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  • Abstraction in Comics
  • Jan Baetens (bio)

The study of narrative in comics (which I will use as a general term covering both mainstream comics and more highbrow graphic novels) has often been a mere copy of the study of narrative in other fields (mainly literature, but sometimes also film). This a priori approach to narrative in comics as a mere instantiation of narrative in general is now under pressure. However, the aim of this contribution is not to defend the necessity of a medium-specific analysis of narrative in comics (Groensteen, System; Smolderen), but to make a plea for the enrichment of narrative theory in general by investigating its relevance for a wide range of narrative corpora, and to address questions and methodological issues thereby brought to light. In this article, the quite remarkable corpus of abstract comics will provide the opportunity for such cross-fertilization. I will draw on several examples from this corpus to highlight directions for further inquiry into the structures and uses of abstraction in comics.

Abstract, Yes, and Narrative as Well?

Since the beginning of the 21st Century a wide range of abstract comics have emerged online and even gotten into print (see for instance the "Abstract Comics" blog: as well as the anthology edited by Andrei Molotiu). The hype about abstract comics has been an occasion to rediscover similar yet much less known material in previous periods. Moreover, the material is not limited to the US or the Anglo-Saxon world, where it flourishes in the shadow of the booming graphic novel industry, but can be observed worldwide—a tendency that perhaps confirms the gradual breakdown of historical differences between the European bande dessinée tradition and American comics and graphic novel production.

The concept of abstract comics might seem to challenge the doxa of comics and graphic novel as a basically sequential–and therefore narrative–art. However, as suggested by comics connoisseur Douglas Wolk in his article in the New York Times Book Review, prominently displayed on the "Abstract Comics" blog, readers actually rely on their knowledge of the narrative potentialities of the medium to make sense of a genre that challenges many of their expectations: [End Page 94]

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.


It is difficult to put with more clarity what reading narratively apparently nonnarative material means: it has to do with reader's decisions ("to impose"), with the capacity of retrieving cognitively stored information (readers are "used to" this or that, they react "reflexively"), and with the emphasis on sequentiality as the basic feature of narrativity ("what each panel has to do with the next"). Although Wolk's claims require additional nuancing–it is one thing to decide to read nonnarrative material narratively, and another thing to bring off such a reading successfully–the idea behind his argument is clear: the reading habits of the average comics reader will push that reader minimally to suppose that a narrative is hidden below or behind the surface of an abstract sequence. Of course, the practical success of such an experiment can never be guaranteed: some readers are simply better than others at making narrative sense of abstract images; and some abstract material is more open to narrative reappropriation than other material of this sort. But what most interests me here is Wolk's suggestion that the transition from abstract sequences to narrative deciphering is almost unavoidable.

The ease with which abstract comics have found their niche in the comics world thus does not come as a total surprise. Readers are willing or eager to try to convert such abstract material into full-fledged narratives. It may be true that the individual images or panels of these comics resist any direct figurative transposition; but even so, the montage...


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pp. 94-113
Launched on MUSE
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