A Brief Survey of Experimental Comic Books

Comic book properties are constantly being licensed in the entertainment world, but some of the most interesting transformations are still happening in print. Artists, designers, filmmakers, and writers are pushing the boundaries of the medium by exploring the structural characteristics of comic books, narrative innovations, the dynamic integration of word and image, and complex subjects. We took a look at 10 different experimental comics, inspired by a tactile book for the blind that we spotted on Co.Design (featured after the jump). See how a once niche product has gradually shifted to an experimental medium.

Photo credit: Philipp Meyer
Photo credit: Philipp Meyer
Photo credit: Philipp Meyer
Photo credit: Philipp Meyer

During a university course about comics, interactive designer Philipp Meyer took on the challenge of creating a comic book for the visually impaired. His foray into tactile storytelling was aided by Nota — an organization that creates unique reading materials for people who cannot read ordinarily printed text — and one of their Braille proofreaders, Michael Drud. After several experiments, in which Meyer considered the simplicity of the story, size of the representations, and the capabilities of different readers, the designer came up with his comic book Life. “One has to take into consideration that most born-blind readers didn’t get in contact with the comic medium ever before,” Meyer writes on his website. “My goal was to create a story that is equally explorable for people with and without eyesight.” The 24-frame tale explores birth, love, procreation, and death.

Image credit: BERG
Photo credit: BERG
Photo credit: BERG
Photo credit: BERG

Warren Ellis and Matt Brooker’s one-shot comic SVK allows readers to see each character’s thoughts by shining a special light (included with the purchase of the book) on the page. The hidden dialogue is printed in UV ink. Publisher BERG describes the story as a “modern detective” tale about “cities, technology and surveillance, mixed with human themes of the power, corruption and lies that lurk in the data-smog of our near-future.” Ellis called it “Franz Kafka’s Bourne Identity.” The secret layers of text add a relevant narrative twist to the overall experience.

Image credit: Étienne Lécroart
Image credit: Étienne Lécroart

Étienne Lécroart founded the experimental comics workshop known as OuBaPo. The French cartoonist believes that working within formal constraints pushes the boundaries of the medium. Lécroart has created comics that can be read upside down and in other non-traditional formats. His work feels like a surrealist visual puzzle or optical illusion.

Photo credit: G. Smith "LookatLao"
Photo credit: G. Smith “LookatLao”
Photo via Goodreads
Photo via Goodreads

It took Chris Ware 25 years to convince a publisher to back his beautifully constructed comic Building Stories, which is shocking considering how wildly successful his multi-perspective story has been. Readers are presented with a box that contains various books, a poster, a newspaper, and an accordion-style board (14 items total), which leads them through the losses, successes, and mundane moments of everyday life. “What I was trying to do was reflect on the way I think about and remember the world, which is in a more three-dimensional way,” Ware told Maclean’s. “I think everybody thinks about and remembers the world in that way. There’s no beginning or end to this book; there’s no preferred way of beginning, there’s no one book that one should start with. Whatever book happens to catch the reader’s interest is the one that he or she should begin with.”

Ware also made an interactive comic for the iPad.

Photo via Gapers Block
Photo via Gapers Block

Inspired by 1950’s sci-fi, the golden age of comics, and public performance art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Redmoon Theater in Chicago created a stunning 80-foot tall comic book. The Astronaut’s Birthday was projected onto windows (18 of them, using old-school overhead projectors) from inside the museum. Performers physically manipulated the hand-inked images inside the museum to create the illusion of pages turning.

Image credit: Edson Oda
Image credit: Edson Oda

Award-winning writer and director Edson Oda created the clever comic Malaria, which combines film, origami, kirigami, time-lapse photography, illustration, and performance. Oda built the story in layers, revealing his western-inspired tale from the bottom up. He sets panels on fire, submerges them in red paint to mimic a bloody shoot-out, and experiments with text. It’s a dramatic spin on a classic.

Image credit: Frédérique Rusch
Image credit: Frédérique Rusch
Image credit: Frédérique Rusch
Image credit: Frédérique Rusch
Image credit: Frédérique Rusch
Image credit: Frédérique Rusch

Frédérique Rusch’s Mondrian-esque comic, which questions how space operates in the medium, is a minimalist’s dream. Black Hole fans may recognize a “subtle” reference to the Charles Burns story.

Image credit: Mengyu Chen
Image credit: Mengyu Chen
Image credit: Mengyu Chen
Image credit: Mengyu Chen

We’ve enjoyed the delightful work of Portland-based designer Mengyu Chen before. The experimental, pop-up prototype for her comic book The Encephalic Cinema is a playful and simple story that is magically brought to life.

Image credit: Yuichi Yokoyama
Image credit: Yuichi Yokoyama
Image credit: Yuichi Yokoyama
Image credit: Yuichi Yokoyama

Yuichi Yokoyama on the absence of narrative in his surreal work:

“I don’t want to depend on the quality of words and dialogue, because we can never have a perfect translation to foreign languages. Words and dialogue are not universal.”

Image credit: David Mazzucchelli
Image credit: David Mazzucchelli
Image credit: David Mazzucchelli
Image credit: David Mazzucchelli

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is an award-winning graphic novel that explores the question: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?” The book was published as a hardcover with an intentionally “frustrating” dust jacket shorter than the book. The design alludes to themes in the text and layout, including the main character — an architect who finds himself starting life over in a small town. Mazzucchelli experiments with form, line, color, and framing throughout his story. Literary references — Homer’s Odyssey was a big inspiration — figure prominently.