Having frames already leads you to assume comparisons or assume relationships when things are placed next to each other that way. Instead of accepting something as one whole image, you are forced to accept a plane, which then leads you to sequence, which then leads you to narrative. Forcing people to to have to relate things that way is exciting.
-- Aidan Koch
The first time I encountered Aidan Koch was at a MoCCA panel she was on with Austin English and Blaise Larmee, hosted by Bill Kartopolous, regarding the osmosis that does (and does not) occur between the fine art world and the world of comics.
It was really a fantastic lineup for that discussion, but a panel is a rough place for a topic like that. You can get folks to talk about the form to some extent, and Bill is a solid moderator, but guys like Blaise... sometimes when they get going about art stuff they end up on a level where they just kind of blow your nuts off.
Let that mark a very inappropriate segue to the work of Aidan Koch!
Whereas it's very difficult to encapsulate the relationship between art and comics in conversation, it turns out when you make good ~art comics~, your work is worth a thousand words. The work of Aidan Koch stands out to me among a lot of other work because I believe you can read a single Aidan Koch comic and understand, in a deep way, what she's all about. Other work that makes a strong first impression for me does so through its novelty or virtuosity. But reading Koch, I notice two things: that I feel like I'm part of the creative process in an intimate way and that I feel like she's really onto something.
Enter After Nothing Comes
For the uninitiated, After Nothing Comes from Koyama Press is the most comprehensive collection of Koch's work, and provides a lucid cross-section of the development of her artistic voice, one that I believe hangs out way deep down close to the heart of comics as a medium.
Here is the second page of After Nothing Comes from a 2008 zine called "Warmer", followed by another zine, "Reflections", completed six years on in 2014.
Koch's early work leans heavily on figure drawing. Panels dart between thoughtful renderings of mundane objects in order to form an abstract tableau. These images rise above the mundane in the way in which Koch shows a gift early on for infusing poetry into the work. At first, it seems very straightforward, but it really makes the medium come alive for those who take the time to pay attention.
When you think of comics--without getting too definitional because fuck that--you may think of pictures that serve as a substratum for words.
But what kind of substratum? Do the words merely help bind the accepted semantics of a given visual narrative syntax? And is that in itself a fact?
Or an expectation?
Koch's work helped convince me that while the pictures are just another layer of canvas for meaning, the way in which they accept meaning is fragile and dependent on every little decision the artist and reader make, sometimes together. Koch's poetry often impinges pages by finding the gaps in space, time, and outright meaning between them.
Because gaps must be filled but only under the right conditions. An incomplete work will be judged as such even by the least discerning of readers. There is a great deal of formal gusto required to strip an art form down to its bones, spread out the rib cage, and ask readers to see the meat.
The early page may look more raw, and the later page obsessively neat, but the neatness of the latter page is a style choice owing to that particular story (although Koch does start using straight edges to render her frames in later work). The pencil erasures that occur in the early work are actually something that Koch keeps in quite a lot of her work, and it is something that I love to see (Austin English does this quite a lot as well).
There is an intimacy here that is hard to evince without sounding simple, but I'll go ahead anyway: seeing the erasures--seeing old words, new line placement, even apparent mistakes--makes me feel connected to the act of the work's production. So often I am faced with a finish product in perfect binding that came in a box from some warehouse that I have to jump through a series of very real mental hoops in order to connect what's in front of me with the hand that drew it. Those mental hoops easily spin out into emotional ones and a sense of detachment forms before I even have a chance to sit down and really think about what I've read.
The erasures constantly make me think about the artist's decisions in a vein that is much more visceral and rough than the kind of pontificating that is begotten by the handful of minutes of forced contemplation following work I might not otherwise think twice about more organically.
Eventually, Koch's work takes a turn out of figure drawing towards more ambient themes, and the way in which the comics form is interrogated becomes, by my estimation, far more aggressive. It's fascinating watching all these elements develop over the course of only a handful of zines over a 6 year period. You can see the emphasis on gestures come in on "Dancer at Midnight," as well as the increased reliance on blank panel borders as narrative beats to, in essence, sort of fuck with the reader a bit. Then, in the eponymous "After Nothing Comes," gesture takes a break for some more ambient work as emptiness becomes even more the star. The final story, "Reflections," is a combination mash-up/distillation of gesture, rigorous formal experimentation (read: fucking with the reader more than the reader even realizes!), and ambience. Koch does not just evoke feelings, she evokes unconscious opinions. She plays on deep, pyscho-linguistic biases that you did not even know could be pitted against each other.
What impresses me most about Koch's interrogation of the comics medium is that she achieves it by existing in a space essential to the comics medium. While a page can give you a good sense of her style, it is never a sufficient stand-in for exactly how well that page works in the context of what comes before and after.
As you can see from the above page from the eponymous zine, Koch is playing with panels, the very basic building blocks of visual narratives (or, at least, what we've come to accept as the building blocks). Yet the prior two pages are more stretched out, featuring only four panels that read like two. By expanding and contracting the reader's pace with panel borders alone, Koch causes you to spend more time than you might otherwise spend treating these empty panels like narrative beats. For many of us, merely reading Koch's work might be the closest we come to writing a comic, even if the work we're putting in while reading her work is largely reflexive. And Koch's instinct for tapping our reflex to find meaning in sequence in unexpected ways is nearly without rival.