The Promise—and the Danger—of Comparing Comic Books to Poetry

Comic artists and poets make similar aesthetic choices when putting their work to page. But writing off lowbrow superhero stories in favor of higher art may hurt the genre.
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"Bang! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!"

Mainstream headlines along those lines have become a running joke among comics fans. The joke remains a bitter one, though. Comics these days are treated as serious art by galleries and museums; they are treated as serious literature by mainstream reviewers. And yet, the bang and the pow linger. Dan Clowes and Alison Bechdel are certainly successful and respected, but when you say "comic book," your average person and/or journalist doesn't think of Maus. They think of superhero movies.

It's in this context, I think, that you have to read Hillary Chute's recent essay at Poetry magazine. Chute is a professor of literature at the University of Chicago who focuses on comics—and for her, comics adamantly do not mean Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers. She says in her article that for her, comics bring to mind not films, but, of all things, poetry.

The most fruitful analogy to comics might be poetry. Alison Bechdel ... puts it this way. Comics, she says, is "like concrete poetry -- it has to look like what it is." ... 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.

For Chute, comics and poetry both exist on the page—the spatial arrangement is integral to the meaning. This is in contrast to prose, where the position of the words on the page isn't important and can change from edition to edition.

It's an ingenious argument—and not less so because it's fairly easy to nitpick it to death. There are plenty of poems written in prose. ("It is even in prose, I am a real poet," as Frank O'Hara said.) And there are plenty of comics that don't rely on spatial relationship on the page. I've seen Peanuts strips arranged horizontally, vertically, or even two panels staggered per page in some book collections. It doesn't change the meaning any more than narrowing the margins alters the reading experience of Moby Dick (which is to say, it alters it somewhat, but not in any substantive way.)

Such caveats, though, don't really negate Chute's main point, which is that comics and poetry share, or at least can share, a fair bit of common ground. Which is a perfectly reasonable observation. And yet it's telling that the central thematic quote of Chute's essay, the one that provides her title, is not really about comics and poetry at all.

To invoke an amusing phrase from an interview I conducted with Scott McCloud, author of the classic Understanding Comics, comics is "secret labor in the aesthetic diaspora." He explains about the form's traffic in essence: "Nobody picks a comic up off the stands and gasps in admiration at all the unnecessary panels that were left out. You don't see that -- it's secret, it's hidden -- but that process does go on."
Poetry has been so successful at defining itself as only high art that the lines of communication with lowbrow forms have been severed. As a result, poetry has turned itself into an ivory tower phenomena of painful and infuriating insularity.

Chute reads this as being about the compactness of comics, which she sees as analogous to the compactness of poetry. But in fact, it seems like McCloud's simply making the case that comics are art; that there are aesthetic choices that go into them. The labor in comics is secret not because comics are especially inscrutable, but rather because "Nobody picks a comic up" and thinks about the aesthetic choices involved. McCloud's quote is about culture, not form. He's talking about status. And the fact that that quote ends up as her title is a tell that Chute's essay is in part about status as well.

If her essay is primarily about poetry comics, Chute's decision to ignore those folks who work most consciously to create poetry comics, like Warren Craghead, Franklin Einspruch, and Bianca Stone, is a little mystifying. But if her essay is about status, the choice becomes clearer—she's talking about the literary art comics she, in particular, studies and wants to see valued in the way poetry is valued. Similarly, the almost exclusive focus on literary art comics by Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, and Art Spiegelman enables Chute to skim lightly over the entirety of comics' pulp. Because of the examples she chooses, Chute can say that "[C]omics is about nothing if not the rhythm established by its verbal and visual elements." Comics that aren't about rhythm but are instead about, say, large monsters throwing buildings at each other, are a void; they are about "nothing." Comics that are like poetry are high art; comics that aren't like poetry simply vanish.

Personally, I'd be happy to see the disappearance of many of the pulp comics that Chute ignores. Mainstream superhero comics at the moment are almost unbelievably awful; if Marvel and DC went out of business tomorrow, I wouldn't shed any tears. But still, I think comics might want to take a moment or two to think before it embraces poetry as the alternative to either pow or bang. Contemporary poetry, after all, has its own problems—not least among them being the fact that virtually no one reads it. Poetry does have a populist wing, and what might be called pop poetry—song lyrics, rap lyrics, children's book doggerel—continues to have a large audience. But poetry has been so successful at defining itself as only high art that the lines of communication with lowbrow forms have been severed. As a result, poetry has turned itself into an ivory tower phenomena of painful and infuriating insularity. Mainstream venues, including The Atlantic, tend to ignore it as a critical or cultural phenomena, except for occasional generalized pieces arguing about the precise parameters of the form's descent into insignificance. (Perhaps, J.K. Trotter suggested hopefully in one recent article, some poet somewhere is publishing something interesting through CreateSpace.)

Comics, on the other hand, have always been inextricably associated with their most mass-market products, whether that's Calvin and Hobbes or Spider-man or xkcd. When Comic-Con is largely an excuse to advertise films and the term "comics" means "nerd culture" as often as it means anything having to do with speech bubbles, you can understand Chute's impulse to reach for poetry as a way to solidify high-art cred.   We're a long way from the place where comics will lose its anchoring in pulp, but Chute's tendency to make one kind of comics be the only kind of comics, and her connection of that one kind of comics to poetry, suggests that at least some folks might like that to happen. So it's worth remembering that the high road has its dangers as well. "Not just for kids anymore!" is an irritating meme to bear—but better "not just for kids" than "not for anybody."

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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