I’m in a slightly unusual and generally fun position: I’m an English professor who writes about comics. This is a form that many people find captivating and many other people don’t even want to understand. My ongoing goal, to put it one way, is to articulate a formal and theoretical glossary for comics: what is the form’s grammar, syntax, “secret language” (to use a phrase of Art Spiegelman’s)? One thing I am always thinking about, then, is the relationship of comics to other forms, a kind of comparative media aesthetics. When I was starting out my research, I kept asking myself why I was so drawn to comics: was this form like anything I knew?
The connection between music and comics comes to mind immediately. Cartoonist Chris Ware, in a sketchbook published in 2003, offers the following small but elegant note: “goethe: architecture is frozen music. This is, I think, the aesthetic key to the development of cartoons as an art form.” Comics, like music, is temporally subdivided; the effects of comics have, in fact, been called “symphonic.” In a later essay, Ware elucidates the Goethe quote, explaining that comics is a kind of built space.
But the most fruitful analogy to comics might be poetry. Alison Bechdel, creator of the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, puts it this way. Comics, she says, is “like concrete poetry — it has to look like what it is.” And one of the most helpful critical essays I have read on comics isn’t actually about comics at all; it is Johanna Drucker’s lucid and thorough “Visual Performance of the Poetic Text.” Drucker’s arguments about the materiality of the poem — in particular, how its elements are spatially located on the page — unlocked how comics pages work with their spatially fixed grammar of panels, balloons, and text boxes.
Writing about avant-garde poetry (specifically, here, the work of Tristan Tzara), Drucker observes “the use of visual information as a material in its own right. These are works that cannot be translated — either linguistically or typographically — without losing some essential value performed by the original work.” This sense of the poetic page as the space of performance opened my eyes to how comics functions narratively and graphically. Comics is a site-specific medium; it can’t be re-flowed, re-jiggered on the page; hence, it is spatially located on the page the way that poetry often must be. The rich relationships between word and image in which spatial arrangement is significant, and which characterizes contemporary comics, had precursors in all sorts of poetic experiments. This connection struck me afresh at a recent talk I gave on comics when a Romanticist poetry professor told me his students became better readers of poetry after having been exposed to graphic novels, because they were more attuned to lineation and other constitutive, spatialized features of poetry.
So while Bechdel’s Fun Home is about poems — Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” even lends the chapter “That Old Catastrophe” its title — the book is what we might think of as an essentially poetic endeavor because of how its elements exist in space and meaningfully in relation to each other. Bechdel points out that “prose is literally one-dimensional — it doesn’t exist in space the way a graphic narrative does.” To cite another example, Lynda Barry’s gorgeous recent books, One Hundred Demons, What It Is, and Picture This, make the materiality of prose in comics clear: she “breaks up” the visual surface of her handwritten text — she ruffles it, we might say — by switching from lowercase to uppercase letters and print to cursive within the space of one sentence and even one word. Barry establishes what I think of as an extrasemantic visual rhythm that is similar to what poetry also offers.
Speaking of rhythm: at the most basic level, it is this notion that provides a way to think about the shared preoccupation of poetry and comics. For comics is about nothing if not the rhythm established by its verbal and visual elements: the rhythms set up between successive panels, between words and images, between blank space and the plenitude of framed moments of time. Joe Sacco’s work provides a great example — he even floats his text boxes elliptically across the page over images to place pressure on conventional, regularized pacing. (Like written poetry, but unlike music and film, comics gestures at rhythms of attention, but leaves the final movement of engagement up to the reader.) And comics, like poetry, is often an art of distillation and condensation. To invoke an amusing phrase from an interview I conducted with Scott McCloud, author of the classic Understanding Comics, comics is “secret labor in the aesthetic diaspora.” He explains about the form’s traffic in essence: “Nobody picks a comic up off the stands and gasps in admiration at all the unnecessary panels that were left out. You don’t see that — it’s secret, it’s hidden — but that process does go on.” Comics can be so powerful precisely because they can be perfectly notational. Think of the distillation, and yet the fullness, of a poem like Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro” — something we also see, in a different key, in Spiegelman’s famous 1973 “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” a visually dense and nevertheless brilliantly compact one-pager he worked on for months.
As with comics and so many different forms, most notably film, there is always the question of adaptation. But mostly, significantly, we’ve seen comics working alongside poetry, as with the avant-garde illustration experiments (say, Miró illustrating his own poetry in the forties), to amplify and productively transfigure instead of to directly translate. (This is evident in the fantastic “Poem as Comic Strip” pieces that appeared on poetryfoundation.org.) There is Spiegelman’s first post-Maus work, the stylish book The Wild Party, which offers drawings together with Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 hardboiled poem. There is cartoonist Eric Drooker’s collaboration with Allen Ginsberg for the volume Illuminated Poems, released in 1996 (Drooker also recently published a graphic novel version of Howl). And the lines of inspiration move in both directions: we also have works such as Monica Youn’s Ignatz, which is inspired by George Herriman’s classic comic strip Krazy Kat. I, for one, want to see more of that: poetry about comics.
Hillary Chute is the author of Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (Columbia University Press, 2010) and associate editor of Art Spiegelman’s MetaMaus (Pantheon Books, 2011).