“Archie,” “Garfield,” “Spider-Man,” “Dilbert,” “Dick Tracy,” and “J. Alfred Prufrock”?
Poetry and comics. It sounds like an uncomfortable union of arts, joining the spiritual desolation of T. S. Eliot or the restlessness of Arthur Rimbaud with the text balloons and exclamation points that have traditionally filled a newspaper’s “fun pages.”
But the forms merge beautifully in the work of Julian Peters. A 34-year-old Canadian artist, Peters has spent the last few years creating comic books of his favorite poems, including John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” They’re all posted at his website, JulianPetersComics.com, including panels from his extraordinary version of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which he is currently trying to finish.
Early last month, for the same mysterious reasons that videos such as “Charlie Bit My Finger” and “David After Dentist” rose from obscurity, Peters’s “Prufrock” images suddenly went viral in literary corners of the Web. His visual translation of Eliot began to get enthusiastic attention on blogs such as Open Culture, on Slate, and in social media, attention that is inspiring him to progress more quickly. Now studying art history at Concordia University, Peters has been working on “Prufrock” for a few years.
“I’ll be spending the early part of 2014 finishing it,” he says on the phone from Montreal.
Peters does a lot of research on a poem before he begins to draw. “I find out as much as I can about the context in which it was written and the author’s frame of mind at the time,” he says. “When there’s obscure imagery, in those cases I often try to go online and read analyses of the poem, talk to other people and see what their interpretations are.”
Three years ago, his early research of “Prufrock” and Eliot brought him to Boston. After learning that there were New England roots in Eliot’s family, that Eliot attended Milton Academy and Harvard, and that Eliot’s accent was sometimes labeled “mid-Atlantic,” he decided Boston’s architecture and atmosphere were right for his comic. He stayed with friends in Cambridge, walked around, and took a lot of photos.
Beacon Hill spoke to him: “I could imagine when [Prufrock] was going to this tea, this evening, it could be set in a tony neighborhood of Boston like Beacon Hill.” Peters’s search for a freestanding house among the endless row houses — one that he could have Eliot’s yellow fog curling all the way around — brought him to 85 Mount Vernon St., a mansion designed by architect Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1802.
Peters also thought carefully about how to portray Eliot’s yellow fog, which he has drawn with an almost cute aspect in his comic. “Some people have thought it should be more threatening-looking,” he says, “But it’s catlike. . . . The fog is a slightly comic interlude in a mostly gloomy poem. He talks about it rubbing its muzzle against the windowpanes, and it’s kind of a cozy image.”
Other cartoonists have taken on classic poetry, notably Dave Morice in the 1970s and ’80s. “They were kind of comical as well as comics,” Peters says of Morice’s “Poetry Comics” magazines and anthologies. Morice was working in an era when comics were primarily used for humorous effect, before graphic novels were taken as seriously as they are now. His strips had an air of parody to them.
“But once people realized that comics are a medium that can be used to express any number of things,” Peters says, “there was no reason they couldn’t be paired in a more serious way with poetry.” In 2007, the Poetry Foundation furthered the connection with an intriguing series called “The Poem as Comic Strip,” in which cartoonists interpreted some of the poems in the foundation’s archives. The comics are still online at the foundation’s website.
Peters’s work is a great argument for the commonalities between poetry and comic books. The lines of poetry and his comic panels hang together with an unexpected ease, as if their forward rhythms are in synch. Both the words and the images unroll across the page, visually, with the panels sometimes matching the line breaks or stanza breaks. Poetry, unlike most prose, can involve leaps of thought from line to line, which jibes with the way comics leap from panel to panel.
Some poetry lovers have balked at Peters’s work, and any similar attempts to narrow a poem’s meanings. Once you draw an image, you run the risk of limiting the viewer’s possible interpretations of the words it’s based on.
Peters is careful not to assert himself too much in his poetry comics, he says. His goal is to translate the poem into comic strip form, not to appropriate it for his own visual purposes or forward an entirely different message — something the makers of music videos, for example, do frequently.
“I’m not trying to pose an unusual interpretation or create a bizarre parallel between something that would never have been thought of,” he says. “I’m trying to bring out what’s in the poem itself, or the way I see it. But I think my interpretations are pretty instinctive; they’re the images I’ve always seen in my head. People will say to me that it’s amazing the way the comic captured exactly the way they envisioned the poem. That’s a great compliment.”