Abstract Comics Hardcover – Aug 11 2009
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
When approaching Abstract Comics some reader reorientation may be required. Robert S. Peterson laments in his review that he was hoping for a book he could "open up and pour over" in the same manner he would Tom Phillips' A Humument (a brilliant piece of visual poetry). The reason for this defeated expectation may lie in the optimal method of digestion of one work vs the other. While A Humument may bear some resemblance to the works on display in Abstract Comics, it is a book composed of both words and pictures with the latter being composed of pictures exclusively. You can read A Humument as you would any work of comics, reading text while simultaneously taking in visuals. Reading Abstract Comics requires a different process of digestion as the normal vehicle of assimilating a narrative (text) is absent. The reader is not even aided by the presence of representational visuals as one might be in a more typical wordless comic or woodcut novel. You should approach these works in a manner similar to the way you might view a painting or sculpture. Look. Stare. Spend some time with each panel. See what it has to say. Think about it one way then another. There's nothing to decipher in the sense of a decoder ring or elaborate puzzle.
The range of the works on display here is impressive. Some standouts for me (along with some subjective interpretations and comparisons) include: Blaise Larmee's I Would Like to Live There, a minimal but highly evocative piece, suggesting a lonely but inviting world of life just outside a city (possibly a homeless encampment); Derik Badman's Flying Chief, simple and meditative, it reminds me of Asian woodblock prints (it's also interesting from a formal perspective as detailed in the artist's bio); Mark Badger's Kung Fu (the original 1980 version), another interesting formal experiment, reminds me of that most comics-like of Cubist works, Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase; editor Andrei Molotiu's The Panic is the closest piece here that brings to mind the psychic energy of Kirby-style superhero comics with its heavy chaotic blacks over luminous colors; and Janusz Jaworski's various pieces that come off like comic strips from the Codex Seraphinianus.
The only complaint I can make is that the book may be too short. The addition of a semi-lengthy piece (15-25 pages or so) could possibly have provided a fuller picture of abstract comics' abilities. Regardless, this is a small quibble with a book that may represent a course change in how comics are perceived and produced in the coming years.
Most of the illustrated works are no more "sequential" than if one were to take a Jackson Pollack reproduction and stick a grid of boxes over it--great painting, yes--a sequential comic because of the panel grid, no. Neither is putting a panel grid over a group of abstract images (no matter how attractive individually) that have no sense of visual or intellectual order (sequence)in their grouping. Many of the works are attractive, despite having no sequence I can find, and that attractiveness plus the enjoyable, great variety of them, makes this book, on that level, worth having--worth adding to the great variety of comic and graphic novel styles I own. I can imagine, with this book as inspiration, much new and advanced sequential art in the future.
As for the introductory matter, I find it very frustrating. Presumably the "paragraphs" of abstract symbols, followed by the English language words that one might assume, are the translation, are some sort of joke that takes up space. Or is there really a way to "read" the symbol paragraphs? In any event, the space taken up by this joke maybe was a cause for making the English text so tiny in order to conserve space, that it is a strain to read. Making that English text not only tiny but red instead of the more readable black just compounds the annoyance. Maybe the small size and color were a conscious attempt to undercut the whole idea of introduction/interpretation.
Buy the book for its attractive variety of amusing and mostly esthetically enjoyable art, but don't expect much of what I'd call "sequence."
I really liked the brief introduction including in the beginning of this book, it helped give a history of the idea of abstract comics and where it came from. It's hard to say how accurate it is, since there aren't any other references to compare it to. There was also a description explaining that since all comics are in one way or another abstract that "abstract" in this sense does not refer to the painting style, but to the form of story telling where characters and settings are simplified down to their basic principles.
If you're looking for more concrete narrative, you might be disappointed in this book. However if you're interested in comics or abstract artwork, I'd still recommend giving this book a chance.
Throwing all such context out the window, Abstract Comics places pieces of art from a multitude of artists in one long sequence that in theory shows how, as the books puts it, they "create potent formal dramas and narrative arcs, bringing the art of comics...the closest that it, or any other visual art, has yet come to the condition of instrumental music."
The idea of this one hand of the comics medium clapping is constructed by editor Andrei Molotiu, an art professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Molotiu's introduction to the book gives us a brief yet authoritative history of artistic movements and shows what led us here, to the brink of abstract comic art. This introduction is the crux of the book, firmly anchoring--with all the requisite audacity it requires, something Molotiu should be greatly admired for--comics art with the works of Pollock and de Kooning. The introduction alone is worth studying and reading over and over; it represents an impressive thesis on the abstract and recognizes its place in comics.
The back of the book includes an extensive contributors list, with information about all the artists who participated in this gorgeous anthology. That's pretty much all the text you're going to get, though (which is pretty the point, obviously). And in that respect, Abstract Comics gives you exactly what you put into it. Molotiu has created a fun and accessible anthology here, one that's smart and well-researched but not in the slightest bit obtuse. You don't need to be an art snob to appreciate it; you just need an open mind. With that, the reward for Abstract Comics is quite lovely. And quite possibly a good opportunity for you to increase your appreciation for the comics format exponentially.
-- John Hogan