Detail from the Spirou Journal cover for their OuBaPo issue

Beginning BD: What Is OuBaPo? And Why Is It So Cool?

OuBaPo is a French term (“Ouvrir de bande dessinee potentielle“) that describes a method of creating comics with certain constraints. It is based on another French constraint system from the 1960s, Oulipo (“Ouvroir de littérature potentielle“), developed by French writers and mathematicians.

I first discovered OuBaPo from the June 5, 2019 issue of “Spirou Journal.”

It’s this one, with the coolest cover of the year so far::

Spirou magazine cover of the special OuBaPo issue, with Spirou magically appearing from the table.

If you can’t see the trick of the cover, stand back a little further and squint just a bit towards the middle of that table.

Et voilà: Spirou!

What is OuBaPo?

OuBaPo is the short version of the less wieldy French phrase “Ouvrir de bande dessinee potentielle.” Wikipedia translates that, roughly, to “workshop of potential comic book art.”

It’s a method of making comic book stories with constraints.

The prior art, Oulipo (“workshop of potential literature”), had stories written as a palindrome, or novels written without the letter “e”. (Here’s a video from an Oulipo member explaining it.)

Constraints only get weirder from there. Wikipedia cites one where you replace every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. It’s like Mad Libs on steroids. And hallucinogens. (Hey, it was the 60s…)

The constraints of comics are just as varied and crazy. It might be as simple as using a nine panel grid, such as with “Watchmen.” Or it might be a little further out there, such as using a nine panel grid and structuring the panels and the story as one long palindrome, such as “Watchmen” #5, “Fearful Symmetry.”

Center layout from "Watchmen" #5, the "Fearful Symmetry" issue with the mirror image storytelling. By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Francois Schuiten followed that up in 1990 with “Nogegon,” an album length story told as one long palindrome, with both the panel layouts and character positions being mirror images of each other, if you picture the mirror at the halfway point of the book.

I’d even argue that the visual trickery from Schuiten surpasses even Dave Gibbon’s amazing work on that “Watchmen” issue. But that’s an argument for another day…

Luc and Francois Schuiten's "Nogegon" album, in which the story is told in a palindromic style.

Or, imagine a comic told in all splash pages (Walter Simonson’s “Thor”) or 2, 3, or 4 panel pages, like they did in the issues leading up to “The Death of Superman.”

The American King of OuBaPo is likely Erik Larsen, whose done all of those kinds of experiments (and plenty more) with issues of “Savage Dragon.” The next issue in the series uses a 12 panel grid on every page, for example.

For a very recent example of OuBapo that’s been translated into English, check out my review of “Mickey All-Stars”. In it, forty European cartoonists draw one page Mickey Mouse stories in which the mouse walks into and then out of a scene through a door.

Artistic Constraints or Marketing Stunts?

Some might complain that these are stunts. Stories don’t need to be constrained like this. It’s just a desperate effort on the part of the creator to get some attention for their weirdly constructed comic story.

It’s not quite that, though.

OuBaPo exists to challenge the storytelling skills of cartoonists. It’s there, to use all of the cliches, to push an artist out of their comfort zone and to think outside the box. It’s a concept that a group of creators in France set up to challenge themselves and each other. They adore comics, and want to see more new and interesting things come out of it.

The crazier the challenge, the more “OuBaPo” it is.

It’s meant to be a spark to create new things in interesting ways.

It reminds me a bit of improv. Think about “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Sure, you could crack jokes off the top of your head for three minutes, but what if all the jokes had to be done in song? Or as questions? Or with random lines of dialogue provided by the audience? Those constraints help to guide the creation. The show is funnier because of the extra hoops they need to jump through.

Those hoops are the constraints. They lead to the most outrageous, creative, and imaginative bits.

To me, it’s a fascinating exercise. It’s not meant to be the primary mode by which you tell all your stories. But as an exercise in creativity, it’s a wonderful vehicle for exploration.

Who Started OuBaPo, and When?

I’ll defer to an expert on French comics here:

OuBaPo (l’Ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle) was initiated by French comics critic Thierry Groensteen and by artists involved with the artist-run French comic book publishing cooperative, L’Association. Following the publication of the first proto-OuBaPienne book, Lewis Trondheim and Jean-Christophe Menu’s Moins d’un quart de second pour vivre (L’Association, 1991), Noël Arnaud officially recognized the group on 28 October 1992. Since that time the group has expanded, and L’Association has published four OuPus volumes that collect various essays and experiments by the various members, while OuBaPienne books have found homes with a number of French comic book publishers.

Bart Beaty, “Comics and the Modern Moment

I’ll try to cover L’Association here someday, but for now think of it as a fiercely independent publisher in France that wants to publish anything the “mainstream” publishers don’t want to touch. It attracts an ideological group of comic creators with strong opinions on what comics could be and what L’Association should be.

As you might suspect, a group of such strong-willed individuals working together as a whole is bound to explode at some point. That’s a story for another time, though…

For now, it’s enough to know that L’Association was the unofficial publisher of the OuBaPo group’s printed efforts.

Lewis Trondheim Gets the Ball Rolling

Lewis Trondheim is both a founding member of OuBaPo as well as L’Association. He was a very active member of the group in those early days. In fact, he had started doing works in the style before there was an official group.

His early work was done very simply, as both a hedge towards his limited artistic skills and a defiant act against the more masterful, technical bandes desinnees styles done by the likes of Uderzo and Herge, which would often take a full year to complete.

One of his earliest stories is “Psychoanalyse.” It’s told in six different panels that he copied over and over again to tell a dense short story.

Here’s a sample page:

Lewis Trondheim tells a comic story in the OuBaPo style, with as few panels as possible.

Trondheim had a friend, Jean-Christophe Menu, who challenged him to write a story using only four panels. After Trondheim turned those into 20 strips, Menu added four more. Trondheim finished 100 strips thanks to those panels. That turned into a book that translates out to “Less Than a Quarter of a Second to Live.”

The French version of Wikipedia has a page about the book, and describes the eight panels Menu gave Trondheim:

  • a man sitting on a rock
  • a man facing a toad
  • a man sitting on the ground under a crescent moon
  • a cabin at the water’s edge
  • a man facing a rock
  • a hut at the edge of a cliff, at the foot of the cliff, a man has his feet in the water
  • a toad on a water lily
  • someone whose legs are only seen, the trunk buried under the ground, all under a crescent moon

It makes my head hurt to think about creating 100 stories with that crazy group of images.

And So a Group Began…

In November, 1992, Menu, Trondheim, and seven others — François Ayroles, Anne Baraou, Gilles Ciment, Jochen Gerner, Thierry Groensteen, Patrice Killoffer, Étienne Lécroart — formed the “OuBaPo” group.

The whole thing became a bit of a drink and draw. For ten years, they got together multiple times during the year and figured out new challenges.

This was a serious way to explore new ways of making comics for these creators. And some of their creations are insanely difficult and amazing to behold.

In 1997, they published their first book collecting these stories, much like the way About Comics once published collections of 24 Hour Comics Day comics.

The first book, “OuPus 1”, ran 2000 pages long. It was followed by three sequels in successive years.

The meta high concept took off. Popularity bred shows and gallery exhibitions.

They even made a board game called “Scroubabble,” which is basically Scrabble with comic book panels.

An American Connection

The group eventually expanded to include an American, Matt Madden. You may recognize his name. He’s a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, has had a few comics of his own published, and even wrote for The Comics Journal.

He’s married to another comic creator, Jessica Abel. Together, they’ve published a couple of instructional books on how to make comics through First Second.

He published an OuBaPo book in English:

“99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style,” (2005) is a riff on an idea from the Oulipo movement: The original prose book, “Exercises in Style” tells the same prose story 99 times in different styles. Madden does the same here, taking a very simple story of a man going downstairs to his refrigerator and checking the time. With each retelling, it takes on a new style or technique.

Madden became the American representative for the OuBaPo group, thanks to his dedication to the cause.

You can watch video of Madden at the “OuBaPo Show” from 2013. It’s all in French, but you’ll get the point.

Listen to Matt Madden on the Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast (August 2021), where he talks a lot about OuBaPo and his role in it as the American Correspondent.

A Short Video Break

The Wall Street Journal did a story on OuBaPo in 2011. Sadly, it’s behind a paywall now, but the video that accompanies it is not. I can’t embed there, but you can see it at the link.

You can find more examples of constraints in there, including drawing comics that read differently upside down, or that change meaning depending on the way you unfold the paper they’re on.

You can also read more there about the blow-up at L’Association that happened at the time, if you like the more dramatic scurrilous tales of comics in France. The Comics Journal did great reporting on that as it happened, also.

Back To Spirou Journal…

So how did Spirou handle OuBaPo in its pages?

There’s a variety of exercises in the issue mixed in-between the standard chapters of the latest “Spirou” serials.

Fabcaro complains that the artist, Fabrice Erre, only has to draw one panel and copy and paste it five more times.  The writer should get paid more.
Fabcaro, left, wants 5/6 of the pay for doing most of the work.

The whole things starts with the introductory editorial. You know how “Epic Illustrated” used to being with a page on the inside front cover showing Archie Goodwin introducing the issue? “Spirou” does that in every issue, too.

For their OuBaPo issue, it’s six identical panels of an artist (Fabrice Erre) and writer (Fabcaro) introducing the concept. If I’m reading this right, the writer is saying that he should get most of the money for the page, since he had to write six panels while the artist only had to draw it once, then copy and paste.

The body of the issue starts with an interview with Etienne Lecroart, who is not only an OuBaPo group member, but also an Oubila (prose) group member. Each of the five questions he had to answer have constraints of their own, all suitably wacky:

  • Answer without using the letter “S”.
  • End each sentence of your answer with either “ou”, “ba”, or “po.”
  • Insert the names of cartoonists in your answer.
  • Cite a quote from Victor Hugo and one from (soccer player) Franck Ribery in your answer.
  • End the interview with the same sentence you began this interview with.

The first exercise leads off with Lecroart providing a single comic panel. It’s a man sitting in chair telling his dog that he preferred the previous version. You can sense the frustration from an artist in an industry where he’s likely so often told by fans that they liked his old work better.

The panel is handed off to seven more artists who created a short strip that ends with that panel. It’s such a simple challenge, but every artist handles it differently. The different strips include everything from fairies and aliens to the most spare one that I’m going to put in here because it cracked me up:

OuBaPo dog comic strip with the line, "I preferred the previous version."

The second exercise is even more devilish. The first cartoonist draws three panels of a comic strip. Each successive artist adds three panels to the strip, wherever they want: Between panels, before or after all the panels.

It’s interesting to see where each artist chose to add onto the story. It feels like some wanted to add panels in different places to challenge the next cartoonist, while others had ideas for how to continue through the story and wanted to set something up in one place while paying off something else in another.

In the end, the original three panels stayed in order in the first third of the story. The last three cartoonists definitely built up on each other at the end of the story to give it a twist ending that’s both twisted and funny, with the final artist drawing the final three panels.

Bruno Madaule begins an OuBaPo exercise in borrowed panels.

In the third exercise, each cartoonist must draw a four panel strip. And each cartoonist will use a panel from the strip of the cartoonist before them in their own, redrawing it to fit in their strip.

Spirou helpfully puts a dot above each borrowed panel so you can quickly see which one got re-used. Along the way, it tells one larger story of a time when a gigantic meteor is about to hit the earth.

It’s a bit weird and even after translating it by typing all the word balloons into Google Translated, I’m still not sure I get most of it.

The final strip is drawn by Jose Luis Munuera, but it’s mostly a repeated image of a building exterior, so it’s nothing exciting.

In the fourth and final exercise, five creators combine to draw one nine panel story. Each takes a turn drawing specific panels, starting with the first cartoonist drawing a pirate finding a treasure chest in the center panel. It spirals out from there, with the next cartoonist always drawing the previous and the following panel from what has been previously completed.

This is the result:

A nine panel grid page done by five cartoonists in an OuBaPo style

It’s a pretty mind-bending piece of work, when you think about it. It’s being made up as the story goes along. Each cartoonist has to advance and rollback the story as they go. And the final cartoonist has to hope someone set something up for him, or left him enough room to get a final punchline worth reading in.

The issue wraps up with a two page cartoon that walks you through a game of “SpirOubapo” by Erwann Surcouf. It walks you through a series of prompts to create your comic story, then challenges you to do it. You’re supposed to pick randomly from those prompts with a pair of dice or by randomly opening to the page of Spirou and digits of the page number together

It gets a little complicated, but the story generation system is a good tool for an OuBaPo exercise.

Further Reading

Some of these links have more examples:

DrunkenBoat.com: An introduction to OuBaPo with quotes from members of the group and lots of examples of the art.

Killoffer’s M.C. Escher-like OuBaPo

An explanation of OuBaPo via slide show.

Of course there’s an OuBaPo Facebook page!

Putting It To Practice

Then, I had a Silly Idea:

“I should do my own OuBaPo!”

As if this article didn’t take long enough to write up….

I drew six panels of some character who looks vaguely like me, if you squinted hard enough, and this was closer to 2005 than 2019.

The six panels of my OuBaPo

The challenge I gave myself was to put together a four panel comic strip using these six drawings. Then repeat.

Pipeline OuBaPo #1: A Trip to the Post Office

My Trip to the Post Office OuBaPo strip #1 by Augie De Blieck Jr.

Pipeline OuBaPo #2: I’m Not a Cheerleader

Why I won't be a cheerleader OuBaPo strip #2 by Augie De Blieck Jr.

Pipeline OuBaPo #3: It’s a Pun and I’m Not Sorry

A Punny OuBaPo strip #3 by Augie De Blieck Jr.

For those curious: These strips were done with pencil and paper, Clip Studio Paint, and Affinity Designer (for the lettering).

What I Learned from this Exercise

Man oh man, do professional comic creators make it look easy…

This was tough. When you’re not in the habit of being creative, it’s tough to get back into it. Things don’t flow naturally or easily.

I wanted to add more panels. Some lines I came up with just didn’t match the art I had available. I had to bail on a couple of “jokes” because of that. Staying inside the constraints forced me to try something different.

Everything is important in a comic strip. I moved lots of lettering around to make it read “right” to me. I moved some art around to make room for the lettering, which is probably too large, but that’s not the point of the exercise so I didn’t give myself a hard time over it.

Writing, drawing, coloring, and lettering even a simple four panel strip is not easy. Theoretically, the more of these I do, the easier it’d get. The art is all done (if not perfect). I didn’t play with it too much as far as zooming in or flipping art around, but I kept that in mind.

As I get used to the tools’ quirks in pasting the panels together and then doing the lettering, I’m sure if would be less of a hassle.

I actually do want to do more, if only to make up for how Not Great these are. Surely, if this became a habit, I’d learn to get into the flow of things. Right?

OuBaPo. It’s pretty cool, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. You’re trading one set of problems for another.

Other OuBaPo Works by Trondheim

In looking back at some of the Trondheim books I have on my bookshelf, it dawns on me that some of them fit into the OuBaPo style.

Sadly, I don’t think these are in print anymore, but they’re wonderful books if you can find a copy somewhere. They were all published by NBM, who also published four wonderful volumes of his autobiographical series, “Little Nothings.”

Li'l Santa by Lewis Trondheim and Thierry Robin.  NBM published two volumes in the series.

These two Li’l Santa stories are completely silent and done with a 16 panel grid. There’s an OuBaPo Two-For for you!

They’re drawn by Thierry Robin, and they’re wonderful stories with great art. Robin’s cartooning immediately draws you in. This is the cutest Santa you’ve ever seen.

You can still pick up the “Happy Halloween, Li’l Santa” hardcover from NBM.

Mister I and Mister O by Lewis Trondheim are great OuBaPo books.  Published by NBM in America.

These two books go completely over the top. Done by Trondheim alone, they’re each a collection of single page gag stories featuring the same character.

In “Mr. O,” it’s the same story on every page: Mr. O is trying to get across the chasm to the cliff on the other side. He fails every time. It’s hilarious, like Wile E. Coyote having his worst day 30 times.

In “Mr. I”, the new character has more varied adventures, though many of them consist of him trying to get food. And, again, he dies each time. It’s a bit like “Game Over,” with the constraints of being silent and —

— oh, yeah, I didn’t mention the other constraint here yet. Each of these stories is complete on one page, and each page has 60 panels (10 tiers of six panels across) on them. It’s the ultimate in silent storytelling crossed with minimalism.

I should go back and write full reviews for these books. For now, though, keep an eye out for them.

OuBaPo Is Everywhere

Comics told with constraints placed upon them. That’s OuBaPo, a French tradition that challenges cartoonists to tell stories under unforgiving rules. It’s an exercise that tests the mettle of any cartoonist willing to give it a try. The results can be surprisingly entertaining.

And now you’ll see it everywhere you look. I’m sorry about that.

Here are some books I’ve reviewed on this site that would qualify as OuBaPo:

  • They Called Him Charles“: Single page gag comic with the same one line of dialogue at the end
  • Mickey All-Stars“: 40 cartoonists put Mickey Mouse through a one page story that starts with him walking in a door and ends as he walks out another.
  • Nogegon” – A symmetrical book by Francois Schuiten.

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What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

6 Comments

  1. Another special book by Lewis Trondheim is Ufo. It’s in collaboration with Fabrice Parme.
    The story starts in the frontcover and ends at the back cover. All of it is one panel.
    A few years ago at De Stripdagen in Haarlem (small version of a comic-con in Holland) they showed about 14 pages as 1 panel and it was wonderfull to watch. It took me some time to find but I read it quit frequently.
    Are you familiars with it?

    1. I have not heard of that book, no. Trondheim has SO MANY books out there, it feels like I’m always hearing of a new one. The one panel idea sounds cool. I think Geoff Darrow did a similar thing with an issue of Shaolin Cowboy once. It’s an interesting thing to try… I’d love to see Trondheim’s take on it.

    1. Thanks for the links. I read the English page and it’s pretty interesting how the whole thing came together. The book looks interesting, and I love the Choose Your Own Adventure nature of it. I can only imagine the nightmare of making this in the computer with all those large files to put together and keep everything lined up from page to page.

  2. If you look at the site of First Second Books you’ll get some info and at the end some pages of the book.