“Minimal, maximal, without characters, made of sensations, or of emptiness, mute, aesthetic, close to abstraction. You will discover toxic undergrowth, extinguished suburbs, melancholic sci-fi stories, fake magazine covers, modern love relationships, and visions of the near future.”
— Lagon Revue No. 3: GOUFFRE
When I created the channel on which this case study is based, I put the whole title in quotation marks—“experimental” “comics”—and initially made it private, wary that my descriptors were either too broad or too limiting. Categorizing these works as experimental, or even as comics, served as little more than to create a placeholder. This is where I would collect and organize works that didn’t quite look like any comics I’d seen before, but that I liked a whole lot, and wasn’t entirely sure why.
As the channel grew, patterns arose, and it became clear that the comics that read to me as experimental were ones that integrated aesthetic principles and practices from fine art, graphic design, experimental music, sculpture, architecture, poetry, video games, and text adventures. They often didn’t employ the typical narrative devices—dialogue, plot, climax, even characters—but they still told a story. Sometimes it was the form that I identified as experimental, other times it was the processes by which they were made.
That explained the experimental. But if these works were so genre-fluid, what kept them considered comics?
In a lecture, the writer and webcomics artist Daniel Merlin Goodbrey provides a helpful outline of characteristics that are distinct to comics as a visual medium. Defining the norm gave me a framework for understanding the works that deviate from it. Goodbrey’s characteristics were a useful jumping off point for articulating what the works I was collecting were doing, and why they struck me so powerfully. They are:
Juxtaposition of images
Space as Time
Closure between Images
Word & Image Blending
Reader Control of Pacing
Experimental comics, then, are works that acknowledge the traditional framework of comics but, rather than adhere to it, tend to tilt, twist, and warp it into other things. This case study offers a survey of comics that abandon one or more of these characteristics, honoring innovations by artists, video game designers, poets, and educators alike. It should go without saying that these categories are by no means mutually exclusive. There are comics that exist outside of and in between these make-shift categories. As you may expect, there are very few rules.
Cy Twombly is one of my favorite comics artists.
— Kim Jooha
Abstract formalist comics as a genre was succinctly coined by Kim Jooha, associate publisher at 2d Cloud and writer of the blog Good (Art) Comics. Abstract formalist comics, according to Jooha, “indisputably and directly” study the most fundamental formal elements of comics: time, image, space-time (image as time), repetition, perspective, language, and motion. They don’t necessarily lack representative objects; rather, the representative objects are treated as simply objects (which is not to say unsympathetically). What follows is that the “narratives” of these comics are more process than plot: they explore motion, transformation, growth, repetition, etc.
As such, an abstract formalist comic might have human characters, but the emphasis is on the characters’ form as opposed to their psychology. Different narratives arise from the unity and disunity of visuals.
Comics poetry should balance freight between image and words. These elements are only doing work if they’re changing each other. Duplication is deadweight.
— Alexander Rothman
Of the categories listed here, comics “poetry” has perhaps the most tentative definition, which Alexander Rothman, editor-in-chief of the comics poetry press Ink Brick, has readily acknowledged. In an article for the Indiana Review on comics poetry Rothman writes, “Every last aspect of language is there for the poet to use, break, reinvent. That’s my working definition of poetry….I hope to maintain as much expressive openness for [comics poetry] as possible…[as] work that draws upon the expressive potential of visual language.”
Abstract formalist comics and comics poems often visually resemble each other, but unlike their wordless cousins, comics poems notably integrate text poetry with images. The text is often sparse; words in comics poetry are illuminating, but not redundant. Their marriage is where the poetry lies: sometimes tender, often bizarre, always emotionally nuanced, and undeniably human.
Digital and Game Comics
I personally like the idea of trying to retrieve traditions and techniques and approaches from the kind of ‘stone age’ of comics and seeing what you can do with those approaches given the additional dimension that modern technology affords us.
— Alan Moore
Often what comics are hailed for over other visual mediums, and perhaps what makes the reading experience so immersive, is reader control over pacing. In film, timing is carefully prescribed through editing to create a highly-specific viewer experience. In print comics, while the page does guide the reader, time is at the will of the reader’s page turns. The ability of digital comics to integrate interactive and “multisensory” components into comics—such as sound and animation, or even augmented reality, geo-tagging, and installation comics—lets these temporalities fuse, wane, or melt away. People can flow freely from reader to viewer to player, choosing their own fate, engaging in conversation, or swimming through sounds that they would never imagine themselves.
Scores, Maps, and Designed Constraints
It’s a very human thing, to want to make a mark and look at it and figure things out.
— Nick Sousanis
The inspiration for this section—and the source of so many leads in my own research—is Nick Sousanis, who has devoted his career as an artist and academic to reshaping what comics, as both a body of work and a process, can be. I came across Nick’s dissertation, Unflattening, on Twitter, and I interviewed him in July about how he engages students who don’t necessarily identify as “artists” in comics-making. Our conversation ended up having less to do with “experimental comics,” as it were, than it did with experiments in comics, geared towards education. (Nick has, however, graciously answered every one of my follow-up emails—“Dear Nick, Help! What’s an experimental comic?”—as I was writing this post.)
So far this case study has focused on innovations by self-identified artists or comics as finished works, as opposed the act of making comics as its own way of interpreting and processing ideas. The following examples offer ways in which experiments in the comics-making process can be tools for thinking and learning, for artists and non-artists alike.
At best, lumping together some comics as “experimental” shouldn’t condemn others to convention, but rather prompt play and a desire to evoke emotion. These works are undeniably feeling. They mimic life in abstraction, beg for pauses, embrace the gross, acknowledge insecurities, offer companionship, and ask your advice. Perhaps, having gone through this survey, you feel inclined to abandon the term “comic” altogether; I invite you to, or not, for better or worse. My only hope is that this channel might serve as a springboard into your own searches for feeling: to question why, to scribble, to listen, to make, or maybe just to rest your head.
Shea Fitzpatrick is a writer, artist, and musician at Wesleyan University, where she studies art by way of American Studies.