cyrilliques, chinoises ou japonaises, notamment – il n’en va pas autrement pour les textes écrits en alphabet romain même lorsqu’ils adoptent les polices de caractère les plus désespérément banales. Dans une volonté tyrannique d’imposer une absolue transparence, la normalisation typographique a, écrit Michel Thévoz, « abstrait la visibilité de l’interaction primitive des sens en la codifiant de manière à l’approprier complètement à l’ordre du concept » (Thévoz 1989, 13). C’est, selon lui, « dans les intersections qu’on croyait vide de l’écriture et de la figure » (24) que l’on pourra découvrir des œuvres qui échappent à cet asservissement. Thévoz étudie les calligraphies d’artistes bruts comme Louis Soutter, Reinholz Metz ou Oswald Tchirtner. Comme les leurs, celles de Pascal Leyder « chiffrent les apparences » et corrélativement « réincarnent l’écriture » (Thévoz 1989, 116). Cette double opération est également à l’œuvre dans tout un pan de la peinture de la seconde moitié du vingtième siècle. Pierre Alechinsky, Christian Dotremont ou Henri Michaux, entre autres, créent, de façon sans doute plus intentionnelle, des écritures imaginaires. À propos du dernier cité, Emma Viguier note qu’il « exalte le matériel, le visuel pour mieux mettre à mort le lisible et tenter de découvrir – ou redécouvrir – le mystère, la magie, l’anima des signes » (Viguier 2010, 1). Au vingt-et-unième siècle surtout, la bande dessinée s’est elle aussi adonnée à ce type d’expériences en remplissant les bulles et les encadrés de messages gribouillés ou rédigés dans des alphabets imaginaires : A.L.I.E.E.N. de Lewis Trondheim, L de Benoît Jacques ou Johnny 23 de Charles Burns.2 L’usage de pseudographies peut sembler surprenant dans une forme d’expression dont on a souvent affirmé qu’elle était par essence narrative. Ceci impliquerait que le texte en bande dessinée doit nécessairement avoir une fonction transitive. De son côté, la peinture, surtout à partir du vingtième siècle, induirait plutôt une attitude contemplative ; le spectateur acceptant la présence d’écritures indéchiffrables en tant que pures productions plastiques. Cette dichotomie rigide mérite bien évidemment d’être nuancée. La 2  Johnny 23 « remixe » X’ed Out du même Charles Burns. L’auteur a ré-agencé les vignettes dans un ordre différent et remplacé le texte original par un texte écrit dans un alphabet inventé. 553

narration est loin d’être absente même dans les images uniques et autosuffisantes – y compris les compositions abstraites.3 D’autre part, même dans le cas de bandes dessinées qui privilégient largement l’intrigue, rien n’empêche d’apprécier l’ensemble des dispositifs graphiques en tant qu’objets plastiques. Le lettrage, tout à la fois écriture et dessin, n’y échappe pas. Le remplacement dans une traduction de la graphie originale par une fonte informatique sans âme crée une sensation d’inconfort visuel qui vaut toutes les démonstrations. La manière particulière de dessiner les caractères est une composante essentielle de la poétique d’un auteur de bande dessinée. Le lecteur/spectateur se délectera des « typographies manuelles » uniformisées d’Hergé, des maculations sauvages et irrégulières de Reiser ou des arabesques serpentines de Killoffer ; chaque écriture possède ses propres « sonorités ». Celle de Pascal Leyder se distingue quant à elle par la régularité de ses lettres majuscules sans empattements généralement exécutés d’un seul trait lequel tend à s’écraser en fin de parcours. S’ils participent pleinement au « plaisir des yeux », ces signes ne peuvent pourtant pas être réduits à un ensemble de motifs abstraits aléatoires. À partir du moment où ils se donnent comme une écriture, fusse-t-elle impénétrable, la « mise à mort du lisible » n’est jamais définitive. L’unité de style qui réunit les caractères et leur réapparition plus ou moins régulière laisse supposer l’existence d’un système qui sous-tend leur organisation. Quand bien même ceux-ci ne produiraient que des discours incompréhensibles ou que l’auteur ne ferait que singer une pseudo-articulation, l’écriture demeure l’expression d’un acte de communication. Pascal Leyder ne fait pas exception. Les missives qu’il rédige à l’intention de sa compagne – pour lui souhaiter un joyeux anniversaire, lui déclarer sa flamme ou s’excuser de la dispute de la veille – sont formées de successions de vaguelettes. Illisibles pour tout un chacun, elles n’en sont pas moins porteuses d’un message précis dont le sens n’échappe pas à sa destinataire puisqu’elle y répond en rédigeant à son tour des lettres du même type. Si en Occident le langage courant nous dit qu’une peinture se « regarde », une bande dessinée en revanche se « lit ». L’acte de lecture ne peut se limiter au décodage des seuls éléments écrits. Les images sont bien évidement elles aussi porteuses de messages dont il convient de saisir le sens pour progresser dans le récit, même quand celui-ci est embryonnaire. Dans Comix Covers, cette progression est largement mise à mal tant la lecture des motifs, fossilisés dans les sédiments d’encre, s’avère souvent malaisée. Or, dans les incarnations dites classiques de la bande dessinée, la lisibilité est envisagée comme une vertu cardinale – a fortiori dans le domaine francophone sur lequel plane toujours la figure tutélaire d’Hergé. On pourra certes distinguer selon les cas une silhouette anthropomorphe, une habitation, un véhicule ou un arbre, quitte à scruter le foisonnement de lignes pour pouvoir les distinguer. Il est par contre à peu près impossible d’affirmer avec certitude que le personnage et la maisonnette aperçus dans la première case sont bien les mêmes que ceux que l’on distingue dans la seconde. Après la lisibilité, Pascal Leyder brise un second dogme : la conservation des personnages et 3  Henri Michaux en fait la démonstration éclatante dans sa description des peintures de Paul Klee (Michaux 1998, 113-17). 554

des décors. À l’instar des textes, ses déflagrations graphiques ne laissent plus apparaître au final que des reliquats de sujets désarticulés qui résistent à la production de sens. Le processus « d’opacification » décrit plus haut n’affecte pas uniquement les lettres, il contamine l’ensemble des signes. Au besoin d’absolue transparence, on peut opposer le plaisir de l’impénétrable, du mystère non résolu, de l’ambiguïté définitive, du labyrinthe sans issue. Pourtant, les discours médiatiques tenus sur la bande dessinée tendent encore aujourd’hui à ne l’envisager que sous le seul angle de l’intrigue, excluant de facto les réalisations qui ne peuvent être réduites à un argument scénaristique. Devant les remakes de Pascal Leyder, c’est porte close ! Le visiteur a dès lors le choix : soit il passe son chemin, soit il fait le tour de l’édifice pour chercher de nouvelles entrées. La revue Dorénavant qui parût de 1986 à 1989 propose une définition de la bande dessinée qui inclut sans peine des créations comme Comix Covers : « (…) une image globale faite d’images locales juxtaposées, c’est la bande-dessinée. (…) Ceci est la seule définition de la bande-dessinée qui nous intéresse, et seule la bande-dessinée ainsi définie mérite, à nos yeux, d’être pratiquée » (Schwartz 1986, 7). La planche est d’abord envisagée comme un objet plastique composé d’images compartimentées. La manière dont travaille Pascal Leyder va dans ce sens : il subdivise la page en autant de quadrilatères qu’il y a de cases sur la planche dont il s’inspire. Il s’autorise néanmoins beaucoup de liberté dans leurs proportions relatives, de même pour les blancs inter-iconiques qui tantôt sont inexistants, tantôt affichent une largeur quasi équivalente à celle des vignettes. Il remplit chaque espace ainsi délimité avec soin en commençant souvent par les principaux axes de composition. En la structurant de la sorte, il impose la planche de bande dessinée d’abord et avant tout comme un espace compositionnel. Les sujets paraissent pour leur part jouer à cache-cache avec le lecteur/ spectateur. Au premier regard, ce dernier ne voit qu’un fouillis de traits puis très vite son œil est accroché par des motifs identifiables – en haut, une nuée d’oiseau, plus bas, un visage. Toutefois, les éléments sensés assurer la continuité de l’image  – le ciel, la végétation, le corps du personnage – se diluent dans des zones indéterminées. Ce basculement perpétuel entre la ligne et le signe s’observe dès la réalisation. À titre d’exemple, sa réinterprétation d’une planche de Maki Sasaki est particulièrement éloquente (Figure 1). En redessinant la seconde vignette, il a d’abord figuré en bas à gauche une étrange forme, anamorphose de « l’espace négatif » situé entre les corps de deux enfants faméliques souffrant de kwashiorkor. Ces deux corps sont en quelque sorte « dou555

blés » puisqu’ils réapparaissent de part et d’autre du tracé cette fois sous la forme de figures clairement anthropomorphes. Concomitamment, le motif est envisagé tout à la fois comme une matière graphique et comme un concept. Comix Covers montre avec éloquence que la séparation stricte entre bande dessinée abstraite et bande dessinée figurative mérite d’être largement assouplie.

Tous les dispositifs du visible sont « modelés dans la même pâte ». Les motifs figuratifs autant que les bulles et les cadres des vignettes ; les dialogues, les récitatifs encadrés, les commentaires sous les cases « façon Images d’Épinal », les onomatopées et les signes conventionnels. Mais aussi les titrailles, signatures, numéros de planche ou de page, copyrights… Ces derniers ainsi exhibés perdent leur fonction de paratexte pour devenir des éléments de composition visuelle comme les autres. En dépit de fonctions et de statuts diégétiques différents, tous ces éléments sont homogénéisés par le trait de Pascal Leyder. Ils apparaissent selon la juste formule de Philippe Marion « comme les prolongements solidaires d’une impulsion graphique unique » (Marion 1993, 41). Longtemps, les études sur la bande dessinée ont privilégié l’analyse des mécanismes de construction du récit au détriment des styles graphiques, quand bien même ceux-ci sont indissociables de l’expérience de lecture. Philippe Marion note encore : « Tel un boomerang, le dessin revient toujours au geste qu’il l’a tracé » (Marion 1993, 110). Partant de ce constat, il forge le concept de graphiation qu’il définit en ces termes : « Je propose de donner le nom d’instance de graphiation à cette instance énonciatrice particulière qui « traite » ce matériau graphique constitutif de la BD et lui insuffle, de manière réflexive, l’empreinte de sa subjectivité singulière, la marque de son style propre » (35). Avec ses cadres multiples qui chacun sont envahis de lignes et de masses, la bande dessinée se distingue par le caractère proliférant de son dessin. Plus encore sans doute que les autres expressions graphiques, elle bombarde le lecteur/spectateur de ces « empreintes de subjectivité ». Plus haut dans ce texte, j’évoquais les graphies singulières d’Hergé, Reiser ou Killoffer comme autant de sources de délectation ; ce plaisir peut bien évidemment s’étendre à la manière dont ceux-ci incarnent plastiquement l’ensemble des dispositifs du visible. La graphiation de Pascal Leyder produira elle aussi des sensations complexes et multiples qui varieront selon la personne qui y est confrontée. Si chacun


d’entre nous peut manifester du rejet ou de l’empathie face au style d’un auteur, il nous est autrement plus difficile d’en exprimer la raison. À défaut d’explications rationnelles et définitives sur ces « amitiés » ou « inimitiés esthétiques », on peut éclairer la question en faisant l’analogie avec la musique qui, a fortiori lorsqu’elle dénuée de paroles, n’est pas tant ressentie comme la relation d’un récit que comme une libération d’énergie. Le dessinateur et éditeur Jean-Christophe Menu fait le même type de rapprochement. Parlant de son choix de publier dans la revue L’Éprouvette une bande dessinée en polonais dans sa version d’origine, il note : « Il manque quelque chose mais il ne manque rien. Comme dans un bon morceau de rock en anglais dont on se contrefout des paroles. La bande dessinée a besoin d’un déroulement mais pas d’ « histoire »… Redire que la poésie n’est aucunement tributaire de la fonction de comprendre » (Menu 2011, 393). S’il est communément admis que la musique produit de l’énergie sonore, la bande dessinée de son côté produit de l’énergie graphique démultipliée par le caractère proliférant du dessin. C’est bien sûr toujours en référence à la musique que j’ai moi-même choisi le titre Comix Covers alors qu’une douzaine de planches avait déjà été exécutées. Si la reprise est un phénomène courant au cinéma voire en peinture – les 58 versions des Ménines de Velázquez par Pablo Picasso en offrent un exemple éloquent – elle est pleinement instituée dans le domaine du jazz ou du rock. La bande dessinée en revanche, s’en est longtemps tenue écartée avant les années 1990.4 Des remakes sont alors apparus notamment dans les anthologies de l’OuBaPo et dans un numéro spécial de la revue Lapin. Autant d’initiatives en grande partie initiées par Jean-Christophe Menu lequel a lui-même réinterprété plusieurs gags de Gaston Lagaffe et produit, sous le titre Kavernous Kabeza, douze versions de la même planche de Krazy Kat par George Herriman.5 S’il avoue avoir été marqué par l’exemple de Picasso, sa connaissance érudite de la musique rock n’est certainement pas étrangère à ces transpositions de la pratique de la cover vers le domaine de la bande dessinée. 4 Il existe cependant quelques précédents comme la version d’El Eternauta dessinée par Alberto Breccia en 1969–reprise du best-seller homonyme de Francisco Solano López et Héctor Oesterheld. Ou encore, le numéro spécial paru à l’occasion des 35 ans du journal Tintin pour lequel les auteurs de l’époque ont redessiné des planches parues durant les premières années d’existence de la revue (Tintin, numéro 316, 1981). 5 Ces réalisations sont visibles respectivement dans Gnognottes (Paris : L’Association, 1999. Coll. « Éperluette », 113-17) et La Bande dessinée et son double (Paris : L’Association, 2011, 233-55).

Figure 1 Pascal Leyder, Comix Covers (à droite), réinterprétation de la sixième planche Sabaku no Medama (L’Œil du désert) paru dans Garo, numéro 79, août 1970 (à gauche). 557

L’exercice est a priori paradoxal puisqu’il consiste à faire du neuf avec de l’ancien. Une réinterprétation fidèle ne présente souvent qu’un intérêt anecdotique ; la reprise mémorable est souvent celle qui offre un décalage clairement marqué par rapport à l’original : version bruitiste sur un rythme de marche militaire d’un tube de variété des années 1980, hymne hard rock avec riff de guitare épais revisité façon cha-cha-cha avec vibraphone et maracas, quatuor à corde adepte de la dissonance réinterprétant un morceau de pop robotique allemande… De même, le lecteur/spectateur ne peut qu’être déconcerté de voir chez Pascal Leyder l’horror vacui se substituer à l’épure hergéenne, les griffures verticales méthodiquement alignées remplacer le noir velouté de Dino Battaglia, les lignes torves prestement exécutées prendre la place des motifs géométriques et limpides d’Antonio Rubino… Si la création nouvelle peut s’apprécier de façon autonome en faisant fi de son origine, son intérêt réside aussi dans la dialectique qu’elle établit avec l’œuvre-source. Cette dernière fournit une base que l’artiste déconstruit en la soumettant à l’épreuve de ses propres idiosyncrasies. Pascal Leyder s’approprie les réalisations les plus radicalement différentes, réunissant par le truchement de sa graphiation singulière Milton Caniff et Shigeru Mizuki, Rory Hayes et Raymond Macherot. Pour rester dans l’analogie musicale, Comix Covers est comparable à un ensemble reprises par un groupe noise-punk qui saturerait l’espace sonore au point de rendre les paroles presque incompréhensibles, dénaturant avec une égale énergie un air de flamenco, un standard de blues ou un morceau de rock psychédélique.

Schwartz, Barthélemy. 1986. « Dorénavant et la bande dessinée ». Dorénavant, numéro 2, juin, p. 3-9. Disponible en ligne : http://www.du9. org/dossier/dorenavant-n2-juin-1986/. Thévoz, Michel. 1989. Détournement d’écriture. Paris : Minuit. Viguier, Emma. 2010. « Henri Michaux : à la recherche du « Texte primordial » ». Textimage, Revue du dialogue texte-image, numéro Varia 2. https://www.revue-textimage.com/05_varia_2/viguier1.html.

La matérialisation d’une énergie graphique, l’appréciation de la planche comme objet plastique et comme espace compositionnel, le plaisir de s’abandonner à la singularité d’une graphiation… sont autant de voies alternatives qui s’offrent au lecteur/spectateur dès lors qu’il n’envisage plus la bande dessinée par le seul biais du récit. Chez Pascal Leyder, l’opacification des signes ruine l’approche “tout-au-récit” et agit comme un révélateur en creux.

Références Dejasse, Erwin. 2015. « Bande dessinée, un objet plastique ». Dans La Musique silencieuse de José Muñoz et Carlos Sampayo : déconstruction des normes et lecture émotionnelle. Thèse de doctorat. Université de Liège. Dupret, Annabelle. 2014. « Pascal Leyder, un humoriste communiste ? ». Knock Outsider ! Vers un troisième langage, 154-59. Bruxelles : Frémok. Marion, Philippe. 1993. Traces en cases. Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve : Academia. Menu, Jean-Christophe. 2011. La Bande dessinée et son double. Langage et marges de la bande dessinée : perspectives pratiques, théoriques et éditoriales. Paris, L’Association. Michaux, Henri. 1998. « Aventure des lignes. » Dans Passages (1937-1963), 113-17. Paris : Gallimard. Pignocchi, Alessandro. 2012. L’Œuvre d’art et ses intentions. Paris : Odile Jacob.



Comix Covers Pascal Leyder











Comics, Scissors, Paper: The bandes collées of Pascal Matthey and diceindustries Pedro Moura This chapter focuses on two examples of abstract collage comics. The first is 978, a full-length album by Belgium-based Swiss author Pascal Matthey and the second is a pair of small booklets produced by the German artist known as diceindustries (Figure 1). Both projects are made from collage-based images that negotiate figurative/generic source material–commercial bande dessinée in Matthey’s case, Disney material in that of diceindustries–to create rather abstract panels lacking distinct stories. Moreover, they can also be thought of commentaries upon comics as a medium and culture. Often, these are the kinds of comics that fall outside the scope of the proverbial radar. Comics have been a diversified artistic discipline since their inception, no matter whether we place its origins in Rodolphe Töpffer’s work, North American newspaper strips or elsewhere. The subsequent dominant social perception of comics as a conventionalized form of illustrated, escapist paraliterature has been slowly–if insufficiently–undermined by successive developments: 1960s underground comix, Japanese gekiga, the alternative scene in both Europe and the U.S. in the 1990s, the ‘graphic novel turn’ of comics (Baetens and Frey 2015, 191ff.) and the emergence of a full-fledged, international comics scholarship community. By ‘insufficiently’ I mean that most critical attention, whether academic or not, has been directed to a specific kind of comics production that fits neatly into ready-made, institutional categories, mostly stemming from narratology or art historical styles and ‘schools.’ Whenever authors or projects discard certain elements that are deemed ‘essential’ to comics–figuration, sequentiality, narrative, causality, or certain patterns of materiality–these are either not seen as comics or are simply swept under the rug. Art Spiegelman famously complained that comics were “below the critical radar” (qtd. in Sabin 1996, 9) but this has changed over the past twenty to thirty years. However, it is my contention that the ‘radar’ has excluded works that could be called ‘experimental.’ It is telling that Hillary Chute, in her article on “Graphic Narrative” in The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, discusses many of the usual suspects (i.e., Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Barry) without paying attention to more ground-breaking, category-defying work. Despite a passing, final mention of Molotiu’s



anthology of abstract comics in a volume that pays attention to–just to name a few–the Oulipo movement, code poetry, and the Noigrandes group, it is quite surprising that for ‘experimental comics’ the focus is, once again, on well-known examples of more legitimate forms of comics, that is to say, longer comics with overarching plots and poignant social themes. In this chapter I will focus on a selection of overlooked works that truly merit the epithet ‘experimental.’

Collage It is not within the purview of this text to discuss the history of collage or rethink it as an art process. Whether associated with Picasso and Braque’s appropriation of mass-produced popular culture and its integration in fine art, its use by Suprematist El Lissitzky or its political reformulation by John Heartfield through photomontage, collage quickly became a medium in itself early in the twentieth century (cf. Ulmer 2002, 83ff). One could also look to the past and discern affinities with collage, as in the work of Victorian artist Mary Georgina Filmer, or point to the popularity of so-called scrapbooks (Bordes 2007). From this perspective, collage reappears time and again, adapting itself to its context. It has become an established form in visual arts up until today, and can therefore not be subsumed under any singular formal approach, a narrow conceptual field or a short period when it had political import. Practitioners such as Max Ernst, Richard Hamilton, John Stezaker, Jakob Kolding, Lorna Simpson and the artists known as assume vivid astro focus illustrate the diversity of collage in terms of composition, chromatic valence, size, circulation and engagement with discursive practices. Its appearance in the medium of comics may be scarce, but it is not all that exceptional. Indeed, if one were to consider comics and its history as an expanded field (cf. Isabelinho 2011), one could see Max Ernst’s romans-collage or Jess Collins’s oeuvre as important milestones in the comics medium. Furthermore, Ray Yoshida and Öyvind Fahlström have used comics-related material to create their visual art. However, as I noted above, this discussion is not the focus of this chapter. Instead I will examine the use of collage in a more classical conception of comics, of which Jack Kirby’s original Fantastic Four might constitute the best-known example (Brower 2012; Hatfield 2012, 155). However, as I will argue, Matthey’s and diceindustries’ use of collage is not subsumable under a narrative-figurative purpose. The process of cutting and pasting by these two artists prevents the emergence of any straightforward figurative representation. When they cut into their

Figure 1 Cover of Pascal Matthey’s 978 (La 5e Couche 2015), and diceindustries’s Der Große Malspaß (2008) and Die Jungfraumaschine frisst ihre Kinder (2012). 575

predominantly figurative material, they do so in a way that atomizes the shape and colour of the original figures. And when pasted together, these bits and pieces do not coalesce into new identifiable forms (say, a head made from a wheel, or round objects for eyes). Instead, the process of cut and paste is informed by a will to abstraction. Indeed, the works heed a true rhetoric of collage: the latter cannot be dismissed as just an incidental, unusual operation. In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière characterizes collage technique as “the clash on the same surface of heterogeneous, if not conflicting elements. In the days of surrealism, the procedure served to express the reality of desire and dreams repressed under the prosaic character of bourgeois quotidian reality” (2009, 26). This is an apt description of Ernst’s work, and, as I will demonstrate, Matthey’s book can be seen in the same light. However, Rancière’s hypothesis of collage as “clash” runs into problems when confronted with the work of Matthey and diceindustries. Curiously, both Pascal Matthey and diceindustries are not looking for what Rancière calls a “clash.” Their use of collage is not concerned with the effect of disintegration as was initially the case for cubism–incidentally, this notion of ‘rupture’ has been collage’s hallmark all the way up to postmodernism if the grand narrative of art history is to be believed (cf. Brockelman 2001, 6). In fact, the images within their frame-like structures–978’s regular grid and diceindustries’ plinth-presentations–are of seemingly coherent, homogeneous objects. The individual parts are detectable, but the overall result is that of a fluid construct, which counteracts the expected heterogeneity of collage. Rather than focus on the visual result I am more interested in the relational plane upon which the diverse source elements come together. I will take recourse to the concept of assemblage to give an account of the latter.

Assemblage In this chapter I will use Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of assemblage.1 Assemblage is the usual English translation of agencement, which could also be rendered as ‘organization’ or ‘arrangement.’ The coordination of discrete parts is therefore always implied. The notion of ‘assemblage’ has the advantage that it also brings to mind the eponymous artistic practice, establishing a convenient connection with collage and other processes. The concept was first presented in Kafka, pour une littérature mineure (1975) and was further developed in Mille plateaux (1980). As Deleuze and Guattari write: On a first, horizontal axis, an assemblage comprises two segments, one of content, the other of expression. On the one hand, it is a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, and intermingling of bodies reacting to one another; on the other hand, it is a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transfor1  Gregory Ulmer sees collage as a fourfold operation: “decoupage (or severing); preformed or extant messages or materials; assemblage (montage); discontinuity or heterogeneity” (Ulmer 2002, 84). Given the scope of this chapter, I cannot address all the complexities of Ulmer’s conceptualization and will limit myself to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of assemblage. 576

mations attributed to bodies. Then on a vertical axis, the assemblage has both territorial sides, or reterritorialized sides, which stabilize it, and cutting edges of deterritorialization, which carry it away. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 88; emphasis in original).

As Deleuze further explains to Claire Parnet in Dialogues: It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them across ages, sexes and reigns–different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy.’ It is never filiations which are important but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Deleuze and Parnet 1987, 69).

In other words, an assemblage never creates a final, definitive body (i.e., an “organ,” an organized text) but presents itself as a “co-functioning,” relational, dynamic machine in constant transformation. An assemblage is not a state but something that must go on permanently, always becoming, neither the mere grouping of source material nor the target, a hypothetical “representation.” The materiality, shape, and page composition (mise en page) of Pascal Matthey’s book and diceindustries’ two small booklets evince a distinct approach in their use of respective appropriated materials. On the one hand, Matthey’s images are in a permanent state of flux and becoming, while on the other hand, diceindustries’ congealed forms seem to present final, singular and separated shapes that establish a relationship with one another as a set, but not as sequence. This warrants some explanation. Even though both sequence and set may be understood as a group of multiple, identical elements (such as comics panels), the former is presided by a progressive, organizing principle, while the latter does not necessarily point to an intrinsic order. Sequence stems from Latin sequentem, sequi, “to follow,” whereas set derives from Old English setten, meaning “to fix, to cause to sit.” By considering Pascal Matthey’s 978 as a sequential work, we are thus not just unwittingly reinforcing a classical, even canonical, understanding of comics as a sequential art, but emphasizing the narrative drive that propels our reading, though keeping in mind that this is not the only way to read the work. Despite their format, diceindustries’ two booklets, on the other hand, reveal a different logic of collecting multiple images: they could be presented in any order (as they are when exhibited for instance) without alteration to their overall meaning. What I would like to underline are the structural and the strategic differences in the work of Matthey and diceindustries, which in turn inform different possibilities of reading.


What happens in these works is a coming together of comics and scissors, and a subsequent return to comics. This process should not be understood as the simple transformation of the ‘source’ material, comics, into the text itself, the ‘target,’ a new comic, through the agency of ‘scissors’ (which in fact stands for a complex assemblage of instruments such as scissors, box cutters, paper tears, glue or other adhesives, as well as idiosyncratic techniques of cutting, styles of gluing, and so on). The artists are not merely looking for source material that may help them in expressing a certain idea that they have in mind, a ‘story’ with characters. During the process of cutting up and gluing down they find the means of expression ‘at hand,’ as it were. Collage is not a means to an end; it is an invitation to an ongoing process, and even a questioning of the classical forms of comics-making. To use Deleuze and Guattari’s vocabulary, this is not a straightforward case of a deterritorialization–the cutting up of the source comics–followed by a reterritorialization into a new text, as could be argued in Kirby’s case, for instance. Quite the contrary: Matthey and diceindustries use collage to effect a permanent deterritorialization of comics as a medium and culture. Though this discussion raises a host of other issues, I will limit myself to two topics. The first is that of the archive. Matthey uses material from giveaway brochures of multiple mainstream Franco-Belgian publishing houses while diceindustries uses mostly Disney-issued colouring books and the like. The reader/spectator acts out this plunge into and subsequent emergence from a specific comics archive through the cognitive experience these works elicit. While reading the comics, we not only pay attention to the textual forms acting in the present (the works of Matthey and diceindustries we are holding at that moment) but we also try to identify their origin, linking them to a putative archive. In fact, this also takes place when reading a ‘conventional’ comic since we are always dealing with genres, styles and stories which we are more or less familiar with. We permanently contrast what we know with the as-yet-unknown. Matthey and diceindustries foreground this cognitive effort by showing the fragments of the past in the shape of appropriated materials. With this in mind, Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of postproduction (2004)–our second theoretical issue–can shed further light on the two comics. Although mainly concerned with the visual arts, Bourriaud characterizes the prominence of reinterpretation, reproduction and re-exhibition that marks today’s art as a response to the “proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, characterized by the increase in the supply of work and the art world’s annexation of forms ignored or disdained until now” (Bourriaud 2004, 6). From this perspective, the two comics creators can be seen to engage the proliferation of a certain type of comics production–Franco-Belgian mainstream in Matthey and the ubiquitous Disney children’s comics in diceindustries–and create “cartographies” (ibid., 12) that open up the possibility for readers to imagine their own recombination. In itself, collage is a paradoxical activity: it is both reductive and excessive. It cuts away, it shreds, it turns to pieces, but it also brings together, sutures, compiles. If, on the one hand, Matthey and diceindustries are ‘destroying,’ ‘cutting up,’ ‘fragmenting’ their comics of choice, on the other they are offering them up to an 578

open-ended source, a sort of mythical place of formless shapes that are susceptible to endless reinvention.

Subsemiotics Cutting is a way of producing a small universe of fragmented, recombinable shapes, with small particles having the potential to join into larger structures. James Elkins’s notion of the “subsemiotic” refers to predominantly small pictorial (and graphic) marks that have no assigned meaning, but still contribute to the way we interpret a work (1995, 823). In other words, they have syntactical power. In the cases of Matthey and diceindustries, it is the act of cutting and pasting that creates subsemiotic ‘noise’ out of previously ‘meaningful’ figures: a character becomes a jumble of limbs, an identifiable object a cluster of lines and colour areas. As the latter are not subsumed under a new figurative regime, but withhold meaning as fragmentary, undecipherable new shapes, I believe we can think of them as subsemiotic shapes, even if there are cases in which the original shape, or the object to which a ‘part’ can be assigned, can be discerned. Though we may not perceive such subsemiotic particles immediately as they seem to belong to larger clusters, they do produce a certain effect. Just as in other abstract comics, we cannot say that 978 is totally devoid of narrativity: there are identifiable rhythms created by the internal transformations taking place from panel to panel. Yet, is that enough to create a narrative? Instead of engaging in what might be an unproductive discussion, let us simply put forward the hypothesis that if a work commands an act of reading, then a certain degree of narrativity is present. The Abstract Comics anthology, for instance, is a good place to find contrasting examples, ranging from the non-narrative to the sequential development of shapes. In any case, this does not mean giving in to the “hegemony of the narrative” (Baetens 2011, 111). As Jan Baetens rightfully suggests, quite often our ‘narrative conditioning’ makes us pursue sense in such a way that it “prevents us from noticing certain aspects of (anti)narrative that fall outside (...) the usual reading grid” (ibid.). diceindustries’ booklets, as we shall see, present us with a project that makes us engaging with a comics-related culture and visual memory without recourse to narration. However, in 978’s case, it is precisely the contrary that is at stake. Its decidedly abstract outlook may prevent the reader from paying attention to panel-to-panel transitions which instil an idea of movement within the visual plane animated by the sequence of panels.


Pascal Matthey Born in Switzerland, Pascal Matthey attended Saint-Luc in Brussels and has lived in Belgium for quite some time now, having become part of the alternative comics scene. His output is quite diverse in terms of genre and style, ranging from semi-autobiographical work (Pascal est enfoncé for example) to the –so far uncollected– non-narrative material published in his own fanzine series Soap (Habeas Corpus 2006-2009). Matthey also created collage comics, such as La difficulté d’aimer (2000-7), and although some of the pages of 978 had been published before (in the anthology Le Coup de grâce, Löwenthal 2006), the work was finally published in book format in 2014. 978 is quite similar in visual and material terms to the classical Franco-Belgian bande dessinée album. It consists of 48 pages (significantly, only the last of which is numbered), printed in full-colour with quarter-joint bound hardcovers with beautiful, thick black endpapers. To borrow Jean-Christophe Menu’s term, this is an almost paradigmatic “48CC” (cf. Menu 2006), the industry standard of comic books in France and Belgium (i.e., a 48-page album with cardboard cover), the national and editorial context of Matthey’s work. It is important to bear in mind that this type of album immediately conjures up a specific material and cognitive context (Baetens 2011, 105). That being said, Matthey’s work usually appears in alternative, small press or self-publishing circles, while the publisher of 978, La 5e Couche, is a major outlet for experimental comics. It becomes clear from the start that the material choice is not conventional; nor is it a search for integration in the shelves of commercial products. Instead, it is a commentary on that editorial reality. The panels are made from material Matthey found in full-colour catalogues and promotional brochures that advertise the massive output of dozens of French and Belgian commercial publishers, freely distributed in bookstores. The images have been cut into minimal fragments, almost entirely eclipsing their original nature, their iconic frame of reference. They become re-combinable small quanta. They are then gathered into panels that look like amorphous masses of lines and colours. However, even though a first, distracted glance may make a reader dismiss it as abstract, nonsensical imagery, it is possible to follow the comic’s sequencing to reveal a more organised meaning-making process. One could thus say that above all else, 978 is more a bande collée than it is a bande dessinée; differently put, it is a new bande dessinée made from a collage of the remains from other bandes dessinées. The word

Figure 2 Pascal Matthey, 978, page 1. Figures 3 (following pages) Pascal Matthey, 978, pages 4-5.


‘remains’ can mean three different things here. First, it is the result of the primary image-changing process that Matthey engaged in, that of snipping away at the catalogues (bits of paper, quanta of visual information). Second, it refers to the pile of material that stems from this commercial overproduction of generic books that major publishers put out but that no one can possibly follow in its entirety, as more than five hundred new titles appear every month. One may question the desirability of such a practice. Most of this production contributes little to the reinvention of the language of comics, but instead feeds an insatiable commercial machine that regurgitates formulas on a steady basis. Finally, because the ultimate, transformative gesture of 978 is to provide a retrospective gaze on that original mass of work, which is now atomized, mere ‘fodder,’ it helps us to concentrate once more on more original acts of creation. Each panel in 978 is made from a collage of small fragments. With a little effort, we can perhaps identify its general sources, that is to say, we will be able to identify some of its original iconic objects: a metal beam, the face of a woman, a flag, a playing card, piles of books, a coat, an alarm clock, a tire, words from speech balloons. With a little more effort, perhaps the reader could even identify the names of some characters, the artists who’ve drawn these images, the titles of the books. To a certain extent, the pleasure derived from engaging with 978 is driven by this ‘spot the origin’ game, even if there’s no final answer. However, even if such an answer were possible, it would not be of any help in our reading. What is essential to a proper understanding of the work is the realization that it is a compendium of organized fragments. Without exception, every single page is structured into a regular grid of 2 x 3 even panels, which imposes a very strict rhythm upon its reading and overall form. On the one hand, it establishes a certain uniformity of ‘narrative’ speed, while shifting intensities focus on different aspects, such as chromatic, line work, the images that emerge from its multicadre form (that is to say, the group of panels in each page independent of its contents; cf. Groensteen 1999, 27) and so on. On the other hand, it creates the illusion that we are looking from a fixed point of view to amorphous, multiform matter that is constantly changing and turning in on itself. The very existence of a multicadre, or regular, organized panels, as well as the book as object itself, immediately invites us to the act of reading, to a certain mental and physical disposition to turn each page with the expectation of creating meaning from each ‘textual’ element, such as the panels. Speaking of abstract comics, Peter Schwenger refers to this as a “sequential drive” (2011, 268). For Jan Baetens this entails a shift from the level of the panels to “the level of the sequential arrangement” of the same panels, which “allows for a narrative reading,” consequently decreasing the degree of abstraction (2011, 96). No matter how non-figurative the images in the panels may be, we are driven to ‘impose’ narrative meaning through sequentiality. The absence of the usual narratological elements–such as identifiable characters, a specific time-space axis, causal relationships, or some sort of verbal track that would instil some (verbal) sense–may indeed make us think that it is not possible to engage in a semiotic process with 978. This, however, is not the case. It is true that we can584

not talk of interaction or empathic responses, since there are no objects onto which we can project emotional and mental expectations, which would help us in the creation of a fictional, hypothetical world (Keen 2007). Nonetheless, we do respond to this multitude of forms. There are enough elements for us to grasp certain apparent ‘movements’ within each image, oblique lines or regular textures, whether created by the ‘quoted’ images themselves or by the structuring of the collage work. Some of them seem to evoke a whirlpool, while others seem to build a brick wall. The modalities of colour demand a response, often reflecting socialized meanings. It is quite difficult to create a universal typology across human cultures, or even individuals, that can explain the differences in reception of colour saturation, modulation, lighting, purity and the valorisation of these variations. But there is a sort of chromatic ‘family’ that pervades these images and pages, since their constitutive elements were plucked from a specific industry that, despite its increasing openness to digital colouring, did not make room for diversity, personal expressivity or experimentation, but insists on the lowest common denominator. The increased use of similar digital tools has led to a certain uniformity of style, which is reflected in mainstream catalogues whose series and genres exemplify a culture of ‘sameness.’ Sequentiality may emerge from rhythm. Rhythm not solely refers to the use of a grid, the multiframe structure, but also points to the sequential changes, i.e., the transformations and transitions that take place throughout the panels of 978. Imagine that each panel consistently shows the same position in space, following a linear temporal progression. The first image, for instance, shows what seems to be an explosion (a hypothetical Big Bang?) engendering an amalgam of metal-like forms (Figure 2). These then go through a series of bold colours–blues, pinks, beiges, reds. At a certain moment, a sort of yellow, roundish blob –an egg yolk? A primal organic form?–enters the field of vision and slides by. Soon, the panels are covered in black, a darkness that is then replaced by a tempest of letters (Figure 3). One could continue this awkward description, and by using adverbs such as “then” and “soon” as well as verbs I am imposing a temporal sequence where there might be none. The point is that the visual elements in each panel are composed in such a way that they invite this kind of navigation. Every time we turn a page, 978 demands us to be attentive to the most rigorous and normalized protocols of reading in comics (left to right, top to bottom), so as not to dilute these transformations and internal rhythms, even though the panels seem to allow for a freer, even chaotic and radical, navigation.

Figure 4 (following pages) “porn spread” Pascal Matthey, 978, pages 36-37.


978 makes us wonder: what kind of matter are we presented with? What forms are these if object-identification is not important? These questions turn 978 into a criticism of contemporary, mainstream, commercial bande dessinée. The title seems to abdicate its individuality and, in a metatextual gesture, quotes its own ISBN prefix. As I have mentioned above, the organization of fragments issues from the visual matter of a certain type of production of French-Belgian comics. The images stand as metonymic assemblages of some of the current styles of commercial bande dessinée. This means that we can read each ‘section’–which may or may not coincide with the page–like a ‘theme,’ a ‘treatment,’ or even a ‘style’ carried over from the original production. Accordingly, we could ‘caption’ the images with titles such as ‘physical conflict,’ ‘armed conflict,’ ‘cosmic space,’ or maybe as representing ‘fire,’ ‘wild thick hair,’ ‘architectural concatenation,’ ‘electrical gas,’ ‘frozen horizon,’ ‘porn,’ ‘blood,’ ‘chromatic reduction,’ and so on.

times employs ‘found text’ as well, creating uncanny associations from previously available matter: “Lynch meets Lichtenstein” (ibid.).

These sections reinforce the idea that despite 978’s abstraction and lack of narrative, it still elicits empathic responses, including bodily sensations. For instance, though the ‘carnal’ or ‘pseudo-pornographic’ pages (Figure 4) do not establish any clear-cut connections with specific anatomical parts of the human body (or any sort of organised body), each fragment does somehow figure human bodies with their fleshy tones, bulging bits and crevasses, with our mind making stronger or less intensive connections. But how? Is it due to the flesh tones, or the way the ‘forms’ in the image slip and slide into each other or bump together? Is it because we try to guess what we are looking at, what we almost perceive, what we imagine, that these semi-corporeal forms contribute to a pornographic register? Is it just the dirty mind of this reader? Even if these are corpssans-organes, their effect is strikingly organic.

Each project seems to focus on one kind of source material, so that its own specific characteristics stand out (paradoxically, the final result is rather homogeneous). As mentioned above, diceindustries’ source material consists of colouring books and other Disney imagery. Qwert no. 10, for instance, uses the well-known Disney font for its title, Low Density. Malspaß exclusively uses colouring books in order to create panels where we see singular images whose shapes may remind us of body parts from Disney characters (fingertips, a furry foot, a big round shoe, a black-button nose, a quiff, a feathery tail) or parts of objects, more or less difficult to identify (perhaps the wheel of a car, a belt buckle, a Stop sign, a shopping cart, a spoon, a wooden windowpane, and so on). They are all fragmented and put together in semi-abstract figures, at once organic, living and objectual (Figure 5). Overall, they remind one of the typical Disney house style2 while suggesting that the parts are all interchangeable (button noses, blob-like shoes, rubbery arms, and so on).

Do these scenes, sections, and cycles, conform to some of the ‘tendencies’ of the comics featured in the brochures and catalogues that Matthey employed in the first place? Or does the book itself, in its specific, singular legibility, create its own approach to the matter? Is it not creating a space in which each gesture associated with the originals is united into a sort of cosmic background, where shapes take on form, where matter exists before turning into determinate, actual forms? Is there a mythical source from which all concrete albums of bande dessinée originate? It as if Pascal Matthey, with 978, is lifting the veil covering these congealed forms, revealing the maelstrom beyond, the comics matrix… diceindustries

(small caps, one word) refers to a Hamburg-based artist who has published short pieces in independent publications, while participating in numerous exhibitions across Europe. He has also created several self-published booklets as well as alternative press comics. One of his ongoing projects is called qwert, a series of books in which he manipulates Disney-sourced material to “the point of rupture, recreated into abstract noise” (Farrajota 2005). The author uses techniques such as collage and computer manipulation, exploring several formats and modes of production. He some-



I will focus on two works: qwert no. 14, titled Der Große Malspaß (2008) and qwert no. 15, or Die Jungfraumaschine frisst ihre Kinder (2012). These are both saddle-stitched pocket-books (13 x 18 cm), with no. 14 sixteen pages and no. 15 thirty-two pages long. Malspaß is in black-and-white, but its wraparound cover is in a lively magenta/ fuchsia. Jungfraumaschine seems to have better paper stock and is printed in four colours, although the panels present subdued browns and beiges apart from the blacks. Its cover shows the same patterns plus green for part of the title, the author’s name and the endpapers, with an intricate foliage-like pattern, most likely a collage.

Compared to Matthey’s work one could argue that, despite its fragmentation, the style of the original material is maintained. Whole lines are still solid, pieces of characters or objects still identifiable, no matter how fractured. To be sure, we can read identifiable elements in Matthey as well, but in diceindustries’ case the unmistakable Disney drawing style remains. This is does not necessarily void our argument on subsemiotic forms: even shapes that seem to have no meaning on their own will still reveal minute stylistic traits from which the reader can recreate, in his or her imagination, an idea of a Disney-related shape. Similarly, 978 invites us to reconstruct and associate each panel with a visual or graphic sphere, evoking imagery in a more general sense. 2 Despite the differences between, say, Barks and Gottfredson, Paul Murry and Luciano Bottaro, Tony Strobl and Don Rosa, there are common traits that make it possible to speak of a ‘Disney style.’ 589

Moreover, each page has a one-line sentence running underneath the image, and the texts in the captions also derive from the found material. Often, the original texts are also cut up and mixed. Even though the font styles are always shifting, each individual sentence is presented in a single font, leading the reader to believe it is an original sentence. These sometimes appear between commas, as if they were spoken by an elusive character, while others include questions asked to no one in particular: “Weißt du, wie Feen entstehen?” (“Do you know where Fairies come from?”) (Figure 6). Even though the processes are quite random, there is a certain meaning, or value, that is always revealed and brings us back to the supposedly original intent of the source. Its adaptation to a new context, a new environment, turns them into absurd statements, emptying them of their power. There is an image with a seemingly emptied-out silhouette where two big black dots hover in the same imaginary horizontal line asking the reader to connect the dots: “Verbind die Punkte” (Figure 7). Perhaps this invitation to recombine fragments is yet another way to connect to an endless source of ever-changing forms.

Figure 5 diceindustries, MalpaSS spread Figure 6 diceindustries, “Weißt du, wie Feen entstehen?” Figure 7 diceindustries, “Verbind die Punkte”


Jungfraumaschine is somewhat different. The collaged material also stems from Disney-related sources, but are cut more finely and in smaller fragments so that the shapes become slightly less identifiable than in Malspaß. It is still possible to detect certain shapes (a plant, an open mouth with fangs), or guess their general category (vegetation, smoke, patterns), but combined, the level of abstraction is greater (Figure 8). Presented in neatly squared frames on each page, however, the entire set becomes a little neater than in Malspaß, an impression further enhanced in that each image is accompanied by a one- or two-word title (plus article), such as “the small gift,” “the anamnesis,” “the requirement” or “the carnarium” all made up by the artist. It is as if we we are looking at a catalogue. And we are.

In fact, this edition of qwert was presented at an exhibition with the same title at the Linda gallery, in Hamburg, which included a sculpture, a photograph of which is printed on the back cover of the book (Figure 9). The sculpture consisted of two glass plates held together by two metal clamps on a wooden block. Between the glass plates one can see the unused parts of the cut paper from the pieces used to create the images of the book and exhibition.3

3  There seems to be a direct relationship with Marcel Duchamp’s famous La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (1915-23). Though Bourriaud considers Duchamp the inaugurator of the post-production age (2004), I cannot pursue this issue in full in this essay.


Most of the connections between text and image appear random, except for a few aspects of its general ordering. Though it is largely up to the reader and spectator to come up with the reasoning behind the pairings, one could argue that in Jungfraumaschine there is a kind of symbolic procession or representation of a lifecycle. By choosing “incarnation” (“Die Inkarnation”) as the first word and “carnarium” (“Das Karnarium”) as the last, an idea of internal evolution arises, creating the impression that the first word stems from a concept associated with the reincarnation of the soul in combination with the last word that underlines the ephemerality of the body (Figure 10). These terms provide the reader with the feeling that there is an underlying structure and logical order, despite the absence of conventionally

Figure 8 diceindustries, spread from Jungfraumaschine Figure 9 diceindustries, Jungfraumaschine, back cover


structured pages as in Pascal Matthey’s 978, which more readily invites a narrative reading. As is the case with Pascal Matthey, diceindustries presents images that are extraordinarily dense and sensually overwhelming. Because they do not present familiar forms that fit into pre-existing categories, each curve, line, colour, and the geometric planes the latter engender, as well as the entangled blobs and shapes they present demand a more engaged reading. Both Malspaß and Jungfraumaschine dip into the Disney archive and, by not reterritorializing those shapes into new characters, or variations of known models, unlock the archive as a realm of free-floating forms, as a never-ending cycle of endless combinations.

Conclusion Contrary to what a cursory glance might suggest, the skill and expertise put into these collages is immense. Not only did the authors painstakingly choose their materials and proceeded to cut and accumulate matter–Matthey with perhaps slightly more finesse than diceindustries–the non-figurative assemblages they created shows a careful weaving of lines, shapes and colours. The art form is thus not completely thrown out. Some of the broken lines in diceindustries’ images echo each other throughout the work. The distinction between finer and thicker lines helps to construct a sense of texture and dimensionality for the ‘objects.’ The rougher edges (torn, not cut) and the differentiated paper texture (printed comics, brown paper, graph paper, and so on) of


the images that compose Jungfraumaschine contribute decisively to the unmistakably organic feel of its compositions, which have an important role in its meaning-making, further corroborated by the wordplay. In addition, Matthey’s collages create exquisite, minute filigrees out of the original matter. Both projects have been published as books. However, due to its specific characteristics, I believe that Matthey’s book invites a closer performance of the espace feuilleté owing to the significance of page ordering. With their specific layout, diceindustries’ small booklets, on the other hand, invite us to follow a slightly more staccato rhythm because of the effect of accumulation. An image is not so much a link in a sequence as it is a distinct object: the book is more like a holder for a collection. Abstract art made it possible to not read an image as a temporal organization, but rather to apprehend it as a unified construction. Following Andrei Molotiu’s paraphrase of Clement Greenberg, to read a possible sequence in a series of Pollock’s paintings, we come across “the denial of temporality in favour of the eternal moment of the abstract image.” (Molotiu 2003, n.p.) The two works I have discussed work in distinct ways; similarly, Molotiu distinguishes two strands of abstract comics in the introduction to his abstract comics anthology. First, there is “sequential art consisting of abstract imagery” (2009, n.p.). I believe that ‘sequential art’ in this sense can include, though not exclusively, the arrangement of a page into distinct and coordinated panels, akin to a ‘normal’ comics book, as proposed by 978. Secondly, Molotiu identifies “comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even into a unified narrative space” (ibid). Despite the difficulty of considering the two qwert project as comics when following classical, normative categories, they do contain representational elements, even if only the phantasmal Disneyesque elements. However, there is no other sort of unity apart from their belonging to the same overarching title, Qwert. Matthey’s organization of abstract images–whose lateral sides are always slightly similar, if not equal, to the adjacent panel’s visual matter–into a regular grid necessarily invites a sequential reading. diceindustries’ booklets aim at an altogether different effect. Whereas in diceindustries the singularity and isolation, the underlining of its objectuality, seems to frame the images as ‘bodies’ (even if shapeless, open, “without organs”), Matthey’s work operates a dissolution, an anti-visuality of sorts that invites for a more dynamic reading of the “bodies” or “non-bodies” that cross the visual plane. Whereas diceindustries’ sources can be traced to a specific archive (even if they in a

Figure 10 diceindustries, montage with first and last images


very general, almost anonymous way), Matthey’s re-presentations have severed all links with the original materials, offering no extra-textual evidence that would allow us to track them down. Nevertheless, due to the readers’ cognitive associations, both works echo the whole field of the original material, in this case Disney comics and commercial bande dessinée. The catalogues that Matthey uses are a symptoms of late-capitalist consumer culture, and the way it informs bande dessinée in particular. Disney is a staple of the ubiquitous children-oriented comics production that still informs much of its general reception throughout the world. Collage creates non-illusory objects that disrupt contexts (both of the source and the target) and discard principles such as unity, harmony, and closure (cf. Ulmer 2002, 86). A collage uses elements from a previously existing structure to (re)creates a new world as it were. And even though Ulmer conceives of collage “as a device for criticism” (84), it is not necessarily avant-garde and subversive, especially if we consider the many forms that co-optation can take in more mainstream industries. However, the forms of collage that lead to abstract comics do indeed show how creative acts also work as acts of criticism. In such cases, one is forced to re-think the source material, as both re-usable and commutable, but also as an incessant pool of re-post-production. Collage is a technique that invites us to read the conjunction of elements as random yet simultaneously effecting generally logical patterns. In Matthey and diceindustries, these patterns arise from the comics medium, which create new comics about comics so that appreciating their individual oeuvres is also considering a certain state of comics as an industry, a culture, and a form-making process. Collage, at least in these cases, acts as an abstracting force. Its somewhat circular process not only enables a distanced, critical take but simultaneously also a closer perspective on the medium it emerges from and mirrors.

References Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Deleuze, Gilles, and Claire Parnet. 1987. Dialogues. Translated by Hugh and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Columbia University Press,. Baetens, Jan. 2011. “Abstraction in Comics.” SubStance 40 (1): 94-113. Baetens, Jan, and Hugo Frey. 2015. The Graphic Novel: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bordes, Juan. 2007. La Infancia de las Vanguardias. Sus profesores desde Rousseau a la Bauhaus. Madrid: Cátedra. Brockelman, Thomas P. 2001. The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. Brower, Steven. 2012. “Jack Kirby’s Collages in Context.” Print Magazine. April 17. http:// www.printmag.com/illustration/jack-kirbys-collages-in-context Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2004. Postproduction ‒ La culture comme scénario: Comment l’art repro596

gramme le monde contemporain. Dijon: Les Presses du réel. diceindustries. 2008. Qwert 14: Der Große Malspaß. Vienna: Kabinett Für Wort Und Bild. –––. 2012. Qwert 15: Die Jungfraumaschine frisst ihre Kinder. Hamburg: diceindustries. Elkins, James. 1995. “Marks, Traces, ‘Traits,’ Contours, ‘Orli,’ and ‘Splendores’: Nonsemiotic Elements in Pictures.” Critical Inquiry 21 (4): 822-60. Farrajota, Marcos. 2005. “Qwert #10: ‘Low Density’; #11: ‘Wien, Ein Mensch Stirbt.’” Blogzine Da Chili Com Carne. December 9. http://chilicomcarne.blogspot.com/2005/12/qwert-10-low-density-11-wien-ein.html Groensteen, Thierry. 1999. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Hatfield, Charles. 2012. Hand of Fire, The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Isabelinho, Domingos. 2011. “Comics’ Expanded Field and Other Pet Peeves.” The Hooded Utilitarian. August 12. http://www.hoodedutilitarian. com/2011/08/comics-expanded-field-and-other-pet-peeves/ Keen, Suzanne. 2007. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Löwenthal, Xavier, ed. 2006. Le Coup de grâce. Brussels: La Cinquième Couche. Matthey, Pascal. 2007. “La difficulté d’aimer.” Grandpapier. October 1. https://grandpapier.org/pascal-matthey/la-difficulte-d-aimer. –––. 2007. Pascal est enfoncé. Brussels: L’Employé du Moi. –––. 2014. 978. Brussels: La Cinquième Couche. Menu, Jean-Christophe. 2006. “Plates-Bandes (Extension 1).” l’Éprouvette, no. 1: 197-98. Molotiu, Andrei. 2003. “Comics as Acts of Drawing.” Paper presented at the International Comic Arts Festival, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. –––. 2009. “Introduction.” Abstract Comics. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, n.p. Rancière, Jacques. 2009. The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliot. London: Verso. Sabin, Roger. 1996. Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels. London: Phaidon Press. Schwenger, Peter. 2011. “Abstract Comics and the Decomposition of Horror.” Horror Studies 2 (2): 265-80. Ulmer, Gregory L. 2002. “The Object of Post-Criticism.” In The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 83-110. New York: The New Press. 597

4365 Pascal Matthey





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Abstract gram pic et pic et pictogramme : OuBaPo, abstraction et Nouvelle Pornographie Chris Reyns-Chikuma Je me suis fait un plaisir de ne pas vous avoir mâché le travail et d’avoir laissé dans l’ombre plein de choses très intéressantes. Qu’il vous faudra trouver tout seul. à moins que je ne bluffe. Lewis Trondheim (cité dans Gerbier et Ottaviani 2001, 1) Dans ce chapitre, j’établis un parallèle entre la bande dessinée abstraite et l’OuBaPo en montrant que la différence essentielle est que l’OUvroir de BAnde dessinée POtentielle est abstraite dans sa méthode et pas nécessairement dans ses productions artistiques. De plus, l’OuBaPo est basé sur une dynamique créatrice, systématique, cumulative, et fonctionne bien grâce à des réseaux institutionnels et personnels, contrairement à beaucoup d’artistes de la bande dessinée abstraite qui, soit se concentrent sur une recherche isolée et empirique d’une spécificité médiatique de la bande dessinée, soit sont trop attachés à une association valorisante mais nostalgique avec les mouvements modernistes abstraits. J’analyserai plus en profondeur la bande dessinée abstraite oubapienne intitulée La Nouvelle Pornographie (2006) afin de faire ressortir comment son auteur Lewis Trondheim parvient à maintenir un équilibre subtil entre abstraction, figuration, et narration, et tout cela avec humour.

Similarités et différences L’OuBaPo, pas plus que sa grande sœur l’Oulipo, a rarement été associé à l’art abstrait ou à la bande dessinée abstraite. Tant ses artistes que ses critiques ont établi peu de ponts entre ces deux « mouvements ».1 Ainsi Thierry Groensteen et Jan Baetens, deux théoriciens majeurs de la bande dessinée qui se sont penchés sur ces deux mouvements, ont exploré les potentialités productives à la fois de la contrainte et de l’abstraction, sans pour autant rapprocher les deux.2 Pourtant, ces deux mouvements partagent justement cette notion d’abstraction. En effet la majorité des contraintes que les Oubapiens utilisent sont abstraites puisqu’elles sont essentiellement basées sur un 1 J’utiliserai le terme de mouvement pour l’OuBaPo et la bande dessinée abstraite pour simplifier le propos ici en sachant bien qu’il est problématique dans les deux cas. 2  Les deux sont les seuls à avoir produit plusieurs essais critiques et théoriques sur chacun de ces deux « mouvements », OuBaPo et bande dessinée abstraite. 682


travail ludique à partir des formes (tropes, figures, …) et non basées sur des idées ou des contenus. Dans Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, citant les deux fondateurs de cet atelier de littérature potentielle, Warren Motte écrit, « il est donc évident que Queneau et Le Lionnais conçoivent la vocation de l’Oulipo comme une quête formelle » (Motte 1998, 3).3 Quoi de plus abstrait en effet que l’un des points de départ du mouvement, c’est-à-dire les mathématiques qui sont « un ensemble de connaissances abstraites résultant de raisonnements logiques appliqués à des objets divers tels que les nombres, les figures, les structures et les transformations ».4 Dans le même ouvrage, Motte donne le titre de « Mathematics » à l’une des sections de son introduction et explique : « Mais dans de nombreux cas, comme le lecteur a sans nul doute commencé à s’en douter, la nature de la contrainte oulipienne est mathématique » (Motte 1998, 14).5 Il cite ensuite l’écrivain et mathématicien Jacques Roubaud, l’un des représentants les plus connus de l’Oulipo, qui écrit « une contrainte est un axiome d’un texte » (Motte 1998, 15).

Groensteen, l’un des initiateurs de l’OuBaPo (Meesters 2013, 132) exhibe cette même rigueur quasi mathématique et obsessionnelle qui l’avait mené à systématiser la connaissance sur la bande dessinée mais aussi à explorer et (faire) découvrir de nouvelles terra incognita, dont la bande dessinée abstraite (Groensteen 2011). Ainsi, dans OuPus 1, suivant un titre poétique, « Un premier bouquet de contraintes », Groensteen présente de manière systématique diverses contraintes oubapiennes. D’un côté, la formule simple mais clairement mathématique S+7, qui consiste à remplacer chaque substantif du 3 « It is obvious, then, that Queneau and Le Lionnais conceive of the Oulipo’s vocation in terms of formal quest ». 4  Définition consultée sur Wikipédia le 2 janvier 2016. 5 « But in many cases, as the reader has undoubtedly begun to suspect, the nature of oulipian constraint is mathematical ». 684

texte par le septième qui le suit dans le dictionnaire. Ainsi, dans « Souvenir fiévreux d’enfance » (OuPus 1, 45-7), Killoffer exploitera cette technique tout en l’adaptant à la bande dessinée, puisque, en plus de transformer le texte dans les bulles à l’aide de la formule S+7, il « lexicalise l’image » (OuPus 1, 45) pour remplacer certaines parties des cases en utilisant la même contrainte. Le résultat produit est « quelque peu surréaliste » comme l’explique Groensteen, qui aurait aussi bien pu dire « quelque peu abstrait » au sens où la narration (la suite d’images « surréalistes ») perd au moins partiellement de son sens. Cette technique a pour effet d’attirer l’attention soit sur les objets représentés hors contexte (puisqu’ils sont « bizarres »), soit, grâce au paratexte et péritexte qui accompagnent cet exercice de style (titre, préfaces, critiques, …), sur la technique elle-même pour essayer de construire une histoire à partir de ces éléments devenus hétéroclites. Il en va de même pour les autres figures répertoriées systématiquement par Groensteen, telles que la substitution, la réduction, ou l’expansion, même si celles-ci sont plus complexes, moins aléatoires et plus volontaires dans leurs résultats que le S + 7. Un autre exemple plus récent est 99 Ways to Tell a Story (2005) de Matt Madden, inspiré des Exercices de style de Raymond Queneau, et basé essentiellement sur la répétition de la même « (non-)histoire » à travers la variation des formes, tropes, figures de style et autres caractéristiques visuelles plus ou moins spécifiques aux divers codes de la bande dessinée. Le résultat total de ces expérimentations est volontairement ambivalent et certains diront qu’il est abstrait au sens où il n’y a pas d’histoire unificatrice. Ce qui est à apprécier dans ces divers exercices de style n’est pas l’histoire mais le traitement ludique des formes. Cependant, dans un entretien, Madden lui-même reconnaît que, tout en jouant avec ces contraintes, il espère aboutir à un chef d’œuvre narratif comme celui du roman La Disparition de George Perec. Celui-ci était basé sur une contrainte abstraite, appelée le lipogramme, où la soustraction du E renvoie au vide, comme l’absence de la mère « disparue » dans les camps d’extermination nazi. Comme on peut le constater, l’abstraction pour l’OuBaPo comme l’Oulipo est dans la méthode et n’est pas une fin en soi.

La spécificité du média bande dessinée ? On le sait, l’un des buts de l’art abstrait, à la suite du Laocoon (1769) de Lessing re-théorisé par la critique quelque peu dogmatique d’un Greenberg dans les années 1940-50 (Beaty 2012, 20-1 ; 65-6), était de mettre en évidence la spécificité du médium. En peinture, il s’agissait

Figure 1 Lewis Trondheim, La Nouvelle Pornographie, L’Association, 2006, couverture. 685

donc pour certains de mettre la ligne, la couleur, et la texture en évidence plus que la représentation du monde extérieur. Ainsi, Maurice Denis écrit qu’il faut « se rappeler qu’un tableau, avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue ou une quelconque anecdote, est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées » (cité dans Roque 2003, 65). C’est aussi la thèse qu’Andrei Molotiu défend dans l’introduction de sa superbe anthologie Abstract Comics: « Mettre en évidence les mécanismes formels qui sous-tendent tous les comics, comme le dynamisme graphique qui conduit l’œil (et l’esprit) d’une case à l’autre ou le jeu esthétiquement riche entre séquentialité et ‘tabularité’ » (Molotiu 2009, 8).6 Un certain nombre de chercheurs, en particulier en France, ont cherché à mettre en évidence cette spécificité de la bande dessinée : des premiers sémioticiens à Fresnault-Deruelle et Groensteen en France jusque McCloud aux USA. Cependant, nul n’a besoin d’être obsédé par la spécificité comme but premier pour produire une œuvre oubapienne en général ou oubapienne abstraite en particulier. La plupart des oubapiens, comme des oulipiens avant eux, ont pour but de créer à partir de contraintes et non de révéler une essence, nécessairement suspecte (comme toute essence, oserait-on dire). Comme l’a montré Thierry Smolderen dans Naissances de la bande dessinée (2009), la spécificité, en particulier pour la bande dessinée, art hybride, et à l’heure de l’intermédialité, est devenue plus que problématique. Même si c’est encore parfois ce que certains des oubapiens cherchent à faire, comme l’a montré Frédéric Paques, « si Ayroles tente en effet de “réaliser l’essence de la bande dessinée”, il est remarquable que la plupart de ses travaux, a fortiori ceux qui sortent du domaine expérimental le plus patent, sont fortement marqués par le cinéma, la peinture, la littérature, le théâtre ou même la danse » (Paques 2011, 170). Plutôt que la spécificité du médium, on devrait parler plus pragmatiquement de celle du projet concret résultant de l’usage de celui-ci : le poème plus que la Poésie, la bande dessinée plutôt que la Bande dessinée. La particularité de l’OuBaPo est de jouer avec des méthodes qui incitent le lecteur à l’interactivité selon des règles spécifiques pour chaque production/produit artistique. Pour permettre cet engagement avec l’œuvre, l’oubapien propose une/des règle/s du jeu spécifique/s à travers une ou des contraintes. Ces règles peuvent être totalement implicites mais Roubaud recommande qu’« un texte écrit suivant une contrainte parle de cette contrainte » (Oulipo 1981, 90). Au pire, le paratexte ou le péritexte présente la règle-contrainte qui orientera le lecteur dans son activité de « dé/lecture ».

Une bande dessinée abstraite sous contraintes L’art abstrait a souvent été défini par son anti-narrativité ou au moins sa non-narrativité. Ceci est compréhensible car dans l’art visuel dominant du début du vingtième siècle jusqu’aux années 60, la peinture, la narrativité a souvent été marginale.7 Mais c’est exac6  To « highlight the formal mechanisms that underlie all comics, such as the graphic dynamism that leads the eye (and the mind) from panel to panel, or the aesthetically rich interplay between sequentiality and page layout ». 7 Une définition parfois dogmatique de l’art abstrait est exemplifiée par celle proposée par 686

tement l’inverse en bande dessinée, qui a toujours placé la narration en son centre. De plus, même quand on est présenté à une série de cases abstraites, on reste tout de même confronté à une forte tendance à narrativiser. Molotiu accepte cette narrativité, mais de manière ambivalente et réticente, et tend à proposer une définition ou des règles qui pourraient être trop restrictives. C’est par exemple le cas lorsqu’il édicte la règle arbitraire de la prohibition du texte, car on ne voit pas en quoi les mots, du moins s’ils n’ancrent pas l’image ou l’histoire (Barthes 1964, 44-45), seraient anti-abstraits.8 De même, plusieurs œuvres inclues dans Abstract comics tendent à contredire l’impératif de Molotiu selon lequel les bandes dessinées abstraites ne doivent pas avoir « a narrative excuse to string panels together » (« un prétexte narratif pour relier les cadres ») ou « Définir la bande dessinée abstraite comme contenant quelques éléments abstraits pour autant que ces éléments ne forment pas une narration cohérente ou un espace narratif unifié » (Molotiu, 2009, 1).9 Puisque la narrativité semble être intrinsèquement humaine (Barthes 1966, 1), l’artiste devrait donc compter avec elle. Or plus la bande dessinée est abstraite (dans ses cases et dans leur mise-en-séquence), plus elle tend à produire de frustrations et donc moins elle est effective. Pour l’artiste, il s’agit donc de choisir entre un refus plus ou moins total de tout compromis et le risque d’un isolement improductif ou l’acceptation de certaines concessions avec les lecteurs et leur désir, que celui-ci soit inné et/ou construit par des forces économiques dominantes.10 Il existerait quatre types de bandes dessinées abstraites avec, dans chaque cas, des degrés divers d’abstraction et de narrativité. Le premier type est Greenberg (cf. Beaty 2012, 20-21). À propos de la peinture narrative, voir Jean-Louis Pradel, La Figuration narrative (2008). 8  Ainsi « qui a comme règle de ne pas mettre de texte en scène [which as a rule feature no text at all] » (Molotiu 2011, 86) ; voir l’usage courant dans la peinture y compris abstraite et surréaliste de mots, comme chez Michel Butor, Les mots dans la peinture (1994). 9 « Defining abstract comics as containing some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even a unified narrative space. » 10  Les membres de l’Association et de l’OuBaPo se sont en partie querellés sur cette rigueur et sur ce qu’elle implique comme choix éditoriaux (Dozo 2013). Certains, dont Trondheim, s’opposant à l’avant-gardisme rigoriste d’un Menu ont quitté l’Association car ils considéraient que l’art n’appartenaient pas seulement aux artistes et aux gardiens (gatekeepers) de l’art mais qu’il est aussi défini, si pas par un consensus social, au moins par un dialogue avec le public, et donc par certains compromis. Menu fait part d’une attitude assez contradictoire critiquant les “gardiens” mais par son livre Plate-Bande se posant lui-même en un nouveau genre de gardien ; ceci aboutira d’ailleurs à un renversement de la situation en 2011 où Menu sera amené à quitter l’organisme et Trondheim et d’autres réintégrés. 687

lorsqu’on a une seule image plus ou moins abstraite comme ce serait le cas d’une peinture ; mais c’est un cas rare puisque la bande dessinée a tendance à être perçue et définie comme une suite de cases (au moins deux ; McCloud 1994, 28-9), même si une seule image peut être narrative, et donc si on peut aller jusqu’à imaginer une image abstraite montrant-racontant quelque chose. Le deuxième est une série, apparemment non-logique, d’images plus ou moins figuratives, qui créerait alors une abstraction au sens où la séquence n’a pas, ou peu, de sens (« non-sequitur » de McCloud, 80-1). Le troisième type est lorsque la bande dessinée utilise une alternance d’images plus ou moins figuratives avec des images plus ou moins abstraites. Jan Baetens a superbement expliqué les implications de ces usages à travers les exemples de Fortemps et Deprez (Baetens 2011, 96-97). Nous reviendrons plus loin sur les implications qu’il en tire. Le quatrième semble être le cas le plus courant pour la bande dessinée abstraite comme l’anthologie de Molotiu l’illustre, ce serait une suite d’images toutes plus ou moins abstraites. Dans tous ces cas, comme Baetens le rappelle, le lecteur/spectateur a tendance à essayer de relier ces multiples cases par des liens souvent narratifs pour faire sens et donc, comme l’exprime Davies cette fois, « les comics abstraits tendent à perdre leur identité face à leur narrativité » (Davies, 252).11 L’OuBaPo met en évidence non pas le produit fini, qu’il soit abstrait ou non, mais le procédé qui y conduit. En ce sens l’OuBaPo, ou plus généralement l’écriture ou la création sous contraintes, offre un cas des plus intéressants pour l’abstraction. L’abstraction est dans le procédé plus que dans le produit final. L’intérêt de considérer la création oubapienne comme faisant partie de la bande dessinée abstraite est de plus, et peut-être plus crucialement, d’empêcher une crispation abstraite, qu’elle soit temporelle/historique comme on la voit parfois dans une nostalgie, de la « grande » période de l’art abstrait (des années 1910-20 avec Malevitch ou 40-50 avec Pollock), potentiellement mélancolique, ou formaliste, au détriment à la fois de la pratique concrète et de son contexte historique. En effet, en proposant de créer à partir de contraintes, l’OuBaPo est constamment tourné à la fois vers le présent (comment comprendre/apprécier cette bande dessinée maintenant) et vers le futur, vers de nouvelles possibilités pour la bande dessinée. Ceci n’empêche pourtant pas l’OuBaPo de se créer une tradition. A l’instar de l’Oulipo, comme l’a bien montré Groensteen, l’OuBaPo réintroduit régulièrement des précurseurs à son histoire, créant une tradition de « plagiaires par anticipation ». Ces précurseurs se retrouvent un peu partout, mais particulièrement dans les premières décennies des Sunday comics américains avec des figures comme Gustav Verbeeck, Winsor McCay, ou George Herriman. S’il se cherche des précurseurs américains, l’OuBaPo reste fermement franco-centré, alors que les abstract comics semblent plutôt américains ou anglo-saxons. Ainsi, Molotiu recense plus de 40 artistes avec seulement 2 francophones (Trondheim et le Québécois Joly). A l’inverse, certains critiques, comme Dozo (2007) et Beaty (2007) pour ne citer qu’eux, ont montré combien l’avant-garde francophone était bien présente et bien organisée en Europe.12 Ainsi, l’OuBaPo est intéressant dans la mesure où il permet et 11 « Abstract comics [tend to] lose their identity in the face of narrative ». 12  Il existe évidemment aussi des réseaux de bande dessinée expérimentale aux USA qui ont une longue histoire et qui sont très dynamiques aujourd’hui (Hatfield 2005), dont Beaty a fait une 688

promeut une plus grande visibilité de ses théories et de ses pratiques, en particulier grâce à ses réseaux de production et de distribution bien ancrés dans la vie culturelle française, francophone et de plus en plus européenne comme c’est le cas de l’Association.

Trondheim et la contrainte Trondheim est l’un des fondateurs de l’Association (1990) et de l’OuBaPo (1993). Même s’il les a quittés pendant plusieurs années, il reste très influencé par leur philosophie et fait toujours partie de leurs réseaux. En fait, le premier avantage de l’attitude ouverte de Trondheim est de mettre l’accent sur les acteurs et leurs relations plutôt que sur les rapports entre les institutions et un dogme (Dozo, 2007). On pourrait dire que Trondheim commence sa carrière d’artiste (sans doute comme tout artiste d’une manière ou d’une autre) sous une des contraintes que Baetens définit comme une contrainte négative (2004, 135). En effet, puisqu’il ne sait pas dessiner, au sens académique du terme, il va devoir trouver un moyen créatif et créateur qui lui permette de contourner ce handicap, cette contrainte négative. La contrainte, même négative, peut néanmoins être libératoire (Baetens 2004, 135). Ne sachant pas “bien” dessiner, Trondheim commence par utiliser alors l’« itération iconique », c’est-à-dire la répétition de la même case-image, pour ne changer que le texte. Ainsi en est-il aussi dans Moins d’un quart de seconde pour vivre, paru à L’Association en 1991, deux ans avant la création de l’OuBaPo.13 Dans l’une de ses œuvres suivantes, il réutilise l’itération visuelle mais avec un nombre limité de cadres et en plus dessinés cette fois par un autre artiste, Jean-Christophe Menu. Cette nouvelle contrainte l’incite à créer et multiplier les hors-cadres (technique peu courante avant lui). En faisant parler des personnages qui sont hors-cadre il rend la case et l’histoire plus complexes et plus riches. Toujours pour contourner cette absence de formation académique, et la difficulté de dessiner des visages humains, il dessine sans se préoccuper des codes réalistes et il adopte la création anthropomorphique. L’impact de cette contrainte négative se fera sentir sur tout son style, ses histoires et ses productions (Baetens 2004, 135). Avec Lapinot et les Carottes de Patagonie, il se donne pour contrainte de créer un livre de cinq cent pages avec chaque planche faite en gaufrier 3x4. Plus tard, il créera des « aliens » c’est-à-dire des personnages qui n’ont pas besoin d’être représentés selon les proportions humaines (dans A.L.I.E.E.N.S) étude institutionnelle remarquable dans Comics versus Art (2012). 13  Ce titre serait-il un mélange joyeux inspiré de Butor (6810000 litres par seconde) et de James Dean (La Fureur de vivre) ? 689

puis des monstres, avec la série des Donjons.14 Trondheim est donc un expérimentateur et un explorateur mais il crée en même temps des œuvres qui sont extrêmement populaires, au double sens du mot, c’est-à-dire qui connaissent un succès commercial et qui se construisent et jouent avec des éléments des cultures populaires, éternels ou à la mode, rejoignant, oserait-on dire, des auteurs comme Rabelais et Picasso. En 2003, il crée Bleu, première œuvre entièrement abstraite, dont un extrait sera repris dans Abstract Comics de Molotiu. Avec Bleu, presque tout est nié, jusqu’à la case et le « gutter » (l’espace inter-iconique) même si l’on peut imaginer la présence de ces constituants élémentaires de la bande dessinée traditionnelle, comme l’organisation assez symétrique et régulière des « formes informes », seul élément qui permette une « identification » possible (voir le « smiley » chez McCloud 1994, 39) et la construction potentielle d’un récit.

La Nouvelle Pornographie Trois ans plus tard, il réitère l’expérience avec une œuvre intitulée La Nouvelle Pornographie et publiée par l’Association en 2006, œuvre évidemment abstraite mais moins radicale car plus proche de la bande dessinée traditionnelle en ce qu’elle n’élimine pas certains de ses constituants fondamentaux, tels que la case et la « gutter », et en ce que Trondheim fait recours à des éléments partiellement figuratifs comme de potentiels pictogrammes. 14  On notera aussi que les Donjons sont basés sur des contraintes touchant plutôt à la sérialité et au feuilleton typique des series de l’héroic fantasy. 690

Ce petit livre de 22 pages et de 10 cm sur 15 présente une série plus ou moins régulière de formes abstraites (cercles, ovales, taches, …) placées dans des cases rectangulaires verticales distribuées en gaufrier. Il n’y a pas donc pas de personnage, pas d’objet reconnaissable, … ni d’histoire évidente. On a donc un bon exemple de bande dessinée abstraite. C’est d’ailleurs ainsi que la critique l’a défini (Charb 2006). Bien que non explicitement présenté comme une œuvre oubapienne, on perçoit de suite sa parenté avec les œuvres produites par ce groupe. Ici la contrainte est celle de l’abstraction, c’est-à-dire la non-figuration et la mise en évidence de certains éléments spécifiques au média. Dans le vocabulaire oulipien cette abstraction est assimilable à la réduction. Et comme nous allons le voir, à condition de remplacer le mot « logique » par « narratif », cette bande dessinée applique presque à la lettre la définition du mot « mathématique » donnée en début d’article : « un

Figure 2 Lewis Trondheim, Bleu, L’Association, 2003. Figure 3 Lewis Trondheim, La Nouvelle Pornographie, L’Association, 2006.


ensemble de connaissances abstraites résultant de raisonnements logiques appliqués à des objets divers tels que les nombres, les figures, les structures et les transformations » tout en faisant appel au contexte social.

Une question de rythme ? Au vu de l’usage de la non-figuration au sens premier, puisqu’il ne semble pas y avoir d’objets ou de personnages représentés, une première lecture rapide ferait d’abord ressortir le rythme. Le livret présente en effet une série de ce qui pourrait être 13 unités intitulées « figures » et numérotées en chiffre romain qui font d’une page à 4 pages. Chaque page est faite de 15 à 30 cases, même si dès la première planche certaines cases se subdivisent en deux et présentent donc un gaufrier irrégulier de 35 cases. L’absence de pagination renforce le fait que les unités pertinentes sont ici les chapitres-figures et les cases. On perçoit alors deux rythmes qui se superposent : le premier à un macro niveau est ascendant-descendant-ascendant puisque l’on passe de 1 planche pour les figures de I-V, à 2 planches [VI-IX] puis à 4 planches [X], et de nouveau à 2 planches [XI], puis à une planche [XII] et enfin à deux planches [XIII] ; le deuxième, à un micro niveau, qui est celui des cases dans chaque planche, est plus complexe et difficilement descriptible avec des mots mais peut se « lire » dans le schéma suivant : Figures















































25+10 35


noir, ovales, ronds, lunes, ‘taches’ blanc

Il y a donc ici une certaine « narrativité » minimale qui est simplement visuelle ou plutôt musicale plus que « littéraire » (Groensteen 2013, 133). Ce schéma met en évidence une première interprétation possible qui serait basée sur l’importance du rythme comme l’une des composantes de la création artistique et de la narration en particulier. Elle rejoint la musique, art abstrait par excellence. Kandinsky lui-même considérait ce parallèle entre peinture et musique comme primordial (Roque 2003, 6). Toutefois, rien d’explicite ni dans le péritexte (titre, collection, …) ou le « texte » (« figure ») ne dit que ces numéros renvoient à une séquence, musicale ou pas (1 suivi de 2 suivi de 3 …). Cette numérotation pourrait simplement renvoyer à une suite logique impliquant plutôt une simple addition ou une simultanéité (1 à côté de 2 à côté de 3). Dès ce niveau élémentaire une tension entre les 2 interprétations est donc créée. Mais si l’on assume que la tendance à la narrativité minimale est « innée » chez l’être humain, le lecteur interprétera cette œuvre abstraite plus narrativement encore. Et l’auteur va proposer certains indices qui poussent aussi dans ce sens. 692

Figures et pictogrammes Une seconde lecture est possible en donnant un sens à ces figures abstraites. On notera que cette seconde lecture peut être simultanée à la première, rythmique. à un macro niveau on peut voir la transformation des figures dessinées qui passent d’un cercle plein à un ovale puis à un croissant puis à une tache, mais ce schéma n’est pas régulier et entre ces 4 étapes, les figures se divisent en deux, se recomposent selon un rythme complexe mais que l’« instinct » narratif pourrait essayer de construire. C’est en donnant un sens à ces figures apparemment abstraites (rond, ovale, …) que ces transformations qualitatives (formes) et quantitatives (nombre) amènent alors vers une histoire potentielle. Dès la couverture est présentée une « figure », un rond à l’intérieur d’un ovale. Seule, sans texte, ce signe pourrait ne vouloir rien signifier d’autre qu’un ornement ou un logo (qui en fait lui-même signifierait mais serait rarement lu et intégré à la lecture du texte par le lecteur moyen). Comme le note Baetens (2011, 100) à propos de Lenin Kino, certains éléments peuvent converger pour promouvoir une lecture narrative. Le titre, provocateur et aguichant, sur la couverture mauve est certainement un premier élément qui incitera voire excitera le lecteur à créer du sens à travers une histoire. Ceci est d’autant plus fort que, comme dans la poésie minimaliste (« less is more ») les mots dans ce livre sont rares. On compte seulement deux syntagmes (et peut-être 4 avec les noms de l’auteur et de l’éditeur qui indiquent aussi au lecteur une/des pistes de lecture significative/s même si ici encore elles sont rarement reconnue/s explicitement).15 Grâce au titre un lecteur pourrait en effet interpréter ce signe de la couverture dans au moins trois sens : un œil, une serrure ou un « judas », et un sexe. Cette figure devient alors plutôt un pictogramme. Les trois significations potentielles de ce pictogramme sont justement typiques du récit pornographique hétérosexuel : l’œil du voyeur, le « peephole » (serrure, judas ou trou dans le mur), et un sexe, en particulier féminin, celui de la présumée actrice, puisque la consommation de pornographie est une activité majoritairement masculine.16 Par contamination, les autres signes à l’intérieur du livret vont aussi se transformer en pictogrammes. A partir de là, le lecteur réinterprétera la figure et ses variations selon un récit sexuel ou pornographique. On pourra alors voir la case noire comme représentant la nuit, la case blanche comme « la nuit blanche », le croissant comme la lune (surtout si on est romantique), puis les transforma15  L’Association et Trondheim en 2006 sont en France des mots reconnaissables et qui s’associent à une certaine ingéniosité et un humour particulier. 16 Pour une critique de la représentation de la pornographie, voir ReynsChikuma et Gheno (2013 ; 2014). 693

tions (amplification/rétrécissement) des cercles et ovales comme le sexe en érection, puis même ce qui ressemble à une tache comme celle produite par l’éjaculation, etc. On notera pourtant que l’auteur joue avec la signification même du « pictogramme » puisque celui-ci est supposé communiquer un sens clair et univoque.17 Sans prêter trop attention au titre, cette tache pourra d’ailleurs être aussi bien justement cela, une tache, une tache de peinture ou d’encre, par exemple, une tache qui gâche les essais répétés treize fois de peinture abstraite. De même, les formes seraient juste cela, des formes abstraites, placées ici et là soit pour insister sur le rythme comme nous l’avons vu, soit même simplement pour parodier la bande dessinée, ses codes, ses traditions. Une certaine ambivalence est donc maintenue par l’auteur. Pour un lecteur attentif, le sous-titre « Figure », le deuxième et dernier mot de la bande dessinée, vient renforcer cette ambivalence. Car le terme n’a que peu de rapport avec la pornographie. Ce terme renvoie en fait à la fois à un terme concret, le visage ou même dans ses variations métonymiques (une mimique, un personnage, …), mais aussi à une abstraction (figure de style, …). La première option est d’autant plus tentante si l’on suit McCloud qui est assez convaincant quand il nous montre combien ce penchant à l’expression faciale est puissant (39-40) mais la deuxième est tout aussi valide puisque la philosophie de l’Oulipo/OuBaPo est basée sur le jeu avec les « figures de style ».

Evidemment le lecteur-voyeur traditionnel sera déçu par une telle interprétation abstraite et littérale. Vu l’insistance sur l’efficacité dans notre société capitaliste, y compris dans les modes de lecture, et vu le titre, de nombreux lecteurs seront sans doute tentés 17  Wikitionnaire : « Dessin schématique désignant le plus clairement possible une direction, une fonction ou une action ». 694

de choisir une version plutôt qu’une autre. Ainsi Loleck, lecteur-critique s’exprimant sur le web, choisit la version pornographique sans tenir compte d’autres possibilités/potentialités et raconte que s’il s’est bien amusé lors de la première lecture de cette bande dessinée « salace », ayant vite trouvé le « truc » de ce récit « à clé » (l’ovale-rond est un sexe), ce livret est devenu ennuyeux.18 Pourtant dans ce cas, on peut conclure que ce lecteur/voyeur n’a pas compris le jeu proposé par Trondheim, et a préféré voir univoquement un humour salace plutôt qu’un humour subtil. C’est donc à un autre lecteur-voyeur, presque à un « voyant » rimbaldien, que cette bande dessinée abstraite fait appel. Il s’agit de faire durer le plaisir et pour cela il faut éviter de s’engager trop vite, de choisir trop vite entre l’interprétation sexualiste (l’éjaculation) et l’interprétation textualiste (la retenue dans l’autoréférence, à travers la forme gâchée de la tache, à l’art de l’essai toujours recommencé). On peut extrapoler presque indéfiniment mais l’essentiel n’est pas dans ce « bavardage » qu’Ayroles a mis en bande dessinée, mais dans l’ouverture, et la participation (Dejasse 2011, 77). La Nouvelle Pornographie offre donc un jeu sur tous les sens (aussi bien en tant que sensibilité que significations), et ce à partir de proto-pictogrammes, signes qui par définition ne sont pas dessinés pour être ambivalents. L’usage des pictogrammes est courant en bande dessinée et même si ceux-ci sont, comme ceux que l’on trouve sur l’autoroute, faits pour communiquer clairement un message (McCloud 1994, 34), ils sont parfois, volontairement ou pas, ambivalents hors contexte (McCloud 1994, 136) ou une fois tirés de leur contexte culturel (voir le cas des pictogrammes des mangas, McCloud 1994, 139). Certains membres de l’OuBaPo l’utilisent systématiquement mais de manière ludique, comme Paques l’a montré à propos de Ayroles (Paques 2011, 177). Trondheim maintient donc la tension entre les deux pôles : sensualité (aussi visible dans le rythme) et signification, narration et abstraction, une tension pourtant tempérée ou plutôt agrémentée par l’humour. La Nouvelle Pornographie est donc un bon exemple de cette tension entre narration et abstraction dont parle Baetens : « c’est comme si l’hésitation entre la plasticité et l’iconicité était répartie syntagmatiquement sur tout le livre » (2011, 107).19 Cependant, l’hésitation dans La Nouvelle Pornographie est peut-être plus radicale encore. Car, même si on admet qu’il y a contamination entre ces images abstraites et non-abstraites qui alternent comme dans le cas de Lenin Kino, dans La Nouvelle Pornographie c’est dans la lecture de chacune de ces images et de leur potentielle séquentialité qu’est l’hésitation. 18 Voir http://www.du9.org/chronique/nouvelle-pornographie-la/ 19 « It is as if the hesitation between the plastic and the iconic is spread syntagmatically over the whole book ».

Figure 4 Lewis Trondheim, La Nouvelle Pornographie, L’Association, 2006.


On notera que cette tension peut d’ailleurs être perçue comme spécifique dans le genre pornographique, qui, comme pour d’autres genres comme le cinéma d’action, n’est pourtant pas réputé pour ses scénarios complexes et des spectateurs qui auraient un quelconque intérêt pour l’art abstrait, l’art en général, ou ses débats. C’est pourquoi Trondheim parle d’une nouvelle pornographie qui pourrait alors être plus proche de l’érotographie, écriture de l’éros, du désir sexuel, sensuel, textuel, artistique, spirituel, et de ses variations ludiques et expérimentales. Le titre n’est d’ailleurs pas sans rappeler des débats autour du sujet même et d’une série de publications et films dont l’une s’intitulait précisément La Nouvelle Pornographie. Le « roman » de Marie Nimier met en scène et en question, après une série d’autres textes produits par des femmes écrivains sortis dans les années 1990-2000, la pornographie traditionnelle, mâle, honteuse, violente, « réaliste ».20 A cette nouvelle intertextualité et intermédialité s’ajoute donc le fait que Trondheim propose une nouvelle forme d’ « écriture » [graphie] du sexe [porno] et du « texte » qui est aussi ancrée dans un certain contexte social et culturel. Si la pornographie (film, bande dessinée, littérature) est apparemment simple quand elle se définit comme la rencontre de x êtres pour aboutir à l’orgasme, elle reproduit et sans doute promeut aussi un rapport de dominance univoque, voire de violence. Dans ces récits, il y a donc un début et une fin assez clairs, et le spectateur est conduit par le « nez » (ou autre chose) dans l’ « histoire » jusqu’à sa fin. Dans un article séminal publié en 1975, Laura Mulvey a pourtant montré que, dès les films classiques, ce type de lecture directe était déjà remise en question puisque certaines scènes semblent favoriser l’arrêt ou le ralentissement du déroulement de l’histoire, orchestrés pour des spectateurs masculins enclins à se fixer sur ces moments d’objectification de la femme et de son corps. Contre ces récits trop univoquement « scopiques », et à la suite de certaines artistes « féministes », Trondheim propose donc non pas à l’autre extrême un art abstrait (a-représentationnel, a-narratif, a-sensuel et abstrait de la réalité), mais une bande dessinée qui joue sur et entre l’abstrait et le concret, ou tout autre binarisme, l’abstrait et le narratif, l’abstrait et le figuratif, le passif et l’actif, le féminin et le masculin, … Car en définitive, comme Schéhérazade l’a bien compris, ce qui compte/conte dans le domaine artistique (littéraire, pictural, filmique, graphique, ...), ce n’est pas seulement la fin, très souvent déjà connue, en particulier dans les récits de genres (roman porno, film d’action, romance, western, superhéros, …) mais la faim, le désir, alimenté par le procédé autant que par le produit fini.

Conclusion L’une des conclusions de l’article « Abstraction in Comics » de Baetens est que « l’abstraction est destructive et productive aussi, car elle ne peut s’imposer à l’attention du lecteur durablement que si elle est stratégiquement organisée, par le moyen de certaines techniques et arrangements qui lui permettent de résister à l’influence homogénisante 20  Voir Reyns-Chikuma et Gheno (2013 ; 2014). 696

de la narration » (109).21 A cela il faudrait ajouter la conclusion plus large de Worden « les comics abstraits interrogent certaines pratiques de lecture en études littéraires ou en histoire de l’art (…) et le standard commun de l’évaluation esthétique dans le monde de l’art, défis qui font des comics un médium nouveau et vibrant pour penser la politique de l’art et de la littérature (…) défiant les catégories majeures de périodisation et d’esthétique des 20 et 21e siècles en art et en littérature » (Worden 2015, 59 ; 62).22 J’ajouterais encore que les bandes dessinées abstraites quand elles sont bien « vendues » comme c’est le cas de La Nouvelle Pornographie favorisent une résistance contre l’élitisme et la nostalgie que Baetens et Frey ont mis en évidence dans The Graphic Novel.23 Pour cela, un appât suffisant doit être présenté pour inciter/exciter le lecteur/spectatrice à entrer dans le jeu. La taille de l’appât variera évidemment d’un individu à un autre selon l’éducation, la culture, l’âge, et même le moment dans la vie. Avec La Nouvelle Pornographie, Trondheim réussit à ratisser large, et pour une œuvre d’art abstrait c’est déjà un exploit. De plus, il y embrasse tant l’abstraction que la figuration et la narration en jouant avec des signes qui vont du plus abstrait (numéros et rythme) au plus concret (pictogrammes sexuels), et en raconter une histoire qui est autant sexuelle qu’auto-textuelle, le tout avec l’humour et la modestie qui apparaissaient déjà dans notre citation en exergue.

21  “Abstraction is destructive and productive as well, for it can only impose itself durably on the reader’s attention if it is very carefully and strategically organized, by virtue of special techniques and arrangements that enable it to resist the homogeneous influence of narrative.” 22  “Abstract comics challenge some reading practices in literary studies and art history (…) and the common standard of aesthetic valuation in the art world, challenges that makes comics a newly vibrant medium for thinking about the politics of art and literature (…) defying major periodization and aesthetic categories in 20th- and 21st-century art and literature.” 23  Dans Comics vs Art, Bart Beaty montre combien Chris Ware reste ambigu dans sa défense souvent nostalgique de la bande dessinée dans la mesure où il semble prêt à accepter une position mineure ou diminuée pour la bande dessinée (voir aussi Martha Kuhlman 2010, 78-89). 697

Références Baetens, Jan. 2010. « L’OuBaPo, avec ou sans Perec ». Dans « Perec et l’art contemporain ». Sous la direction de Jean-Luc Joly. Cahiers Georges Perec 10 (2) : 445-52. –––. 2011. « Abstraction in Comics ». Substance 40 (1) : 94-113. Baetens, Jan. 2004. Le Goût de la forme en littérature. Paris : Noésis. Baetens, Jan, et Hugo Frey. 2015. The Graphic Novel: An Introduction. New York : Cambridge University Press. Barthes, Roland. 1964. « Rhétorique de l’image ». Communications 4 (1) : 40-51. –––. 1966. « Introduction à l’analyse structurale du récit ». Communications 8 (1) : 1-27. Beaty, Bart. 2007. Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s. Toronto : Toronto Universty Press. –––. 2012. Comics versus Art. Toronto : Toronto University Press. Butor, Michel. 1994. Les Mots dans la peinture. Paris : Skira/Flammarion. Charb, Seb. 2006. « La Nouvelle Pornographie de Lewis Trondheim. La critique de la rédaction ». Le Figaro.fr, 20 février. http://evene.lefigaro.fr/livres/livre/lewis-trondheim-la-nouvelle-pornographie-23053.php Davies, Paul Fisher. 2013. « ‘Animating’ the Narrative in Abstract Comics ». Studies in Comics 4 (2) : 251-76. Dejasse, Erwin. 2011. « L’Autobiographie polyphonique : trois livres fondateurs ». Dans L’Association, une utopie éditoriale et esthétique, sous la direction d’Erwin Dejasse, Tanguy Habrand et Gert Meesters, 69-91. Bruxelles : Les Impressions Nouvelles. Dozo, Björn-Olav. 2007. « La bande dessinée francophone contemporaine à la lumière de sa propre critique : Quand une avant-garde esthétique s’interroge sur sa pérennité ». Belphégor 6 (2). https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/47737/06_02_dozo_ bande_fr_cont.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y Gerbier, Laurent et Didier Ottaviani. 2001. « Approximativement (Lewis Trondheim et ses Doubles) ». Images & Narrative 1 (2). http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/ fantastiquebd/gerbierottaviani.htm. Groensteen, Thierry. 1997. « Un premier bouquet de contraintes ». Dans Oupus 1, 13-60. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2004. « Ce que l’OuBaPo révèle de la bande dessinée ». Neuvième art 2.0. http://neuviemeart.citebd.org/spip.php?article547. –––. 2004. « Deux précurseurs de la restriction iconique ». Neuvième art 2.0. http://neuviemeart. citebd.org/spip.php?article243. Groensteen, Thierry. 2013. Comics and Narration. Traduit par Ann Miller. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Hatfield, Charles. 2005. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Kuhlman, Martha. 2010. « In the Comics Workshop: Chris Ware and the OuBaPo ». Dans The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking, sous la direction de David M. Ball et Martha Kuhlman, 78-89. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi. Loleck. 2006. « La Nouvelle Pornographie ». du9, l’autre bande dessinée. http://www.du9.org/ 698

chronique/nouvelle-pornographie-la/. Madden, Matt. 2005. Interview en ligne, 11 juin. http://madinkbeard.com/ archives/matt-madden-interview McCloud, Scott. 1994. Understanding Comics. New York : Harper. Marcoci, Roxana. 2007. Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making. New York : Museum of Modern Art. Matthews, Harry. 1998. Oulipo Compendium. London : Atlas Press. Meesters, Gert. 2013. « Creativity in Comics: Exploring the Frontiers of the Medium by Respecting Explicit Self-Imposed Constraints ». Dans Creativity and the Agile Mind : A Multi-Disciplinary Study of a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon. Sous la direction de Tony Veale, Kurt Feyaerts et Charles Forceville, 275-92. Berlin : De Gruyter. Miller, Ann. 2007. « OuBaPo: A Verbal/Visual Medium Is Subjected to Constraints ». Word & Image 23 (2) : 117-37. Motte, Warren. 1998. Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press. Molotiu, Andrei, dir. 2009. Abstract Comics: The Anthology. Seattle : Fantagraphics. –––. 2009. « Unexpected Precursors ». Abstract Comics, 3 octobre. http://abstractcomics.blogspot.be/2009/10/unexpected-precursors-part-i. html. –––. 2011. « Abstract Form: Sequential Dynamism and Iconoclastsis in Abstract Comics and in Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man ». Dans Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Sous la direction de Randy Duncan et Matthew J. Smith, 84-100. New York : Routledge. Mulvey, Laura. 1975. « Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema ». Screen 16 (3) : 6-18. OuBaPo. 1996. Oupus 1. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2000. Oupus 3. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2003. Oupus 2. Paris : L’Association. –––. 2005. Oupus 4. Paris : L’Association. Oulipo. 1981. Oulipo : Atlas de littérature potentielle. Paris : Gallimard. Paques, Frédéric. « Les Systèmes de la bande dessinée. L’Expérimentation chez François Ayroles ». Dans L’Association, une utopie éditoriale et esthétique. Sous la direction d’Erwin Dejasse, Tanguy Habrand et Gert Meesters, 170-77. Bruxelles : Les Impressions Nouvelles. Pradel, Jean-Louis. 2008. La Figuration narrative des années 1960 à nos jours. Paris : Gallimard. Reyns-Chikuma, Chris et Marine Gheno. 2013. « De ‘Fraise et chocolat’ à ‘Buzz-moi’ d’aurélia aurita [sic]. D’un journal érographique à la mise en scène à nu dans le contexte du ‘tout dire’ », Image & Narrative 14 (1) : 105-29. http://www.imageandnarrative.be/index.php/ 699

imagenarrative/article/view/301. –––. 2014. « La série Hard : aborder la pornographie au féminin à la télévision française », The French Review 88 (2) : 143-56. Roque, Georges. 2003. Qu’est-ce que l’art abstrait ? Paris : Gallimard. Schwenger, Peter. 2011. « Abstract Comics and the Decomposition of Horror ». Horror Studies 2 (2) : 265-80. Smolderen, Thierry. 2009. Naissances de la bande dessinée de William Hogarth à Winsor McCay. Bruxelles : Les Impressions Nouvelles. Tabulo, Kym. 2014. « Abstract Sequential Art ». Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 5 (1) : 29-41. Vincendeau, Ginette, et Bérénice Reynaud, dir. 1993. « 20 ans de théories féministes sur le cinéma ». CinémAction 67. Condé-sur-Noireau : Ed. Corlet-Télérama. Worden, Daniel. 2015. « The Politics of Comics : Popular Modernism, Abstraction, and Experimentation », Literature Compass 12 (2) : 59-71.


mere details? abstraction in the comics of ephameron and olivier schrauwen Benoît Crucifix and Gert Meesters The recent emergence of PhDs at art schools can be seen as an important factor in the appearance of abstract work in Flemish comics. Both Tom Lambeens and Sébastien Conard have drawn abstract comics that could have fit into the now classic anthology edited by Andrei Molotiu (2009).1 But abstraction also pervades works that do not directly ward off figuration or narrativity: this chapter looks at the place of abstract elements in the comics of Ephameron (Eva Cardon, born in Leuven in 1979) and Olivier Schrauwen (born in Bruges in 1977), two art school graduates who obtained their degrees in Belgium near the turn of the millennium. In this chapter, we will count as abstract all instances of non-figurative, unidentifiable elements in the image. These can range from background scenery that is so sketchy or distilled to its essence that a reader would not be able to say what it represents, to entire panels that cannot be interpreted as part of the diegesis. We will show that the function of abstraction in the works by Ephameron and Schrauwen can differ greatly, but they both offer compelling examples of how abstraction might work within narrative comics, both as a reminder of the artificiality of the drawn image and as a powerful tool to enhance the story. Firstly, there is the potential of the drawings themselves to become abstract, quite literally drawing attention to their own materiality rather than their figurative signification. As Philippe Marion (1993) noted, a work’s “graphiation” always indexes the physical trace left by the drawing hand; it strengthens the embodied physicality of comics drawings in a self-reflexive gesture that might take the reader away from the narrative, inviting her “to gain access to another story than that of the adventures of paper characters: the story of the adventures of form, or rather, the adventures of graphic matter” (Marion 1993, 175).2 In retrospect, this idea of a narrative of graphic matter is echoed in Andrei Molotiu’s own description of abstract comics as “an increased emphasis on the formal elements of comics that (…) can create a feeling of sequential drive, the sheer rhythm of narrative or the rise and fall of a 1 See for instance Arme indiaan (2008) and Front/Back (2009) by Tom Lambeens or Hoe was de toekomst vandaag and Degré zéro (2016) by Sébastien Conard. 2 One should nonetheless take note that one of the strengths of Traces en cases is to precisely underline the strong, although somewhat paradoxical, interplay between immersion and self-reflexivity (cf. Marion 1993, 201). 702


story arc” (2009, n.p.). As Jan Baetens has noted, the drive to read non-figurative forms narratively is so strong that readers will turn to narrative deciphering in order to make sense of the abstract material (2011, 95). Within the framework of abstract comics, then, graphiation unravels its full potential as a narratological concept, accounting for the way non-figurative images can nonetheless ‘turn’ into narratives.

between the illustration and its model, shown in her work as a partial abandonment of depicting reality in a recognizable manner, can hence be seen as a result of her familiarity with representational visual arts other than comics, where abstraction has fulfilled a key role for more than a century.

Conversely, as Baetens goes on to show, abstraction can also seep into narration as a form of resistance blurring a narrative object. As a result, “narrative and antinarrative are not so much different forms as different strategies of reading and looking” (Baetens 2011, 100). This dynamic dimension runs parallel to the varying functions of the detail in visual culture: just as abstraction might thwart narrativization, the detail can also act as a “grain of sand in the gears of the interpretative machine” and a “force of resistance,” as Maud Hagelstein and Livio Belloï (2014, 10) have suggested. This chapter follows this dynamic approach to abstraction, more specifically by looking at the varying functions of abstract, non-figurative images or details of images within narrative works. As non-plot-oriented narratives, the works of Ephameron and Schrauwen, each in their own ways, offer interesting cases to highlight these dynamics.

Although Ephameron has always maintained an interest in non-sequential illustration, as her zines and the graphic festival Grafixx she organized in Antwerp testify to, in recent years her book projects have increasingly experimented with narration. This has led to other functions of abstraction in her work, as a narrative creates more links between images than the thematic link in Found+Lost or Love/Pain, thus paving the way for new interpretations of image elements that can be hard to identify at first.

filtering emotionality: pieces of ephameron Ephameron’s first published books, Love/Pain (2006) and Found+Lost (2009) already showed that she does not follow trodden paths. These publications are mixtures of diaries, sketchbooks and art books that cryptically recount periods in the author’s (love) life. The images can be anything from photographs, pencil sketches to collages, foregrounding her interest in details, faces, hands, rooms and houses as intimate tokens of human life. Most drawings can be readily interpreted as they represent items from everyday life that readers easily recognize as they are so familiar. Although the images are clearly representational and pose no interpretative difficulty, abstraction was part of Ephameron’s style right from the beginning. Her illustrations typically show people, while the background sometimes consists of unclear geometric forms. Her penchant for collage and sporadic use of thick paint introduce shapes whose representational equivalent cannot be easily identified. These shapes suggest perspective, and thereby link the two-dimensional image to the three dimensions of the world that we live in, but also emphasize the image as a self-reflexive artwork, because they do not seem to refer to recognizable objects. The images have a finality of their own, aim to retain the reader’s gaze longer than most comics panels would, as they function independently from the other images. Sometimes, several representations are superposed. Materiality, collage, unclear forms add layers to the illustrations, emphasizing their function as works of art instead of clear windows to the world. Interestingly, similar effects can be seen in the photographs of family members or other loved ones in the books. This is achieved by off-focus blur and unnatural poses, both of which put the artistic before the biographical. Ephameron got her degrees in illustration and painting, not in comics. Her tendency to problematize the one-to-one relationship 704

In her narrative work, Ephameron does not use all comics codes, the traditional stylistic means that are readily available, such as balloons or sound effects. Her first serious attempt at narration in the booklet Weg (2010), about losing a companion, showed the will to explore narration in her own way. The text by writer Pieter van Oudheusden seemed to have little direct relation to her narrative in pictures, in which a young female writer leaves her desk to walk around town. The abstraction of her earlier work returns here as texture in the images. Trees or plants are sometimes only suggested, to the point where it is impossible to say what exactly is pictured. Materials in architecture are rendered by heavy hatching, thereby attracting more attention to the line work, to the art itself rather than to what it represents. Seemingly homogeneous colour planes show dividing lines originating in collage (sometimes printed text shines through snippets) or painting techniques. These dividing lines do not seem to belong to the portrayed reality; they exist only in the images. The sparse abstract elements in Weg thus contribute to the stylistic coherence of the illustrations and make the images denser, more inviting to be contemplated for a longer time than most clear line drawings.


ture geometric forms that can just as well be man-made constructions like buildings or sheds, or elements of nature like vegetation. They are not specified, as they do not carry crucial meaning. However, as backgrounds they create depth and contribute to the general atmosphere of the sequence in which they function. When the image shows urban surroundings, a few geometric forms can suffice to suggest a cityscape and specify the setting without going into detail. In a garden scene, similar geometric forms can appear without representing the same objects.

In her latest book Wij twee samen (2015), the abstraction in her work becomes more layered, in the sense that it allows for narrative, metaphoric interpretations in addition to the previously explained reflexive pictorial functions in her earlier work. It is also the first book for which she provided the text, which is supposed to operate in symbiosis with the illustrations. Documenting the consequences of her father’s debilitating illness, not only for the man himself but also for his family, Wij twee samen cannot be considered a classic comic or graphic novel. The individual illustrations occupy a lot of space; usually blank pages with a few words of carefully positioned text alternate with whole-page illustrations. Pages with two or three illustrations are a minority. The pictorial aspect of the text is strengthened by typography, blurring the strict boundaries between text and image, without abrogating the difference (Miodrag, 2013). Not only does the way the text is positioned on the page correspond to other intentions than strict readability; the fact that three layers of text are marked by their own fonts, sizes and colours does so as well(Figure 1). The first text layer is composed of rewritten diary scraps, the last notes of her father, redone in blue handwriting on a background of graph paper; the second centres on the spoken word, showing the reduction of language to meaningless sound in the father’s utterances, rendered in bold uppercase lettering; the third and final layer contains sparse observations of the narrator, preferring poetic, short sentences to a clear narrative, in a modest sans serif font (lower case without traditional punctuation). Abstraction in the images of Wij twee samen has various effects. First, since a lot of Ephameron’s artwork is not very detailed in its execution, the presence of elements that cannot be easily identified is to be expected. Numerous backgrounds in the book fea706

Second, Wij twee samen displays Ephameron’s preference for collage techniques even more than most of her earlier work. She has made extensive use of paper snippets in various forms and colours to compose the images for this book. As collage is rarely used in comics (Dave McKean and Johan De Moor’s styles being well-known exceptions), especially the sober variant shown in Ephameron’s work, its mere presence already gives her artwork a personal touch. Philippe Marion’s term graphiation is appropriate: Ephameron identifies her images by her personal combination of minimalist drawing and collage. Of course, in creating a distance to most comics, collage positions the work closer to illustrated books and fine art. Ephameron’s work defies easy classification. Third, snippets seem to be put in unpredictable positions in the images to add metaphoric, non-mimetic meaning, distinguishing Wij twee samen from earlier work. Geometric shapes, especially triangles, appear everywhere in the book. They are announced on the cover, where the father character is reduced to a black shape with only his hands drawn in detail. Several triangles that can hardly be interpreted as part of the real-life scene inspiring the image seem to start at his feet. In the book as a whole, the appearance of non-mimetic geometric shapes is a metaphor of fragmentation. To these shapes, several meanings can be attributed, three in the diegesis and two on a meta-level. An example of a first type of usage of abstract elements can be found in an image in which the father is laying down on his bed. His cushion is replaced by an edgy black triangle. Elsewhere in the book, one of his daughters is shown from the back, walking away from the reader, a scene externalizing her difficulties to cope with the fate of her father. Tellingly, she is carrying a triangle under her right arm, representing the weight of the father’s illness (Figure 2). The triangle is thus a representation of illness (and everything that comes with it), more abstract than the dragon representing epilepsy in David B.’s Epileptic.

Figure 1: Double page from Ephameron’s Wij twee samen (Oogachtend, 2015). © Ephameron 2015. 707

ric shapes can, in Surdiacourt’s theory of focalization, be both internal ocularization (both from the father’s and the daughter’s perspective) and a comment by the narrator whose view coincides with that of the main focalizer (Surdiacourt 2015, 131-33).

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Second, geometric abstract shapes, not only triangles, point to the effects of the main character’s aphasia. The father is figuratively falling to pieces: he gradually loses his faculty of speech, memory, consciousness and physical abilities. The unidentified triangular and other shapes on the cover of the book also refer to this. Just like the main character’s notes lose their coherence and become an unintelligible word soup, his perception of reality starts to disassemble into loose geometric shapes that have lost their intelligibility. Unidentifiable shapes bear witness to the focalization in Ephameron’s story. The reader experiences the world much like her father does. This focalization is already achieved in part by two of the three text layers in the book (the father’s notes and utterances), but the geometric forms also contribute a great deal. They show what Surdiacourt (2015, 114-41), citing Jost (1987), calls “internal ocularization”: the reader sees what the father sees. Apart from the abstract shapes, this includes surreal sightings suggesting hallucinations, like chairs hanging upside down in the air. Third and surprisingly, using similar abstract shapes, Ephameron also achieves internal ocularization from another character’s perspective. The first-person narrator in the third, most coherent text layer commenting on the evolution of the illness and its effects on the whole family, experiences her father differently as verbal and visual contact become scarcer. Geometric shapes attest to how the narrator’s view of the world and of her father falls apart following the illness. The presence of a paper snippet over the father’s eyes or over his mouth symbolizes this loss of contact between father and daughter, either the loss of eye contact or the loss of speech and consequently of meaningful conversation. Geometric paper snippets thus show the effects of the debilitating illness from both characters present in the text layers: father and daughter. The geomet708

An image of the author’s sister embracing the father shows how the metaphor of loss of contact intersects with personal anecdote (Figure 3). The father’s face is covered with two similar shapes, one identifiable as a miniature igloo and the other the blackened-out silhouette of one. The appearance of the igloo in the image renders the image enigmatic, obfuscating the portrait’s meaning. As it turns out, it is based on a family tradition involving the father cutting slices of bread in the shape of an igloo.3 Most readers will be unable to grasp this intimate reference, but its echo in an abstract igloo shape covering the father’s face underscores the motifs of lost contact between father and daughter and the loss of speech. A very specific and enigmatic shape is abstracted into a sign that can be interpreted in context by most attentive readers. The private (the igloo anecdote) becomes public in a veiled form (the loss of contact metaphor), not as a specific, tender childhood memory. Fourth, on a meta-level, the scraps, geometric volumes and seemingly lost lines are a metaphor for the work of the author. Ephameron pieces her account of her father’s illness together in a very explicit way. She works with fragments, such as uttered words and sounds, her father’s notes that she copies more legibly and weaves through the other layers of the narrative. Her own short observations guide the narrative as a third text layer. Even though the third layer is coherent in itself, all text 3  Ephameron, book presentation Wij twee samen, 12 February 2015.

Figure 2. A triangle standing for the burden of the father’s illness in Wij twee samen. © Oogachtend/ Ephameron 2015. Figure 3. Father, daughter and igloo shape in Wij twee samen. © Oogachtend/ Ephameron 2015. 709

layers are very elliptic, meaning that the reader has to assemble the narrative himself. This piecing together is mirrored in the images through the collage technique, the seemingly unrelated geometric shapes, transparent overlays, the use of clearly distinguishable graphic techniques, with pencilled sequences and completely abstract pages that seem to show the effect of paint or ink washed away with a wet sponge. The assembly of all these elements aims at representing the subject matter in all its complexity, disclosing the fragmentary nature of memory and the narrow focus of momentary perception. The integration of recognizable materials such as graph paper, wrinkled pages and snippets alongside line drawings, grounds Ephameron’s book firmly in the reality of the world outside of her work. The seeming tangibility reinforces the claim to veracity, but at the same time, it remains an illusion, since only a two-dimensional reproduction of the materials is present in the work. The suggestion of a tactile sensation, relief on the pages is merely that: a suggestion. Ephameron realizes that the gap between the recounted events and the artwork remains unbridgeable. Finally, the author’s activity of piecing together a narrative out of single snapshots or isolated memories is mirrored by a similar effort by the reader, whose activity goes beyond assembling the three textual levels with snapshots in the images. Some images seem abstract at first, but upon closer scrutiny echo very concrete representations in other images. The vertical lines of varying thickness on the very last image can make a reader think of jail bars after reading a narrative about a man who loses his ability to communicate with the outside world. Nevertheless, the variation in the lines brings them closer to the pattern of the striped pyjamas the father wears in some images. Regularly, an unintelligible image with straight corners turns out to be a detail of the ceiling the father watches while lying down. The same sense of extreme detail, taking an observation out of context and thus obscuring its meaning, is applied to his hands, furniture, a windowsill or a cobweb. The reader would have great trouble interpreting the isolated details. He or she can only make sense of the images by their presence in a coherent linear sequence with others. The same goes for the diluted, spongy washed ink pages. In the narrative, one can attribute metaphoric meanings to these repeated images according to the density of the ink. They seem to become darker every time they reappear as if they represent the upcoming fog in the father’s brain. This attribution of meaning would be very unlikely if they were isolated, but their existence in a narrative context evokes specific associations. These recurring abstract elements add coherence and can be seen as Groensteen’s (1999) “tressage” or braiding in a broad sense, as the depicted patterns suffice to link the images. Their size or position on the page does not seem to matter that much, the spongy pages being an exception, because they always fill a double page.

the reader’s tendency to link ostensibly incomprehensible or uninterpretable forms in a never-ending quest for meaning. Integrating abstract elements in her graphic narratives could not be more natural to Ephameron’s artistic output. They have always had their place in her visual work, from murals to installations, illustrations and paintings. Obviously, one could have expected the integration of abstract elements in her graphic narratives as well. The novelty of Wij twee samen resides in the capability of abstraction to recount personal and emotional subject matter without getting stuck in anecdotal grief. Abstraction makes her images less specific, more open to interpretation and ensconses a vagueness that answers to the loss of memory her father suffers from. Emotions are present, but abstraction in the visuals helps to keep a distance from the particularity of the situation, to veil the intimately private. Ephameron’s images in Wij twee samen as a result become a personal shrine, an artistic site for memory, a lieu de mémoire in the sense of Nora (1989).

From Background to Foreground: Olivier Schrauwen’s Abstract Motifs Having primarily worked on short stories in the form of concise, witty gags–as collected in My Boy and The Man Who Grew His Beard–Olivier Schrauwen has always relied on a self-reflexive graphic style, manifested by his technical mastery and his striking ability to quote and mimic other drawing styles. This graphic heterogeneity breaks with the dominant convention of stylistic unity that warrants the cohesiveness of the narrative universe (cf. Meesters 2010; Groensteen 2014). By mixing graphic styles, Schrauwen introduces variations that engender self-reflexive, baroque spectacles of ventriloquism, whose power of attraction consists in the chameleon-like borrowing of other styles, putting the graphiateur into the role of “master puppeteer” (Conard 2013, 32). In line with this aesthetic, Schrauwen hints back at the baroque extravaganza of Winsor McCay in My Boy, while The Man Who Grew His Beard showcases the self-generative act of drawing through various figures of magicians, performers, illusionists and other “imaginists” (Figure 4).

Abstract images in sequence invite the viewer to invest them with meaning. An abstract shape in an isolated image is often more mysterious and less likely to be interpreted as part of a narrative than in a sequence, where the reoccurrence of similar shapes can facilitate the attribution of sense to seemingly senseless parts of an image. The presence of multiple images in a coherent whole, in this case the book Wij twee samen, stimulates 710


line aesthetics, as it has grown towards greater simplicity, based on linear drawings and geometric forms that privilege a quasi-transparent reading of the narrative. While Schrauwen’s graphic style increasingly serves figuration and narration, what exceeds from the ‘pulse’ of the narrative becomes increasingly salient in its margins. In Mowgli’s Mirror (2011), Greys (2013) and Arsène Schrauwen (2015, for a discussion of this book see Crucifix and Meesters 2016), Olivier Schrauwen has gradually populated the background of his panels as well as the space of the page outside the panel borders with recurring abstract motifs that, by invading the book while not partaking of the narrative as such, give it an aesthetic consistence. By investing the background with abstract motifs, Olivier Schrauwen plays up the dynamic counter-narrative mechanisms of the detail and the abstract evoked in the introduction of this chapter. Abstraction hovers between a merely decorative function, in the margins of the story (unsurprisingly, these motifs also adorn the inside covers and other paratextual spaces of the book), and a narrative function, a conceptual narrativization of abstract motifs that become diegetically motivated, often through the protagonist’s perception.

These stylistic changes foreground a graphic heterogeneity that might have a self-reflexive effect, shifting the reader’s attention to the visual pyrotechnics of the shape-shifting chameleon-graphiator. However, this graphic heterogeneity is always linked to a particular story and a figurative logic. Some stories from The Man Who Grew His Beard hinge on these stylistic shifts as being narratively significant: they distinguish the diegetic levels of ‘reality’ and ‘imagination,’ often purposefully blurring that boundary. Schrauwen’s book is a subtle case of “internal neutralization of stylistic differences between embedding and embedded level,” in which style shifts “are made invisible through diegetic motivation” (Baetens and Frey 2015, 139). Each story uses a different style and within stories that showcase stylistic shifts, those shifts are used to order different narrative levels of diegetic enunciation. To some extent, the potentially abstract quality of Schrauwen’s heterogeneous drawing style is thus smoothed out by the diegetic motivation. Abstraction in Schrauwen’s more recent comics, however, is not primarily related to the stylistic fireworks and graphic exuberance of his earlier comics, despite the way they self-reflexively stress their own graphic materiality. Quite the contrary, the more his approach to drawing has coalesced into a consistent, nearly clear-line graphic style, the more abstract, non-figurative motifs crop up in his comics, to the point where they have become a recurring background trope characterizing a typical ‘Schrauwen’ comic. His stylistic development could even be described as an adoption of a clear 712

Mowgli’s Mirror was originally published in 2011 by the French small-press Ouvroir Humoir as a carefully crafted bound book with double-folded pages. The story offers a kind of sequel to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book by imagining the teenage life of Mowgli amidst the jungle. As the title suggest, the mirror is the governing idea behind the whole book. The story loosely plays with the Lacanian concept of the “mirror stage” which involves, to simplify things, a child’s complex process of identification with the mirror image anchoring the function of the ‘I’ as subject through a dialectic identification with the other (Lacan 1977). Of course, Mowgli’s Mirror does not seek to illustrate a psychoanalytic theory in comics form, but it plays with this idea of the identification with a unified body, blurring boundaries between the imaginary and the real, self and other, through Mowgli’s grotesque antics (or rather, his singeries: his monkeying around). Indeed, the story relates Mowgli’s confrontations with animals he mistakes to be of his species, as well as various treacherous mirror images. Because of these playful games of identification, Mowgli imagines having impregnated a female monkey after she had slurped his reflection in the water (Figure 6).

Figure 4. Sequence from “The Assignment” in Olivier Schrauwen, The Man Who Grew His Beard (2011) © 2011 Olivier Schrauwen. 713

The mirror further shapes up the material and graphic design of the entire book. The page layout follows a rigorous grid of eight panels working on both a linear and tabular level in a way that allows for a game of symmetries, reflections and mirroring images.4 Moreover, the way the pages are folded in the book, with each page folded back into the binding, yields a double layer of paper with a narrow gap enclosed by the bound pages. This duplicated physicality of the comics page ties back to the mirror principle at the heart of the narrative, showing how the materiality of the book itself works as a conceptual part of Schrauwen’s aesthetic project. Extending this careful attention to the design of the book, the abstract motifs crop up in the paratext of the book: more specifically, Le Livre de Mowgli is introduced by two layers of abstract, dotted endpapers. Through their partial overlap and juxtaposition, the randomly arranged blue and orange dots and stripes turn into brownish, green spots (Figure 5). The book was originally meant to go through a silkscreen printing process rather than offset, which further explains the importance of overlapping and juxtaposing colours, one layer at a time. The colouring of the book is still infused with this division, as colours are based on the overlaps between blue and yellow. Hence, the printing method shapes the conceptual functions of the colours within a story that emphasizes themes of duplication and reproduction–a process directly evidenced by the endpapers.

4  Following the classic terminology of Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (1975).

Figure 5. Inside cover of Schrauwen’s Le Miroir de Mowgli (Ouvroir Humoir, 2011). © 2011 Olivier Schrauwen. Figure 6. Two panels from Schrauwen’s Le Miroir de Mowgli (Ouvroir Humoir, 2011). © 2011 Olivier Schrauwen. 715

These endpapers also help to establish the omnipresence of these dots, lines, and coloured stains as they recur throughout the book, thickening the backgrounds against which Mowgli frantically pursues his antics. In this way, the paratext foregrounds something that the ‘text’ itself will reframe as more than a decorative background motif: through a process of ‘ocularization,’ Mowgli’s embodied perception brings abstract patterns from background to foreground. The most significantly abstract pages of the book come at a point where Mowgli has lost his monkey partner and, disoriented, wanders around the jungle. This mental and geographical disorientation is reflected in the blurred graphic rendering: clear lines give way to fuzzy stains, patches and smears of colour. This abstract parenthesis ends on a play with perception, which, incidentally, will become more prominent in Schrauwen’s later comics: Mowgli, for instance, will take the shadows of the jungle to depict his ‘family’ (Figure 7). This moment in Mowgli’s Mirror foregrounds how abstract motifs work in Schrauwen’s graphic storytelling: the ocularization lends abstraction a narrative bent, but simultaneously works in a self-reflexive fashion, foregrounding the textural and material work of drawing, which is most conspicuous in the abstract motifs in the background. Through a reversal of background and foreground hinging on the character’s perception, Schrauwen demonstrates how abstraction and narrative are dynamically intertwined.

Greys playfully continues this use of the abstract motif as the site of convergence between narrative and abstract readings, which in this case becomes resolutely self-reflexive. Indeed, Greys is a pseudo-autobiographical story that relates the cartoonist’s abduction by aliens called “greys” (hence the title), giving free rein to Schrauwen’s absurd humour while at the same time parodying the genre of the graphic memoir and the discourse that has accompanied its cultural legitimation. In the opening pages of the book, Schrauwen declares: 716

As a professional graphic novelist, I chose to tell this story in comic-form. I believe that precisely in the gray area, the overlap between what can be said with words and what’s best shown with images lies the language that can truly convey the profound mystery of the events I’ve experienced (Schrauwen 2011, n.p.).

The idea of a grey zone is an obvious reference to the zip-a-tone that the cartoonist is shown cutting and manipulating in the opening pages of the book. Indeed, the first panels open with the clichéd scene of the solitary artist at his drawing table, wondering whether or not he should masturbate, in a parodic allusion to the autobiographical comics of Robert Crumb and Joe Matt. From the start, Schrauwen sets the pseudo-autobiographical tone of a story whose graphiation is explicitly connected to an absurd witness account. The ‘grey zone’ equally refers to the abstract, non-figurative panels that sporadically pop up, featuring several monochromatic panels of grey zip-a-tone (starting with the cover). The reference, however, is perhaps less to the canonical monochromes of abstract art, from Kazimir Malevich to Yves Klein, but rather the ‘monochromatic gags’ by cartoonists such as Alphonse Allais, among others. The panels are explicitly described to ‘illustrate’ what eludes the memory of the character-narrator. And so we are told that the grey tone monochromes represent “holes in the narrative” that he couldn’t “fully recover (…) during hypnosis” (Schrauwen 2015, n.p.). Besides these monochromes, Schrauwen also uses abstract patterns, combined with emotions to ‘best’ represent what he felt, as the caption informs us in one telling example: “What I felt at that moment is best expressed in a more abstract way, by using these simple word-image vignettes below” (Figure 8). In Alphonse Allais’s and other nineteenth-century ‘monochromatic gags,’ the humour plays on the textual caption that invents a figurative explanation for an abstract panel. Here, the humour depends on the ironically naive, explicit lack of figurative explanation, equating the abstract panels with the expression of the narrator’s most intimate feelings. Read together with the ironical presentation of Greys as a graphic memoir, Schrauwen’s own ‘monochromatic gags’ point to a reversal in the relationship of dominance between abstraction and figuration as visual regimes: while in the nineteenth century it was unthinkable that a painting did not not represent, abstraction today has perhaps become something of a norm. At least, the abstract image is no longer ‘explained’ by a figurative-descriptive textual caption, but is ironically asserted as a truthful representation of ‘abstract’ feelings. In this way, Schrauwen shares the “polygraphic humor” (Smolderen 2009) of nineteenth-century cartoonists such as Allais in the way they both parody

Figure 7 Panel detail from Schrauwen’s Le Miroir de Mowgli (Ouvroir Humoir, 2011). © 2011 Olivier Schrauwen. 717

it. Read it, contemplate it, read it again, look at the drawings, look at the way it is made… (qtd. in Crucifix 2015)

Not surprisingly, his latest “graphic novel,” 29,000 Years of Bad Luck, is indeed a minicomic of just a few pages...


the visual regimes and artistic traditions of their times, be it historical Salon paintings and impressionist tableaux (Rosenberg 2011), or contemporary graphic memoirs and expressionist graphzines for Schrauwen. At the same time, while Greys can be read as a parody of the visual strategies used by contemporary graphic novelists, who often rely on abstract images to represent trauma (Romero-Jódar 2017), Schrauwen’s comic simultaneously demonstrates the narrative efficiency of such techniques, In the first pages, Schrauwen also plays with internal ocularization through abstract panels that are clearly presented as what the character sees; the play with the perception and interpretation of motifs is once again made very clear by the narrative voice: “peeping into the dark was like looking into a blurry soup of shifting particles and nonsensical patterns” (Schrauwen 2011, n.p.). Reflexively spotlighting the protagonist’s eye, and so the act of perception, this sequence clearly serves to draw the reader’s attention to the similar abstract backgrounds that ‘decorate’ most panels in Greys. Schrauwen thus continues the use of abstraction through a reversal of background and foreground already explored in Mowgli’s Mirror. This formal play, which is ironically contrasted with a parodical image of the ‘graphic novelists’ mocked in Greys, counteracts a plot-oriented reading that Schrauwen has elsewhere described as “binge-reading”: At this point I don’t notice the drawings anymore, overlook all details and subtleties and just follow the main plot. (…) Sometimes reading a 12-page minicomic feels much more satisfying then a fat graphic novel. You can spend maybe 30 very intense minutes with 718

Our comparison of works by Ephameron and Olivier Schrauwen has shown that abstraction in figurative comics can serve many goals. A first, common effect of abstract elements is the problematization of the iconic (indexical) function of drawing, thus drawing attention to the image itself and giving up diegesis in favour of the extradiegetic. Narrative immersion can be (temporarily) abandoned to stress the materiality of the work or the graphiation of the image, for example. In this perspective, abstraction is just one way of distancing the work from the industrial and ‘invisible’ styles of famous studio comics, thereby insisting on the artist’s visual approach, which is more common in the fine arts. Another reason to provoke an interruption through abstraction in a reader’s immersion is to undermine the narrative’s credibility, as Schrauwen ironically does in Greys. Though it may seem paradoxical for a comics artist to undermine the credibility of his own story, in Schrauwen’s case it serves to celebrate his medium’s potential for revelling in diegetic universes that bear little resemblance to reality, since he is not interested in replicating the extradiegetic world. Abstraction is just one way of making the reader aware of the fact that he or she is enjoying an artist’s vision rather than a transparent narrative that seeks credibility. Focusing on the image by adding abstract elements disrupts the transparency of the narrative in all cases, but the underlying intentions can be very different. Conversely, abstraction can also serve to reinforce the themes of the story, i.e., as a force in the diegesis. In this sense, it is hardly different from figuration. Schrauwen has been using abstract drawings for the endpapers of his comics, thereby extending visual motifs of his work to the paratext and stressing his view of the comic as a material object from front cover to back cover. Abstract elements can also carry metaphoric meaning, like the illness of the main character in Ephameron’s Wij twee samen. It has proven specifically productive in scenes with internal ocularization. In Schrauwen’s and Ephameron’s comics, as in other recent work such as Michael DeForge’s Big Kids, abstraction can mark the way a character views the world, be they troubled, ill or just perceiving reality differently. In the never-ending quest for meaning, the reader will invest even abstract markers of deviant perception with

Figure 8. Double page from Greys. © 2013 Olivier Schrauwen.


metaphoric sense, as Baetens (2011) has pointed out. Schrauwen’s Greys perhaps pushes to the limits of this use of abstraction to represent the perceptional experience of the characters, extensively relying on the technique while ironically parodying it.

References B., David. 2011. L’Ascension du Haut-Mal. Paris : L’Association. Baetens, Jan. 2011. “Abstraction in Comics.” Substance 40 (1): 94-113. Conard, Sébastien. 2013. “Surreëel poppenspel. Over de radicale idiotie van Olivier Schrauwen.” Rekto:Verso. Tijdschrift voor cultuur & kritiek 55: 32-33. –––. 2016. Hoe was de toekomst vandaag?/Degré zéro. Aalst: Het balanseer. Crucifix, Benoît. 2015. “Olivier Schrauwen: Interview.” du9, l’autre bande dessinée, http:// www.du9.org/en/entretien/olivier-schrauwen-2/ Crucifix, Benoît and Gert Meesters. 2016. “The Medium is the Message: Olivier Schrauwen’s Arsène Schrauwen beyond Expectations of Autobiography, Colonial History and the Graphic Novel.” European Comic Art 9 (1): 24-62. Ephameron. 2006. Love/Pain. Antwerp: Bries. –––. 2009. Found+Lost. Antwerp: Bries. –––. 2015. Wij twee samen. Leuven: Oogachtend. Ephameron and Pieter van Oudheusden. 2010. Weg. Antwerp: Bries. Fresnault-Deruelle, Pierre. 1976. “Du linéaire au tabulaire.” Communications 24 (1): 7-23. Hagelstein, Maud and Livio Belloï. 2014. “Avant-propos.” In La mécanique du détail. Approches transversales, edited by Livio Belloï and Maud Hagelstein, 7-13. Lyon: ENS Éditions. Jost, François. 1987. L’Œil-caméra. Entre film et roman. Lyon: PUL. Groensteen, Thierry. 1999. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: PUF. –––. 2014. “L’Hybridation graphique, ou le patchwork des styles.” In Hybridations. Les rencontres du texte et de l’image, edited by Laurent Gerbier, 167-75. Tours: Presses Universitaires François-Rabelais. Lacan, Jacques. 1977. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan, 502-9. London: Tavistock Publications. Lambeens, Tom. 2008. Arme indiaan. Hasselt: Het Onrijpheid. –––. 2009. Front Back. Hasselt: Het Onrijpheid. Marion, Philippe. 1993. Traces en cases. Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur. Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia-Bruylant. Meesters, Gert. 2010. “Les significations du style graphique : Mon fiston d’Olivier Schrauwen et Faire semblant, c’est mentir de Dominique Goblet.” Textyles : Revue des Lettres Belges de Langue Française 36-37: 215-33. Miodrag, Hannah. 2013. Comics and Language. Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Molotiu, Andrei. 2009. Abstract Comics: An Anthology. Seattle: Fantagraphics. Nora, Pierre. 1989. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations 26: 7-24. 720

Romero-Jódar, Andrés. 2017. The Trauma Graphic Novel. New York: Routledge. Rosenberg, Raphaël. 2011. “De la blague monochrome à la caricature de l’art abstrait.” In L’Art de la caricature, edited by Ségolène Le Men, 2740. Nanterre: Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre. Schrauwen, Olivier. 2011. Le Miroir de Mowgli. Paris: Ouvroir Humoir. –––. 2013. Greys. New York: Desert Island. –––. 2015. Arsène Schrauwen. Seattle: Fantagraphics. Smolderen, Thierry. 2009. Naissances de la bande dessinée de William Hogarth à Winsor McCay. Bruxelles: Les Impressions Nouvelles. Surdiacourt, Steven. 2015. Comics and Storytelling: Towards a Mediumspecific Narratology. PhD Dissertation K.U. Leuven.


L’Abstrait et le figural dans les bandes dessinées d’Alberto Breccia Laura Caraballo Mon analyse porte sur un corpus des adaptations littéraires en bande dessinée, que j’appellerai ici transpositions, réalisées par le dessinateur argentin Alberto Breccia. Celles-ci suscitent en effet une réflexion sur l’aspect plastique de la bande dessinée tout en déterminant la singularité de cet auteur. Dans la pratique de la transposition, l’œuvre transposée se réclame d’un lien direct et explicite avec un ou plusieurs textes ou récits antécédents. Transposer désigne ici simplement l’acte de resituer un récit, un genre, une idée en passant d’un support à un autre ; les modifications entraînées par le passage sont dues principalement à ce changement. Cette approche de la notion de transposition favorise ainsi le dépassement de la dichotomie entre œuvre adaptante et œuvre adaptée comme deux pôles d’un processus linéaire et unidirectionnel, conception souvent présente dans les théories de l’adaptation que ce travail compte remettre en question. Le terme « adaptation » risque de nous entraîner à substantialiser les deux termes de cette opération, en distinguant l’œuvre-source comme un original d’une part et en concevant l’adaptation comme sa copie, œuvre accessoire, secondaire, dévaluée. A travers sa pratique transpositionnelle, Breccia a été un précurseur de l’appropriation de techniques picturales propres à l’art moderne, notamment la peinture et la gravure, au sein de la bande dessinée. Ses images englobent le spectre global qui va de l’abstraction au réalisme. Certains moyens sont donc proches de l’abstraction non-figurative, d’autres empruntent à la figuration bédéistique traditionnelle. Ce travail permet donc de problématiser le rapport de l’image chez Breccia à la figuration, à l’abstraction, à l’espace plastique et au figural (Deleuze 2002), catégories qui s’appliquent tout autant à la séquence d’images. Sur la base d’une narrativité souvent considérée comme intrinsèque à la bande dessinée, l’œuvre transpositive de Breccia opère des détours et certains gestes conjurent les récits provenant de textes littéraires comme sources de transpositions. Une des stratégies est le recours à l’image abstraite ou pure qui se traduit, non seulement par opposition à la représentation figurative des objets de la réalité (suivant une certaine convention naturaliste bien établie en bande dessinée), mais bien plutôt par la mise en avant des éléments plastiques de l’image, qui se présentent comme autonomes, générant des résonances chez le 722


visiolecteur.1 La catégorie du figural de Gilles Deleuze permet de clarifier le fait que les figures ne génèrent pas de liens narratifs ou illustratifs mais se présentent comme des spasmes, comme l’agencement d’un rapport de forces au sein de l’espace de l’image, un espace distinct et non pas cartésien, en opposition à l’espace albertien de la Renaissance, où l’artiste cherche à construire le tableau comme une fenêtre ouverte sur le récit. L’application de cette catégorie conduit à un premier constat : Breccia ne se sert pas de la représentation figurative des objets, ses œuvres devenant des objets stricto sensu et donc autonomes par rapport à un mode conventionnel de représentation.2 C’est le résultat d’un travail organique de recherche d’affects à façonner sur la surface de l’image et sur la suite d’images. Dès lors, le passage au figural se fait en réponse à l’irreprésentable.

L’image abstraite et la bande dessinée de Breccia Dans l’histoire des images, l’abstraction constitue une forme de mise en images parmi d’autres, aussi bien qu’un style et un mouvement de l’histoire de l’art. Celle-ci n’a pas été créée par les modernes mais existe depuis que l’homme a commencé à symboliser : « Art abstrait, toute une partie de l’art dit primitif ; mais aussi les arts de l’entrelacs barbare ou musulman, qui ne découlent absolument pas d’une vision émotionnelle de l’univers. […] Il n’y a pas qu’un art abstrait » (Francastel 1952, 252). Comme l’affirme Pierre Francastel, la catégorie d’art abstrait est assez polysémique. Il est donc pertinent d’explorer les réflexions que l’abstraction déclenche lorsqu’elle devient un mouvement, sachant que c’est principalement l’abstraction de l’art moderne qui se trouve parmi les influences d’Alberto Breccia. Un des fondateurs de l’abstraction moderne, le peintre russe Wassily Kandinsky (18661944) a fait part de ses expérimentations autour de la « musique colorée », des exercices d’art pur, des images qui déconcertaient sûrement les spectateurs de son époque. L’abstraction désigne ainsi un courant ou un style spécifique, conçu à partir des expériences de Kandinsky, du rayonnisme, des expressionnistes et des constructivistes russes. Dans son traité Point et ligne sur le plan, Kandinsky restreint sa réflexion aux « éléments de base », points de départ de l’art pictural, sans lesquels aucune œuvre ne pourrait exister, à savoir le point, la ligne et le plan primaire : « Le point est le résultat de la première rencontre de l’outil avec la surface matérielle, le plan originel » (Kandinsky 1991, 29-30). Sa démarche est significative étant donné qu’il déplace explicitement l’intérêt pour la peinture d’un art mimétique vers un art qui se pense lui-même, scrutant sa fonction et son existence. « Que peut faire la peinture ? », se demande-t-il. Son but principal est alors d’exposer explicitement ses éléments constitutifs sans essayer de « tromper l’œil ». 1  Nous nous permettons d’introduire cette catégorie de « visiolecteur », car, la plupart du temps, les discours sur la bande dessinée ne parlent que de lecteur, négligeant ainsi la dimension qui nous intéresse puisque nous cherchons à comprendre comment les deux expériences de lecture et de vision sont engagées dans l’approche du spectateur ou du public. 2  Celui-ci s’associe à une bande dessinée dite « classique », notamment d’aventures ou de super-héros, où la prééminence de la clarté et de la lisibilité des figures sur des décors est bien conséquente. 724

L’image pure entraîne une séparation entre l’art et le monde, faisant de l’art lui-même un monde. Kandinsky évoque en l’occurrence le détachement théorique du point dans sa fonction scripturale pour devenir un élément isolé : « Le point, arraché ainsi à sa position habituelle, prend maintenant l’élan pour faire le bond d’un monde à l’autre, se libérant de sa soumission et du pratique-utilitaire. Le point commence à vivre comme un être autonome et de sa soumission il évolue vers une nécessité intérieure. C’est là le monde de la peinture » (Kandinsky 1991, 29). En consonance avec les réflexions de Jean-François Lyotard (1971), Kandinsky voit une différence entre l’espace occupé par le texte et celui de la figure qui n’est pas de l’ordre du degré, mais d’ordre ontologique. L’image abstraite est donc dans ses fondements un moyen d’expression et de communication comme n’importe quel type d’image. Néanmoins, l’abstraction en tant que mouvement artistique, propose un nouveau champ de réflexion sur les images. Celui-ci s’insère dans l’histoire de l’art moderne, ayant comme principe la mise en valeur des éléments visuels, tels que la ligne, le point, la surface, en tant que tels et non pas dans leurs dimensions figuratives. Les enjeux de l’image dite « pure », associée à l’abstraction, impliquent que l’art se sépare de tout objet représenté pour s’émanciper : Plutôt que par un cheminement historique de la forme vers l’informe, il s’agira plutôt d’en inférer par une évolution de l’art vers son autonomie. La peinture, la sculpture aussi bien, se donnent bientôt leur propre loi, « autonomisent » leur statut. Or il n’y a qu’un pas de l’autonomie à la déconnexion. Parti du monde, l’art devient un monde. (Ardenne 1997, 37) Tout comme le conceptualise Kandinsky, Paul Ardenne fait référence à une libération de l’image par rapport à la représentation, qui mène à l’autonomie de l’art qui crée son propre monde, indépendamment d’un autre monde qu’il aurait été voué à représenter. Ce processus d’autonomie est proche de celui qu’opère Breccia par rapport à la bande dessinée illustrative, appelée aussi classique. Il cherche par les éléments plastiques de l’image, à s’autonomiser par rapport à une figuration BD plus ou moins fixée et surtout par rapport à une narration linéaire. L’image pure se manifeste donc par les éléments de l’image indépendamment des références à la réalité externe à l’œuvre et crée une nouvelle réalité propre à celle-ci. En effet, les éléments plastiques sont ceux auxquels la réflexion de l’art pur fait référence et qui guident principalement les analyses dans ce travail. Par « plastique » on entend la mise en avant de la manipulation des matériaux, dans la perspective de Jacques Aumont : 725

En effet, la plasticité de l’image, disons, picturale (le cas de l’image photographique étant assez différent sur ce point), tient à la possibilité de manipulations offerte par le matériau dont elle est tirée, et si l’art de la peinture a pu être considéré comme un art plastique (comparé à celui du sculpteur modelant sa boule de glaise), c’est d’abord en pensant aux gestes du peintre, qui étale la pâte sur la toile, la brosse la travaille avec divers outils et en dernier ressort avec ses mains. (Aumont 1990, 204) Jacques Aumont se prononce dans cette citation sur le caractère singulièrement pictural de la plasticité de l’image, étant donné que c’est la matière picturale qui laisse facilement entrevoir ou retracer la trace du geste du peintre et donne une autonomie au matériel qui construit l’image. Or cette catégorie s’étend à mon sens aux images faites à l’encre et même à celles en collage car ces deux matériaux renferment chez Breccia une importante densité qui leur donne de même un caractère autonome : le travail avec l’encre noire, le brossage, le dripping, entre autres, et l’agencement des papiers arrachés et collés à la surface de l’image. L’image est effectivement davantage plastique lorsque les éléments qui la constituent ressortent et que la manipulation de la matière devient plus évidente. Il s’agit d’une opacité par rapport au contenu narratif de la séquence, car ce qui ressort n’est plus l’histoire ou la figure mais bien les éléments visuels et leurs comportements internes à l’image. Or cette même prééminence de la plasticité peut s’appliquer à l’image figurative où la touche est visible, identifiable. Par exemple, certains peintres qui ne participent pas d’une réflexion sur l’image pure ont également pu mettre en avant (précocement par rapport à l’histoire de l’art moderne) la matière, comme Goya (1746-1828), Delacroix (1789-1863) et Velázquez (1599-1660). Ils promeuvent le traitement chromatique et la touche, accusant un parti pris pour la surface de l’image. Le cas du peintre anglais J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) est également révélateur, puisque son œuvre constitue un antécédent à l’annulation de la prétention mimétique. Il crée une peinture qui s’éloigne, déjà à son époque, des paramètres de la représentation classique occidentale : Les éléments naturels peints par Turner, au demeurant, sont bien reconnaissables comme tels. En revanche, ils ne sont pas exactement conformes au rendu qui réclame le principe d’apparence et, en amont de celui-ci, l’ordre rétinien qui alors irrigue la peinture. Leur être incertain, vacillant, contradictoire même–le ciel au-dessus de la Manche devenant pour l’observateur une forme solide, transmutation, évidemment aussi paradoxale qu’incohérente–démasque en fait chez l’Anglais une volonté d’interprétation valant pour une inversion de la règle mimétique. (Ardenne 1997, 36) Une manipulation particulière des éléments de l’image serait, selon Ardenne, une solution pour s’éloigner du mimétique, que je définis comme figuratif. Dans le même ordre d’idée que Jacques Aumont, l’auteur donne à l’aspect plastique une importance majeure au moment de travailler des catégories alternatives à la représentation figurative. Breccia tend de même à s’éloigner de la figuration par le traitement de la matière plastique et la revendication de la surface, entre autres car celle-ci donne souvent à voir la contradiction entre profondeur et aplatissement.


Ce parti pris crée une instabilité : faute de figure située dans un espace, étant donné que, figure et espace se contredisent et s’entremêlent, le déséquilibre spatial qui tient tout au long des séquences d’images est manifeste.3 Voyons ensuite comment l’image cherche aussi à faire ressortir les gestes des outils sur la surface postulant leur valeur intrinsèque. Tout comme les artistes mentionnés auparavant, l’image de Breccia peut se centrer sur la pureté des éléments plastiques sans comporter un degré nul de ressemblance. L’auteur a énormément diversifié les techniques et les procédés, mais la composante quasi constante est son trait rapide, expressif, en apparence insouciant, révélant pourtant une grande maîtrise des formes et des lignes. Les œuvres en couleur, exécutées au pinceau ont pour la plupart un caractère expressif, les formes étant définies par la juxtaposition des touches de couleur. Dans La Vérité sur le cas de M. Valdemar, l’application de la peinture est rapide et ne respecte pas un ordre méthodique. Dans Le Chat noir, les couleurs sont moins vives mais les touches ont les mêmes caractéristiques. Une ligne de contour émerge des couches de peinture partiellement cachées. Les figures sont des masses construites par taches juxtaposées et superposées. Par rapport aux harmonies chromatiques, on n’y discerne pas de parcours visuel, c’est-à-dire la distribution des valeurs ou de couleurs de façon à ce que l’œil suive un chemin plus ou moins déterminé. La logique chromatique divisant quantitativement l’image entre dominant, subordonné et accent n’est ici pas tout à fait appliquée ; on donne à voir au contraire une diversité de couleurs qui coexistent et qui se distribuent de façon assez erratique mais équidistante. Parfois les traces de la toile en dessous des couches de peinture ajoutent du dynamisme à la composition. Ces traits émergent à travers la matière translucide (acrylique dilué) et sont dus à l’encollage de la toile.4 Ces marques font apparaître la technique, la peinture en elle-même et ajoutent du dynamisme à la composition. Dans William Wilson, Breccia modifie sa technique et travaille à l’encre de Chine et à l’encre de couleur sur papier d’illustration. D’exécution rapide avec un gros pinceau, la bande dessinée donne à voir un trait violent, rapide et détaché, la ligne étant moins présente. L’acrylique dilué ne s’absorbe pas tout de suite et glisse sur la surface, les traits du pinceau laissant une trace sur le papier satiné. On voit tous les mouvements du pinceau, 3 On peut ici tenter une analogie, capricieuse peut être, avec l’instabilité politique de l’Argentine qui a prédominé dans la vie de Breccia (étant donné qu’il est mort seulement quelques années après le retour en démocratie la plus stable). Il a vécu une alternance de périodes démocratiques et de dictatures. 4  Une couche de colle s’applique sur la toile comme base pour la peinture à l’huile ou même pour l’acrylique. Il a probablement encollé la toile avec un pinceau assez large et à poils durs, ce qui a laissé les lignes en relief qui émergent ensuite à travers la couche translucide d’huile. 727

les courbes, les zigzags, les freinages. Ce n’est pas donc uniquement la matière qui est mise en évidence mais aussi son support. Les œuvres achromatiques ont aussi, pour la plupart, un caractère expressif où la matière acquiert une place primordiale. Nous trouvons deux groupes parmi ces bandes dessinées. D’une part, un traitement spontané comme dans les œuvres en couleur où les formes, les figures et la composition indiquent des gestes énergiques et éloquents ; d’autre part, des exemples qui constituent une contrepartie de cette liberté de trait, où les figures et les espaces se construisent avec un souci de netteté et un soin des formes : la facture semble être plus mesurée. Certaines œuvres intègrent ces deux configurations dans la même image, par exemple L’Appel de Cthulhu et Rapport sur les aveugles, où la représentation plus naturaliste des figures humaines, construites à travers un important travail d’ombres et de lumières, s’articule avec des fonds et des séquences abstraites. Les figures se trouvent fragmentées et découpées dans cet ensemble mais restent tout de même figuratives. Dans Cthulhu, cette procédure est adoptée de bout en bout. Breccia commence rapidement à faire du noir et blanc une fin en soi, jouant avec les lignes, les textures, les aplats et le passage au négatif, audelà d’un souci de fonctionnalité vis-à-vis de l’impression et la clarté. De ces recherches visuelles résulte une image achromatique autonome : les lignes ne tiennent plus à contourner les figures mais à réagir par elles-mêmes dans la composition ; les aplats noirs entourent les aplats blancs, la ligne est le produit de l’agencement des aplats plutôt que de la délimitation. L’achromatique ne se réduit pas à l’encre de chine appliquée à la plume ou au pinceau : plusieurs autres outils et techniques sont introduits par Breccia, tels que la paille, la lame, le soufflage d’encre diluée à travers un cylindre, la gouache, le graphite, le collage et le monotype. Les Mythes de Cthulhu et Rapport sur les aveugles, deux bandes dessinées qui font le lien entre le commencement et la fin de sa production transpositive, intègrent ces techniques qui constituent la richesse plastique de ces deux albums. La transposition des Mythes de Cthulhu regroupe diverses histoires que Breccia a transposées sur quelques années. Celles-ci constituent un vaste terrain pour l’expérimentation au niveau de la technique, de la composition et de la séquence. Il s’agit d’un répertoire de résolutions, certaines sans doute jamais utilisées en bande dessinée auparavant. D’une part, les figures humaines vont de la représentation plus ou moins naturaliste (avec des dégradés de gris et des plans qui forment les volumes des visages à tendance figurative) au schématisme total, par exemple des figures accomplies par des traits à peine indiqués ainsi que celles, ouvertes, qui se fondent ou s’intègrent à d’autres formes.

Figure 1 Alberto Breccia, “El llamado de Cthulhu,” planche 7, Los mitos de Cthulhu © 2008 Doedytores. 729

D’autre part, les décors constituent un espace pour le déploiement de textures et le détournement de formes à travers les éclaboussures d’encre, le brossage et le collage (morceaux de papier avec des taches faites à l’encre, des photos de magazines, etc.). Ensuite, la relation figure-fond est variable, parfois les figures se séparent assez nettement du fond, parfois les limites entre l’une et l’autre sont floues, les figures s’intégrant aux traits et taches du fond (Figure 1). La compilation des Mythes de Cthulhu constitue un premier échantillonnage de plusieurs techniques avec lesquelles l’auteur expérimentera d’autres transpositions par la suite : l’encre diluée, le collage achromatique, l’imitation de la manière noire (monotype) et le rendu xylographique. Breccia a pu définir sa production comme une création de sensations visuelles exprimées dans l’encre. Cette association qui fait déjà partie de l’imaginaire de l’art moderne, conduit à affirmer que ce moyen est le plus approprié pour transmettre la partie émotionnelle et crue des histoires dans ces images et séquences. Cette idée de transmission de sensations et d’émotions par l’image est liée dans l’histoire de l’art moderne au mouvement expressionniste, né au sein des avant-gardes artistiques du vingtième siècle, où la facture rapide et l’usage des couleurs saturées semblaient les meilleurs moyens de figurer les émotions, les sentiments et les états d’esprit. Le style expressionniste en noir et blanc a un rapport direct avec le cinéma du début du xxe siècle, où l’on peut situer la célèbre expérience expressionniste cinématographique de Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (Allemagne, Robert Wiene, 1920). La bande dessinée qui matérialise des recherches au-delà de la lisibilité, la clarté et la narration, peut donc s’associer à l’image expressive telle que Jaques Aumont la définit : « l’expression vise le spectateur (individuel ou plus anonyme), et véhicule des signifiés extérieurs à l’œuvre, mais en mobilisant des techniques particulières, de moyens qui affectent l’apparence de l’œuvre » (Aumont 1990, 219). Les moyens dont parle Jacques Aumont sont le matériau et la forme ; le premier doit apparaître sur l’image de façon manifeste : la tache donne l’impression que c’est le matériau qui travaille (Aumont 1990, 222). L’œuvre expressive est aussi celle qui frappe parce qu’elle innove : elle confronte la résistance du spectateur à de nouvelles expériences. L’excès dans l’œuvre de Breccia, le rayonnement et le tachisme mettent souvent son spectateur mal à l’aise. Ce débordement qui caractérise sa production dans un sens plastique et pictural a été bien entendu novateur dans le champ de la bande dessinée. Dans ce sens, la bande dessinée de Breccia relève de la considération d’un type de bande dessinée plastique : On avancera donc l’idée que l’énonciation moderne en bande dessinée va de pair avec l’instauration d’un nouveau régime signifiant marqué par une exacerbation de la « picturalité » ou la « plasticité », avec la conséquence que la bande dessinée devient l’objet d’une poussée qui tend à tirer hors du champ exclusif des arts dits populaires vers le champ des « arts plastiques ». (Groensteen 1988, 124) Ce rapprochement vers les arts plastiques apparaît clairement dans cette citation, remettant en cause une différenciation entre « art populaire » et « art plastique » qui, selon moi, 730

n’est pas pertinente. Or la remarque sur la « pictorialité » d’une certaine bande dessinée qui échapperait à la norme de la bande dessinée classique est en revanche fructueuse. Aussi affecte-t-elle une nouvelle façon de faire de la bande dessinée, une nouvelle configuration. L’aspect pictural et chromatique et la mise en évidence de la matière constituent les points forts de plusieurs des transpositions brecciennes. Les planches originales constituent de véritables peintures, sur lesquelles on peut percevoir le passage de l’outil sur la surface. Même si on est toujours face à une reproduction, le tirage préserve en partie cette perception des traces matérielles de l’original. Le graphisme perd de son importance et on pourrait même plutôt parler de « bandes peintes » que « dessinées » : La couleur directe c’est la couleur directement appliquée sur la planche, la couleur indissociable de l’œuvre originale, la couleur non-plus surajoutée à une image qui pourrait se passer d’elle, mais constituant sa matière même. Les dessinateurs qui se réclament de cette tendance ont une approche plus physique et plus sensuelle du médium, qu’ils abordent d’abord en plasticiens … (Moulin et al. 1993, 124) Breccia suit cette tendance mentionnée par Thierry Groensteen dans son texte sur la couleur directe : il cède à la tentation picturale à un moment donnée de sa carrière. L’hypothèse de Groensteen est donc que les dessinateurs de bande dessinée qui adoptent à cette tendance ont une approche plus libre de la création que les auteurs plus classiques. Mais cette liberté qui mène Breccia vers l’expressif et le pictural, le porte aussi à mon sens vers le figural au sens de Gilles Deleuze ; voyons donc comment cette notion peut -être appliquée à la bande dessinée.

Le figural dans la bande dessinée de Breccia Certaines planches et vignettes sont susceptibles d’entrer dans un jeu de forces qui dépasse le figuratif, par exemple par des vignettes abstraites dans lesquelles la matière prend le relais de la représentation. Si la narrativité se situe dans l’actualisation produite lors de la lecture qui insuffle un sens à l’enchaînement des images, le descriptif est alors toujours présent en puissance : c’est une fois qu’on a investi l’image ou l’ensemble d’images qu’on fait une liaison dans la séquence, une reconstruction qui peut devenir narration. Or la suite d’images dans la bande dessinée bréccienne connaît une force propre, où la sensation paraît surgir de l’image, sans médiation de la signification, comme l’affirme Bruno Lecigne lorsqu’il l’analyse : « L’abstraction possède de la sorte une valence, non esthétique et dramaturgique comme chez Pratt, mais émotionnelle. Elle suppose, non 731

la résonance ou la connotation comme chez Pratt, mais une manière de prise directe sur l’ambiance (peur obscène, dégoulinante, angoisse tactile) » (in Groensteen et al. 1985, 96). Cette prise directe entraîne une absence de médiation de la signification entre l’observateur et l’image. Nous associons ce manque de signification discursive chez Breccia à la perte de forme, le devenir informe de certains personnages-figures. L’adjectif amorphe se rapporte à l’absence apparente de forme déterminée ou à une substance non-organisée. La perte de forme, comme un devenir, fait passer la figure d’un état à l’autre, notamment d’une représentation naturaliste à une figuration informelle à la figure et le fond confondus. Les changements/transitions entre la forme et l’informe sont ainsi fréquentes dans sa bande dessinée transpositive, rendant les images en quelque sorte inconsistantes mais résonnantes. Dans La Vérité sur le cas de M. Valdemar, après la répétition de la même figure à plusieurs reprises, opérant des modifications minimales, la perte de forme se matérialise par les taches, l’absence de ligne, la juxtaposition et la superposition de touches de couleur, de moins en moins reliées, c’est-à-dire, par une dispersion des éléments qui constituent la figure et, par conséquent, une dissémination des forces qui la forment. Dans cette séquence, on recadre en resserrant le plan sur le visage du M. Valdemar et en le « diluant ». La dissolution visuelle est ancrée dans la figure immobile, qui nous rend témoins de sa transformation. Si pour le visage de M. Valdemar les forces se dissipent, la direction des forces dans la figure de William Wilson sont plus uniformes c’est-à-dire que la matière s’oriente dans une direction précise par le passage de l’outil.5 De même, dans les autoportraits difformes du peintre Francis Bacon, comme l’explique Gilles Deleuze, les visages tourmentés sont balayés là où se marque précisément le lieu d’une force déformatrice. La déformation, affirme l’auteur, « est toujours celle du corps, et elle est statique, elle se fait sur place ; elle subordonne le mouvement à la force, mais aussi l’abstrait à la Figure » (Deleuze 2002, 59). L’action sur la figure nous permet de revenir à la catégorie du figural de Jean-François Lyotard, telle qu’elle est reprise par Gilles Deleuze. Comme nous l’avons déjà évoqué, le figural, selon Lyotard, est l’espace consacré à la figure, différencié ontologiquement de celui du texte (l’espace textuel). Les deux espaces suivent deux organisations spécifiques et constituent deux ordres du sens séparés. Le figuratif devient donc uniquement un cas particulier du figural : Le terme « figuratif » indique la possibilité de dériver l’objet pictural à partir de son modèle « réel » par une translation continue. La trace sur le tableau figuratif est une trace non-arbitraire. La figurativité est donc une propriété relative au rapport de l’objet plastique avec ce qu’il représente. Elle disparait si le tableau n’a plus pour fonction de représenter, s’il est lui-même objet. (Lyotard 1971, 211) 5  Les forces comprises comme les directions définies par le mouvement de l’outil (crayon, pinceau…) sur la surface. 732

Le concept de figural chez Deleuze, où l’objet est autonome, constitue l’une des voies pour conjurer le caractère illustratif et narratif de l’image, l’autre voie proposée étant celle de l’image pure, telle que je l’ai abordée précédemment (Deleuze 2002, 12). Mais le pur figural s’accorde très bien avec l’œuvre de Breccia, car il relève des images qui tiennent toujours à la Figure. Celle-ci peut n’établir aucun rapport de causalité ni de représentation. L’œuvre du peintre Francis Bacon constitue un corpus où le dépassement de la fonction illustrative et narrative de l’image se produit par des rapports distincts entre les figures. à l’encontre du modèle albertien où le but principal de la peinture est assuré par le rapport narratif entre les figures au sein de l’image comme une mise en scène, Bacon prend la voie de l’extraction et l’isolation de la figure : « Bacon le dit souvent : pour conjurer le caractère figuratif, illustratif, narratif, que la Figure aurait nécessairement si elle n’était pas isolée. La peinture n’a ni modèle à représenter, ni histoire à raconter » (Deleuze 2002, 12). Le but de Breccia est souvent centré sur cette figure autonome porteuse de sensations. Le texte littéraire qui sert de source à la transposition ne devient alors qu’une source des sensations que Breccia mettra en images, isolant les figures de leurs rapports à une histoire préalable ou à d’autres figures. Le figural qui tient à la Figure est en effet un concept bien avantageux pour analyser certaines œuvres transpositives de Breccia ainsi que son positionnement face à la bande dessinée. La multiplicité étant centrale dans ce dispositif, il s’agit également de voir quels liens Deleuze envisage entre les figures-images. Je vais donc analyser certaines vignettes de la transposition du texte Rapport sur les aveugles afin d’appliquer des catégories du figural à la bande dessinée de Breccia. Rapport sur les aveugles met en images le voyage du héros dans le monde des aveugles. Tout se passe sous l’angle du vécu du personnage qui expérimente une perte de contrôle de son corps et de sa psyché. Cette histoire, chapitre du roman Sobre héroes y tumbas d’Ernesto Sábato, est narrée par Fernando Vidal Olmos qui dévoile un étrange complot millénaire organisé par une secte d’aveugles, lesquels, selon lui, ont le pouvoir de diriger le destin de l’humanité. Cet homme descend dans les passages souterrains de la ville de Buenos Aires pour découvrir où se cachent les membres de la secte. Il entame ensuite un voyage qui peut être hallucinatoire ou réel (le lecteur ne peut pas en être sûr) dans leur monde sous-terrain. Dans la bande dessinée, le figural constitue un moyen pour rendre visible l’ambivalence entre l’acte de voir et de ne pas voir, notamment dans une situation où les limites entre le réel et l’imaginé sont déjà floues dans le texte-source. Cette dualité se manifeste visuelle733

ment dans la présence d’ombre et de lumière, du noir et du blanc. Les aveugles sont concernés par l’obscurité, notamment dans la vibration de masse qui est leur monde : le noir augmente progressivement sa surface, image après image, exprimant le paradoxe de figurer le non vu. Le héros devient en conséquence, lui aussi, aveugle dans cette obscurité et s’introduit dans le même mouvement dans son monde hallucinatoire. C’est donc la séquence où le personnage s’évanouit devant une femme aveugle qui marque une frontière entre narratif et le non narratif, entre la figuration et le figural. Isoler la Figure est selon Deleuze un premier moyen de rompre la figuration, en annulant le lien entre les figures que tend à susciter une histoire créée entre elles. Dans le domaine du figuratif, les figures sont censées illustrer un objet et lorsqu’elles créent un ensemble, une histoire se « glisse ». Or la libération de la figure qui est en quelque sorte bloquée par la narration, dégage un fait commun entre les figures lorsqu’elles sont multiples. Le fait est désigné par Deleuze comme matter of fact et il entraîne l’absence de relation figurative entre les formes. Il s’agit d’un fait commun à deux figures qui n’implique pas de relations entre des idées ou des objets. Je propose donc d’articuler les éléments propres de l’image en m’inscrivant dans une certaine tradition de l’histoire de l’art ; la philosophie de Deleuze peut néanmoins apporter des éléments importants à la réflexion sur la bande dessinée. La base de la narration dans la bande dessinée est précisément la multiplicité d’icônes et leurs liens mutuels. Malgré cette coprésence, des potentialités non narratives peuvent se dégager. D’où l’intérêt de reprendre le travail de Deleuze sur les œuvres multiples de Bacon, notamment les triptyques ainsi que les images uniques qui contiennent plus d’une figure, car il existe un rapport entre les différentes parties, mais qui n’est ni logique ni narratif : « Le triptyque n’implique aucune progression ni ne raconte aucune histoire. Il doit donc à son tour incarner un fait commun pour les Figures diverses. Il doit dégager une matter of fact » (Deleuze 2002, 68). Pour les figures multiples, différents procédés les font sortir du possible lien logique, comme l’accouplement, seul rapport de fait entre les figures multiples qui en devient une seule. Cet accouplement dont parle Deleuze, est facilité par certains procédés opérés sur les figures qui perdent leur forme et s’entremêlent. La forme est définie dans l’image mais l’intervention plastique à la surface marque une force qui l’éloigne de la représentation et des liens logiques. La planche vingt-quatre se compose de trois grandes vignettes (Figure 2). La première montre Vidal Olmos évanoui, allongé par terre. La

Figure 2 Alberto Breccia, Informe sobre ciegos, planche 24, © 2007 Colihue.


figure, une grande masse noire de laquelle émergent les mains et la tête blanches, se place sur un axe horizontal. L’axe qui forme ces épaules s’appuie sur une diagonale ascendante, tandis que l’axe ou la tension marquée par l’inclinaison de la tête qui se relie avec l’orientation de sa jambe droite, marque une diagonale descendante. Le point de vue est difficile à discerner, on ne sait pas si c’est le corps qui s’incline partiellement vers le spectateur ou si c’est le point de vue qui se place un peu au-dessus de la figure : la perspective tend alors au rabattement. Or, la frontière entre figure et fond est outrepassée ; celle-ci est une masse noire qui se propage, elle n’est pas située sur un espace quelconque, mais elle s’alterne de façon réversible avec une masse grise légèrement texturée, qui ne l’entoure ni ne la délimite. Le noir part au-delà de la figure et se répand sur la partie supérieure de la vignette, comme si le corps voulait échapper à lui-même, comme chez Bacon. Le rapport au Figural ne se situe pas uniquement dans les relations entre les figures mais concernent également les autres éléments de l’image. S’opposant au modèle de la peinture comme une fenêtre où la figure est définie par des cordonnées spatiales, Deleuze différencie certains éléments récurrents dans la peinture de Bacon. En premier lieu la Figure, qui se traduit en forme humaine ou personnage ; ensuite les aplats comme zones chromatiques ; finalement le lieu, les traits qui situent la Figure. Dans ces circonstances, le pur Figural, par extraction ou isolation, dépasse le caractère illustratif de la représentation qui rapporte toujours la forme à un objet comme référent, à d’autres formes et à un espace. Les trois éléments mentionnés ne fonctionnent pas comme un ensemble où la figure est posée sur un espace quelconque en interagissant avec celui-ci, mais ils jouissent d’une simple coprésence en dehors de la signification. Le rapport figure-fond se voit donc affecté par rapport à l’image figurative, étant donné qu’aucun lien ne s’établit entre les deux. Rappelons que les liens entre figure et fond dans l’image sont analysés dans la théorie de l’art du point de vue formel, à savoir comme une dynamique entre les éléments de l’image dont la perception distingue ceux qui avancent et ceux qui reculent au sein de l’espace plastique. Ensuite, du point de vue de la signification, le fond devient un espace représentatif qui situe la figure dans un temps, un espace et une situation particulière. La figure baconienne peut être située par des traits dans un espace sans pour autant donner une signification à celui-ci ; ils se présentent comme de « courtes “marques libres volontaires” rayant la toile, traits asignifiants dénués de fonction illustrative ou narrative » (Deleuze 2002, 14). Le fond, les traits et la figure sont construits et affectés par des procédés qui créent une certaine épaisseur, sans pour autant mimer un espace tridimensionnel mais bien plutôt une densité tactile ou haptique, relative au toucher :

Deleuze crée des catégories spécifiques à partir de la peinture de Bacon qui lui permettent de parler plus largement sur la peinture en général. Il établit donc un espace propre au peintre qui n’est pas celui défini préalablement comme le fond ou le paysage. Je considère que Breccia crée de même un espace qui suscite des catégories autres que celle du décor, attribué à la bande dessinée. Il crée un espace distinct, en l’occurrence plus pictural (par rapport à la représentation en bande dessinée), inscrit dans une tradition non-figurative de l’image. Chez Bacon, notamment, les grands aplats de couleurs vives ont une fonction « spatialisante » ; ils ne constituent pas le fond de la figure, ne se situant ni en dessous, ni derrière ni au-delà, mais bien plutôt tout autour de celle-ci. Dans ce sens, figure et aplat ont les mêmes qualités tactiles et nulle possibilité de profondeur ou de volume n’existe au sein de l’image. La figure, les traits, les taches et les textures coexistent sans nécessairement créer des rapports narratifs. Dans le vécu de ces images, nous sommes aussi frappés par un certain rapport de forces et de tensions. Jean-François Lyotard affirme au sujet de ce phénomène : « Ni l’une ni l’autre de ces tensions ne parle ; elles agissent, elles sont des spécifications de l’énergie : le dessin donne celle-ci comme retenue en soi, close, différencié, microscopique » (Lyotard 1971, 236). Par rapport à l’œuvre du peintre Paul Klee, il signale que les éléments de l’image tels que la ligne, la valeur et la couleur, ne sont pas guidés par le souci de créer une forme mais de montrer une force. Celle-ci n’est pas inhérente à l’image, mais elle s’exerce sur le regard et le corps du spectateur, « elle situe ce plan dans le champ de la sensibilité, voire de la sensualité » (Lyotard 1971, 238). L’image est en premier lieu un espace qui accueille la force et l’action, non pas comme représentation d’un objet mais comme objet lui-même : « En art, et en peinture comme en musique, il ne s’agit pas de reproduire ou d’inventer des formes, mais de capter des forces. C’est même par là qu’aucun art n’est figuratif » (Deleuze 2002, 257). Tandis qu’il existe un rapport de forces qui se crée dans l’image et qui, dans le sens de Lyotard, provoque une certaine disposition du corps du spectateur, il y a par conséquent un rapport entre force et sensation : la force s’exerce sur un corps qui vibre pour manifester une sensation sans intervention de la signification. Dans les figures baconiennes, les forces invisibles se manifestent par des spasmes. Ils constituent une échappée du corps : selon Deleuze, la figure tente de sortir d’elle-même.

Quant aux textures, à l’épais, au sombre et au flou, ils préparent déjà le grand procédé de nettoyage local, avec chiffon, balayette ou brosse, où l’épaisseur est étalée sur une zone non figurative. Or, précisément, les deux procédés de nettoyage local et du trait asignifiant appartiennent à un système original qui n’est ni celui du paysage ni celui de l’informel ou du fond. (Deleuze 2002, 14) 736


La première vignette de la planche suivante (Figure 3) montre une diversité de plans texturés qui s’articulent pour former une figure cyclopéenne à peine perceptible. L’agencement de plans et de textures juxtaposées et superposées empêche de penser à une figure et à un fond, ou à une figure et un paysage, mais bien plutôt, suivant Deleuze, à un système distinct d’agencement de plans, à des forces qui définissent différents mouvements dans l’image. Ces grands plans de texture coupés et collés créent un espace et le nient en même temps. Nous rentrons donc dans les sensations « narcotisées » du personnage. Le jeu entre les textures et les figures sans forme dépeint une angoisse par rapport aux espaces d’incertitude et d’étrangeté. Les éléments figuratifs, tels que les figures humaines, les bateaux, les oiseaux, etc., apparaissent à peine esquissés, mais montrent l’impact d’une force infligée sur l’image. La séquence de la grotte, dans la planche trente-huit (Figure 4), s’articule sur une série de quatre vignettes, trois disposés en strip et une quatrième occupant les deux tiers de la planche. Les trois premières montrent le personnage agencé à des formes et des taches découpées. Selon les récitatifs, il est en train de traverser une galerie qui débouche dans une « grotte immense » : cette dernière indication se situant dans la quatrième vignette, totalement tachiste, sans figures ni indicateurs figuratifs, élimine toute polysémie. La grande vignette carrée donne à voir deux grands secteurs. La même procédure se répète tout au long des séquences où le personnage traverse des passages imaginaires. Les rapports des figures avec les autres éléments de l’image n’apparaissent pas logiques, les figures existant avec un espace qui n’est pas un fond mais de la texture, trace d’un mouvement de l’outil sur la surface affichant les différentes forces qui ont donné une forme à l’image. Si les formes pures intégrées à la séquence d’images n’échappent pas complètement au récit, assuré par la séquence scripturale, la construction de l’image fonde un regard distinct et une prise de position par rapport à la représentation. Breccia crée un espace imaginaire où la force des matériaux et du trait nous situent directement dans un rapport d’intensités entre l’intérieur et l’extérieur de l’image. Si l’image est en règle générale une captation de forces, chez Breccia cette dimension se rend bien évidente, dans ses traits, ses touches et ses papiers arrachés.

Figure 3 Alberto Breccia, Informe sobre ciegos, planche 25, © 2007 Colihue.


Références Ardenne, Paul. 1997. Art, l’âge contemporain : une histoire des arts plastiques à la fin du XXe siècle. Paris : Éd. du Regard. Aumont, Jacques. 1990. L’Image. Paris : Nathan. Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. Francis Bacon, logique de la sensation. Paris : Seuil. Francastel, Pierre. 1952. Pierre Francastel. Peinture et société, naissance et destruction d’un espace plastique, de la Renaissance au cubisme. Lyon : Audin. Groensteen, Thierry, dir. 1988. Bande dessinée, récit et modernité. Paris : Futuropolis. Groensteen, Thierry, Anita Van Belle, Luc Dellisse, Arnaud de la Croix, Javier Coma et Bruno Lecigne. 1985. « Dossier « Alberto Breccia » ». Cahiers de la bande dessinée, no 62 (avril). Kandinsky, Wassily. 1991. Point et ligne sur plan : contribution à l’analyse des éléments picturaux. Édité par Philippe Sers. Traduit par Suzanne Leppien et Jean Leppien. Paris : Gallimard. Lyotard, Jean-François. 1971. Discours, figure. Paris : Klincksieck. Moulin, Didier, Thierry Groensteen, Gilbert Lascault et Patrick Gaumer. 1993. Couleur directe : chefs d’œuvres de la nouvelle bande dessinée française. Thurn : Edition Kunst der Comics.

Figure 4 Alberto Breccia, Informe sobre ciegos, planche 38, © 2007 Colihue.


Jack Kirby: In-Between the Abstract and the Psychedelic Roberto Bartual

Introduction Jack Kirby co-authored some of the most profitable fiction characters of the twentieth century: Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and in general, the foundation of what is now known as the ‘Marvel Universe.’ However, his fame as the co-creator of these iconic comic books may have obscured the most interesting qualities of his work. For instance, it has been stated many times that Kirby and Lee’s great breakthrough in the superhero genre was the ‘humanization’ of its otherwise archetypal characters, giving them realistic psychological motivations by making them protagonists of real-life conflicts (Howe 2013, 67). This may hold some truth if we compare the first Marvel comics to the titles DC was publishing back in the early 60s and late 50s, and we can even put Kirby’s titles side by side: every member of the Fantastic Four (Marvel, 1961) is vividly individual and unique in comparison to the four indistinguishable characters of Challengers of the Unknown (DC, 1957). However, if we read Kirby and Lee’s comics as documents of their time, one can easily see that the social values of their characters are mere clichés. Their conflicts are totally dependent on an ideological notion of family and they suffer from overall bi-dimensionality, at least in psychological terms. No matter how vivid a character like The Thing may be, or how deeply his passions may be portrayed, his psychological complexity is not much different from the Beast in th