Some of you might remember that a couple of years ago I did a comic called “The Six Treasures of the Spiral” (in A Fine Mess #2, link courtesy Drunken Boat)) in which I adapted the poetry form known as a sestina to the purposes of a narrative comic. I’ve been studying other poetic forms for their comics/narrative potential and one that I particularly like is the 15th Century Malaysian (sometimes phrased as simply “Malay”—anyone know if there’s an important difference?) form known as the pantoum.
The pantoum structure is one of interlocking quatrains where the first and third line of one stanza become the second and fourth lines of the following one. The last stanza ends with the very first line of the poem and has the third line in the third-to-last position. The repeated lines gain new shades of connotation as they reappear in a different context. Slight changes can be made to accommodate syntax or context but the ideal as I understand it—and one I strive for in all my constrained work—is to create maximum variation of effect with a minimum of straying from the rules. (see 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises in Style.)
As with my sestina comic, I adapted the form by equating lines of the poem with tiers (or rows) on the page of a comic. Each page, then, functions like a stanza of a poem. Derik Badman did a very interesting variation on my adaptation, equating the lines with panels instead of tiers and the stanzas with tiers, resulting in a one-page comic. You can see it here.
I have been working on two different pantoums so far. One I am writing and drawing myself. I have complete thumbnails and need to find the time (ha!) to pencil and ink it (one subsidiary advantage of the pantoum comic: you get two pages out of each one you draw!). The second, which I am presenting below, is a “transformative” pantoum based on an untitled three-page comic Tom Hart did for Rosetta #1. I’ve always been fond of this work of his and it happened to fit the bill for what I was looking for: it has four tiers per page and the action, narration, and characters are continuous enough that when I expanded the comic by retroactively applying the pantoum rule (that is to say: page 2 of my pantoum is made up of tiers 2 and 4 from Tom’s page 1—now in the positions of tiers 1 and 3—combined with tiers 1 and 3—in the 2 and 4 positions—from Tom’s page 2, and so on), the comic still makes sense, with only minimal tweaking and re-writing (with Tom’s blessing) of the original text. In fact, as I see it, the pantoum, through its repetition, emphasizes and heightens the sexual derangement of the hapless narrator. Time and narrative stutter (but still function if you read carefully) as the narrator seems to confuse memory and fantasy with current action.
But enough build-up! You can read the comic, I’m calling it “Farm Pantoum”, by clicking on this Picasa album link or on the panel above. I’m not entirely sure how well this will work as a format for reading multiple page comics so please reply in the comments field if you have trouble reading the comic or if you have a better idea.
I’d like to thank Tom for letting me horse around with his work this way and for letting me use his font to tweak the writing in places. In checking his blog to grab his URL I saw that he has two recent posts which are relevant to this post here, and which underscore in some ways what different-yet-simpatico artists (and friends) we are. One is a nice reflection on the recent passing of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the other is about the notion of what is “poetic” in comics (enticingly posted as “part 1”).
(Third try, I think the first two were eaten.)
I like the Picasa interface; the zoom function is great.
An excellent pantoum. Makes me want to look at the original piece (maybe Tom’d be willing to post it somewhere). Your multipage approach feels less.. gimmicky than my single page approach. It disguises the repetitions better.
Shameless plug: I’ve been experimenting with comics poetry ever since reading Derik’s experiments and then finding your work through him. You can read my stuff at
I think this is a really successful experiment, Matt. You’ve convinced me that I want to try my hand at this some time. I bet it’d be easier to cycle through the repetitions if the story had fewer captions — though of course the trick must be in recontextualizing the words and/or images when they’re repeated.
Hmm… Now you’ve got me thinking about it…
Matt Madden says
Thanks Isaac, I’m glad you liked it. It’s a real challenge of Tom’s comic that it has so much narration. I was amazed that I could get it to work with so little adjustment to the text. At least one reader, though, has told me that he found it too hard to read–rather it was too tempting to skim the pages that were repeated.
The pantoum I’m working myself, from scratch, only has bits of dialogue so it will be interesting to see if that makes the reading experience move more smoothly.