The Poem as Comic Strip #6

Another graphic novelist let loose in our archive.

By R. Kikuo Johnson and A.E. Stallings

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, 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.

R. Kikuo Johnson begins his debut book, Night Fisher (2005), with drawings from a high school geology text showing in super slo-mo how his native Maui formed over millions of years: volcanic mergers, followed by what seems to be gradual separation. These cartographically sharp renderings elegantly symbolize the changes taking place in the life of Loren Foster, the protagonist of this “comic book novella,” as he navigates suddenly rocky relationships with friends, his father, and the opposite sex. Through the eyes of an adolescent, Hawaii is drained of its exoticism; Johnson captures the mundane and even nightmarish aspects of life in a place so remote that before man discovered it, a new species would arrive only every 50,000 years.

Johnson’s storytelling is alternately elliptical and unflinching; matter-of-factly gorgeous depictions of the Hawaiian landscape balance out panels of adolescent confusion—dabbling in drugs, run-ins with the cops—in which heavy inking, appropriately enough, threatens to obliterate the world in dreamless black.

Now based in Brooklyn, this young artist (b. 1981) is proving to be a talented chronicler of urban life as well. In “Conditioning,” which appeared in the New York Times op-ed section last year, the drip of an AC unit acts as madeleine. Johnson juxtaposes the lush, open-windowed Augusts of his youth with the stifling claustrophobia of a city summer.

Johnson’s latest creation, a two-color rendering of A.E. Stallings’ “Recitative,” can be seen as a lyrical companion piece to “Conditioning.” A whole life seems to pass in 22 panels, the details so specific that we instantly identify them as shards of our own lives. The “arias of love and death” suffuse the everyday noises, loud and soft, of city dwelling, becoming inseparable, at last, from the rhythms of cohabitation.

--Ed Park
Series Editor

Originally Published: February 15, 2008


On February 15, 2008 at 9:18am John Blackard wrote:
This is an interesting project. Thanks for doing it. I wonder what William Blake would think about it. I've been doing something like this-- reading a poem while photos slide by. Take a look at this link:

Good luck with it!

John Blackard

On February 17, 2008 at 10:41am Gabriel Amor wrote:
I enjoyed this. I am collaborating with an

artist to create art for a collection of

narrative poems I've written. One friend

said, "no one will take your poetry

seriously if it looks like a graphic novel."

I think he's mistaken.

On February 18, 2008 at 1:13pm mahendra singh wrote:
Mr Johnson's realization of the poem is an interesting development and I hope that we see more such work from him and others in the future.

I've been engaged in a similar venture with Lewis Carroll's poem, "The Hunting of the Snark", here:

The subtleties of poetry lend themselves to certain visual refinements, if done carefully. The danger of falling into clichéd work is high though.

Kudos to Mr Johnson!

On February 27, 2008 at 4:06am Gil Dekel wrote:
The relation word/image is crucial to modern communication. Graphic designer, for example, use short-verse poetry alongside visuals to get an effective message across. They would even go further to design the text itself (typography) in an attempt to turn the word itself to an image. If such attempt succeeds then the designer triumphed in the way he exchanges meanings – on the one hand wisdom (i.e. the word) and on the other hand the speed (i.e. the catchy image which the eye can decipher quickly). It seems that poets could follow that path and develop the visual elements of their own presentations.

Today, we are living in times where the moving-image is an important source for delivering information. Almost anyone can create short video and post it on the Internet. Words with images shift from a static representation to a moving representation, in the form of videos. This tendency challenges the poet once again, raising a debate of the power balance between word and moving-image. Who dominates? Is the image, with its capacity of movement, overcomes the word? And yet in the outskirt of poetry, one could argue that words in poetry come to portray images! It seems that even such words as ‘love’, which could be categorized as ‘emotional’, portray a sense or a feeling that is bound to place, time, and hence – to image. To love means to Be in a place, to feel someone, to fully ‘use’ one’s emotions that are bound to their physical body and the spiritual soul.

Hence, we should ask – where does poetry going in this duality of word/image? Would the image become the important carrier of poetic message?

Silent short poetry accompanied by expressive visuals is another interesting example. This kind of poetry does not attempt to ‘dwell’ on emotion, but to raise it up and then move on. Hence the poems are very short. For example, ‘Petals of Trust’ (, which juxtaposes silent short-verse poetry alongside images that seem to come from the same poetic source from which the words come. This project is interesting in that it is officially linked on with a different type of what could be seen as poetry – the sung word (‘Change’ by the British act ‘Sugababes’. See link at bottom of video ‘Petals of Trust’).

In a way, images seem to provide with the colours and shapes that poetry, using words, so much craving for.

Gil Dekel

On February 28, 2008 at 4:36pm Gregg wrote:
This was a wonderful illustration of a very insightful, charming poem. I hope he does many more. (Hint: Do more!)

On March 5, 2008 at 5:33pm Gil Dekel wrote:
For the last one hundred years artists try to represent the spiritual by deconstructing shapes and colours (see Cubism and abstract art). I wonder if it now time that artists try to represent the spirit not by deconstruction but rather by uniting the elements (words, images, senses) back to their universal core source?

Gil Dekel

On March 12, 2008 at 11:20am desteney leffew wrote:
that is so true and really good i enjoyed it a lot!!

On March 27, 2008 at 2:37pm bryan wrote:
the point about this is to make something rhyme with your six word poem

On April 8, 2008 at 5:44am Tim wrote:
this area of culture is undergoing a growth spurt.

some people call their creations "graphic poems"/"graphic poetry". sometimes these are verbal poems married to images; other times, they're wordless visuals.

comics creators are busy making similar works, known as "abstract comics" or "bandes dessinées abstraites"/"BDs abstraites".

most of the graphic poets & abstract comics artists seem not to be aware of traditions of "visual poetry" & "concrete poetry".

hook them all up, please, creators!

On October 21, 2009 at 9:32am Duncan wrote:
For the UK's National Poetry Day 2009, the
Association for Scottish Literary Studies
published a comic-strip adaptation by
metaphrog of Edwin Morgan's poem "The
First Men on Mercury":

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Read the Poem


R. Kikuo Johnson was born in 1981 on the island of Maui. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he currently draws comics and plays the ukulele.

His comics and drawings have appeared in The New Yorker, The Believer, the New York Times, and in galleries in New York and L.A. His debut graphic novel, Night Fisher, a coming of age tale set in the suburbs of Hawaii, was . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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