Continuing our look at Comics Poetry, Austin Lanari reviews the latest issue of INK BRICK, a comics poetry journal edited by Alexander Rothman, Paul K. Tunis, and Alexey Sokolin.
The preferred argument in the philosophy of comics is that offering a definition of what comics are is either impossible or unfruitful. Surprisingly, I tend to find that influential comic… thinkers outside of academia and in the twittersphere are somehow even less receptive to the possibility. Folks who are down on defining comics all seem to agree that the definition necessarily carries with it a creative prescription; a binding “in order to” that explicitly guides anybody looking to make something that will be allowed entry into the pantheon of little cartoon assholes getting pretentious with their stuffed tigers.
The fact of the matter is that we can broaden the definition of comics as much as we like, but there is still a certain way that the things we traditionally consider comics work. Naming conventions shift with time, but how a human parses meaning in a set of sequential pictures is a rigid feature of human consciousness. That’s not to reduce the aesthetic experience to our linguistic faculties or a set of enumerable, formal features of a work; still, it’s a fact that the very thing that distinguishes different art forms, as well as different individual artworks in a given medium, are the ways in which those works come together. When we compare those works and how they function for us as readers, there is a difference.
In the recently released Comics Poetry journal, Ink Brink #5, I see a lot of wonderful works that work in distinctly different ways. Some of the work does not really connect with me. The things that really affect me in this book, however, while they might have some things in common with how a comic traditionally affects me, are often pushing the boundaries similar to how art comics tend to do. One great example of the kind of thing I’m talking about is the very first work in the book.
Without even getting a table of contents, you open the first page and boom, “Rabbit in the Moon” by Deshan Tennekoon and Thilini Perera. The whole thing is like a couplet or something; I don’t know, I don’t know a goddamn thing about poetry. What follows is six pages total. Because of the sparseness of word and the heavy lean on simple but bold imagery, it’s hard to do this comic justice with a verbal description. I would say that is certainly one emergent characteristic of these things we’ve dubbed poetry comics: because they don’t hang together in a narrative fashion for which we have an entire closet full of one-liners and adjectives waiting for us, evincing a solid take on them is difficult. More importantly, though, I think that even if these works gain more popularity (and goodness I am rooting for them), they’ll still be harder to parse by their very nature.
“Rabbit in the Moon” blossoms; the words don’t hang with the pictures in the way that they usually hang together in a comic. It almost feels like a triumph of something more fragmented than what you would expect from a typical comic. It’s on the one hand a success of graphic design while on the other being this strictly lyrical flourish. Comics is usually much more in the middle of that spectrum of image and text working together. While they still work together here, the space between the words and the pictures is palpable. What’s interesting is that despite this gap–despite the amount of space left by the sparseness of word and image–the six pages of this story are equally as affecting as a more narrative work might be.
Of course, the truth is that I misspeak when I say that it is “despite” this space. Though this comic achieves something unexpected, it does it because of the way that it psycho-linguistically connects with me, with the space left in its syntax carrying an experience that feels more ephemeral and purely aesthetic than the kind of driving, language-processing, narrative mindset that determines the way we traditionally experience sequential art.
If “One Two One” by Winnie T. Frick is not my favorite work in the book, it’s certainly one of them. For the most part, because of the fact that it, at minimum, feigns a dialogic format, it reads more traditionally even though the narrative itself has a lot of fractures. At times it borders on grouping words into nonsense purely for their lyrical qualities, but these moments still fit (even if haphazardly) into a work that is definitively anchored in an exploration of personal identity and self-dialogue.
When I think about something like Emma Rios’ I.D. (released in the excellent Island anthology and with its own trade release a couple of months ago), it was a story that didn’t click with me. I liked some of the composition, particularly in how there was a lot of emphasis on the shot angles in her page layouts, but I wasn’t crazy about the way it dealt with personal identity. I think about personal identity a lot, but from a philosophy background I’m usually coming at it from a sort of pothead, John Locke angle (“how is the me from 10 years ago, like, me, man?”). I.D. is a story more squarely (and explicitly!) about body dysmorphia in any form than it might occur. In that respect, it’s really quite a clever story, as the displeasure we experience with our bodies takes very powerful and specific forms, and tackling a topic like that generally is something that only a sci-fi story that intimate could accomplish.
“One Two One”, by contrast, is an exploration of the change in an individual that comes with time and environment. Here we have a story that acknowledges that how we interact with others, be it in any conversation or at our workplace, affects how we see ourselves. Perhaps more mind-fuckingly, how we engage in dialogue with ourselves–that is to say, how we engage actively in the process of seeing ourselves–is itself a reflexive equilibrium, a self-balancing checkbook of opinions and judgments. What at once seems like images of a friend giving another friend fashion advice becomes on re-reading a metaphor made literal: the self as the person in the mirror gazing and offering feedback. Frick’s rendering of the almost-absent friend is thus a rendering of ourselves when we aren’t present to attend to this very moment.
A heavy meditation on personal identity in any form requires serious work: it took Locke dozens of pages of dense prose in the context of hundreds of other pages to put forth his arguments. It took Emma Rios around 80 lovely pages to do her thing.
“One Two One” is six pages. And what it accomplishes in six pages is only possible because of this carefully considered (though at times intentionally haphazard) sequential approach that alternates between the verbose and the abstract, all of which is tied to images which, even when familiar, creates a relationship between text and image which is in itself hard to pin down.
Essentially everything in Ink Brick shares this quality of abstract relationships on the text level, on the image level, and on the level of their relationship to each other; still, I think it’s so important, especially given the overall novelty of this work to most of us, to spend time with each individual work and appreciate what makes it tick. Instead of comparing these works in general to our established notions of comics, and instead of poo-pooing the thought of asking formal, definitional questions, we can get a lot out of focusing in on each experimental work that we find interesting.
Kurt Ankeny’s “Mother Airplane” tackles the narrowing of possibilities with age in another of my favorite entries. Here we have something that is much more obviously poetry. Ankeny uses the space on a page to add pauses into his work and carefully guide the reader’s eye, tying the two ends of his metaphor together. “Mother Airplane” is much more conventional than “One Two One”, yet still feels fresh. The commitment to the very clever metaphor here is quintessentially poetic, and even if the prose here had been slightly more on-the-nose and narrative in its quality, the images and text placement would have still carried a great deal of this comic’s emotional impact and meaning.
Jason Hart’s “In Arms” is unlike “Mother Airplane” in that the word placement is not quite as striking; yet, it successfully juxtaposes imagery with pacing that reflects the best of what more traditional comics would have to offer. The interplay between the two simple threads in this comic lends just enough feel and context to the stanza dispersed throughout its images to make a rather short comic a rather deep dive. “In Arms” is also a great example of the effects of color on these less traditional comics. Part of the reason that the separate threads in this short comic are able to relate to each tother so poignantly is because of the contrast of Hart’s two-color pallette. The color choice might be the biggest reason that the pacing feels so satisfying once things come to their conclusion on the story’s final spread.
CB Hart’s informatively-titled “Poem 3” is one of those works that makes you wonder just how much stock the audience should put into the title of a work of art when evaluating that art. More than anything, this one raises much more specific questions about the poetry end of the spectrum. The text of this comic, seen in its entirety here, is simply “HAPPY IS THE WRONG QUESTION / HAPPY IS THE WRONG QUESTION.” Even as a poem, standing alone, such a thing is pushing some boundaries in a way I’m sure some poets might find pedantic to the point of bordering on non-poetic. When a single line of this poem is juxtaposed with the image of the padlock and key inextricably linked and thus ironically both useless, the meaning is obvious.
The more interesting question is, how do we most felicitously consider this work with both lines of its lyrics? Are they too presenting themselves each as a lock and a key? Is it sufficient that the visual echo of the first line has a significant aesthetic effect that augments this comic? Is it useful that this comic confounds even as it clearly evinces something confounding?
My favorite thing about Ink Brick is not just that the work is often challenging: it’s that the challenges it often presents to the reader do not in any way resemble the often more literary challenges of more traditional comic books. This has an effect of broadening any reader’s appreciation for sequential art as a whole (and arguably fine art or poetry as well). That kind of expansive rewiring is in stark contrast to the often insulating effect that sticking to one kind of work can elicit.
INK BRICK #5 is available for purchase HERE
— Austin Lanari (@AustinLanari)