Ever since the dawn of comics, cartoonists have tried to break free from the bounds of the page. Those cartoonists have discovered that comics grant them mastery over two dimensions, but they are powerless in the third dimension: you can do anything with width and height in comics, but it's impossible to add depth.
Read any comic and you’ll find evidence of cartoonists pushing back against this fundamental limitation. You’ll find figures bursting free from the constricting lines of the panel. You’ll see action spilling into the gutters between images.
One of the first lessons any how-to-draw-comics book will teach aspiring cartoonists is how to add perspective and depth to a page; the foreshortening of early superhero comics is a valiant attempt to transform an inert panel into a Joseph Cornell-ian shadow box. In every cartoon you can see flat characters straining to be something more, to reach out into the world.
Seattle cartoonist Mita Mahato has finally figured out how to break her comics into the third dimension. The comics in her debut collection from Pleiades Press, In Between: Poetry Comics rise above the flat plane of the page. They add the depth to the form that every cartoonist has aspired toward, creating comics that exert control over a new, third axis.
Mahato is a paper artist. Her comics are collages, clipped and glued together from pieces of paper and fabric. She’s constructed road trip comics out of maps, and she’s carved oceans out of paper by slicing thousands of wavy lines into a top sheet of tissue paper. That paper-on-paper layering gives Mahato’s comics their depth, adding a layer of mystery to every page. If you stare long enough at one of her strips, you might find your fingers idly straining to peel the layers apart, to see what lies underneath the top sheet of paper.
The first strip in In Between, “Unidentified Feeling Object," is a short story about a UFO flying through space, towing a cartoonish red heart as it zips through the heavens. (The sound effect is perfect for a flying saucer: “MZZZZ.”) On the next page, the heart catches on the edge of a panel, so that one curve of the top of the heart breaks the panel border and the other curve is stuck underneath. The line between the heart and the UFO pulls taut. (The sound effect for this is even more perfect: “SNAG!”) The heart, broken free from the ship, flutters down to earth as the flying saucer MZZZZes along through the night sky.
“Feeling” might seem slight to a casual reader, but look close and you’ll see that Mahato isn’t just moving pieces of paper around like some low-rent stop-motion animator. Every time the flying saucer appears in a panel, she has cut it from a fresh sheet of newspaper. (“New York City at Aqueduct,” you can barely make out in the text of the saucer in one panel; in another panel, it reads “the final debate before.”) With Mahato’s hand-cut figures and backgrounds, you can see the craft of the comics right on the page, in a way that a slick, professionally illustrated mainstream comic might not reveal.
The comics in In Between are not as interested in narrative as other strips by Mahato. These are well and truly poems, by which I mean what’s not on the page is just as interesting as what is on the page. They’re exercises in minimalism, attempts to convey a tone or a mood or a single significant image, with very little text mixed in. Sometimes, the text rhymes. Occasionally, the text hints at a limerick.
The closing poem in the book, “By the Dawn,” remixes "The Star-Spangled Banner" into something new, just by gently pushing a word or two in the original text of the national anthem aside to make room for another meaning. “Oh say you can see” is a completely different question — more pleading, more frantic, more insistent to confirm the reality of a situation — than “Oh say can you see.”
Throughout the poem, Mahato has extended the red stripes of the flag into tendrils and snakes and long, thin menacing dragons representing colonialism and ignorance and the smug and unthinking exercise of raw power. She has cut photos of presidents out of newspapers and then carefully obscured parts of the photos — a gesturing hand, a pair of eyes — behind the predatory red stripes. The power the men wield is almost too much, too sinister, for them to control.
Another poem, “Sometimes You See Only What You Want to See,” is perhaps the simplest strip in the book: a man and a woman embrace, and then the man leaves. But Mahato illustrates their internal lives — their wanting, their needing, their apathy — in halos of tiny dots of paper that surround the figures. In the beginning, when the man gestures toward the woman, he fires a series of dots right through her throat. She extends an array of small, welcoming dots to him. When they hold each other, for a moment, they’re surrounded by comforting waves of color before she’s finally left all alone.
Obviously, Mahato is not the first person to use collage in comics. Dave McKean built many of his Sandman covers out of building materials in the 1980s and 1990s, and Jack Kirby experimented with the incorporation of collage in his superhero and sci-fi comics of the late 1960s and 1970s. But Mahato’s collage feels different than those early crude attempts at fashioning comics from nontraditional materials.
It’s almost impossible to look at the poems of In Between and not picture Mahato carving her comics with a scalpel and a pair of tweezers, holding her breath so she doesn’t blow a single scrap of paper astray. That image of their creation is another layer on top of the comics, another field of meaning to be pulled back from the page. The depth those layers of paper provide can barely be measured in millimeters, but they may as well be deep as the ocean, for all the mystery and heartbreak they contain.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant