I. “Tell Me! What In The Hell Is This!”: Bhanu Pratap
When I tell my artist boyfriend one night that I’ve gotten interested in the relationship between comics and the abstract, they come over to look at the book in my hands.
“I guess I don’t follow,” my boyfriend says. “To me, this isn’t abstract. Not in the art history way, anyway.”
I don’t have any ready response except agreement. Abstraction might as well mean: nothing that can be recognized as a body or a story, and Bhanu Pratap’s Dear Mother & Other Stories opens to page after page of organic forms: Bhanu’s characteristically warped, fucked––but recognizably figural––cartoon bodies. It would be pretty perverse to pull this collection, full of bodies too lively to function, into the aesthetic category of abstraction so often prefixed by “pure” and defined by its total nonreferentiality (its “radical unlikeness to nature,” to crib from Clement Greenberg).
Even by the standards of abstract comics, most of Bhanu’s stories cohere a little too well as both picture and narrative, such that Jan Baetens’ additional definition of sequence-level abstraction as “what resists narrativization” would fail to see Bhanu’s twisty-leaky-fucky comics as abstract. The characters that populate Dear Mother & Other Stories have flesh like chewing gum, but they do have flesh, and sometimes even complex narrative entanglements. In one story, a woman makes her living selling a specific kind of mommy-centric sex; the piece hinges upon a lactating “flow” that is both under threat and acts as an atmospheric, incestuous threat in its own right. In another, a thousand-eyed angel falls from his throne, and the plunge (or its terminal velocity) reshapes his body into human form just before he meets the pavement and splatters.
Figuration in Bhanu’s work is always threatened with the loss of recognizable form, but it’s a “don’t threaten me with a good time” kind of threat attached to pornographic, slapstick, and body-horror logics of cartoony exaggeration. Helen Chazan’s description of Dear Mother, which is my favorite, calls the collection an “XXX-rated slapstick comedy about bodies already mashed into paste contorting further in a poignant attempt to climax.” It’s the “paste contorting further” that gets me, as there’s something both very technical and very visceral tied up in Bhanu’s stylizations. Formal impulses compel the collection into transformations that leave bodies at the boundary of recognizability, which is to say, on the verge of becoming abstract shapes. The characters of Dear Mother chase a fluid vitality––“all that which flows inside”––through distraught/horny acts of impact, bondage, suckling, swallowing––
––and the contour line itself. In “An Interrogation for A Man’s Body,” a woman discovers her husband’s corpse and decides to give it a new sculptural form, motivated by her enduring love for “all that which flows inside.” It’s not entirely clear what she does to it; we see a screwdriver, a hose, a metal rod, a length of what may be thread or wire. The action itself is obscured from our view, if “the action itself” is the set of gory physical acts done by the widow to the corpse (tool interacting with matter). What we see of the corpse’s rejiggering/refiguring happens in partitions, in separate displays: panels glimpsing the body-sculpture in its many novel compositions, and panels framing the widow’s physical gestures as nearly-ordinary household actions. She holds the hose like she’s doing some zealous vacuuming, pulls the thread-or-wire taut like someone putting in a very violent stitch.
If the comic assiduously hides “the action itself” of the widow interacting (obscenely, violently) with her husband’s corpse, it isn’t out of a disinterest in showing graphic violence. In a twisty braiding of comedic subplots into the main plot, “An Interrogation for a Man’s Body” shows us several other moments of violent impact between living people and dangerous objects, some of which literally break into the scene of interrogation happening within the apartment. Outside, passersby slip catastrophically on shit, get splashed or are hit by cars. Midway through the story, a child’s rubber ball crashes through the apartment window and catches the cop in the face, sending him onto the sharp end of some scissors. He dies.
And this is just when the comic goes quiet––the widow flings a final insult, and then the final four pages are silent, enigmatic, and the widow’s story detaches further from the cause-effect of narrative action (even as, outside, familiar slapstick continues apace). Something flows from orifice to orifice. Something twists and floats, plastic flesh, unrecognizably different in each frame. Is it the husband’s body still, or now the cop’s? These organic-plastic shapes now seem less a result of the widow’s eerily domestic labors, more like proof of the corpse’s own vitality. In the final page, she rests, leans out on her balcony, takes laundry down from a clothesline.
The separation of panels showing the widow’s gestures from those showing the corpse’s changes makes it impossible to attribute those final transformations to any definite cause. Which of these transformative lines are an application of widow’s thread-or-wire, and which are Bhanu’s? Reading “Interrogation,” there’s no way to tell which lines merely represent form (following a path across a body in order to describe its contortions) and which affect those bodies diegetically and violently. Lines that bind/penetrate flesh and lines that trace/create fleshy volume are given zero distinction.
Bhanu’s comics are often marked by this zero-distinction between representing and twisting form, or between narrative and formal forces. In his work, form doesn’t serve to represent narrative or specific identifiable feelings, but sometimes overtakes, contaminates, animates the comic with its own lively impulses. If you’re reading to make narrative sense of “Interrogation,” you end up echoing the cop’s first line: “Tell me! What in the hell is this!” That this question actually makes sense to ask feels specific to the kinds of abstraction that constitute cartooning. Cartoon mark-making is always a mark of something, abstracting so that it can be read and recognized as. But the cartoon also operates from the obligation/tradition of making images act alive: making them squash and stretch, making them twist and distort and open their guts.
One thing that emerges from a reading of Bhanu’s work is an understanding that cartooning is not really a middle point between abstraction and figuration, where the abstract stands in for “form” and the figure stands in for “function,” “sign,” or “story.” Next to an idea of abstraction as pure form, Bhanu’s comics look all the more pornographic, abstractions of/as impure form. Impure as in: these cartoons are still recognizably figural, though not always identifiable; and also impure as in: the drawn line itself has become a deliciously cruel erotic object.
Bhanu’s disinterest in distinguishing between line as an abstract element of representation and line as a physical tool of action (torquere, to twist) underscores something interesting about abstraction’s place at the center and limit of cartoon figuration. Which is, basically, that––despite its reputation––abstraction in comics can’t really be defined by its opposition to the usual suspects: figural drawing; the corporeal; narrative meaning; political heft.
What, then, characterizes these abstractions?
II. Abstraction in the Shadow of Caricature
The problem with trying to talk about the abstract is that it means too many things, sometimes opposite things, all of them related in a way that can’t be easily disambiguated. To make things worse, comics multiplies the possible definitions and enemies of abstraction by defining a secondary type (sequence-level abstraction) and a genre (see Kim Jooha’s essay on French structural comics as a distinct movement and Andrei Molotiu’s blog). Sequence-level abstraction means that images in sequence need not themselves be abstract, but must prevent narrative from cohering between them; the genre of abstract comics includes work involving both image-level and sequence-level abstraction, ideally preserving the “graphic energy” found in the kinetic page compositions of Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby.
Abstract comics is a relatively small and minor genre within comics, so what I aim to critique here is not exactly the work grouped under this name, but the patterns of formal talk that the genre (with its outsized critical apparatus) makes more explicit and obvious. Abstract Comics: The Anthology sets out some of these definitions. Here, Molotiu identifies the genre as both a future horizon for comics artists’ experimentations and as an experimental tradition with Modernist affinities. In this, abstract comics closely parallels the patterns that Natalia Cecire observes in the literary “experimental tradition,” which defined a non-resentational, futuristic aesthetic that “overlaps with and finds its center of gravity in modernism and yet is not identical to it.” Like the Language poets and what Cecire acidly calls their “white recovery project,” Molotiu digs out some Modernist precursors for the genre of abstract comics: Pierre Alechinsky, Kurt Kranz, Willem De Kooning, as well as––more questionably but persuasively–– “modernist” figures of comics history, including Winsor McCay, Steve Ditko, and R. Crumb.
It’s all very white, which feels like a banal thing to say. I don’t mean just the selected contributors to this anthology, though, or the artists in its imagined pre-history, or in future collections like CBK’s Un-Comics anthology. I mean this way of thinking about formal mechanisms and graphic energy and narratology––the aesthetic theory itself, not just the practitioners. The issue I want to force here is the anthology’s separation of the abstract from the cartoon, a move that aligns abstract comics with formal purity and reflexivity.
The anthology draws what seems to me like a very hard line between pure/formalist abstraction and what would be merely the extreme end of cartoony figuration. (Narrative comics whose characters are “vaguely human shapes” or geometric objects are not abstract comics.) As such, when it comes to the works of Ditko and McCay, Molotiu is most interested in the organic and architectural shapes of their backgrounds alone, which becomes an odd exercise in selective looking, like a more peculiar Garfield Minus Garfield.
McCay provides an important hinge between Modernist and comics art. Little Nemo in Slumberland, which ran as a weekly page from 1905 to 1927, is an unsurprising darling of comics scholarship: it has a surrealist, hallucinogenic sensibility and performs whimsical experiments with time and page layout. The anthology thus reproduces (in miniature) a page from McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland to serve as one of its final examples of abstract compositions. But how is it that Molotiu is able to point to the fantastical abstract sequence of its tumbling background and discuss in detail the “graphic rhythm” established from its “counter-clockwise turning of the collonaded hall,” without finding it at all pertinent to the joke and the graphic rhythm that one of the figures trying to traverse this hall is an African “jungle imp” whose speech is rendered as abstract non sequiturs?
Both the joke and the wonder of this sequence, as in many of McCay’s strips, are located in characters’ indignant attempts at narrating and making sense of dream-world logics. In the strip that Abstract Comics cites, Flip the clown tries clumsily to narrate the situation and his own position in it, while Nemo criticizes him for not making proper sense––for being both a bad navigator and narrator. The “jungle imp” provides the punctuation, a nonsense but rhythmical supplement to a conversation about nonsense.
What Molotiu wants to point to here is a graphic energy generated from the rhythms of shape and color, from form itself and not from characters. (From comics, but not from cartoons.) He wants to point to the unruliness, nonsense, and strangeness of the dream without the embarrassing racial fantasies that inhabit and constitute its world of mischievous disorder. For the purposes of Abstract Comics, only the architectural elements are available to be read as abstract; one apparently belongs to form/medium and could be assimilated into an idea of abstract visuality, while the other (the Other) apparently belongs to the realm of representation. This is an odd omission to my eyes, if only because McCay seemed to take inspiration for his compositions and formal tricks from his racial caricatures. In both the Nemo comics and in his earlier, Kipling-spoofing series A Tale of the Jungle Imps, McCay’s hapless, mischievous jungle imps are little more than rhythmic graphic elements, shorthand for and shortcuts to the “animistic spirit” that comics shares with animation. In a 1903 page of Jungle Imps, the whole composition works by doubling of three jungle imps’ spiky hair and three fireworks explosions.
I am making what sounds like a perverse argument, but my point here is not “make racist caricature a part of abstract comics!” What I am saying is that if you are going to build up a tradition of experimental visual/narrative form from this particular ground, admiring its abstract shapes and visual liveliness, you miss everything if you excise the racial abstractions from the approach to animated form.
Keeping with McCay, here is another strip that might also serve as an exemplar for abstract comics. A white woman dreams of her husband digging a hole in their yard all the way to China, where a group of caricatured men speak variously in abstract not-really-ideograms, nonsense sound, and comprehensible but heavy dialect. They spank him with sticks while exclaiming––“Fan Tan! Fan Tan! … Yip Yap Yop! / Zip Zap Zop!”––and they don’t wait to hear his full explanation about being an aspiring discoverer/inventor before throwing him back down the hole.
The line returns as a too-lively formal element that both represents and acts upon the scene, now blurring the division between contour, action, and emanata. (Emanata being like stink lines, airborne sweatdrops, and of course, solrads.) Snaking lines of queued Asian hair move whip-like through the air––an extension not only of the figures’ spines, but of the exuberant beating they deliver to the white American man’s up-ended ass-cheeks. These lines act at multiple registers: varied, excited brushstrokes associating their bodies with Chinese writing, kinetic lines indicating bodily motion, and stylistic contrast to the right angles / thin, steady lines of the comically proper American couple.
There is another essay to be written on how this kind of kinetic abstraction in 1906 might compare with Iyko Day’s analysis of the infamous Canadian Pacific Railroad telegram doodle. On its face, the 1885 telegram announced the completion of the railroad, marking the exact minute at which the final ceremonial spike was hammered and the settler nation consolidated. But its backside (its upended asscheeks?) bore the company president’s sketch of a Chinese man in profile, surrounded by tally-marks and off-the-cuff calculations. Day uses this sketch as an example of the longstanding association of Asians with capitalism’s abstraction of concrete things/labor into exchangeable units, and she too close-reads the semi-abstract resonances of Asian hair: “the vertical lines of the Chinese man’s mustache in the sketch repeat the tally lines surrounding him,” which gives the sketched face-in-profile an uncanny resemblance to the numerical figures.
For their part, McCay’s Asians are animated but leisurely figures; they punish and eject the white man in a rejection of his venture, although, at the level of the strip, they exist as part of the dreaming couple’s psyche and McCay’s venture––productions of his labor. The graphic energy they lend the page is a matter of cartooning, which, to my mind, also makes it a matter of abstraction: a formal liveliness that doesn’t do away with representational likeness, but needs to twist and stretch it.
I don’t yet know how these two types of abstraction might be discussed together––the economic concept of “abstract labor” under capitalism and the aesthetic one of the (de)vitalizing (de)valuating cartoon hairs––these aren’t speaking of the same “abstract.” But given that abstract art movements have quite often been a way of representing/dragging forth one political modernity or another, the lines of the cartoon body seem like an especially rich way of looking into the relationship between visual abstraction, bodily vitality, and future imaginaries. Studying abstract comics like this could mean engaging in conversation with scholarship on the speculative “will to abstraction” in 1950s aesthetics of postcolonial physics and computing (Dwaipayan Banerjee, who studies the paintings and murals on the walls of TIFR); it could mean following up on Eunsong Kim’s lovingly pessimistic writing on the disjunction between the terms labor, art, and artist, which engages with the global corporate practice of requiring art sculptures in front of large buildings, “which usually take shape in the form of an abstract, large-scale geometric steel or cement object, which definitely requires many, many fabricators and workers to make.”
A few thoughts, in the meantime:
- An “abstract comics” that looks for its own history in McCay and others might become more interesting if it pays close attention to the explosive shapes and sinuous lines of nonwhite bodies, and the messy consequences of these abstractions.
- Abstract comics can abandon the body/figure, but it doesn’t need to. If it does so in search of the medium’s pure, formal essence––well, as Aarnoud Rommens has said, that seems more about capturing the prestige and “‘aura’ of the avant garde” than aesthetics per se.
- If anything, cartooning is a tradition where abstraction and the body/figure go hand-in-hand, and figuration doesn’t “fix” meaning in place, even when it uses visual convention and stereotype. (See Rebecca Wanzo, The Content of Our Caricature.)
- Eugenie Brinkema’s description of horror as the “genre in which the body is formalized, given textual shape only to be subjected to the bare destruction of its form” might actually be a pretty workable description of cartooning. Cartoon abstraction has everything to do with composing/decomposing the body in extremity (hence the voracious, pornographic, and often censored interest in “freak,” disabled, transsexual, and racialized bodies.)
- Part of what this names is “style,” or actually “stylization.” (More on this soon via a discussion of Jeet Heer’s essay on racism and style, but there’s even more to be worked out about form/style, race, and nonwhite artists.)
This essay begins with Bhanu Pratap because his work is not easily assimilated into the category of “abstract,” yet is so obviously interested in it, playfully mixing its cartoon and modernist inheritances. And this is basically where the abstract seems the most interesting to me as an aesthetic practice––as something impure, something that works in tension with (not necessarily in opposition to) representation. Cecire argues that for the tradition of “experimental writing,” what divided the “experimental” and the “ethnic” was in part the idea that to represent and to intervene/invent/experiment were mutually exclusive aesthetic actions. As we’ve seen, the contour line can represent and intervene, and dramatizing this ambiguity is often how a line makes itself obvious as an abstract element. (These lines are the meeting place of: What is this a picture of? / What is happening in this picture?)
What would happen if we theorized “abstract comics” with Bhanu Pratap’s Dear Mother, Xia Gordon’s Tuning, Michael Deforge’s Big Kids or Birds of Maine, Angela Fanche’s Nullbattery or Love Note, Stanley Wany’s Helem, Anneli Henriksson’s CALIFORNIA, Carta Monir’s Gameboy camera zines, Shakeeb Abu Hamdan’s “Do You Remember Drinking Coffee?”, Lanei Kasir’s It Hurts Until It Doesn’t, or Mara Ramirez’s literally anything? (There are so many more works like and unlike this brief list.) These are works where the body tiptoes in and out of perceptibility and legibility, transformed, decomposed, and/or perceived by way of non-naturalistic scales and shapes: “Sometimes I can’t find the tumors it’s just empty shapes,” intones Kasir’s narrator.
As it stands, I’m not aiming to replace wholesale the ways that cartooning has already been discussed in terms of its abstract qualities; I just want to put them under the pressure of their own whiteness. In the next part of this essay, I want to look to these concepts in more detail to see what changes if we work from the assumption that race might be registered via formal abstraction, and vice versa––that abstracting impulses might get worked out on the body, especially the nonwhite body. If that’s what white art is up to, and how white styles/stylizations congeal––what is everyone else up to? And how best to describe these other stylizations, O/other abstractions?
The next installment will be looking at iconic abstraction, which Scott McCloud made a central truism of comics analysis, and plastic abstraction (or plasticity stretching “forms to their limits”), which Spiegelman brought to us in his influential book on Jack Cole as the exuberant, plasmatic spirit of comics. Kadji Amin reminds us that in academic trans studies, a plastic vitality (as the capacity to generate/receive new form) is often optimistically “imagined to exist prior to power,” despite its association in institutional medicine with white trans bodies. So what then?
What more might these concepts be able to do for us, stretched to their own limits?
Andrei Molotiu, Abstract Comics: The Anthology
Angela Fanche, Nullbattery, Love Note
Anneli Henriksson, CALIFORNIA
Bhanu Pratap, Dear Mother & Other Stories
Carta Monir, Don’t Fucking Touch Me
Lanei Kasir, It Hurts Until It Doesn’t
Mara/Mars Ramirez, “RIP Eric Carle”
Michael Deforge, Big Kids, Birds of Maine
Shakeeb Abu Hamdan, “Do You Remember Drinking Coffee?”
Stanley Wany, Helem
Xia Gordon, Tuning
Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, A Tale of the Jungle Imps.
Amin, Kadji. “Trans* Plasticity and the Ontology of Race and Species.” Social Text 38, 2 (June 2020): 49–71.
Baetens, Jan. “Abstraction in Comics.” SubStance 40, no. 1 (2011): 94–113.
Banerjee, Dwaipayan. “The Aesthetics of Postcolonial Science: Art and Physics in 1950s Bombay.” Center for South Asian Studies lecture, UC Santa Cruz, April 2021.
Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.
Brinkema, Eugenie. Life-Destroying Diagrams. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2022.
Cecire, Natalia. Experimental: American Literature and the Aesthetics of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Day, Iyko. Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2016.
Gill-Peterson, Julian. Histories of the Transgender Child. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
Heer, Jeet. “Racism as a Stylistic Choice and Other Notes.” TCJ, 2011. https://www.tcj.com/racism-as-a-stylistic-choice-and-other-notes/
Kim, Jooha. “Fluorescent Mud and the Comics of Post Digital Affect.” LAAB Magazine 2, NYC: Beehive Books, 2020.
Kim, Jooha. “French Abstract Formalist Comics (French Structural Comics): An Artistic Movement.” TCJ, 2018. https://www.tcj.com/french-abstract-formalist-comics-french-structural-comics-an-artistic-movement/
Kim, Eunsong. “For Those of Us Who Cannot Leave or Stay.” Asia Art Archive, 2021. https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas/ideas/for-those-of-us-who-cannot-leave-or-stay#_ftn3
Manning, Shaun. “Molotiu on Fantagraphics’ ‘Abstract Comics.’” CBR, 2009. https://www.cbr.com/molotiu-on-fantagraphics-abstract-comics/
Rommens, Aarnoud, “Introduction.” In Abstraction and Comics / Bande dessinée et Abstraction. Edited by Aarnoud Rommens, Benoît Crucifix, Björn-Olav Dozo, Erwin Dejasse & Pablo Turnes. Liège, Belgium: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2019.
Wanzo, Rebecca. The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging. NYC: NYU Press, 2020.