Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip; 1969, new ed. 2009
This was first published in 1969, before the term “graphic novel” was put into general use. Yet even this 2009 edition is labeled “literature” on the cover. The Library of Congress information on the title page does list this as a graphic novel and the blurb on the back cover claims that this book is “a pathbreaking graphic novel.” Still, this book is published by The New York Review of Books and seems to be marketed as a lost piece of literature more than a forgotten graphic novel.
So imagine if a pop artist decided to illustrate the song lyrics of some obscure 60s band that sang about witches, death, and isolation, and the pop artist really liked basing his female characters on centerfolds and his male characters on various famous men of film and fine art. That’s basically what we get with Poem Strip. It’s a fun ride, but it doesn’t strike me as a lost classic.
The plot basically follows the Orpheus story, but with a 60s pop star named Orfi as the modern day version of the protagonist. The plot is often interrupted with the lyrics of Orfi’s various songs. As other reviewers have pointed out, these lyrics are a bit overwritten. Yet that’s an accurate reflection of the lyrics of many bands of the time. Listen to “Season of the Witch” again. Still, a familiar plot and overwrought lyrics don’t make for the most engaging work. But there are some ideas that float above the rest. I personally enjoyed the vision of the afterlife that the Talking Jacket explains. The idea that the dead take with them the image of the city they lived in and that image becomes their landscape of the hereafter reminded me a bit of the short stories of Borges.
What most reviewers claim is that the art in this book redeems or at least is superior to the text. It’s true that the art has greater variability and the color choices of greens, pinks, and oranges help keep the tone of the work from drifting too much into bathos. Yet I think that in terms of comics, the art is very stiff. It just doesn’t read well. Buzzati seems to draw from photographs. I already mentioned that all the women in the book, most of them naked, are all in the artificial poses of centerfolds. The men too are taken from photographs, but not from skin mags; the men are based on pictures of artists, actors, and directors (you can draw your own conclusions from this about what this comic says about gender). Buzzati alludes to these inspirations in his acknowledgements. Yet Buzzati falls into the trap that many new comics artists who rely too much on photo reference fall into: each individual panel seems stiff and there is no flow from one image to the next. Moreover, the style shifts. Some images have heavy chiaroscuro, others none. And the poses all seem, well, posed, and don’t naturally fit what is going on in the scenes. Part of this is exacerbated by Buzzati’s choice of focus in his panels. Even when two or more characters are in a scene, he tends to show them one at a time. Rarely do you see the characters together in one image. This makes it so the reader never gets a sense of the characters interacting. Again, this is a common pitfall for newer comics artists. Oftentimes, what Buzzati shows us are abstract scenes that may illustrate a set of song lyrics or part of a character’s dialogue. What this means is that from page to page we are seeing images not contained in the diegesis. The images do sometimes work together to create a similar mood, but combined with the other issues of photo referencing and one character per image the overall effect is of a series of pictures and not a comic.
It’s interesting to note the places in the book where Buzzati does have a clear panel-to-panel flow. The most obvious ones are on pages 77, 115, 142, 145, and 150-153. Tellingly, none of them, except for the sequence on pages 150-153, is photo-referenced. Also all of them, again except that last sequence, are long shots, not close-ups. It seems as if Buzzati only uses reference for medium and close shots. Also, most of these sequences are not accompanied by text. So again, Poem Strip is mostly an illustrated book with small windows into the medium of comics. While it’s an interesting curio and a fun romp into the mentality of the 1960s, this book isn’t a strong antecedent for the modern graphic novel.
Part of why I wish to make this point is the review written by M.A. Orthofer. While I agree with much in the review, Orthofer makes some startlingly prejudiced, yet wearily familiar, comments. First off there’s the claim that the book shows “the strengths and weaknesses of the comic book form.” And after, Orthofer claims that Buzzati’s book shows that the art form “simply can not accomplish what a written text alone can.” Like anyone with a prejudice, Orthofer only needs one example to confirm the belief that comic books are inferior to literature. Because Poem Strip fails to be a great work, the art form itself is incapable of creating a great work. Yet as I’ve attempted to point out, Buzzati barely scratches the surface of the comics medium. The failures of the book are not “the weaknesses of the comic book form,” but the failures of the book itself. If one wants to look for Italian artists who were really exploring the medium in the late 1960s, one should look to Hugo Pratt and Guido Crepax.