Many comics scholars, artists, and readers have lamented the absence of a uniform definition for the term “comics.” Are comics a mode or a medium? A genre or a combinatory symbol system all its own? In light of the combinatory spirit of the present collection—of comics and poetry—perhaps I should have restated that opening. A more accurate introduction would risk confusion. Perhaps I should have said Many of us lament the absence of stable definitions, leaving the direct object to dangle because there is no settled definition of poetry or comics. Like poetry, comics represent the Open. They provoke through ambiguity. Indeed, we could all agree that there is an unsteady relationship between the image and the word in comics, but even that is a groaningly overrated description of the system by which comics encode reality. Whenever I hear it I wonder about the unsteady relationship that words have with other words or that images have with other images, or the precarious détente I have with the word “image” or with the word “word” for that matter.
Never one to be stymied by polysemy, Emily Dickinson once quipped that she knew something was poetry if it warmed and froze her at the same time. While it seems to be an occupational hazard for poets to define poetry in the most abstruse ways possible, comics have had a much less esoteric trajectory in American culture. We know what comics look like. Problematically so. Depending on your age, you might be hard pressed not to see the Sunday funnies whenever “comics” are mentioned. Popeye, Mary Worth, Beetle Bailey, and the Peanuts all helped to impose predictable grids of character, caricature, and closure onto American readers for over a century.
Nevertheless, even as I quote Emily Dickinson, a poet I am nearly as fond of as Dave the Potter, a 19th-century enslaved artisan who incised contraband couplets onto the walls of the large storage vessels he made, I am reluctant to observe that Emily Dickinson’s contradictory definition has become a kind of law among poets and readers of poetry. Implicitly, Dickinson insists that poetry be emotionally recondite. Hence, my present difficulties.
Why can’t there be a poetry that simply freezes or burns? Is ambiguity poetry’s primary value?
I raise these concerns because I found myself returning to very old questions of genre while editing this folio for Drunken Boat with my esteemed co-editor Marco Maisto. Throughout the process, I strove to be open. I hoped to be surprised by other working poets and comics artists. I wanted to learn from them what comics poetry can be. I didn’t go into this collection with any blueprint of the ideal already tattooed on the inside of my editorial eyelids. I trawled the pool for the same intensities that Emily Dickinson sought to catch in her verbal and visual nets. I craved work that was not solely verbal nor visual, neither image-driven nor text-heavy, but in-between, elusive, less nameable. I wanted work that would through its very being define comics poetry in all of its promiscuous glory. I wanted exemplary comics poetry without placing any pre-conceived limits on what that would mean.
In a moving genre, exemplarity is never a desiccated butterfly pinned to a tray near a caption. Things don’t hold still in a moving genre. Not even bell-jarred butterflies. Restless and idiosyncratic to the core, comics poetry frays anew the worn edges of what is told and shown, felt and known. I have read my Krazy Kat, however, and remain skeptical of claims regarding the novelty of comics poetry. Still, there are some predictable claims to which I am susceptible. One has to do with the relay between knowledge and poetry.
This is the low hanging fruit of poetry definition, seeing poetry as the other of prose. It goes like this: If prose represents a rational and ordered approach to the universe, then poetry is the opposite. Poetry embraces the irrational, the strange, and the fragmentary. Likewise, in the orderly visual universe created by centuries of Western European art, the comics routinely play the unruly red-headed stepchild, swollen with truths festooned as vulgarities.
These are my” Open” definitions of comics and poetry. Less open is my sense that the term “comics” suggests the visual presence of the artist. Left to their own semiotic devices, the comics offer nostalgic reassurance in an artisanal hand that manages the visual universe in an otherwise unpredictable age of techno-digital reproducibility. Who could bewail the obsolescence of the book (even here on this screen) when so much proof of the artist’s boldly human and boldly bodily messiness percolates up from the marks? Who could lament the loss of feeling or art in view of all these marks that morph and merge through sequence or repetition, juxtaposition or amplification, throughout the comics?
Marco Maisto is a writer living in NYC. He studied poetry in the MFA program at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop . His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Small Po[r]tions and others, and is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review. Find out more at marcomaisto.com.
Michael Chaney is a writer, academic, and artist. He is the author of Fugitive Vision: Slave Image and Black Identity in Antebellum Narrative (Indiana University Press, 2008) and editor of Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays in Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Wisconsin University Press, 2010). His flash fiction may be found in such journals as decomP, Smoke Long Quarterly, JMWW, and Harpur Palate; his essays on comics, caricature, and graphic novels have appeared in College Literature, American Literature, Callaloo, MELUS, and the International Journal of Comic Art. He professes English at Dartmouth College and ignorance everywhere else, but especially at michaelalexanderchaney.com.