Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Words and never-completed projects

Rosaire's post on words in abstract comics reminded me of this project I began in 2007, in collaboration with poet Jerrold Shiroma, which I never completed (this was supposed to be the first page of a 6 or 7-page adaptation of one of his poems):

From around the same time, here is a sketch of the first page of a possible treatment of Jack Kerouac's "Scripture of the Golden Eternity":

I think after doing this one page I convinced myself that I would not be able to carry this over the 60-some pages it would require and be able to keep up any kind of visual interest/visual narrative arc.

I would love to get some feedback on these, and whether you think it would be worthwhile for me to get back to and complete either piece.


  1. I like these, Andrei. I think the words add something (or, more accurately, emphasize something) that images in abstract comics sometimes drop out (for me, anyway). I encounter many abstract comics (in your collection and here) as pieces unto themselves -- that is, whole "paintings" that may or may not use panels or separate pages. Some encourage me to see sequential progression of the idea, but the nature of the abstract art makes that often unnecessary, or at least (again, for me) secondary.

    Inclusion of words -- even the imagistic and abstract phrases favored by modern poets -- (re)emphasizes sequence. So, as the words progress, the images seem to accompany them in a progression of ideas that may or may not be an illustration of those words, but certainly seem to be engaged in a back and forth dialogue.

    However, I do find myself defaulting to an illustration logic in my reading -- especially with the Kerouac poem. Rosaire's post calls for (and admits the challenge of) avoiding that logic, proposing that the words and images break into each others homes and trample each other (okay, that's a bit of a paraphrase -- but that image really stuck with me). And yet, in Rosaire's case, the words (well, the type-faced ones, anyway) seem to live in their own home as if a title -- above the sequenced panels of imagery. In yours, words and images seem separated in their own implied panels -- less so in Kerouac than in your collaboration with Shiroma. I don't mean to take Rosaire's call too literally, but what would it mean to push further the intermingling of word and image?

    The inclusion of words does something else for me, though, that I am having a hard tome pinning (or is that penning?) down. Alan Moore claims that one of the distinguishing characteristics of comics is that they encourage the reader to read backwards and forwards -- to flip back pages, to read more than once (comics aren't alone in this, of course, but it seems a practice central to the form). This, for Moore, is one reason why comics are not merely storyboards for films.

    Now, I enjoy looking at abstract comics over and over -- but that is more like the way I like looking at paintings over and over. These abstract comics with words actually get me to do the comics thing -- to READ the comic and then READ it again, backwards and forwards. So with your comics here, first I pretty much gave cursory attention to the images in favor of reading the full poem text. Then I backed up, and tried to see the relationship. Then, I literally backed up (as in several feet from the screen) so I could concentrate on the image(s) more than the words.

    Just as in traditional comics, where I have to look for the codes to know who is saying what and in what order, or look for supporting or contradictory information between words and images (etc.), here I am teasing out the relationship between the words and images. It feels to me like a different reading practice to how I encounter most of the wordless abstract comics on this blog or in your collection.

    I've been thinking about poems and abstract comics a lot lately as I participate in work over at Piotr Szreniawski's blog, "poemicstrips" (http://poemicstrip.blogspot.com/). Works there by Satu Kaikkonen (a contributor here) and Márton Koppány (among others) have really been pushing my thinking about the possibilities of image and word combinations in comics -- whether we call that poemics or abstract comics or whatever.

    Thanks for sharing these, Andrei. And my simpler, more direct answer to your question: yes, keep going. I think you would sustain my attention over however many pages are necessary for poem/image dialogue/merger.

  2. for me, the first one makes a familiar kind of intellectual demand on the viewer - sort of like 'here are the ingredients, cook it yourself'. but the second one has a more open playful, indeterminate form that I like playing with/ reading. granted it would be hard to sustain this.

  3. This is just my opinion, I'm not trying to make any definition type statement. There are a lot of different ways to look at this.

    First of all, I believe that there is a sacred element in doing the work of a scribe.

    Your CHOICE of the poem, parable or story that you put into written/drawn form is important.

    I believe the best works, poems to scribe are ones that personally speak to one's individual heart.

    In the process of dividing the stanzas, etc... one is rereading/illustrating the work and gaining a better understanding of the work. The process of illustrating written words could/should have an edifing effect for the artist. And this edifing effect overlaps for the reader.

    We are creating a new written/drawn language which perhaps only each individual artist can understand in his/her own work. Perhaps our peers are the ancient Chinese artists who made the first pictographs which became the written Chinese language.

    Andrei, does the Jack Kerouac speak to your heart? Does it say something close to what you want to express in your life, your work? If so, it is a worthy project. [Even if it was a project done over 5-7 years time].

    Or if there are other texts that ring even truer to you personally, maybe illustrating this/these might be more of a worthy project for you personally and us the reader.

  4. Only if your heart is really into the project,
    only if you can't wait to get to work on it first thing in the morning, only if you think about it all the time,
    only if it is what you day dream about, only if it brings juice to your life. Only if you will feel a sense of personal satisfaction. Only if it makes you happy for no reason at all.

  5. I think not only are these pieces individually compelling, but the project they represent is important. I agree with Bungy32 and Rosaire that the impulse for straight-up illustration is best avoided. That's what struck me as wrongheaded about the Poetry Foundation's "The Poem as Comic Strip" project--what could cartoonists add by illustrating poems that were already complete works themselves? I think your idea of adaptation is the right one: pieces like these will only be successful if they end up being something new, and something that depends equally on word and image.

    I think your panels do, as Rosaire says, "touch or bounce off" Shiroma's lines in a way that is much less of a blunt instrument than traditional illustration. It excites me, for instance, the way that the ending panels of tier 3 activate ideas of integration and exclusion--the vermiculated triangle of the last panel melting into the previous one, while also butting up against the hard, white line of the gutter.

    I do find myself wishing for less of a clear delineation between the words and images in that first piece. I think about comics poetry a lot, and it strikes me that our most poetic cartoonists, like Herriman or even Schulz, make great use of their drawings' linguistic elements. Their lines operate almost calligraphically, and the resultant images provide much of the narrative/rhythmic/conceptual/emotional/whatever momentum. In that regard, I almost see more potential in the Kerouac piece with its images like doodles or jotted notes. (That style certainly lends itself to Kerouac's, too, and I find it helpful that the words and images are not consigned to their own little boxes.)

    Moving that train of thought in reverse, why not experiment with hand lettering? Rosaire talks about letting the words and images cross each other's borders, and it seems that constructing both from the same materials would be a simple way to do this. And perhaps helpful in avoiding being merely ornamental. (I should stress that I don't find these pieces to be ornamental, but it is often my reaction to comics adaptations of poems.

    Hope those thoughts are helpful. To echo Bungy32 again, please keep going!

  6. Thanks, everybody, for your comments.

    Jeff--I think I did these actually before I saw your own "illustrations" (if that's the word) of the Tao Te Ching, but since I discovered them, they have been a great inspiration to me, so I treasure your reply. Could we perhaps post some of your Tao Te Ching work here?

    Phyllis--I think what you're describing there sounds more like the infatuation of first love than like making art... :) If that's how artmaking works for you, you are lucky, but it's not how it works for me; and when it does, I am often suspicious (oftentimes, if I build up such enthusiasm, the art I end up making is not very good). The first concept is often exciting, as is usually the final product (I am--as opposed to, say, writers who always say they never re-read their work--an obsessive re-reader, or re-viewer, of my pieces; usually because if I made it it's because I felt that there was something lacking out there, something that needed to be said, and if I made my work public it was because, somehow, I felt I had managed to say it, to inhabit that lack, to fulfill that need)--but what's in between is often a great big slog. Fortunately, I have found that some of the artists I most greatly admire--Flaubert, Mallarme, Seurat, Queneau--felt the same, so I don't feel too bad about it.

    Bungy, Rosaire, Alex--thanks for the comments. I guess I failed somehow in the final execution, because what I intended to do, especially in the first piece, clearly did not come through (and so, despite your kind words, I am more convinced than before of the wisdom of not going on with these pieces)--but my intention was from the first exactly to maintain that separation into different panels of words and images, so I don't think further integration of the two would help. Coming, at least partly, from comics, I am aware of all the possibilities of such integration--which after all you also see regularly in design, advertising, visual poetry, etc. Rather, I was here trying (and I guess I failed) to establish a kind of off/on, black/white rhythm of image panels and word panels. I was intrigued by the possibility, first of all, of breaking up poetic syntax into panels, and secondly of interspersing those panels with other, purely visual panels. As you can see, each tier of panels has two word and two image panels, forming a measure, so to speak. But in each tier/measure, the distribution of word versus image panels is different... The idea, perhaps, was that it would create a kind of syncopation of the regular four-beat pulse of tier after tier. So, as you can see, the separation of word panels and image panels was quite deliberate. Fortunately, Jerrold's poem, with its staccato rhythms, lent itself to this kind of breakdown.

    Also, because I wanted this kind of rhythm, I somehow felt, and still feel, that typography was necessary: I was doing more of a kind of visual/verbal poetry (though NOT "visual poetry"), not comics, and I don't really think that would work with handwritten text.

    I did integrate more the words and images in the Kerouac (which couldn't have worked like the first piece anyway, as it didn't have the brief modules or bursts of words as in the Shiroma, but longer thoughts); but in that integration I felt it came a bit too close to, not so much illustration, but decoration, "illumination" (in the medieval sense of the word); and if this page didn't quite fall over the edge fully in that direction, I felt that I wouldn't be able to keep it from doing so if I had to do, as I said, sixty-some pages of the same approach.

    In any case, I'm working on a new, different project that does include words, and when that is ready (who knows when!) I will post it. Thanks again for your comments.

  7. By the way, to investigate that panel-to-panel, word/image rhythm, I made a quick animation of the first piece. Here it is.

  8. I like the animation a lot, Andrei. It definitely catches the "beat" you were referencing. And I think I saw that rhythm in the original in (for the sake of consistency with my comment above, let's call) my third reading that backed up and looked at the composition as a whole.

    Your animation reminds me a bit of the digital comics readers that scan through panels and tend to emphasize panel progression over page composition as a whole. I say "reminds" -- it's not the same. Admittedly, your animation is an experiment to get at the idea another way, and while I like it as its own thing, I miss the shape of the whole (for example, that wonderful composite "valley like" image in the last tier).

    I'd have followed you if you pursued this project further, but I trust your instincts. And I look forward to what you've got cooking.


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