Photo depicting the cover of the haiku-comic book "Less Desolate" against a pale-peach background.

Haiku Comics Provide a Way of Feeling ‘Less Desolate’

Poet Shin Yu Pai and illustrator Justin Rueff’s new comic book captures the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the profound disconnection of the pandemic.

by Jas Keimig

The sight of ferries disappearing into the Puget Sound horizon. Savoring the last raspberries of summer. COVID spreading rampantly through elementary classrooms and schools. In their new comic book Less Desolate published by Blue Cactus Press, poet Shin Yu Pai and illustrator Justin Rueff capture the splendors of living in the Pacific Northwest as well as the profound isolation and social unrest during the pandemic by using an interesting, little-known artform — the haiku comic.

A haiku comic is exactly what the name implies — a haiku rendered in comic form. In the intro to the book, comic artist David Lasky points out that haikus and comics aren’t all that different, though this hybrid form is relatively new. “Haiku in comic strip form really works, in part because three lines of poetry and three or four panels of comics have similar rhythms and goals,” he wrote. “Comic strips usually consist of a set-up and a punchline, while haiku often begin with an observation and end with a surprise, a reveal, or an ‘ah’ moment.”

Comic strip of three panels from the haiku "Burning Joss" from "Less Desolate."
A haiku comic from “Less Desolate.” (Image courtesy of Blue Cactus Press.)

Over the course of 105 haiku, Pai and Rueff’s book demonstrates the synchronicity between text and image. Rueff’s mainly black and white illustrations follow a definite-yet-loose pattern and Pai’s words weave it all together. Generally, each comic is split into four panels, with the poem occupying three and one remaining blank. “One of the things I like about the form of haiku is that it’s very restrictive,” Rueff said in an interview. “But you can breed a lot of creativity working within limitations.” The structure is perfect for their joint exploration of the fragmentary nature of being since 2020.

Although Pai — who is currently serving as Seattle Civic Poet — has been writing haiku for years, the majority of haiku within Less Desolate were written during the pandemic after taking a haiku comic class with Lasky. As such, many of the poems deal with the anxiety of existence that’s become routine since 2020 — especially as a Person of Color. In one poem-comic, she referenced the tragic murder of Michelle Alyssa Go in New York City in 2022, “Pushed onto the tracks/of the coming train/I knew before reading that the victim was Asian” with Rueff’s illustrations depicting the horrific moment.

In another, Pai describes a scene that references the distance of the pandemic-era protests. “End the war now/Flyer’s from last year’s rally/Plastered beneath the underpass” as the haiku’s lines are inserted over Rueff’s drawings of posters peeling off a desolate-looking bridge. In an interview, Pai reflected on how the pandemic caused a lot of deep disconnection in society, whether that was in interpersonal relationships or political ones.

“The anti-Asian rhetoric that led up to the pandemic created a lot of hostility towards Asians and Asian Americans and a lack of empathy or understanding about what those experiences are like for immigrants and second-generation people,” said Pai. “It was also a time in which connection to feeling whole or human together felt very fragmentary. Things that happened during the pandemic like George Floyd and the Atlanta spa shootings were moments of real racial pain.”

But Less Desolate is a book inherently about connection. Pai did not illustrate nor did Rueff write the book’s haiku lines. Rather, the two friends who met back in 2020 had to trust and work with one another to bring these haiku comics to life. Based on the inspiration she got from her haiku comic class, Pai thought Rueff would be the perfect person to collaborate on this project. They both spoke about the freedom of their creative process together.

“I knew when I met her that I really wanted to work with her. The fact that she was interested in comics just felt like such a natural fit for the two of us to collaborate on,” said Rueff. “I just felt like I was waiting to meet her.”

“The decision to work with him was super intentional. We talked a lot, we had a conversation about what a collaboration might look like and what we needed from each other,” said Pai. “It was a deep relational experience for me and I think for him, too.”

Black-and-white illustration depicting the portraits of Shin Yu Pai and Justin Rueff.
A drawing of the authors by Justin Rueff. (Image courtesy of Blue Cactus Press.)

Though there are several heavy concepts laced through Less Desolate, the haiku comics also speak to the very specific experience of living in the Pacific Northwest, the process of getting older, and trying to find inner peace. “Saying my name/Three times out loud,” writes Pai over an image of a person breathing in. “I call myself back home.” In another, Pai offers a glimmer of hope that comes in the promise of cherry blossom trees blooming come April. “Practicing her pruning/on dead branches the grower knows/spring will return again,” the haiku reads as Rueff depicts — in color! — hands carefully trimming a cherry blossom branch.

“Living in an environment like the Pacific Northwest where we notice all the seasons like when there’s frost on the windshield in the morning in October. There’s a kind of awareness and consciousness of nature because it’s so big here and interwoven with our lives,” said Pai. “Haiku aren’t simply just about the observation of nature, but I think — in some of its strongest forms — are about that interconnection and interdependence between the speaker and the universe.”

Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery is hosting a book launch for “Less Desolate” on Saturday, Nov. 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. Both Shin Yu Pai and Justin Rueff will be in attendance.

This article is published under a Seattle Human Services Department grant, “Resilience Amidst Hate,” in response to anti-Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander violence.

Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.

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