Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence 6 | Marc Smeets

Kramers Ergot 6 (2006), page 35 panels 1-4.  Marc Smeets.

Sequence is vast.  As I’ve said here a few times before, it’s what’s makes comics comics.  If it’s got images placed in sequence on the page or on the screen and it wants to call itself comics, then I for one fail to see grounds for rejecting it as such.  That’s not to say that all comics are equal — though sequence is what creates visual art as comics, the skill of its use is a major part of what creates good or bad ones.  But the idea that certain kinds of sequencing are more appropriate to comics, or even work better in comics than others is simply a fallacy.  The old chestnut “it’s the singer, not the song” applies here.  A method of sequencing’s effectiveness is directly proportionate to the skill and consideration of the artist using it.

The biggest misconception about sequence in comics is that it’s strictly a storytelling tool.  It’s not.  Sequence is simply the overriding device that comics use to deliver whatever it is they’re delivering.  One might just as well claim that the screen a film is projected onto or the pages of a printed book have some inherent connection to creating narrative.  No, sequencing extends beyond all storytelling possibilities to encompass more.  It is the comics medium’s vehicle.  If narrative is what an artist intends they’ll almost certainly use sequence to propel it, to take the reader from one to ten via two, three, four, et cetera.  But if an artist is focused on doing something else with the comics form — creating abstraction, presenting snapshots too brief to be called “story”, showing off various images in harmonious arrangement, or any one of a million other options — sequence will more than likely be the driving force as well.  The only thing sequencing always creates is comics.  And comics can be anything.

All this being said, storytelling is still far and away the most common use comics artists find for sequencing, and as such it’s probably also the potentiality of comics that’s seen the most elegant uses of sequence.  By comparison, the sequencing seen in most abstract or non-narrative comics is relatively basic.  The little-seen work of the late Dutch cartoonist Marc Smeets, however, proves a brilliant exception to that rule.

Even the best-versed of English language comics readers won’t have seen many Smeets pages.  Chris Ware presented a handful late last decade — a few translated, relettered pages in Kramers Ergot and a few original Dutch language ones in The Ganzfeld.  It’s tough to draw any meaningful conclusions about Smeets as an artist from such a small smattering of work, but based on a few testimonials in the Ware text piece that prefaces the Kramers passage the page above is taken from (not to mention the work itself), Smeets wasn’t too much concerned with creating comprehensible, linear storytelling.  Rather, actively making nonsense seems to have been his priority.  Smeets’ pages belong more to the whimsical, evasive tradition of Lewis Carroll, free jazz, and Dadaism than the more direct literary and artistic traditions most comics strive for a place in.  His panels display not even the barest hint of a narrative connection to one another, image after image appearing abruptly, with no explanation given as to why this one comes next.  Rather than clarify things, the word balloons only obfuscate further, non sequitur snippets of text likely as not cut off midstream by panel borders or left uninked and barely visible.

Smeets’ sequencing is truer to abstract artistic goals than the time-honored comics maxim of “serve the story”.  With no story available to be served, a kind of delicate, asymmetrical self-expression takes control, everything proceeding from a mysterious internal logic (or illogic) instead of a dictated set of plot points.  The first panel presents an elliptical snatch of what could be a story about anything in a deeply gorgeous, watercolored take on the familiar Herge style.  But even that brief fragment of information is fragmented further, interrupted by a panel border that allows the landscape in the next panel to stretch out to properly roomy proportions.  It’s key to note that the landscape isn’t drawn over the edge of the previous panel; this isn’t comics as collage.  Smeets simply goes further than most in letting the pictures dictate the flow of his pages.  If a few words are cut off to accommodate a picture’s achieving its full potential, well, they aren’t saying much of great importance to begin with.  What’s far more important is seeing Smeets’ wistful, assured and yet almost hesitant images as he imagines them.

From a snippet of what looks like it could be a story, to a completely pictorial, story-free panel, we proceed next to a panel featuring the same characters as the first.  It’s anything but a linear progression, though — the main focus of the panel is its only inked and colored elements, the suited man and the deer he rides in on.  The characters seen previously are only penciled, the familiarity they bring (and narrative progression that familiarity implies) left purposely faint, indistinct.  The same is true with the words, which here again are simply not given as much importance as the pictures’ own logic, here a deadpan absurdism that sees the reindeer rider apparently smelling his mount’s antlers.  And then another completely disconnected image cuts in,  a hunter walking brusquely through a new and different landscape in search of some vague “disturbances”.  That’s the sum total of what we’re given, aside from a scribbled note in the middle gutter declaring that Dutch children’s author Annie M.G. Schmidt is the opposite of Hitler.

Smeets’ page is an example of what comics can do cut free from story, a triumph of pictorial over narrative logic.  Though they have only the barest of connections (a shared drawing style; the re-occurrence, albeit in ghostly penciled form, of characters), these images are undeniably linked by their shared tone, a quiet, pastoral, deeply strange aura of nostalgic whimsy.  This sequence hangs together just as well as any Jack Kirby fight or Jaime Hernandez conversation, but what unifies it isn’t the continuity between its panels.  It’s the discontinuity, the rhythmic leaps of imagination it forces its readers into between each two frames.  It’s possible to see this method of sequencing as comics asking much of the reader and failing to deliver any reward; but it would be much truer to say that it asks nothing at all, presents what it wishes to, and leaves readers with an odd, ineffable beauty that stands on its own merits.

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9 Comments

It’s interesting to push definitions… but if comics are anything, and comics are sequence, and sequence is anything: random or conscious… that kind of ontological vagueness makes the conversation less interesting (in my opinion, of course). If “story” is too restrictive an effect, whatever effect one finds acceptable still needs to be forwarded by the layout; moreover, the layout—by design—needs to be forwarding this effect. If not, I hesitate to call it sequential art or comics. It all begs the question: how is a definition of comics different from collage, as you mention? or illustration? or flower arrangement? or found art? And there needs to be an authorial intent, doesn’t there?

As to these specific Smeets panels: I’m definitely not an expert, but the reprint in Kramers Ergot sources the images as being pulled from the artist’s “sketchbook”—that term gives a sense that the sequence might have been determined only by whatever the artist happened to be working on in four individual moments (I suppose the original source would have to be checked). The net enjoyment you’re deriving from the sequence would then be accidental.

Definitions can become millstones, but they’re necessary to conversation. Otherwise, this could be the best comic you saw at MoCCA last week:

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_nJMrllX0VpI/S_RhEpii1yI/AAAAAAAACPI/vOCgHyl5IZs/s1600/components.jpg

“how is a definition of comics different from collage, as you mention? or illustration? or flower arrangement? or found art? And there needs to be an authorial intent, doesn’t there?”

If a collagist, an illustrator, a flower arranger, or a found-artist intend their work as comics, I’m fine with that, and I’m certainly not going to deny them as such. “Comics in flowers” sounds almost too lovely to be believed. I don’t think comics and collage have to have different definitions — authorial intent is the only one worth looking at for me. Kirby, Steranko, Spiegelman all did amazing things with collage-as-comics.

“The net enjoyment you’re deriving from the sequence would then be accidental.”

Not a lesser or less worthy enjoyment by any means, however. And what’s wrong with sequence being determined by chance, or happenstance, or whim, or anything else if it looks this pretty?

Brandon – it might be easier to grasp what Matt’s saying if you replace “story” with “meaning” instead. That is, comics uses sequence to allow images to produce meaning. That meaning can be strictly poetic, abstract, experimental, symbolic or structured storytelling. Or all at once. Or just some of the above.

I also agree that comics is medium agnostic – it’s not relegated to just one medium; after all, webcomics are just as valid as print comics, but they use completely different mediums. I would say that comics need a medium to work on, which makes them medium dependent.

All of which makes it tough for me to say that comics are a medium, exactly. I’d lean more towards comics are a form of ideographical system – a written language that has no verbal equivalent.

Comics are not REALLY a medium. I’ve always found it strange to see young artist’s proclaiming that comics is a medium unto itself and should be treated as such dammit!

Typing this now, looking up and down at the sequential (oft-times nested) symbolic/linguistic navigation system of my computer, all I see is “comics”. Whether that’s the simple sequence of seeing the little Firefox logo next to the text of “Your Wednesday Seq…” or any of a myriad other sequential symbols that produce meaning, albeit rather pedestrian, everyday meaning, all I see is the same human tendency to create meaning from juxtaposed icons (this is after all, how language works).

I know the current trend is to hate on Scott McCloud and Understanding Comics, but he really had it right when he talked about closure being a universal and everyday part of life. Call it closure, call it sequencing, call it whatever buzzword of the day is fashionable, but it’s still as universal as McCloud suggested and is what “comics” are built on.

It’s just that the goal of “comics” has been traditionally to impart meaning in a story-oriented way instead of the utilitarian way of graphic design and user-interface and what not. And for most folks that connotation is forever set in stone. There’s no room in most-comics readers mind to fill in the blanks of meaning without a narrative/story guide to do so. Call that a lack of abstract thought, call it a left-brained orientation, call it alack of practice, but most folks aren’t willing to be that… soft? with their interpretations of visual art, especially when it has so many other set-in-stone connotations about how it’s supposed to be consumed.

Softening some of those connotations often requires a vast amount of willingness to let go of old structural frameworks and see what is working beneath the surface of the form. And now this is getting all rambely and preachy and so I’m just going to post it now before I shove my foot even deeper into my mouth.

I love this, unfinished as it is.

@ James that’s the finished piece! Smeets left stuff penciled on purpose sometimes, as more and more art comix-ers are these days….

Terrence – I think you’re on the right track. Sequencing is accomplished through closure, which begs the question of “what is the exact mechanism that allows closure to work?” And, to be honest, the only thing that I can see on a comics page that is not on a road sign (for example) is the frame itself. Every piece of artwork has the natural frame that is presented where the medium ends, but only comics presents an artifical frame on the page – which is used to provide closure and, in turn, sequence.

The real question is whether a word balloon is a form of frame or is something else entirely. It’s obvious that a caption box is a means to provide text within the same context as the image, but is the word balloon just a mutation of the caption box/frame or is it different because it has a pointer associated with it?

If I can just jump in here — I think the only reason one’s even lead to question whether balloons are separate frames instead of just another part of the in-panel art is the frequency with which they’re used badly/artificially. Look at something like Asterios Polyp for balloons used to their full potential: they can define character and action just as much as figure drawing or facial expressions. In most comics they’re just slapped on with a computer though, with the artist never even touching them, and so they don’t. (Sandman, actually, is a pretty good mainstream-comics example of lettering done as a part of the artwork.)

Nice little piece, Matt! At first I took Smeets’ to be just some wilfully oblique, faux-surrealist Herge copyist and proceeded my way through K.E without a second thought…then, when I re-read the issue, I took note of Ware’s essay and it kind of gave me a “way in” to this bizarre cartoonist…in fact, the lack of a narrative was the thing which put me off the most–but I started to really look at and appreciate Smeets’ beautiful drawing and I realised I was wrong in my initial assessment…oh, so wrong! I think it’s the first page of the Kramers Ergot stuff–kind of a splash of a large, gated (just checked and it’s the page with the pink house and some sort of ramshackle shed-thing, with horses and the woman in the background saying “Swell, now to my homework” and the guy on the bicycle in the foreground) house–really lovely drawing along with the landscape on the page you’ve shown, along with the castle page–just gorgeous. S’funny, I think there’s a good deal of similarity between Smeets’ backgrounds and architecture and Chris Ware’s (watercoloured) sketchbook pieces….also I think “big props” should be given to Tim Hensley for that lettering….so fucking well done!
I’m gonna read it again now that I’ve brought K.E 6 down off the shelf….

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