Gouffre, a beautiful, deep blue tome landed last week at international comics festival Angoulême, its cover shimmering like a nebula, its Risograph-printed pages offset with neon pink and metallic silver like some papery message from Mars. In reality, Gouffre is from Paris, produced annually by experimental illustrators Alexis Beauclair, Séverine Bascouert, Bettina Henni, and Sammy Stein. This anthology, the team’s third, celebrates a movement in the comic arts that’s been developing for some years now, a turn away from an emphasis on narrative towards an interest in plasticity of form.
If we think of the ’90s and ’00s as the golden years of the narrative comic (i.e. the graphic novel), which developed as artists strove to ensure their books were recognized alongside literature, then an inevitable swing of the pendulum means artists are now experimenting with anti-narrative. According to the editors of Gouffre, the work they showcase draws from contemporary sculpture, painting, fashion, and graphic design as opposed to other comics or the structures of literature.
So could the panel format of comics, which enforces a sense of temporal development, do away with storytelling altogether? Don’t all comics tell tales? And how can a comic be abstract? These are the questions that Gouffre asks through contributions from New York’s Aidan Koch, known for a poetic hand and figures that seem to drown into the page, and Leipzig’s Stefanie Leinhos, whose The Long Goodbye poster has become ubiquitous on design-related Instagram feeds.
Abstract experimentation is nothing new for the comics genre, of course (Fantagraphics’s Abstract Comics: The Anthology provides a solid overview for those who are interested). Saul Steinberg doodled panels where a dynamic interplay between nondescript shapes takes place; psychedelic investigations by Victor Moscoso in the ’60s and ’70s contained little representational imagery at all. There are no stories in these examples other than an interaction and transformation of shapes across the layout of a comic’s page. Consider Gouffre an update, with work by 30 contemporary artists preoccupied with this idea.
“We have a wide understanding of what a comic is. It could be two images together on a page, or we could read a series of drawings as a comic, even if the form is abstract,” says Beauclair, an artist whose own comic style blends psychedelia with the shapes of Sol Lewitt. “Maybe it’s too early to speak about a ‘movement,’ but we like to observe new approaches of making a comic that’s growing all around the world. I should also note that in the anthology, we rediscover old drawings and comics by ’60s artist Tiger Tateshi and JLC (A. Jahil) who was working in the ’70s. We show that some artists have been working primarily with form for a long time.”
When the Gouffre team approached image-makers to collaborate, they made sure to ask authors working as designers or art directors (like Raphaël Orain and Hugo Ruyant, Louisa Gagliardi, Jean-Philippe Bretin, and Phillip Fivel Nessen), so that experiments wouldn’t just be confined to the content of the comic strip but to formatting, color separation, and typography too.
The anthology of partially and wholly abstract comics highlights the formal mechanisms that underline the medium (which is likely to be of interest to designers). What emerges after engaging with Gouffre is a greater understanding of the graphic dynamism that leads the eye from one direction to the other, and a lesson in the myriad rich interplays of sequence.