In Defense of Poetry… Comics

I have been working on a new web comic, called Blind to Blue that I hope to post each Friday starting this week. It will be a “poetry comic,” a term that I have been wrestling with for a while. Last night, however, I realized that I never defined to others what I mean when I use that term. Being a blog of “poetry comics for velociraptor enthusiasts” I haven’t really delivered much on either. That ends now

Velociraptor puppet!

I used to call the work “graphic poetry,” this borrowed from “graphic novel,” a term coined to appreciate comics that dealt with large themes and complex stories. Very good branding, it immediately communicated to the world at large that there weren’t just comic strips out there but also narrative sequential art with literary merit. However, “graphic poetry” felt presumptuous and lofty. Poetry already suffered from a history of elitism and exclusivity (thanks Ezra Pound), which, I feel, makes it daunting to the average reader.

Comics aren’t daunting to anyone, Calvin and Hobbes are still the best friends you never had. The combination should play on the strength of both mediums making “graphic” too inaccessible. Plus, “graphic comics” evokes the image of “concrete poetry,” which includes those poems about Christmas trees, shaped like Christmas trees, your first grade teacher made your write.

“Comic poetry” was less intimidating but easy to confuse with poems that intend to be funny, like limericks or Andrew Dice Clay. So no, that wasn’t going to work.

When I became aware of Bianca Stone, I saw that she called her work “poetry comics.” Here poetry becomes the adjective qualifying the noun of comics. An improvement in a number of ways. Instead of trying to assert that the work is, irreducibly, poetry—which in my own case is debatable—it presents that they are comics that are poetically informed.

The moniker of “poetry comics” also helps to express that these are not poetic comics particularly but comics employing the techniques and craft elements of poetry. This is a helpful distinction as there are a number of comic-artists that make very poetic work without the intention of creating poetry comics. The work of Eleanor Davis or Rebecca Clements very often can feel like poetry in comics and it is, the small genre distinction being in approach only. A poetry comic is, to its creator, similar to a form of poetry not unlike a sonnet, haiku or pantoum. This seems like a strange argument but I feel that, at least in my case, it is true. Panels work very similar to line breaks, a topic I’ll discuss later.

The constraint based writing group the OuLiPo have a term for writers who engaged in constraint writing before the formation of the OuLiPo or without the knowledge of group. They affectionately call them “anticipatory plagiarists,” and are highly regarded and appreciated. This is a term fitting for those comic-artists whose work is very poetic, Lynda Barry, and the aforementioned, but is made without the approach of any poetry craft.

The number of self-identified poetry-comic artists is small. I mentioned Bianca Stone above, she both creates work and curates an online series of poetry comic work on THEthe Poetry. The newest entry is the art of Sommer Browning and the writing of Noah Eli Gordon.

Be sure to also have a look at Simon Moreton, Derik A. Badman and Alexander Rothman as well.

This has become a long post. In future posts I will discuss my thoughts on the language of iconography and image, and why I feel they fit into poetry so well. At some point I will also try to explore the different kinds of comic poetry out there.

Are you a comic-poet? Let me know. I’d like to chat and hear your thoughts.

This entry was published on November 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm. It’s filed under Art/Comics, Graphic Poem, oulipo, Poetry Comics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Poetry… Comics

  1. Thanks so much for posting — wasn’t aware of poetry-comics and thanks so much for the links as different than I was guessing initially.

  2. Thanks for the mention!

    For my own sins, I think we can push ourselves to move far beyond ‘poetically informed comics’. Conventions like panels certainly inculcate certain ways of reading (hence, I get what you mean about line-breaks), but these are the expectations as to how they function that need to be rethought. Being aware of their value is important, but one shouldn’t reduce comics to their most basic of components (not saying you do, of course!).

    I think it is important to remember that lines, shapes, marks create visual rhythms; single letters and words divorced from structure or context bring their own sense of poetics; aesthetics are appropriated, alluded to, or subverted in a bid to make the whole piece say something. The approach that excites me isn’t one of writing a comic about a poem, or writing a poem into a comics format; it’s something far more exciting that recasts what we mean by ‘poem’ or ‘comic’ or ‘visual language’ or ‘rhythm’ until the piece is greater than the sum of its parts.

    This, at least, is increasingly becoming my take on the comics form. I hope to write a longer post in which these half thought-out ideas might become more cogent. Thanks for posting!

    • I think you have some excellent points, and I agree completely. Like any attempt to define genre, “poetry comics” falls apart under scrutiny and added exceptions. Ultimately, it is each artists’ right to brand their work, which is a disclaimer I probably should have opened with. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  3. Poetry and comics are two subjects really close to my heart, though I have to admit I haven’t combined them much. My buddy Mike and I did a comics sestina in one of our issues of Satisfactory Comics, but it’s narrative, and it doesn’t really feel like a poem. I’m really interested to hear what you have to say, though. Maybe I should be trying to do some comics propelled by a lyric impulse rather than a narrative one.

    • Some of Isaac’s work:

      You should make more poetry comics, sir!

      I’ve always been interested in how comics, as a form, are often narrative by default. To be sequential art you need at least two images and the process of reading those images asks the reader to bridge the gutter with a story or plot to make both images possible or true. Out of habit, this usually includes a process of forward time and linear in space, i.e. the drawing of the leaf on a tree followed by a leaf on the ground leads one to assume that the space between the images contains the time it took the leaf to fall to the ground. Any repeated image can’t avoid being placed into a narrative in comics, even if it holds still.

      While a similar process occurs when reading words, for some reason, the space between ideas, characters and images in written poetry are allowed to be greater in the reader’s mind. Allowing a poet to isolate and separate. However, even the most non-narrative poems get assembled into something like a plot in the reader’s mind.

      I feel to be a non-narrative comic, an artist has to really push against expectations.

      I have more to say on this, so I suppose I should make a post. Great topic!

      Thoughts interneters?

      • I think you’re giving up the argument to narrative much too easily by saying that sequence necessarily conjures a “story or plot.”

        In fact, there are plenty of other sorts of things that involve sequence, and still happen in time, even if they aren’t structured narratively. The big examples would be essays (expository or argumentative writing) and lyric (which attempts to freeze a “moment,” though not necessarily an instant).

        Comics can work in either of these modes pretty well, though comics essays or lyric comics aren’t exactly common. I’ve argued (in this book) that some of Kochalka’s diary comics really ought to be considered in terms of lyric rather than narrative.

        I’m not sure how far I’d want to go in mixing the discussion of literary modes with the “sequence” of syntax within a sentence. That seems like a different kettle of fish (or can of worms, or barrel of monkeys).

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