Rhythm & Rhyme: Asthma, The Blot and Comics-As-Poetry Part One (of Three)

Posted by on December 8th, 2009 at 12:01 AM

In the early stages of any media, the influence of a preceding art form is readily apparent. Early films were shot without much camera movement, and editing and looked much like staged plays, for example — a self-imposed limitation that was shattered by cinematic visionaries.  Similarly, the earliest published American comics in the 19th century on through the popularization of the medium in American comic strips in the 20th century took their cues from the popular media of the time, which was driven by linear narrative rather than experimentation with form: whether a single panel, a comic strip or a comic book, comics presented a clear and usually literal delineation of an idea. Whether that idea was a story, a gag or a political idea, this fusion of word and image has had its own set of self-imposed limitations. As comics evolved and developed their own avant-garde movement, artists such as Tom Neely and John Hankiewicz, have embraced a different form of expression in the comics medium: the use of comics-as-poetry.

First, a word of clarification: There is a difference between what I refer to comics-as-poetry and illustrated poems. There have been some recent works where cartoonists tackle previously published works by poets in an attempt to provide an appropriate visual. In this instance, the poem and the image are separate entities that may comment on each other but do not create a gestalt. There has always been a tension between illustration and cartooning, and this is a perfect example of where the line is drawn between the two forms.

Reading comics-as-poetry

Poetry exploits language, abstracting beyond its initial meaning for aesthetic and other purposes, while at the same time remaining more condensed and less straightforward than most prose. As such, poetry requires an active reader who must interact with the text rather than be led along to an inevitable end. The slippery, elusive nature of poetry gives the reader the responsibility to engage every word and the power to wrestle meaning from the text. Meanings can be teased out through initial surface impressions, emotional impressions, phenomenological study and an analysis of the poem’s symbology based on the first three steps.

Just as a reader must employ different reading techniques with poetry and prose, comics-as-poetry must be read the same way, with attention to the visual cues that interact with text or act on their own adding an additional layer of complexity. Poetry provides a narrative as much as any other art form does, and likewise, the comics analyzed below are examples of comics-as-poetry that offer a very rich, complex and mysterious kind of narrative that, like poetry, requires the engagement of the reader.

What separates what I call comics-as-poetry from more conventional comics? That difference is overdetermined in many respects. There is often a denseness in each panel and page that requires unpacking, a higher level of commitment to closely reading each word and image and how specifically they interact. More conventional narratives can of course make use of symbol and metaphor but rarely at the level of abstraction and fluidity that characterizes comics-as-poetry. Unlike a standard comic, there can be an emphasis on the image qua image, as the artist lingers on the plastic qualities of an image and asks that the reader do so as well. In this sense, the imagery in comics-as-poetry simply isn’t a shorthand way of delivering easily digested narrative clues but, at the same time, is not merely decorative or illustrative. Poetic language is often highly symbolic, dense and abstract, taking readers out of their comfort zone. In much the same way, comics-as-poetry not only uses compact, frequently cryptic imagery in order to force the reader to engage it outside of the framework of an expected narrative, it also adds an additional layer of complexity when the reader is also asked to grapple with the tension between word and image.

It is important to note that formalist experimentation for its own sake, à la http://www.tomhart.net/oubapo/, is not what I would consider to be comics-as-poetry. Such experimentation is valuable in understanding the forms, limits and possibilities available in constructing comics, but they don’t relate to the aims of comics-as-poetry. There is no emotional or symbolic meaning to be taken from those comics, and this is something at the heart of comics-as-poetry; an exploration and demarcation of the contents of our inner worlds: be it emotions, ideas, dreams or symbols.

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Image [©2006 John Hankiewicz]

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3 Responses to “Rhythm & Rhyme: Asthma, The Blot and Comics-As-Poetry Part One (of Three)”

  1. Ian Harker says:

    In my opinion the best poetry-comic to date is Anders Nilsen’s “The End.”

  2. DerikB says:

    Curious to see where you go with this. I have notes and drafts for a post on a similar topic, starting from Warren Cragheads “How To Be Everywhere”, that I’ve yet to form into something cohesive.

  3. Rob Clough says:

    Derik,

    Craghead is another big name in this area, though I classify him as something called “immersive comics”, where text and image blur and force the reader to approach the world on those terms. Immersive comics are certainly comics-as-poetry, but the converse is not always true.

    I still don’t own a copy of “How To Be Everywhere”–I need to correct that, and soon.

    The End is definitely comics-as-poetry, though from an entirely different angle.