The Webcomic Overlook #198: The Secret Knots
Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? Unless you’re an English teacher, my guess is your answer would’ve been, “What’s poetry?” I, frankly, wouldn’t have known either if one of my co-workers didn’t sorta make it a thing over here by posting verses on a nearby board.
The poets.org site tells me that “National Poetry Month is now held every April, when publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.” There’s a Poem In Your Pocket Day coming up April 26, where you’re supposed to recite verses that you happen to have stored in your shirt pocket. (Good think I checked; I’ve got a week or so to raid my library of dirty limericks.) The site also suggests reading interviews and literary criticism. Now, this is the “Webcomic Overlook,” unfortunately, not the “Poetry Overlook,” so I don’t be tossing out my scathing opinions on Sylvia Plath.
And webcomics can’t be poetry … or … can they? After all, webcomics are visual, and, as poetry critic Jan Schrieber says, poetry is partly defined by sound: “To make that formula a little more explicit, we can say that a poem, being a creature of language, has meanings that are conveyed through linguistic means, and being also a creature of sound (which is not incidental as in prose but structural), has the potential to affect the hearer’s sensibility through auditory stimulus, including rhythmic patterning, the repetition or modulation of phones (speech sounds), and the strategic deployment of silence.”
If I were to dabble in the realm of evoking imagery through aesthetic language, then perhaps one place to start would be with Chilean comic creator Juan Santapau and his webcomic The Secret Knots.
I’ve been two days in bed, feeling alternatively cold and hot,
mostly reading and watching the birds in the wirepost.
I get to know them well. I give them names:
Ana, Carlos, Barry.
I dream that I discover my true parents, or a son, or some unknown brother. Like in a soap opera, I’m not who I thought I was.
Anagnorisis, they call it. Or is that a spider’s name?
When I was a child, there was a man who used to cut your silhouette from black paper. He glued it to a card and sold them.
I think my mother may have it in some box. But I wouldn’t want to look at it
for fear the little shadow has grown old as I did.
During the night, the coats in the hangers have a little party.
I can feel them insinuating themselves, dropping used bus or movie tickets in each other pockets. There’s only one song, playing on repeat. I don’t like this party.
And in the next day I feel better.
I find strange notes in the bed and some new tickets in my pockets. I get up and go out, and my shadow probably does too.
There is also a song stuck in my head ad some anonymous birds up there.
It’s supposed to be spring.
This is “The man who cut shadows and other fever vignettes” if divorced from its imagery. Now, I don’t know much about poetry. All my interest died down in my high school Honors English 3 class when I got a C+ in our poem-writing exercise. (I think it was about a clock.) But I do like it.
It’s got a bit of a stream of consciousness thing going on without becoming too unfocused. There’s a bit of a dreamlike quality to the hazy first-person recollections. And there’s some simple symbolism (like the “silhouette from black paper”) that feels nostalgic, simple, and mundane, and yet is tied to the larger theme of aging and contemplating the ephemeral aspects of life. It’s deeply rooted in the rhythm and flow of the words.
At the same time, the images are secondary. In a way, they provide the negative space to frame the words themselves. The names of the birds appear atop illustrations of them, but it’s more to provide a contemplative pause as you read through “The man who cut shadows and other fever vignettes.”
The theme of finding a fulfilling mysticism — and thus, meaning — within the daily routines of every day life is a recurring one for The Secret Knots. It can get rather poignant. In “Fantasy Novels“, a young woman reads Harry Potter for the first time and inspired to write her own stories. Thing is, it’s basically just Harry Potter but with different names. She writes tales that no one else will ever read, something that plenty of us aspiring amateur writers can relate to. Eventually, she passes away, imagining that the attendants are fairies taking her to another realm. It’s a poignant little comic… one that makes you reflect on the trivialities of life that, despite being completely internal, are not wasted in the end.
One of my favorites looking into this theme, by the way, is a more fanciful one entitled “The Spirit Cabinet“. Here, Mr. Santapau explores repetition and variations. While it’s a common practice in music, with artists changing the routine ever so slightly with each performance, Mr. Santapau examines a world where the same technique is applied to television. The show, called “The Spirit Cabinet,” is the same episode, reenacted and filmed over and over again, but with slight variations. By season 3, though, the show’s ratings would decline, and the producers had to cancel the show. The last episode was about moving forward … something that angered the fans so much that they declared it “non-canon.”
I like it because, while I’m not quite sure what Mr. Santapau was trying to say with this strip, you can interpret it in many different ways. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the manufactured frozen-in-time aspect of television programming. Or maybe it’s about our fear of the progress of time and aging, and how we search for an anchor to avert our gaze from reality, if only for a time. Maybe it’s about how the search for answers, not the answers themselves, are what give our lives meaning. I like how this is all encapsulated in a tale about a television show, perhaps the most mundane and unlikely thing to write a poem about.
Hey, all I’m saying is that if modern poets would stop writing about plastic bags floating down an interstate so much and branch out into other areas where the everyday can be turned into the magic, the literary world would be in a better place.
Much of The Secret Knots reflects on romance. Mr. Santapau takes a look at the modern standards of courtship, and he muses on the triteness of conversation on a date. The settings are modern, but the themes of attraction, anxiety, and longing are as classical to poetry as you can get.
There are times when The Secret Knots is dryly humorous. And by that, I do mean dryly humorous. Like New Yorker humorous. Mr Santapau also tries his hand a little in horror with his long-running “Unspeakable” arc. It’s mostly an exercise in setting a mood rather than anything truly gory. Truth be told, I thought this was a little disappointing, feeling like a lot of set-up with little payoff.
In general, the strips have a hazy dreaminess as if Mr. Santapau — or rather, the characters he’s speaking through — are using butterfly nets to ensnare fleeting thoughts and memories as they flit through the landscape of the mind. Sometimes a stray thought about how you wanted to write a song with an enormous beginning like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” It’s not exactly the most essential thought to share, but the thought itself is so personal that it gets woven into the patchwork quilt of the strip.
Adding to the dreaminess is the washed-out color palette. It’s primarily cyan, orange, beige, and olive green. It recalls wrinkled old magazines, perhaps from the late 50s – early 60’s. It’s a design choice that works well with a lot of the strips that deal with aging and reminiscing. It’s also makes the romantic moments more powerful. The palette suggests a romantic glow without hammering you over the head about it.
That was perhaps one strip with no words that let the imagery do all the talking. However, as I mentioned earlier, the pictures are here not as the main attraction but to aid in metering the pacing of the words themselves, which can survive as works of art on their own. As a result, The Secret Knots tends to be wordy, and in some cases very wordy.
Some who’ve read The Secret Knots see it as a little pretentious … “expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature,” according to Merriam-Webster. I have to say that much of poetry anyways is naturally pretentious. After all, you’re trying to assign a great importance to somewhat everyday objects, whether it’s a road that forks in the middle or a caged bird that happens to sing. It pretty much goes with the territory, and hard to fault Mr. Santapau if that’s what he’s going for.
However, there were parts that I thought were a little awkward, and they mainly have to do with the placement of words. Integrating the words into the art itself looks awkward and a little amateurish, a weak attempt to perhaps seem deeper than it really is. There was another sequence where the a single word to a panel at the conclusion is timed with imagery of a bird taking flight. I imagine it was supposed to impart a sense of light-headedness to contrast with the more grounded imagery from previous panels. Instead, it saddles the simple, straight-forward phrase “out of a cage” with needless flourishes.
In the end, though, I rather liked The Secret Knots. It was a nice break from the typical webcomics I read, which are more about brash humor or in-your-face action. Those are fine, by the way, but they have a very extroverted personality about them. The Secret Knots, on the other hand, is very introverted. Sometimes you want to get away from it all. The Secret Knots is like a tropical, beachside vacation in webcomic form.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)