Heightened language—one possible or partial definition of poetry—isn’t the first thing one associates with comics. Yet comic book artists take into account the way words appear on the page to a degree poets will find familiar. How many lines should accompany each image? How high should the dialogue balloon float? The ratio of printed words to blank space plays a role in whether a poem or strip succeeds.
The best of the daily humor strips (think Peanuts) have produced thousands of word-and-picture episodes that occupy about the same thought-space as a good short poem; the terseness can resemble haiku. Then there is Krazy Kat, George Herriman’s polyphonic masterpiece that appeared in William Randolph Hearst’s papers from 1913 to 1944 —a comic feature so blessedly idiosyncratic in its dialects that the only way to start making sense of what’s said is by reading it aloud, like a poem.
As a way to help readers discover (or rediscover) our archive, poetryfoundation.org has invited some of today’s most vital graphic novelists to interpret a poem of their choice from the more than 4,500 poems in our archive, reaching from Beowulf to the present.
With a sense of quiet drama and an eye for the potent detail, Gabrielle Bell chronicles her attempts to keep body and soul together in Lucky (Drawn & Quarterly), a pungent and charming slice of la vie bohème (or should that be brooklyn?). She invests her quotidian tales—the endless hunt for an affordable apartment, the joys of a little pocket money—with affection and honesty. For anyone who’s tried to make a life out of art, or simply to make ends meet, it’s like reading the perfect diary that you forgot to keep.
The last story in Lucky, in which a gaping hole in the bathroom wall takes on a life of its own, is a shift from the book's mastery of the mundane to something like a cover version of Poe—and it makes for a good transition to Bell’s stark, chilling take on Emily Dickinson’s “It was not death, for I stood up.” The poem’s Gothic allows Bell to give her fantastical streak free rein. Or perhaps she was simply attracted to two haunting lines that could serve as a motto—or warning—for the guild of autobiographical comic-book artists, of which Bell is in the first rank: “As if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame.”
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Originally Published: March 19, 2007