O.B.B. a.k.a. The Original Brown Boy
(Nightboat Books, 2021)
Filipinx poet, artist, and writer Paolo Javier’s latest collection of poetry O.B.B. a.k.a. The Original Brown Boy—which took a decade to complete—is not an easy read. Its contents, a “weird postcolonial techno dream-pop” (as the author refers to it), writhe in a chaotic mix of black-and-white photocopy-style images and texts that often require rotating the thick (265 pages for a single book of poetry!) portrait-orientated softcover book around to read longwise like a legal pad.
It begins innocently enough, luring the reader in with traditional elements: 1. A frontispiece: a strange but graphically dynamic illustration of a circular fossil shape densely filled with lines that blur together a number of references readers will later encounter in the book—fingers, tentacles, feathers. It’s not clear what we are looking at here, or if we are seeing a thing or perhaps an oddly shaped peephole into another world of other things, but the sharpness of the image is enticing. 2. Standard title page featuring the frontispiece image and a note of collaborative authorship, with art by Alexander Tarampi and Ernest Concepcion, drawing on the comics tradition of separate writers and artists. 3. The first of many quotes by Javier’s range of influences, in this case, comics author Lynda Barry (who Javier makes a point of noting is also Filipinx, true as well of his artistic collaborators). Other quoted influences include Frantz Fanon and Julia Kristeva. And the final introductory element: 4. Contents, listing the book’s seven sections with titles like, “Aren’t You A Mess,” “Goldfish Kisses,” and “Remain as Beast.”
The final section, the Afterword, “Some Notes on bpNichol (Captain) Poetry & Comics,” is notably the first time the words “poetry” or “comics” appear in the book, both essential components of its contents. But this obfuscation is no accident. Rooted in the poet’s experience of “both/and” (to borrow a phrase from Lorraine O’Grady), spending parts of his youth in the Philippines, Katonah, NY, and Cairo, and now living in Queens, speaking English, Tagalog, and some Arabic—O.B.B. is in many ways purposefully illegible. As the poet notes in the Afterword, “I love the circularity of O.B.B., a comics poem that locates much of its play on ethno-national identity in the space between the category of ‘Philipinx’ and ‘American.’” Javier refuses to explain himself, or his experiences, for the ever present white-gaze, instead performing a state of betweeness with the mixed-media of comics, poetry, and collage—all formats that involve reading on multiple levels.
Despite its narrative and stylistic difficulty, the DIY, photocopy aesthetic of O.B.B. is familiar to readers of comics and punk zines, relishing in the “outsider” style. Each section of the book is visually different, with some recurring visual and verbal motifs: squid tentacles, barren trees with sharp branches, anthropomorphized fish, and wires and electrical cords, “span[ing] the reaches of analogue and digital” imagery. The first section, “Aren’t You a Mess,” features pixelated text, as though printed enlarged beyond appropriate resolution, collaged oddly—at the bottom, or too close to the center margin—across otherwise blank pages. It begins, “I was born on August 20, 1977,” and a few pages later, “I / grew up in / Las Piñas” next page, “17 Galvez St. PhilAmLife Village.” I purposefully note the line and page breaks, as the empty spaces create an unnatural reading rhythm, adding a sense that we are reading along as thoughts emerge, suggestive of the author’s moments of reflection in a diaristic poem. Other lines describe his first love (“The first Pinoy you ever fall for / lives in PhilAmLife Village”) and fears over his career choices (“You’re nothing but a Tagalog teacher”). Interspersed between the text pages are images, black-and-white illustrations of a church (a nod to his religious upbringing), angry tree branches with half eaten apples (a reference to his parents “whose names join easily / like the words / apple / tree”), and school buses impaled by branches. The placement and styling of the words make lines easy to miss, and the complexity of the images demands time to decipher its components. Other poems in the book lean more heavily on visual storytelling, such as “Goldfish Kisses” and “Last Gasp,” while others, such as “Remain as Beast,” are much more textual. In all cases, reading O.B.B. requires (and rewards) constant re-reading, like learning a new language; the more we read, the more we understand.
Present across the poems is “Monkey Boy,” a character in The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons (2004), which tells the story of American imperialism in the Philippines through political cartoons. Cited as one of his major influences, Javier slips this character into numerous sections, most notably “Restrained by Time,” a story of Yankee Soldier and Monkey Boy that most closely references The Forbidden Book. “As long as Monkey Boy is among his own,” Javier writes, “he will have no occasion, except in minor internal conflicts, to experience his being through others.” OB.B. is a poem of coming-of-age, one which is constantly relatable yet hyper-specific. Again and again the “I” is forced to see himself as others do. “Manila is only outwardly you,” he writes in “Aren’t You a Mess,” and on the next page, “Monkey Boy! Monkey! Monkey!” In these moments, Javier’s blend of poetry and comics is most successful. Collage requires a separation, tearing and uniting. This unification of image and text in O.B.B. is often jarring, unsettling, and uneasy. The form fits the material, and we are reminded that putting things—and ourselves—back together is often painful, like the aesthetic Javier adopts that shows the edges, messily adding text to images and images to text.
The Afterword, written like a critical essay without the visual-verbal play of his poetry, shows Javier not only to be a skilled poet and designer, but also a deep thinker engaged in the history of his chosen genre. In it, Javier connects his work to a rich legacy of poets, artists, and comics: Joe Brainard, Bern Porter, Robert Seydel, and of course, bpNichol, to name just a few. He also acknowledges the legacy of superhero comics, particularly Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. He sketches out a lineage for the genre against the literary term “graphic novel” that necessitates comics to be narrative like novels, instead preferring the medium’s inherent shared qualities with poetry—blank spaces that require the reader to imagine what is happening between lines and stanzas as they do between frames. As he writes, “O.B.B. is my own engagement with comics and the poem where I play with dialogic text and drawing, illustration, collage, photocopy, and painting.” Charting bpNichol’s merging of poetry and comics, both dependent on rhythm, pacing, blank space, pauses, and the visual appearance of words on a page, with O.B.B., Javier carves out a manifesto of image-and-text, an ode to the anti-storytelling potential of poetry.