Tuning Up

Today on the site we have a roundtable about the best comic released thus far in 2017, and easily one of the best of the last few years: Songy of Paradise. We convened critics Rachel Davies, Craig Fischer, and Nicole Rudick, along with cartoonist Sammy Harkham, to discuss it with me and Tim by email. 


In his interview with Dash, Panter says, “I don’t want to be a person that’s just nailing the same nail in over and over.” This is partly why I never feel disappointed by his work. He’s always approaching it from different perspectives, but it remains of a piece. If he feels he’s exhausted the approach he took in earlier books, it’s great to see him tackle this text in a way that makes sense in relation to its particular complexities. Later in the interview, he talks about artists’ early work frequently being the most intense of their career, the kind that “blows your brains out.” Adventures in Paradise was that book for me—I never saw comics or art the same way again. It was for me, as Panter puts it, a way out of a cage (one I didn’t even know I was in). But that sort of experimentalism is unsustainable over the course of a long career, and at some point, you’re just spinning your wheels. This new book is sophistication of a different sort. It feels textual in a way his other comics don’t. I went back and read parts of Milton’s poem and was reminded that it’s not only a dialectic—in which Jesus, having a vision in which he argues with Satan, comes to realize a truth—but that but that there’s a conceptual textuality too. For instance, in the first part of Milton’s poem, God tells Gabriel that he has begun “To verifie that solemn message late, / On which I sent thee to the Virgin pure / in Galilee, that she should bear a Son.” That message resulted in Mary’s conception, so that Jesus is himself the message, the words or text that were relayed—he was conceived by language. And later, Milton describes the “great duel” between Jesus’s vanquishing of Satan “not of arms” but “by wisdom.”

That dialectic comes through in the way Panter has simplified the narrative and the art, in comparion to his Inferno and Purgatory, as well as the language, as he explains on the book’s title page: “Hewing to John Milton’s Epic Poem Paradise Regained but Without Milton’s Verbosity.” So he’s not only toned down Milton’s more circuitous linguistic style, he has also, as Rachel pointed out, tweaked the classical verbiage with hillbilly slang (which is as expressive as anything Milton came up with). I’ll admit that I haven’t completely reasoned this through—and some of it may sound rather obvious—but I think that part of Panter’s “translation” of Milton’s language is done by putting the story into comics (as opposed to, say, retelling it in prose). Pictures are language, too, and images work on two levels here: as symbols of a metaphysical language (the Assyrian, biblical, and Javanese stuff, for instance) and as narrative language (i.e., storytelling). Craig, this is the same stuff you’ve identified in the earlier books, but here it’s honed to fewer sources yet is, to my mind, equally ambitious.



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