The Subtle Poetry of Comic Books

How comics writers and artists convey truth in three or four panels.

pablo (23)

Brad Leithauser once made a good case for why we should memorize poetry and I completely agree, but I’d like to add that certain comics panels function exactly like poetry. They are tiny windows in the Advent calendar of my mind. When I’m exercising or stuck at a bus stop, I pull these pictures open and remember something beautiful.

Masterclass in Comics #1:

Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev were ten years ahead of their time in the final panels of Civil War: The Confession (2007).

Bendis Maleev Civil War The Confession

I love the toothlike, light-sabre blue lines of the prison bars, Iron Man’s hunched frustration in what look like football pads, and the final bird’s eye view of Cap with no furniture and only a shrinking geometry of light. Our point-of-view pivots through the space to effectively conclude a story that until now has been almost exclusively close-ups and splash panels. The desperate banter and confession of the previous 21 pages resolve in a page that is mostly wordless blackness.

Visual storytelling aside, however, these three panels are a solace. I do not think I can feel a genuine emotion about the Green Goblin. But I have needed help with the rage and disappointment I have felt since the election in November. In three panels created ten years ago, Bendis and Maleev capture the feeling of being a prisoner in your own country. The only elements that do not ring true are the last two words in the corner of the page.

Masterclass in Comics #2

On October 2, 1950, Charles Schultz published his first PEANUTS comic strip, and, to my mind, never topped it.


The simple, four-panel structure with a fixed point of view that allows the innocent Charlie Brown to happily walk past (he doesn’t have his signature EKG patterned shirt yet, but notice how the wiggly shadow shows the bounce in Charlie Brown’s steps) and the tilting head of the boy who will be Sherman reflects the thought-heavy (cute but cerebral) strips of the years to come. The fact that the last panel concludes with such vicious relish is almost an added pleasure. It’s Schultz’s insight into the darkness inside us all.

Masterclass in Comics #3:

Some days I simply feel like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (The Third Wish, 2002).

hellboy bananas

He captures the wonder and absurdity of the so-called “real” world (bananas grow up? yes, they do), the hardened face and resignation of time (done in beautiful, passionate red), and the absurdity of our surprise when life dumps skulls and offal on us. Many of us have no idea what ghosts we have wronged, but we can see it is raining garbage. Mignola manages to convey both a moment and a flashback through overlapping balloons and images that stand alone and work together. Amazing.

Sometimes the things I’m looking at in everyday life are too much, but I don’t feel musical enough to memorize meter and poetry, so I memorize words and pictures.

These comics are peepholes in the door of my reality; through them, I can see great imaginations waiting to come in.

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1 comment on “The Subtle Poetry of Comic Books

  1. It ain’t subtle when then there is no sex.


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