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Drawing Poetry – Home Page

I have learned a lot about comics this semester. From Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, The Secret Language of Comics has helped me understand comics as an essential medium in the cross-section of literature and the visual arts. But my newly acquired appreciation for comics is only a byproduct of what I truly accomplished in this class. For the first time in my academic career, this semester, creation did not necessarily mean sitting in front of a word document and working through a teacher’s essay checklist. It meant the opposite. Creating meant pushing the boundaries of what I thought my professor expected from me: this class encouraged me to explore the limits of communication through unique and occasionally non-literary mediums. It is the only English class that I have ever had to buy a sketchbook for. Although I am not naturally inclined to visual thinking, The Secret Language of Comics has taught me how to employ visual modes of thought to enrich my writing and thinking by critically exploring graphic narratives. It has also taught me how to store and present the collection of my work on WordPress (the website you are currently viewing), a platform that I anticipate using in the future. By challenging my creative boundaries, I expanded my understanding of what it means to tell a story.

There are several strong examples of stories I have told this semester and several more examples of the exercises that helped me tell those stories. In early February, Dr. Morgen asked us to create a triptych, a three-panel comic. At that point in the semester, I had a burgeoning familiarity with the power comics possessed as a medium for storytelling. Essays such as Hillary Chute’s Comics for Grownups and Scott McCloud’s Making Comics highlighted the unique ability visuals had to communicate in ways text could not. These essays worked in tandem with the books we were reading, particularly Stitches and Fun Home, to illustrate the dynamism of comics. The prospect of experimenting with the flexibility of comics excited me.

Starry Night – A Triptych was the product of a couple hours of trial and error. As the name suggests, my comic aimed to illustrate Vincent van Gogh’s creative process. The first panel is an illustration of the nocturnal landscape outside Van Gogh’s Saint-Rémy-de-Provence ward window without any artistic embellishments, the next is a closeup of Van Gogh’s eye, within the whites of his eyeball I carefully drew the outline of van Gogh’s interpretation of the bucolic landscape – his starry night.  And the final panel is the actualization of his vision, the painting itself. Although I could have told this story in 500 words, a text version would have undermined the magicality of van Gogh’s visual genius. In this case, the comics medium enhanced the story in the most critical of ways. Also, in the spirit of multi-modal creation, I added text descriptions under each panel in both English and French.

My interest in multi-lingual storytelling as a feature of multi-modal storytelling carried over into my next visual assignment; a quadriptych (or four-panel comic) called Babbling Balkans where I told a satirical story of the emergence of Balkan nationalism at the tower of babble. In it, I use visual cues to indicate the substance of a multi-lingual conversation between a Croat, a Serb, and a Bosnian. The comics medium uniquely enhanced my ability to tell this story as well. However, I only truly began to understand the effect analysis and creation of visual media had on my writing when I began my annotated tracings for the Stitches/Fun Home essay. The process of analyzing panels from two masterfully created comics as literary significant images had an immense impact on my writing.

I analyzed two scenes for my Stitches/Fun Home essay, one from each book. Both of the scenes, which depict interactions between the respective main characters and their father, are strong examples of the capacity graphic narratives have to display an author’s trauma. In the scene I selected from Stitches, the main character and author David Small’s father sternly peers down upon David’s first-person perspective and coldly utters “I gave you cancer.” A chilling moment. In the essay I later wrote about this scene, I note “Page 287 in Stitches portrays one of the pivotal moments in David’s life. It comprises a single panel: a closeup of David’s father’s face. Small reserves this format for critical junctures in the story, like when the psychologist reveals that David’s mother does not love him.” Despite the brevity of David’s Father’s statement, and even the lack of text in the several panels building up to it, that held profound power. The process of tracing and annotating David’s Father’s passionless gaze communicated to me a truth that Hillary Chute discusses in her essay Women, Comics, and the Risk of Representation: no matter how eloquent an author is, words will alienate them from their trauma in a way images do not.

Not only did tracing and annotating Fun Home and Stitches inform the essay I wrote about those books, but it also equipped me with the essential tools to critically fuse my general writing with visual methods. There is no better example of how this has materialized than my literacy narrative. Its first iteration, which I called So after the first word of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, is a collection of anecdotes about my growth as a reader and writer. Although it was fairly well written, as Dr. Morgen pointed out to me, it had no unifying theme. It failed to answer the essential so what? that most strong essays do. Only after my drafting of So as a graphic narrative did I realize the potential the textual narrative had. Throughout the graphic narrative, I inserted lines from Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias into the background of images to hint at a unifying theme. Although I only did this at the time to take advantage of the creative liberties that the comics medium endowed me, it inspired my eventual redraft of So as a textual narrative. Rather than offering a long-convoluted collection of memories, my final draft opens with a description of peat. I write, “Viscous and muddy, peat traps carbon dioxide like a caged lion. As a result, the earthy mire is a potent energy source – nothing can live in peat, but many live off it. Spanning more than 1.4 million miles of our earth, peatland bogs are crucial to the economies of the communities in which they are postured. But what else does the bog bestow?

The answer to the question I offer is contained in anecdotes paired with descriptions and commentary of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging. So what? Well, So ended up being the story of the effect a great teacher had on my writing. In the end, my story comes full circle as I find a copy of Heaney’s Beowulf in a local book shop, an allusion to one of the opening scenes where I learn to love learning through that teacher introducing me to that text, another trope I borrowed from the realizations I made while drawing my comic.

The Secret Language of Comics has equipped me with valuable insight regarding the creation of stories. Insight that I have readily applied to other classes; in fact, my final French presentation was inspired by the Pecha Kucha format taught in class. Although I am grateful for the technical rhetorical and artistic skills I have come away with, the greatest asset I have gained is a new experience. This semester, I pushed my creative limits in order to achieve results that I would have never considered achievable just a few months ago. Today, I am a stronger writer, thinker, and reader. I believe that is the greatest benefit of learning the secret language of comics.