Oct 20, 2015

Comics Poetry

I wrote an article for Sequart a few months ago about comics adaptations of Biblical narratives, and how the visual can offer us an interpretation of some of the metaphorical language that is deployed in such kerygmatic writings. I'm interested now in considering how comics combine with that most metaphorical of our imaginative genres, poetry. I've found only a few examples of what I would call "comics poetry," and I'd like to share them, and my thoughts about them, with you.

A Softer World does a whole bunch of really interesting things with the comics format, or rather, did. The comic ended a little while back, but the archive is still available, and well worth a read. How, then, is it poetry?

I suppose the proper question to ask first is what is poetry more generally. I'd venture to say that it's the most complex imaginative use of our langauage(s), relying heavily on metaphoric imagery, word play, form, and the conveyance of a feeling or experience, rather than a narrative. That's the simplest way I can think of to put it. So if we're to translate that basic breakdown from solely verbal to the verbal/visual system of comics, we have to start thinking about metaphoric use of visual language, of the form of the comic as reflective somehow of the content. Add to this the fact that A Softer World primarily uses photographs as its visual element, and we suddenly add notions of the fotonovel and of the representative and artistic qualities of photography to the mix.

How about we just read the comic up above there?

Not only do we have words conveying a particular emotion in that first panel, but also an expression on the person's face. As I note in the Sequart article, illustration isn't always simply a visual depiction of whatever the text says; it can often also be a form of elaboration or critique of the actions and events described in the text. That the person in the picture is staring directly out of the panel and at the reader also conveys a sense of immediacy, of the words in the caption box as a thought that is happening now. And while the words are talking about the ways in which this person tries to hide his feelings, the camera of the shot draws closer and closer over the three panels, reflecting the intimacy of the final caption. This kind of juxtaposition of words and pictures is fairly common in comics. The two semiotic systems can often combine very fruitfully, but the disparateness of what they convey can also be an effective way of utilizing the two systems as two systems, rather than one. Note also that the final caption, about the clouds, has floated up to the top of the panel, whereas the previous captions sit at the bottom of the first two panels. I tell my classes that when reading poetry, one has to consider the relationship of form to content - here is a perfect example of exactly that.

More so than the next couple of examples, A Softer World is poetry in comics form. There is very little sense of narrative, even in some of the longer pieces. This comic is simply (and sometimes not-so-simply) about conveying a moment, an idea, and about its communication through a series of symbolic phrases and pictures.

"Leaf" is a collaboration between Sydney Lea and James Kochalka, the poet and cartoonist laureates of Vermont, respectively.

I am curious as to what the experience of reading the words and the pictures of this piece separately would have been like. I imagine that both would work perfectly well apart from one another, but, as with any really great collaboration, the sum is greater than its parts. Both "Leaf" the poem and "Leaf" the comic tell moments, be it the last few thoughts of a leaf before it drifts down to peace or the rescue of a leaf from a puddle during a stroll through the woods. But together, they offer a single moment through different perspectives. This, really, is the key to the metaphoric interpretation of poetry, that idea that a single thing can be understood from very different perspectives - think about a metaphor, its deployment of the A=B paradigm. The moment above is both of the things I've described separately, but then inflected by one another to become something larger. The leaf falls, considering peace and its existence (note the way that the letters of the word "leaf" above are starting to fall), the friends walk through the forest, enjoying what one can only imagine is a satisfying crunch on the ground, and in this space, this conjunction of the moment of the leaf and the moment of the friends, we come to appreciate the significance that mundane moments might have. The leaf falls, and becomes something more than it could perhaps have imagined (if a leaf can imagine), a hat, a souvenir of a walk in the woods, whereas the walk in the woods becomes a witnessing of the end of a particular era for a particular living thing. Both the falling of the leaf and the walking in the woods become charged with significance, which is a nice way of describing the deployment of symbolic language in a poem. What we need to do as far as comics poetry goes is to understand the charging of the visual system of communication with said significance, with that metaphoric resonance.

My last example of comics poetry is a bit of a cheat. It's more comics song, with a bit of homage thrown in.

"Red Right Hand" is a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and this adaptation of it by "DrFaustusAU" is in the style of Dr. Seuss. So much going on, where to start? Perhaps even more so than the previous example, this juxtaposition of styles, of words and pictures, creates something more sinister and affecting than the individual elements might have.

(Just as a sidebar, I'm not sure the use of the term "individual elements" is quite as productive in talking comics as I might think. Surely if we're describing words and pictures as individual elements, we're privileging their autonomy over the "hybrid" form of comics. Perhaps it's better to say that the words and pictures [and formal characteristics] are a single element, though a gestalt one. But can we separate those elements out and still be talking about comics?)

Illustrating in the style of Dr. Seuss in and of itself brings a number of associations to this text, made all the more effective is one is familiar with the gothic strains of Cave and his band. Dr. Seuss's pictures have always had a bit of strangeness to them, so we now see this strangeness mixed with a musical style that, too, has always had a bit of strangeness to it. But these are different strangenesses. Metaphorically, once again, if we consider the A=B formula, we're left to the conclusion that the weird and whimsical nature of the Seussian world is equal, or equated to, the dark and sinister world of the Bad Seeds. And this inflection of strangenesses creates a dark, dynamic retelling, or reconceptualizing, of both separate strangenesses, and their amalgamation into something quite new and different.

I've been told that there's an optimal length for blog posts, so I'm going to leave this one here. If we can make poetry out of language, and if comics are a visual/verbal linguistic system all their own, then we will have those creators who will attempt to create poetry with that system. How we begin to describe this poetry, how we talk about what is being done in a particular piece, is the work of comics scholars, work I am very thankful for. I've some other thoughts on comics poetry, and how we can deploy the terminology of traditional poetic and literary theory to comics, but that can wait til next time. Do yourself a favour and go and experience the comics I've linked to above. They're doing something quite different with the medium, blazing a trail in an interesting, and relatively new, literary form.

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