Books

A Comic Book that Reads Like Sheet Music

'Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera' cover (all images courtesy Siglio Press)
‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’ cover (all images courtesy Siglio Press)

Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera explodes off the page. Kraft, a multidisciplinary artist, pastes images of Hindu gods next to exercise diagrams and drawings of monkeys and elephants into bars and restaurants — all superimposed on a pre-existing 1960s Cold War–era comic. Equally bizarre and juxtaposed fragments of text, composed by Danielle Dutton, accompany the images. The effect is seductive. To use the words of Dutton, “It’s something about being read to as a child, where you are starting to fall asleep, and the same book has been read to you over and over, and these familiar images keep coming up, and there is a tug of the narrative, but you’re falling asleep at the same time.” Kraft’s collages and Dutton’s textual “interpolations” tug at the edges of the reader’s imagination and memory. Kraft and Dutton gathered at Printed Matter last week, with moderator Alberto Mobilio, a Weekend editor of Hyperallergic, to celebrate and launch this new artist book. Published by Siglio Press, whose slogan is “uncommon books at the intersection of art & literature,” Here Comes Kitty blurs the lines between prose poetry and visual collage.

What’s particularly interesting about this book is the multiple levels of interventions, which together transform the original comic book into an artist book. The first is of course Kraft’s collage interventions, removing the unreadable (to him) Polish text and replacing it with at times equally obscure images, as birds float in text bubbles and babies mingle with Nazi soldiers. (The original narrative follows the Polish spy, Kapitan Kloss, on his missions to defeat the Nazis.) “Unlike many comics, it had a lot of language in it, which I couldn’t read, because it was in Polish,” explains Kraft. “I began just by cutting out the text and filling in the empty space with different images.” Then, into these collaged spreads, Dutton intervenes with her pages of prose poetry, always as four pages of text that separate the dense visuals. Phrases such as “MOM LAYS AN EGG,” “I used to think everybody should be a machine,” and “Billionaire poets love cows!” evoke much of the jostling imagery of the panels.

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A spread from the book ‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’

At first, Dutton did not see any of Kraft’s visuals; the two merely discussed the project over the phone. As they talked, Dutton explained at the event, “I was writing down these weird lists of words like different heads on bodies and mustaches and menagerie. I had this weird grab bag of words.” Unlike her previous prose poetry project with Siglio, SPRAWL, which contains no visuals, these words were going to be sliced in between Kraft’s images, almost competing for the attention of the reader. Dutton realized, “It had to be kind of rude. I just tried to make the text as loud as I could so it could stand up to [Kraft’s] images, which are so vibrant, because the text is just black on a page.” The collage of Kraft and Dutton’s interventions is a balance of “syntactic urgency and the immediacy of the visual,” noted Mobilio.

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A spread from the book ‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’

Despite, or perhaps because of, these multiple interventions, the book has a cohesiveness, even a narrative flow. The unified quality of the book was Mobilio’s focus for the discussion. Narrative does not have to be a traditional linear progression, it “can be a kind of waxing and waning of motifs,” which, Mobilio pointed out, works particularly well in the comic panel format. One of the strongest of these motifs is the series of open-mouthed boys, which Dutton highlighted during the discussion. These boys’ heads all came from a single photograph of an English school boy choir, added Kraft. This is particularly fitting because music was a large part of Kraft’s thought process as he created the book. “I love the way [the original comic] looked. I loved the way it had this story in it that seemed right to subvert. It moved in a linear way. I really saw an opportunity to subvert that line and make something that could move in all kinds of directions.” But it was important to Kraft to keep some lines of narrative from the original comic present, and not to completely override the original. Rather than thinking of each narrative strand as a linear narrative line, Kraft “imagined it like reading sheet music, where you could read the violin lines and also see the percussion line, and the woodwind line. Where you can see them all at the same time, but you can also read each one individually.” Working with all 32 panels on a table, Kraft was conscious of each character, or motif as Mobilio called them, as an instrument, bringing one into the spread when it hadn’t been heard for a while.

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A spread from the book ‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’

“I don’t play music, but my process felt musical, in a way,” said Kraft. When he first saw the original comic, given to him by Siglio publisher Lisa Pearson, he said, “It felt like a libretto to me, maybe because I couldn’t understand it.” It’s no surprise then, with music being such an important element of the book’s composition, that Kraft subtitled the book: “A Comic Opera.” Of the title, Dutton emphasizes that “a comic opera is a cohesive performance and it’s narrative in that way.”

Considering the book as a type of collage performance brings to light the influence of John Cage. Dutton used pieces of interviews with Cage and Merce Cunningham as found material for her text, while Kraft claims that he was heavily influenced by Cage’s idea, “that the beauty of nonsense is that it can make multiple kinds of sense. Multiple sense is, in a way, an antidote to dogma.” This becomes especially important when considering that the underlying comic is one that mocks the Nazis. Kraft’s and Dutton’s narrative of nonsense subverts the traditional comic, linear panel form, and uses the musicality of nonsense to combat dogmatic and one-sided views. As Dutton added during the closing question and answer session, “We’re both a bit anarchist.”

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A spread from the book ‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’
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A spread from the book ‘Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera’

Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, published by Siglio Press, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers. 

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