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.
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.