Do You Know What Living Means?


3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life. 

When the pandemic forced (most of) us into isolation, the scope of our world shrank. Even though national politics and global news aired on a constant stream, isolation drew our relationships, friendships, and personal struggles into sharper focus. We couldn’t get away from ourselves or our thoughts.

I was initially hyper-focused on my immediate family—my spouse, my children, and my parents. As time dragged on, I realized I needed to attend to myself for their well-being as much as my own. And it was in giving myself much-needed attention that I could not stop thinking about my body. How was it adjusting to the decline in exercise, to the increase in isolation? Why was I carrying so much stress in my shoulders, neck, and jaw? How much of this stress was from the “before times?” What aches were worth venturing outside for an expert opinion? Was I happy in my body?

As much as I tried to steer away from an obsessive focus, the pandemic-zeitgeist was determined to keep me drawn to the different ways my physical body was perceived by the world. And it wasn’t just me; it was all of us. The coronavirus was ravaging our bodies. People were gaining “pandemic weight.” Working from home allowed the workforce to reexamine the stressors that work demanded of their bodies and minds. And we saw a rise in the use of “body” by media outlets as a metaphor that distanced the harm committed against Black, Asian, and trans people as well as immigrants and protestors.

If it’s possible to attach positive consequences to the pandemic, one would be that we are reckoning with the language we use to talk about ourselves and each other. When we talk about the body, what image comes to mind? Who is most served when it comes to caring for mental and physical health? When you dig deep enough, when you trace the spidery lines that extend from these questions, they lead us back to what has been culminating over the past year: That non-white, non-cis, non-able-bodied people receive less care and less focus.

Answering these questions and redirecting that focus is EMBODIED: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology edited by Wendy and Tyler Chin-Tanner (A Wave Blue World, May 2021). In this anthology, poetry and art combine to center the body, gender, and identity from the perspectives of artists representing diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds. And, quite fittingly, it was released during Women’s Health Month.
The anthology begins with “Voyages” (poem by Miller Oberman, art by Jen Hickman, and letters by Cardinal Rae). As the poem unfolds across the panels, the graphic narrative gives structure to the words, depicting a couple journeying through sexual intimacy, their understanding of each other, pregnancy, and the birth of their child. “Voyages” appropriately sets the tone for the anthology and is, in some ways, almost representative of the collection as it highlights themes that will be repeated throughout: bodies and their transformations (“Rubble Girl,” “Units & Increments”), intimacy and togetherness (“TO THE CHERRY BLOSSOMS ON 16TH AND WHARTON”); change in time, identity, and uncertainty for the future (“X,” “Tapestry,” “Half Girl, Then Elegy”).

The subsequent poem, “[You know what living means? Tits out, tits in the rain. Tits],” is a meditation on temporal change and a woman’s body. Penned by Diane Seuss (art by Liana Kangas and letters by Cardinal Rae), it considers how a woman’s body can be at times venerated and rejected. She can be the virgin and crone, the object of lust and revile. And that perspective, as does the body, changes with time—“What beauty there was is now on the wane.”

What I sit with most often from this poem is Seuss’ question, “You know what living means?” I’ve asked myself this multiple times over the past year and a half. Am I really living? Is what we call “living” actually a slow, work-driven crawl toward the end of our lives? I have answers, but they’re probably only useful to me right now. Still, I think this is a question we all should be asking ourselves.

EMBODIED is a compelling anthology. That is largely due to the authors, who are cis female, non-binary, and trans, and to the non-cis male artists who provide a wider lens than we are often afforded in narratives that explore the body, gender, and identity. The comics narrative also allows readers to explore verse and lyricism in a non-traditional format. This is not meant to be an action-packed comics anthology that rips you across space and time. More often than not, the poems and their comics settle and comfort you; they serve as a medium for introspection and affirmation. And where we journey in astral planes, there is a sense of wonder and discovery.

This was my first time reading comics poetry, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, much of the intonation and pacing of a poem is dependent on how the poet structures it. In EMBODIED, the phrases are broken up and scattered across the panels, rarely retaining the poem’s original form. In some ways, this is a good thing. We linger on the words a little longer and hold onto them a little tighter as we move across the panels, threading the poem together and letting the words sink deeper within us. In other ways, this deconstruction occludes the rhythm and the poems read too abstractly. But this too is a quintessential aspect of poetry: Just like in life, we are not meant to understand everything. Sometimes we just need a part of the poem—the emotion it evokes, a phrase that sparks us, the memory that rises in us. Thankfully, the study guide at the end of the anthology provides questions for each poem, if you’re in need of clarity or further reflection.

One of my favorite poem-graphic narrative pairings is “Good Bones (poem by Maggie Smith, art by Carola Borelli, letters by Cardinal Rae). In most cases in EMBODIED, the comic amplifies the poem’s meaning and visuals, almost to a tee. “Good Bones” is already a knockout poem, but it does something interesting with the visuals, particularly in the last three panels, that adds an extra punch to its meaning. I couldn’t help but read it again and again. Another poem-comic pairing that delivered a similar gut punch was “Les Années de Guerre” by Virginia Konchan (art by Takeia Marie, colors by Gab Contreras, and letters by Cardinal Rae). 

Where the anthology shines is where poems and their accompanying graphic narratives revel in complexity. There’s Kenzie Allen’s “Red Woman” (art by Weshoyot Alvitre), which mentions Indigenous heritage and identity, anger and violence, and stereotypes that the narrator confronts at their intersections. “Gender Studies” by Caroline Hagood (art by Stelladia) touches on gender identity, sexuality, and the language used in their exploration. And “Speak-House” by Carolina Ebeid (art by Marika Cresta) is a panoply of human experiences.

Even as I write an explanation for those poems and their art, I know that my words are inadequate because experiential and personal knowledge adds so much more to their meaning. But I take heart in knowing that the collection was familiar in that I saw my own questions reflected on the page, as well as unknown spaces where I was welcome to sit in and let what I needed reveal itself to me.

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