Thursday, 15 May 2014

Comics Review: Ink Brick - A Journal of Comics Poetix

Take a minute with me here to look at one of the most unique projects to debut at TCAF this year (the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, for those of you not in the know). I don't use the word "unique" a whole lot, but in this case I will indulge my vocabulary and let it stand. I came across the Ink Brick project on Twitter a few months back, after having a call for papers for comics-poetry critical writing forwarded to me by a prof and realizing I had no idea what this was about. A little digging turned up Ink Brick and its small crew of editorial and artistic geniuses: Paul K. Tunis (really great guy to chat with), Alexander Rothman (equally cordial fellow), Gary Sullivan, and Bianca Stone.

Alexander Rothman (left) and Paul Tunis (right), looking about
as stoked on life as they were when I met them at TCAF
My Google search for "comics poetry" turned up a world that I'd been entirely ignorant of. Which was a lot of my TCAF experience this year, really. When it comes to the end of the comics spectrum that isn't superheroes, alternative and (dare I say) "art" comics, I am largely in the dark, which is ironic considering that's the direction my own work is headed. TCAF was an eye-opening experience directly resulting in the extensive reading list memo on my phone, and my search for comics poetry was no different. I began uncovering names I'd never heard before: David Morice, Warren Craghead, Joe Brainard, people in comics I'd never heard of who are doing amazingly innovative work. That in a nutshell is what sets poetry comics apart for me. They're going somewhere. I still enjoy a good superhero yarn, but a good superhero yarn is getting increasingly hard to find. The genre is stale. It's played-out, with little to no room for artists to grow. If I were to pull a mission statement from Ink Brick's website, I would choose this: "seek to foster work that explores those liminal spaces between the drawn image and the written word." It's concise and ambitious, and it recognizes a fertile ground between forms waiting to be sown with new ideas. I'm willing to drop the word "unique" on behalf of Ink Brick - A Journal of Comics Poetix because I don't know that there was another project at TCAF as actively pursuing innovation in the comics form.

The first issue of Ink Brick is a beautiful book. It's well-printed on sturdy paper, but it's not huge and it's not glamourous. That appeals to me. It's an object that doesn't get in the way of its content, which is important, because its content is wonderful. I found myself flipping back over pages, re-reading poems multiple times to try and unravel the threads binding word and image. I've read too few comics that build that desire for exploration in me. I'd like to see some critical work built into Ink Brick; the title, after all, is Journal. While I was in Toronto I took an afternoon to sit down in a pub and read Descant's recent comics issue, #164 - Cartooning Degree Zero, cover to cover. Sean Rogers was the guest editor for that issue, and he and I were presenting on the same panel at the CSSC conference. I had the opportunity to tell I thought he had hit the mark, struck a perfect balance of contemporary Canadian comics work and critical writing on the form. I would love to see Ink Brick find that same balance. If there's one thing I'm finding about the people involved in the small but passionate poetry comics community it's that they're respectful and well-informed. They understand the structures they're playing with, the existing traditions they can either build on or circumvent, and the work of other comics poets who have come before them. It's a strength that ought to be included in a journal of comics poetix.

It's a beautiful book
I've done some reading in this area, enough to set me straight about where poetry comics stand right now, and as is my wont I have compiled links for you. I suggest you start with what I'm calling Bianca Stone's comics poetix manifesto, followed by a post by Stone on containing an excerpt by Tamryn Bennett, the only poetry-comics-focused academic I've come across so far and (from what I've read) a pretty solid theorist. Read this interview with the crew responsible for Ink Brick, and this interview with Canadian cartoonist Seth as he discusses the connections he's always drawn between comics and poetry. Finally, take a look at Comics Alliance's overview of the shared history of poetry and cartooning. After that, you're on your own. Exploration is what this all seems to be about, so I'll leave you to it.

I look forward to seeing the work done in poetry comics these next few years, and I look forward to seeing it become something important to the field of Comics Studies. It's going to take a peculiar sort of comics scholar to tackle comics poetix (a term which, for the record, I think we should keep), someone who understands the intricacies and the basic tenets of language and image, someone who can get through a conference presentation without mentioning Scott McCloud. I've seen too much basic scholarship this last weekend, papers written from a perspective of literary review that do little more than recount the themes and structure of a narrative. We need to start building a focus on analysis, not regurgitation. This is not to say that there is no good scholarly work being done right now, but it is to say that we need to match pace with the innovations happening in comics creation if we are to maintain the relevance of our field.

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