Pascal Matthey is one of those authors who can’t stand still in one place, and has to move about through as many comics’ fields as he can. He has done some things that we can today consider somewhat conventional, to a certain extent, as his semi-autobiographical Pascal est enfoncé, but throughout his non-signed pieces in his own simple yet beautifully edited fanzine series Soap, he has shown many paths of graphical queries that one can consider experimental : his sequences of seemingly unrelated images (McCloud would probably speak of a series of “non sequitur” transitions) blurred many of the supposedly clear lines between what one can consider narrative and non-narrative. And now, with 978, one cannot be sure if one is looking at a highly experimental narrative using semi-abstract images, a sort of essay on a certain state of the art of Franco-Belgian mainstream comics, or a powerful creation that links to the profound visions of Goethe’s Realm of the Mothers, that “no place, and time no less” (Faust, Part 2, Act 1, 180)
Although more often than not I care little for the author’s biography and the circumstances of a work’s production in order to interpret it critically, in the case of 978 a quick description may help us with one or two elements. First of all, the very first thing we have to take account of is that 978 is, for all purposes, superficially similar in visual and material terms to any classical Franco-Belgian album of bande dessinée. It has 48 pages (the last one is, meaningfully, the only one numbered), it is printed in full-colour, with quarter-joint bound hardcovers with beautiful, thick black endpapers. According to Jean-Christophe Menu’s term, this would be almost a word-perfect “48CC”, the most usual industrial standard of comic books in France and Belgium, a national and editorial context from which this work is issued. However, we must also consider that the author himself is someone that is usually found in alternative, small press or self-publishing circles, and that the publisher itself is a major proponent of experimental comics. So from the start we infer that this material choice is not a conventional solution nor is it a search to guarantee an integration of this book in the same shelves as of most commercial projects. It is, quite probably, a commentary on that same editorial reality.
And then we open its pages. Pascal Matthey collected an incredible bunch of those full-colour catalogues and promotional brochures that advertise the massive output of dozens of French and Belgian commercial publishers, that are for instance distributed in bookstores (point in fact, Matthey worked in one). Then he cut the images, no, he shredded the images down to minimal fragments, eclipsing almost entirely its original nature, at least its iconic references, and transformed these clippings into re-combinable small quanta. Although they are amassed into panels that look like an amorphous mass of lines and colours, that does not mean that they are devoid of a possible semiotic interpretation.
978 is thus, before being a bande dessinée, a bande collée, a new bande dessinée made from a collage of remains from other bandes dessinées. “Remains” here must be understood in three ways. First, it is the result of the primary image-changing process that Matthey engaged in, that of snipping away at the catalogues. Second, we may understand it as referring to the pile of crap that stems from this commercial overproduction of generic books, that major publishers put out but that no-one can possibly follow in its entirety. And that it is not even desirable to do so, to be honest. Also, such production is not, in any way, contributing to improve the average of comics production ; point in fact, most of what’s produced is appallingly ugly. And, thirdly, because the ultimate, transformative gesture of this book is to provide a retrospective gaze upon all that original mass of work, now atomized, as mere “fodder”, and it helps us to concentrate once more in actually original acts of creation.
So, each panel in 978 is made from a collage of those small fragments. Perhaps, with a little effort, we can identify its general sources, that is to say, we will be able to identify some of its original iconic objects : a metal beam, the face of a woman, a flag, a playing card, piles of books, a coat, an alarm clock, a tire, the words from speech balloons. With a little more effort, perhaps the reader could even identify the names of some characters, the artists who’ve drawn these images, the titles of the books. However, even if that was possible, it would not help a bit to read this particular book. The important point of departure is really to look at it as a compendium of organized fragments. Without exception, every single page is structured into a regular grid of 2 x 3 panels, which imposes a very strict rhythm to its reading and overall form. On the one hand, it imposes a certain uniformity of speed of its “narrative”, focusing the varying intensities on other levels (chromatic, linework, the images that emerge from its multicadre form, that is to say, the group of panels in each page independent of its contents). On the other hand, it creates the illusion that we are looking from a fixed point of view to an amorphous, or actually multiform, matter which is constantly changing and turning in on itself.
The question that arises is, what kind of matter is this then ? What forms are these if the object-identification is not important ? That is what, I feel, makes 978 a sort of commentary on commercial comics. The very title seems to abdicate its potential individuality in order to metatextually quote its own ISBN prefix.
Still, before addressing that commentary nature, we should linger on a little while on its own visual matter. The very existence of a multicadre, or regular, organized panels, as well as the object-book itself, invites us immediately to an act : that of reading, a certain mental and physical disposition to turn each page with the expectation of creating meaning from each “textual” element, such as the panels. It is true that the absence of all the usual narratological elements — such as identifiable characters, a specific time-space axis, causal relationships, or some sort of verbal track that would help in some way creating some (verbal) sense into it — may make us think that it is not possible to engage in a semiotic process with 978. But that’s not true. Perhaps we won’t be able to talk about proper interaction, given the fact there are no objects into which we can project emotional and mental expectations, with which we would create a fictional, hypothetical world, and so on. Nonetheless we do respond to this multitude of forms. There are enough elements for us to grasp certain apparent “movements” within each image, oblique lines or regular textures, whether created by the “quoted” images themselves or by the very structuring of the collage work. Some of them seem to draw up a whirlpool, while others seem to make up a brick wall. The very modalities of colour seem to demand from us responses, both those strictly personal and others reflecting socialized meanings. It is quite difficult to create a universal typology across human cultures, or even individuals, that can explain away the differences with which we respond to degrees of colour saturation, modulation or lighting, to their purity or its valorisation. But there is a sort of chromatic “family” that is crossed by these images and pages, given the fact that their constitutive elements were plucked from a specific industry, one that despite being increasingly more open to digital colouring did not make room for diversity, personal expressivity or even experimentation, but rather put forward poor common grounds.
In that sense, we wonder if James Elkins’ notions of a “subsemiotic” could be applied here. These would refer to the smallest pictorial (and graphic) marks, that have no assigned meaning, and that would be found, in a way, below the threshold of signs but still with syntactical power. This does not mean a transcendental idea that one could reach but not interpret, but rather something that may affect us in a way although below a certain threshold of perception, or at least of intellection. Perhaps Leibniz’ “small perceptions” would have a role here as well. We do not perceive those subsemiotic particles themselves, but they do add up to a certain effect.
Just as in the case of some of the existent abstract comics pages (the Abstract Comics anthology is a good place to find contrasting examples), we cannot say that 978 is totally devoid of narrativity. Even though it’s clear enough that there are no discernible characters, that no particular forms are presented repeatedly, and none assumes the minimum requirement of anthropomorphic traits, we cannot say that there are no identifiable rhythms and tendencies. Is that enough to create a narrative ? Despite being a theoretically loaded question, impossible to answer in any brief way, let us assume that if it commands your act of reading as such, then a certain degree of narrativity is present.
The very first image, for instance, shows what seems to be an explosion (an hypothetical Big Bang ?), which gives origin — we are immediately creating a causal relationship here, as you can see — to an amalgam of metal-like forms, which are then processed slowly through a series of bold colours — blues, pinks, beiges, reds, until the field of vision is crossed by a sort of yellow, roundish blob — is it an egg’s yolk ? A first organic form ? — to be replaced then by wholly black panels (with the exception of the lines where the glued fragments are juxtaposed or piled), followed by a tempest made of letters, and then strong pink forms, and so on… Perhaps it is me who, by imposing verbs in the descriptions of these pages, am creating a temporal sequence. But the visual elements in each panel are composed in such a way that it invites us to navigate that way. Every time we turn its pages, 978 asks us to be careful and attentive towards the most rigorous and normalized protocols of reading in comics (left to right, top to bottom), so that all these transformations and internal rhythms are not diluted, even though the images of each panel seem to allow for a freer, even chaotic and radical, navigation.
When we realize that this organization of fragments was issued from the visual matter of a certain level of production of French-Belgian commercial comics, we then realize that the goal of these images is the emergence not of an analysis of the present situation of comics — that’s the task of criticism — but rather its synthesis. This means that we are able to read each “section” — which may or may not coincide with the pages — as if they were a “theme”, a “treatment”, or even a “style” from that same original production. Therefore, perhaps we could rename certain pages as being about “physical conflict”, “armed conflict”, “cosmic space”, or maybe representing “fire”, “wild thick hair”, “architectural concatenation”, “electrical gas”, “frozen horizon”, “porn”, “blood”, “chromatic reduction”… and so on and so forth. This, in turn, complicates the notions about interaction which we previously discussed. For instances, the “carnal” or “pseudo-pornographic” pages establish no clear-cut connection with determined anatomical parts of the human body (or any sort of organised body), but because each and every single fragment seems to come from human bodies, with their fleshy tones, bulging bits and crevasses, our mind does play connections, perhaps even after a more profound and stronger fashion. But how ? Is it due to the flesh tones, or the way the image “forms” slip and slide into each other or bump together ? Is the very fact that we try to guess what we’re looking at, what we almost-perceive, what we imagine, that these semi-corporeal forms contribute to a pornographic affect, to the “frenzy of the visible” discussed by Linda Williams ? Or is it just the dirty mind of this reader ? Even if these are actually rendered corps-sans-organes, its effect is pretty organic.
Do these scenes, these sections, these cycles, confirm some of the “tendencies” of the comics divulged in the brochures and catalogues that Matthey employed in the first place ? Or does the book itself, in its specific, singular legibility, creates its very own approach to the matter ? Is it not creating a space in which every and all gestures associated to the original creations is united, a sort of cosmic background, where all forms are formed, where forms exist before being actual, decided forms ? The Goethian Realm of the Mothers, from which all concrete albums of bande dessinée stemmed from ? So it is as if Pascal Matthey, with 978, was lifting the veil of those congealed forms, revealing the maelstrom beyond…
Besides the individual appreciation of this title in particular, it would be important to establish a dialog between Matthey’s book and a series of other works with which it has important affinities. To start with, Max Ernst’s romans collage, of course, but also Jess’ collaged comics work (recently gathered in O !, Tricky Cad and Other Jessoterica), dice industries’ little books of abstract structures emerging from previous comics-related material, not to mention many other détournement jobs on comics, by people like Jochen Gerner and Ilan Manouach, and perhaps a handful of Oubapian exercises. There are fundamental differences between all these references, of course. Some of the mentioned authors build a sort of commentary within a confined territory of an author or a character, and their aim is to create a fairly specific object, whereas Matthey seems to have come up with something more general, and therefore more formless, in the sense of having “not yet” gain a decided form. Still, 978 cannot be thought of without connecting it to that family of formal, cultural, intellectual and even philosophical research that, at the end of the day, wants to think about the very nature of comics themselves.