The collected volume Polyominos presents pages that were exhibited during the 14th “Quinzaine de la Bande Dessinée de Bruxelles”, in May 2007. Those pages were created following a simple formal constraint : each artist was to design first a silent page built of 20 black and white panels (organized in five strips of four square panels of set dimensions), then, reusing the same panels, was to bring out another page that would tell another story.
Polyominos therefore stands for “poly-dominos”, each panel then being considered as a “brick” of the whole, bearing the potential of various and different connections with its neighbors : in this way, the formal device (not far from oubapian constraints) aims at bringing out the fact that in a narrative sequence, each panel can be seen as an embryonary story part, with the potential of generating different narrative depending on its position in the text.
From a formal standpoint, the experiment is intersting in what it reveals, that is a conception both mechanical and rhetorical of the comic narrative, in a good sense.
Mechanical, because from a given “elementary” material, a simple succession of permutations will bring out all possible variations (the central question then becomes finding out until when the “panel-organizing machine” produces obtuse graphical sequences, and from what point we get a real story).
Rhetorical, because the core principal of these pages is after all the distinction proposed by the Greeks between the form of each semantical element and its position within the whole of the discourse. The exploration of these two dimensions make those Polyominos the comic book equivalent of the famous scene in the Bourgeois gentilhomme, in which Molière makes fun of the affected young men by showing the philosophy master teaching Jourdain the “beautiful style” by the simple variation of words in a sentence : “Die, your lovely eyes, beautiful marchioness, of love make me.” (Act II, scene IV)
But, as the molieresque example reminds us, those formal exercises quickly fall in nonsense or in empty affectedness. From this point of view the Polyominos give an overview of the whole range of successes and failures : some stories only present a real sense in one of the two pages, the second more or less efficiently trying to remain intelligible while changing the order of the panels of the first one.
Some artists, to fill the bill, propose two pages that are both almost devoid of a clear meaning, often taking refuge in some sort of a formal esoteric that has the advantage of putting up the pretense of a deep and mysterious signification. Sometimes, the pages are just slightly jumbled, a little wobly, as if two twin stories had not been able to separate (then giving the impression to be faced with some kind of hybrid monster preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a narrative “Dupuytren museum”).
And some, finally, while dutifully respecting the formal constraint, transcend it to bring out a little narrative jewel (Tony Papin, who by mirroring his page around the identical central strip tells the morning commute and the evening commute of a “working poor” ; or Claude Desmedt and his cynical story of a pirate-seducer in ombres chinoises ; or even Max de Radigues who starts off with a happy bonfire party, and “returns” it to produce an alcoholic tragedy).
To sum up, ten years after the publication of the OuBaPo’s Oupus 1, works based on formal constraints are now an accepted and recognized device. The diversity of the works presented in the Polyominos collection has its place in this (short) history of formalism in comics, side by side with the various experiments from Lécroart, Mathieu or Ibn al Rabin. And the wide range of the results obviously show that the succes of those formal researches always rely on the same fundamental quality :
having something to say.
- Strangely, some artists seemed to have chosen to mimic an already existing style, so as to give a stronger coloring to their two pages : hence Matt Broersma, with a ligne claire aking to Floc’h or Ted Benoît ; or Florent Grouazel, building each panel as a Willem-like news clip, to present his sequences as some kind of a silent political report.