The R. Crumb cover for Harvey Pekar’s More American Splendor (Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1987)
At the close of her essay “Secret Labor,” published in Poetry magazine last summer, Hillary Chute provides several examples of the intersections between comics and poetry. She includes, for example, Art Spiegelman’s illustrated version of Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, Eric Drooker’s work with Allen Ginsberg, and Monica Youn’s Ignatz. Regarding Youn’s book of poems, Chute writes, “I, for one, want to see more of that: poetry about comics.” In the months since Chute published her essay, we’ve seen responses from Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic and, more indirectly, from Michael Chaney at Dartmouth, whose next Illustration, Comics, and Animation Conference will address, in part, these connections between poetic practice and the world of comics and comic art. One of the Calls for Papers for the 2014 Dartmouth Conference asks, “Can Comics Be Poetry?”
For Chicago poet Tony Trigilio, whose new collection, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1, has just been published by BlazeVOX Books, comics and poetry are narrative forms that call attention to space and to absence. In a 2004 interview, The Spoon River Poetry Review asked Trigilio about the strong narrative pulse of his work. Noting the “very story-oriented, narrative, representational, and almost, at times, fictive” nature of his poetry, the Spoon River editor asked, “How is it that you’ve come to write this way? What influences led you here?” Early in his response, Trigilio describes an inspiration that might have come as a surprise to the journal’s readers:
My narrative influences don’t come exclusively from poetry. I’m thinking of the way stories are constructed visually and verbally, and with gaps in “sense” we expect from poetry, in Harvey Pekar’s comics, which I’ve been lovingly obsessed with since the late 1980s.
As I read this interview, I began to think of these “gaps in ‘sense’” and how they might shape a reading of one of Trigilio’s poems, “Soldier, 1942,” from his 2006 collection The Lama’s English Lessons, and Pekar’s “Miracle Rabbis, a Doctor Gesundheit Story,” drawn by Robert Crumb and included in the 1987 collection More American Splendor. Just as “Soldier, 1942” might be read as a comic—that is, as a series of words and pictures—“Miracle Rabbis” might be read as a poem. In reading the two together, I’d like to extend the potentially rich dialogue between comics and poetry Chute began in her essay. But in order to talk about the Trigilio’s poem and Pekar’s comic, I’ll have to begin with a brief digression about history and photography. “Soldier, 1942,” after all, is partly an ekphrastic poem, as the speaker describes a World War II photograph of his father.
The link between comics and photography, of course, is a complex subject, one Marianne Hirsch began exploring in her discussion of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in her influential 1997 study Family Frames. More recently, Michael A. Johnson at Pencil, Panel, Page asked the question, “Why do artists use photographs in drawn comics?” Hirsch offers a few possible answers to this question when, as she studies Spiegelman’s inclusion of photographs of his mother, father, and brother in Maus, she writes, “In moving us from documentary photographs—perhaps the most referential representational medium—to cartoon drawings of mice and cats, Spiegelman lays bare the levels of mediation that underlie all visual representational forms” (Hirsch 25).
While Spiegelman includes photographs in his text—as Hirsch points out, most notably and startlingly the image of his mother in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet”—Trigilio’s speaker describes a photograph of his father. The photograph, itself, however, functions like a panel from a comic book, complete with commentary written like a text box on the back of the image. In a “boot camp headshot” the speaker’s father sent home at the start of the war, the young solder has written a note to his mother and father:
Back of the photo, he writes:
“Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.”
Me, too, black-and-white patina, splinters,
I study his image as it crumbles
in my hands, like damp wood flaking from
the backyard tool shed we tore down
when I was 12.
This photograph, like a poem, is filled with those “gaps in ‘sense,’” even for the subject himself: “Hey, ma & dad, this is supposed to be me.” A few lines later, the speaker offers a possible reading of the photograph, but, as outsiders, we cannot share in this moment of illumination. “I can almost see the roiled anatomy of Yalta,” the speaker begins,
foretold in the sediment of this photograph,
in my father’s eyes flush-brown
with maps and legends like he’s asking the camera
what he’ll see when he’s shipped away.
But I’ll return again to the note on the back of the photograph: “…this is supposed to be me.” The young soldier doesn’t recognize himself, not quite. Should we, as readers, or like his son, complete that thought? …this is supposed to be me. But that’s not me. That’s someone else.
And what does the son see in this photograph? A few lines earlier, he describes his father’s “humble bluster, ready to take down Japan, / our ontology: this is supposed to be me.” Spiegelman tells us the same story in Maus: this is supposed to be me. This is supposed to be my father. This is supposed to be my mother. This is what I know. This is what I’ve been told. This is what I think I remember. That’s a kind of comic book—not just words and pictures, but a series of possibilities, each one a little farther away from its point of origin. At some time and place in 1942, the snapshot tells us, the speaker’s father sat down for a photograph. Then, fifty or sixty years later, the poet transformed that image into a series of words—a translation, or those “levels of mediation” Hirsch describes in her chapter on Maus.
And “Miracle Rabbis”? Another series of mistakes, of stolen or missing identities. First, Doctor Gesundheit tells Harvey a joke. In the fifth panel of the first page, the doctor, having finished his story in the fourth panel, asks, “Haw haw you get it??” He looks eagerly at Harvey, who stands with a file in one hand. There is a shadow on the wall behind him. Like the doctor, we wait for Harvey’s reply, but, in the next panel, a patient interrupts the two men: “Ah beg y’pordon doctor, but are you the doctor that saved m’ lahf about a year ago?”
The first page of “Miracle Rabbis” by Harvey Pekar and R. Crumb from More American Splendor
On the next page, Doctor Gesundheit denies that he saved the man’s life. As he does so, Crumb adds a series of details to the image. While, on the first page, we inhabit the same abstract space as the Doctor and Harvey, we are now standing with the three men in the hallway of a hospital. In the first panel of the second page, we see a door, a window, another doorway, a table, a cup, a stack of towels:
The second and final page of “Miracle Rabbis”
The patient has reminded us and the Doctor and Harvey of our bodies, of our movement in space. But the patient, for all his effort, can’t find the doctor he’s looking for, unless Gesundheit and Harvey are joking with him. The fifth panel on this second page echoes the fifth panel on the first page: there is a pause; once again, we wait for a punch line. As the Doctor and Harvey stare at him, the patient walks away, and Crumb includes sketches of the ceiling, other doorways, windows, mail slots, door handles. And, in the final panel of the story, as a nurse enters the frame, Doctor Gesundheit tells another joke: “Zo, anyvay, here’s anuzzer story—” The two men walk the hallway together, and, as readers, we look ahead to the story on the next page.
The patient in Pekar’s story might have asked his differently: I know you. I think. This is supposed to be you. But those “gaps” are at work here, too, just as they are when we look at any photograph, or read any poem, or study the words and pictures on a comic book page.
A few days ago I asked Tony to remember his favorite comic books from childhood. What comics in the 1970s played a role in shaping his consciousness as a writer and as a poet?
His answer was simple and direct: Man-Bat. Specifically, the little-known, short-lived Man-Bat series DC Comics published in 1975 and early 1976.
Not Batman. Man-Bat.
The Jim Aparo cover for DC Comics’ Man-Bat No. 2 Feb.-Mar. 1976
Tony and I will talk a little more about the poetics of Man-Bat in my next post.
Meanwhile, happy new year!