Edie Fake, “Gaylord Phoenix #7” (all images courtesy of Printed Matter)

Our expectation when looking at a book is for it to make sense, for it to tell a story. Whether from the learned experience of reading or some psychological trick of sequential images, we approach printed books in a story-seeking mode. This tendency is even more pronounced in American comics, which have struggled to make a clean break from the superhero genre. Something Unusual Is Happening, on view at Printed Matter in New York, features 15 artists who redirect comics’ impulse to narrative, asking readers to weave together the multivalent images and text in their work, turning the form into a conceptual binding for serial illustrations that may otherwise appear disjointed.

Something Unusual Is Happening, installation view

Something Unusual Is Happening, installation view

The exhibit has two dimensions: one closed off, one open to the audience. In the first, glass cases and wall mountings feature original drawings and archived books by the artists, and in the second, above them, is a shelf of current works for sale.

Son Ni, “Travel”

What is the reader to take from a narrative that borders on abstraction, a story so pared down that it could be anything — or nothing? Taiwanese artist and publisher Son Ni’s comic Travel features a bouncing bowling ball (highlighted in gold) that pops in and out of a variety of scenes, each fastidiously rendered with pencil and straightedge. French artist Alexis Beauclair contributes a few works that take this abstraction even further: one comic depicts nothing but a circle moving down a slope, like slow-motion stills from a rudimentary physics experiment.

Where Beauclair’s physics-inspired drawings are open-ended due to their simplicity, New Jersey cartoonist Michael Olivo’s figurative, vaguely science-fiction comics are nearly as opaque. Swarming, creeping, transforming figures fill the grid-paper-aligned panels of his pages. At times the work looks like a pulp superhero comic, but it is difficult to pin down individual characters or settings.

French artist Sammy Stein’s The Turtle Museum, a guided tour through a fictional museum, uses text to effectively supplement and enrich the illustrations. Blocks of introductory text, presented together in English, French, Spanish, and Japanese, are set against crisp diagrammatic illustrations of the Turtle Museum’s grounds, inviting readers to sift through hints about what exactly the museum archives.

Lale Westvind, “Double-Head Tour; Tornar & Riparna”

Other comics play more directly with the history of comics’ genre conventions. Brooklyn-based Lale Westvind’s works recreate the primary color vibrancy of midcentury superhero comics with lush, risographed pages largely composed of panels captioned by text. Westvind told me that either text or image may come first — some works are based on plotted stories and others begin as stream-of-consciousness sketches. The illustrations crackle with energy, while the captions give a look inside the supernatural phenomena at play: “She observed her electric will woven into the all thing… and decided to leave her body…”

Leslie Lasiter, who curated the exhibition with Cory Siegler, explained that part of the show’s rationale is that, though scattered throughout the world, this is a networked community of artists who are fluent in one another’s work and share similar interests (science fiction, geometry, etc.). Half of the exhibited cartoonists also participated in the recent art-comics prestige project Gouffre, a 300-page tome featuring gorgeous comics and illustrations from 35 artists. Gouffre is a high note in independently published comics, and it begs the question: What can a gallery exhibition of comics offer that a lovingly printed book cannot?

Lala Albert, “R.A.T.”

Original works by cartoonists offer a rare chance both to look into the process of their work and to take in all the details that are lost in printed reproductions. The full-color illustrations by Lala Albert are striking, making their printed replicas in the Kus! mini-comic R.A.T. look diminished by comparison. Similarly, seeing Olivo’s grid-paper layouts and Westvind’s original illustrations is thrilling.

While it’s difficult for any reproduction to rival the intricate detail of original art, a few works on view take advantage of the print medium to give readers an unconventional experience. Brooklyn cartoonist CF’s comics magazine Call 3 was thermal-printed on a receipt roll that puddled on the table as I unrolled it. I only moved through a few feet of it — the entire work is more than 40 feet long.

Unfortunately, some of the most interesting books in the exhibition are inaccessible. Within the glass cases are half a dozen of Son Ni’s out-of-print comics as well as original issues of Edie Fake’s mystical journey/metaphorical exploration of gender transitioning, Gaylord Phoenix. These books are nearly impossible to find, so it was a shame that audiences were limited to perusing only the artists’ most recently published works. Naturally, allowing visitors to touch the rarer books would have destroyed them, but it would have been nice to at least have text descriptions or other stand-ins for some of the archived works.

In general, there’s a maturity to the experiments on view, which are confident in their complete rejection of, or knowing nods to, the genre-strewn history of the comics medium. If the world makes any sense, these artists will now be publishing their work in editions large enough that audiences won’t have to go to an archival exhibition to find them.

Something Unusual Is Happening, installation view

Something Unusual Is Happening continues at Printed Matter (231 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) until July 31.

R. Orion Martin is an Iowa-born writer and translator who currently lives in Chengdu, China. You can find more of his work at www.rorionmartin.com.