Comics and the Modern Moment

It is safe to say that few media have suffered as greatly in the public mind as have comic books. While comic strips at least had the dignity to arrive on the doorstep each day in the daily newspaper, the longer form comic books were, in Harvey Zorbaugh's memorable phrase, “food for half-wits”, an art form only a moron could love. But a funny thing happened on the way to the cultural junk heap, some of those lovers recognized beauty in the least likely places.

Comic book artists have rarely been secure in their professions. Many stumbled into the job from advertising and design, hoping to score some easy money and move on to bigger and better things. In this climate, it's little wonder that the products that they left to us is so little valued. Few cartoonists thought that they were creating capital A Art, and it often shows in the work. Where speed and competent draftsmanship are privileged over all other aesthetic values, the gallerist is likely to find little of interest.

First cousin to cinema (indeed, they are almost twins, springing as they do from turn-of-the-century visual fantasias), but country bumpkin cousin in contrast to cinema's increasingly sophisticated urbanity. To most, the very notion of comic books raises mental images of spandex-clad vigilantes fighting crime, or puerile adolescent gag books filled with not-so-sexy innuendo. How could these things possibly be art? However, just as a young generation of French cinéastes found art in the products of the Hollywood system in the 1950s, so too has a new generation of French cartoonists sought to reassess the value of comics today.

The 1960s saw a reversal of fortune for the maligned comic book. The Pop explosion recuperated the raw emotions and larger-than-life characters found on the comic book at the same time that the underground culture found in the comic book a valueless vessel to fill with outlaw ideas. When Robert Crumb and others from the San Franciso-based underground comics movement poured their ids into their pages, they suggested that comics were like any other medium: an avenue of expression open to all sorts of interventions. Crumb made comics for adults, and comics for adults could be a form of literature. Might they even be a form of art?

On both sides of the Atlantic, the heirs of Crumb have answered resoundingly, yes. Particularly in France, a whole post-underground, post-punk generation of cartoonists have sought legitimacy for this oft-ignored form. They have done this by making their comics smart and strange, personal and primal, dense and difficult. In short, they have asked to be judged by the same standards as all other arts, dispelling special pleading (It's really good... for a comic book) asking only for a level playing field.

The task that these contemporary arts-oriented cartoonists have set for themselves is the de-kitschification of comics. In 1939, the celebrated modernist art critic Clement Greenberg defined “kitsch” as a pre-digested culture of which comics were self-evidently a significant part. Demonstrating the falsity of this judgment has been an central goal for a number of artists, but it has not been an easy one to meet. In his essay “Modernist Painting”, Greenberg insisted:

Modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting—the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment—were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly of indirectly. Modernist painting has come to regard these same limitations as positive factors that are to be acknowledged openly.1

But what is the modernist cornerstone of comics? What are the limitations that constitute the medium? It has been OuBaPo that has most forcefully answered this question, and their reply is: sequentiality.

OuBaPo (l’Ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle) was initiated by French comics critic Thierry Groensteen and by artists involved with the artist-run French comic book publishing cooperative, L’Association. Following the publication of the first proto-OuBaPienne book, Lewis Trondheim and Jean-Christophe Menu's Moins d’un quart de second pour vivre (L’Association, 1991), Noël Arnaud officially recognized the group on 28 October 1992. Since that time the group has expanded, and L'Association has published four OuPus volumes that collect various essays and experiments by the various members, while OuBaPienne books have found homes with a number of French comic book publishers.

The issue of sequentiality came to the fore for OuBaPo at least in part because the group's thinking has been significantly shaped by Groensteen, whose book Système de la bande dessinée (1999), argues, as the title implies, that comics are a system of interactions between visual elements. Unlike many critics who argue that the basis of comics is the interaction between word and image, OuBaPo highlights the fact that text is no more integral to comics than dialogue is to cinema. The key to comics, Groensteen argues, is the simultaneous co-presence of images arranged sequentially. It is no surprise, therefore, that so many OuBaPienne constraints have sought to problematize the concept of sequence or co-presence, often by forcing individual panels into double or even triple duty.

To date, the strongest example of this has been Les Vacances de l'OuBaPo, thirty-six daily strips published in the French newspaper Libération in the summer of 2000. Here, six of France's most innovative cartoonists (François Ayroles, Jochen Gerner, Killoffer, Étienne Lécroart, Jean-Christophe Menu, and Lewis Trondheim) each created six strips based on six generative constraints. The pliage was a strip that could be folded to create entirely new panels out of parts of the traditional panel grid, not unlike the Mad Fold-Ins that Al Jaffee created for the venerable American humor magazine. The strips croisés were comics that could be read meaningfully from left to right and from top to bottom, as in the text in a crossword puzzle, each panel pulling double duty in two different strips. The palindrome was a strip whose panels were repeated in an ABCBA pattern. The itérations were strips that duplicated a common visual element in each panel while changing the other visual elements. The morlaque was a strip with no beginning and no ending, reading in a never-ending circle not unlike a möbius strip. Finally, the upside-down was based on Gustave Verbeek’s The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo strips that were published in American newspapers between 1903 and 1905. It could be read in a traditional manner and then flipped upside down to be read a second time. Each of these strips stressed to varying degrees the uniqueness of sequentiality as comics' specific limitation, and in so doing made a case for the importance of comics within more consecrated domains of the arts.

Other OuBaPienne constraints are transformative and public. Transformative constraints include bricolage, hybridization (the inclusion of visual elements from one comic in the space of another), expansion and reframing, textual substitution, and reduction. Work incorporating these constraints, which is generally accomplished by adapting existing works in new ways, is colllected in OuPus 2 (L'Association, 2003), the third of the OuBaPo collections.

The public aspect of the OuBaPo project is one of the most interesting, placing what is generally a personal, introspective creative process on display for the world to see. OuPus 4 (L'Association, 2005) collects the most ambitious of these projects, a 2003 performance that took place at comics festivals in Bastia and Luzern involving twenty-eight cartoonists. Producing comics through an exquisite corpse game and transmitting strips over the internet between sites, the experiment juxtaposes works on a single theme by numerous artists, seeking to provoke unexpected and interesting linkages between works. As the least structured of the OuBaPo initiatives, the final result was hundreds of short strips that hold very little interest beyond the circumstances of their creation.

The brevity of many of the OuBaPo exercises to date has been one of their major drawbacks. One is compelled to wonder: what is the use of experiments if the results are merely fleeting? Fortunately, a few of the artists have taken things to the next level. Étienne Lécroart, for example, has published three books from L'Association that deal with issues of sequentiality in comics. Le Cercle Vicieux (2000) is a thirty-page palindromic comic book utilising eighty-nine repeated panel, the longest example of this particular constraint in action. Both Le Cycle (2003) and L'Élite à la portée de tous (2005) offer more knowing takes on comics as a narrative form and as a genre, playing with issues relating to representation and visual style. These works hint at the close connection that exists in comics between formal experimentation and winking commentaries on the history of the medium itself.

This tendency is taken to the next level by Jochen Gerner's TNT en Amérique (L'Ampoule, 2002), perhaps the most satisfying of all the OuBaPo-inspired works. Gerner's book is a sixty-two page appropriation and rearticulation of Hergé's Tintin en Amérique. He has produced a page-by-page recreation of the earlier work in which only a select few visual and iconic elements, including random words, have been retained. The rest of the book, including the panel borders that structure the space and indicate a reading order to the sequence, have been replaced by a solid field of black ink. The result is sixty-two pages of blackness populated by brightly colored and seemingly randomly placed visual icons. More than any other, Gerner's book situates the OuBaPo project at a crossroads in the history of Franco-Belgian comics production. His deconstruction of Hergé, the most celebrated of all European cartoonists, serves to erect a new empire on the ruins of the old.

Unlike most of the other OuBaPo works that focus primarily on questions of sequentiality, TNT en Amérique reinscribes the textual as a particularly visual element of the book, highlighting the way that the textual in comics exists as an iconic sign in its own right. This disposition towards the textual has been recently highlighted by the first truly interactive OuBaPo release: Scroubabble. A professionally-produced board game that is litigiously similar to a long-time family favorite, Scroubabble challenges players to assemble intersecting cross-word style comic strips from individual playing piece panels drawn by the core OuBaPo artists. The game forcefully suggests that comics are not a genre, nor a medium of expression, but a kind of performative language that can be manipulated in provocative ways even by novices.

As Scroubabble places the issue of sequence firmly back on the table, we are left to consider the suggestion that the modernist precepts that define comics as a unique form are the systematic elements propounded by Groensteen and enacted by the OuBaPo artists. Of course, in this postmodern age, the idea of artists working through Greenbergian notions of high modernist aesthetics seems vaguely quaint. But one must remember: comics had no modernist moment. Perpetually delayed, held back by its so-called social and aesthetic betters, comics wore a dunce cap for most of the twentieth-century. OuBaPo asks us to imagine a modernist art movement in a postmodern era, ironically championing the value of comics so that the notion of comics as valuable no longer seems ironic.

OuBaPo on the web:

Gilles Ciment's Official OuBaPo site:

Étienne Lécroart's OuBaPo site:

OuBaPo America website:


  1. 1. Greenberg, Clement. 1991b. “Modernist Painting”. Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought. Ed. Sally Everett. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 112.