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Alexander, The Servant & The Water Of Life innovates in bringing poetics to comics

Reimena Yee delivers a well-researched and poetic take on the foundational legend of Alexander The Great
Alexander, The Servant & The Water Of Life
Alexander, The Servant & The Water Of Life
Illustration: Reimena Yee
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There are few historical figures with as many mythological, folkloric, and legendary incarnations as Alexander the Great. Most of these incarnations appear in the various reconfigurations numerous cultures have made to the Alexander Romance, a Greek work from the fourth century fictionalizing Alexander’s life, exploits, and death. Reimena Yee’s stunning webcomic take on Alexander is far from the first comic approach to the legendary king, but it might be the first to explicitly place itself within the larger tradition of the Alexander Romance. It’s also one of those rare works that approaches comics as poetry. In keeping true to her focus on pedagogy, integrating historical and archaeological research, and the exploration of comics as a medium, the creator of the Eiser-nominated The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya manages to make this latest project another stellar work.

The webcomic’s art is breathtaking, with pages often interchanging between customary modern paneling and meticulously rendered recreations of images from illustrated manuscripts of various Alexander narratives throughout the ages. This interplay between different traditions of visual sequentialization is an artistic feat in and of itself, but is not the most fascinating bit of comic experimentation in which Yee engages. That would be the poetic approach to comics: Yee has included a toggleable transcript of the comic—largely in the form of snippets of a long poem—with each webpage. Other poeticomic elements of the work are, as Yee points out in the comic’s accompanying blog, almost inherent to the foundation of the two forms, in terms of arranging signs and symbols on a page to emotionally and/or intellectually affect a reader.

Yee’s foray into poeticomics also plays into the long tradition of the Alexander Romance, as they (to cite one example) visually render a famous image from an Alexander text. It’s while reading the transcript, and its depictions of what Yee has already drawn, that one comes along an innovative thread. Though the most common definition of comics is sequential images, the word-images in the transcript do technically allow one to consider it as much a part of Yee’s webcomic as the graphic portion—particularly given that experimental comics consisting only of lettering have existed for some time, now. A text-to-speech program also makes this comic book accessible for the blind, though likely not as accessible as audiobook comics.

Presuming one accepts the transcript as a comic, there is an argument to be made that it and the graphic portion are two distinct comics, telling the same story. After all, a story with as culturally abundant a central figure as Alexander ought to be told in many different ways, no? However, the interplay between comic and transcript is too frequent and significant to ignore. A sighted reader will miss out on illuminating details if they don’t read the transcript. The voice in the transcription is similar to the narrator of the graphic portion but uses stanzas and line breaks (mostly on conjunctions). Yee even uses the transcript to change the pace at which a reader might read the graphic portion. By making details explicit in the transcript that are implicit in the graphic, Yee implores the reader to appreciate, for a few seconds at least, how a fleshed-out detail from the graphic conveys some sense of narrative, even while lacking the conspicuousness of the transcript. That a work already as artistically and intellectually ambitious also utilizes accessibility, to engender a new appreciation of the comic form itself, is testament to the height of narrative sequentialization that Yee has achieved with Alexander, The Servant & The Water Of Life.