Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Poetry Panel

Back in the day, literary analysis -- particularly of Latin poetry-- used to be my bag. When I treasurer of the Classical Association of New England, I won an award for my unique intepretation of the Monobiblos of Propertius, particularly a groundbreaking analysis of XXI "Tu, qui consortem". I'm sure you read my paper on it; probably changed your life.

I used to write a good deal of poetry, too, much of it well received; but I stopped when I realized I could only write SAD poetry, which, frankly, gets kind of depressing after a while. I mean, don't you think Dickinson would have been happier if she'd taken up stamp-collecting, and Housman clearly just needed to go out to the bars and get lucky with some soldier on leave?

Anyway, I think poetry (even sad poetry) is fun. That's why I miss it in modern comics.

I've joked a lot about 'heroic haiku'; but I know that writers never intentionally have the characters speak in haiku or, for the matter, any form of poetry. But there was a time when writers seemed more conscious of the need for their characters' prose to flow, to ring, to resound. As a result, their characters' speech wasn't necessarily poetry, but it was certainly poetic.

Then, characters uttered speech; now, characters speak dialog.

Sure, it's easy to make fun of the orations of Golden Agers and the exposition of Silver Agers; but isn't it more fun to read than the mumblings, cursings, and onamatopoetic vocalizations of current characters? Newsflash: people do not really say "*hrm*" or "*hk*".

If you get off on inconsequential Bendis-style verbal pong or Whedonesque serial snarking by JLAers pouring over prospective candidates, you are welcome to them. I'll be right over here, shouting things like, "Fire cranial cannon!" ,"Thought-robots! Seize them!", and "Pennies will be my crime-symbol!"

Yes, the modern dialog styles may, in fact, be more like the way people actually talk, more "realistic". But, you know, if realism were really one of my higher priorities... would I be reading a comic book at all?

Heroes and villains don't dress in an ordinary way, nor do they behave in a normal way. Why should they speak in a normal way? As a matter of fact, it strains my credulity when they do. That's right; when these characters I follow precisely because they do not dress or behave in normal ways are forced to talk like "normal people", it seems ....

unrealistic and abnormal. Oh, the comic book irony.

But this is all abstract so far. Here's a concrete example of the kind of prose I miss in comics:

It also happens to be the second Gayest Aquaman Panel Ever,
but that's merely a happy coincidence.

Don't bother commenting to me that it sounds weird and that no one talks like that. Weird? It sounds like a bad translation from Japanese. After Aquaman pwns these guys, I bet he says, "All your base are belong to Aquaman!" Yes, I know it sounds weird. It looks weird too. That's part of what makes it memorable. It's the reason all you people love Morrison so much.

No one talks like that? No one rides porpoises into battle, either, or wears orange and green in public. What's your point?

Relative realism aside, examine the panel for its poetry. Stressed (or "long") syllables are in bold;

  • Forth from the | waves bursts a | terri|fying |juggernaut | of justice.

I'll spare you most of the metrical analysis, but the basic rhythm of this line is the same one used in most ancient "heroic" poetry, dactylic hexameter. It's not perfect, but, hey, this ain't Vergil.

If you read English natively, you pretty much have to read the line with the stirringg rhythm above, unless you choose to emphasize "bursts", making it a long syllable.

  • Forth from the | waves BURSTS a | terri|fying |juggernaut | of justice.

The letterist certainly seems to be emphasizing the word, so "bursts" literally bursts out of the rhythm of the line, mimicking through sound the action it is portraying.

Which is impressively poetic.

  • I've oceans | of love for | you boys!

This is one of the greatest pick up lines ever. It's also poetic in fact, it's almost pure limerick. It's two successive amphibrachs (short-long-short) followed by an iamb; amphibrachs are the basic metrical unit in limericks and are used for "light and fun" poetry.

This is laughing Aquaman of the Golden Age, who is about to have a great time kicking your butt and predicting it to your face. The writer chose words whose meaning and rhythm perfectly conveyed Aquaman's battle-happy attitude.

That's poetic.

  • There he is | -- the | man of the | sea! | Run! | Hide!

If you're having trouble reading those in a nice flowing way .... good. That's the point. As an English-speaker, you can't read those words without it feeling disjointed, halting, stuttering -- exactly conveying the panicked distress of the bad guys on the docks.

That's poetic.

Make fun of Golden Age writers all you want for being "bad" or "corny". But they didn't write "normal" because they knew what they were writing about wasn't "normal". They knew how to employ, if not poetry per se, the tools and attitudes of poetry to convey information, set tone, and reveal character -- all in one word balloon. In the single panel above, they did it three times.

And you know what?

As a result, you'll remember this panel long after you've forgotten every other panel you see in your comics this week.


Nick said...

I've actually always wanted to use Golden Age speak in conversation. Announce all of my actions as I perform them, even if I'm alone, and laugh like golden age batman does. 'Ha! ha!'. But I've just never found the right time.

I imagine very few people can pull it off.

Matthew E said...

There has been some poetry in comics, although I don't know what level of quality to credit it with. There's Etrigan, of course (check the issue(s?) of 'Blue Devil' he showed up in!), and, in Groo, there was the Minstrel, and all the poems they had on the splash pages. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I use the sound "Hnnn..." and the word "Villian!" in regular conversation almost everyday. So I think modern sound types can attach to old school to make it sound great. "Hnnn, Starman has escaped again! Thought-robots! Seize them!"

Also your right about the Aquaman panel but it's stuck in my head right next the "I'm sorry, my esophagus extends when I eat." panel from Agents of Atlas #3 and this.

Ragnell said...

Nothing can ever replace "Seize them!" as the perfect command from a villain. No one actually ever says anything like it, but it's just the sound and flow of the phrase. Not to mention recognizability.

Anonymous said...

I hate to nitpick, Scipio, but you're applying your knowledge of classical meter inappropriately. English verse isn't measured in long and short syllables, but in stresses and unaccented syllables. The stresses in that first line actually run more like this:


The line's mostly trochaic.

Scipio said...

"TERriFYing JUGgerNAUT of JUSTice! "

If you're pronouncing it that way, then our difference seems to be not one of scansion but native language.

SallyP said...

Ah, a gentleman AND a scholar. A deadly combination, sir.

Anonymous said...

I was with you right up until you claimed people don't really say "hrm" there. That's pretty much my standard "nonplussed" response. Then again, I also use the "BWA-ha-ha-ha-HA!" maniacal laugh pretty often, so I may be atypical.

Scipio said...

"I have a non-poetic, headline-writer dislike of breaking up prepositional phrases. "

The verticals line are just markers to denote metrical feet, Halben; they aren't pauses and don't effect pronunciation. I think we would speak the lines the same as each other.

Anonymous said...

Bendis said, "...the hell,"
As Scipio yelled, "Have at thee!"
Off rolled Bendis' head.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I have to disagree
back when I was a kid it was precisely this (that and Superfriends) that kept me away from comics
I don't care for Bendis' style, but this isn't my cup of tea either

Anonymous said...

I wear orange and green in public. Almost daily. So does everyone else down here in Florida.

Anonymous said...

Nothing can ever replace "Seize them!" as the perfect command from a villain. No one actually ever says anything like it, but it's just the sound and flow of the phrase.

So many great words and phrases from classic comics should be brought into modern usage. "Rue the day" is another sadly missed phrase you don't hear anymore. Who hasn't wanted to shake thier fist in the air and shout something like "You'll rue the day you raised my internet rates!"

Anonymous said...

"In brightest day, In blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight!
Let those who worship evil's might
beware my power,
Green Lantern's light!"

Back in the 60's this was one of the first poems I memorized!

MUCH more uplifting than
A. E. "Death" Housman!

Don't forget Heroclix at Big Monkey Comics in Georgetown, Saturday, Oct 21st!

Doug said...

All of these Aquaman posts have prodded me to re-add the book to my pull list, even though the book's art of late has made me feel like I need a new eyeglass prescription, and the story has been nothing but a good substitute for counting sheep at night. I don't know whether I ought to thank you for that or not.Maybe I'll just kick myself instead. We'll see, I guess.

Scipio said...


Better times are ahead for Aquaman.

I guarantee it.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Is there a finer turn of superhero poetry than the classic line of quartus paeon dimeter:

"You know my name, now meet my fists!"

I'd be hard pressed to think of one. Gets you all tingly, doesn't it?

Mamet-manque dialogue has had its day. Stan Lee-esque breathless hyperbole is played. A more superhero-friendly diction with poetic undertones would be a fine thing.