…poetry is a short story missing 99 percent of the words.
I wish I had the rest of the above quote, made by Rucka at the New York Comic Con in 2013, but to paraphrase, Rucka was suggesting that an intimate understanding of the form of short stories would prepare writers for every kind of writing except poetry. I’ve always seen a resemblance between Rucka’s taut comic work and great short stories, but what truly struck me about that quote was how it seemed to contradict the oft-quoted axiom that the required efficiency of short stories aligns them more closely with poetry than novels. This seeming contradiction may boil down to the inadequacy of our definition of “poetry”, but I couldn’t help but think of this quote as I read Lazarus 15, one of the most poetic comics I’ve ever read.
For me, poetry is about the elegance of form, from rhyming to meter to symbolism to the very concise nature that Rucka mentioned at NYCC. We may think of this as a limiting affect, but the purpose is to elicit an effect greater than the literal meaning of the words. As a visual art form, comics are inherently greater than the dialogue and narration they feature, but how the words and art interact is where the real magic happens. I’ve long been a lover of Rucka’s work with artist Michael Lark, and while I may have singled out the previous issue as exemplary of their collaborations, their work here is even better.
As an extended, largely wordless “trial by combat” between Forever and Sonja Bittner, this issue is a clear showcase for Lark. It’s a bravura fight sequence, to be sure, but before we get into just what makes it so fantastic, I want to focus on how Rucka sets him up for success. This isn’t to say that Rucka isn’t crucial to the success of the fight scene, or that Lark is any less crucial before and after it, but I do think the way Rucka prepares us for 13 copy-free pages is key for maintaining the integrity of the issue. Moreover, it’s executed so elegantly — so poetically — I really can’t help but pause to marvel at it.
For me, the skill here lies in ramping us into (and out of) the text-free passage — slowly cranking the textlessness of the pages to 100%. I struggled with ways to summarize and quantify this quality (can you tell I don’t typically analyze poetry?), but ended up producing this graph:
This is the number of text-free panels divided by the total number of panels, taken per page. Even leaving out the huge text-free middle section, it’s easy enough to draw a trendline showing a clear ramp up and down here. This series has always featured some fantastic copy-free panels — Lark’s bread and butter, really — but they seem to be used here in a decidedly more directed way, normalizing the textlessness even before page seven hits.
Ultimately, that attempt at quantification falls woefully short, as the issue actually feels decidedly more text-free. No single page exemplifies this better than page six, the last page to feature text before the fight begins.
It sounds silly, but I still have a hard time believing that over half of the panels here feature dialogue. Now, that certainly speaks to a failing of my quantification system — the wide-screen panels aren’t exactly text heavy, but count as texted panels, all the same — but I think it also reveals something about the simple amount of words Rucka is using here. Sonja says four words. Forever says three. Sonja says three. Forever says two. They’re effectively counting down to their own fight. Moreover, they’re steadily acquiescing their agency, using fewer words than Malcolm, Hock, and Morray, who collectively decided their fates.
(Actually, that counting down reaches its logical conclusion 13 pages later, when Sevara Bittner cries out to stop the fight. I think there’s an intriguing feminist message in here [especially given that Sevara and Bethany Carlyle are the only characters to utter fewer words than Forever and Sonja], but I want to stick with Rucka’s use of space for now.)
The lazari’s acquiescence of agency roughly tracks Rucka’s own acquiescence of power to Lark, turning over the keys to the story, trusting his art to carry the story for the next 13 pages. It’s reductive and perhaps ultimately wrong-headed to suggest that the amount of attention we pay to the art is inversely correlated to the number of words on the page, but I do think we evaluate dialogue-free panels differently than we do panels with dialogue. There are no words to set the tone and pace of the moment, which puts everything on the art, but Rucka’s clever way of acclimatizing us to textlessness tunes us in to picking up on those cues. Lark’s art is ultimately what sells that fight scene, but, at least according to Rucka, it’s the lack of words that truly makes this issue poetry.