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Comics and Poetry: The Rhyme and Rhythm of Sequential Art

Being the bastard art form that it is, comics are constantly compared to the forms that came before it: wood carving, tapestry, etc. More and more, one can find comparisons to poetry. Just ask Palookaville cartoonist Seth, who compares Charles Schulz’ Peanuts to haiku. (Actually, don’t ask him, read about it in this pdf of Carousel Magazine.)

At first, comparing poetry and comics probably makes about as much sense as New Coke. But the comparisons keep popping up, and the more one thinks about it, the closer the mediums seem: the visual rhythms of comics are just as pronounced as the verbal cadences of poetry; many modern poems place importance not just on the words, but the actual location of words on the page and movement of the human eye. And it doesn’t hurt that poems about superheroes are all over the place now.American comics reached adolescence just when American poetry was reborn, and the two have influenced each other for quite a few years now. When the two cross pens, interesting things happen. Observe.


ADAPTATIONS

Classics Illustrated has offered strong adaptations of classroom staples like The Iliad and Hamlet for decades now, and they’re positively genius examples of the teaching potential of comics. Depicting action in variations of Prince Valiant realism, giving captioned synopses of the meaning of each scene, and cutting the dialogue free from the jumble of other language, Classics Illustrated genuinely taught the works they sought to portray. By compartmentalizing the information, classics were dissected and uncluttered for kids who once thought them incomprehensible.

In the land of post-punk comics, though, adaptations have taken on less of a teaching role. NBM Publishing has its own version of a classic, with Comics Poetry: The Adapted Victor Hugo, an American edition of 13 poems adapted by French artists. There were apparently supposed to be adaptations of more authors in the “ComicsLit” series, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. From the few images that are available on the web, that’s a shame. Just look at that monster on the right.

We can’t mention post-punk comics without talking about Eric Drooker, of course. But this blast from CA past already details how the artist adapted Allen Ginsberg’s into animated segments, then turned those stills into a graphic novel. Less work for me.

BRITISH FANCIES

When poetry and comics are discussed, one should always bring up the Brits. When American comics yanked Scorpion’s chain across the Atlantic, they brought back some genuine poets for the fatality. Real hardcore nancyboys. Though Alan Moore’s initial issues of Swamp Thing were well-plotted and intelligent, it was the captioning that immediately set it apart from the herd, with lush, stirring lines like “Clouds like plugs of bloodied cotton wool dab ineffectually at the slashed wrists of the sky.”

Though cadence had long been explored in superhero comics, figurative writing as strong as Moore’s certainly hadn’t. Whenever Etrigan the Demon appeared, Moore had an opportunity to really flex his verse. Throughout the years Moore has maintained his poetic leanings, including the spoken-word performances The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders, which were then adapted into comics brilliantly by Eddie Campbell.

Though none have been adapted, Grant Morrison has performed several spoken-word pieces, and the double influences of Romantic and Beat poetry result in some very fascinating text throughout his career. In Doom Patrol, Crazy Jane employs cut-up methods and comes up with a poem that begins “Strange doctors of pain. History, wake up! Alchemy starts in the hour of the knife.” In one of the most impressive issues of his Batman run — 663, “The Clown at Midnight” — Morrison’s text is accompanied by only a few static illustrations by John Van Fleet, and it’s absolutely hypnotic. Although straight prose, it flares with poetic imagery and pulses with meter, rhythm driving the reader forward.

Of the British Invasion, Neil Gaiman has probably published the most straight poetry, found in collections like Smoke & Mirrors. But his love and talent for poetry was apparent in his comics. In The Sandman, one out of every three characters spoke in verse. Issues were pregnant with references to certain poems or poets, characters’ original poems, quotes from works both real and imagined. Various poems have been adapted or written into original comics as well, including “Luther’s Villanelle” with Dave McKean, included as a back-up in Bryan Talbot’s 1999 Heart of Empire series. Gaiman is also author of the single best caption in comics history, from Endless Nights: “I have heard the languages of apocalypse, and now I shall embrace the silence.”

THE ALCHEMISTS

Poetry comics have been on a serious rise over the last five or so years. Not adaptations or short interjections of poems – genuine poems-as-comics, graphic narratives, visual poems, whatever you want to call them. It’s a growing field, with a number of very talented individuals involved, most of them working with webcomics. Matt Madden, illustrator, teacher, and co-author of Drawing Words & Writing Pictures, has been experimenting with cartoon versions of poetry forms like sestinas and pantoums — applying the rules of structure to sequential art.

Austin Kleon has authored a book called Newspaper Blackout a collection of newspaper pages blacked out except for a few specific words and images – the results hum with the same weirdness of cut-up and found poems while still working as collage and sequential art. Respected industry veteran Rick Veitch, the undisputed authority on dream comics, has collaborated on a series of poetry comics with writer Peter Money. Bianca Stone’s work is particularly effective: swatches of ethereal language working with stylish illustrations to create an overall reading experience unlike many others.

If one is searching for a real authority on poetry comics, though, one need look no farther than Dave Morice. As a poet, teacher, performance artist, writer, and illustrator, Morice has striven to create art out of life while giving others the power to do so. He’s even written a few books on the subject at hand, including Poetry Comics, More Poetry Comics, and How to Make Poetry Comics. Unfortunately, Morice was so far ahead of the curve that it’s difficult to find his books in print anymore. But, like that one episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ComicsAlliance would encourage you to visit your local library, but we all know that libraries are dead institutions silently waiting to be turned into dust by cataclysm along with the rest of society. There’s a poem in there, somewhere.

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