abstractions in comics

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SubStance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011 © Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2011 94 Abstraction in Comics Jan Baetens 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 pres- sure. 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 com- ics have emerged online and even gotten into print (see for instance the “Abstract Comics” blog: http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com/ 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 boom- ing 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 narra- tive–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:

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Page 1: Abstractions in Comics

SubStance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011SubStance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011 SubStance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011SubStance #124, Vol. 40, no. 1, 2011

© Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2011

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Abstraction in Comics

Jan Baetens

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 pres-sure. 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 com-

ics have emerged online and even gotten into print (see for instance the “Abstract Comics” blog: http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com/ 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 boom-ing 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 narra-tive–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:

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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 abstrac-tions, to figure out just what each panel has to do with the next. (14)

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 ad-ditional 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 com-ics 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 of images or panels in sequentially organized series ensures that the transition from each panel to the next corresponds not only with a certain visual rhythm or pattern, but also with an action/reaction chain that one can interpret in a narrative framework–however one defines narrative in its most basic or minimal form.1 Addressing the question of whether an abstract comic can be read narratively depends on how one addresses the related question of what constitutes a story; but arguably, it is possible to translate into story-like terms a purely formal shift between any two images.

What can we learn from these preliminary observations? First of all, it should be stressed that in the context of comics, the opposite of “abstract” needs to be split into two categories. Abstract’s opposite is not only “figurative” or “representational” but also–as I argue in this essay–”narrative.” Abstraction seems to be what resists narrativization, and conversely narrativization seems to be what dissolves abstraction.2 Abstract comics melt in the air when narrative walks in—and vice versa.3

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That said, the imposition of narrative, as Wolk calls it, is far from being a simple or self-evident affair: much of the material gathered under the flag of abstract comics does resist in a very active way any attempt at immediate recognition and narrative translation. But the difficulty of narrativization should not be equated with the absence of narrativity.

Second, it should be clear as well that the discussion of abstraction in comics cannot be limited to the level of the panel, i.e. to the individual drawings placed next one to the other. Even if this level is very important, since our initial perception of abstraction in comics does begin with the reading of particular panels, the level of the sequential arrangement of panels is decisive. If this arrangement allows for a narrative reading, then the degree of abstraction will decrease, despite the nonfigurative character of individual panels and drawings within them. If on the contrary this arrangement does not help the reader to achieve a narrative decoding, then the degree of abstraction will increase, even in those cases when the figurative aspects of panels and drawings are unchallenged. In other words: at a first level, that of the image itself (or that of the panel, if one prefers), it is possible to argue that abstraction is the opposite of figura-tion; but at a second and more important level—that of narrative—things change, and abstraction is then no longer the opposite of figuration but of narration. At the narrative level, what establishes the gap between abstract and non-abstract is not the presence or absence of figurative ele-ments, but the absence or presence of narrative potential. At this second level, abstraction means lack of narrative meaning, and this absence can encompass both abstract and figurative representations when it comes to image-contents. In this context, “abstract” no longer means “nonfigura-tive”; it means nonnarrative and even figurative elements can become abstract if their narrative function is no longer evident.

Some brief examples may illustrate these two initial claims. Vincent Fortemps’s 1997 Cîmes (“Heights”) contains many panels that are fairly abstract; some of its images resemble marbled book-pages (figure 1). But in the context of the book’s narrative, these images make perfect figurative sense and the reader is not likely to have problems “translating” these lines, dots, stains, and blank spaces into parts of a recognizable setting, into familiar narrative schemes and patterns. Other books by the same author (such as Chantier) go much further and reduce the narrative and figurative elements to almost nothing, but even then narrative decipher-ment does not raise fundamental problems. Conversely, none of the images in Martin Vaughn-James’s 1973 text The Cage (now best known in its French version, which has become a cult book in French comics culture) is abstract in the traditional sense of the word; but since many of them cannot be easily integrated into an overarching narrative, they will

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become abstract in the eyes of a reader looking for what the book is refusing: namely, a story with characters, settings, actions, and so on (figures 2a & 2b). Instead, the reader is confronted with an opaque materiality paradoxically highlighted by the figurative di-mension of the drawings. In The Cage, the author is vehemently underscoring certain visual de-tails of his work, both by refusing to deliver a narrative key and by emphasizing the laws of formal montage. What we see throughout the book are shifting forms, whose sequential arrangement starts creating a network of material relationships among drawings instead of providing us with elements to be integrated into a higher-level narrative.

But does the erosion of figurative elements in graphic novels such as The Cage lead to abstraction? Here the semiotic distinction between the “iconic” and the “plastic” sign, as proposed by the Groupe Mu (Traité 91), proves helpful. In their treatise on visual semiotics, the members of the group propose to distinguish two inextricably intertwined dimensions or aspects of the visual signifier, both of which are linked with specific signifieds: on the one hand the “iconic” dimension, which is the part of the image that can be lexically identified and labelled (the representational side of the image) and on the other hand the “plastic” dimension, which escapes lexical labelling (it is, the authors argue, the non-representational or abstract side of the image, and it has to do with colors, patterning, and form). The questioning of the figurative (iconic) use of the images in The Cage makes room for the disclosure of their abstract (plastic) elements, which otherwise tend to go unnoticed–or which one will only notice as rhetorical side-aspects shadowing the play of the iconic and representa-tional features of the images.

Another example of abstract comics offers an insightful illustration of how these techniques and strategies can be fruitfully combined: namely, Olivier Deprez’s Lenin Kino (2009). Deprez, a Belgian wood-cut engraver, printer, painter, and writer, produces work that oscillates between figura-tion–as in his highly original adaptation of Kafka’s Castle4–and the most hard-edge forms of abstraction, in line with Malevich’s black square–as in the BlackBookBlack project, which blurs the boundaries between comics and performance (Deprez and O’Shea). Lenin Kino, a 36-page wordless graphic novel displaying 2 same-sized images per page, alternates between purely

Fig 1. Vincent Fortemps, Cîmes, page 45. Courtesy of Fréon Press.

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Fig 2a. Martin Vaughn-James, La Cage,. p. 116. Courtesy of Les Impres-sions Nouvelles.

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Fig 2b. Martin Vaughn-James, La Cage, p. 117. Courtesy of Les Impres-sions Nouvelles.

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abstract images and relatively more figurative ones (some of them hardly recognizable, others containing easily identifiable representations). The book foregrounds the complex and ambivalent relationships of abstraction and figuration, and also of narrative and nonnarrative interpretations of image sequences (figure 3). On the one hand, many elements of the text converge to promote a narrative reading: the title of the book provides a thematic framework, enabling the reader to glue together the apparently incoherent figurative details, as well as a narrative framework, enabling the reader to understand the successive images as fragments of a film (showing various aspects of Lenin’s life—or perhaps showing images of a film projected in a theatre that is itself called Lenin Kino?). This double framework helps readers make sense not only of the darkness and ab-straction of the first and last images, which may refer to the darkness of the theatre at the beginning and the end of the projection, but also of the blurred character of many panels, whose utter vagueness may refer to the primitive viewing conditions in a rural and premodern area.

On the other hand, however, the capacity to decipher the whole book as the equivalent of a film projection does not automatically transform the images into narrative images. First of all, the sequential link between one image and the next remains totally unclear, and the gutter between the panels is a real gap that cannot be easily filled in. Second, the figurative dimension of most of the individual images remains quite problematic, such as the one in which Lenin’s head appears through the black surface, a superimposed image that many readers will not immediately notice. The absence of sequential links and the estranging features of the images results in a kind of prenarrative and “plastic” limbo (in the sense coined by the Groupe Mu).

Significantly, the methods used by Fortemps, Vaughn-James, and Deprez are not limited to avant-garde comics. Many classic figurative and narrative works in comics as well as in other media are “interrupted” or “questioned” by the nonnarrative and nonfigurative structures that are running on or under the work’s surface. Yet, as I have suggested, the most radically abstract experiences always remain vulnerable to figura-tive “recuperation.” Indeed, it is in general more difficult for readers to move from the nonabstract to the abstract than from the abstract to the nonabstract: it is easier to narrativize than to de-narrativize.

This brings us to a third and crucial observation. The impact of our sequential reading habits is so strongly narrative that those habits help us make narrative sense of panels and drawings that seem to defy any direct figuration. From the very moment that material forms are changing from one panel to another, we seem to be able to read these transformations in

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a narrative sense. Actually, our faculty to read in such a way is steered by our eagerness to do so: not only are we capable of reading nonfigurative material in a narrative manner, we are also very keen to do so, since nar-rative is such an efficient and satisfying strategy for handling problems and difficulties in any material we may be reading. How difficult it is to escape narrative has been convincingly demonstrated in a thought experi-ment by Thierry Groensteen (“narration”), who had made up a Dada-like montage of absolutely heterogeneous panels. As Groensteen discovered, the apparently “meaningless” plate that had come out of his montage proved perfectly open to narrative interpretations.

If it is true that almost any sequence of panels can be recuperated in narrative terms, then abstraction, far from being something given, must be carefully crafted and constructed. And in being constructed it remains in dialectical tension with the two nonabstract poles that I have discussed: on the one hand, figuration (at the level of individual panels); on the other hand, narrative (at the sequence level).

Fig 3. Olivier Deprez, Lenin Kino, pages 26-27. Courtesy of FRMK Press.

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A New Framework for Reading AbstractionTo engage in a more in-depth analysis of the interplay between

abstraction and narration in abstract comics, I will now shift theoretical reference points by drawing on research on abstract photography. Though there are of course key differences between photography and comics, the critical study of abstraction in photography may deliver some new insights in the study of abstraction in comics, a field with which it interacts in the larger domain of contemporary media culture. Specifically, I seek to build on Lambert Wiesing’s philosophical study of abstract photography, ex-tending Wiesing’s argument that the notion of abstraction can be taken in various senses, which one needs to distinguish as clearly as possible. Given the complexity of Wiesing’s argument, I will present here its key steps.

In developing his approach, Wiesing does not reject a priori the various definitions of photography (in general) or abstract photography (in particular) that have been advocated by those working in the field. Instead, he introduces a distinction between a “narrow” and a “broad” definition for photography as well as for abstraction. The narrow defini-tion, Wiesing suggests, has to do with relatedness to something else—more precisely, with an image’s relation to a (visible) object. For Wiesing, this definition applies both to the practice of photography and to the concept of abstraction:

In this narrow sense of photography, it is primarily determined by its relation to an object, a relation based on resemblance: photography produces calculable images of visible objects. (…) In the much more narrow yet also much more common meaning of the concept “abstract,” however, that which is abstracted from is unambiguously defined: something is abstract if it does not bear any relation to visible, concrete objects. Abstraction, then, is no longer a disregard of anything what-soever but a disregard of a discernible association to an object. (62-63)

The broad definition of abstraction is very different. As Wiesing puts it, “The concept ‘photography,’ taken in the widest sense, denotes the pro-cesses that produce permanent images by means of optical systems and the action of electromagnetic rays, especially of light, on materials that react to this effect” (62). Hence

In the most general terms the concept “abstract” indicates that some-thing is independent, detached, and without association. The prop-erty of being abstract is a property of precisely those phenomena that arise from abstraction. In this very wide sense of “abstract” there is no indication of what has been detached from what. Thus Hegel, for example, calls a concept abstract if it is thought without associating it with other concepts. (63)

Wiesing then discusses an important implication of his distinction be-tween these narrow and broad definitions of photography and abstraction:

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Against the backdrop of these reflections on the concepts “abstract” and “photography” we can understand why it is at least conceivable that the combination of concepts that is “abstract photography” be thought of a contradictio in adiecto. For such is indeed the case if we think the two concepts in their narrow meaning. If by photography we understand picturing visible objects by means of cameras, there can be no abstract photography, because this would demand an abstraction from the visible object, the picturing of which, however, is essential to photography in the narrow understanding of the term. This example helps us deduce a fundamental connection between abstraction and photography: it is only possible for us to speak of abstract photography if the concept “photography” denotes for us a phenomenon with con-tingent properties. We can only abstract from something that which is not considered to be essential to this something. If nothing inessential is present, nothing can be abstracted. It is for this reason that every successful abstraction is also always a reduction to something essential. […] Like all abstractions, abstraction in photography must be a reduc-tion to essential aspects, that is, in this case, a reduction to the essential characteristics of photography [i.e. of the act of taking pictures, not just the result of that act]. (62-64)

But how are we to interpret these highly provocative–and, given their emphasis on notions such as essential versus inessential, very un-fashionable5–explanations? More importantly for the task at hand: how might we transfer them to the field of comics? Comics and photography are not the same medium, and it would be contrary to Wiesing’s approach to transpose his account of one medium onto the analysis of another. Nevertheless, as a thought experiment, Wiesing’s argument concerning abstract photography may be productive for an exploration of abstract comics. Thus, just as photography seems to insist, at least at first sight, on an indexical relation to the “real” world–an impression that is shattered by the exploration of abstract photography—so does sequential form in comics seem to insist equally strongly on a narrative relationship among individual images, until abstract comics are taken into consideration.

If we take “comics” and “abstraction” in the narrow sense, it is clear that there is no contradictio in adjecto, to quote Wiesing’s phrase: since a comics drawing is not “primarily determined by its relation to an object, a relation based on resemblance,” the possibility of abstract comics can at least be left open in all circumstances. Yet as I have already suggested, it would be a mistake to describe abstract comics in terms of nonfigura-tive representations. Comics and photography are radically different in the sense that our basic vision of photography defines the medium in terms of “single” images, whereas our basic vision of comics implies the notion of sequences of images.6 This central difference implies that it will be necessary to sketch a more medium-specific approach to defining abstract comics, and I come back to this issue in the last part of my article.

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For now, though, and to extrapolate from Wiesing’s broader definition of abstraction, abstraction in comics can be defined as the process of chal-lenging normally dominant features of comics—by putting those features to other, less orthodox uses. From this perspective, the analysis as well as the practice of abstract comics raises the issue of how far one can go in questioning the narrative dimension of graphic narrative. In turn, explor-ing this issue helps to reframe the relationship between comics on the one hand and narrative on the other hand. The phenomenon of abstraction in comics thus promotes a critical rethinking For now, though, and to extrapolate from Wiesing’s broader definition of abstraction, abstraction in comics can be defined as the process of chal-lenging normally dominant features of comics—by putting those features to other, less orthodox uses. From this perspective, the analysis as well as the practice of abstract comics raises the issue of how far one can go in questioning the narrative dimension of graphic narrative. In turn, exploring this issue helps to reframe the relationship between comics on the one hand and narrative on the other hand. The phenomenon of ab-straction in comics thus promotes a critical rethinking of the medium. It is even possible to go further: without accounting for these mechanisms of abstraction, it will be impossible to account for the full scope and nature of comics. In this spirit, I reflect in what follows on the more practical, technical aspects of abstract comics or, more correctly, of abstraction in comics, as they are now being offered to contemporary readers.

Narrative after AbstractionThis part of my analysis is concerned with the following questions:

how can we read abstract comics (in the narrow sense of the word), and how can we use or leverage them to rethink narrative aspects of comics, and possibly comics in general? I would like here to make three general proposals, in the hope that they will help launch a debate I consider vital for the development of narrative studies vis-à-vis comics (and, I hope, for narrative studies tout court). My first proposal is to use abstract com-ics as the basis for an exploration of how the nonfigurative relates to the nonnarrative. Secondly, and relatedly, I propose developing a functional rather than a formal approach to abstract comics, focusing on the larger contexts in which images and sequences are embedded rather than the structure of the images and sequences themselves. My third proposal is that reading comics abstractly can be considered as a form of resistance to dominant interpretive norms.

First, then, I propose to explore whether defining abstract comics as nonfigurative also entails defining them as nonnarrative. In a sense, the question itself is problematic, since it implies that it would be pos-sible to define the notions of abstract and nonnarrative in formal terms:

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this element is abstract, and thus nonnarrative, whereas that element is narrative, and thus figurative. It seems more productive to propose a functional approach that takes into account the context in which the im-ages and panels are functioning. Depending on the context, images will then be read either in an abstract (i.e. nonnarrative) or in a narrative (i.e. figurative) manner.

Yet how might one characterize the notion of context needed here? As Jonathan Culler has convincingly demonstrated, “if we say that mean-ing is context-bound, then we must add that context is boundless: there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant” (67). That said, however, the specific context of the reading process can be described in at least two different senses—material and cognitive—and at least in two dif-ferent modes—static and dynamic. Context clearly has to do with framing in the visual and material sense of the word: does one look at one panel (for instance in books presenting just one image per page, as happens in The Cage), or does one look at a larger sequence of panels? And what hap-pens when one shifts from the static to the dynamic mode, i.e. when one either inserts an image in a series or isolates it from the larger whole? In addition, context has cognitive dimensions: does the reader already have prior familiarity with the medium and is he or she able to retrieve that information in a useful way? What are the reader’s expectations? What is his or her encyclopedia? Here the chosen viewpoint can also be seen in a more dynamic perspective: What is the impact of the reading mechanisms themselves? Is the reader reading or (locally or globally) rereading? Does he or she learn something new from what is being read? Is the collecting, organizing and interpreting of the signs that are being read successful, satisfying, painful, impossible, etc.?

Deprez’s Lenin Kino highlights the significance of these aspects of context. Various panels of the book resemble crudely brushed mono-chrome canvases, while others display equally abstract variations on the grid, that most iconic of symbols of abstract modernism in painting. However, the recontextualization of these images as representations pro-jected on a film screen produces a shift both toward narrative and away from a strictly painterly reading. The images no longer appear as pictures in an exhibition, with the book being the equivalent of the modernist white cube, but rather as film frames or film stills, perhaps as viewed or experienced by the eye of an impure observer, incapable of keeping things in focus while detaching these frames from the filmic flow that might make them narratively meaningful. The narrative impulse proves here to be dramatically contradictory: transforming the canvases into film stills produces a narrative upgrade, but this narrative turn is largely destroyed by the very sequentiality of the images, which fail to deliver a narrative message. Each of these paintings may tell a story, yet the very

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conversion of these painting into successive fragments of a film dissolves their narrative power.

Hence it is important to explore how, in abstract comics, formal elements are functioning in the context of the reading process, taking into account the multi-layered nature of that process. More than this, however, this functional approach to abstract comics may yield a better understanding of narration in comics in general. By taking into consid-eration the dialectic interplay between abstraction and narrative, we need no longer look at narrative as an overarching category, “covering” globally a set of signs (in this case a comic, or in other contexts a novel or a film, etc.). Narrative is not something that defines or characterizes a whole work, but something that affects the perception of certain elements in that work in ways that are never final or definitive but always open to contextual renegotiation.

From this perspective, the apparent nonnarrativity of elements in a comic (or a film or novel) does not mean that they are deprived of narrative function at other levels: even if they freeze the action, descriptions may prepare or enhance action elsewhere in the work, by helping readers build the storyworld in which the events being recounted take place. Narratively weaker zones can strengthen the impact of narratively stronger zones, such as cliff-hangers and surprises; these narrative “flaws” or pockets of non-narrativity then at least contribute to a text’s overall rhythm. In comics, the discontinuities of the gutter–though gaps and ellipses are a key feature of any narrative–help the narrative fit the constraints of the medium, for instance by helping the graphic novel tell complex stories in limited space. And of course–I am repeating myself here–abstract ele-ments can play many narrative roles as well; their role is, to paraphrase Barthes, always virtually hermeneutical: they foreground an enigma, which has to be solved.

If narrative, in other words, is put into a dialectic relationship with something else, for instance abstraction, what does this kind of relation-ship mean in practice when it comes to producing, interpreting, or analyz-ing stories? One practical consequence of the approach is that it makes it possible to distinguish not only between narrative and nonnarrative zones or domains, but also between degrees of narrativity. Narrative is not monolithically divided between elements and devices that have narrative functions and elements and devices that lack such functions. Rather, any story encompasses elements and devices whose narrative pertinence may vary between “high” and “low.” And if it is possible, thanks to contextual information, to progressively “upgrade” narrativity in panels, pages, or sequences that seem totally abstract, it is no less possible to gradually “downgrade” the narrative strength of apparently very narrative panels, pages, or sequences by becoming sensitive to the power of abstractive mechanisms—as I discuss below.

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All those who actively read and write narratives are aware of the fact that something like narrative tension and narrative rhythm, and therefore narrative efficacy or power, can only be obtained by the alternation of “hyper”-narrative and “hypo”-narrative fragments. If we want the story to work, we need a good balance between fragments with great narrative tension and fragments with low narrative tension. Comics are a wonderful playground to illustrate such principles, given for instance the focus, in traditional instalment comics, of a narrative device such as the cliff-hanger, which can only work if there is a recognizable patterning of production of tension/decrease of tension (for an example of a subtle deconstruction of this pattern in classic bande dessinée, see Baetens, Relecture).

These same remarks apply also to graphic novels such as Lenin Kino, which display a rich array of abstract panels. The overall impression the reader is left with is that of a permanent back-and-forth between the promise of figuration on the one hand and its withdrawal on the other hand. It is as if the hesitation between the plastic and the iconic is spread syntagmatically over the whole book. The basic rhythm of Lenin Kino is that of the alternative projection of recognizable and nonrecognizable items and images, in a way that suggests less the projection of a film than the viewing of a film strip outside the projector. In that case, the eye of the spectator is not attached to a screen but moves chaotically from one film still to another, while noticing as well the black strips separating the celluloid frames or the images that went wrong during the shooting. In doing so, the reader produces a new recontextualization of the images, which further complicates the previously mentioned distinction between Deprez’s canvases and the projected film frames.

I come now to my third proposal concerning abstraction in comics as a form of resistance and what such resistance means when it comes to (re)reading a narrative. As suggested above, abstraction is not something that “is,” but rather something that must be produced and put to work. In this context, abstraction can be described as something that resists narra-tive figuration, that struggles to withdraw from the narrative coherence of the material to be read, and that cuts against the grain of humans’ natural propensity toward storytelling. Once again, this remark may seem very simple, if not naïve, but its implications are far-reaching. As I have already hinted, it implies that the relationship between abstraction and narrative is never a symmetrical one. Abstraction is not simply what is left over after we have read something in a narrative way. Neither is narrative what emerges in these places where abstraction is not complete enough to stay outside the world of narrative. Instead, the relationship between abstraction and narrative is that of an active conflict.

Here again, Lenin Kino exemplifies the interplay (or rather struggle) between narrative desire, on the one hand, and the impulse to keep fore-grounding the material dimensions of the story’s building blocks, on the

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other hand. Lenin Kino displays all that must be ignored or put between brackets in order to achieve smooth storytelling. The first thing that must be bracketed is the plastic basis of any representation, which is supposed to serve figuration instead of blocking it. Likewise narrativization requires suppressing the auxiliary force of the gaps between the story fragments, gaps whose role is to cut out superfluous elements without making the story too elliptical, but which can also engender narrative collapses. The “gutter” in Lenin Kino is not a “hyphen” between two story moments, but a hard cut that separates images. In short, Lenin Kino can be read as an allegory of the struggle between story (characterized by figuration and continuity editing) and nonstory (featuring the plastic dimension of the signs and the principle of Eisensteinian intellectual montage). This struggle cannot come to an end, for it is not possible to combine or superpose both readings in a peaceful way–and Lenin Kino is clearly making a plea for at-tending to what is normally ignored by dominant norms for interpretation.

Given the fact that abstraction is something that must be constructed, and constructed well enough to resist the influence of the narrative (re)interpretation of the work, the basic mechanisms of abstract resistance teach us something decisive about narrative as well as about abstraction, namely, that in our culture narrative is clearly more powerful than abstrac-tion, unless particular contexts impose different rules running counter to this general law. For instance, in a museum of modern art we may behave differently—not least because we have learned to do so: less practiced spectators such as children may be inclined to seek correspondences and relationships where adults do not. In any case, in a narrative work, we will not spontaneously look for abstraction, whereas in abstract comics, our first reaction will be to look for a kind of narrative that helps us make sense of it. For us, every picture tells a story, and comics’ sequential, multi-frame organization only makes this storytelling impulse even stronger. Yet the hegemonic strength of the narrativizing imperative and its inevi-table censorship of abstraction are never complete. If this were the case, resistance would be unthinkable–or useless, which it is definitely not.

If we take this argument one step further, we might suggest that narrative, which can be taken as a sequential and hence more complex form of figuration,7 is a force that is both productive and destructive. It produces unity and coherence at a level superior to that of the individual images, yet at the same time it blinds us to a certain number of elements and techniques the perception of which might lead to a greater apprecia-tion of the role of abstraction in comics.8 However, it would be difficult to describe abstraction’s role in simple, monolithic terms; all that I would wish to venture at this point is that since the abstract comics movement is so new, one needs to be cautious about searching for direct correspon-

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dences between modes of abstraction in the many domains that it has been challenging, ranging from cinema and the graphic novel, to paint-ing and sculpture. In the case of graphic novels in particular, narrative is something that is added to the image sequence, and that increases its figurative (i.e. representational) value, even as the integration of the im-ages in a narrative structure makes us overlook certain of their material, non-figurative aspects. In short, reading for abstraction deconstructs the narrative order. If we look too closely at all the details in a given panel or at all the material aspects of a given drawing, there is a real danger of “getting lost” in mechanisms of abstraction and of forgetting the “higher” level of narrative. Conversely, abstraction is destructive and productive as well, for it can only impose itself durably on the reader’s attention if it is very carefully and strategically organized, by virtue of special techniques and arrangements that enable it to resist the homogenizing influence of narrative.

The examples I have touched on in my discussion provide insights into the complexity of this double process of the disciplining and de-dis-ciplining of the spectator’s gaze. Our natural craving for narrative makes us overlook the narrative-disrupting aspects of some of the drawings we find in The Cage or the material layers superposed in Cîmes–a book that makes visible the process of sketching, wiping out and restarting the act of drawing. Yet thanks to the efforts paid to the images’ materiality, both of these works, like Deprez’s Lenin Kino, manage to display and disclose abstract signs and structures in comics, provided the reader is minimally willing to question his or her impatience to move forward to reach the end of the story.

Perhaps the most intriguing lesson one can draw about narrative from this analysis of abstraction as resistance to narrative in comics is the importance of exploring, in graphic narratives, the antinarrative tendencies that have been diagnosed in the study of other visual genres and media. Film theorists, for example, have suggested that readers and viewers of movies often look for effects that are not narrative at all, and that in a sense may even block narrative. Thus, in his famous work on the utopian imagination in the musical, Richard Dyer has noticed that fans of this type of cinema are particularly fond of sequences that stop the plot and create space for a nonnarrative experience of elements such as color, setting, music, and so on. In a similar vein, psychoanalytically inspired feminist scholars such as Laura Mulvey have laid bare the tension between narrative movement and the gaze, and shown how the latter can halt the former: for the average movie-goer, looking at close-ups of the stars (and their body parts) is a scopic drive that is at least as important as the desire to follow the construction of the plotlines. Conversely, during

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these kind of movie scenes, it could be argued that actors stop acting in order to “pose,” or even just to “be,” independent of all action and plot.

Meanwhile, visual artists fascinated by the relationships between still image and moving image, such as Victor Burgin, refuse to “equate movement with film and stasis with photography” (23). Contrasting the notion of image sequence (a sequence of images reproducing or suggesting a movement) with that of sequence-image (a kind of image that escapes the difference between stasis and movement), Burgin tries to make room for a spectatorial experience that blurs the boundaries between media, genres, and even concrete images. Accounts of the secondary position of plot and narrative in the “primitive” cinema-of-attraction period (Gunning), and also of the return of these attractional effects in post-cinema (Cubbitt), deliver similar messages.

In all these cases, it is not narrative that is desirable, but something completely different, and the study of abstraction, the prototypical mecha-nism of all that in narrative contexts resists narrative “normalization,” can help us explore this tension between story and anti-story. What abstrac-tion can teach us is twofold. First of all, it demonstrates that narrative and antinarrative are not so much different forms as different strategies of reading and looking, and that the dominance of narrative norms should not prevent us from seeing the perhaps more covert role of nonnarrative aspects. Second, and more importantly, what abstraction finally shows is also the possible frailty of narrative. Even when it is present in apparently hegemonic ways, narrative can always collapse in order to give way to something totally else: the craving for abstraction, the scopic desire for the image of an actor’s or actress’s body, the pleasure of nonnarrative excur-sions, if not the implosion or explosion of narrative itself (for instance in “action movies,” where often the actual plot is extremely thin), and so on. At first sight, comics seem less vulnerable to such dramatic shifts in readerly orientation, yet the foregrounding of the plastic dimension of visual signs is always a possibility for those who either do not “enter the story” or who try to go beyond the narrative surface. In both cases, the resistant reading will focus on material and abstract properties of the work that may go completely unnoticed by the story-driven reader.

In this analysis I have discussed the dialectical relationship be-

tween narrative and abstraction, explored how this relationship discloses degrees of narrativity in comics as well as other narrative texts, and used the idea of abstraction to outline a model of antinarrative as resistance—or as a resistant mode of reading. I conclude with the suggestion that that narrative and antinarrative are much more closely linked to each other than is often assumed. Rather than being always an absolute antipode of

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narrative, antinarrative can “hide” within the folds of narrative itself and suggest its own meanings that are intertwined with those promoted by acts of storytelling. As a kind of genre within the broader comics medium, abstract comics illustrate this mixing up of, or interlinking between, nar-rative and anti-narrative, at a very basic level. And if we view abstraction as a mechanism for putting between brackets the contingent or accidental aspects of a given cultural form, this way of thinking about abstraction further suggests that antinarrative desire is, like the “supplement” theo-rized by Derrida, at the heart of narrative itself. Abstraction in that sense offers a blow-up of what is happening in narrative without always being noticed, given the cultural strength of narrative as a hegemonic form that prevents us from noticing certain aspects of (anti)narrative that fall outside (or are they rather buried deep within?) the usual reading grid.

University of Leuven

Notes1. The spectrum of these definitions oscillates between two extremes. On the one hand, a

minimal or basic narrative can be defined in a very general and abstract (yes, I know) way, in terms of a plotless event format such as “first we have this and then we have that.” On the other hand, there are more complex models such as the one defended by Emma Kafalenos, who insists on the structuring role of the decision made by a human or human-like actor to engage with the rupture of an initial equilibrium. For a discus-sion of the spectrum stretching between the most elementary and the most complicated definitions of narrative, see Baetens and Bleyen.

2. In other contexts, accounts of abstraction as antifigurative or nonfigurative will be more pertinent, as in James Elkins’s study of attempts to visualize what goes beyond known methods of representation. Abstraction will play out differently, however, in texts where representation and figuration are not problematic per se, as they are in the cases examined by Elkins.

3. This thesis is confirmed by the fact that in the recent Western tradition the concept of abstraction has always been thought of in terms that are definitely antinarrative. The blatant condemnation of figurative art, the tactical and rhetorical antipode of abstrac-tion, figures prominently in Clement Greenberg’s writings, for instance. In the Western modernist canon as described by Greenberg, there is a clear and blatant incompatibility between “abstraction” and “narration.”

4. For further discussion, see Baetens, “Storytelling,” “Graphic Novels,” and “Cultural Approach.”

5. Wiesing’s proposal to analyze abstraction as a process of withdrawing nonessential characteristics to better foreground the essential features of a medium may sound bizarre in an era that has excluded essentialist thinking from any serious research agenda. Nevertheless, medium specificity–for this is what Wiesing and other scholars are interested in–remains a hot topic in discussions of media, old, new, or emergent, and several voices have advocated a more open and historically flexible interpretation of the notion of “specificity” vis-à-vis a particular medium. Instead of being an eternal given withdrawn from variations in time and space, medium specificity is more and more considered as a global heuristic framework, its radical openness now being placed at the center of the analysis. Particular works, from this perspective, no longer (merely) reflect

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or illustrate general ideas of medium specificity or, if one prefers, the essential properties of a given medium; what is more, those works question a medium’s boundaries and propose changes and alternatives that react to shifting historical circumstances (for an in-depth philosophical discussion of these issues, see Costello). Comics in that sense is no longer a single medium that can be explained by one medium-specific definition, but instead a set of practices that evolve in time and space, even if it always refers to an “idea” of what comics can be or ought to be in a given context. In this regard, Wiesel’s proposal to analyze abstraction as an attempt to disclose the core of a given medium is less anomalous than it might seem.

6. Obviously, photography as a medium can take also the form of sequential images, while one-panel comics may occur as well (although in practice they are rare). However, these “exceptions” do not compromise the general law, which is not only a matter of material properties, but also of social consensus.

7. Narrative, in this respect, is structurally comparable to forms of organization such as melody in music and syntax in verbal sentences.

8. I am following here the theses of materialist textualists such as Jean Ricardou. For a more ideological framing of this kind of reading, see Goux.

Works CitedBaetens, Jan. “A Cultural Approach of Non-Narrative Graphic Novels: A Case Study from

Flanders.” Teaching the Graphic Novel. Ed. Steve Tabachnick. New York: MLA, 2009. 281-87. Print.\

—. “Hergé, auteur à contraintes? Une relecture de L’Affaire Tournesol.” French Forum 31.1 (2006): 99-112. Print.

—. “Of Graphic Novels and Minor Cultures: The Fréon Collective.” Yale French Studies 114 (2008): 95-114. Print.

—. “Olivier Deprez’s Storytelling.” California Society of Printmakers Journal s.n. (2006a): 8-15. Print.

Baetens, Jan, and Mieke Bleyen. “Photonarrative.” Intermediality and Storytelling. Ed. Marie-Laure Ryan and Marina Grishakova. Berlin: De Gruyter (in press). Print.

Bayard, Pierre. Le hors-sujet. Proust et la digression. Paris: Minuit, 1996. Print.Costello, Diarmuid. “On the Very Idea of a ‘Specific’ Medium: Michael Fried and Stanley

Cavell on Painting and Photography as Arts.” Critical Inquiry 34.2 (2008): 274-312. Print.Cubbitt, Sean. The Cinema-Effect. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2004. Print.Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.Deprez, Olivier. Le Château de Kafka. Brussels: FRMK, 2002. Print.—. Lenin Kino. Brussels : FRMK, 2009. Print.Deprez, Olivier, and Miles O’Shea. BlackBookBlack. Brussels: FRMK, 2008. Print.Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.Elkins, James. Six Stories from the End of Representation. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. Print.Fortemps, Vincent. Cîmes. Brussels: Fréon, 1997. Print.—. Chantier Musil (coulisse). Brussels: Fréon, 2003. Print.Goux, Jean-Joseph. Freud, Marx. Economie et symbolique. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Print.Groensteen, Thierry (1988). “La narration comme supplément. Archéologie des fondations

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Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006. Print.

Kafalenos, Emma. Narrative Causalities. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006. Print.Molotiu, Andrei. Abstract Comics: The Anthology. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2009. Print.Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloom-

ington: Indiana UP, 1989. 14-26.—. Death 24 x a Second : Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.Ricardou, Jean. Une maladie chronique. Paris/Brussels: Les Impressions Nouvelles, 1989. Print.Smolderen, Thierry. Naissances de la bande dessinée. Bruxelles: Les Impressions Nouvelles,

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