A Review of ‘A Kick in the Eye: a Collaborative Graphic Novel’
by Pedro Moura
This project came about through the will of Tim Gaze, author of 100 Scenes, and a group of authors that come from visual poetry, experimental narrative, asemic writing, and other contiguous territories. Together, they created a small constellation that gave origin to this collective and collaborative “text”. The authors are, besides Gaze, Rosaire Appel, Tony Burhouse, Marco Giovenale, Gareth A Hopkins, Satu Kaikkonen, Gary J Shipley, Christopher Skinner, Lin Tarczynski, Orchid Tierney, Sergio Uzal and Nico Vassilakis (whom you should recognize as one of the co-editors of the excellent The Last Vispo Anthology).
To enclose the word text within inverted commas above does not mean we are denying A Kick in the Eye a certain solid structure, or even that it engages with the possibility of the mental process we call reading. But I did it in order to force us to be sure of what we mean by it. This book joins two distinct researches, relatively modern, and that have been met with good fortune in the past few years. On the one hand, we have asemic writing, on the other, abstract comics. To all effects, we can safely affirm that this book contains both images and text. But just as asemic writing can been shown next to iconic, concrete and recognizable images, and just as abstract images can be anchored by legible, interpretable words, according to any degree of simplicity and accessibility (and there are plenty of examples of either sort of “meetings” between them), what happens when we cross an illegible “verbal” matter, whose semiosis is not coherent at all and which has no code, with a “visual” matter that has no correspondence whatsoever with the things of the world?
But what do we mean by “images” and “text” and how can they be not only combined but merged?
Instead of thinking of images and text as two opposing semiotic systems, or at least with a quite divergent nature, we should consider them as living in a continuum, in accordance with lessons from Tim Gaze’s theoretical writings and his own artistic processes. Of course, in the first instance, even if we regularly forget about it, text is perceived first and foremost as an image. After all, we see letters before we read them, and before we learn how to write we learn how to draw letters (in both Portuguese and English, and other languages, we use this verb nonchalantly to describe the apprenticeship of writing). If we use certain theoretical and abstract tools, however, such as Peirce’s semiotics, we come to understand that there are degrees of difference in the interpretation of icons (usually images) and symbols (quite often letters) (we’re oversimplifying, of course, but let‘s keep it simple). In any case, under that light, we can think of some experiences in which image can be used with a textual value (from rebuses to the Lettristes, and the many projects that attempted to create an info graphics-based language, such as Isotype) or in which text is used for its visual value (from Hebrew micrography to Chinese calligraphic painting to Apollinaire’s calligrammes, from all visual poetry chapters to Futurism’s typographical interventions, and the projects of people such as Portuguese typographer/designer extraordinaire Paulo de Cantos or Massin’s Ionesco book). Many other examples could be called to the fore in order to constitute a free-range tradition of practices that converge on this notion that eliminates the perceptive, cognitive, and eventually, semiotic separation between writing and drawing. Once again with the caveat that, even if each and every one of the examples given is socially and culturally quite distinct from one another, that they have their very particular contexts that do not overlap and it is not possible to coordinate them in a neat progressive history (in the sense that one experience influenced the next), they still coordinate, to the extent that they share a will and an enthusiasm of bringing drawing and writing together in new ways, ways that mutually alter their very nature.
I am led to believe that “asemic”stands less for “having no meaning” than “not having socially accepted signs” (that is to say, that went through any kind of social, consensual assimilation process, or education process). A little detour is necessary here. If we draw on one lesson from Thomas Sebeok’s biosemiotics, we will find a grounding rule, or even an axiom, in these relationships: “no semiosis without interpretation”. According to Peirce, semiosis is the action of the sign, the process of the sign. There is a triadic relationship of cause-means-effect, or coding-vehicle-decoding, as for example (drawn from Gérard Deledalle) an army officer giving an order to his soldiers (event A) who interpret such an order (event B) so they can follow it (event C). For Peirce, the word “sign” did not mean simply something that is in the place of something else, for someone (this last bit is one of the fundamental differences from Saussure’s semiology). It could have two senses, depending if related to semiosis, which we just addressed, or if through the notion of the representamen. If we follow the definition found in the dignified Century Dictionary, a representamen is “an object serving to represent something to the mind”. The distinction can be quite complex, but Peirce himself provides an example that may make it clear as day: “In looking at a map, the map itself is the Vehicle, the country represented is the Natural Object, and the idea excited in the mind is the Interpretant”. Moreover, each of these terms, vehicle, natural object and interpretant can be seen as three “formal perspectives” of the representamen, which Peirce orders and explains as follows. The Vehicle is the first formal perspective on the representamen: it is the substance of representation; the Natural Object is the second perspective: the quasi-agent of representation; and the Interpretant is the third perspective: the quasi-patient of representation.
So perhaps what is at stake when looking at asemic writing or abstract images in general is that we realize perfectly that we do have a vehicle, in this case the book with its pages filled with “marks” (see below), and there can be no doubt that some ideas are excited in the mind… But what are its natural objects then?
Taking into account both meanings of sign in Peirce, then, how could we start describing these marks on paper? These “abstract comics”, these “asemic writings”, these “meaningless blots”? Do they or do they not have semantic content? Do they suggest some sort of meaning or not? Do they belong to any code or system socially accepted? A second batch of questions would ask in which genre(s) this book would be integrated, which UDC code would or could be attributed correctly to it, which disciplines should analyse it, which awards could it receive, which institutions should pay attention to it, and so on. No answer is simple.
Just like Abstract Comics: The Anthology, 100 Scenes, Ana Hatherly’s O Escritor, and other texts – whatever you decide to call them, and no matter what kind of integration you propose, whether in visual poetry or comics; I’m for ticking the “all of the above” box – A Kick in the Eye is a vehicle that triggers in our minds an idea. However, we are not able to find any consensual natural object for it. I may be terribly wrong here, but I wonder if we’re close to that which Kant called a “dynamic effect” in our search for the understanding of beauty, in his “floating image”: one in which we perceive an object but not its goal. These images imply a process of semiosis (they are cause, and provoke effects through the means of the pages), but it is as if its interpretability could not be shared in any common way. Provoking “any meaning” does not allow us however to reach “socially accepted signs”. Thus, they are asemic in that “open-ended” meaning proposed by the authors. Still, by looking at certain normalizing elements, such as framing, sequence, reshuffling of common elements, etc. perhaps we can think in terms of narrative, progress of action, communication, and so on.
So, the mixing of all these gestures in the same place – the page and the book – takes us back to the continuous spectrum in which we can find the poles of writing and image. The former can still be seen as a highly codified and stylised way of presenting signs that represent a closed number of elements (vocalic, consonantal and melodic sounds, etc.), but that can, in turn, be combined in an infinite number of representations, and the latter containing signs devoid of double articulation, that represent concrete objects – sometimes, they represent themselves – more or less close to the “real” objects that they represent (Peirce’s iconicity). As we’ve seen, such a neat division is troubled by both the consideration that we draw letters and see text, and more especially, by the com-plication (the hyphen in not a typo) of the relationships created in this book. We have a certain class of marks that seem to mimic the gestures one does when writing, but they do not produce any sort of code, regular patterns, even if highly designed or unbreakable. And another class of marks which are freer, larger, more instinctive perhaps, but which are not imitating anything in particular.
We have discussed elsewhere the several ways abstract comics can create both narrative sequences and freer forms of structured visual units, a proposAndrei Molotiu’s groundbreaking anthology (albeit in Portuguese). We also think that some of those strategies are used in A Kick in the Eye. And we believe that whoever comes across it will be willing to read it. In fact, experiences such as this book’s are not done in a void, nor is it done gratuitously, even though it may seem so to the uninitiated. But to pick this volume up, flip through it in haste and declare it “unreadable” not only is a disservice to the authors as it would be a failure in engaging with its structure.
Although appealing to authority is fallacious reasoning, I don’t believe it makes a weak argument to point out that these authors are people well-aware of a certain particular history – and a very much alive one! – of writing systems, of strange cases and detours, and non-decoded languages (from Linear A to the Voynich manuscript), of free calligraphy creations (from Zhang Xu to Michaux to Ana Hatherly), in a nutshell, of all the gestures that stitch back the profound and ancient graphic relationship – i.e., from “graphein”, Gr. for “mark” – between the creation of images and the creation of writing. That is a crucial part of A Kick in the Eye’s conditions of production: the authors search for the common, juxtaposed gestures that create that which seems, to our contemporary cultures (yes, I am assuming a mostly Western position, and I am not claiming its universality), separated. By combining a resonance that comes since our own pre-verbal times, whether from the point of view of civilization itself or from an individualistic, biological, human perspective, by a hypothetical amalgam of the acts of writing and image-making, by mixing what one does not know about writing systems of the past with what one does not know about writing systems of the future, and by forcing images to be associated to a continuity of a promising un-Form (a form before being formed, a form in flux, found in a background similar to Goethe’s Realm of the Mothers), A Kick in the Eye could well be a book that speaks to the back of our minds, more than to the illuminated, rational parts of out brains.
The project was created through an intense and intricate process of correspondence and exchange of materials between the authors, and in which the dialog is established within the pages themselves (allow us to simplify in that word, “page”, a complex unit of already complex “writing” and “image”), created throughout a certain period of time. These authors are not only different people, of course, but also creators that follow very different approaches, and techniques in their varied disciplines. Some of them use digital manipulation of images and writing, while others apply ink on paper with brushes; some of them experiment on various asemic writing styles while others are also more traditional poets; some of them have experience in creating experimental comics, while others are visual artists with more common curricula. So it comes as no surprise to find A Kick in the Eye a very differentiated thing within itself, which may lead to diverse reactions, page by page, from the same reader. Different dispositions, different engagements with each “unit/page” or even sequence, different intensities that will read each contribution in a specific, non-arbitrary but also non-equalizing manner.
Some of the pages, or at least some of its composing “material”, have been re-used by another artist in a new page. This process is notorious in many of the pages, but we will take as an example the spread that shows a Tim Gaze page on the left and a Sergio Uzal to the right. Was Gaze’s page used as a “background”, a “landscape” or as a “departure point”? Can we call it “diurnal” in opposition to Uzal’s “nocturnal”? Is it a “motif” (an Iberian mote) for Uzal’s “gloss” (the glosa)?
Given the fact that neither the images nor the writing present in this volume are identifiable in themselves, but the human brain insists in looking for patterns and meaning, and even recognizing where they’re not (see apophenia and pareidolia), our exposition to each and every page may lead us to fabricate complex processes of interpretation, even multiple, contradictory ones, that will never reach a solution, a final conclusion, but that will provides us with much pleasure nevertheless, precisely due to such a constant multiplicity. The fact that the authors use elements from their colleagues, or aim at some sort of variation on their own methods of creation reinforces such multiplicity. For instance, Lin Tarczynski seems to create a writing system that is physically similar to little pasta strands, with nervous curves, and their recurrence may make us find identical forms, internal rhythms, and “meanings”. As for Gary J. Shipley (one of his images is used on the cover of the book), he seems to use “dirtier” materials, perhaps graphite or some kind of inks, creating with them more organic, more “real” textures, emphasizing a material dimension that is not always present in the other authors (who “flatten out” their contributions). The way Shipley integrates elements from other artists as “frames” or “pieces” of his compositions, and the way that his gray textures seem to pop up here and there in the others’ pages – in any case, mimicking a process that guides the whole project – makes us think of a complex musical composition, perhaps a sort of visual motet, in which each voice remains distinct, using its own idiom and even “alphabet”, but that becomes more salient in one moment, and then later it underlines another form, and then falls into the background that upholds a different line of development, and so on. Even if reading allows us to pause in each page as much as we wish, and allows us to be as attentive as possible, it is also possible to flip through it in such a way, that each particular contribution becomes like Leibniz’“small perceptions”, unperceived in itself individually, but combining in an overall effect.
Some of the authors will use a sole, isolated asemic sign from another author. Others will employ a pattern of a colleague as a “texture”, or maybe as a “detail” in their new constructions. Some of them will trap in their own structures foreign elements, “protecting” them, as it were, from the adversity of other strange forms – why is it difficult, at least for me, to avoid biological metaphors when reading these projects? – while others isolate them, as if they wanted to emphasize them, cast a light upon them, and their potential meaning.
Actually, this process of isolating smaller, discernible elements, the choice of drawing up what may be called “frames”, and even “panel frames”, reminds one of normalised comics protocols. Actually, one of the authors, Lin Tarczynski, has an asemic comic strip, called Geranium Lake Properties, and she uses in this book, quite substantially, a sort of irregular orthogonality. Thierry Groensteen’s (and other semiotics-related scholars) lessons on the frame’s role – especially the fact that isolating a certain element turns that element into a discernable entity, and therefore potentially readable and interpretable – has a preponderant presence here, even if these structures are not always present or are not used in any systematic way. Besides, and even though A Kick in the Eye allows for a non-normalized, non-linear, non-protocol reading (we can open it at random, flip back and forth, or use the final index to follow each contributor individually), there are other subtle modes for the creation of reading “units”, “chapters” even, across the whole text. Orchid Tierney, for example, presents a final sequence, of black pages, in which a digital process seems to shatter and scatter light lines from circles, and in which the asemic writing of the other authors is, to a certain extent, “protected”. Found at the end of the book, it makes up a sort of progression that both reduces and “calms down” the “narrative”. It also makes us go back and attempt at finding other longer sequences or “arcs” within the whole book.
An ongoing, insistent, careful, melodic reading of A Kick in the Eye is mandatory. And such an effort will reward the readers in the blossoming, now subtle, now sudden, of any sense, which, even if not verbally transmissible, will be transmissible through, going back to its etymological root, an enthusiasm.
Pedro Moura is a freelance comics and illustration critic, although his research and writing leads him often to other contiguous territories. He writes mainly for his own Portuguese-language blog, www.lerbd.blogspot.com, but he has collaborated for several international platforms, quite recently with du9.org. He has also worked as a curator, documentarist, editor, translator and conference organizer, always related to comics culture. He has written one book of prose poems illustrated by Ilan Manouach.