27 June 2013

Review: Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book, by Chad Parmenter

Contrary to the assumptions of non-poets, we do (frequently) stray from Wordsworth and Coleridge in our reading regimen. We don’t always take ourselves quite so seriously. It’s good for the brain. We even indulge in the occasional comic book or graphic novel, the latest action-hero blockbuster movie. When these experiences get under our skin and mingle with the high-literary voices in our heads, I imagine what comes out is something like Chad Parmenter’s Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book.


The subtitle of this work is very apt: the Batman legend retold Shakespearean—although, admittedly, the sonnets mostly follow the Petrarchan rhyme scheme rather than the Elizabethan. A wonderful juxtaposition of high and low brow literary themes. It is also a conversation between two people about dreams (nightmares) and a tortured memory of childhood.
  
It is a dream sequence, but it is also a coming-of-age story: repressed memories of a tortured early life and orphanhood rise to the surface. Parmenter’s Bruce Wayne begins life as a bat: from his conception to his birth; and then bats (and his parents’ mental unraveling) haunt his childhood. His time at the orphanage is represented by an ampersand (&) in the sequence of events/poems: an undefined in-between time. A cocoon, of sorts? And then comes “man,” the final stage of his transformation and his loss of innocence. The bats return here, and are half to blame for the horror that happens.


Could Batman have been a Shakespearean play? Probably. He is a tragic archetype of our times. A legend, like Robin Hood, although of the rich. The way Parmenter writes him, he comes closest to Hamlet: a son of riches (royalty), fallen and seeking vengeance, and going a bit mad along the way. Bruce Wayne wakes up from a series of nightmares and his Ophelia—Selina—implores him to tell her what happened in that head of his. Where did he go in those dreams? But unlike Ophelia, Selina has a secret sinister side that is revealed in the last two poems. The poems in this chapbook are a sequence, each first line is a question carried over from the previous sonnet’s ending. It is one story that starts as Bruce’s, but ends as Selina’s.


The settings and cultural references in these poems are all very contemporary and urban, but the language, especially considering it is staged as a dialogue, is much more literary than conversational. The way when I sit back and listen to a production of Hamlet, I think, “That’s gorgeous writing. But I would never actually talk like that.” It’s funny smashing “snack machine” and “Zorro” up against a stilted Shakespearean vernacular of “the whisper cave/ her prim lips made,” but I think it works. It creates a sort of friction that fuels the story and the poems. It is both modern and epic.

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