Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Comics-As-Poetry #5: Andrew White, Part I

Andrew White is one of the most prolific practitioners of comics-as-poetry. I'm going to break down his work over the next month as part of my overall comics-as-poetry series. Today, we'll look at some of his collaborations.

Those Goddamn Fuckers (with Alec Berry) was published by Uncivilized Books as part of their minicomics line. Written by Berry and drawn by White, it's an especially haunting story that stays mostly faithful to a 2x3 grid until the final page. That grid is often free of borders, but its structure allow for the ghostly, fading figure effect that resembles that of memories, times and people slowly fading away. The story is about one figure in particular, a street poet and writer, the kind who is not long for this world. He's the kind of person who's broken and mentally ill and self-medicating but with something to say and people who will listen, if only for a time. The smudgy, blurred quality of the images and and frequent dropping away of line indicates that this is also a memory that won't stay around for long. It's a comic about connecting to something meaningful that is slipping away.

Fill'd/Empty'd (with Warren Craghead). The classic Warren Craghead comic is one where a relatively still scene is observed over time without regard to narrative. It's a kind of pure form of phenomenological poetry, looking at what is observed without regard to its function or its average everyday use, and through drawing it, Craghead really sees it. White experiments with this in his half of this flip book comic, taking a Craghead drawing for reference and running with it. White often uses a John Hankiewicz approach in his comics by creating a rhythm by "rhyming" images and then repeating them throughout, pairing the images with short pieces of text. White is exploring all of the meanings of the word "filled" by juxtaposing scribbled, shadowy figures against many days' worth of observation of what seems to be a pond near some rolling hills. There are oblique references to the rain cycle (airlifted) that also have a double meaning with regard to emotional states. There's a rainstorm, and the way that affects everything in the environment. Though he's working a hybrid between his own style and that of Craghead's, White's drawings always have a more anxious and urgent quality than the quietude of Craghead's, making for an interesting clash.

That clash continues with the White-written "Empty'd" part of the mini, which was drawn by Craghead. This is a different kind of phenomenological study, one in which the study of a single object with regard to its context is crucial to understanding the story. In this case, it's a stop sign in front of a vacant lot. In a fractured, frenzied manner, Craghead eventually relates the story of a car crash near the sign, a tragic event that perhaps ended someone's life. Incorporating the text as broken, jagged letters into part of the rusty, battered setting is a powerful reminder of how traumatic the event truly was and how even conjuring up memories of it is difficult and indistinct. Collaborations like this are often tricky, but both Craghead and White embraced the essential qualities of each other while working out how to create a synthesis.

Muscle Memory (with Kimball Anderson). Once again, White shows his versatility in working in a style closer to Anderson's than his own. Anderson loves playing with time and pace while blurring colors. In this comic, they mixed colors together and also co-wrote this story of a chef working over a number of years. This is a comic about a mindset, specifically a mindset needed for repeatedly performing a mundane but still somewhat skilled set of tasks. The imagery is inchoate in the early going, suggesting that a persona as a chef was still somewhat in its formative stages at the time. The rhythm of this comic is a 4x4 grid on the left-hand pages and a single, recapitulating image on the right hand side. It is crucial as a reader to stop and rest for a moment on the many empty panels in the early part of the comic, as they are meant to create a kind of reader empathy toward the slow progress made both in developing skills but also creating an identity. There's a relaxed, meditative feel to these panels as an identity is built and firmed up. The frequent use of alliteration creates an additional layer of viscerality, as even the words have weight and thickness on the page. Without conscious thought to what the chef was doing, their mind drifted out of intentionality and into the titular muscle memory. Two entirely blank pages suggest a passage of time that was so numbingly similar on a day to day basis that literally nothing stuck to the page. As the chef ages and their hands and mind aren't quite as sharp as they once where, there's no panel that goes blank. There's an intense, almost painful level of concentration on hands, head and the work itself. There's also a pain expressed with regard to the meaningfulness of this identity, a pain that fades as the work continues on. The repeating text is a kind of buzzing set of thoughts in the back of the chef's mind: never fully formed, but always repeating. White and Anderson embrace simplicity on a formal level in order to examine far deeper concepts, but the concept is irreducible from the form here. That makes it a perfectly-realized example of comics-as-poetry, one that might be used to demonstrate the form in a way that makes clear sense to a layman.

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