Collaboration as Translation

Reviewed by Alexander Rothman

Collaborations are always tricky to pull off, particularly across forms. Madonna Comix is an especially rewarding example of two creators blending their work into a balanced, complementary whole. The gorgeous, large-format book juxtaposes 25 digital collages by Dianne Kornberg with 11 poems by Celia Bland; each piece is a meditation on the Virgin Mary.

As the name and presentation suggest, this is not simply an illustrated book of poems. The cover attribution lists the artist first, a rare move, and while I don’t think that’s meant to prioritize the visuals, it certainly suggests they’re on even footing with the text. Another unusual formatting choice emphasizes the parity: the book is laid out in a way that calls to mind facing-page translations, with Bland’s short poems (almost always) in the lower corner of a pristine white page at left and Kornberg’s full-bleed images at right. The formula is sometimes tweaked, particularly to accommodate Kornberg’s occasional gatefolds that burst beyond the confines of a single page, but the suggestion is clear. It sets the book’s constituent elements against each other in some interesting ways—for instance, the numerous blank pages unexpectedly give the work room to breathe. And it’s this idea of translation that I think provides the best entry point for the work.

A translation is a bridge from one frame of reference to another. It can’t perfectly capture either, but like a real bridge must occupy some space between the two. This liminal sense permeates the work. It’s there in the writing. Bland’s poems perform a sort of “glorious crisscross” between the nodes of binaries: the personal and the public, the powerful and the vulnerable, the savior and the oppressor, the divine and the debased. The love for a child and resentment at the sacrifice of self.

These written poems flicker. In “Madonna Combustion” Bland describes the agony of giving birth: “the force of the bad momma / I will become // thrusts him, sure as sin’s piston, / into breath. // He blinks / He blinks // But it is me who cries.” Is this intimate or restrained? Quiet or loud? It’s very difficult to answer basic questions like these about the poems, but that’s a testament to their power—they’re precisely modulated, but not aloof. Their tone is often “smart alecky,” to use Bland’s own description, but their music is beautiful and they don’t aim at easy targets. They pull off the difficult trick of being both subversive and reverent.

That subversion carries over strongly into visuals as well, which superimpose “high art” images, often evoking processes like encaustic or etching, over hazy backgrounds constructed from old Little Lulu comics. They’re layered and occasionally messy, but underpinned by a strong technical foundation. The Lulu strip’s chatty, suburban milieu provides a counterpoint to the intimate vulnerability of the figure drawing.

There’s much more to be said about either the text or the images on their own, but as a practitioner of comics poetry myself, I’ll focus the rest of this review on their interplay. What does this collaboration accomplish that neither of its constituent parts could on their own?

Nitpickers will likely quibble that these aren’t, by most definitions, comics. Comics depend on sequencing, they’ll say, with their visual language built from the progression of images. These pieces forego conventional panel structures, and many pair a lone image with a poem. Well, shut up, naysayers. You’re missing the point.

I’ll admit that I prefer the pieces incorporating multiple images, but their single-image counterparts still offer some clever twists on comics’ sequencing and juxtaposition. The Lulu comics in the background still maintain a recognizable grid and give the sense that the foregrounded images are bursting from their borders. And the “Madonna of Materialism,” which includes the most traditional comics structuring in the book, proves that the duo can pull off panels when they want to.

The opener “Education of the Virgin,” contains what I consider the book’s greatest successes, as well as the only moment that stood out to me as a misstep. (It’s also the book's longest sequence, at 11 separate images.) The misstep first: Kornberg illustrates the text “She turns her palms up to heaven. A fine dust collects” with an image of…hands turned upward, against a hazy gradient. It’s the kind of literalist interpretation that locks the imagination down on one reading rather than prompting new ones.

Contrast that with the rest of the sequence, with its compelling visual rhythms and surprising turns. Bland’s cave bats take on the aspect of children reaching out for a parent. The tumbling limbs of people “consigned to places always cold” shift into an image of the Virgin herself, whose limbs pinwheel mandala-like around her pubis, which itself has been erased from the page.

A gorgeous depiction of the pregnant Virgin with a hula-hooplike halo around her belly is doubled in the sequence. Each instance contains a phrase in a word balloon; for the second one, “But only Virgin Mary lines her womb with communion wafers,” the balloon opens to the top of the page, its outline curling in such a way that it suggests a reproductive tract. Its tail swoops toward someone off-page, the words, in a sense, birthing the speaker.

So these choices offer some brilliant new takes on comics grammar. Juxtapositions needn’t take place linearly from panel to panel, but can float more generally between word balloon and image, or foreground and background. Or, in this case, between the very constituent elements of the poems and images. The former are staid and small, located neatly in their corners with expanses of pristine white page above. The latter are chaotic and messy, pushing the pages borders or overflowing them entirely into those wonderful foldouts. They incorporate language from the writing, remixing it, borrowing it from entries later in the poem sequence, or even from Bland’s rough drafts, or the Lulu comics.

Returning to that frame of translation, it suggests that making comics (indeed, writing or depicting anything) is ultimately an act of negotiation, taking something particular and abstract and rendering it intelligible as image or word. It’s also this frame that allows the work to be as slyly protean as it is, skirting satire and irreverence but avoiding easy polemics. These pieces destabilize assumptions about religion and redemption, but they refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

This Mary simmers with power but unlike Christ, she’s fully human. She is rather the one who translates the divine word into flesh. She was the fully human vessel for the divine, but she is trapped in a state of obeisance to the “ecstatic / eradicators, tribe haters, sex haters, / haters of the poor.” She is a woman defined by her sexual activity and subject to the male gaze. She is not distant from god, nor from a frightened, lonely woman in the act of giving birth, nor from a suicide bomber approaching a checkpoint.

A translator is someone who helps two people communicate. In one sense, a translator is also someone without a voice of her own—she has given her voice to others’ words. But a translation is also a powerful tool of transformation and atonement. It’s a negotiation between two voices that can fuse, like this collaboration, into a third, numinous thing. 

Alexander Rothman

Alexander Rothman is a cartoonist and poet whose work has appeared in venues including The Indiana Review, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and š! He is publisher and co-editor-in-chief of INK BRICK, a micro-press dedicated to comics poetry, and he cohosts Comics for Grownups, a review podcast available on iTunes. See more at