I hesitate to use the formulation "more than just a comic" in describing "Configurations", the recent webcomic series Aidan Koch published through TCJ contributor Frank Santoro's Comics Workbook tumblr. Comics are whatever you put into them, and "Configurations," certainly a comic, puts in plenty. But it feels less like a strip you read and more like a participatory event. It's the rare experimental work that makes you feel as though you're there in the lab with its creator, conducting that experiment yourself.
Though it's in no way apparent at first glance, these 19 three-panel pencil-drawn strips, which you click through one at a time, comprise three distinct movements. (It's interesting, to me at least, that the musical term sprang to mind here, rather than "three-act structure.") The first opens with two minimalist hill-and-mountain landscapes flanking the classically inflected faces of an embracing couple. Koch places the title, "two doves", to the right of the three panels; almost immediately the eye wanders back to the start to re-read and recontextualize with this new information in mind, though in this case the relationship between the text and the images is apparent enough. The font is a butterknife-blunt digital script that borders on bubble letters; it's sensually ingenuous, but when combined with the quotation marks placed around each title, David Bowie/"Heroes" style, the effect is intriguingly distancing.
As the strips progress, the titles give rudimentary narrative shape to each trio of images. A woman reclining in the darkness and two panels of black-on-white static is called "visions in a mirror", suggesting inner tumult. A staircase, a pair of women's feet in high-heeled sandals, and a pattern of dots that vaguely recreates the shape of the shoes is titled "a spy", which recasts the drawings as images of intrigue, glamour, danger. Two abstracted drawings of nature flank a woman facing front in "solstice", marking her as the high point the images lead to and recede from. "Shot with arrows" shows a woman implied to be in motion by the cast of her head and the white space to her right, a revisit of the reclining woman from "visions in a mirror", and a third woman with a crescent moon in her hair, evoking ineffable triumph over unseen, perhaps internal, persecution.
But "shot with arrows" presages a noticeable shift that begins in earnest in the next strip, "the party". The sixth strip in the sequence, at first it's par for the course -- visual static, a woman's face, a pair of shoes, a title that connects them. But like the reclining woman in the preceding strip, each of these images is recycled from an earlier installment. It was the shoes that tipped me off -- having studied their connection with the dotted patterns in "a spy", I recognized their distinct design. The strips that follow continue in that vein, with most if not all of their panels cribbed from earlier in the series. Suddenly, the work done to assign the juxtaposed images meaning in concert with the text is called into question. Had Koch simply drawn a series of individual images and put them together more or less at random -- a kind of Comics Yahtzee? And the titles -- were they selected to describe, or proscribe? Did they extract meaning, assign meaning, or defy meaning entirely?
Depending on how you look at the third and final section of "Configurations", those questions either go unanswered or are answered definitively. The thirteenth strip (which as lucky 13 comes complete with drawings of a black cat and a broken heart) changes the configuration completely. The drawings are more direct -- cats, the ace of spades on a leash, that iconographic broken heart, all done in black and white with none of the soft gray of the earlier strips. The title, equally blunt -- "I don't trust her" -- still comes at the end of the strip, but it's placed inside the third panel, not to its right. With mounting energy, even urgency, the strips continue in this vein: abstract shapes that, intentionally or no, evoke things like crumpled clothing and slumping bodies careen off drawings of a whitecap-crested sea, a hand holding an ornate mirror, an eye, a stained-glass window, even that reclining woman, as the titles -- "sometimes / it never mattered / i guess i didn't know / it was like her face changed" appear to be telling a deeply sad story of their own, one they need to take over the panels of their strips to tell. Some even begin in the first panel, radically altering how the image/text relationship is processed. The penultimate strip slams the brakes: Its two vases flank an pattern recognizable from earlier in the sequence, and its title, "ultramarine / cobalt blue," defies emotional investment. But the final strip is the most representational and cathartic one yet: a harp and a pair of lips, flowers and an eye, a broken heart and the title "I will only tell you about all the beautiful things".
Is that what "Configurations" was doing? Telling us about all the beautiful things? So it seemed initially, with the graceful yearning romance of those first few strips, until the second movement upended our understanding. From that chaos emerged the third movement -- bracingly direct, its emotions ugly and unresolved. Perhaps, then, the final panel is less a summary than a resolution. And as a promise for the future, it serves as a fitting metonymy for Koch's accomplishment throughout this extraordinary work, in which meaning is accrued and absorbed as we move ever forward.