Comics creation and criticism are characterised by praxical dialogue. Accordingly, this paper explores the development of practice-led comics pedagogy as a means to expand and enrich creative experimentation and critical understanding of both narrative and non-narrative comics. More specifically, it explores the creation and critique of “comics poetry” as part of a month-long, self-contained workshop series, Secretos de la Ciudad (Secrets of the City) hosted by El Centro de Cultura Digital in Mexico City.
Keywords: comics poetry, praxis, segmentivity, experiential pedagogy, practice-led research, visual literacy
Secretos de la Ciudad, 2012
Combinations of visual-verbal communication are more effective than words alone (Dwyer, 1994). From advertising to comics, pedagogical studies reveal that multimodal communication methods are more effective than purely verbal models (Mayer, 2001). Correspondingly, behavioural and cognitive studies support Martin Heidegger’s concept of “handlability”, the notion that experiential learning actively develops practical skills that enhance understanding of theoretical concepts (Bolt, 12). Within the context of comics, examples of praxis are evidenced by Rodolphe Töpffer, Will Eisner, Maurice “Morris” De Bevere, Scott McCloud, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel and Dylan Horrocks. Creative and critical experimentation of these practitioners, amongst others, has resulted in profitable pedagogies for practice-led comics research and research-led practice. Accordingly, this paper reflects on the development of comics pedagogy through praxis as a means of enriching experiential creation and comics analysis, specifically, the creation and analysis of “comics poetry” as part of a month-long workshop series, Secretos de la Ciudad (Secrets of the City) hosted by El Centro de Cultura Digital in Mexico City. Before discussing the pedagogical approaches underpinning this interactive, practice-led course, it’s important to contextualise how we came to teach a course on comics poetry in Mexico City.
How it began
Beneath the pillar of light known as Estela de Luz sits Mexico City’s El Centro de Cultura Digital. The centre hosts exhibitions of contemporary digital, light and sound installations, live concerts and SLAM poetry as well as workshop series that range from portable media production to experimental drawing. Coinciding with the 2012 opening of El Centro de Cultura Digital, Guillermo Batiz and I were invited to design a self-contained 4-week comics course for adult-learners. What had led us to this opportunity were a series of fortunate meetings, Guillermo’s history managing a comic book store and my recently completed doctorate in “Comics Poetry”. Although I’d spent years researching and creating comics poetry in collaboration with multidisciplinary artists and had incorporated comics into workshops, teaching “comics poetry”—in Spanish— was something else entirely! A process that not only required intensive pedagogical underpinnings, but a group of collaborators, materials and a means to culturally and creatively engage a diverse group of participants in the development of comics for a published outcome. And, a lot of planning.
If designing our own “comics poetry” course wasn’t surreal enough, the workshop series was to take place in the land where one of comics’ most identifiable symbols was first carved into stone. From Mexico City to Morelos and the Mayan strongholds of Yucatan, the cloud-shaped glyph, now synonymous with comics speech balloons, has emanated from the mouths of speakers in carvings and codices for thousands of years. The symbol, known as “tlatoani” in traditional Nahuatl language, literally translates as speaker. In English “tlatoani” is often erroneously translated as “king” because the speech glyphs were seen to emerge from the mouths of rulers. Originally employed by the Olmecs, the symbol was adopted by Toltecs and later Aztecs. The Aztecs also developed a tradition of using visual symbols to accompany sung poetry. The practice is perhaps the earliest precursor to the development of contemporary “comics poetry”. Today, the speech balloon is among the most identifiable symbols of comics around the world. Endurance of this Mexican symbol across various forms of comics, both narrative and non-narrative, demonstrates a common visual-verbal denominator and the ancient connection of Mexican culture to comics. Links between Mesoamerican visual storytelling and comics are also recognised by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics (1993) where the reading paths of Mayan codices are analysed in relation to the “Z” reading path of modern comics. Accordingly, our pedagogical approach sought to combine formal innovation with investigation into ancient aesthetic practices and the potential for experimentation beyond linear sequence and storyboard approaches.
Conscious of Mexico’s historical connection with comics and visual communication, Guillermo and I worked closely with the team at El Centro de Cultura Digital to devise a range of possible course structures. As El Centro was in its early stages of development, and given the fluidity, openness and experimental nature of the institution, there was a great deal of flexibility and encouragement during the initial stages of course design. Whereas university and school-based courses are often conscious of the need to align content with curriculum outcomes, the structure of the program at El Centro wasn’t connected to student assessment. Exploration and enrichment of multiple literacies still informed the course, but the focus was on innovation and engagement with diverse socio-cultural groups, rather than grading. Aside from set elements of course location, budget, hours (11am-4pm) and El Centro’s requirements for a published outcome, we were free to design each workshop and invite artistic collaborators in ways that would inspire and encourage creativity. Such open possibilities were both liberating and uniquely challenging in that we needed to design a comics course to suit a range of experiences and interests. Within university, school and even afterschool programs it’s often possible to target specific demographics, whereas this course design needed to be flexible enough to suit a range of abilities and experiences, ensuring presentations and activities were challenging without assuming too much prior comics knowledge.
Anticipating most course participants would come from Mexico’s Distrito Federal (D.F), we suggested that the connecting thread for the course should be the city itself. More specifically, the theme of the course would explore stories of the streets, buried histories and forgotten treasures—the secrets of the city. And so, Secretos de la Ciudad was spawned.
Along the metro lines and in the Zocolo there are constant reminders of the Aztec city buried stone by stone by the conquistadors. Like archaeologists, we wanted to discover the hidden histories that lay beneath the markets, the cantinas and the masks that people wear in one of largest cities in the world. In this way, Secretos de la Ciudad encompasses the forgotten cities, cities of the dead, cities of memory, cities of desire, collapsed cities, utopias, dystopias, places vanished or unseen, the mazes and maps of streets, the facades and mirrored houses, hidden cities and the histories of the characters that inhabit them. Secretos de la Ciudad shapes a city from the invisible, from our imaginations.
With the uniting theme of the workshops in place, two options for the course model were pitched to the team at El Centro.
The first proposal was a model where a set number of participants would enrol for the duration of the 4-week course. Each week, participants would work with Guillermo and I, as well as a two different guest artists to develop their own suite of comics poems. In each of the workshops a different aspect of Secretos de la Ciudad would be explored from places (lugares) to people (personajes), objects (objectos) and symbols (simbolos). Aligned with these subtopics and guest artist skills, participants would focus on a different comics technique. Positives of this design were that participants could be exposed to a range of artists and creative techniques in developing their own self-contained comic over an extended period. As a weekly group, participants could establish stronger connections within the workshops and could input more into the outcome of the final publication. Potential detractors of this design were that enrolments would be capped at 15 students and that students would work individually rather than collaboratively. The logistics of finding two complimentary guest artists each week also required significant navigation.
The second course model was designed to allow a greater number of participants to experience the workshop. Participants could enrol for one week, or all four, depending on their availability and interest in the theme and techniques being explored each week. As with the first design, each week of workshops would focus on a different aspect of Secretos de la Ciudad: place (lugar), people (personajes), objects (objectos), symbols (simbolos). The difference with this model was that the same two guest artists would facilitate the workshops with Guillermo and I, giving consistency to the theme and final publication. Benefits of this design were manifold, from increased participation numbers to the ongoing development of pedagogical processes with the guest artists.
Finally, the advantages of increased participation and streamlined logistics of the second workshop design were decided upon.
Once the course theme and structure were settled, El Centro put us in contact with a number of local comics artists, poets, authors and Selva Hernandez, director of the publishing and design company, Ediciones Acupulco, who was interested in printing the final publication. After several discussions and navigation of dates and availabilities, we confirmed two guest facilitators: visual artist, Rafael Rodriguez Rivera (a.k.a Pachiclon—Pachi) and writer, Alejandro Farfán (a.k.a Tu Mero Mole—”Mole”). Pachi’s illustrations, comics and street art explore “the aesthetic of the misunderstood, of the rejected and marginal” (artist statement, pachiclon.net, 2013). With his focus on characters, particularly the forgotten monsters, costume wearers and fringe-dwellers, Pachi’s drawings not only captured the underground aesthetic of D.F., they also complemented the kind of comics poetry we sought to inspire participants to create. Similarly, Mole’s confessional-style writing exposes the secret thoughts, lives and losses that circulate beneath the surface of human interaction in the city. After weeks of emailing, we met at the Ediciones Acapulco headquarters to share our inspiration and to organise our pedagogical approaches to the course. The first question to address…
What is comics poetry?
Within the context of the course, comics poetry is the term used to describe a growing field of works that experiment with combinations of comics and poetic devices. As with both comics and poetry, attempts to define or demarcate comics poetry undoubtedly results in contestation. Nevertheless, we began by charting concrete examples of works that could be considered comics poetry. Examples included works by creators like Derik Badman, Joe Brainard, Warren Craghead, Tim Danko, Malcy Duff, Michael Farrell, Ray Fawkes, Eroyn Franklin, Richard Hahn, Alejandro Jodorowski, Kenneth Koch, Matt Madden, Alejandro Magallanes, Alexander Rothman, Souther Salazar, Bianca Stone, Garry Sullivan, Paul K. Tunis as well as collections such as Franklin Einspruch’s Comics as Poetry, Sammy Harkham’s Kramers Ergot editions, and Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics. Discussions with Pachi and Mole expanded this list and we decided that one of our introductory activities would involve sharing examples of comics poetry and inviting workshop participants to work in pairs to describe what features of comics poetry made them different to sequential narrative comics they had previously encountered. Participants noted that examples of comics poetry do not typically use page grids or linear transitions between panels; they don’t “tell stories” with a set beginning, middle or end; they don’t always feature identifiable characters and the works are more conceptual, metaphorical and abstract than mainstream action comics. In addition to exploring how these works are often multi-linear, non-narrative and non-figurative, we discussed the ways in which fragmented and serialised segments in comics often resist definitions of comics as “sequential art”(Eisner, 1985, McCloud, 1993). Whereas narrative comics sequence images and text towards fixed meanings, comics poetry resists narrative impulses by encouraging fragmentary, disjunctive and alternative associations of visual-verbal segments. In addition to disjunctive strategies, what formally distinguishes comics poetry from narrative comics and visual poetry is the conscious and consistent combination of comics and poetic devices including, but not limited to, segmentivity, simultaneity, spatial arrangement, metaphor, allegory, repetition, rhyme, meter, enjambment and counter-measure, typography, panels, frames, captions and speech balloons. For a work to be classified comics poetry it must consistently employ combinations of interdependent comics and poetry devices as demonstrated in Warren Craghead’s HOW TO BE EVERYWHERE.
Craghead’s HOW TO BE EVERYWHERE translates and reworks Guillaume Apollinaire’s original manuscripts into a new series of works that combine comics devices such as speech balloons, captions, typography, spatial arrangement with poetic techniques of segmentivity, metaphor, juxtaposition and enjambment. Of the process Craghead states, “With all the drawings in this collection I wanted to make things that didn’t merely illustrate the poetry, but worked with the words to make something new” (2007:5). Craghead’s process diverges from that of conventional sequential comics as he dissolves linear page grids and formal narrative structures in favour of a combination of visual and verbal segments that suggest multiple and fluid reading paths across and around the page. This sense of movement, speed and of seeing and reading at once is connected to Craghead and Apollinaire’s shared desire for simultaneity “as a way of representing the way we experience the world” (Craghead 5). Themes of ruin, war, death and desire are threaded throughout the collection, but unlike narrative comics there is no sequence of narrative events. Instead, Craghead’s collection exposes the potential for comics to experiment with visual-verbal interactions beyond sequential and linear boundaries. As an example of comics poetry, HOW TO BE EVERWHERE demonstrates multiple modes for comics creation, from non-narrative possibilities to using found poetry as a foundational text and the potential for experimentation in the production of interdependent visual-verbal pieces.
Like comics creator Derik Badman, I apply the term “comics poetry” to categorise works like Craghead’s, rather than “graphic poetry” (Surdiacourt, 2012), “comics-as-poetry” (Clough, 2009, 2011) or “poetry comics” (Stone, 2012). The term comics poetry connects the art form to the simultaneous and panoramic origins of comics (seen in early works like The Yellow Kid) rather than later sequential constructs like the graphic novel. The term also describes more accurately the growing field of comics works that experiment with poetic segmentivity and the visual-verbal vocabulary of comics, not always for narrative means. As Badman asserts, “Comics poetry isn’t poetry as text with comics images; it’s the whole comic as poetry. The images, the words, the structure, the rhythm, the page, all of it is used together to create the poetry, to create comics in a poetic register” (2012, 1). Similarly, Alexander Rothman states, comics poetry aims to create “something propelled by both verbal and visual rhythm, that needs all its parts to work” (2011, 1). While it can be argued that comics poetry, comics and visual poetry equally employ symbiotic strategies and segmented components, the combination of comics and poetic devices is not consistent or critical in other forms as they are in comics poetry. Captions and speech balloons may appear in visual texts like Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (1970), but as the title suggests, these occurrences are secondary to the “treatment” of the novel.
Segmentivity as critical scaffold
Responding to recent developments in experimental and abstract comics, scholars like Jan Baetens and Thierry Groensteen have acknowledged the need for alternative modes of analysis as sequential narrative assumptions can limit concepts of both comics creation and criticism. According to Baetens the “a priori approach to narrative in comics as a mere instantiation of narrative in general is now under pressure” as analysis of abstract comics expose the frailty of linear narrative readings when applied to the fragmentary segments of non-sequential and non-figurative works (2011, 94).
Beyond sequential storyboard approaches and narrative analysis, the notion of segmentivity demonstrates it is possible to construct and critique comics as an assemblage of segments that can communicate in multiple directions (Seth, 19). The concept of “segmentivity” stems from Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ attempt to distinguish the components of poetry from narrativity and performativity. For DuPlessis, what characterises poetry as a genre is its “ability to articulate and make meaning by selecting, deploying, and combining segments” (DuPlessis, 2006, 199). Segmentivity is the process of identifying and deploying “bounded units” such as words, sentences, stanzas and spaces (DuPlessis, 199). Akin to poetry, comics are formed by consistent use of visual and verbal segments, gaps and gutters. Applied as a creative and critical comics tool, segmentivity exposes the mechanics of panels, captions, fragments, speech balloons, typography and gutters and how these components can be assembled for both narrative and non-narrative means. As a mode of creation and analysis, segmentivity enables comics to communicate in linear and non-linear (or multi-linear), sequential and non-sequential, simultaneous, narrative and non-narrative ways (Willems, 1). Segmentivity also recognizes that layers of “meaning” are manifold and combinations of visual-verbal components are malleable. In comics, like poetry, visual and verbal segments can be repeated, layered, removed from panels or presented as a simultaneous series of moments not bound by linear grid lines or narrative concepts of closure (McCloud, 20).
Whereas narrative comics can take months or years to be developed and completed, segmented techniques of comics poetry enable students to complete a number of individual works within a short course like Secretos de la Ciudad. Comics’ use of segmentation is also increasingly relevant in an information age dominated by text fragments, advertising and internet searches. As technology changes, so too do our ways of interacting with texts. In his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr (2008) argues that modern human thinking has become impatient and unfocused. This argument stems from the shortened segments of visual-verbal information audiences encounter as they browse pages rather than read deeply. We say more by saying less. We share more by synthesising our expressions. More than ever, information is immediately accessible. Audiences skim headlines and scan texts for keywords, visual content or hyperlinks. Speed not only influences the design of information, but the depth. Rather than blocks of text or written instructions, the vocabulary of non-narrative visual language (pictographs, iconographs, logograms) is expanding. Constellations of hyperlinked information carry audiences away from traditional narrative reading paths. Accordingly, the pedagogical approach to literacy has been broadened to incorporate multiple visual, technological and sonic literacies. As a tool for multiple literacies, segmentivity is deserving of expanded discussion; however, the focus here is the practical pedagogy for comics poetry.
Pedagogy in practice
Arguably, comics’ most influential scholars have also been practitioners: Töpffer, Eisner, “Morris”, McCloud, Madden and Horrocks, to name too few. Their creative methodologies have given rise to a praxical dialogue that has influenced thousands of comics creators and critics. While the reflexive role of critical discourse is such that it is always a step behind creative and commercial production, practice-led comics pedagogy is uniquely positioned to actively encourage creative experimentation and critical investigation, especially within emerging forms like comics poetry.
To understand the pedagogical influences underpinning the proliferation of comics poetry, I corresponded with several creators including Derik Badman, Matt Madden, Bianca Stone, Michael Farrell, Alexander Rothman and Paul K. Tunis. These exchanges and interviews not only revealed that many creators actively resist traditional narrative analysis, but that praxical pedagogies influenced the development of their works. This is especially true for Madden, a member of Oubapo (Ouvroir de bande dessinée potentielle), co-author of comics textbooks Drawing Words & Writing Pictures (2008), Mastering Comics (2012) and the creator of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (2005), a conceptual adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947). As a comics creator and pedagogue, Madden’s experiments with constraint-based comics, at first a creative process, later became praxical tools for exploring formal constraints in comics creation. Within his 99 examples, Madden incorporates poetic forms like the cento, calligram, palindrome, as well as a reference to Koch’s The Art of the Possible: Comics Mainly Without Pictures. In his calligram strip, Madden strips away the panels, speech balloons, captions and figurative forms, shaping the text into the silhouette of a question mark. The internal thoughts of Madden’s character take us deeper into his procrastinating process, adding layers not visible in the original template of the strip.
In addition to the poetic forms explored in Exercises in Style, Madden has also experimented with the sestina, pantoum, villanelle, haiku, and sonnet to shape his own comics and encourage students to use these forms during comics workshops. Madden’s strip “Six Treasures Of The Spiral: A Comics Sestina” (2004) employs the six-line spiral structure of the sestina to construct both the series of events and order repetition of panels throughout the comic. He describes this comic as an attempt to equate “lines” of a poem with tiers of panels. The result is that each page functions like a stanza with the end panel of every “line” repeated to mirror the pattern of a six-line sestina stanza. More recently, during a four-day comics workshop at the École Européene Supérieure de l’Image in Angoulême, France, Madden also used the form of haiku as a warm-up activity. Examining existing examples of haiku comics by John Porcellino and Mysh students studied some of the ways the form has been adapted and how different creators visually and verbally interpret the 5-7-5 syllable structure and principles of haiku. By creating haiku comics alongside his students Madden demonstrates how he interpreted the syllabic structure both visually via the height of panels and verbally in the lines of the poem.
Another example of praxis is Stone’s initial creation of comics poetry, developed during her poetry and collaboration class with Anne Carson at New York University. During this time, Stone began to draw images to accompany her poetry. Of the process, Stone explains, the poems were written first, and, later, lines were cut up and arranged differently or placed in speech balloons, panels or captions to form a new dialogue with artworks:
“I began ruthlessly cutting everything […] Sometimes a three page poem would end up being three tiny lines. It was so liberating. I then went through all my old artwork that I never used for anything, all the scraps…” which were then placed with poems (Stone interview in Bennett, 2010).
Stone’s cut and paste process illustrates how non-sequential segmentivity informs her creation of poetry comics and, in-turn, how segmentivity can be critically applied to critique multi-linear comics poetry. In one of Stone’s early strips, “This Isn’t A Poem” (2010), fragmented lines are cut from other poems, rearranged and juxtaposed in the third panel. The typed and cut lines “I was going down a river/lulled by the 21st century/ I was staring out of my compound eye/ with/ monochromatic/ vision…” contrast handwritten typography within the captions. Enjambment of the final line also shifts the pace and tone of the strip from more conventional narration to metaphoric postulation as the figure begins to see through the “compound” and monochromatic eye of an insect. Referencing the folio that first ignited her creation of comics poetry, Stone exposes how praxical experiments are integral to the success of creative pedagogies.
Given the strength of praxical course outcomes, pedagogical framework for Secretos de la Ciudad sought to immerse workshop participants in a range of creative and collaborative processes. Through examples of comics poetry and experimentation with a variety of poetic forms including blackout and erasure poetry, collage, calligrams and concrete poetry, the framework encouraged participants to create new comics using a range of praxical visual-verbal techniques.
Having introduced concepts and collected examples of comics poetry with Pachi, Mole and Selva, the next challenge was to design workshop activities that would inspire a group of strangers to not only create their own comics, but to collaboratively work towards the first Mexican publication of comics poetry. Working backwards from the concepts to the publication outcome, we discussed what creative experiences, activities and materials were needed to realise the workshops and publication. We considered each workshop within a cohesive framework and also as a self-contained module, analysing how each week’s themes (place, people, objects, symbols) would develop an aspect of the participant’s craft while simultaneously adding to the final publication. To enable Pachi and Mole to work more closely with participants it was decided that the group would be split in two, half working with Pachi to develop artworks and half with Mole to compose poems and descriptive fragments. Groups had approximately 2.5 hours with each facilitator before rotating to work with the other. This enabled Pachi and Mole to provide guidance and feedback on each work before the final versions were inked. Rotation of groups also gave students time to compose a range of visual and verbal segments and in this way, segmentivity was not only present in the works but in the process of creation. With the course structure finally set, we worked with the team at El Centro de Cultura Digital to promote the workshops to potential participants. Pachi designed promo materials that were distributed across the city and via blogs like New Weird Latin America (NWLA). Guillermo and Pachi also created a 1-minute video to share on the El Centro page and other networks. By the beginning of the course more than 30 participants, aged 18 to 35, were enrolled.
Workshop #1: Place/ Lugar
Guillermo and I introduced each workshop, giving thematic background to Secretos de la Ciudad and sharing concepts for critique and creation of comics poetry. These introductory mini-lectures exposed participants to a range of comics poetry examples including works by Craghead, Jodorowski, Koch, Magallanes, Madden, Rothman, Stone and Tunis amongst others. Sharing examples also gave way to discussion of how these comics communicated without conventional sequential frameworks. We then paired participants to identify and describe features of comics poetry that distinguished them from other comics they’d encountered. After a group discussion about features of comics poetry, Guillermo and I ran a 10 minute activity to overcome any anxieties about creating poetry. Based on found poetry techniques used in Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Austin Kleon’s Blackout Poetry video, participants were asked to create a new poem by “disappearing” words from pages of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The resulting examples by Bruno and Javier illustrate the spectrum of different approaches that are possible within this activity. Existing poems, newspapers and discarded novels can also be used for “blackout,” and by beginning with existing text rather than a blank page, participants are eased into poetic composition and concepts of text as image. Depending on time constraints, it can also be interesting to ask the group to read aloud their new poems.
Following this warm-up, both Pachi and Mole presented their own mini-lectures featuring visual examples and videos from artists, authors and animators who had influenced their work or related to the theme of the week. Their inspiration included images of clowns, photographs from a range of Mexican photographers, street art scenes and an animation of Bukowski’s “The Blue Bird.” Once the group was divided, participants working with Pachi used metro tickets, district maps and photographs of the city to develop their own illustrations, drawings and images or to shine a light on a secret place in the city—real or imagined. With Mole, they explored personification of the city, giving voice to cantinas, market places, park benches or secret hiding spots. Experimentation with typography of fragments and poems was also encouraged in the shaping of captions and speech balloons within their final piece. The influence of this typographic experimentation, calligrams and concrete poetry is visible in the work created by Cecilia Sánchez.
Workshop #2: People/ Personajes
After introducing the workshop theme and examples of comics poetry, Guillermo and I ran a short group poem activity to encourage collaboration and use of photographs of people in the city as ekphrastic stimulus. The activity invited participants to each compose a four line stanza describing the “secret” of someone within the image projected on the screen. Stanzas were then read aloud to form a collaborative group poem and to show how a single moment or scene can be interpreted in multiple ways. Pachi and Mole followed the group poem activity with mini-lectures about their inspiration for characters and different visual and verbal processes and techniques for giving specific detail to people and characters. Using posters, comics and photographs of people and fictional characters within urban environments, participants worked with Pachi to develop their own images of characters within a secret city, or to develop a secret, masked or costumed character that hides within the city. Working with Mole, participants used images of people as inspiration to tell the story or describe scenes from this character’s secret life or experiences in the secret city. After drafting, poems/story fragments were placed inside of speech balloons to give voice to a secret or hidden place in the city.
Workshop #3: Objects/ Objetos
For this workshop we scavenged objects like buttons, dolls’ eyes, pencil sharpeners, pipes and worn toys from markets across the city. We also borrowed items from Pachi’s personal collection to create an object library for students to use as stimulus. Guillermo and I then introduced the theme of the workshop using the example of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance and a tarnished button. We passed the button around the group and asked students to each imagine and write a short biography of the button, concentrating on its secret past and detailing how it had been lost and found, who had owned it and what made it so special. After sharing the secrets of the button, the group was broken in two. Those working with Pachi were invited to select an item from the library that included objects like a kaleidoscope, glasses, masks, a thimble, toys and a set of teeth. Using comics poetry techniques and different objects as inspiration, each participant developed their own comic inspired by an imagined secret history of the object. Participants writing with Mole were also asked to select an item to use as inspiration in developing a series of poems about one or many objects that hold or held secrets.
The work created by Javier Hernández experiments with the decomposition of a pencil sharpener. Visual fragments mirror the enjambment of text segments: “Ellos no saben lo que les espera seran tritura dos/ They don’t know what’s coming for them, they’ll be squashed.” Itzel Arontes’ comics poem also uses fragmented repetition to generate poetic rhythm. The circular layout of masks echoes techniques employed by Koch in his comic poem “Stained Glass Window” (2004) as the poem can be read in multiple directions. For Itai Arvea, the objects of the city manifest the intangible and invisible substance of memories, dreams and secrets (“la ciudad es memoria y deseo, un acumulado de sueños y secretos/ the city is memory and desire, an accumulation of dreams and secrets”). Visually and verbally her comic functions as a metaphor for the invisible city of memory we each carry within our minds. While in the final example by Emilo Reyes, panels are emptied of images and the poem instead creates a sea of marching text that asks “¿Que importa ea primera imágen si ya no tienes ojos para ver?/ What does that first image matter if you don’t have eyes to see?”
Workshop #4: Symbols/ Symbolos
At the beginning of the final workshop Guillermo and I invited each participant to choose a tarot card (major arcanas only) from the deck. We then asked everyone to study the card and take notes interpreting the symbols and their significance. The group then discussed how symbols code mythologies and can be used to signal clues, hidden places, people, myths, histories and secrets. We linked the discussion to historic Mexican symbols like tlatoani and later misinterpretations as well as to authors like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman who have used the tarot to shape comics. Pachi then displayed a selection of historical symbols from Mexico and around the world, and asked participants working within his groups to develop their own visual and verbal symbols to code or mask their comic poem. Participants working with Mole used codex fragments to create allusions to symbols, both real and imagined, with the aim of writing poem fragments about a symbol or code previously forgotten or lost. The works created by Ismael Méndez and Itzel Arontes reference the internal, hidden worlds masked by symbols and decorated facades. Both employ symbols of crosses, hearts and skulls that allude to the dark histories swallowed by conquistadors and catholic symbols. Arontes’ typography blurs the lines between visual and verbal element, camouflaging poem text into the embellished background. And while both Méndez and Arontes externalize symbols, Alejandra Venegas borrows silhouette techniques from concrete poetry, internalizing the poem “‘Instrucciones para ser un molde/ Instructions for being a mold’ within the icon of female form.”
Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the course was the level of engagement between participants and facilitators as they explored possibilities for comics poetry. Reference books, snacks, music selections and all manner of art supplies were shared by the group, intensifying the collective creative environment. For the majority of participants Secretos de la Ciudad was their first comics publication. While participants had prior knowledge of comics, the concepts of comics poetry and tools of segmentivity were unfamiliar. Despite having little previous experience with these forms and devices, guided activities enabled all participants to produce at least two comics poetry pieces during the workshop and to realise segmentivity through practical application of the concept.
At the end of each workshop, comics poetry pieces were collected in preparation for curation and design by Selva and Pachi. Introductory notes were provided by Guillermo and I, as well as the Director of El Centro de Cultura Digital, Grace Quintanilla. The final digital and print editions of Secretos de la Ciudad were produced and printed by Ediciones Acapulco, December 2012. Copies of the publication were made available to all workshop participants and visitors of El Centro de Cultura Digital.
Where to from here?
Secretos de la Ciudad is just one of many possible manifestations of comics poetry and practice-led pedagogy. This course structure was shaped by manifold aims: To expose workshop participants to alternative comics concepts and modes of creation; to encourage practice-led learning and experimentation with visual-verbal comics forms; and to collaboratively produce a collection of comics poetry. From a pedagogical perspective, one of the most successful elements of the course was the creative engagement and experimentation with concepts and forms of comics poetry. Further qualitative analysis is needed to determine the impact of practice-led pedagogy on understanding of comics concepts, however, it is clear that the praxical approach of Secretos de la Ciudad provided a platform for creative and critical exchange, interaction and experimentation with comics. Although comics poetry is still embryonic in comparison to traditional forms, inclusion of practice-led comics activities alongside of alternative, abstract and experimental comics can only serve to enrich pedagogy, creative practice and critical investigations of the “endless” universe of comics (McCloud, 212).
Special thanks to the El Centro de Cultura Digital team, Grace Quintanilla, Mely Avila and Talia Castillo, Pachiclon, Tu Mero Mole, Selva Hernandez and all of the workshop participants who shared their imagination and made this comics poetry course possible.
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