Once again my editor has suggested a topic for my column. Since I can wax pretentiously about all sorts of literary and aesthetic issues, he thought this round-table discussion about “poetry comics” might interest me.
And it did.
To me, art is something that makes me see the world in new ways. I frequently judge the quality of a work of art by how it deals with its limitations. For example, paintings (and photographs) are static objects each of a specific and unchanging size. Films are two-dimensional. Dance is non-verbal. Theater takes place on a stage. Yada yada yada.
Poetry is verbal and, in my head at least, each word is essential.
When it comes to poetry comics, I don’t entirely understand the concept, but it is an intriguing one. Is the artwork an illustration of the words, or an equivalent to a line of verse or a stanza? If the poet removed the artwork, would the poem be incomplete? Would the illustrations make sense without the words?
Can pictures rhyme?
In my opinion, a good graphic story-teller already treats each word as essential, editing out those that are not absolutely necessary to move the plot or illuminate character. As a writer who can’t draw, I find it incredibly challenging to write a script that lets the art carry the action, to trust the artist to convey the mood with images, not adjectives.
(I assume artists have parallel frustrations. Especially with me.)
Despite the assumptions of the article in the above link, poetry comics are not a new thing. In 2003, Norman Mailer published Modest Gifts, a collection of poems with drawings. My copy is signed by him, and he describes it as “my comic strip.” Norman’s ambitions as an artist were just about as lofty as his ambitions as a writer, although his skills as an artist were infinitely more limited.
It’s my opinion that the artwork in this book is absolutely an asset to the words. I don’t think the poems fail without the scribbling (which is pretty much how I would describe Mailer’s art style), but they are certainly more fun and more insightful with it.
Mailer was already 80 years old in 2003. No one looked to him for new and cutting-edge art forms. I think he’d be pleased to know that he was so far ahead of his time.
Now if only we could get that Ancient Egypt graphic novel happening…