Classic Poems Series: “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe + Poetry Comic Illustrator Julian Peters
Get out your hankies!
I am getting right to the goods this week, because they are THAT GOOD. Last September when I was researching my post for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W. B. Yeats, I ran into this:
It’s Yeats! Manga-style! And there was a whole poetry comic attached for his poem “When You Are Old.” That’s right — POETRY COMIC! I’m sure I’m behind the times, but I had never heard of these wondrous things before. Wondrous!
And on this site was another poetry comic, and then another, and some more in French, and then ANOTHER for a poem by this guy:
as rendered by this guy:
Yes! Meet Julian Peters, poetry comic maker and illustrator and art historian and poetry lover all rolled into one. I knew you’d like him. You’ll like him even more after you read his interview below. (Psst. I think he’d make a great addition to the Poetry Friday festivities, so please encourage him!)
Julian kindly lent me his Poe comic of one of my favorite classics, which I have turned into a video. Edgar himself will be back for his own interview in October, if I can get him to stop crying. In the meantime, I hope this tear-jerker will hold you over…. (Sadly, the video looks perfect in the editing program, but has mysterious issues when output. Just another thing to cry about!)
INTERVIEW with Julian Peters
What’s Up with Julian
Julian, who are you, where are you, and how long have you been a doodling fool?
I am an illustrator, comic book artist, graduate student, and language instructor living in Montreal, Canada. I have been drawing comics since before I could write. In my earliest stories, featuring Speeder the Struthiomimus (an ostrich-like dinosaur), I would dictate the dialogue to my dad, who would fill in the dialogue balloons I had left blank for him. Until the age of twelve I churned out all kinds of comics on the most disparate subjects, but then when I hit adolescence — and this is one of my great regrets — I gave up drawing comics entirely, and didn’t really begin again until I was in my early twenties. I can’t help wondering sometimes how much more advanced my comics-making skills would be now if I hadn’t had that “lost decade” to catch up on.
As an artist, I am mostly self-taught. I took some studio art classes as an undergrad in university (majoring in Art History), but these had the effect of discouraging my artistic aspirations more than anything else: the focus always tended to be on “conceptual art” practices, which are just so far from everything that I find inspiring about the visual arts. A few years later I took an intensive summer course in commercial illustration at a private college, which, in spite of its mercenary orientation, I found to be much more stimulating. Especially as, unlike in the university studio classes, we learned some actual skills… But I guess I am just reiterating the classic complaint of every aspiring comic book artist that has gone through art school.
The idea of poetry comics was new to me when I first stumbled on your blog. Can you tell us a bit about them? When and how did you become interested in creating them? Have your comics been published?
The first person to conceive of the idea of illustrating classic poems in the form of comics was Dave Morice, who began publishing his “Poetry Comics” magazine in 1979. However, I was unaware of Morice’s work when I began creating my own poetry comics in earnest, about five years ago. When I came back to comics in my early twenties, it was with the specific intention of creating a comic book biography of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I imagined him as a kind of nonconformist and perverse Tintin, with Paul Verlaine in the role of his absinthe-addled Captain Haddock. So the association of poetry with comics was there from the beginning of my return to drawing. The portion of this biographical comic that I eventually completed included an adaptation of Rimbaud’s poem “Sensations.”
A friend of mine suggested I should create more of these poetry comics, and, as I am wont to do with advice, I waited a number of years before finally taking him up on it. Since then, I have adapted poems by Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, François Villon, and Émile Nelligan. Two of my poetry comics have been published: my adaptations of medieval French poet Villon’s “Last Ballad” and of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat.” These were featured respectively in volumes 1 and 2 of The Graphic Canon (Seven Stories Press, 2012), an anthology of graphic adaptations of the classics of world literature. A translation of my adaptation of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” has been added to the second volume of the French-language version of this anthology, Le Canon Graphique (Éditions Télémaque), which comes out this fall.
What was the first poetry comic you created? Does a poem have to meet certain criteria to merit a poetry comic, or would any poem do?
I actually drew my very first poetry comic around age ten or so. This was a satirical interpretation of “Scots Wha Hae” by Robbie Burns — I was a pretty weird kid — featuring Yerp the crocodile, the protagonist of almost all my comics at that time. Then many years later there was Rimbaud’s “Sensations,” as I mentioned, and then, four of five years after that, Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Generally speaking, I think the poems that work best as comics are the ones that are both somewhat narrative (in the sense that they present a sequence of some kind) and also descriptive, but at the same time, not too narrative, and still somewhat abstract. If a poem is too narrative and too concretely descriptive, the accompanying drawings are likely to seem a bit redundant. On the other hand, if the writing is too abstract and, especially, non-imagistic, then any comic that is derived from it would necessarily bear only a tenuous relationship to the original poem, and probably distract from it.
What medium/process do you use to create your comics? Conceptually speaking, I just try to capture the imagery that a poem spontaneously evokes in my mind’s eye. Of course, I always fall short of this goal to a greater or lesser degree, but it is a challenge that never ceases to inspire me. As far as the medium goes, I use India ink, a paintbrush, and often a nib pen as well. For “Annabel Lee,” certain effects were created using a sponge.
Clearly, you are also a poetry lover. Is this a lifelong passion? Who are your favorite poets/poems? Do you also write poetry?
I first began to appreciate poetry in my late teens, and my passion has grown steadily since then, to the point that I now find it is the form of art that has the power to move me the most, more so even than music. Mind you, I am speaking only of a certain very limited number of poems by a limited number of authors. Among my favorite poets are Rimbaud, Poe, Keats, Yeats, Eliot, Algernon Swinburne, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dylan Thomas, Charles Baudelaire, and the Italian poets Guido Gozzano and Cesare Pavese. Once in a blue moon, when the inspiration hits me very hard, I will attempt to write a poem myself. Some of the results can be seen on my website. I also enjoy trying my hand at translating French or Italian poems into English. Especially when one attempts to preserve the original meter and rhyme scheme, it sort of becomes the ultimate word game!
Is your illustration focused primarily on poetry comics, or do you work in other genres and media? Who are your inspirations/favorite artists?
I’m actually taking a break from poetry comics at the moment. I’m working on a couple of collaborative projects (illustrating scripts written by others) and I’ve also begun work on One Hundred Views of An Imaginary City, a picture book for adults that could be conceived of as a kind of cross between Ando Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. When I do return to poetry comics, however, I think my first task will be to finally complete my adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I had the amazing good fortune to spend a great deal of my formative comic-book reading years in Italy, and as a result, most of my favourite comics artists are Italian: Andrea Pazienza, Dino Battaglia, Hugo Pratt, Angelo Stano, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Dino Buzzati. I’m also a massive fan of Hergé (of Tintin fame). Other than by cartoonists, I am influenced by many book illustrators, both from the turn-of-the-last-century, such as Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, and Edmund Dulac, and from more recent times, such as Brian Froud, Maurice Sendak, Victor Ambrus, and Edward Gorey. Among painters, I love Botticelli, Carpaccio, Da Vinci, Watteau, Odilon Redon, Egon Schiele, Paul Klee, Giorgio De Chirico, Max Ernst, and many, many others. Aside from content, I think the quality I admire most in the visual arts is a certain gracefulness of line, which in the hands of the great masters can occasionally reach the heights of music, and form a kind of melody for the eye.
In one of our early conversations, you mentioned that you judged a children’s poetry competition in Rome, Italy. Can you tell us about that? How did that come about?
Well, last year the Keats-Shelley House in Rome held an exhibition of illustrations of the works of John Keats, from the nineteenth century to the present. The original drawings of my comics adaptation of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” were among the works chosen for inclusion, and I can’t tell you what an honor it was for me to have my illustrations on display in one of the rooms in which Keats spent the last few weeks of his tragically short life.
The KSH also asked me to give a talk on the subject of adapting poetry into comics, and since I was to be there at the same time that they were planning on awarding the prizes for a children and young adult’s poetry contest they were organizing, and since I speak English and Italian, the two languages featured in the competition, they asked me to be one of the judges. I agonized quite a bit over my picks, because it occurred to me that winning this sort of contest at such formative ages could have a decisive impact on a young person’s self-perception of his or her poetic abilities. It might even be the catalyst that would lead them to pursue poetry writing throughout their adult life. Consequently, I was looking not only at the intrinsic merits of the works, but also for any hints of future gloriousness. Also because, if it turned out that a future Dante or Petrarch was among those kids, and I didn’t pick their poem, che figura ci farei? How much of a fool would I look like?
How do you fritter away your time when you’re not creating gorgeous things?
At the moment I’m finishing up a master’s thesis in Art History (on the subject of comics, naturally enough). Other than creative pursuits, probably what I like to do best with my free time is to explore the obscure corners and out-of-the-way neighborhoods of Montreal. Even though I was born in this city, and have lived here for most of my life, it somehow continues to exert an indescribable fascination over me.
Can we come visit you and see other neat stuff you’ve done?
Most of my work is on display on my website. You can also subscribe to my blog (on the same site), which I try to update every couple of weeks.
Thanks for stopping by, Julian, and for allowing me to use your marvelous “Annabel Lee” comic. Poe would be proud! Or sad. Who can tell with that guy? I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with it, Renée! And thanks so much for inviting me to take this little stop along the banks of the wonderful and inspiring No Water River.
Extension Activities for “Annabel Lee” and Poetry Comics
- “Annabel Lee” is a type of ballad — a poem that tells a story about a particular event. They are usually written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) with a predictable rhyme scheme of aabb or abab. Write a ballad about a dramatic event, either real or imagined. Try to follow the formula and tell a great story!
- Check out Julian’s other poetry comics at his website. Choose a poem to read or perform out loud. Some of the poems are in French, so they’d make a great activity for French class!
- Make a poetry comic! Choose a favorite poem or write your own and illustrate it as a comic. Look closely at the poem to identify which images would make the strongest illustrations.
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Video Location: Sepulcher by the Sea Spa and Grille.See more poems in my poetry video library.
“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe is in the public domain. Poetry Comics / Illustrations © Julian Peters. All rights reserved.