OuBaPo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessisée Potentielle) can be roughly translated as Potential Comics Workshop. In the world of comics, OuBaPo is modelled after the literary movement Oulipo set up by Raymond Queneau. It was founded in 1992 by a restlessly active group from the L’Association publishing house and included authors such as Jean-Christophe Menu, Lewis Trondheim, Killoffer, Étienne Léocrart and François Ayroles.
The page we are looking at here is a piece from the Feinte Trinité comic and what is most remarkable here is the complete absence of characters and scenery. It’s a page made up entirely of panels, the contour of the speech balloons and the text inside them are done with a mechanical typography to distance it as much as possible from not only the drawing but the graphic. Additionally, we see the panels are perfectly delineated squares, while the balloons are all perfectly circular spheres, just as if they too had been created mechanically.
There are no panels of different sizes here, nor do we see a play with effects in the balloons or lettering, unlike what happened in the John Byrne’s page analysed in this article by Roberto Bartual. On the contrary, everything seems made to measure with complete conformity. All the balloons are the same shape, nearly all the same size and are invariably positioned in the centre of the panel. All the panels are the same size creating a completely regular system on the page (3 strips and 3 panels each one) in what would be a typology of a typically conventional page according to the system proposed by Benoît Peeters (1991: 37-38).
The fact that Ayroles uses this type of grid is no coincidence as it is the format that best allows the reader to focus on these slight changes occurring within the panels. And what we witness here is that a slight change occurs in the positioning of the balloon tail pointing towards where the speaker of each speech balloon is positioned.
There is therefore no drawing, no graphication element in the meaning conveyed by Philippe Marion which refers to the impression the author leaves with his trace (that of the characters, the panels and the lettering). A complete absence of drawing, when this is what precisely defines the comic. And not only that but in the French speaking countries the same word is used to define the drawing and the medium itself, bande dessinée, which literally means drawn strip and historically refers to the hand-drawn characters which evolve in the panels of the strips.
The absence of characters and drawing challenges almost all definitions of the comic, which define the medium as something impossible to understand without the presence of images. Ayroles, however, manages to create a bona fide comic removing an element that practically all theorists consider fundamental in defining the comic. Thus, for instance, Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response from the viewer” (1993: 9).
In the absence of drawings, Ayroles plays with two key elements in his comic: the use of the balloons (which, it should be noted, are not a required element in a comic) and also the use of the characters outside the panel. Thanks to the use of the latter the reader can easily imagine something that is found beyond the panel. This is something additional found in all image representation from paintings to cinema, and Ayroles clearly knows how to make excellent use of this technique.
The balloons not only show that someone is speaking but also reveal where the person is, thanks to the balloon tail which allows us to recreate the scene. The child is in the centre, papa is on our left hand side and mama on the right. The balloons are used in such an intelligent way that we know without looking, or without anyone telling us, that the child is small as the balloon is pointing downwards.
The mere presence of the balloons shows us there is a place of origin of those balloons, that is, a character saying something. This confirms the theory of Thierry Groensteen when he says that “the balloon never appears alone because it’s a virtual sound diffusion and this in turn assumes that there is a source” (1999: 80). In this case the source implies the existence of some characters, albeit characters in absentia.
However as we noted earlier, the challenge raised by Ayroles in this page (a pictureless comic, without images) forces us to rethink the very definition of the comic. And maybe the definition that has yet to be developed must also take into account what Harry Morgan stated when he wrote “a comic isn’t defined by its text-image relation (…) but rather the decisions relating to the narrative and the formal” (2003: 152). He also added that these solutions are found with a mechanism and sequentiality. And these are two elements that are in the page created by Ayroles.
Ayroles, F. (2003:24) “Feinte Trinité”, in Oubapo 2 (Paris: L’Association)