. Aaron Brock
English 4300
Spring Semester 2002

Combined Literary Media in "Klassik Komix"

"I read Steven Millhauser in a state of enchantment, quite conscious that he is seducing me with his intelligence and his craft, while leading me back to the source of imagination. Like Hawthorne, he recreates the wonder of stories for us and with us."--Maureen Howard www.centerforbookculture.org

In "Klassik Komix" Steven Millhauser uses the well-known poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Elliot, to create an intermediary between complex poetic prose and the simplicity of the classic comic book. He uses descriptive language to beautifully capture the importance a writer's medium in the literary interpretation of his/her work while also demonstrating his love for the imagination.

 The original form of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a poem, made up of poetic prose. Prose can vary in lexical makeup, which is decided by the writer, but usually consists of descriptions of subjects that allude to, and are analogous of, the underlying thoughts of the writer. This gives the lines a sense of vague beauty that allows the reader to interpret meanings in his/her own mind in contrast to simply spelling out the meanings. Poetry has the ability to evoke upon the reader a sense of reflection and deep thought in an effort to understand the message that the writer is delivering. 

 The classic comic book is a polar opposite of the complex nature of poetry. The comic book is designed for the younger reader and possesses a simplistic nature that allows the creator to use visual media combined with short written dialog to tell a story. The pictures in a comic book are an integral part of the makeup of a comic book. The pictures allow the creator to portray the protagonist and antagonist in a way that is common to all readers. This however inhibits the use of imagination by the reader. The pictures are all an artist's interpretations of the actions and settings that make up each scene. When a person reads descriptive text with no pictures, it allows the reader to build a mental picture of each scene that is unique to his/her own personality. The comic book does not allow for this expressiveness in its prefabricated structure.

 Millhauser elegantly combines these two literary vehicles in his work "Klassik Komix" in a way that simplifies the form but still allows the reader to use his/her mind to draw its own pictures. "In the room women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo"(stanza 3). Elliot uses these two simple lines to describe a room that the character, Alfred, will enter. These two sentences are very vague in their descriptive nature and leave most of the details up to the reader to fill in. Millhauser uses Panel 8 to describe the same room:

Panel 8. A crowded lamplit room. Men in cutaways and bare-armed women in shawls and trained dresses stand holding teacups or sit languorously on couches, armchairs, and wing chairs. In the center of the room is a mahogany table on which stand a silver teapot, a silver sugar bowl, and a silver platter of buttered toast. A man with mustache and monocle leans against a white mantelpiece, reading a red book. On the cover of the book is the word POETRY. In the background a bay window gives a view of black rooftops barely visible through the swatches of yellow fog. The raven-haired women in the long black dress is standing sideways in the window, looking out. She has a very narrow waist, no wider that her wrist, and very round hips. The tightness of her corset is indicated by her thrust out bosom, her tiny waist, and her slightly tilted appearance, as if she is straining forward at the waist. Her arms are bare and porcelain-white and her long black dress, reaching to the floor, is flared and very full at the feet. Her luminous blue-black hair is pulled back tightly from her face and rests in masses of tight curls at the top of her head. Her lips are black. Over her shoulders she wears a lacy fichu, which does not conceal the round tops of her ivory breasts. Women in high-piled hair and serious expressions stand here and there, straining forward at the waist. Beside the head of a yellow-haired women facing sideways is a speech balloon and the word: MICHELANGELO ... Beside the head of a gray-haired women facing forward is a speech balloon with the word: MICHELANGELO ... (143)

Millhauser uses almost a full page in his book to describe the scene of the room that Alfred will enter. Millhauser describes the scene as it could appear in a comic book panel. His vivid descriptions give the reader guidelines to go by when building the scene in his/her head. Millhauser uses considerably more detail than Elliot but still allows the reader some creative leeway.

 In the poem Elliot uses the lines, "I should have been a pair of rugged claws / Scuttling across the floors of the silent seas" (stanza 15). These are the words of the character Alfred. The words are an expression of Alfred's discontent stemming from his actions expressed in the prose. Millhauser uses this situation with Alfred to create an environment of magical realism that is often used in comic books. Millhauser uses panels 22 and 23 to describe the scene where Alfred actually turns into a sea crustacean. The scene lends itself to the "Art for Art's Sake" personality that Millhauser has a tendency to express. By changing the media, upon which the poem lines are expressed, Millhauser has allowed himself to create a parody of Elliot's work. The comic book format allows the room for comedic sensationalism, which lightens up the atmosphere of the work. This creates another angle for the reader to interpret the work, possibly altering the purpose of the work. 

 Millhauser obviously loves to manipulate words and engage the imagination of the reader. His work exemplifies the meaning of the phrase "Art for Art's Sake." He has combined two literary media into a creative mix of thoughtful text and imagination.

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Copyright © 2002 by Aaron Brock.  All rights reserved.