comics, poetry (for Gary Sullivan)

February 26, 2008

I still haven’t received my comp copy of the new format Comics Journal, but poet-cartoonist Gary Sullivan has already written a couple of detailed responses to an essay of mine in it. The essay, a look at comics as poetry, takes a provocative Austin English piece as a chance to review the Poetry Foundation’s comics-poems.

I hesitate somewhat to leapfrog a print essay, and it should certainly be read alongside English’s original. Sullivan, however, raises some interesting questions, especially in the second of his two responses. In particular, he compares reading Elvis Road, a long narrative drawing, to reading poetry. He also wonders if I would reject such a reading.

I certainly don’t share it. In my original essay, I hoped that the sound of comics not get lost in the visuals; Elvis Road is silent. And I read it as one expansive moment caught in time. By contrast, I find works of language necessarily time-based. We read left-to-right (or the other way), waiting for the sentence to end. A single image allows us to look at the whole, or just the details.

I would not, however, go so far as to reject his reading outright– after all, I compared Elvis Road to a shambling architecture book in my Best Of 2007. If we are open to them, both analogies may offer some new way of thinking about this stuff. His emphasizes the structures that underlie both comics and poetry. I value poetry’s sound more, but have often wondered, rather lazily, whether certain comics forms could foster poetry, or vice-versa. The six-panel pages in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, say, as iambic pentameter, or renga translated into linked five-panel pages (pun intended). The fruitful adoption of OuLiPian techniques by OuBaPo suggests such thinking is not wrongheaded (Sullivan cites Jackson Mac Low, an American cousin of OuLiPo). But I still don’t know what a comics sonnet would look like, or if comics has a form so durable.

I do know, though, that I hope the essay doesn’t launch theory as much as praxis. Gilbert Seldes called comics a “lively art,” but I think of it as a living one, still in flux and movement. My job as a critic is at best to prod, needle, and wait. If Austin English and Gary Sullivan disagree, I do hope they do it with some comics. Comics of just sound, or synesthetic sound-images; or reflexive panel structures approximating the sestina; or something I’m too slow to think up. Even the worst case scenario, a sprawling Marvel crossover where everyone speaks blank verse for 52 weeks, might spawn awful papers at the MLA conference, but at least it would be a glorious failure.

And Peanuts is sharp haiku.

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Is James Joyce poetry? Nora liked it read out loud.

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For completeness’ sake, here are the Poetry Foundation comics to date:

Johnson’s version of Stallings appeared after I turned in the article, and while better than all the rest in its Sim-like lettering, it is not substantially different than the others.

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