Category Archives: Graphic Novels & Comics
In the tradition of Matt Kish, another great illuminated classic has been created by Allen Crawford. Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass, with Song of Myself as a centerpiece, is a keystone of American poetry, and Crawford uses drawings and hand-lettering to deepen the reader’s experience of the poem.
Each page is a hand-drawn spread created mostly through a process of improvisation rather than of careful planning, a method of which Whitman no doubt would have approved. Some pages are nothing but elaborate compositions of text, while others are images floating in empty space with a few lines of verse. Most are a pleasing combination of both.
Several reviews I’ve read say that this copy is not the best introduction to Whitman since some of the pages are difficult to read. I have only skimmed the original, but I would have to disagree. Whitman wanted to break free of the traditional bonds of form in poetry. He wrote sprawling verses that are hard to follow even in traditionally printed books, since artificial line breaks must be added to make Whitman’s free verse fit into the standard paperback format. Crawford makes Whitman’s dream of breaking free from poetry’s form a reality. While it is almost impossible to read the page above in the exact order Whitman wrote it, it is just as impossible to miss the experience of the verse when seen in this way. The drawing, the floating text that forces you to turn the book around in your hands as you read, surely get at the heart of Whitman’s cosmic scale and intimate verse. I believe Whitman was seeking after the experience created by the reading of his poetry rather than the dogmatic adherence to his choices in form, line length, and word order.
Some pages are harder to decipher than others, though I wonder how much that has to do with some obscurity in Whitman’s poetic language and how much it is a failing on Crawford’s part to create a flow through the text. No doubt repeated readings would make such pages more clear (and re-reading is a necessary reality of reading any kind of poetry). Crawford does have a lyrical sense of how to arrange words so that at first glance the page seems illegible, but once the reader dives in he is carried through with a sense of excitement and engagement rather than confusion or frustration.
This illuminated manuscript does what all beautifully bound and illustrated books should, it forces the reader to understand that he is not superior to the book. This is a book to be experienced, not marked up and analyzed. To read this copy of Song of Myself is to more fully enter Whitman’s world, to more holistically experience the scope and intimacy of his poem.
You can find Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself illustrated by Allen Crawford on Amazon or at your local bookstore.
All good artists are trying to tell the truth about the world. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on Page 27 of Watchmen, Chapter 2: Absent Friends (DC Comics, 1986) weave multiple narratives into an illusion-shattering whole that lays bare the fractured world they see around them. They create a super hero story that is honest to the truth of human nature in the world they see around them. They use multiple overlapping stories told through completely interdependent panels to show us the fragmentation of ourselves and our reality. This page shatters the illusion of our gridded reality and forces us to face the world without a mask. Continue reading
An analytical paper I wrote on the comic page above:
The interplay between form and function is at the heart of every art form and comics are no exception. Will Eisner on page two of his “Origin of the Spirit” demonstrates perfectly how the form of a comic book can give us the experience of the narrative before we read a word and expand the way storytelling functions. As our eye skims the page, we are subconsciously prepped to process the story. This page depicts the story of the universal struggle between good and evil at the dramatic moment in which it seems as if evil may be winning. Eisner uses the entry points to the page, the art style, and the panel format to highlight this struggle in a way that transcends language. These formal elements communicate the meaning of the page-fear for the hero, before a single word is read. Continue reading
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is an immigrant story full of depth and pathos, all the more impressive since the story is told entirely with pictures. By leaving out the words, Tan is able to communicate the sense of disorientation and confusion an immigrant experiences in a foreign land. All good art involves the union of form with function, and The Arrival does just that. The antique feel of the drawings, the fantastical landscapes, and the lack of words all serve the purpose of the book – imparting the experience of arriving on the shores of a strange new country.
Having traveled extensively as a child and recently spent six months in Japan, I have a deep appreciation for The Arrival. While my story is not that of the immigrant, I can relate to the sense of alienation in a new culture. Tan captures many of the difficulties of life in a new place as well as the sense of wonder that only comes from traveling.
The Arrival does what all good art should do – illuminate. It gives enlightenment by imparting experience through a skillful use of form. It sheds light on the experience of others and helps us empathize with those who have been in situations we would otherwise have no way of understanding. The Arrival is a book you would find in the children’s section of a book store, but it is something far more than mere children’s entertainment. It is art that tells the truth about the world in a way that is both enjoyable and profound.