As art forms, poetry and comics have much more in common than they seemingly appear to.
While poems are rooted traditionally in language, they often rely on the use of that language to create a visual for the reader, inviting them to experience something unique to that poem; language is just the method of the presentation, and it’s a compromise. All language is, but it’s all we have. So we make do.
Poems often contain the suggestion of narrative—of plot, but it’s more of an accompaniment to the language rather than the driving force. Sequence can also be a driving factor; the order in which the words appear on the page can instruct the reader on “how” to read it, the length and placement of the lines control the speed, the tension, and timbre of the poem’s voice. The voice of the poem, (usually referred to as the speaker, since we don’t assume it’s the same as the poet’s), goes through a series of movements, shifting, as controlled by the line.
An untitled poem from renowned poet Gregory Orr, demonstrates this expertly.
I want to go back
To the beginning.
We all do.
Hurt won’t be there.
But I’m wrong.
Where the water
At the spring:
Isn’t that a wound?
The line breaks, (where the lines divide and continue onto the next one), contain a kind of backstory to the poem that is propelled by the narrative suggested. For example, a line like Hurt won’t be there, implies tragedy, a need for the speaker to escape; we don’t need to know from what, we just need to know in the next line, that the speaker is wrong. The space between the two lines, called the white space, suggests a change, that something has moved, been altered for the speaker. This poem is broken up into two sections, called stanzas, each with a different function in the poem, further suggesting significance from the first section to the second.
In comics it’s similar but slightly different. Sequence controls the narrative and while plot is often a crucial factor, we rely first on the strength of the visual language, the actual art—and composition of the piece, to control the speed and tension of a comic’s voice. This sequence also serves to suggest movement, not just of the plot, but of the literal action of the characters in the page. They can’t animate for us, so we have to assume that in between the panels, character movement is happening, similar to the white space of a poem, and in that sense, each panel is like a stanza. What we are shown is what matters, what we need to know.
The art of the piece becomes the comic’s language, unique to that artist or writer and their respective collaboration, similar to the poet’s voice through the speaker in a poem. But an artist/writer aren’t their characters, any more than a poet’s speaker is always the poet.
Darwyn Cooke, who passed away on May 14th 2016, after battling cancer, was an absolute icon in the comic industry, and I don’t think that begins to cover his impact.
To say that his work had a unique style, doesn’t begin to do it justice, and though that is true, I think it’s closer to say that his work was the ultimate realization of comics as poetry.
Just look at this variant cover for Superman #37.
What strikes me most about this, is the implied motion, the narrative, and it’s all so heavily weighted in the simple movement of some Venetian blinds.
The piece directs the reader; our eyes drag slowly from left to right, landmarks in the piece inform of us the setting. The janitor’s coat, broom, mop, all quickly lets us know it’s a custodial closet, so we move next to the glasses, hat and tie, resting delicately on a box, awaiting the return of their owner, immediately implying, “Clark Kent”, but not outright stating it. We dash next to the blinds, the only object in the piece affected at all by movement, seemingly with force, with speed. We rest on the image of Superman in the distance, bringing the narrative full circle. We know what happened. He rushed out, to save the day, as Superman does. It’s quiet, efficient, and simply stunning.
All of Cooke’s work had this effect. One need only read his seminal book, New Frontier, perhaps his most famous work, to see countless examples of this. New Frontier, written and drawn by Cooke, shows us the DC Universe in the 1950s, serving as the bridge from the Golden Age of comics to the Silver Age. Nothing is wasted, every page, every narrative moment inside is a quiet explosion, a culmination of sequence, language, and movement.
It’s a sweeping narrative, culminating in a grand, spectacular battle with the fate of the world at stake, but for me, it’s the quiet moments where it really hits me the hardest.
I particularly love this moment, when J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, begins to acclimate to his new planet, by watching television.
The captions inform of us the larger character arc for J’onn, but we don’t really need them. We see J’onn acclimate, we see his shape shifting powers manifest. The shift to Groucho Marx paints a picture for us of J’onn gleefully doing an impression, as anyone who watches enough Groucho might attempt to do in the wee hours of the night. The change to Bugs Bunny is just hilarious and earnest; the art style so perfectly mimicking the look of the Looney Tunes in 1955, which would be jarring if it wasn’t done so well, the empty soda bottles letting us known how much time has passed, how much he is enjoying soda.
It’s brilliantly composed and gives us so much insight into J’onn in only three panels. This kind of craft isn’t just art, this is poetry.
In 2007, I worked at a comic book store in Clearwater, Florida, called Emerald City Comics. As far as jobs go, it was fine. The pay was abysmal, but the staff was wonderful, and by the time I left, I had cultivated some truly wonderful friendships that I still have to this day.
The coolest part about this job though, was the frequency in which comic book professionals would visit the store to shop.
As employees, we weren’t really allowed to geek out when they came in, and admittedly, it wasn’t really difficult not to. Though many were artists and writers I loved, I’ve never been one to get visibly giddy over someone whose work I admire, and really, they were there to shop, not to be bothered by me or anyone else in the building. I fully admit that most of the time, I didn’t even recognize them until someone pointed them out. I’m pretty bad at faces generally, and I don’t even recognize people I know half of the time.
Darwyn Cooke was the exception. I recognized him right away.
It’s not correct to say that I met Darwyn Cooke, or that I knew him. I didn’t. He came into the store a few times when I was working, and one time, I rang him up. That’s all.
We had one of those brief, employee/customer exchanges, the kind that’s light and cheery, and rarely makes a lasting impression for either party. The only thing I’ve ever remembered about it, is that it was Darwyn Cooke and I made some random Simpson’s reference, (I don’t remember which one) and he laughed at it.
I made him laugh.
Darwyn Cooke, whose work has made myself, and countless others, laugh, cry, feel, and I was able to make him laugh. I know it’s silly. It was such a fleeting non-moment, but I’m thankful for it, to be able to give him back something, even if it was just social nicety.
More than anything, I wish I could just go back, and thank him. Thank him for his work, and what it meant to me, and what it will continue to mean to me. To let him know how much it informed and continues to inform my own creative process, and that it’s made me a better writer, and maybe: a better person.
I can’t begin to imagine the pain that those close to him, that those who knew him best are feeling, and my thoughts are truly with every single one of them. I know my sadness in this can’t begin to compare to that, nor would I suggest it does.
2016 has been a year filled with the constant loss of creators and celebrities we love, and this one has hit me far harder than I would have ever guessed, and I just had to write this. I know others will express these sentiments far better than I can; I just needed to get them out. To make them exist. To say the “thank you” that I never did.
If you haven’t read any of his works, and you are a fan of comics, of storytelling, of poetry, or fun, I implore you, read them. For all the emotion I discussed, his work was also just brimming with pure, unbridled joy, and sometimes, that’s all you need.
So thank you, Darwyn Cooke. You will never be forgotten.
It’s not enough to say that his passing is a loss; it’s so much more than that.
It’s a wound.
That’s all it ever could be.
Poey Gordon is a journalist, poet, and fiction writer living in the Bay Area.
Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey.