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What really is a comic book?

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Meter and form: Exploring ‘Quarantine Comix’ #1 and the poetry of comics

What really is a comic book?

You are reading this either during or in the wake of a great global plague. For the most part, our plague seems to be one of no Decameron. Movies have been delayed, TV shows ceased filming, and comics fail to find a way to release each passing Wednesday. Our stories have stopped. 

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When they begin again, I don’t know if they’ll be familiar to us. I think we’ll stop and stare blinking at half-remembered forms, and ask: what is this, really? How does it work? We’ll go to the theater for the first time in months, and we’ll see the conventions we typically ignore. Without having seen the pieces in so long, we’ll find them easier to notice. To be clear, I don’t mean this in a necessarily negative way. I think the first time folks open a new comic book, a lot of them are going to look at a page layout, and wonder at just what a comic book can accomplish, at just how powerful the medium truly is.

When we see clearly the pieces of a beautiful thing, we don’t think it ugly. Sometimes, we understand better the nature of its beauty. 

Ice Cream Man (written by W. Maxwell Prince, art by Martín Morazzo, colors by Chris O’Halloran, and lettering by Good Old Neon) is metafictional, self-aware, and at times, loudly formalist. It calls attention to itself and its pieces. Quarantine Comix is a spin-off of that series by that same creative team. For many, including myself, it’s the only new comic finding its way to our reading piles right now. It’s a deeply thought-provoking project, a quiet reflection on this time, on art in isolation, on who we are when we’re just stuck alone with ourselves, and on our relationship with older stories. But this content was only so powerful because the form in which it was delivered was so fascinatingly crafted. 

I want to talk about the form of #1, which you should buy not just because it helps shops but because it’s a brilliant and delightful piece of art. I recommend you buy it right now and have it open as you read this article. You’ll notice right away that formally #1 is both a poem and a comic, and so I’m going to begin by talking about the relationship between these two mediums.

I. Useful Background

Hillary Chute is a scholar of American literature, whose work predominantly focuses on comics. In 2013, she wrote an article for Poetry about the parallels she saw between the mediums of comics and poetry. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to draw your attention to two passages:

This sense [articulated by Johana Drucker] 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.

Unlike prose, the specific place where text is placed on the page matters for both poetry and comics a lot. If I took this sentence and messed with the font size, or the margins on this page, and suddenly it shifted from multiple lines to just one line on your screen, not much about that sentence would change. But if I take a bit of Shakespeare, say, Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

And mess with it:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; coral is far more red than her lips’ red; if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks; and in some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know that music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: and yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.

It feels like we lose… something, right? Where it starts and stops, how it goes down the page, these things matter in some way. Even if it’s hard for us to pin down exactly what gets lost, we know that something’s gone. 

Now, let’s mess with the first page of Watchmen

What really is a comic book?

The same thing happened, right? We lost something. Take the separation of lines out of Shakespeare, and his poetry’s different. Take the 9panel grid out of Gibbons, and something’s different. The content is the same, but the form matters

There’s one more quote I want to make sure you have in mind from Chute:

…at the most basic level, it is this notion [about rhythm] 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.

I think we can ground the comparison further. If we’re talking formalist poetry and formalist comics (I don’t think Chute is; I’m not familiar with all of her work, but my impression is that if she’s thinking of any particular kind of poetry, it’s free verse poetry that really emphasizes doing visual stuff with the text all over the page), both feature rhythms constructed by 3 elements of increasing size. (Note that I’m going to be using “rhythm” and “meter” roughly interchangeably in this article, which might piss off any poetry people that read this, but the difference really isn’t important for our discussion).

The basic unit of a comic is a panel, which we can define as one set of images separated from other sets images, usually by some border or gutter. The basic unit of poetry (or, at least, accentual-syllabic verse, which is what we’re normally talking about when we’re talking about formalist poetry in English) is the foot. A foot is one set of stressed and unstressed syllables in some combination. 

More traditional, formalist comics arrange a series of panels into one set of a certain width. Poems arrange feet into metered lines of some set length. Finally, those rows of panels are stacked vertically into one complete page, and lines of poetry are stacked vertically into one complete stanza. When reading, you move across a space to a new page, or across a gap to a new stanza. 

So, I hope it’s clear how at a basic, formal, functional level, the “rhythm” of a poem on a page is going to work kind of like the “rhythm”  of a comic page. 

I really like Chute’s approach, because she shifts comics away from being treated as a Frankenstein of prose/image and toward being treated as a medium in its own right, as something parallel or analogous to poetry.  Just like those students Chute mentioned, who became better readers of poetry because they were able to apply the concepts they’ve learned from comics, I think I’ve become a better reader of comics since I’ve begun working through these thought exercises. A panel is not a foot, but sometimes treating it like a foot helps me get a handle on what it’s doing. 

One more thing before we jump into the comic you need to know: a sonnet is a poem of 14 lines. Shakespearean sonnets tend to be broken up into four parts: three stanzas with four lines and two sets of rhymes, and a final couplet of two lines that rhyme. Finally, they’re written in iambic pentameter, the 9-panel grid of English poetry. An iambic foot is one unstressed syllable and then one stressed syllable; pentameter features five of iambs in one line. Not all feet have to be iambs in the whole poem, and it would probably sound super weird if they were, but most will be iambs. 

II. Quarantine Comix #1’s Poem and Comic at First Glance, then Second

At first glance, Quarantine Comix #1 is a Shakespearean sonnet accompanied by illustrations (or vice versa). Each sequential, textual line is illustrated with one sequential, visual panel. It seems like one is an adaptation of the other; alternatively, they are competing adaptations of the same root thing, which is a person’s reflection on what it’s like to be an artist during the times of plague. Poetry and comics look here like two separate things, one laid on top of the other, juxtaposed for us our judgment. And, in turn, we’re meant to judge the past vs the present, Shakespeare vs. the artists who produced this. 

But that’s only at first glance. If we read it again, and we pay close attention to how both the poem and the comic are using their visual space on the page, and how both the poem and the comic are using rhythm, we see that the relationship between the two mediums in this work is pretty complicated. What I’m going to argue in this section is that the comic part of this thing has taken on aspects of the poem which have been removed from the poem. 

Pretend we’ve covered up the pictures, and we only have the captions as they exist on the page. 

If we know going in that the text is a Shakespearean sonnet (and Price does tell us this as we go to purchase it), then we can figure out that each narrative caption box is a line of iambic pentameter. But, well, what we know differs from what we see. Each box holds multiple lines, and those lines don’t begin or end as we would expect in a sonnet. The beginning of the lines are sometimes lowercase, and the ends don’t always rhyme. 

Only in our heads, only by ear is it clear where the individual poetic lines begin and end. On the page, they’re broken up. To be clear, I think that this was done so that the narrative boxes wouldn’t adopt an unusual height/width ratio, which would be extremely distracting. Lacking my own personal Cerebro, I don’t really know what was in the team’s heads when they made this thing, nor do I care.  I care about the result of their choices, not their intention. 

So, because each panel has one caption box, and because each panel is the width of the page, the line of the poem, a line of text, has been replaced by a line of comic. If we cover up everything but the text, we don’t see poetic lines. But if we take in the whole page, we see how the poem’s lines work. The same is true of the stanzas. Because the boxes by necessity aren’t grouped together, we can’t see what makes up a quatrain just by looking at the text. We can hear the quatrain, thanks to the rhyme scheme, but the stanza of the poem has been replaced by the page of the comic. They aren’t side by side; they’re integrated.

This mirrors the narrative of the comic. At first glance the narrator seemed to be reflecting on the past vs present, and an artist in the present was juxtaposed with an artist in the past. Just like we start out seeing poetry/ comics as separate and move to seeing them as integrated, on the last page we see the past and present become integrated when the same line is written by two individuals, when a figure from the past appears to be in some way the figure in the present.

So. QC #1 illustrates just how incredibly close poetry and comics are by taking the visual formal elements of the poem away from the poem and giving those elements to the comic. And it works so well that you likely don’t even notice it’s happened. At least, I didn’t. My ear heard the rhyme scheme, and my eye just automatically substituted the comics’ visual markers for the poetic markers I’d expect. Only going back later did I see that the caption books treated the poem as if it was prose. 

What really is a comic book?

III. A Closer Look at QC#1’s Poem

At the same time QC demonstrates, again, the closeness of comics and poetry, it also demonstrates the unique powers of the comic rhythm. In these next two sections, I’m going to talk about the two different rhythms in this work, to try and show you, in the end, that unique power of comics. 

The poem is, again, in iambic pentameter, and to my ear, it’s extremely regular. Every single line is iamb–iamb—iamb–iamb–iamb, until the final line of the second stanza, which is extremely irregular. Speak this page out loud and you should hear what I mean. Iambs go du DUH du DUH etc., like a heartbeat. They begin on an unstressed syllable — which to the English ear sounds incomplete — and end on a stressed syllable — which sounds complete. Most of the lines from the sonnet I quoted at the start are perfectly iambic: I grant I never saw a goddess go. If you say that out loud and emphasize the stressed parts, you’ll hear just how close a line of iambs sounds close to normal speech, but a bit more orderly/organized.

This line, however, line 8 of the poem, begins with a stress. It features three trochees in a row, the opposite of iambs. They begin with a stress — so we have DUH duh and DUH duh and DUH duh. Trochees have a weird sense of motion to them, like the words are spilling out, tumbling over themselves to get to the end. You’ve probably noticed this without realizing it. Think about the witches in Macbeth:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fi-reburn and cauldron bubble.

When you year incantations like that, the thing that makes them sound like they’re bursting with energy is the use of trochees. But let’s look at how their spell ends: 

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fi-re burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Notice how “and good” sounds like a very different ending than “bubble”? When you begin a line with trochees and end with an iamb, it sounds really satisfying, because it sounds like something tumbling has finally found an orderly stop. To return to QC: we don’t get a stop at the end of line 8. We have a catalectic line, which means the final foot of the line is missing a beat. We don’t get that satisfying final stressed syllable. Instead, it leaves off with 9 beats, ending on something unstressed. It sounds incomplete

This strange line, which suddenly shifts the meter radically and leaves things unresolved, also occurs at the same point when the speaker in the poem admits that things aren’t going well; we move from quiet isolation to desperate, anxious isolation. Again, I am no telepath: could it be that this was a mistake, or that the writer just could not think of a version of the line communicating the same thing with 10 syllables? If it is a mistake, it’s a fortunate one! And the effect remains the same.

The final quatrain also begins with an irregular line. It starts with a trochaic substitution, and continues with iambs (DUH duh duh DUH duh DUH) but is missing the entire final foot. It’s an incomplete line right when the speaker is turning to ask a question, to seek answers. 

The final irregularity occurs in the first line of the concluding couplet. In the middle, an anapest (duh duh DUH) replaces an iamb, resulting in a slightly longer line, before a line of perfect iambic pentameter. We end with something that sounds like an answer, that sounds really satisfying, while at the same time, in the narrative, we see the speaker in the present in some way become integrated with the past, or at least speak with the past. But even though the meter makes the line sound like an answer, the text is literally asking a question, asking an enormous one at that. But if it sounds like an answer, well, maybe if we look at that panel, we can see that the answer is there.

The meter of the text changes how the poem feels. It amplifies moments of anxiety at some points, and introduces contrary tensions between certainty and uncertainty in others. 

And the neat thing about poetry is it doesn’t matter if you know or care about meter. You don’t have to know how to scan a line, or know what iambic pentameter is, to read that last line and hear how it sounds so incredibly satisfying. You don’t need to be actively counting syllables for your brain to pick up on the fact that something is off when a poet begins leaving off syllables. Even though meter can be subtle, it remains effective. 

What really is a comic book?

A scene from Quarantine Comix #2 (Martin Morazzo)

IV. A Closer Look at QC #1’s Comic

Now let’s look at the comic’s rhythm. 

Again, for each line of poetry there is one panel. The first three pages feature a comic-quatrain, four panels per page, and the last page features a comic-couplet with two panels. Now, if you remember my thought exercise connecting parts of a poem’s rhythm to parts of a comic’s, something should strike you as odd in that sentence: we equated panels to feet, not to lines of poetry. 

Already, even before we dive into specifics, we can see a power of comics’ rhythm: a comic is vastly more malleable than poetry while still maintaining the appearance of rigid, traditional, formalism. You technically can write formalist poetry in monometer, but boy howdy, does it look weird. But you can take a panel and stretch it across the page or down the page, and we can still see it fitting neatly in a formal grid; heck, you take a panel and stretch it so that it becomes the page itself, or even two pages (the equivalent of taking a single foot and stretching it across stanzas), and this does not feel abnormal. 

The layouts here also adopt something like the stressed and unstressed syllables of the foot, in that they’re placed either in the foreground or the background, and these alternate in interesting patterns. The first two pages begin with background panels, then three foreground panels. Like the poetic meter, this shifts our perception of the work, though in a different way than completeness/incompleteness. There’s an illusion of distance at work here, and so we see the first line as a foundation, and we see the other three lines built on top of it. 

But, in order for the foreground panels to appear on top of the background, that means the background panels also must extend down beyond the page. Even if there’s no important visual information there, we still see the colors and shapes of things in that first panel continue down. We see them become the gutters of the foreground panels, and so the background panel also looks like the context of the foreground panels. 

Isn’t that weird? We can leave a panel behind, move onto another, and later dimly realize that the first panel hasn’t been left behind at all. We realize the first panel is no longer a thing distant from where we are, it’s surrounding the place where we are. Further, that panel can become a gutter, that the place where we focus on some subject can become the typically empty thing we skip over as we transition between subjects? There’s something extremely complicated going on here, but we don’t notice because that level of complexity is just normal for comics. We’re used to it. 

We also can’t map foreground/background here cleanly on to stressed/unstressed; it would feel natural to begin or end with either, and neither feels more or less visually stressed on the page, because though the foreground panels are closer, the background panels dominate all the surrounding space. It’s almost like two different kinds of stresses, something not really possible in (English) poetry.

Because the panels are also rows, we might also usefully compare this foreground/background business not just to the formal element significant to feet (stressed/unstressed syllables), but to the formal element significant across lines — the rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme of this poem is pretty standard for a Shakespearean sonnet — ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. You can see when we write that pattern down what you hear when we read the sonnet out loud: the rhymes separate each quatrain, let us know where one begins and one ends, but also make each quatrain sound complete. Rhymed lines feel connected, and when we hit that final line, it just sounds satisfying. And then the couplet at the end is like a quick double tap to the brain. With nothing separating the rhymes, the couplet sounds special

If we map the panels like a rhyme scheme, it looks like this: ABBB ABBB BABA B*A*. (Those are starred because the last page still features a foreground vs. a background, but it reorients the panels so that they are vertical rather than horizontal; it’s like a slant rhyme with what came before.)

I think the comic builds on the poem here. The poem’s rhyme scheme says: these first four lines are one thing, one complete step in this poem, and the next four are another step. You see this mirrored in the art: the first page shows one time period, and an artist in one situation, while the second shows a different time period, and a different artist. They’re relatively distinct moments. But the comic’s scheme says: there is something  about the first panel on each page that is meant to be taken together, and so too the following sets of three panels. This hints at, already, the end of the comic. These people and these times seem distant, seem separate, but we should be thinking about them together in some way. 

On the third page, when the two time periods are both shown together on the same page for the first time, so too does the poem’s rhyme scheme seem to match up with the comic’s for the first time. And then the final page shifts the panels vertically. At first glance it seems to have broken completely with the comic’s prior approach to layout. But then you notice that even these vertical panels are still set in foreground vs. background.

Again: formalist comics are so malleable compared to formalist poems. If you suddenly shifted the text of a Shakespearean sonnet vertically, or if you ended the poem with a weird slant rhyme, it would feel bizarre. But the comic can establish a scheme in the first two pages, mix it up on the third, and radically change the orientation on the fourth, and the comic still feels tightly, formally constructed. It feels like it’s carefully adhering to order rather than breaking with any order. All the while, these formal moves are drawing connections not present in the poem or introducing tensions building on those within the poem. 

Even where comics and poetry diverge here — especially where they diverge — they work together to produce something extraordinary.

V. That Last Page. 

It’s all the formal elements of this last page coming together that made me want to write about Ice Cream Man in the first place. 

The poem ends by asking a question. 

The meter of that poem makes it sound like there’s an answer there. 

The rhyme scheme also makes it sound like there’s an answer. We’re not left waiting for a rhyme. We end with a pleasant couplet. 

The images show us two people in two times: possibly in contrast, possibly in parallel. 

The final line of the poem is spoken by both of those people at once. 

The layout has previously, in its scheme, tried to get us to think of these two different people and times in parallel. 

But now the layout shows them in contrast: one foreground, one background. 

I get to the end of this simple, four page story, and I ask:

What is the relationship between these two people? 

What is the relationship here between the two mediums being used?

What is the answer to the final question? 

Are those three questions related? 

These are extremely difficult questions to answer, and the formal elements all complicate our inclinations. 

In every waking minute since I’ve read this comic, I’ve thought of King Lear. If the same basic ideas and questions had just been given to me in an essay, or just in a poem, or just in a comic, I would have been interested, but I wouldn’t have become so intent on the answers.

Because of all these formal elements, colliding densely on that final page, Lear sits before me pleading, pleading still. 

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