“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.
Jose Ja Ja Ja’s God Box uses basic geometry and linear perspective to transport the reader to the “eleventh dimension.” Interspersed with point-of-view shots of hands, the comic is an oculus, lifting the reader out of a left-right scan of the page and into rainbow prisms and phantasmagoric spaces. Vast, hazy, and flooded with light, God Box is made to be inhabited.
Short, sweet, and meditative, the only “story” being told by Frédérique Rusch’s 12-page comic is the act of receding in a space. Beginning with a simple two-dimensional grid, Rusch’s book carries the reader gently and evenly to the final panels, like gliding through a Mondrian painting. He imagines each panel as a three-dimensional space with no visible front or back wall, suggesting that this space is perhaps infinite.
Alexis Beauclair’s wordless, faceless comic relays urgency, trust, intimacy, and peril through simple shapes and a limited palette. Readers gauge a relationship between humanoid figures, without the help of thought or visage. On her blog, Jooha notes Beauclair’s distinct affinity for making comics driven by natural or scientific processes, which, as such, molds the comic’s form (see also: Photon).
Stefanie Leinhos’ oeuvre exemplifies the ways in which time can be warped, halted, spliced, and layered through experiments in comics form. Jooha speaks to the image of the fluttering curtain in Is There Something I Should Know? and notices that, while sequential imagery is the most traditional mechanism by which comics portray the passage of time, Leinhos’ repetition of the same image reverts the moving curtain to a state of inaction, of time stood still.
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.
Aidan Koch’s expert balance between understated words and negative space makes the quiet and atmospheric scene that is Heavenly Seas, which appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Paris Review. Moments in Koch’s comics are fragmented and pregnant, a held breath and an exhaled release.
Andy Burkholder is dark. He also makes me laugh. In his most recent full-length comic, ITDN, a character takes one hit of a joint and says with a blank stare, “I must make art about my childhood.” In Pretty Smart, Burkholder’s wry jabs at young adulthood become sardonic ramblings, following the half letter correspondence/half hyper-self conscious internal monologue of the teary-eyed main character (who wants you to know, truly, it’s not a real tear).
Merging child-like sentimentalism and real threats of violence, Jason Murphy simultaneously induces love and fear in The Character. His synthesis of hyper-expressive drawing that resembles traditional animation and cold, at times humiliating text, is calculated and careful. Murphy commented on his relationship with The Character in an interview for The Comics Journal: “As absurd as it may seem, there is something very powerful to me about a cartoon character going through trauma. My daughter is that way with her stuffed animals still. If one of her stuffed animals were put in a make-believe situation in which she felt it was being threatened, she would become very emotional. That’s is the type of sentimentalism that I cannot avoid in my comics.”
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.
Within digital and game comics is a whole world of hypercomics, those choose-your-own-adventure style webcomics that rely on reader interaction to determine their outcome. Goodbrey has been making and writing about digital and game comics since the early 2000s, and his website and portfolio, e-merl.com, is the first place the internet will take you if you go looking for hypercomics. Some of his works follow more traditional text-adventure formulas, where you can see the options hyperlinked in the passage in front of you, but the path of options that led you there is left behind. In Brain Slide, however, the path that readers take stays on the screen at mid-opacity without fully vanishing. The spectre of earlier paths remains visible, creating a temporal relationship to the story that transcends the present.
In a presentation at Comics Forum in 2011, Goodbrey predicted a future of comics that “extend physical spaces into the digital world of the hypercomic or extend comic pages out into the physical world.” Sutu’s AR comic, Modern Polaxis, does just that. It introduces augmented reality as a key to unlocking narrative information, character psychology, and cryptographic communication. The comic’s protagonist, Modern Polaxis, is a paranoid time traveler, and the book is designed to look like his personal notebook where he conceals information in the layer of augmented reality. As such, Sutu’s use of AR is essential to identifying with the main character, not simply a gimmick that unites the digital and print comic experience.
Twine, an open-source tool for creating choose-your-own-adventure text games with little or no programming skill, has been hailed by indie and queer game scenes for its endless and accessible narrative possibilities. In Girl Waste, Twine-community icon Porpentine creates a hypercomic whose spatial navigation follows that of traditional videogames. Wandering the spooky, slimy paths, trying to decipher aches and pains throughout, the reader is able to unlock spaces through information received by interactions with characters and their surroundings. The motivation to remember specific exchanges with encountered characters provides a reward structure that more resembles a videogame than a simple text adventure.
Readers of Murat experience an unlikely point-of-view shift between an omniscient machine operator and a frustrated grandma staging a casino heist. Created by the independent Czech arts collective Motiv, Murat is a game comic that resembles traditional print comics more than Girl Waste simply because of its organization into panels. Murat is flashy and engrossing, riddled with sound, easter-egg animation, and interactive panels that can be dragged and dropped. By integrating animation into the spatial network, Murat reinvents the established rhythms of reading by creating more stimuli to keep the reader lingering–including, for example, a slot machine played with a single click.
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.
The exercise is simple. Imagine the shape of your day. On a blank sheet of paper, relay the events of the day by drawing them in a grid. Now imagine the emotions and thought processes during the corresponding moments, and fill the panels with appropriately emotionally-charged or devoid scribbles. What you will have in front of you is a completely nonrepresentational, yet dynamic and narrative composition for a comics page that doubles as a map of your day. Or, as Sousanis poetically puts it, “Have a look at your ceiling tiles...imagine putting these features to music.”
When John Miers attended the Score and Script Exhibition at the 9th London International Comics Festival, he challenged himself with the task of separating the two elements of a comics page that together create its meaning: the literal sequence of events, and the overall visual design. Having isolated the significant visual features of a page without indicating narrative information, what remained more resembled graphic music scores than a fully-visualized comic. They featured an array of shapes indicating directionality, perspective, and scale—the skeleton of an infinite number of possible comics based solely on the distinct patterns of motion in one.
Patrice Killoffer, more commonly known as simply Killoffer, was a prominent figure in the French experimental comics collective Oubapo since its founding in 1992. Oubapo, an acronym for Ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle (meaning “workshop for potential comics”) was a collective committed to drawing comics using defined restrictions. Inspired by the French literary group Ouvroir de litterature potentielle (Oulipo), which was dedicated to writing books using similar restrictions, members of Oubapo often sought to create palindrome comics (comics that could be read backwards or forwards) or iconic alliteration (using the same image over and over again with different words). When an aesthetic constraint is established from the get-go, the comic creator is forced to more carefully consider the role that each visual and written choice plays in conveying a comprehensive (or intentionally nonsensical) narrative. Pictured above are three comics by Killoffer, all different renditions of a comic drawn as impossible triangle.
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 an artist who works as a user interface designer. Shea lives, makes, and learns with others in Brooklyn.
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