How’s Everything Going? Not Good
(Cuneiform Press and Ohio Edit, 2016)
Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours
(Pleiades Press, 2016)
More and more people are communicating through short messages written and received on their smartphone screens, usually articulated through some combination of text and image, particularly emoji. As Gavin Lucas noted in his recent book The Story of Emoji, these visual shorthands “allow us to inflect added layers of humor, emotion, and meaning into concise textual messages.” But while they are often fast and convenient, they aren’t always the clearest modes of communication. New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham cites this as one of the emoji’s virtues, explaining that its appeal “lies in its ambiguity and its power to become a changeling in conversations. We use these tiny images to open a dialogue or to end one, or we combine them to form sentences, complicated pictograms that decorate all our digital communications.” Ambiguous image-text combinations are at the center of this new form of communication. Some artists, such as Bianca Stone and Jon-Michael Frank, are responding to the new order of things through the genre of poetry comics, which combine illustrations with brief lines of text.
In the case of Jon-Michael Frank’s work, these are especially brief. His new collection, How’s Everything Going? Not Good, seems to draw directly from the emoji-riddled language of today, using it as an opportunity to investigate some of our most profound subjects—life, death, love—through a distinctly digital prism. Here is one example: on one page is a bright yellow banana, slightly bruised and thickly outlined many times around; the edges of the yellow bleed out slightly, giving it a painterly quality despite its punchy, emoji-like iconographic appeal. Alongside, in a handwritten font in all caps, reads, “THE ORGANIC THING TO DO IS DIE.” You can’t help but chuckle while pondering the contradiction of the statement: by illustrating this banana, it will never die, it can’t. Images immortalize. It will forever be on this page, slightly bruised and glowing. Is Frank implying that images are somehow inorganic? Or perhaps that our excess of images is inorganic? Our desire to constantly document and photograph our lives renders each moment lasting, to the point in which nothing is ephemeral—except Snapchat, of course.
Like the changeling meaning of emoji, Frank’s poems are dense with possible readings, despite their short length. The shortest presents a single slice of pizza in the same digitally iconic, graphic style as the banana—brightly colored, with heavily doodled lines, floating in the center of the page—below which is printed, in the same handwritten font: “YES.” Frank captures the simplest of joys. Perhaps the poem mocks us, knowing all too well how shallow this desire is. Or perhaps it celebrates this simplicity: is anything more poetic than the overwhelming craving one has for a slice of pizza and the immense satisfaction of finally eating it? If the desire for pizza represents a simple joy, Frank provides a companion poem in his rendering of an upturned, pink ice cream cone, oozing and spilling across the page, under which is scrawled: “IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WAY.” Even through the humor, we poignantly feel the joy that an ice cream cone signifies, as well as the pain of a spilt one. Of course it wasn’t supposed to be this way, with our delicious ice cream landing flat on the ground—the sheer obviousness of it is laughable and bittersweet.
Frank’s humor may laugh at us and our simple desires and hardships, but it also welcomes us to laugh at ourselves, comforting us in a communal sense of unhappiness. Sometimes it is a self-deprecating laugh, a satirical laugh a bit like a LOL—written but never audible. The collection opens with a black line drawing. Across the top half of the page reads, “LIFE IS AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY FULL OF ADVENTURE AND EXPLORATION;” below it sits a figure scowling at a desk, hands on the keyboard, staring into a computer screen. His texts play straight man to his images, allowing the unexpected combinations to bring laughter to dispirited subject matter. Some of his pairings are even less subtle and more obviously pessimistic. In one of the texts, which frames the outline of an uncolored citrus fruit, reads: “LEMON OR LIME? / IT DOESN’T MATTER I HATE MYSELF.” While ambiguity is key to Frank’s poems, one thing is clear: no one will make lemonade out of Frank’s lemons.
A few pages later, a group of brown, downward-facing semi-circles are sprinkled among green paint marks connoting grass or fog. Below that: “CAMEL / GRAVEYARD.” When I first read this, I assumed the designations were intended as a kind of either/or offer: the image is either of a group of camels (with only the humps visible), or of a graveyard. Reading it again, I am sure it’s one thing: a graveyard for and of camels. Frank’s combinations make us look, laugh, and then look again.
Bianca Stone’s recent book Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours shares Frank’s dry humor, but does so through a more elaborate graphic style. Stone’s images have something of a surrealist dream quality, merging fantasy and reality, as ordinary figures regularly converse with bird-headed figures, cats, and other creatures, unfazed by the absurdities. While Frank deals more generally with the unhappy challenges and disappointments of daily life, Stone hones in on the struggle of forming relationships and maintaining happiness. These narratives are distinctly poetic in their textual form. “Because You Love You Come Apart” strings together a series of sentences, mainly beginning with “this is.” In inky black and white, a woman stands holding two marionettes, one of a nude woman and the other of an owl. “This is coming home with your gorilla heart all disordered—,” the woman says; then the text bubble at the bottom right of the panel continues, “This is feeling / like a steamboat / swaying at the wharf / at midnight.” The same woman appears on the following page, struggling to maneuver a haphazardly built flying rickshaw of sorts. “But this is also your life made with your clumsy hands—,” she now says. Stone’s poetry is frequently satirical, like Frank’s, but, as in this instance, it also has a kind of romantic optimism: the woman’s slapdash vehicle is, after all, flying nonetheless.
Stone’s poems don’t laugh at us; they reward our clumsy efforts and small victories and make us stand a little taller. Her characters, like Frank’s, struggle with unmet life expectations, and helplessness is eased with humor in both Stone’s and Frank’s poems. In “Waltzing with You,” a woman in a Star Trek uniform, her face smudged out, stands in one panel saying, “I feel like Captain Janeway watching a planet implode;” that very image is then enacted in the vertical line of four panels alongside it. But Stone offers an optimistic answer to the loneliness of Frank’s single-page poems: the next page shows another figure, again with a smudged-out face, leaning over a desk, legs outstretched, with a glass of spilled wine in one hand and a game console controller on the table. The text above the figure reads, “When you sit down at your desk playing your live-feed video game / you’re really doing a waltz.” While Frank’s opening image of a figure alone at his desk suggests despair and isolation, Stone’s is dancing—an intimate partner dance, at that.
“Because You Love You Come Apart” also maintains the redeeming role of friendship. “This is your friends making you a massive cake,” the narrative box reads above a cake surrounded by owls. Word bubbles rising out of the owls’ mouths then continue: “filled with blackbirds / and figs”; and a nearby winged figure goes on: “making halos with their hands”; and the female protagonist concludes: “saying loyal things.” A few pages later this scene ends with the haloed friends lying at the bottom of the page, bottles and belongings strewn around them. Above them are the words: “This is leaving a dark bar with them. / In the cab ride home you lay in each others arms.” This isn’t a traditional happy ending to a story about the virtues of friendship, but it rings true in its small victories.
In a recent interview with Ohio Edit’s Amy Fusselman, Stone said of poetry comics: “Lately I’ve been thinking about it as a reaction to the internet age. The continuous confrontation with text and image, and making sense of the two together to make a third thing.” In the same interview, Frank articulated a similar sentiment, “I mean memes, Twitter, and most internet lingo is pretty much poetry, or at least a poser of it, to me, at least.” Poetry comics are distinct in the unification of specific types of images and texts, comic visuals, and poetic language. As Frank points out, the internet seems to speak in a similar manner, bringing together fragments of images and texts free of grammatical and narrative norms: a tweet as a word bubble, a meme as a single-panel comic.
Emoji and internet image-text speak, born out of this era, highlight the multiple levels on which image and visual rhetoric function. In an article for New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh cites the example of Drake’s “praying hands” emoji tattoo, which some read as high-five: “This elasticity of meaning is a large part of the appeal and, perhaps, the genius of emoji.” Sternbergh claims that they function as both pictograms and ideograms and “have proved to be well suited to the kind of emotional heavy lifting for which written language is often clumsy or awkward or problematic, especially when it’s relayed on tiny screens, tapped out in real time, using our thumbs.” It’s the range of possible meanings that make emoji useful. Just as emoji can convey sincerity through a heart, they also allow for ambiguity. Does the heart emoji mean the same thing as typing out “I love you,” or is it less emotive, or even wholly ironic? The answer lies in the context of the text with which it’s coupled, at times creating an emotional distance. Send the heart emoji when we aren’t sure if we mean “I love you” or something less, and leave the interpretation up to the reader. Frank’s and Stone’s poetry comics play on this same multiplicity of meaning. Does Frank’s upturned ice cream cone commiserate with us or mock us? Is Stone’s flying rickshaw lionizing our humbled ambitions, or pitying them? The at once somber and satirical tone employed by both artists questions the emotive quality of internet-era communication, reflecting the ambiguous emotional distances of this new language and thereby highlighting its unique
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.