Oubapo: Comics and Constraints from France

Comics are a medium founded on constraints. Even more than prose, comics are subject to rules of sequence and format that to some degree determine the content of each work. Take the common newspaper strip, for example. It's a demanding format: concise humor crammed daily into four or five panels. Newspaper strips are the haiku of comics. American comic books are the product of pulp, quite literally: the coarse newsprint used to print the books made it necessary for artists to use bold outlines with scant detail, and to use a limited palette of flat bold colors which had to be hand-cut by assistants. Yet these formal—not even: technological—constraints those artists and editors worked around went on to determine the very aesthetics of American comics for years to come.

All cartoonists, when they sit down to start a comic, wrestle with form, whether consciously or not: they have to be aware of the page (or screen) ratio where their work will eventually appear; they tend to use grids of panels to give structure and flow to their pages; they make decisions about what kind of marks they will make: all of these choices have an impact on the mood, rhythm, and content of their work.

Oubapo, founded in France in 1992, seeks to turn these inherent format restrictions into strengths. Paradoxically, the way they do that is by adding even more arbitrary rules and structures that artists can follow in order to make new comics. This will all sound familiar to readers who have crossed paths with Oulipo, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop for Potential Literature. (And if you're in the dark, don't worry: WWB is devoting its December 2013 issue to Oulipo.) Oubapo—Ouvroir de la bande dessinée Potentielle, or Workshop for Potential Comics—is in fact a sanctioned offshoot of that quietly influential French literary group, part of an ever-growing coterie of "ou-X-pos" ranging from Oupolipo (Workshop for Potential Crime Novels) to Oucuipo (Workshop for Potential Cooking). Oubapo, however, is arguably the most active and increasingly visible of these groups. (This is probably a good spot to point out that I am also the group's sole anglophone member.)

To date, Oubapo has published four “OuPi,” each of which documents the group and its fellow travelers’ experiments in constrained comics. The key work so far is OuPus 1, in which founding member Thierry Groensteen lays out a systematic compendium of constraints that have been or could be performed on comics, grouped into transformative constraints (which alter existing works) and generative constraints (which provide starting points for original works). It is as essential (and as difficult to find) as Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium. OuPus 3, “Les Vacances de L’Oubapo,” provides a good general introduction to the kinds of work constraints can produce as it features the core members of the group each trying their hands at a series of one-page comics experiments (two of the comics in this feature are from that volume). There have not been many longer works produced yet, but some notable —and each quite different—examples include Jochen Gerner’s TNT en Amérique, in which he blacks out most of Hergé’s book Tintin in America; Lewis Trondheim and Sergio Garcia’s Les Trois Chemins, a children’s comic in which the multiple storylines are literal paths, roads, and canals along which characters travel in parallel; and my own 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, a comics adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which retells the same one-page story ninety-nine different ways. Then, as is the case with Oulipo, there is the practice of claiming “anticipatory plagiarists” for the Oubapian canon: artists who have used challenging formal structures in their comics with no knowledge or interest in an obscure French comics club. Examples include Gustav Verbeek’s Upside-Downs strip from the early twentieth century, which needed to be read upside down as well as right side up to tell the story; Art Spiegelman’s numerous formal experiments in the recently reprinted collection Breakdowns; and the booklength visual palindrome Nogegon by the Belgians François and Luc Schuitens.

Translating works made under constraint is always a challenge, a virtual parody of the classic translator's dilemma of whether to hew to the literal meaning or the poetic rhythm of the original language. Adding images to the equation helps in some ways—you don't need to change the drawings for the most part—yet they can also be a hindrance: if something complicated to translate is referenced in an image, you can't just sweep it under the rug!

The first two comics here come from Oupus 3: Les Vacances de l'Oubapo, a series of one-page experiments that were originally serialized in the French newspaper Libération.

The notion of acrostics can be adapted to comics in a number of fruitful ways. Though comics are normally read from left to right and top down in a linear sequence, there is no reason you can’t treat the comics page like an acrostic crossword page where letters (or in this case, entire panels containing images and fragments of dialogue) do double duty (or even multiple duties, as we shall see.) Killoffer's strip is sparse and simple. The dialogue and images can be read as a one-page comic, separately as individual horizontal or vertical strips, or really in almost any direction you choose. This comic gives a sense of the poetic potential of an open-ended intermingling of images and phrases.

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same in both directions, like “radar” or “Madam, I’m Adam.” In comics, the interesting challenge is to treat the panels themselves like letters so that the comic reads the same in both directions. However, the repetition of images and dialogue in reverse opens up possibilities for narrative irony and double-entendre that text palindromes can rarely pull off. François Ayroles's cheeky comic was a fiendish challenge to translate. Literal translation of a palindrome is, obviously, impossible (though it would be an interesting oulipian project to compose palindromes that make sense in multiple languages). In this comic, the palindrome is articulated in images and bits of phrases that are not meant to be literally read backward in the second half but rather read in the reverse order, respecting comics conventions (top balloon is read first, then bottom, etc.). To make it  sneakier, Ayroles occasionally has word balloons link across the gutter, leading to unexpected word combinations—a bracing example of comics’ suitability for formal play.

Etienne Lécroart's "Counting on You," from his recent collection Comptes et Décomptes, is an elegy to his older sister, who recently passed away from cancer just shy of her fiftieth birthday. Lécroart uses an oulipian technique of word counting to process his loss: the first panel contains fifty words in the narration; the second panel forty-nine words, and so on until the words literally run out. Lécroart has extended the strategy to the drawing as well, so that each drawing, copied from family photos, has one less line in it. An additional challenge to this translation, then, was to respect and maintain the word count, without which the comic would lose much of its power.

The three comics presented here suggest the range of the Oubapo group; new and interesting projects are coming in the years ahead. In the meantime: Who's going to found the Ouvroir de la Traduction Potentielle?

© 2013 by Matt Madden. All rights reserved.