Haiku comics

I recently taught a workshop to comics Master’s students at the École Européene Supérieure de l’Image in Angoulême, France. The subject of the four-day workshop was comics based on fixed forms borrowed from poetry such as the sestina, the villanelle, or the sonnet. (This is a subject I’ve dabbled in a fair amount in my personal work.)

One form of poetry I have not previously played around with is the haiku. Its brevity and relative simplicity of rules made it a good candidate for a warm-up activity. So after reviewing the traditional rules and reading a few examples in French and English, I had the students spend half an hour or so coming up with quick, thumbnailed “haiku comics”.

Before starting we looked at a few examples of haiku comics that already exist to see what ways the form has been adapted to our medium. One of the things I find interesting about the 5-7-5 syllable structure is that there are a number of ways to think about how that might translate to comics. From a teaching point of view, that was the most productive aspect of the exercise: engaging students with the subtle forces of layout, panel size, composition, and rhythm.

Here are two very different haiku comics I found online. The first is by John Porcellino and you might describe it as evoking a haiku rather than adapting it faithfully: the sizes of the three panels seem to refer to the 5-7-5 structure, and the text, though not observing the syllabic rules, observe many other principles of the haiku: the present tense, a reference to nature, the obersvation of a fleeting moment. One student pointed out that the framing meta-panel could be seen as uniting the comic in a single, cosmic instant.

a haiku-like comic by John Porcellino

© John Porcellino

The second example is a webcomic by Mysh called Imaginary Encounters which uses the haiku has a base structure for a series of autobiographical one-page stories. The page I want to talk about is a little NSFW so we have removed it from this post to keep dw-wp.com all ages. (You can find the page on my personal website, or, of course in the web archive of Mysh’s strip.) In this case, the text is a fairly orthodox haiku: “On the first sunrise/we observe the newborn world/from the mountain top” (even if the subject matter, a dreamy gay travelogue, is far from traditional!) but the comics page seems to mainly echo the three line structure in the form of three equally-sized tiers. One thing I particularly like about this example is the ironic counterpoint between the phrase “mountain top”, a fairly classic nature reference, and the image of two lovers looking out from their “mountain,” the top-floor of window of a building. In another odd touch, we see that the place where they are is utterly flooded.

We discussed other ways the syllable structure might be adapted, generally agreeing that Porcellino’s relative size approach worked well.  As a counter-example: we all agreed that though a three-page comic of 5 panels, 7 panels, 5 panels would be feasible it would be too long and against the spirit of a haiku. We left it up to each student to decide which aspects of haiku to adapt and which to disregard.

some ways to conceive of a comics haiku

some ways to conceive of a comics haiku

When everyone was done we stuck them on the wall (or projected on the screen: more and more students are working purely digitally) and talked about them a bit.

Here are a few examples from the class:

© Elisabeth Holleville

© Elisabeth Holleville

[translation: On the mountain/amid the high grass/of your fur]

© Timothée LeBoucher

© Timothée LeBoucher

© Lise Lamarche

© Lise Lamarche

[trans. Along with the birds/the great crane floats/above the water.]

I also made a few attempts myself. In the first one I tried to write a traditional haiku, referencing the present, a season, a moment in time, and so on (it was easy to think about nature and the seasons because it’s been a long, gray spring here and in most of France). That said, I couldn’t help put a modern, pop culture twist to it, since I was drawing all this in spitting distance of the Musée de la Bande Dessinée, which has a statue of Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese keeping watch along the footbridge across the Charente river:

© Matt Madden

© Matt Madden

You can see that I used the 5-7-5 relative panel height principle here, cutting the space from top to bottom as the eye descends. For the second comic, I flipped it sideways, thinking that was a more natural movement for the gaze of the haiku poet, surveying the landscape around her. An unusual aspect of this art school is that it is located on a small island right on the Charente, so when you step out, as I did, to the coffee machine, you find yourself surrounded by rushing water on all sides. It is, in fact, about as haiku-inspring a moment as you are likely to find in the middle of a city. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to translate the syllable count in to drawn lines, so in this second version I drew five lines in the first panel, seven in the second, and five again in the last. I stood in the middle of the river and looked first to my left, then straight ahead, then right:

haiku #2 (version one) © Matt Madden

© Matt Madden

You may have noticed that I also used the words left, center, and right, in the three lines of text. The crane referred to and minimally evoked in the drawing is a construction crane over a new student center being built across the river. Of course, the association with the bird  is intentional. What’s interesting is that my student Lise did the same play with “grue” (above), which as in English refers to both the bird and the construction equipment.

I drew both of these comics quickly, without pencilling or much planning, with a fountain pen on letter size (A4) paper. I had in mind an interesting detail I came across which is that a haiku is intended to be read in one breath: how can we translate that idea to drawing or looking at drawings?

After I scanned the pages, though, I had the idea that the second one might work better with a less rigid panel height, something more organic and evocative, again, of the haiku’s syllable structure:

© Matt Madden

haiku #2 (version 2) © Matt Madden

I encourage teachers out there to give this exercise a try and adapt it as you see fit. It’s quick and it doesn’t require a lot of set-up or a lot of drawing skill.













2 Comments to Haiku comics

  • by Jessica

    On November 11, 2015 at 12:50 am

    I really enjoyed reading about the different kinds of haiku-comics. What I like most about haiku-comics is the use of white space, and the simplicity of the lines. It seems that most haiku-comics out there are black and white. Is it because color would be too distracting? I wonder.

  • by Matt

    On November 11, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the minimalism is part of the attraction, the white space evokes the silence and sparseness of the haiku. I don’t think color is antithetical at all, I can see someone doing very simple color work that would function very effectively in a haiku. One recent book that comes to mind is Igort’s Japanese Notebooks (no English edition yet planned as far as I know), which has some beautiful and calming color compositions (and includes a section on Basho as well). Some preview pages are viewable here: http://www.coconinopress.it/quaderni-giapponesi.html

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