Andrei Molotiu is an artist and art historian who teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington, and who recently edited Abstract Comics: The Anthology, the first collection devoted to the genre. Offering experiments by established cartoonists as well as new pieces by emerging artists, the book is available from Fantagraphics and will serve as the exhibition catalogue for “Silent Pictures,” which opens on September 1 at the CUNY Graduate Center’s James Gallery. Nautilus, a collection of Molotiu’s own abstract comics, has just been published by Fahrenheit Editions.
ABSTRACT COMICS ARE COMICS that have abstract forms instead of representational images in their panels—when they even have panels, that is. Now, comics are an art of reduction anyway, so it’s easy to conceive of a story in which squares and triangles function as traditional characters. In abstract comics, however, the “story” being told is primarily one of formal transformations and visual energy, not the depiction of a narrative that can be otherwise conveyed verbally. Words may play a part in abstract comics, but primarily as graphic elements, not to communicate or to further the plot. Some imagery can be there,too, as long as it does not form into a story and as long as it does not cohere into a unified space.
I first discovered the possibility of abstract sequential art in the work of the Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky, who was closely associated with the Cobra group, as I discuss in the introduction to the book. Many of his paintings from the 1960s on have subdivisions and abstract panels that are clearly derived from comics. Some of them, to me, looked like comic-book pages, and they inspired me to make my own abstract comics, as well as to seek out more examples of such work from other artists—which led, down the road, to this volume.
My first idea, in trying to survey abstract comics, was to create a wide-ranging anthology. I knew I wanted to include an important early work by R. Crumb––a piece from 1967 titled Abstract Expressionistic Ultra Super Modernistic Comics––and it opens the book. I also included a piece I commissioned a few years ago from Gary Panter. He has an ongoing project where you can commission drawings cheaply from him. It began at $100, and after every one hundred drawings, he bumps up the price by $25 (it’s currently at $225, so you can calculate how many he’s drawn so far). In terms of the commission, you give him three words and he draws whatever he chooses based on those words. The words I gave him were abstract, comic, and strip. As he had made only one other such piece previously (also included in the anthology), I suppose that I effectively helped double the quantity of Gary Panter abstract comics in the world.
One of my favorite aspects of working on this project was discovering the work of Benoit Joly, a lesser-known cartoonist from Quebec. In 1987, he drew an amazing abstract piece, a one-off that he did not really follow up on until I e-mailed him about the anthology. He drew another one for the anthology and has done a few more since. Another story like that comes from Mark Badger, who used to work primarily as an artist at DC and Marvel. When he was in art school in the early ’80s, he sketched out a two-page abstract comic, which he left unfinished. After he saw my own work on the Internet, he dug up the comic and put it on his website. I persuaded him to finish it and we ended up printing both versions, from 1980 and 2008, in the anthology.
Besides such hidden histories that I was able to unearth (another example is Patrick McDonnell, creator of the syndicated strip Mutts, who also drew abstract comics in art school but never published them), I also wanted to include several younger cartoonists whose work either had been going in that direction, even if it had not gone fully abstract yet, or had made use of graphic elements that I could see successfully working abstractly. I’m thinking here of artists such as Richard Hahn, James Kochalka, and Warren Craghead. So I invited them to try their hands at abstract comics.
Also included are people like J. R. Williams, who had largely given up comics and taken up abstract painting but had not thought of using his abstract style in a comic until I suggested he give it a try for the anthology. Conversely, there are artists such as Anders Pearson and Janusz Jaworski, who, independently of each other, began experimenting with abstract comics in the past few years. Coming out at this specific juncture, the anthology is fortunately able to capture all the recent creative ferment in the genre.