I can’t remember quite what recently triggered in me a memory about the OuBaPo movement, but I’ve been thinking about it, and similar comics experiments, for the past few days. You may perhaps have heard of its older sister movement OuLiPo, or at least of some of the works produced from it: it stands for “Ouvroir de la Litterature Potencielle”, which means ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’, and it’s about how choosing constraints in your story telling can lead to huge creative potential. One of the best-known OuLiPo texts was Georges Perec’s “A Void” (La Disparition) from 1969, written without using the letter E in the entire book. It may sound like a foolish trick to use, but in fact it means the author has to be particularly clever in using good circumlocutions and paraphrases. OuBaPo (invented much later in 1992) applies similar principles to comics; the creators use constraints in order to experiment with their comics creation and maybe come up with ways of doing things that they never would otherwise have thought of.
American cartoonist Matt Madden re-used an OuLiPo idea in his “Exercises in Style” where he took a simple story in comics form and re-told it in multiple different ways – as a superhero story, as described by a third party, from a different view point, telling it all in one big panel, telling it in many small panels, and so on. OuBaPo constraints can also include tactics such as summarizing an existing story in only a few panels, creating a palindromic story, or repeating a drawing throughout the story to produce an effect like alliteration.
Of course it’s not only the OuBaPo movement that has been experimenting with comics and story telling: Scott McCloud invented a Dadaist game called Five card Nancy, based on Ernie Bushmiller’s already-surreal comic strip, and games such as comics jams have been around for a long time (typically in the collaborative story-telling format where one person draws a panel of the story and passes it onto the the next cartoonist, and so on until a 9 panel grid has been filled up – one UK example was the Sisterson! comic).
What’s the point of this? Well, one of the answers is already given above – as a creator, it can disinhibit you, force you to try new things, give you certain rules and make you think about things differently. But this isn’t a blog aimed at comics creators, of course. For comics readers who aren’t primarily creators, such comics games can give you a way to ‘have a go’ and join in – pre-existing comics with blank speech bubbles or with the art removed mean that you can make your own story within the structure provided. Here’s a page from the “Concrete Surfer” story from the 1978 Jinty Summer Special: one with the text removed, and one with the art removed:
So these can be useful games that allow people to join in creatively when they might otherwise discount their own abilities. I think they can also potentially highlight some of the more hidden aspects of the comic being looked at. Consider the text-only version above – protagonist Jean is the only person whose thoughts we see via thought bubbles, which is something that is discussed in the story analysis but is perhaps clearer here than just looking at the page as published.
For a long time, I’ve been wanting to see how one particular OuBaPo game, that of Reduction, would work with a Jinty story; and if it would reveal anything about the underlying story telling. This is an exercise where you take the original published version and remove the majority of the panels making it up; obviously you then have to re-do the page composition to make a new page or pages. I’d figured it might be a case of taking the first and last panels out of a Jinty page, and so on throughout the whole story – you’d end up with a very compressed version of, let’s say, “Children of Edenford”. Would the story still make sense, or would too much be lost for you to end up with a reasonable end result? That might tell you something about the original story’s style – a Manga style story might lose much of its atmospheric mood-setting but still be comprehensible; a surreal story might still be just as surreal; while a tightly-plotted story might be mostly incomprehensible if the creators had succeeded in making every single panel count and make a difference.
Well, I got a chance to try it this weekend, albeit less extravagantly than recreating a whole story. Staying at a chum’s house I took part in a semi-regular event called the Midwinter Comics Retreat, where the aim is for all of us to create a comic collaboratively over the weekend; the structure of this allowed for self-contained stories to be produced so I finally had a go at taking a Jinty story and reducing it down. Here (with apologies for the duff lettering) is a compressed and altered version of “The Forbidden Garden”.
It’s quite hard to do, actually, and that’s part of what you learn from this. Taking the first and last panels from a page isn’t straightforward in this sort of comic, because the artists often don’t use square panels or a regular grid – so in most of the cases I took a strip of two contiguous panels. Fitting in words into the (tiny!) speech bubbles is hard – which few words will say what you want, and work with the panels either side of them, too? The original creators had a bit more latitude because they could rearrange the panel to allow a bit more room here or a second speech bubble there. I ended up with a story where Laika still hates the world she is stuck in, but her primary drive is to escape rather than to save her sister (who has in this version literally been cut out entirely). It is still a dystopia, but if anything is even bleaker than the original (and I let myself swear, in a punky spirit). Of course I was only using the first episode as a basis, so I didn’t have any of the uplifting resolution to play on!
I would like to play with this more, but it’s quite hard to do – the two pages above took the best part of an evening to create, even working with pre-supplied materials. I’d like to try some more reduction, but perhaps also some palindromes (a story that reads backwards and forwards, panel by panel). Some Jinty stories end up very much where they started from and others have huge character developments included within, so a palindrome could highlight that circular structure – or show how the published ending perhaps is only superficially similar to the starting point, after all.