by Kevin Czap
Keeping it rolling from L’s article yesterday, lets continue our discussion about abstract comics.
A battlefield I’m usually weary of entering is the one that’s fought over “what are comics.” I usually find it more useful to look for similarities of form than to draw demarcations. I’ll hazard dipping my little toe into the fray for a second here, if only to refer to one argument that I’ve encountered more than a few times. That argument is the one about whether or not comics need to tell a story. You might think, what a stupid question, of course they do — comics is a perfect storytelling medium… words and pictures, dude. But let’s think about this a bit.
Stories have a very long and rich history, and are one of the most vital aspects of human culture. Essentially, a story is a device with a certain construction. They have a beginning, middle and end — the subject can be varied without end, but that skeleton remains intact, more or less. You’ll never be at a loss naming a comic that tells a story, let alone one well-told. I want to look under the hood a little bit, and focus in on one of the working parts that make storytelling – and comics – possible.
If a story is your old Ford, the sequence of events is the engine. Comics are so great at storytelling because they’re inherent sequence machines. Whereas a proper story has a certain construction, a sequence of events is just that, describing or showing something happening. A rock rolled. A person blinked. These are pretty mundane examples, sure, but they illustrate the distinction. In terms of comics, this is movement between panels, but also the relationship of elements inside a panel.
The composition of a given panel is a series of relationships between the various forms drawn and arranged within the borders. With comics, there are typically different levels that the arrangement is working to address, such as interacting with other panels and the specific detail information that needs to be included. At the basic level, however, these are shapes and values that we’re seeking to balance with one another. Regular art school stuff, right? What I’m getting at, though, is that even on this most basic level, these shapes construct sequences of events. This is how we are able to say there is such a thing as abstract comics.
I’m a big fan of the abstract(ed) works of Derik Badman. He’s perhaps more well known as a critic on this here comics web, but he’s certainly no slouch at making the things. It’s clear from the details of the shorts he’s made that his interest in the comics medium has centered on the formal implications, and he’s been working diligently inward toward the beating heart of the stuff. As you can see from these examples, he boils the comics language to the essential tools of high contrast shapes.
As with most abstract comics, you won’t be able to extract much story from these images. However, trying to in the first place is beside the point. The effect is more poetic and experiential — we’re witnessing these events take place, and while we might not have all the answers that years of story reading lead us to ask, we have a visceral response. Rather than being told what is happening, our minds are actively engaged to figure out and create our own meaning.
These examples of Badman’s work are more pop-art than abstract expressionism, though. A confessed fan of comics legend Jesse Marsh, many of these abstract shorts, like “Flying Chief” and the new “Badman’s Cave,” are copied from the old artwork. But rather than recreating these stories, Badman selects elements of the background inking to redraw. This alone makes these pieces great for instructional purposes, but in relation to what we’re talking about now, the read is clearly very different than the originals. Instead of being told a story, we become observers, given as much time as we need or want to take in the visuals.
Why do I think this is important? Speaking from personal experience, it can be really easy to get swept up in stories. It’s what they’re designed to do, after all. As a comics maker, however, sometimes this engagement can sweep us past the nuts and bolts of our craft (taken to mean the whole construction, not just technical skill, Mr. Kochalka). Because the relationship and balance of visual elements in a picture hold a power that, if made to align with the more overt details of things like plot and dialog, can only strengthen the comics we make. Returning to the car metaphor, if you learn how to fix an engine yourself, you can keep your car running for a long long time, saving plenty on car repair bills in the duration.
I’ll leave you with a relevant anecdote. I’ve always been a fan of poetry, but I don’t think I really got how to read it until last year of college. I was taking a course on African/Nigerian narrative, and the class was asked to read a poem and talk about what it was about. Everyone who answered was basically summarizing the explanation printed after the poem itself. The professor stopped us all and asked how we knew that, bringing our attention to the fact that we had all vacated the poem itself and were relying on being told the answer. He had us go back and, line for line, figure out for ourselves what was actually being said. We were swept up in the story and were ignoring the actual work itself. This was one of the most important lessons I ever learned as an artist (Thanks, Dr. O).
Images by Derik Badman