Just as Australian chefs have embarked on reinventing our national food identity by fusing traditional with international fare into Mod-Oz cuisine, so have the visual arts and literary scenes recently embarked on an adventurous experiment by blending two mediums – poetry and comics – into a new form called “graphic poetry” (AKA “comics poetry”, “poetry comics” or the less accurate “cartoon poems”).
Although at first glance it would appear that the visually and rhythmically rich narrative poems such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Banjo Patterson’s bush poetry, would lend themselves best to literal interpretations in comics, it is, in fact, contemporary poetry that is gleaning the most attention from comics practitioners.
For the uninitiated, “comics” is defined as storytelling or conveying information through sequential art—that is, within two or more panels. Comics exist in six formats—comic books, graphic novels, comic / cartoon strips, webcomics, zines (containing panel art), and digital comics released on hand held devices such as tablets and mobile phones.
For the most part, the Australian comics scene has been driven by the US market but recent excursions into comics poetry seem to be happening in parallel. In 2008 in the USA, for example, one significant breakthrough anthology commanded enthusiastic attention from the industry and readers alike, as well as crossing over into the music scene. Comic Book Tattoo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_Book_Tattoo) was recognised not only for its beautiful production values but also for its insightful comics interpretations of Tori Amos’s song lyrics (not poetry per se, although some might argue otherwise). Over 80 comics creators from various genres and styles contributed to the giant size coffee table book, with author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman writing the Forward. The book became a best seller, and the following year won several Eisner and Harvey Awards.
More recently, New York poet Bianca Stone (http://www.poetrycomics.com/) and a bevy of her peers began experimenting with this collision of art forms with the release of the literary Ink Brick: a journal of comics poetix (http://inkbrick.com), which explores “the hybridization and the complex coupling of poetry and art” in a variety of styles, tones and interpretations. Other American poetry comics collections and anthologies include Linen Ovens: A Poetry Comics Anthology, Watching What You Say, and the Comics as Poetry journal (http://inkbrick.storenvy.com/products).
The stirrings on the Australian scene were there in 2006 when contemporary Australian poet Michael Farrell (ode ode, a raiders guide) published a volume of poetry entitled Break Me Ouch, which married his poetry with inked panelled artwork that met the definition of comics, albeit in a non-traditional form. Michael was influenced by a comic strip, which appeared in the New York poetry magazine, Spit.
For his poetry collection, Michael chose a stick figure icon – a circle head on a triangular body – that served as an “authorisation figure” throughout the suite of poems. His internal brief was to keep the work graphically basic.
Michael’s process was most intriguing—a roll of a dice determined the size of the panels, the number of panels per line, the number of words in a panel, and also impacted on stanza breaks and syllable count. Thereby, chance gave him a range of possibilities when it came to creating each poem. Michael’s methodology was a structuring factor that was not pre-established but also helped shift the limits and the possibilities of what he could potentially create. Each poem’s rhythms are visually developed through panel spacing—the progression is not merely realised from left to right, top to bottom, which is the convention of western style comics storytelling, but occasionally on the diagonal or with large blocks of negative white space that underscore the minimalism of both the language and the visuals. The exercise proved to be liberating and the resulting poems became more complex the further he progressed into the collection.
The marrying of comics and poetry can, however, be fraught with danger, as Bruce Mutard, Ledger Award winning writer and artist of The Sacrifice, discovered early in his career. Bruce had been toying with the idea of adapting T S Elliot’s 434-line poem “The Waste Land” into graphic narrative. After several attempts he aborted the notion, as he was “struggling to find nuggets of gold in a muddy creek”. However, he was still intrigued with the prospect of creating comics poetry.
The opportunity came via Kent MacCarter, editor of Melbourne based online journal Cordite Poetry Review. Kent had been inspired several years before by Nicki Greenberg’s fresh and original graphic novel adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Kent was also interested in “ekphrastic” writing, which is predominantly a response to visual art such as a painting. He was also curious how a comics work could convey poetic abstractions and vision. What would be lost in translation? What might be added or lost in the process of filtering a poem through an entirely new language? He consequently conceived a new project where comics artists could adapt previously published poems by established Australian poets into visual narrative.
Melbourne-based comics artist Bernard Caleo became a guest editor on the project and provided a list of potential artists. “Some graphic novelists were keen but gun shy,” says Kent, “they felt as if poetry was something they didn’t understand”. However, he banked on a hunch that they would find an in or an engagement if they spent some time with a poem. Indeed, it proved to be a learning curve for all participants. Three of the artists chose their own poetry; the others were given several options and selected accordingly. Deadlines came and went. A thousand emails went back and forth. The project was nearly relegated to the too hard basket. It took three years to complete and was eventually named the somewhat non-sequitar Pumpkin, although Kent had always intended to publish the issue on Halloween and hearken a poem dressing up as something else or as another version of itself.
For the Cordite exercise, Bruce chose his own poem after a recommendation from an academic colleague – Amanda Johnson’s “Microaviary” (originally published in The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street in 2012) – which was about drone warfare. When he read it he knew it was the one. Bruce sought Amanda’s permission and it was granted with the instruction to “treat the poetry in the best way to serve the piece”.
The narrative is about US pilots who control drones from air-conditioned trailers. They get up in the morning, have breakfast, put on a uniform, go to work, kill people, and go home for dinner. The theme about detachment is frightening and, as Bruce puts it, “there is a chilling correlation between reality and gaming”.
The words immediately began evoking images in Bruce’s mind, not literal ones but visual associations with a point of departure. The first imaginings conjured were of Leonardo Da Vinci, dissecting a bird in his workshop. It also brought to mind his flying machines. When Bruce Googled the latter, he discovered they looked remarkably like drones and he injected them into the comics art.
The actual collaboration took place entirely by email. In the first instance, Bruce sent Amanda a couple of panels to see if she was comfortable with his visual interpretation of her poem. She was amazed at how his scenario proved to be “real, current and appropriate”. The realism of the visual style didn’t kill off the poetics but augmented it beautifully. Furthermore, relevant narrative enclosed in caption boxes hovered above the images like musical notes or indeed the drones from her poem. As far as the final product was concerned, she was “delighted to see her poetry given another life” and that Bruce had found associations she hadn’t even contemplated.
Bruce considered it to be a worthwhile exercise as well. He stretched as a comics creator and the final upshot was that should he decide to revisit “The Waste Land” again, he would be equipped with the understanding and necessary tools to have a different – and indeed successful – outcome.
Cordite 43.1 Pumpkin, a collection of disparate comics poems by some of Australia’s finest poets (including Michael Farrell) and comics artists was published in October 2013 (http://cordite.org.au/content/poetry/pumpkin/). The public reaction was emphatically positive and the work was widely read around the world. For Kent this quasi-transmedia project, “Diffused preconceived notions and fears about the weird and inapproachable monster in the woods” and, from an editorial viewpoint, he was much fulfilled. The work was also short-listed for the 2014 Ledger Awards.
Current Australian comics trends indicate we are finding our own unique voice. If the quality of emerging graphic poetry is anything to go by, then our arts scene is in for exciting times ahead.
© Julie Ditrich, 2014
This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in ACTWrite – the ACT Writers Centre Magazine (August 2014).
 The words “cartoon poems” have been bandied about but it would be more accurate to say “comic strip poems” or “cartoon strip poems” if defining the short form expression, as the word “cartoon” usually applied to one-panel editorial cartoons or animated cartoons.
Top: “Microaviary” from Cordite 43.1 Pumpkin (Poet: Amanda Johnson, Artist: Bruce Mutard)
Bottom: Break Me Ouch (Poet and Artist: Michael Farrell)