Graphic Poetry Review: Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town

Stairs Appear cover

Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town, by John Philip Johnson

Graphic Poetry Press – $4.99, Amazon Kindle – $2.99 (through July 2015)

I’m not sure if this is the very first genre graphic poetry book, but it sure seems like it might be. I haven’t been able to find much else available for purchase (although I have found the odd graphic poem in various out-of-print publications). John Philip Johnson has taken 5 of his most successful poems over the past few years and had them made into little mini-graphic novels. Each line of the poetry has its own panel, and each poem is a couple of pages long. Each poem is illustrated by a different cartoonist/artist/illustrator—and some very successful ones, at that.

John Philip Johnson is a member of the SFPA and a poet with whom I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding mostly on poetic topics but also other things. We have similar tastes and ideas and he hired me to be the voice of his poetry on two occasions, for which I am very grateful. I did my best to encourage him with this project and to support it the best I could. He lives in Nebraska, 8 blocks from where 150 of his ancestors are buried. He is married and has 5 creative children, all of whom he’s crazy about. He teaches composition and sometimes Science Fiction at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and writes reviews for Star*Line.

John P Johnson  ©Bob Hall
John P Johnson ©Bob Hall

Johnson conducted a Kickstarter campaign for this project in the fall of 2014. It was very successful, raising over 500% of the funding goal. The book itself looks and feels like a comic book, but when you read the first entry, “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” it is obvious that this is not your ordinary comic book. There are no bubbles. Julian Peters has integrated the poetry into the artwork in such a brilliant way and the black-and-white drawings depict each sentence perfectly and bring it to life. This poem was first published in Rattle, and I had the honor of reciting it for the website. If I do say so myself, listening to this poem while looking at Peters’ wonderful panels makes it an amazing multi-media experience like none other. Get the full experience of “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” – just click on the audio at the top of the page and follow along with the comic below! Johnson cites Julian Peters as the inspiration for this graphic poetry book, since he has done a similar treatment of many a famous poem. He has been working on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, by T.S. Eliot with 19 pages so far.

Other illustrators are Nate Hamel (“You Are Horror and Light”), whose treatment of this zombie poem is just so perfectly grisly; Michael Lawlor (“After the Changeling Incantation”), in which each full-page panel is rendered as a beautiful painting; two of John’s daughters, Margaret & Sophie Johnson, did the illustrations for “The Secret Edge of the World” and honestly, it is a relief by then, to see the bright colors they use; “Bones and Shadows” is drawn by Bob Hall (squee!), was an artist for Spider-Man, Batman and other well-known comics and evokes the mood of this ghost-cat poem quite elegantly.

The poems here appeared in RattleStrange Horizon (complete with a recitation by yours truly – listen below), CommunionVicious Verses/Tales of the Zombie Wars, and Ted Kooser’s newspaper column, “An American Life in Poetry” (Poetry Foundation). Due to my having spent more time with “Stairs Appear …” and “After the Changeling Incantation,” I have a particular fondness for them, but all of these poems, while quite different from one another in tone or mood, have a quality about them, which worms its way into you and bites you, surprises you or delights you. These are the best sort of narrative poems, which don’t just tell a story but catch you unawares, blow your mind open with a little twist and give you something to ponder.

Listen to “After the Changeling Incantation”

If you know and have enjoyed Johnson’s poetry in the past, and you like graphic novels (or even if you think you don’t—trust me, you’ll like this!) you’ll get much pleasure from this little gem.

(A version of this review (minus the audio, the images and the links) appeared previously in Star*Line 38.2)

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