Literary webcomics

In the course of helping my daughter with a high school English assignment (“Find a poem that expresses your personality”), I found something really cool: The Poetry Foundation is inviting artists to create comics to illustrate poems. There are five entries so far in their series, “The Poem as Comic Strip,” and each one takes a different approach. Like poems, the webcomics are deceptively small, just a page or two each, but filled with meaning and associations.

The first in the series is Belly Dancer, poem by Diane Wasoski, art by David Heatley. The poem, written in 1966, explores sensuality and repression: The belly dancer enjoys the feeling of silk on her body, while the women look on, encased in cookie-cutter suits and proper white gloves that are like armor. While he gets the rhythm of the poem and the look of the proper ladies just right, Heatley draws the belly dancer in a clumsy, stiff style that doesn’t match the feelings she is describing. And unfortunately, the PDF download for this comic wasn’t working, so it can only be viewed at a small size that makes the words hard to read. Check it out anyway, though, and be sure to read the comments thread, in which the poet herself makes an appearance.

Gabriel Bell’s rendering of Emily Dickinson’s “It was not death, for I stood up,” on the other hand, is truly masterful. He devotes a single black-and-white vignette to each line of the poem, contrasting macabre and more poetic scenes as the poem moves through a series of loosely related images.

Jeffrey Brown takes it to the next level with his illustration of Russell Edson’s Of Memory and Distance by linking the rather vague poem to a very specific story about a couple experiencing both birth and death.

Ron Rege Jr. incorporates the words of Kenneth Patchen’s The Snow Is Deep on the Ground into the art itself, rendering the words dancing across a winter sky like the Northern Lights. The comic is a simple four-panel composition, but it can be viewed as a slide show to make the calligraphy more visible.

The most recent comic is Paul Hornschmeier’s depiction of Ted Kooser’s poem The Giant Slide. This poem uses very concrete, specific images to build a mood, and Hornschmeier follows the text closely while also capturing the spirit of the poem.

While the art is great, the presentation could use a little improvement. Each comic is introduced by an essay, but each essay begins with the same three paragraphs, explaining the purpose of the series. This is followed by an introduction to each specific poem and comic. It would have been better to split this into two essays, because a lot of readers must be missing the individual introductions, thinking they are seeing the same essay over and over. Also, some of the comics are presented too small to be seen on the page, requiring the reader to click for a PDF—something a lot of users (myself included) hate, as they are slow to load. And in the case of “Belly Dancer,” the PDF is missing altogether, which is frustrating.

These quibbles aside, this is a great series that’s well worth a look.

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