Collision 89: July, 2023

© Ilan Manouach

How a UCO led to CoCos: understanding Ilan Manouach’s estranging hypercomics

Sébastien Conard

For about two decades Greek-born comics artist Ilan Manouach (°1980) has been transforming poetic comics into so-called ‘conceptual comics’. In this article, I propose to explore his works and their relevance while using his recent thesis, Estranging Comics: Towards a Novel Comics Praxeology (Aalto University, 2022) as a guide. Estranging Comics allows the reader to view and read Manouach’s artistic work through his own eyes, understanding what is at stake in the field of alternative and experimental comics. It also makes us understand how, through the reactivation of the reader’s estrangement, we can conceptualize comics as a ‘contemporary object’, and consequently establish them as a new world language that might even lead to cosmic ‘hypercomics’... Though jumpy at times, and mixing heterogeneous concepts and different definitions, Manouach strikingly shows us where the international comics field needs some major updates.

1. From bande dessinée to Art and back: comics as a ‘contemporary object’

Almost two decades ago, French comics scholar Thierry Groensteen described la bande dessinée, or what you could call ‘eurocomics’, as an Unidentified Cultural Object because of its mitigated history, its uneasy position between high and low, and its supposed (and attested) infantilism etc. In Un objet culturel non identifié (L’An 2, 2006), the French specialist and then head of Angoulême’s comics museum stressed that European BD shifted from being an object of popular culture to being part of a broader culture du divertissement. This new, middlebrow ‘entertainment culture’ expanded from the 1990s on, and featured the grey goo of pop, rock, mainstream movies, tv-series, comics, graphic novels and so on. At the same time, a vital portion of comics culture drifted toward the literary, often differentiated by names such as nouvelle bd, bd alternative or even récit graphique in some cases, all equivalent (more or less) to what is known elsewhere as ‘post-underground’ comics and graphic novels. The artistic turn that accompanied this late 20th-century literary shift of the BD world – comics would become picturally more mature, ‘artier’ even – struck Groensteen to the point that he noticed a danger of comics dissolving into the art world, where they would lose their distinctiveness. Moreover, in Bande dessinée et narration (PUF, 2011), Groensteen tried to essentialize narrativity and other aspects as intrinsic obstacles to this possible threat of an integration into art. On the other side of the Atlantic, though tracing the conflicted history of North American art institutions and the comics world, scholar Bart Beaty sounded softer: ‘In the future, it seems likely that the firm distinction between the comics world and art world will seem quaintly old-fashioned, a thing of the past.’ (Comics versus Art, UTP, 2012:13)

The work of Ilan Manouach is exemplary of a tendency within alternative comics to further explore its conditions as an art form without a complete dissolution into the art world. Manouach’s comics function in different contexts, the larger book industry in the first place, and secondly in culture houses or community and arts centers, often (but not always) related to comics and graphic novels. This is not surprising seen the evolution of cultural production in the last decades. First, as Beaty announced a decade ago, the boundaries between art and comics have blurred, and as I have argued elsewhere, comics and art shouldn’t be seen in opposition but in their mutual overlaps or crossovers, contingencies, exchanges, and proximities.1 Rather than talking about the art world’s absorption of comics, it is more rewarding to look at the many things that happen in their intersections – one could even call this in a deleuzian way: ‘comics becomings’.2 A strict division between art and comics is not only historically outdated but also logically pointless since graphic storytelling is an art, the so-called ninth art, and as such it tends from being considered a craft to counting as artistic or as Art – leaving open for debate what one exactly means with these terms. Scholars should therefore mind differentiating sociological worlds and definitional, (art) historical denominators, however intertwined they may seem; comics and art or the arts are not identical to the comics world and the art world... In fact, none of these are even identical to themselves, as they cover very plural realities. These differences might seem self-evident for the critical reader, but they are crucial to understand Manouach’s position as an artist: he is a comics maker with a Franco-Belgian training in late 1990s BD, who evolved from postmodern poetic comics to what he calls ‘conceptual comics.’ So, Manouach is not an alternative author who became a conceptual artist: instead, he conceptualizes aspects of comics’ contemporary becomings, which under the same name are always multiple. More importantly, Manouach rejects all-too-common denominators such as ‘contemporary artist’. Through his ‘conceptual cartoonism’ he strongly claims to establish comics as a ‘contemporary object’, a cultural object that is no longer niched in a strongly historical or even outdated understanding – comics as medium or genre –, but reflects its recent transformations and as such incarnates rapid evolutions within contemporary consumerism.

Does Ilan Manouach imply then that comics aren’t ‘contemporary’ yet? Of course not. From technical strips to merchandise, franchises, online fan fiction and so on, the vast world of comics, manga, bandes dessinées, fumetti and tebeos is an integral part of the actual cultural panorama. Then, does Manouach mean that comics aren’t a contemporary art object yet? Even less so, since he doesn’t try to turn comics into art: as I just stressed, they already are inherently artistic in many ways. Of course, for an uninitiated reader Manouach’s conceptual comics might look very ‘arty’. But doesn’t this equally apply to former innovators such as Winsor McCay or Martin Vaughn-James in their days? Every time an explicit novelty pops up in comics world, it creates a fuzz and sometimes even estrangement. It is with this often subtle alienation by an object that initially looks friendly and recognizable but is in fact strongly different at the same time, displaced even, that Manouach operates within comics, returning to us a familiar object as uncanny (as out of place, as no longer homely and familiar). One of Manouach’s early conceptual comics is exemplary of this process: Riki Fermier (2015) is an estranging reappropriation of Rasmus Klump, a 1950s Danish comic books series for children. Leaving out all the characters except Riki the Pelican confronts the reader not only with an odd, depopulated fiction world but with the eeriness of the comics object itself, with its soft and plain colors, its silly story lines, weird dialogues, and strange balloons... The same goes for Noirs, that came out the same year: here, Manouach republished an album of the classic Franco-Belgian Smurfs series, rendering it in CCCC (four layers of cyan ink) instead of the usual CMYK (four color print), confronting us with a partly unreadable yet recognizable, almost arty object; a remnant of comics for sure, an artist’s book also. These two examples show how revisiting old, conventional comics and productively estranging our view of them can produce new objects. But comics production worldwide is extremely varied in the first place, way more diverse than presented in typical charts and festivals (such as Angoulême’s for instance). It is exactly because ‘comics’ are more multifarious than ever before, and hence ungraspable, that Manouach expresses the need to affirm them as a ‘contemporary object’. As he repeatedly stresses in Estranging Comics, comics can no longer be understood as one medium or one language or one art. They can no longer solely be studied and thus conceived through one lens alone, whether it be a literary, mediological or historical lens. Instead, they must be reflected upon as well as produced by the temporary, never totalized intersections of different and even conflicting practices, paradigms, and methodologies.

2. Estrangement inc.: reconceptualizing comics today

More strikingly, what Manouach tries to retrieve with his estranging comics and the discourses accompanying them is comics as an ungraspable multiplicity, nonetheless ‘held’ together, at least linguistically, by one broadly operative denominator, i.e., ‘comics’. Mind that the widespread, English plural noun for this creative (art) form, medium or language gently suggests the inherent diversity of a ‘thing’ that is clearly not identical to itself. Comics, as we all know, have long stopped to be solely funny or comical, or even only printed matter. In contrast with the more prescriptive and delimitative singular la bande dessinée (‘the drawn strip’), the word ‘comics’ evokes a more generic and thus possibly generative understanding. This globalized, English term is also more strongly rooted in a wide, vaguely popular context of newspaper funnies, clippings, superheroes, childhood affects, silly stuff. In short, the word ‘comics’ deals with things past or at least a bit off-beat, not all too serious or even slightly abject and, consequently, in its many possible returns or transmutations, potentially unheimlich.3 How fundamental this experienced uncanniness is for comics – and for all cultural human life, in fact – was already present in the early days of comics studies. Exemplary is the brilliant introduction by Michel Covin, Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle and Bernard Toussaint to Communications’ 1976 issue on La Bande dessinée et son discours. Supported by semiostructuralist and psychoanalytical insights, these three scholars tried to highlight comics’ signifying specificity (a trendy concept of those days) by intentionally clashing their own semiological ‘certitudes’ concerning the ‘good object’ of comics with the more real, abject and inscrutable things that actually fester in what they honestly indicate as their researcher’s subjective blind spot.4 Becoming aware of their subjective position as pioneering comics scholars – adult scientists from different fields and former comics-reading kids – they cared to confront their personal involvement with everything their study object was besides the cute and appealing pop medium it was supposed to be... In other words, you can’t know comics if you don’t want to truly know about yourself! And further on: if you really want to know about yourself, you can no longer pretend to know any-thing, and least of all the inherently plural reality of ‘comics’, or at least not as supposedly unitary and undivided. As Manouach stresses in his practice and his study, not only do comics as a ‘contemporary object’ need a truly interdisciplinary approach, but they also need to work with estrangement, re-addressing their invigorating, multiverse out-of-placeness.

To achieve this necessary estrangement Manouach could have continued to make the kind of poetic comics he made two decades ago, such as the still surprising Frag (5c, 2007): rough, clever, stylistically adventurous, combining intriguing texts with highly ‘artistic’ multimedia drawings in various sequential layouts, in an impressive format. But regardless of the limited popularity of such explorative eurocomics, Manouach now judges the kind of work he and many others developed within formerly experimental collectives such as Frémok (now FRMK) and La Cinquième Couche (also 5c) as insufficiently innovative – often named examples from this period are his own Frag, Olivier Deprez’s Le Château d’après Kafka (2003) or Souvenirs d’une journée parfaite (2001) by Dominique Goblet. The 1990s and early 2000s opposed the then dominant Franco-Belgian paradigm, by making use of visual means from fine arts (painting, etching etc.) and literary techniques from experimental prose. This rebel stance itself ‘ended up effecting an overall conservative gesture as visual,’ writes Manouach more than twenty years later, adding to this: ‘painterly experimentation in comics was in retrospect a class statement. (...) In hindsight, painterly comics were the product of a discipline’s narrow understanding of historical continuity and not the oppositional force to the existing aesthetic traditions.’ (9) Read: his former colleagues were only repeating stereotypes as they were reducing comics to ‘a parochial, campy craft’ in order to work themselves up into the art scene or regular bookstores (or both).5 With such views, Manouach could have been expected to return to good old conventional, commercial cartoonism, or to become a comics historian, archivist, or teacher, or even to leave the field altogether, disgusted with these so-called impostures. But his insights are of course the fruit of the two-decade ripening of an explorative artist who also is a historian, a scholar, an archivist, a publisher, a curator, a publicist, a polemist and so on, and who also adopts these roles in his work. There is no strict difference to be made between Manouach’s comics ‘objects’ (let’s say, his pictorial publications) and the discourse that embeds them, now put to the fore in his doctoral thesis. More than any other artist in the field of comics, Manouach creates discursive comics objects par excellence: they are to be thought, talked, and written about to be rightly understood, and to let their relevance be operative.6 Of course, most of his conceptual comics, sometimes abbreviated as CoCos, such as the aforementioned Noirs or Arctic Circle (part of the Shapereader project), can be read, appreciated, or at least experienced as such by an uninitiated reader, but this necessitates, as all reading does, specific codes and habits.

One of the aspects of the contemporary comics world in which Manouach intervenes is what he repeatedly calls its ‘infrastructural backends’. This term refers to the hidden side of more glorified comics practices, such as the focus on authorship, craftmanship, narrativity, autobiography, the publisher’s taste or the curator’s choice, art group heroics and so on. Manouach is at odds with the late capitalist take on the resurrected Author and their fans, followers, disciples, and the strongly naturalized spectacle around it. Operating more as a playbour pirate editor, Manouach borrows, steals, and remixes what is usually kept hidden within a comics industry that has been quickly digitalized and globalized. He actively draws upon tools from the sphere of (historical) copyright, automated production and distribution, printing on demand, micro-working and digital labor, AI-generated content etc. A clear case of this tendency is The Cubicle Island (2020), a thick collection of pre-existing island cartoons but republished with new funny captions supplied by micro-workers worldwide. Throughout his many projects, Manouach tends toward the position of the creative hacker rather than the all-too-often mystified Artist recently resuscitated as auto-biographing Author. Manouach stays true to comics by perverting the industry’s compulsory code of marketable authorship. He doesn’t care as much to present narrative self-portraits or pictures of The World, but unveils the obscure mechanics of contemporary culture, especially those supporting the (comic) book industry. He does this by producing (comic book) objects which embody their critique: a book as The Cubicle Island is still a fancy cartoons compendium but an oddity is at once recognizable in the seemingly manic and compulsive selection of such a specific genre in the first place. The same goes for Peanuts minus Schulz (2021): an ode to the creator of Snoopy, mimicking the typical coffee table book re-editions, but full of weirdly and badly drawn reinterpretations of the Peanuts series. Comics then no longer form only a narrative medium or interface to communicate stories and ideas – at least not in a narrow sense – but they get re-assessed as transformative, ungraspable at least, estranging at best.

It is through such interventions, in the book game in the first place, and in cultural industry at large, that Manouach succeeds in making comics vividly ‘contemporary’ by stressing their indigenous uncanniness and diversity, seducing non-comics readers on his way.

Reading his Estranging Comics, one could all too easily criticize Manouach for his composite mumbo-jumbo on ‘infrastructural praxis’ around ‘hyperobjects’ and ‘integrative objects’, his ‘neoconceptual’ effort to create ‘hyperawareness’ within a ‘poetics of information overload’, or his claim to propose a ‘novel comics praxeology’ that restores ‘comics as an “unknown” object that can remain partly indeterminate and susceptible to virtual and future notions’. Every once in a while, Manouach brings in heterogenous discourses to validate or legitimize his creative projects – this is a known side-effect of research in the arts but also due to the fact that Manouach’s PhD regroups a number of pre-published articles out of different contexts. But stressing this hyperactual flare-ups would negate the evolutions of comics as complex, contemporary phenomena, and miss the point altogether... Indeed, one must rub shoulders with sometimes excruciatingly newish and puzzling framings to understand an object such as comics being always inherently discursive – in past, present and future tense. Contaminating comics scholarship with surprising concepts from seemingly far-away fields is, to a certain degree, unavoidable. So, working one’s way through Manouach’s thesis (just as reading through this article on it) might give one a hint of comics’ possible futures as they are already taking place.

3. Hypercomix gallore: an expanding galaxy of excess

A striking feature of Manouach’s work is that it implicitly highlights the equivoque of ‘comics’ with ‘co-mix’, a revealing homophony stressed by Art Spiegelman and others following the underground comix of the sixties and seventies. Indeed, after this postwar countercultural turn within the medium, comics became an increasingly self-aware ‘co-mixture’ of high and low, word and image, good and bad etc. This hybridity became a trope in comics studies, designating the impure, undefinable mix that characterizes comics, manga, BD and alike. With his obsessive focus on ‘futurity’, his hammering on the potentials or the ‘transcreational’ (to name only two of his dadas), Manouach dedicates himself seriously to comics’ historical hybridity in a singular, radically transformative and consistently inquisitive way. Moreover, in a responsive and responsible manner, Manouach stays true to the object, by allowing it to become multiple, utterly generative and generous, open-ended, undefined, transmutable. In fact, Manouach is profoundly loyal to whatever those uncanny objects are that circulate under the impossible name of ‘comics’. And so, his odd affirmation of the master signifier allows a real multiplicity to continue, which is the exact opposite of tagging the same, repetitive stuff by different fancy names, i.e., multiplying the denominators to sell ‘old wine in new barrels’: the same old boring stuff now sold as ‘graphic novel’, for example. Manouach brings us new wine in the old barrels, indifferently called ‘comics’, and occasionally sub-labelled as ‘conceptual’. Le VTT comme je l’aime (2022) for instance reinterprets the worn-out genre of porn comics by making use of GPT-2 language and images derived from 3D environments based on the dark web. Though this book looks like an adult comic and is published within a series that promotes alternative (and ironic) takes on the genre, it produces a new kind of image-text reading, fragmentary and fluid, funny and paradoxical, juxtaposing weirdly solarized-like photorealistic vector drawings with sometimes typical then again confusing or nonsensical text scraps. Thanks to its unconventional, machinic making process, the overall effect does nonetheless strike us as comics by excellence: humoristic, odd, shocking, silly, intriguing, fetishizable and utterly discardable all at once.

One might question to what degree Manouach’s work is truly conceptual: though his (and others’) conceptual comics draw upon the insights of Concept Art to propose another kind of comics, their iconicity, their materiality as (book) objects and so on are often not abstracted. In most cases the material aspects of CoCos are even indispensable; to “get” them, it is not enough to describe them. I might sound a bit purist about conceptualism here, but this remark underlines that conceptual comics are and remain, first and foremost, comics, and that you need to be informed of conceptualism (and other stuff) to ‘read’ them. Mind also that CoCos such as Manouach’s are part of recent developments in the broader field of contemporary graphic storytelling such as webcomics, abstract comics and graphic poetry, all practices that sometimes lead to what I call ‘post-comics’. As Jan Baetens notes: ‘What actually changes in the case of post-comics – which like the notion of post-modernism should not be reduced to a historical or chronological period – is something that touches upon all aspects of comics, no longer seen as merely an object or a body of works, but as a cultural practice.’7 Manouach’s Compendium of Franco-Belgian Comics (2018), for example, which remixes loose fragments of classic Franco-Belgian comics like Asterix or Lucky Luke, is clearly referencing and commenting upon its database. But as a conceptual comic it also undeniably takes part in a larger movement where comics artists push the boundaries of their original art toward new horizons and contexts, producing objects or situations that can function differently.

What happens with Manouach’s projects – you could as well call them ‘hypercomics’ – is that they respond to an extension and an augmentation of comics making as a cultural practice. Through his objects (again, they are explicitly discursive and material at the same time), Manouach intervenes in the comics field and in the international (mostly western) cultural sphere on the level of the inscription and the perception of comics, manga, graphic novels and so on. The recent takes on his ongoing Shapereader project show this clearly: starting from the multi-useable ‘tactigrams’ Manouach developed years ago, he now leaves musicians with the exciting task of interpreting what appears as a slightly comic graphic score, as tactile information and a spatial parcours. By changing comics and displacing its code in new surroundings, e.g. an art center or a music festival, thus by deterritorializing them, Manouach shows how comics have always been strange, displaced, off their own supposed territory. Again these renewed estrangements highlight their underlying oddness: how cute and comic it may be at first sight, the codes of this cultural phenomenon are actually disquieting. Indeed, as Ole Frahm stressed in 2003, comics are always ‘too much’: they offer too much information, too many wrong words and silly drawings, too much fun, too much good and bad taste, they are too mixed, too mingled, caught up etc.8 Comics are an excessive and excessively stupid thing, even when they’re clever, brilliant, good, or beautiful, or all these things at once. It suffices to look at one of Manouach’s latest co-creations, titled Fastwalkers, an AI-generated manga splurge the size of an illustrated encyclopedia. To a certain extent it is, at least in its entirety or ‘globally’, unreadable, as it excessively incarnates the alienating weirdness of contemporary manga, based on their styles, motifs, contents, colors etc. Fastwalkers looks, feels, and ‘reads’ like a prototypical mega-manga seen through the eyes of an alien: up to a certain point, the object is recognizable, describable, and experienceable, but not to be grasped, not to be understood. Or you can enjoy the striking ‘beauty’ – in a hard-edged poetic sense – of Manouach’s Noirs: you can see it is a comic book, you recognize the Smurfs, you can read and understand the ‘brainy’, critical discourse and set-up that generated this book and allows you to ‘deploy’ it... but it is first of all, and it remains, a vivid blue book object, appealing and confusing at once.

4. From avant-gardist CoCos to a new world language

Conceptual comics prioritize ‘context over content, to a novel notion of comics making and comics reading’ (41), they mobilize ‘the historical legacy of conceptual art in its capacity for institutional critique’, while most contemporary ‘comics stubbornly look, feel and read the same,’ (43), writes Manouach in his thesis. The Achilles’ heel here is that the word ‘comics’ is used as an overall signifier that stands for a very diverse and historical practice, namely, the whole constellation of comics-like creations and products. Manouach seems to protect ‘comics’ from attacks and usurpations by artsy traitors and mainstream practitioners alike. He claims to restore their original weirdness by creating even odder reappropriations, re-editions, displacements etc. Implicitly, Manouach as a protector denigrates comics himself since they obviously need to be (re)conceptualized in order to be saved from a dumb version of contemporaneity. I love comics because I hate them, I hate them because I love them, I cannot know what they are, could well be the subtitle of Manouach’s creative adventures. It is the typical knee-jerk reaction of the avant-gardist, the reactionary temptation of the progressist, to which, as an artist and author, I must often plead guilty myself: for the avant-gardist other innovators are never radical enough, in fact you must be so radical as to embrace the object you departed from or wanted to change originally! Consequently, you must deny being an avant-gardist, and so on, ad infinitum... This logic inevitably leads Manouach to critiques that could as well apply to his own positioning, for example: ‘for much of the twentieth century, a class bound, traditionalist literary industry and an academized avant-garde have persistently denigrated the extra-literary and artistic significance of the comics field.’ (43) Of course, the author means here that many arty graphic novelists tend to turn their noses up at comics’ real but not so prestigious diversity. But what is snobbier than aligning comics (whether seen as a vernacular medium at its origins or not) with high-end ideas like ‘conceptual poetry’, a typical product of neo-avant-gardist, academized, cosmopolitan, (upper) middle-class culture? As Manouach knows for himself, his own approach can develop a blind spot for what many find so exciting about painterly graphic novels or colorful, seemingly retrograded handcrafted zines, for example... Luckily, Manouach generously shares his self-relativism: ‘On the other hand, one could argue from the standpoint of professional craftmanship, specialized presses, and the various programs in comics education, that there is limited use in framing comics praxeology within tools and concepts coming from other disciplines, some of which are artistic (contemporary art, design, choreography) and others less so (financial technologies, machine learning, systems theory).’ (43)

Manouach doesn’t nuance and relativize to sustain an endless dialectics, but to underline that ‘language is a terrain of constant negotiation’ (43) and that the author-maker-researcher proactively tries to engage through his artistic and discursive propositions with a field that generally cherishes other topics and aesthetics. One of the many concepts that Manouach uses to explain his approach is that of liminality: ‘liminality could be weaponized in order to prepare the ground for a new epistemological space leading to the abandonment of top-level access modes to knowledge production (...)’ (23) This is a clear example of Manouach’s voluntary, avant-gardist and even combative style. Altogether with the strange objects, a plethora of diverse but precisely chosen (not always as precise or effective) concepts, often borrowed and resituated, are being activated in the utopian hope of new beginnings. Manouach reaches for a significative equalization of the comics field, or in other words: a change never to come but always already actualized. Comics will never be truly smart and will always stay a hybrid form, one could say, but institutionalized as they get, they tend to become posh and self-centered: Manouach’s maneuvers tend to uncover this reality, and from the very position of a countercultural avant-gardist he tries to keep the field open to its many possibilities. Hence, Manouach’s doctoral thesis Estranging Comics is a study, a compendium, a treatise and even a manifest at the same time. Obviously struggling for the sake of ‘comics’, and this with an almost tangible combative zeal, Manouach carves out, step by step, chapter per chapter, what comics in his opinion might be if they would not so ‘stubbornly look, read and feel the same’. It would be a wonderful world, and at the same time a very horizontal and repetitive one, as Manouach’s own comics, however incredibly innovative they are now, do evoke/

Since he doesn’t hold a monopoly on the future of comics (he doesn’t pretend to), we can only be guided by his wise words and zany projections, his discursive objects so to speak, which embody many possibilities, stretching beyond comics as we know it. Some people will not recognize his work as comics (yet), and part of that problem, as is the case with the above-mentioned post-comics, is that Manouach (understandably) refuses to strictly define comics, consequently building upon them as upon lose ground. Indeed, in Manouach’s world ‘comics’ end up being possibly anything or limited to spiraling understandings of ‘sequentiality’ (e.g. 51) at one time, or ‘an industrial art form that counts on the orchestrated work of different professionals’ at another (158), or just a system of ‘communication, consisting of both linguistic and non-linguistic signs.’ (173) In fact, Manouach’s shifting, multi-definitional stance might be an effect of the undefinable side of the medium/field/art/language itself, in line with the attested ‘elusive specificity’ of comics.9 But his approach also reflects the unnecessary amalgam commonly made between comics as an aesthetic or literary object and comics as a sociological field or a cultural phenomenon. As an artist-researcher, Manouach stresses contemporary comics as a practice, leading to a complex praxeology.

An example of this praxeology is Manouach’s own discussion of his Compendium of Franco-Belgian Comics; the borrowed concept of ‘ontography’ (Ian Bogost) helps him to explain what is creatively at stake. The diagrammatical catalogue of ontological units that Manouach composed in his Compendium reminds us of Christian Marclay’s To be continued (2016), an artist’s book meant as a graphic score, itself close to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody from 1966. But Manouach’s Compendium is not meant to be performed except by the informed reader herself: Compendium ‘argues for the necessity of different modes of reading in relation to comics by exemplifying how combined modes of an approach to a text can allow new works to develop.’ (74) One can then skim through the Compendium taking a trip down memory lane into classic Franco-Belgian comics on which Manouach’s remix is based. Or one can venture into a systematic comparison of stylistic features of the collected fragments. One could also perform it musically or otherwise. And so on. As with most of his works, the act of rewriting and re-editing leads to an inherent multimodality while the work can no longer be read in a ‘native’ or conventional way: we must un-learn reading and skill ourselves in new or other modes of decoding. But do we still need to talk of ‘comics’ if the objects mainly look like comics, mostly because they make use of comics elements (texts, images, formats etc.)? If the reading modes are more akin to what we are used to do when we are browsing digital archives for instance, should we still refer to comics? Again, Manouach’s answer is yes, if one keeps in mind the necessity to struggle and to negotiate language in order to create new possibilities, entrenched as artists can temporarily (or not) be in the battlefields of today’s informational capitalism. Manouach’s activities, texts and objects as an artist, an editor, a writer, a lecturer, a curator, and a researcher respond to a constant attitude of polemical positioning and worldwide dissemination. In his case, conceptual comics art is a very active and resistant proposition within the field of comics and contemporary cultural industries.

5. From comics to cosmic or: to move heaven and earth

Underlying estrangement, which in his thesis repeatedly appears as a means and as an end, the promise of a universal language that comics incarnate seems to be Manouach’s main concern. This is most tangible in his Shapereader project, where Manouach tries to bridge the gap between the visual and the tactile, to get – in his own words – beyond western comics’ ocularcentrism, while drawing upon saussurian linguistics and the haptic navigation maps made by Inuits, amongst other things. The tactigrams of the Shapereader are conceived as multi-usable units of graphic patterns (e.g., ‘dots’, or ‘zigzags’) that can be decoded by touch alone. In this manner, Manouach extrapolated comics to a communication tool that can work for visually impaired participants and conventional readers alike, informed by the ‘utopian agenda for creating a transnational panlinguistic way of writing’ cherished by Concrete Poetry or its contemporary, digital descendants such as the uncreative writing of Kenneth Goldsmith. (105) Manouach only fully discovered comics at an adult age, when studying in Brussels, but met them as an estranging object earlier on: ‘My earliest recollection as a child of an encounter with a counterfeit product, was when my father returning from a business trip to Vietnam, brought with him three large lacquer reproductions of Tintin book covers.’ (155) While many makers got infected with comics by reading them from an early age on, Manouach’s interest in comics is constituted by his collision with a rather eerie and explicitly copied derivative of an already firmly out-of-date original. So, it is as a relative ‘outsider’ that Manouach invested in comics, picking up their strangeness and reactivating this weirdness to realize their promise of communicative universality.

In the case of Peanuts minus Schulz, Manouach revisits an internationally known production like Peanuts with the means of a global co-working device such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Dealing with AI and deep learning (the pinnacles of contemporary globalized technology) he co-created the meta-manga Fastwalkers, stressing the international appreciation of a visual language originally departed from a mix of Japanese pictorial traditions with U.S. comics... At every occasion, Manouach chooses to mingle with what we have inherited from modernist and postmodern arts and literature. At the same time, he explores comics making from its ‘infrastructional backends’ on – the way comics are printed, produced, distributed, copied, read and re-edited (e.g., in fan fiction). He therefore uses the many tools at hand in our globalized and digitized societies. It is no surprise then, that the increasing, planetary technologization of comics that Manouach investigates leads him to dream of possible cosmic, non-terrestrial infrastructures and to ‘hollow out comics from their most resilient feature, the human agent.’ (277) This posthumanist projection of ‘interstellar’ and ‘interspecies’ communication implicitly leaves out to whom Manouach might address his many, nonetheless undersigned book creations. Since Manouach repeatedly states that he is fed up with conventional authorism prevailing in comics and especially within graphic novels (anthropocentric, egocentric, romantic, old-fashioned, craft-obsessed etc.), one might expect him to minimize his very contemporary but not less strongly auctorial positioning. If he stays true to his conclusions, could we expect to see Ilan Manouach dissolve as a clearly identifiable one-man-band and market label and become part of a method, a project, a code? Creative maneuvers do not necessarily need codenames to influence cultural history, they can function as trends or tendencies.

In the end, Manouach puts a lot of effort to shape comics’ futures, as is clearly the case with the AI-generated Fastwalkers. The conceptual comics artist ends up being extremely craft-minded in his own way, even delivering tantalizing, sci-fi-like pages of technical descriptions (for non-geeks, at least). As said, Manouach’s impressive dedication, unfolded long before his PhD research, echoes a profound loyalty to the object, even delving into its refuse heap. His closing discussions on fellow creators Inès Chuquet, Zou Luoyang and Francesc Ruiz digest concepts such as ‘orphan works’, ‘waste economy’, ‘rudology’, ‘the excremential’, ‘heterology’, ‘foreign bodies’ etc. In accordance with the necessity to reiterate comics’ fundamental estrangement to reassert them as a contemporary universal language, this focus on the ever-lost object seems to be a core drive, as is often the case with inventive writers and creators. ‘But what happens to things when they are left behind and when no motion illuminates them anymore? When their customary circuits don’t overlap with trajectories of exchange, things, instead of a social life, reclaim a life,’ writes Manouach discussing Chuquet. (201) Scavenging the waste and hoarding piles of hypermodernity, Ilan Manouach unceasingly reactivates the undead object of comics, proving that ‘things are before anything else matter, and that life, in the biological sense, continues to circulate, beyond the circuits of value negotiation.’ Appropriating, assimilating, digesting and creatively excrementing new, unheard-off possibilities, conceptual comics makers invigorate comics against the backdrop of their ‘becoming dead matter’, attempting diversely to elevate the object to the dignity of the Thing, as Lacanians put it. For now, Manouach is looking forward to bringing this former low art in contact with the sky: in February 2023 he announced he would conduct a five-month research at the Academia Belgica on comics art and interstellar communication...


  • 1 Sébastien Conard, Toward Another Graphic Novel: Word, Image and Narrative in Comics and the Historical Avant-Gardes, doctoral thesis, PhD in the Arts, KU Leuven-LUCA, 2016:50-51. (Dutch)
  • 2 Simultaneously with but independently from Erin La Cour, and in a slightly different way, I made the case for re-assessing comics as a ‘minor literature’, following Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of Kafka’s writing: approaching comics not as a ‘minor art’ (sociologically speaking) but as an art form that makes a creative advantage of its ‘minor language’, in a deleuzian way. Postmedial, artistic ‘comics becomings’ (stripwordingen) can thus partly be grasped through the lens of ‘comics as a minor literature.’ See: Conard 2016: 76-79 & Erin La Cour, ‘Comics as a Minor Literature’, Image & Narrative, vol. 17/4, 2016 (online).
  • 3 For a recent inquiry of this sticky sense of ‘illegitimacy’ (leading to ‘autoclasm’) within U.S. comics and graphic novels, see Christopher Pizzino’s Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, UTP, 2016. On the ‘problem’ of comics as a possibly abject, fictional thing, see e.g., Marc De Kesel, ‘Goedkoop. Over strip, subject en wetenschap.’, DW B, 1996/4: 428-440.
  • 4 I.e., their blind spot as objectifying scientists who negate their unconscious subjectivity while pretending to know their good object called ‘comics’ objectively...
  • 5 One can be reminded of JC Menu’s retrospective explanation of needing to escape the suffocating ‘ghetto’ or ‘microcosm’ of late 1980s BD world (Plates-bandes, L’Association, 2005).
  • 6 This strangely reminds me of Benoît Peeters’ idea of a good comics scenario as a ‘machine à (faire) dessiner’, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s foreword on Peeters’ and Marie-Françoise Plissart’s photo novel Droits de regards (Minuit, 1985), indicating this rather unusual, wordless picture story as a ‘machine à faire parler’...
  • 7 Sébastien Conard (ed.), Post-comics: beyond comics, illustration and the graphic novel, KASK & het balanseer, 2020:4. See also:
  • 8 Ole Frahm, ‘Too much is too much. The never innocent laughter of the Comics.’, Image & Narrative, IV, 1/7, october 2003 (online).
  • 9 See Thierry Groensteen, ‘The Elusive Specificity’ (1986); Ann Miller & Bart Beaty (eds.), The French Comics Theory Reader, Studies in European Comics and Graphic Novels I, Leuven University Press, 2014: 63-74.