Writer and artist Joe Brainard (1942-1994) was obsessed with (among other things) Nancy, finding ways to collaboratively collage, coerce and copy the comic strip stalwart into his art.

Brainard’s The Nancy Book (Siglio Press, 2008) collects a large selection of his work (both written and drawn) that features Nancy. He draws his subject in the style of other artists, collages her into cigarette ads, and other times poses her in pornographic situations. He often places her within the visual language of comics, using elements such as panels, speech bubbles, captions, and emanata. Two examples are below.

Collaboration between Joe Brainard and poet Ted Berrigan from The Nancy Book (Siglio Press, 2008)
Collaboration between Joe Brainard and poet Ron Padgett from The Nancy Book (Siglio Press, 2008)

In the first one, the panels can hardly hold Brainard’s Nancy until she finally breaks the gutter and covers the bottom lower right panels. In the second one, Nancy is free falling across the panels. In both cases, they perfectly represent what Ann Lauterbach calls in the introduction to The Nancy Book: “Candor: a kind of fearlessness about boundaries.” (p. 8)

There’s also the concept of collaboration to consider in these poetry comics. Both examples credit poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. Thinking collage, in the same way he found Nancy in the comics page, he found poetry in the words of his friends. (More about collaborations in a later post.)

Of note, in addition to his Nancy drawings, Brainard created other comic books, including “People of the World: Relax!,” “Some Drawings of Some Notes to Myself,” and “The Cigarette Book” all found in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (The Library of America, 2012). These underscore his ongoing conversation with comics.

As Brainard makes us consider popular comics as rightful subjects and architecture for fine art, he equally makes us consider a wider acceptance of what a poem is. This is what I think the best poetry comics do.

Timeline: 1963-1978

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

Once comic strips and comic books entered the popular imagination, it was only a matter of time before poets noticed.

Poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was one of the first generations that grew up with comics. (Comic books being popularized in America in the 1930s, history of comics timelines generally agree.) Associated with the New York School, Koch found a way to be a comics artist and a poet at the same time.

Published posthumously, The Art of the Possible – Comics Mainly Without Pictures (Soft Skull Press, 2004) is one of the books that inspired me to even try drawing poetry comics. It’s witty and aware, alternating between exploding and exploring the comics page, challenging (and defining) the form even when (sometimes) staying inside the lines.

In the introduction to Koch’s comics collection, David Lehman writes: “In 1992, Kenneth decided that not only could he borrow subject matter or adapt a narrative technique from comics but it might be possible to write poetry in a new form based on them.” (p. 9)

The poet’s hand is paramount in these comics that have the feel of being hastily drawn in the spirit of “first thought, best thought.” As the title warns, Koch’s comics are mostly without pictures, leaving words to do the work inside and outside – and even without – panels.

Here are 2 examples.

Kenneth Koch “Stopping Off For Death In Life Comics” from The Art of the Possible (Soft Skull Press, 2004)

Kenneth Koch “Unsure Comics” from The Art of the Possible (Soft Skull Press, 2004)

Koch shows the way to have poetry and comics inform each other while pushing at the restraints of both forms. Comics provides a perfect constraint for the ideas his poems express. I count this collection among Poetry Comics Classics.

Timeline: 1992

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

To understand the expanse of the poetry comics universe, the online remains of INK BRICK (2013-2019) provide a perfect primer. Contributors to the literary journal, which was exclusively dedicated to poetry comics, include poets and comics artists working in all media. The resulting 10 volumes fill in the central tenets of poetry comics while pushing the outer reaches.

INK BRICK was a micro-press dedicated to comics poetry

Here are 5 ways INK BRICK inspires me:

  1. Overwhelming feeling of encouragement. I’m not alone. There are others who continue to make art that build context using words and drawings.
  2. The feeling of inclusiveness. There’s a heartening diversity in this community. No matter if you find your way to poetry comics as a poet first or a comics artist first, you are welcomed.
  3. There’s a lot to explore (and learn) here. For example: The list of Contributors include links to artists’ websites that lead to new explorations and inspirations.
  4. Pro Tip: Dig through the Archive for hidden gems. You’ll find lots of great notes and quotes here.
  5. And the best take-away: There’s not just one way to express poetry comics or comics poetry. “There are many paths to the top of the mountain.”

R.I.P. INK BRICK.

Timeline: 2013-2019

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

This post comes with a disclaimer.

Up to now, “A History of Poetry Comics” has gone along without defining *poetry comics.* I believe any definition should be as inclusive and open as possible. As we pause to consider “what are poetry comics?” please remember: there’s a lot of room to color outside the lines.

What are poetry comics?

Is it a poetry genre like concrete poetry or visual poetry? Or is it a comics genre akin to literary fiction? Let’s look at 4 ways we can perhaps corral poetry comics — even if we can’t pigeonhole them.

Intention – Does the artist intend the work to be poetry comics? One good indicator: the creator calls them poetry comics. That’s straight-forward and perhaps the easiest way to categorize. Starting as early as the 1950s and continuing through today, there are many examples of artists calling their poems comics or taking direct inspiration from comics, including Kenneth Koch, Joe Brainard, bp nichol, Bianca Stone, Johnny Damm, Susanne Reece, and (my teacher) David Lasky. Another example is the lit zine Ink Brick (2013-2019), which asserted its intention by describing itself as “The Press for Comics Poetry.”

Occupation – Is the comics artist a poet? Or is the poet a comics artist? The order in which that occurs doesn’t matter, but it takes experience/experiment in both to create poetry comics and is a good indicator that what you’re seeing/reading are indeed poetry comics. There are great examples of poets as drawers, painters, and comics artists, including bp nichol (see “The Captain Poetry Poems Complete” (Book Thug, 2011)). Equally there are great examples of comics artists, drawers, and painters as poets, including John Porcellino (see “Busy Bee” or “Old Hearts” or “Spring Signs” in “Map of My Heart” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)).

Point: “the poet who paints or sculpts is different from the painter who writes. he comes at his art from an entirely different angle and brings to it different concerns yet similar ones. but he is always a poet.” –bp nichol in “Comics” (Talonbooks, 2002; p. 13)

Counterpoint: “Any cartoonist will tell you that the deeper you dig into the form, the more nuances and subtleties you find. … It’s not as static as a fixed image, it’s a flow. The more I looked into comics, and this kind of ‘flow,’ the more similarities to poetry I found.” –John Porcellino, interview with The Herald, April 2018.

Construction – Is the work both a poem and a comic? Does it include compositional elements from comics (panels, speech bubbles, captions, etc.) and poems (structure, syntax, rhythm, etc. )? Be aware when answering those questions that sometimes the elements will be fragmented, implied, or even omitted, which keeps things new. In “Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics” (Sidekick Books, 2015; p. 13), the editors assert: “In the same way that it’s a mistake to think of comics as ‘prose with illustrations’ rather than being more complex compositions, it’s a mistake to think of poems as prose divided into different lines.”

Illumination – Do the words and pictures create a third meaning beyond what words or pictures could do on their own? Pictures and words are often integrated in poetry comics in ways that create context that illuminates and/or transcends what they bring individually to the composition.

As one example, in Japanese poetry including traditional haiku there is a “cutting word” kireji. It serves a lot of purposes, including creating a break or a leap in meaning, relationship or emphasis. In comics terms it would be the gutter, white space or even a changed aspect from frame to frame. The result is the same: a meaning emerges in the reader’s mind as a result of that juxtaposition. That leap is what illuminates.

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

To make it so, name it so.

If you wonder if pictures and words together is poetry comics, consider what the artist calls it. Here’s an example.

Contemporary poet Bianca Stone leaves no doubt what she’s creating are poetry comics — she calls them poetry comics, uses the URL poetrycomics.com as her homepage, and incorporates (and bends) the basic framework of classic comic books.

“Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours” by Bianca Stone (Pleiades Press, 2016)

Her cover for Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours (Pleiades Press, 2016) echoes classic comic book covers: the callout for bonus materials, the burst (partially obscured) declaring “Is your daughter a poet?” and our superhero front and center — saving a victim, bursting out of the darkness.

The parallel continues inside. There are sequential panels, caption boxes and speech bubbles. And at 7×10, the size feels comic-book size.

The point here is intention. Did the artist intend their work to be poetry comics? I believe it’s as simple as: if they’re called poetry comics by the poet-artist, then they’re poetry comics.

P.S. Stone illustrated poet Anne Carson’s translation of “Antigonick” by Sophokles (New Directions, 2012). Her drawings on velum overlay hand-lettered text, which shows through in evocative ways, making a direct connection with and illuminating the words. Definitely worth seeking.

Timeline: 2010s

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

Centuries-old Japanese haiga offer elements that can deepen our understanding of poetry comics today. Haiga often combine drawing with haiku, the now ubiquitous short poem form, delivered in the artist’s own hand. Foremost for me is the balance found in the words and drawings compositionally on the page.

There are many Japanese haiku and haiga masters; poet-painter Yosa Buson (1716-1784) is revered for excelling at both. One famous example of his haiga shows the poet resting at his writing table with an expression of blissful satisfaction. There’s a lot to admire here.

“Learning …” haiga by Buson (Public Domain)

The brush drawing is (what we would call today) cartoon-like and signals the intended humor of the accompanying poem. (For a note on the translation, David LaSpina considers this particular haiku here: “Great learning, or great farting.”) What attracts me the most: The upper left third is blank, strategically balancing the haiku and the self-portrait. It gives space for contemplation for both the artist and the viewer, and space for the meaning to (literally) dissipate.

For me, this white space works the same way the gutter does between panels of a comic — it shifts time, action, perspective or even meaning.

On a personal note, I’ve practiced shodo, Japanese calligraphy, for more than 30 years, always aware of balancing the written characters with blank space on the page. I’ve learned to consider blank space an important element of composition. This pause gives the reader/viewer time to fill in the blanks (or gives room for a fart!), and becomes an integral third element with pictures and words.

P.S. More haiga by Buson and others can be seen here.

Timeline: Prehistory

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

Poetry comics are different than captioned illustrations or ekphrastic poems, which rely on someone else’s drawings for explanation/inspiration. For the most part, poetry comic artists create their own pictures paired with their own words. There are abundant and inspiring exceptions always, but there’s something about an artist showing their singular mind-thought that grabs and holds me.

Poet Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) created what he called “picture poems” drawing inspiration from Blake’s illuminations. I first encountered Patchen’s drawings in his Collected Poems, which I bought at a used book store in San Francisco in the early 90s. Scattered among the collection, starting about halfway, are hand-drawn poems often with lettering dominating the composition interwoven with modern-art-influenced animals and figures or chart-like illustrations. I wanted more!

Much later I found more in Patchen’s We Meet (New Directions, 2008) and The Walking-Away World (New Directions, 2008), which collected his out-of-print works from the 1950’s and 1960’s and are packed with single-panel picture poems, including “What can you do / up here.”

Full color example from “What Shall We Do Without Us?” by Kenneth Patchen (Sierra Club Books, 1984)

The poem falls down the single panel simultaneously following the mythic-looking creature from horned head to clawed feet. “Up here” is underscored by the crescent moon and stars, while “on earth” is shown by a stick-figure person with waving arms who’s easily missed at first. While the words alone would be profound, the picture deepens the meaning, underscoring the wonder left by the question mark.

Another aspect I admire: The poet’s own handwriting is an integral part of the composition, which echos Blake’s illuminated manuscripts. I love seeing the hand of the poet!

P.S. Shout out to New Directions for keeping Patchen’s picture poems in print. How about a full color version?!

Timeline: 1950s, 1960s

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.

Words and drawing have gone together for centuries.

My first encounter with the idea that drawings can provide context for words and that words can provide meaning for drawings came through the illuminated poetry of William Blake (1757-1827).

I must have been hungover when they taught the English master in Lit class (anyway I was more into the Beats than the Romantics). Instead I was led to Blake through punk music and specifically Patti Smith (who still stops to read Blake’s poetry at her concerts). In 1977 I was struck by the power words and punk music had to transcend the mundane and deliver an immediacy. I experienced the same power, this time between words and drawing when I encountered Blake’s illuminated poetry.

Blake’s drawings for his poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience are testaments to words/drawings leading to deeper meaning/context. The illumination for his poem “The Tyger” (published in 1794!) for example shows an intertwining of words and drawing. The tree branches become stanza breaks. A stalk of grass stretches the entire left side of the print becoming the first letter of the title. The written tiger’s “fearful symmetry” is belied by the drawn tiger’s domesticated expression. “…what art / Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” Indeed.

William Blake, “The Tyger” (The Project Gutenberg, gutenberg.org)

Poetry and drawing together is a matter of providing the reader/viewer with context to build a shared, deeper meaning with the poet/artist. That’s why Blake’s *illuminated* is a great descriptor. For me, the best poetry comics illuminate — words and drawing together that create something new.

Timeline: Prehistory

Warning: This incomplete history maps my journey as a poet learning about comics and doesn’t follow a strict chronological order.