Sunday, 24 January 2016

Illiterature v. Graphic Novel: A Meaningless Cacophony

Illiterature issue v. the graphic novel

I’ve had the pleasure to attend the recent Ottawa Small Press Book Fair in November. I wanted to see if anyone there had any comic books, but I was sadly disappointed. It was mostly poetry and some novels. The event itself was great and most people attending were in good spirits and quite friendly. I managed to find the one and only graphic novel there was from a small publisher in Kingston named Puddles of Sky Press. I learned about the collaborative aspect of the book, and noticed Mark Laliberté’s name in the collaborator’s page, of which I read and greatly enjoyed Grey Supreme from Koyama Press. I bought the book on a whim and was immensely disappointed. I’ve tried to articulate my disappointment and tried to find an interesting approach to discussing the underlying issues with it and thought it would be good to compare Illiterature issue v. graphic novel with the first issue of the poetry comic anthology Inkbrick 

Illiterature issue v. graphic novel doesn’t operate like a comic book or a graphic novel despite it's title. It shares very little resemblance to a graphic novel. It is much more in line with what you’d expect from poetry. Note that I said poetry and not poetry comics. Puddles of Sky Press publishes mostly poetry, so it seems closer to what they might normally publish. Poetry is about rhythm, style and substance. It has a certain intensity as thoughts and ideas are condensed and distilled in a stylistic form. You can say a lot with very few words. I expect a level of experimentation when I see poetry, but I normally expect the piece to have a certain cohesion. Poetry is a way of seeing and of understanding. There are meanings to what you say and to what the reader sees. It's a magnificent art form. I remember fondly discovering Louis Aragon’s post-war poetry and reading each one of his pieces slowly, combing through every line, finding meanings and new interpretations for each verse.

What we have in Illiterature issue v. graphic novel is a clash between the form of a comic book and the form of poetry. I scratched my head figuring out what this was until reading the editorial note in the back which reads as follow: Some pieces were submitted as single frames, others were submitted as full-page comics. The full-pages were dissected and broken down into individual frames and spaced throughout the novel to allow for a more seamless and cohesive collaboration. While I can understand the urge to use a new approach like this, it unfortunately renders the work meaningless. I can endeavour to make cognitive efforts to determine what the artists are trying to say, but the pieces are so fragmented that they are nearly impossible to reassemble. As a reader, particularly of poetry, I don't mind a puzzle, but this feels like someone threw several puzzles on the ground, shuffled them around and asked me to put them back together without telling me how many there are and how many pieces each puzzles have. The book seems too preoccupied by adhering to this experimental aesthetic, much to the detriment of cohesion. The experiment of the book includes splicing bits and pieces from pages from contributors and stitching them back together, like Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein Monster. The pieces don’t work because as a reader, you see 1/12th of a page. mashed up with other unrelated pages. The meanings are muffled and, although I’d like to say cryptic, I believe the proper term would be absent.

Five different artists, five different tones
The list of contributing artist for each page

It's quite disappointing. Some of the artists do seem to have an interesting take on comics as poetry. In particular, Dale Tracy's use of a panel that, in essence, explains what you'd be seeing if it were drawn was actually quite clever. "In this frame, the tree is carved into hundreds of startled wooden mice" is brilliant. It's ironic that the pieces that were left untouched, those that weren't spliced or divided, are the ones that work best. A few pages by Mark Laliberté, Mark Laba and Faye Harnest in particular are the most interesting. In those, the reader is allowed to look at a full piece from an artist and have some breathing room to analyze, understand and appreciate it.

A second disappointment is the fact that most of these pages are merely random letters stretched out and recombined, most of which are not drawn in a conventional sense, but rather through graphic design. Yes, letters create words which creates meaning. We get it. But illustrations also have meaning. Poetry as comics doesn't simply mean illustrated words (or literally illustrated letters). Here are some examples from the comic book world.

Lulu, Femme nue by Etienne Davodeau
A lone woman is looking amused at the pedestrian by a beach. Her look denotes contentment. She seems care-free, which is also reinforced by the fact that she's the only one in color. 
The Man that Dances in the Meadows by Sam Alden
A man, facing away from us is dancing. He stands in what seems like an open field, but it is hard to tell exactly where he is. His movements are otherworldly, which is reinforced by both the location and his duplication. We see the movement, of the man and it looks surreal. 

Copra #18 by Michel Fiffe
A woman, most likely named Xenia, declares that she hates Copra. Without even knowing what that means, we see that her silhouette is divided, almost broken. Her hatred of Copra left deep scars and left her broken. It hides a trauma. Her speech bubbles are broken up, there is anger, but also a difficulty in articulating that anger properly.

It's disheartening to see that so many of the collaborators of this collection seem to have failed to grasp that the fusion of graphic novel and poetry doesn't lie in the words. Combining words and images can be truly evocative and powerful but this isn't the way to do it. Now the examples above are all from character drawings, not a lot of text there, but you can see many things, just from the illustration, without knowing anything from the context.

The difficulty in reconciling this is that there are a ton of examples of poetry comics done well. I'll take just one, the first issue of Ink Brick, a journal dedicated to comics poetry. The description of the first issue online tells us that "the first issue features work by 8 creators using the visual language of comics to make poetry". The comic has a table of contents right at the front. The collaborators are given a few pages for their pieces and they're able to create some pretty powerful stuff. The first short from Alexander Rothman about a person's memory of waiting for his parent in a hot car in the summer while bees are flying towards a used soda can is interesting. He is able to convey both the memory and show the heat his protagonist is feeling. The pieces included in Ink Brick are not just illustrated poems; they each carry their own poetic narrative visually and through the words. Another equally interesting piece in the book is the one from Bianca Stone, her art is visceral. She uses colors and whites to add layers. We recognize the settings she's depicting, though they all feel slightly off. Her final page for example, we recognize a tent, but we're not quite sure where it is. It seems cold, a woman is wearing a winter coat with fur around the neck, but the ground is green, and she's not the one talking, but the bear is "My capacity for recovery is functional but not entirely - Half the sky distends above me in plummages... of gray nighties taken off. I see the faces of the people I love ... falling apart". It's a clash between the expectations of what you're supposed to feel when seeing those elements. This creates an interesting sense of engagement as we try to reassemble the pieces that were scrambled. Those are interesting examples of comics poetry where the reader comes out with a understanding of the piece, of the artist and of the art itself.

Poetry comics done well
Now all of these issues doesn’t make Illiterature v. Graphic Novel something to avoid. It’s an interesting and valuable experiment to try. You can see the answer to the question of whether a book that is simply spliced from panels cut and placed on random pages would still work as it’s own piece. The answer is negative, but it doesn’t reduce the effort in the least. There is much more that can be done with poetry comics. I'm not normally this harsh, especially for something with a print run so low it's almost non-existent. I guess I wanted it to be good and I felt betrayed with what I received. I expected comics and I expected poetry. I got neither, simply a meaningless cacophony. I hope this group keeps experimenting, I'll be back for a second round, but I hope a different approach is taken that time.

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