I am tempted to treat Oldguy as a William Trowbridge poetry collection, and not a comic, especially not a Tim Mayer and William Trowbridge comic. But, the art makes it. It is arranged in the wrappings of a comic – the artifact nature of the standardized monthly “floppy” comic book, from dimensions to staples, the interplay and balance of art and text – and it hits some marks – there’s a superhero; it is named for the superhero – calls itself out as one. But, it is the art, and how the art directs the writing, that puts to rest any doubts.
Oldguy and Poem-Comics
by Travis Hedge Coke
Here are the opening moves between Oldguy and Death in Superhero vs. His Nemesis: “[Death] keeps an extra queen up each rancid sleeve” and “Oldguy, who was napping, pretends he’s still asleep.”
The two images representing this narrative, are a full color splash of both characters playing chess, Oldguy half asleep at the table, Death way too into it, and a monochrome reproduction of a detail of Death, the figure the same purple as the background. There is Oldguy vs Death, but as with anyone versus Death, there is, if you ride out the narrative, just Death, way too into the game.
On the final page of the comic, a detail of the detail, color removed, Death’s skeleton hand holding a pawn above the board, and a spiky black yellow-text balloon – thought balloon? word bubble? narration in roundy spiky caption “box”? – HUH?!
For different readers, the text of the poems or the various drawings are going to be almost marginalia. Different audiences can take this comic and come out downplaying one or the other, which is not a weakness, but allows us a chance to reread with a more conscious effort to see a different comic than our initial reading may have provided.
There are some really bad “poetry comics.” Some of them advertise fundraisers on Facebook and Facebook thinks I want to see all of them. Every day, if they are really bad.
Marvel published Junko Hosizawa and Michael Redmond’s Street Poet Ray in the early 1990s, after other people learned to stop publishing it, and people are not even over the idea of how bad that was.
There is some good, too. Alan Moore has a homoerotic poem comic, The Mirror of Love, that was at first, pretty but awkward, with this sort of hermaphrodite “not all the way gay” narrative bridge art, that was redone with photos and color just gorgeously by José Villarrubia. So, that was a beautiful work in progress, that could have gone full intersex-friendly and deeply human, too, and done just as well.
You have to commit.
Street Poet Ray could not commit. The Mirror of Love had to get there. Oldguy, by Tim Mayer, of the Return and Recovery Program for veterans, and former Missouri Poet Laureate William Trowbridge is there from the title page, where a snail is getting out of the way of our hero as he marches heroically forth. Next to Maré Odomo’s Late Bloomer, another 2016 release, this should be your go-to example of how comics-poetry should work. And, also, Rian Hughes and Grant Morrison’s tone poem comics, The Key (2014) and The Rise and Fall of Empires (2018), or just every single Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy and about 28% of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine strips from the last fifty-two weeks.
Maybe it’s not that hard. Kind of all of Maré Odomo’s comics work. It’s all poem-comics. Comics-poetry.
So why is a whole ton of it bad? Why does everything poetry-comics with a GoFundMe link bug me? How are so many sensitive personal narratives with scratchy art and so many hip-swivel erotic action metaphor books with extensive pithy captions so disappointing? The original version of The Mirror of Love has some excellent art, by talented folks, but it walks under the hurdles and not in the smart way. When Odomo admits, “I like the dirtiness of my pages, the texture and stuff. I want someone to look at my comics and be like ‘I could do that.’ or like ‘I can adopt elements of this language for my own benefit,’” or when William Trowbridge writer, “Oldguy can’t recall/whether that’s the one/where Flipper saves the puppy from sharks,” we can, and should, all get the message that we can tackle this. We, too, can make awesome, affecting poem-comics.
But, we don’t. Most of us don’t. You can go dig some of my comics off my social media and make fun of me, now.
It is easy to make up a poem. Making a comic is one of the simplest, easiest forms of human expression. More of our doodles, as children, have a narrative flow from them even as we draw, than are the arrested moments of still lives or functionary illustration. And, you can put all the effort in the world into a piece, or a collection, and it comes out bad. Sometimes that is overworking the piece, but not always. Some comics, some poems, some comic-poems are not great.
The Mirror of Love could, arguably, be an illustrated poem that does not need to be illustrated. That is fair. It has been performed aloud. It has been adapted to stage as a play. But, both notable print versions of The Mirror of Love, with their different visualizations, have an entirely different tone and plot. Not a matter of a scene differing or the ending feeling different. The visual aspect of The Mirror of Love radically alters the textual aspect.
Oldguy, in Oldguy, is a superhero, and our instinct is that superhero is what to reach for, a high, but Repulsiveguy is also a superhero, and “Repulsiveguy… drives villains away with his nose-blow rendition of ‘Danke Schoen,’ and his fart take on ‘Bubbles in the Wine.’” Even, Oldguy remembers being fitter, stronger, or feeling it. “He remembers/driving the Younguymobile, 426 Hemi,/supercharged, chopped, and frenched,/ground quaker, babe waker, heartbreaker,” and that’s not coming back, even if you flip to the earliest pages, never to be present-narrative.
It is not (only) what you put in, that makes a piece click, whether you are an author of the work, or a member of an audience that is always potentially infinite and necessarily of one. The marginalia in the middle of the page counts for more than the quantifiable content. The marginalia is the page, then you are really onto something.
Comics, poetry, poetry-comics exist in a cloud of context. Comics, poetry, poem-comics, articles that keep repeating a list of genre/sub-genre/media terms because they don’t have clout to coin a phrase to cover it all, share a burden and purpose that is not really grandiose enough to be described as a burden and purpose. Find what that is, you will probably make good art, and you’ll make a better audience member, a better joint audience.
Bill Trowbridge, José Villarrubia, Tim Mayer, Maré Odomo, Alan Moore, all make me want good comics, good poetry, good bastard media and for people to mean it. For audiences and artists, authors and readers and watchers and thinkers and feelers, even critics, to mean it.
“‘Too late again,’ he sighs,/thinking that applies”.
I’m telling you, Oldguy has a line, or a stanza for anything.