“To me, painting is not a hobby, but a job—writing is my hobby. But painting and writing are ultimately the same thing for me. Whether I write or paint, I pursue the same goal—telling stories.”
The avant-garde Italian writer Dino Buzzati is better known as the author of the existentialist masterpiece The Tartar Steppe, a novel. However, he was also a skilful painter and illustrator – his talent became apparent with the evocative, beautifully crafted color plates of his 1945 children’s book The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily. In Poem Strip (published by Mondadori in 1969, and now brought to the English-speaking public by NYRB classics in Marina Harrs’s lyrical translation) he took an allegedly “low” artistic medium (the comic strip) and turned it into a postmodern literary experiment, thus making a decisive contribution to the establishment of the graphic novel as a proper literary genre.
Poem Strip is a daring reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a noir-tinged Milan in the swinging ‘60s. Its starting point is a mysterious, frightening street in the middle of Milan, a street you won’t find on the maps of the city, where uncanny events seem to be taking place. Orfi, a young and successful pop singer who lives there, sees his beloved girlfriend Eura disappear one night like a ghost through a door in the high wall that surrounds a mansion across the street. As soon as he sees Eura’s funeral cortege the next day, Orfi grabs his guitar and ventures through the same door his girlfriend vanished through the night before.
Thus begins Orfi’s descent into the land of the dead. His Virgil is an empty anthropomorphic man’s overcoat—it calls itself a “guardian demon”—which primes Orfi on the nature of the afterlife. The dead have all they can possibly ask for (even color TV)—but they lack “the most important thing: the freedom to die.” Desensitized, they pine for love and lust, struggling to retrieve their memories of the feelings of the living. It is precisely in order to reawaken the lost memories of the innumerable, disconsolate dead that the guardian demon asks Orfi to perform. He breaks into song, evoking powerful images of solitude, fear, and sexual abandon. The dead, rapturous, ask for more. But Orfi’s goal is to find Eura, so he leaves his ecstatic audience and goes all the way to the station where the trains leave for eternity.
Poem Strip is exhilarating in its inventiveness and highly provocative. Enticing and terrifying in turns, it reinvented the whole concept of the comic book by merging experimental graphics, erotically charged illustration, avant-garde poetry, psychedelic songwriting, and occult fiction.
Poem Strip is also programmatically postmodern in its matching of quotation and travesty. Buzzati’s prefatory note cites a number of painters, filmmakers and photographers for their “valuable input” to specific pages. His literary references are Virgil and Dante among others—along with his own previous works. The pictorial quotations (from Dalí to Caspar Friedrich, from Bosch to Escher, from porn magazines to Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for children’s books) are at times subtle, at times overt—like the filmic references, intertwining Federico Fellini’s big-breasted women and surrealism à la Un Chien Andalou with the Gothic atmospheres of Murnau and the arcane horror of the cult director Mario Bava. Buzzati’s personal sphere and acquaintances also play a role—some of the characters are based on the photographs Buzzati took of his wife, of the painter Antonio Recalcati (who posed as Orfi) and of the model Runa Pfeiffer, who lent her face to Trudy, Orfi’s guide to Avernus.
When Buzzati conceived his pathbreaking graphic novel the sexual revolution was in full flow—therefore his bold depiction of female sexuality might come as no surprise. Buzzati clearly reveled in drawing nude women, and his topless female demons are exuberantly confident in their eroticism. At the same time though, the author’s take on female sensuality is more ambivalent that it might seem at first: the women’s genitals are only hinted at, while their overinflated breasts betrays an almost naïve, infantile approach to female eroticism. His female nudes seem to embody his own contradictory impulses toward the sexual revolution and the liberation of the female body from the traditional constraints of patriarchy. His erotic panels and Orfi’s song about “the witches in the city” reveal a man captivated and at the same time deeply unsettled by the sexual revolution underway and by the new, liberated woman.
Buzzati intersperses those deliberately provoking plates with patently classical images (like the “Greek” profile of Orfi asking to see Eura), modernist twists (such as the buildings in Via Santerna that collapse into one another as soon as Orfi knocks on Hell’s door) and self-referential visual inventions—like the Bogeyman, which here (like in Buzzati’s paintings) materializes as an unsettling and yet fundamentally benign whale-like spirit floating in mid-air. The drawing style is not uniform and only a small portion of the panels are “realistic”—Buzzati experiments with the erotic, the grotesque, the satirical, the fairytale-like and alternates a dizzying variety of visual approaches from one page to the next.
As in the original Greek tale, Orpheus/Orfi is a gifted musician who employs his music to win the dead over. Unlike in the ancient myth, Eurydice/Eura is not given back to the protagonist by the King of the Afterworld as a reward for his beautiful performance but is rather sought out by Orfi himself. And in the end, Eura doesn’t fall back into the land of the dead because of Orfi’s contravening the gods’ injunction not to look over his shoulder but almost as a consequence of her own reluctance at leaving the afterworld in the first place. Therefore, while in the classical myth the human protagonists are entirely at the capricious gods’ mercy, in Poem Strip Orfi and Eura are free to wander and choose their own fate—thus making Buzzati’s reinterpretation explicitly “modern.”
Poem Strip is imbued with the author’s favorite themes—death, lust, alienation and the unfathomable nature of fate. Like the soldiers in The Tartar Steppe—trapped in the desert awaiting a mysterious enemy that never arrives—the dead in Poem Strip are encaged in a never-ending and futile longing, the object of which has long been forgotten. There are also similarities with his novella The Mysteries of the Metro, in which the protagonist goes into a metro station under construction and finds himself in Hell: as in Poem Strip, the underworld is visualized as the distorted reflection of the glittering and alienating metropolis (that is to say, Milan) above.
Few twentieth-century writers have been as perceptive and uncompromising as Buzzati when tackling themes like alienation and solitude—and this is one of the reasons why his Poem Strip will still powerfully resonate with readers forty years down the line. Buzzati conceives of human existence as a frightening (and at the same time extremely tedious) vacuum which men pointlessly try to fill with delusionary urges and goals. What are the dead in Poem Strip, after all, if not the mirror image of the perennially unsatisfied and existentially fragmented denizens of today’s land of the living? In spite of his fundamental pessimism, though, Buzzati believes in the cathartic power of art: as Orfi’s songs momentarily drag the dead out of their nonexistence, creativity and imagination can redeem the absurdity of the human condition. Given that the Greek philosopher Aristotle expounded the concept of artistic catharsis in his Poetics, it seems apt that Buzzati would choose a Greek myth as the ideal vehicle for his psychedelic parable on redemption through art.
Poem Strip won the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award in 1970, and yet its reception was mixed. With his visionary (and deliberately controversial) take on a classical myth in the “popular” form of a comic strip, Buzzati dropped a unique and unclassifiable literary bomb onto the Italian cultural landscape of the 1960s—and people simply didn’t know what to make of it. The abundance of female nudes and the explicit eroticism of its imagery were perceived as scandalous, verging on the pornographic. The idea of combining a “high” theme like the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice with the “low” language of comics was deemed equally unacceptable. And yet in spite of—or, rather, because of—the criticism of the bien-pensants, Poem Strip immediately found an enthusiastic readership. By pushing the language of comics well beyond its established conventions, it paved the way for the works of Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Joe Sacco, among others, and for the contemporary explosion of interest in the graphic novel as the platform for some of the most thought-provoking and visually audacious literary creations in recent years.