Don’t Write Alone | Columns

The Poetry of Comics: A Conversation With Johnny Damm, Author of ‘The Science of Things Familiar’

“I’m a writer who uses a scanner, an X-Acto knife, and the library.”

This is “The Poetry of Comics,” a series of conversations with artists working at the intersection of comics and poetry.

The Science of Things Familiar

The Science of Things Familiar

Failure BiographiesThe Operating System

Comic with three panels stacked vertically. The first panel is just a blue rectangle. The second panel is mostly blue with the edge of a window in the corner. In the last panel, the full window is revealed to show a person with a red cape running passed in a field.
From the “Bodies In Space” series in Failure Biographies

Eliza Harris: How do you see your work relating to the genre of “comics poetry” or “poetry comics,” which are both phrases that have been gaining popularity to describe the intersection of these genres?

The Science of Things Familiar

poetry comics

Krazy Kat PeanutsPeanuts

EH: I love how the meaning of your visuals and the meaning of your words both resonate and sabotage each other. Could you talk about your process of bringing text and image together?

Planet Comics

This comic show a person throwing a watch against a brick wall interspersed with text. The text reads, "[The riot] / was a natural thing / for people to do."
Page from “Compton’s Cafeteria, 1966” for Guernica

EH: I admire the range of sources you draw from for your text. From “Hello Betty,” which adapts one family’s postcard correspondence into a horror comic, to Compton’s Cafeteria, 1966,”which includes the words of participants in that influential San Francisco riot. Can you speak about building work around found dialogue? What draws you to work with it?

Failure Biographies


EH: Your new book, , uses comics collage to tell the stories of failed twentieth-century artists. You spoke earlier about how “failing” at writing a novel is part of what led you to the kind of work you make now. I’m interested in how you define failure for this forthcoming book and why you want to tell these stories of “failure.”

The Queer Art of Failure

Failure BiographiesNoah Purifoy are the artists I talk about with that form of failure.

There is a diagram of line spreading out in all directions from a single point. At the center point is the word "You" and at the other end of the lines pointing outward is the word "Me." The title reads "Fig 12. Diagram of the Party (Relative Positionings)
Page from The Science of Things Familiar 

EH: In your first book, , you have what I’m going to call diagram poems. They’re schematics paired with one or two lines of text. These diagram poems feel both very personal and universal—experiences we’ve all had of deceit, lost days, things unsaid. Could you speak about your diagram poems a bit, about how they came about or what they came out of?

EH: Are there people working at the intersection of visual art and poetry that have influenced you?


A People’s HistoryFreedom Dreams

EH: Finally, where can readers find your first book, and preorder your new book, ?

The Science of Things FamiliarFailure Biographies