Poetry in Comix

As described elsewhere who knows where on this blog, drama is a narrative sequence, a manipulation of characters and events in opposition with each other. In its most extreme, it is superficial and distancing: tired action movies about good guys and bad guys. In its best examples, characters are deeply drawn and oppose each other, communicating and exploring the themes of the drama both in their actions and thoughts.

At an opposite pole is the poetic. This is the moment that causes reflection, the image that allows the reader in somehow, to commune with the characters, to interact with the surroundings, and to unfold his or her web of experiences and memories and mix them with the elements of the image. It can be lingering or over in a blink but almost always requires efficiency to create. This can be intertwined with the narrative, or cause a delay in the narrative, unless that reflection is being used to inform dramatic decisions (i.e. Hamlet.)

At its most extreme and superficial, “poetry” is cloying, simplistic: Hallmark cards and childish posters. At its most astute, it uses hints of drama and a deft handling its medium’s languge to offer up just enough motion and opposition between the elements to suggest worlds within the audience and to allow meditative space inside.

I think these two poles, dramatic narrative and poetic images have traditionally -in comix vernacular- been called “the story.”

My earliest attempts at trying to tell any kind of story were completely blind, I had no idea of the two poles, and no tools to understand my own inclinations or responses or anything. I just threw something down and quit when I couldn’t push at it anymore. It was an ineffective way to work, relying a lot on luck. Only when I stole outright from “Star Wars” for Hutch Owen’s Working Hard”, did I learn some of the elements about drama discussed in the previous chapter and did my working become slightly more efficient.

But eventually I found that boring. I’ve never liked formula; it seems completely unlike how life works. What was missing was spontaneity, and poetry, which I saw around me every day.

And so when I later began experimenting with smaller pieces, what I wanted was as LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE. Instead what I wanted was poetry, poetic images, internal surprises., a little character... So my earliest stories and sketches were light on drama-as little as I could get away with, with as few specifics as possible. I was equating “vague” with “deep.” This was often unsuccessful, as you could guess.

There’s an Iranian film by Marzieh Meshkini (written by her father, Mohsen Meshkini), called “The Day I Became A Woman “ a film in the three parts on the theme of womanhood in rural Iran. It reminds me of my initial instincts as a storyteller, or as a non-storyteller, let’s say.

It’s a film with three separate stories, with the gentlest of “story arcs” in each. In part 1, “Hava”, a young girl conspires during her last hour as a child (before she turns 9) to play in the dirt with her male friends. After she turns 9, she must don the chador, and hide from male attention. Indeed, this entire section involves Hava playing her last hour away. Part 2, “Ahoo” features a woman in a bicycle race. Her angry husband rides up on horseback, demanding she put a stop to her crazy evil biking ways. He divorces her (while both still on horseback), and her older family members and then members of her tribe all ride up to her demanding, requesting she return to her man. Finally, in the distant final shot, her brothers come and put a stop to her pedaling, and take her away. It’s not pretty. Part 3 “Hoora”, an old woman buys a bunch of furniture and appliances she never had as a young woman, with some help, she arranges them on the beach before putting them and herself all out to sea on makeshift boats. (And we realize at this point, that we saw these makeshift boats on the ocean in the first story as well...)

Watching this, I realized this was the closest piece of art I’ve found that did I what I was trying -in my young cartoonist’s way- to do with my 1995 booklet, “New Hat.” In that piece, also a three part story, my main concerns were contrasting rhythms and formal structures, and crashing sequences of narrative which may or may not relate to the others.

Part 1 of this book was the most like this movie, I think: a man gives a last diatribe before being stoned to death, and then we see a local daydreaming belltower operator rouse himself to climb the stairs and do his job. It’s probably my most successful small piece of storytelling. It meant little specifically, but it raised a mixture of emotions and put them all in the same frame and asked for them to be treated as related.

The Day I Became A Woman doesn’t feature the same limited range of simplistic emotion; instead it features more human characters, deeper insights to the human heart and especially the societal mind, both things I was shooting for.

Soon after that booklet, when I was still a beginning cartoonist, I submitted a small 7-page story to a large publisher that was beginning to publish works by thoughtful “alternative” cartoonists like my peers and myself (or not myself, as we’ll see.) My submission was rejected via a very nice phone call from the editor who told me the story needed more “edge.” At the time, I took this to mean it needed something that I had already rejected, which was that it needed to be a “hipper story”, more typically young, urban, or it needed drama with wilder elements. I was already fully in a mode of rejecting drama outright. I was more concerned with poetry, and especially with the types of story and images that (American) comix hadn’t dealt with.

I was never the kid in rock bands, never the kid reading or writing cool sci-fi. I was spending my adolescence in the bath tub listening to ambient music and traipsing around the woods trying to resonate with what I found there.

In one wooded area around me, there was an old living room chair, rotten and stained. I never once imagined who might have put it there.

I never thought until recently that there might be a story behind it (I’m reminded now of a Jaime Hernandez story about something similar), and that there could be long dramas behind the decision to abandon this furniture, and the action of getting it there might have been something one could imagine, watch, or engage with.

Let’s let
Stanislavski summarize:

It took singer/songrwriter John Darnielle 1 minute and 45 seconds in his song “The Best Ever Heavy Metal Band in Denton” to make “Hail Satan” seem like the most life-affirming, humane thing a person could ever shout at the top of one’s lungs. It’s incredibly powerful, but had to be set up with story. One minute and 45 seconds of story to prepare the listener for the release valve that are the last moments of the song. Go find it.

I looked at my mildewy chair in the woods, photographed it, but never tried to go deeper into its story. All I wanted to do was allow it to make me feel something. But “How does it make me feel?” is too simplistic a response to art. And though an artist should aim to provoke feelings in the reader, it requires work to prepare the reader to respond.

That editor was right to reject my piece, but I wish he had asked me to tell him more about the characters, and asked me to give him more of a reason to care.


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