ANDREW D. ARNOLD
The debate over comics’ qualifications as art has been crushed, like an icky spider, under a pile of masterful books. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Chris Ware’sJimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are just a few of the ever-growing list of important works of graphical literature that prove comic art can carry as much truth, beauty, mystery, emotion, and smart entertainment as any of the other, more traditional, media of expression. Even the Ivory Tower has admitted “graphic novels” (an imperfect term that describes any book-length comic work, including nonfiction) onto course lists. So now we can turn our attention to more interesting comparative questions. For example, can comics create poetry like the works of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, or Aleksandr Pushkin?
In short, no, but not from lack of merit or ability. While comics have a similar delivery as poetry—books, paper, words, etc.—the language, syntax, and meaning of comics spring primarily through the relationship between images rather than words. This is not just a different ballgame but a different sport. However, this does not exclude comics from achieving the same artistic ambitions as poetry. Practically since their inception, comics have shown their ability to achieve powerful artistry through the inspired use of condensed, musical, and highly structured language. So, herewith a brief survey of some comic art that rivals the work of many a fine traditional poet.
Early on, during the explosion of newspaper strips in the early twentieth century, creators had the rare kind of artistic freedom that comes from a total lack of rules or precedent. As a result, some of the wildest feats of artistic imagination in the history of the medium occurred at its inception. Perhaps no pioneering comics artist came as close to poetic perfection as George Herriman (1880–1944), author of Krazy Kat, which appeared in newspapers from 1913 until the author’s death. Like few others, Herriman developed his own “voice” both in his written and visual language to create a work beloved by some of the most highly regarded artists and intellectuals of the time. Gilbert Seldes, cultural essayist par excellence, praised it in his now-classic 1924 book The Seven Lively Arts as “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America to-day.”
Herriman used the core dynamic of his three principal characters—lovesick Krazy Kat, brick-throwing Ignatz Mouse, and dutiful Offica Pup—like a sonnet form, endlessly riffing on the characters’ relationships to get at something profoundly tragic and funny about life. One full-page Sunday strip from 1937 exemplifies the many beauties of Krazy Kat. Over the course of several panels, Krazy seeks seclusion under a tree and begins writing in a diary. Little hearts bubble out of its pages as she does so. She speaks to herself in the oddball patois that is one of the strip’s hallmarks. “I are alone,” she says, “Jetz me . . . an’ jetz my dee-dee diary.” She puts the diary under a rock and incants over it, “Now beck into sigglution, witch only these kobbil rocks, this blue bin butch-the moon an’ the dokk, dokk night know. An’ they won’t tell-you is illone.” The final panel, stretching the width of the page, shows all the other characters reading the book after she has left. In a single page, Herriman creates not a traditional poem but its comic-art equivalent. It has playfulness about both the language (“dee dee diary,” “dokk, dokk night”) and the images (the background changes from panel to panel though the foreground remains consistent). It also examines great themes like love (those little hearts) and existentialism (“you is illone”). But the essence of the work, called the “gag” panel in this context but akin to a sonnet’s final couplet, appears at the end. Herriman bursts the illusion of aloneness and privacy, emphasizing our existence in a community. And it’s funny, too. Most important, he communicates this through a wordless image. Impossible in any other medium, here we see an example of cartoon poetry in its purest form.
The comic-book craze that began with the introduction of Superman in 1938 did about as much harm as good for the medium. While massively popularizing the comics’ language, cheap comic books also commodified it, leading to a stultification of the form as a mode of personal expression. It wouldn’t begin to develop its full potential until the 1960s, when a group of West Coast cartoonists began independently publishing comic books and selling them “underground” in head shops and record stores. Robert Crumb became the most famous member of this movement. Though he would go on to become comics’ most brilliant polytechnic, constantly changing styles and subjects, his early work remains his most popular and the closest to what can be called comic poetry. “Freakout Funnies Presents I’m a Ding Dong Daddy,” a two-pager that appeared in the premier issue of Zap in 1967, exemplifies the psychedelicized free-form style of the underground era. Wordless except for the onomatopoeia of “Snap!” “Bonk!” and “Pow!”, it depicts a big-footed young man having an epiphany on the street. Ecstatic, his mind blown, he runs around hitting his head against the wall, eventually working himself up into such a cosmic frenzy that he explodes into stars. Captured in a thought bubble, the stars dissolve to emptiness as our man from the beginning returns to a state of ignorance. Like the best linguistic poetry, “Ding Dong Daddy” uses the comics language of the past (superhero and gag comics) in radically new ways to express something profound about the culture of its time.
The comics didn’t begin to emerge from the “underground” until the 1980s. Raw, a magazine edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, became one of the main factors in the shift. Emphasizing works closer to self-aware “art” than salacious entertainment, Raw asserted itself as comics for grown-ups rather than merely “adults.” Among the many brilliant pieces to have appeared in its pages, Richard McGuire’s “Here” (1989) stands out as one of the most influential works of comics poetry ever published. Its method of using comics to split time into multiple layers that can be read simultaneously still has the shock of the new. It begins as a pregnant woman stands in her living room and announces to her husband, “Honey, I think it’s time.” Fixing the “camera” to the same location, McGuire begins jumping back and forth in time by generations, then centuries, then millennia, exploring the past and future of a single location in space. He does this in six pages by setting smaller panels inside larger ones, which are all labeled with a year, so one begins to read multiple timelines simultaneously, each with its own narrative. Using similarities of composition, movement, and language, McGuire ties it all together into a fluid comment on the nature of time using a form unique to comics.
The youngest comic-book poet of this survey, Anders Nilsen (b. 1973), has been gaining a major reputation among the comixcenti for his simple, enigmatic, and memorable work. One of his most interesting recent pieces appeared in the excellent biannual anthology series Mome, published by Fantagraphics books. The fall 2005 issue included Nilsen’s short work “Event.” The design couldn’t be simpler. Page 1 contains a single gray square with a black border, the size of a postage stamp, accompanying the text, “What you said you would do.” On page 2 a slightly smaller square broken into quadrants of different hues sits over the text “Your reasons for not doing it: stated.” Page 3 contains a larger, dun-colored square over the word “Unstated.” It continues like this, using squares of varying sizes and quantities to represent time, people, events, and consequences affected by and resulting from this original, unnamed inaction. A comics poem with a twist ending, the last panel switches its core geometry to feature red concentric circles over the label “Anxiety experienced every time you think back to this experience for the rest of your life.” While lines like that will not win over any old-school poets, as a whole the work reads as a fascinatingly clever minimalist visual poem. The words and pictures are totally dependent on each other to convey the meaning of the work, which reads as a compressed, playful examination of regret. In sum, it is a graphic poem.
Culturally, at least, serious-minded comic artists have much in common with traditional poets. You could describe each the same way: an underappreciated author who spends years working on a thin volume to be published by a barely surviving independent press for a small, cultlike audience. Until recently, the difference could be measured in the level of respect accorded one over the other, at least in the United States. Comic artists, regardless of their subject matter, have traditionally hovered in the artistic hierarchy somewhere above pornographers but below children’s book authors. But that seems to be changing. There are more comic poets today than at any time before, thanks to the comic medium’s explosive growth in the last five years. Like traditional poets who work at the cutting edge of the English language, these artists create the pathways that others will follow.
New York City
Andrew D. Arnold has been writing about comics for Time magazine and its website for over five years. You can read his past works at www.time.com/comix. He lives in Brooklyn.
“From the March-April 2007 issue of World Literature Today (81:2), pages 12-15. Copyright 2007 World Literature Today.”