Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Comics As Poetry #1: Inaction Comics

This is the first entry in what will be a months-long series on comics-as-poetry. It's a branch of comics that's exploded in recent years, with the results being remarkably varied. A cousin to abstract comics, comics-as-poetry stretches the limits of narrative in comics and explores the different ways words & images can interact in a manner similar to poetry's ability to use words in an intuitive manner to get across a hint of the sublime.

This week's book is Inaction Comics #1: Productivity, edited by Kimball Anderson. It's more than just a clever title; indeed, its premise is a challenge to a fundamental aspect of comics: that it is sequential art, featuring movement and action between panels and pages. The grids and the rhythms of storytelling are all designed to create a fluidity of action that carries the reader along. Anderson goes in a different direction, and the other artists in the book follow along; create a single narrative from a number of different artists that focuses on stillness, inactivity, and quiet. The book is separated into three sections: floating, weighted and balance. One of the running themes of the book is how frenzied and uncontrolled activity is in itself a kind of sickness, or at least an inability to stop and be still. There's virtue in having goals and working hard, but this book examines what happens when work consumes us. At the same time, in one running narrative spearheaded by Anderson, one of the characters is clearly medically disabled, and they have trouble reconciling what they see as a lack of usefulness with their partner's activity.

The Weighted section is the book's most intense, as there's a frenzy of activity but also a period of having to wait before being active, and it's portrayed as agonizing for a certain set of people. For them, as LB Lee shows us, activity is simply an antidote to a fear of being still, of being alone with one's thoughts, as well as being part of bipolar. That's followed up on in the Floating section, where the mania of needing to be in constant motion eases and equilibrium is achieved. In the course of works that vary between stream of consciousness narrative, snapshots of relationships, case studies, and traditional narratives, the very concept of "productivity" is examined and flipped around. There's a strip by L. Nichols that examines the anxiety surrounding "work" and "getting work done", highlighting the fact that being anxious about work interrupts the actual flow of being able to first relax, then focus and finally follow-through. In their strip, as they sit at a drawing table, they finally are persuaded to go on a walk with their dog. In the middle of the walk, they realize the irony that sometimes the act of moving one's body creates a stillness of mind that's impossible to achieve simply by trying to will it into being. Anderson goes even further to suggest that such activity creates erasure of self and meaning.

The book also hints, in the Floating section, that the very concept of productivity in a capitalist society is toxic. It values frenzied activity over thoughtful contemplation, rushing instead of moving, and busyness as a form of self-worth. Susie Oh's strip about the silkworm is a perfect encapsulation of the book's ethos, as the silkworm creates beautiful silk in its own time, at its own pace, in its own way. Frenzied activity is almost incapable of the act of creation. Laurel Lynn Leake's strip is the visceral opposite of this, as the "shame of inaction" is turned inward, until one devours oneself. In this strip, it's a literal self-destruction, a metaphor for the ways in which guilt and self-loathing drive self-destruction. It's an interesting strip because the visual approach of each artist is radically different. Anderson's use of line is spare, as color shapes create the emotional narrative. Nichols uses a single spot color and line, concentrating on close-ups but never showing their face in total. Lee's work is standard pencil and ink, hewing closely to naturalism in a way that's jarring when compared to the rest of the book. Andrew White often works directly with words and shapes, representing the way in which one's vision becomes strained and one's ability to concentrate dims. Leake's art is visceral and terrifying. The overall result is a beautiful, restrained and remarkably cohesive work, despite slipping from the work of one artist to another. The overall effect is as though the reader has been given the rare privilege of seeing how someone else sees the world, feeling what they feel, and understanding their fears and desires. At just over a hundred pages, it moves at a remarkably brisk pace, as the artists found a way of locking in together in an intuitive way. It's poetic and direct, but also offers so many sublime moments of simply being, of inhabiting each strip and understanding, even if only for a moment.

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