In the mid-2010s, a group of young French artists began creating wordless comics with geometric and minimalist style and little or no narrative. What they show instead is more of a "process."
The emotionless and mechanical style and lack of narrative and words lead the reader to focus on the formal qualities and abstract concepts of comics, visual art, and printed media, such as space-time, movement, body, sign, texture, representation, transformation, repetition/difference, etc.
I call this new budding movement French Abstract Formalist Comics. They are “Abstract” Formalist comics not because they do not show representational images — they do, and this is a critical difference between them and Abstract Comics — but because they show abstract narrative and study abstract and formalist themes, concepts, and motives. They could also be called French Structural Comics, because they are similar to works of Structural Cinema such as Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1968).
They share a physical environment, geography, and period; artistic forms (style, aesthetics of comics); themes and motives; and formal as well as the structural features of comics, printed media, and visual art. They also share a community and platform. The prime example is the anthology Lagon, edited by Alexis Beauclair, Jean-Philippe Bretin, Bettina Henni, and Sammy Stein, all of whom are French Structural Comics artists, though not every work in Lagon is Structural Comics. (For example, Simon Hanselman was in it.) Editions Matiere, which has had the seminal influence on the development of the movement, publishes many FSC.
Antoine Orand explores novel ways to signify space-time and movement by transfiguring not the objects inside it, but the panel, the space-time itself, as the action unfolds. This is most conspicuous in Relatives (2016) and Sebastien (2017).
In Orand's How We Met (2016), a panel moves across the page while the image inside the panel doesn’t change much. How We (the two characters) Met? Space-time itself (panel) moved. The world made us meet. It's a "moving" love story.
The comics reader creates the movement, time, and continuity from the sequence of static discrete images as she reads the comics. Stefanie Leinhos (German) interrogates this dialectic and other assumptions of comics reading, such as the ontology of representation employing the repetitive images in Is There Something I Should Know (2013).
In It Will All Be Worth It in the End (2013) and Read It Out Loud (2018), Leinhos blurs the dialectics of repetition and difference, which Thierry Groensteen argues in The System of Comics is one of the most essential principles of comics, by presenting all the color variations of the image motif on the same page. As the image stays the same in spite of the variations, Leinhos questions what constitutes the privilege of “The Original.”
Alexis Beauclair meticulously scrutinizes the active role of the comics reader in creating movement in Loto (2012-). However, the casual reader hardly notices such a coup. In Vanishing Perspective (2018), Beauclair invites the reader to become the light (Photon) and direct the movement herself in Labyrinth. In the end, the three-dimensional space the reader has been investigating in her imagination becomes the reality of the actual paper by Vanishing Perspective (Sol).
Reading comics is similar to playing music, in that it is the act of performing, not the sign on the paper, that creates the art. Pia-Melissa Laroche underscores the relation by creating comics (graphic) notation.
Laroche often explores imagined space and objects. Fugue and Fuite (2017) illustrate how lines generate imaginary planes and three-dimensional spaces that do not exist by the illusion.
Nicolas Nade uses Abstract Formalist Comics to examine the dialectics of nature and the artificial, and the ontology of representation. Nade’s drawing-based works employ the grammar of Abstract Formalist Comics but with some irregularities. The geometric style of FSC naturally implies some objectivity, but these irregularities invite the question of the existence of the artist. Imagined monuments frequent Nade’s world and ask if they are imagined or abstracted. Do they belong to nature (the universe)? What is this object that the artist created? If it does not exist, how do we know it?
Nade’s photographed Structural Comics ask the similar question. If the Structural Comic features a photographed geometric plant part, is it natural or artificial? Is the comic realist, abstract, or minimalist?
Margaux Duseigneur examines the dialectics of repetition/difference and transformation and exploits them by utilizing tracing paper. Other artists investigate this technique too, but there no one more beautifully, extensively, and concisely studies this than Duseigneur.
Bettina Henni explores the abstraction of the body and movement; body and movement as a sign; and drawing as a sign. Henni synthesized these themes in the amazing recent zine Gargarism.
Sammy Stein studies the dialectics of virtual (fictional) and real (factual) via a mediation of the life history of artworks. I will write more about his oeuvre in an upcoming essay.
Jean-Philippe Bretin is a graphic designer working with several of the artists mentioned above. He has also published several Structural Comics, including Deep Valley (2015), which shows the power of juxtaposed images and the dialectics of the panel and the page.
Romeo Julien explores the interconnection of the line, plane, and space.
I have here only included artists who satisfy all of the features of French Abstract Formalist Comics that I listed in my definition above (style, form, theme, motives, contents, period, geography, platform, and community) and who have produced several Structural Comics over a period of years. Of course, FSC is not without contemporaries, precursors, and influences sharing similar interests and/or styles, including Ann Pajuvali, Nina Cosco, Alizee de Pin, Romeo Julien, Alex Chauvel, Manuel, Baptiste Virot, Greg Shaw, and Jochen Gerner. I hope to talk about some of them in more detail in later essays.
An Artistic Movement
I call French Structural Comics not only a genre but an artistic movement, because the artists are conscious about their art history and lineage, as well as aesthetics and community. For example, they invite other regions' artists who have a similar style (such as Son Ni) to Lagon.
Most importantly, Lagon features some of the most seminal precursors and influences of Structural Comics, such as Tiger Tateishi and Yuichi Yokoyama. Alexis Beauclair made a zine called Sol, named after another critical precursor, Sol LeWitt. Proclaiming and writing their artistic lineage and history with specific aesthetic concerns and purposes, they become something more significant than mere friends or groups of artists: an artistic movement.
While the concept of Abstract Formalist Comics or Structural Comics is relatively new in comics, as I have hinted, it is quite common in fine art and is familiar in cinema. In that spirit, I want to mention the epitome of Abstract Formalist Comics: Jennifer Bartlett’s Rhapsody (1975).
Rhapsody exhaustively examines almost every formalist or structural thematic concerns in (non-video) visual art by employing sequential imagery: repetition/difference, sequentiality, color, shape, line, dot, figuration/abstraction, representation, resolution, style, form, rhythm, appropriation, flatness, nature/artificiality, motion, narrative, grid, photography, low/high art, time, space, art history, and more.
Above all, Rhapsody tells us how to perceive Abstract Formalist Comics: as rhapsody, like a piece of music. We can "read" it by analyzing the work as I have here, but we can also "see" or "watch" it and viscerally appreciate its sublimity as we do while listening to a piece of music.
This is a revised and expanded version of the essay “European Abstract Formalist Comics”, which originally appeared on my blog in 2016.