Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Drama vs. Poetry Part 2

with 5 comments

Drama vs. Poetry Part 2

(This post seems to have been written and unposted. It dovetails well with my recent post about The Linefield, so I’m posting it now.

I recently saw The Day I Became A Woman, an Iranian film by Marzieh Meshkini (written by her father, Mohsen Meshkini), a film in the three parts on the theme of womanhood in rural Iran. This and another play I saw the same week, Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill both remind me of my initial instincts as a storyteller, or as a non-storyteller, let’s say.

The Day I Became A Woman features three separate stories, with the gentlest of “story arcs” in them at all. In part 1, “Hava”, a young girl conspires during her last hour as a child (before she turns 9) to play in the dirt with her male friends. After she turns 9, she must don the chador, and hide from male attention. Indeed, the entire section involves Hava playing her last hour away. Part 2, “Ahoo” features a woman in a bicycle race. Her angry husband rides up on horseback, demanding she put a stop to her evil ways. He divorces her (while still on horseback), and her older family members and then members of her tribe all  ride up to her demanding, requesting she return to her man. Finally, in the distant final shot,  her brothers come and put a stop to her pedaling, and take her away. Part 3 “Hoora”, an old woman buys a bunch of furniture and appliances she never had, arranges them on the beach before putting them and herself all out to see on makeshift boats.

When I began writing stories, or when I began consciously doing so anyway, after “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard” I wanted as LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE. What I wanted was character, poetry, poetic image, images, internal surprises.

I found it!

I found it!

I tried my hardest to chase this dream in New Hat, and The Sands. In New Hat from 1994, also a three part story, my main concerns were contrasting rhythms and formal structures, and crashing sequences of narrative which may or may not relate to the others. Part 1 of this book was the most like this movie, I think: a man gives a last diatribe before being stoned to death, and then we see a local daydreaming belltower operator rise up and do his job. it’s probably my most successful small piece of storytelling. It meant little specifically, but raised lots of emotions legitimately and put them all in the same frame.

The Day I Became A Woman doesn’t feature the same range of simplistic emotion; instead it features more human characters, deeper insights to the human heart and the societal mind, both things I was shooting for.

A continuum all these works vacillate on is Drama vs Poetry. Drama is the manipulation of characters and events in opposition with each other. In its most extreme, it is superficial and distancing: tired action movies about good guys and bad guys. In it’s best examples, characters are deeply drawn and communicate, questioning and exploring the themes of the drama both in their behaviors and thoughts.

Poetry I would argue is the single image designed to provoke or evoke other impressions and ideas in the mind and inner eye of the audience. Poetic image is created using the images of our society: people, places, and time etc. At its most extreme and superficial, it is cloying, simplistic, Hallmark cards and childish posters. At its most astute, it uses hints of drama to offer up enough action, enough motion and opposition between the characters and other elements to suggest worlds within the audience and to allow meditative space within them.

I have spent most of my career thinking of this continuum, and have spent most of time WAAAY believing in the far end, toward the poetic.

I was never the kid in rock bands, never the kid reading or writing sci-fi. I was spending my adolescence in the bath tub listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient music and traipsing around the woods trying to resonate with what I found there. In one wooded area around me, there was an old living room chair, rotten and stained. I never once imagined who might have put it there. I never thought til now that there might be a story behind it, that there could be long dramas behind the decision to abandon this furniture, and the action of getting it there might have been something one could image, watch or engage with. All I wanted to do was allow it to make me feel something.

The simpleton’s response to the world: how does it make me feel?

So my earliest stories and sketches were light on drama-as little as I could get away with, with as few specifics as possible. This was often unsuccessful, as you could guess.

Learning the tools of dramatic storytelling has been fun but a lot of work. The instincts were never within me very well.  Every correct dramatic instinct I did have was stolen from Star Wars (see “Hutch Owen’s Working Hard.”) As I began to learn the tools, I tried to create stories and characters that were unique, with believable inner struggles and outer problems. (I was maybe most successful with this “The Road to Self.”, though Banks/Eubanks was a valiant try.)

Still, I believed that this was all training to go back to attempting to create the poetic image, the story that exists outside of specific narrative, and in a an internal landscape in the viewer.  But I still tried to learn the tools of drama, and to this day I tell my students to write over the top. To imagine the murder, the betrayal, the villain, and then to write down if need be. To tone down the drama once the extremes have been entertained and rejected.

I forget who drew this

And some 10 years or so since beginning this experiment (I would say since I closed the book on The Sands – wildly unsuccessful, though fun) I have yet to reattempt the piece where poetic image is the main core of the story.

Artists who do this well: Tsuge, first and foremost, though his peer Yoshihiro Tatsumi does it well also. In  Western comics, I always though Anders Nilson was getting there (though I haven’t finished his Big Questions). Ben Katchor, obviously, Ron Rege, Chris Ware. As others come to mind, I’ll post them here.

I have dozens of notebooks and boxes of index cards all vibrating with the potential to be that next poetic comic. So what am I doing doing comic strips?

Soon or maybe never: Part II. What I am doing doing comic strips, Top Girls, and how form can be the poetry. And note to younger self: why on earth wouldn’t “poetic image” involve DRAWING?

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Written by hutchowen

January 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your insightful thoughts and comments. They have made me think about comics in new ways.

    Anna Kim

    January 14, 2009 at 6:27 am

  2. Tom!! I feel the same way about LITTLE STORY AS POSSIBLE, and share your preferences for the poetic combination of images, rather than narrative problem solving. Your early minis were very inspirational to me starting out… I remember reading and re-reading “Maria” in study hall…!

    It seemed like the drama formula was almost too easy, cliché, formulaic. Felt like being a programmer or something, a formula you could learn, less magical than what I was after. But like you I also got skeptical, wondering if I wasn’t missing something, being immature, and tried learning more traditional story forms. For me it was the folk tale that got me thinking about other approaches. But I think we were right in our initial inclination away from the dramatic scene. I think there’s something wrong with it, gross about it’s mainstream, TV drama type form. There’s power in that, but I think we should be after something more. TV vanilla drama distorts what life is like, mine anyway… It’s a dominant form, the problem/solution form, and it’s primal…but it’s one of many primal forms. There’s the song, the rise/fall, etc. etc. I’ll have to think about this some more. Comics is a good site for playing with these tensions…the mix of images and sequence and sentences, etc. etc.

    Kevin H

    February 7, 2009 at 9:40 pm

  3. Thanks, Kevin. I don’t know why I spend so much time trying to get at the heart of this subject. (What is poetry? How does it work? How does comics work? What is the best balance between story and non-story?) I should just make comics and not worry, but sadly, like a lot of humanity, I WANT ANSWERS. The answers aren’t even available in words. I think we have to learn not to want those answers- and continue to go scraping for those weirdly, deeply, recognizable stories and images (folk tales) elsewhere- in art, comics, singing.

    hutchowen

    February 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

  4. […] Hutch Owen at Cartooning Like You Mean It admits he’s “been obsessing about ‘comics as poetry’ for about 15 years.  Read his essay, Comics as Poetry, Part I, here.   Read Part II here. […]

  5. Pete and Peggy…

    […]Drama vs. Poetry Part 2 « Cartooning Like You Mean It[…]…

    Pete and Peggy

    November 2, 2011 at 11:16 pm


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