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Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati

Dino Buzzati Poem Strip NYRB book cover

Buzzati’s Poem Strip ahead of its time

– by Shawn Conner

Here’s a true curiosity; an Italian ‘graphic novel’ (though more like a psychedelic illustrated poem) from 1969.

Dino Buzzati (1906-1972), the author/illustrator, was a journalist, novelist and short story writer. Poem Strip (Including An Explanation of the Afterlife) is a story in poem form set to Buzzati’s colour illustrations.

It’s certainly “a pathbreaking graphic novel”, as the jacket states. To put Poem Strip in perspective: in 1969, American underground comics were barely a year old (Robert Crumb had published the first issue of Zap in 1968); Archie Goodwin and Gil Kane‘s Blackmark, one of the first original graphic novels (as opposed to collections of previously published material) was still two years away; and Will Eisner‘s A Contract With God, one of the first self-described graphic novels, was nearly a decade in the future.

The graphic novel of a similar vintage that it is most reminiscent of, Selichi Hayashi‘s Red Colored Elegy, was first serialized in 1970-1 (and published in English for the first time by Drawn & Quarterly in 2008).

From the drawings in Poem Strip, it looks as though Buzzati had no formal training. But he is an enthusiastic and inspired amateur – anyway, what his line drawings sometime lack in sophistication he more than makes up for in imagination. Part Edward Gorey, part Salvador Dali, part Peter Max and part Tinto Brass (in Buzzati’s fondness for the naked female form), the art mixes muted colours with Buzzati’s scattershot approach to inking, which includes both cross-hatching and pointillism. Two techniques that don’t necessarily go together, but they work in the bizarre and surreal world of Poem Strip.

Dino Buzzati illustration from Poem Strip (1969).

Dino Buzzati illustration from Poem Strip (1969).

Basically a retelling of the story of Orpheus descending to the underworld to bring his lost love Eurydice back to the the world of the living, Poem Strip has as its protagonist Orphi, scion of a noble family fallen on hard times.

To earn a living, Orphi has become a musician, and a successful one at that, a kind of Italian Donovan. One night from his family’s estate he sees his love Eura disappear in a mysterious doorway; when he pursues her, he finds himself in a kind of limbo, an afterlife where death (and birth) are unknown, naked women (as though drawn from Italian skin mags of the time) are plentiful and a talking jacket is the tour guide.

Dino Buzzati illustration from Poem Strip (1969).

Dino Buzzati illustration from Poem Strip (1969).

To say any more risks spoiling the pleasures of this wonderful little book; suffice it to say this New York Review Books edition, published last year and translated from the Italian by Marina Harss, is a beauty, and a must-see for aficionados of graphic novels and comics. (I was lucky enough to discover it in the staff recommendations section in the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.) It’s both a missing link between the underground comics of the ’60s and the graphic novel boom of recent years, and yet it’s so uniquely its own thing that it defies such easy categorization.

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