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REVIEW: Abstract Comics

This anthology presents a body of work unlike any other, and the resulting experience is both challenging and delightful, with major ramifications for the way libraries think about the art form as a whole.

Abstract Comics: The Anthology
Andrei Molotiu, editor
Fantagraphics Books, 2009
publisher site | WorldCat

Abstract comics, for editor and contributor Andrei Molotiu, are generally those that eschew representational imagery in favor of "pure" line, shape, color, (visual) texture, and so on. Recognizable objects and figures do appear at times, but they are generally assumed to be robbed of any meaning beyond their formal qualities -- in other words, we can see that That Thing might be a tree or a body, but their lines, shapes, colors, and textures are what's meant to be important. (If you're having trouble conjuring an idea of what all this looks like, or if you want to confirm your suspicions, check out examples the Abstract Comics blog.)  Molotiu favors multi-panel comics for this collection, so even without recognizable imagery, all the included works tell a story panel-by-panel in a linear narrative... or do they?

Wisely, no single answer is given, and many more questions are implied. Can these pages be read like any other comic, or are they seen more like a painting? Does "comics abstraction" exist in the visual content, the visual style, the narrative structure, the approach to traditional elements of comics (panels, page design, speech balloons, gutters), or somewhere else? Can these ideas be applied to representational works and conventional narratives? Would they work for a reader, or just confound? And does it even matter?

Abstract Comics will not be everyone's cup of tea, and that is completely fine. Even as someone who wants more people to read the book, I only felt engaged by about a third of the comics in the volume, and I wish it had included more essays about this class of work (although the introductory history essay was fascinating). But the overall value for librarians isn't in the quality of the work, but in what it can teach about the art form itself.

Probably if you're reading this post (and definitely if you're writing it), you've repeated the phrase "It's a medium, not a genre!" many times in your life, but an honest assessment would have to acknowledge that libraries absolutely do treat comics as a genre of literature, with very little exception. We prioritize narrative and writing above all other elements of a work; we catalog and classify in ways that are better suited for prose; we constantly emphasize the idea that "reading comics is 'real' reading" (i.e. the same as reading prose) or that "comics are a gateway drug to literacy", in Art Spiegelman's words, rather than promoting them for their own value or in relation to other, non-literary art forms.

Not that it's all our fault: we've inherited centuries of prose-favoritism, we've had very little opportunity to question the legacy of Scott McCloud's model of sequential art, and it's difficult to deviate from what publishers give us and what our existing classification schemes allow. And not that we aren't changing things: see for example NoveList Plus' visual appeals list (pdf), or any number of new shelving strategies that better reflect the needs of comics readers!  But Abstract Comics and the questions it raises could be part of the big wake-up call we need to let us reflect, reconsider, and redesign the way comics fits into libraries, and for that reason I think it's an important read for any comics librarian.

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