- Poetic Comics
132 Pages; Print, $25.00
A new comic by John Hankiewicz is already a rare and notable event, but 2014’s Education was a shooting star. In September, out of nowhere, Hankiewicz posted the following notice to his occasionally updated blog:
EDUCATION is a 132-page comic that I recently finished. It is about a teacher who cannot control his imagination. I did this book in an edition of 50: the cover is a handprinted lithograph, and the binding is hand-sewn. It is available at my etsy site, along with other booklets and prints.
Word spread, and fifty available copies quickly became zero; the book was now only a rumor shortly after it became known at all. Solid, handmade, and ephemeral, the circumstances of Education’s publication are as poetic, in a way, as the book itself.
Poetic: In 2007 I organized a panel for the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland called “Graphic Not-Novels,” which included Hankiewicz as a panelist and was moderated by Isaac Cates, a professor of poetry. Like others, I sought to interrogate the hardening conventional wisdom around the term “graphic novel” and, more proactively, to suggest that some comics might better be understood in terms of forms like poetry, painting, or the essay. A declaration Hankiewicz made on that panel burned itself into my brain: he asserted that comics are more like poetry than prose “because cartoonists,” he said, “like poets, are obsessed with structure!”
Good cartoonists, anyway. At that moment—and to date—Hankiewicz’s most widely available major publication was Asthma (2006), a book largely composed of short pieces previously published in zines and other small press publications. Poetic structure provides a key to engaging the work in Asthma, particularly the series of one-page wordless comics titled “Amateur Comics,” which seem to be near the core of Hankiewicz’s method.
The pages of “Amateur Comics” are difficult to describe in even the most basic particulars: what seem at first blush to be individual pages each containing eight panels are perhaps more properly understood to be four-panel comics wherein each panel contains two paired images intended to be considered as a unit. Let us consider the first “Amateur Comics” strip, which bears the suggestive title “What Had You Better Feel?” Like the rest, the first panel on this page contains two quite similar, parallel images. The first image shows a male figure on a chair, his face peering at a piece of paper—a letter, perhaps—held at eye level. The image paired with this one is identical, but the human figure has been replaced on the chair with a bottle of hand lotion. The second pair of images is similar, except the point of view of the chair, previously a three-quarter view, has rotated so that we now see the chair dead on. In the first of these paired images, the male figure is now leaning forward, reading a booklet or magazine; in the second, a miniature house replaces him. The third pair of images takes a more sidelong view of the chair. Significantly, in the first image, the figure makes a gesture as if he is holding something up to his face for inspection, but his hand is empty; the paired image replaces the human figure with what appear to be two disassembled legs of a table or chair. In the final pair of images, we return to the initial three-quarter view of the chair. In the first, the figure is sitting contemplatively, holding nothing, hands folded; in the parallel image, the chair is empty for the first time, but something different has appeared: an electrical cord on the floor, noticeably unplugged, and leading off-panel to an inaccessible space, connected to some unknowable device.
By these juxtapositions—these rhyming couplets—we see, in order, a personal touch, perhaps denied; a retreat to the miniature, simulated safety of authorized texts; the return to a performative gesture, now missing pieces, denied actual content; and a final inward turn, disconnected and pondering disconnection. “What Had You Better Feel,” indeed? While the piece creates...