Poem Strip (1969), by Dino Buzzati. New York Review of Books.
Comic book artists, whether through willful ignorance or coincidental lack of education, often come close to making outsider art. Whether it's a young Jack Kirby gaining his chops by copying EC Segar and Hal Foster panels onto butcher paper or today's young cartoonists gaining theirs by copying Kirby, comics mainly feed on themselves in order to grow. Theories and practices from outside the medium's century of history and back catalogue of works-in-print are surprisingly rare -- so much so that artists who come to comics informed by a larger view of the arts often look like outsider artists themselves from within the microcosm of the medium. There's a point to be made about the symbiotic relationship between comics' shunning of the wider spectrum of artistic culture and the way the "real world" shuns comics right back (oh snap, I just made it!), but for the moment let's simply take a look at one of those "outsider comics" in which art and the world are more than 6x10 grids and back issues.
Dino Buzzati begins his proto-graphic novel Poem Strip with a paragraph acknowledging the debts owed by individual pages to a constellation of non-cartoonists -- Salvador Dali, F.W. Murnau, German medical scientist Otto Prokop, New York sleaze-porn king Irving Klaw -- a litany of names to be not only brought into comics, but which comics are to be brought into contact with. From the outset, Buzzati is not looking to slum it in the pulpy atmosphere of the comics medium, but to use the form to create something that could stand alongside his acclaimed novels and poetry. It's anyone's guess as to whether Buzzati came to Poem Strip (Poema a Fumetti, or "Poem in Comics" in its original Italian, a more illuminating if rather less catchy title) with the goal of elevating or expanding the form. But in 1969 comics were such that simply entering the medium with a wider selection of cultural precepts than was found in John Romita's swipe file could hardly help but create something that aimed at bigger and more rarefied goals than most everything else. It's clear from the first page, which throws the usual solid-packed, architectural look of the gridded page right out the window for a loose and free-flowing method of sequencing, words and pictures placed on the page in delicate complement to one another rather than billeted between the steel rods of panel borders.
It's a bit shocking for the longtime comics reader to see the form broken out of its byzantine pattern of tiers and word balloons and captions and gutterspaces. Buzzati's comics just read, the images and words often juxtaposed rather than fused and overlapping. The eye is focused on one thing at a time, a line of text and then an image and then a balloon, with comics' illusion of motion and life imparted by Buzzati's vivid imagery and wide-open approach to sequence rather than the usual blares of simultaneous prose and illustration. Gridded pages do appear, but rarely. When they do it's often to animate something, presenting a quick, loose motion capture before rolling back out into the book's regularized rhythm of two images to a spread, one per page. Especially with Buzzati's preference for captions over word balloons, it's almost too easy to look at the book and declare "that's not comics!" It certainly doesn't look like much else. But it's got the rich flow and ebb of comics, the spontaneity and life of still images in tight narrative sequence, pushed along by bridges of words; it just looks at the medium differently than any more "native" artists have. This is comics from somewhere other than comics, used because of the advantages the medium offers rather than as a default.
Buzzati's art is perfect for the way it's arranged. While most comics artists falter during longer sequences of full-page panels, Buzzati's single images are full of design sense, spreading out eagerly to meet the edges of the pages, vivid canvases that earn the total focus they invite. Bold, simple shapes, sensuously curved or jagged and abrupt, are layered with luminous pastel colors, so thickly saturated in flat chartreuses and periwinkles that they recall linoleum cuts more than comic book-style flat color. The markmaking is similarly refined, cable-wire tangles of thick black line giving way to gentle sprays of Art Nouveau dot screens. The splash pages never feel over-worked or barren: Buzzati understood how to compose pictures as well as comics pages, and the balance between dynamic sequencing and arresting single visuals is maintained from beginning to end.
The effect of some panels -- especially those in which the Aubrey Beardsley pointillism is brought to bear on monolithic pin-up posed nudes -- has plenty to do with the look of '60s rock poster art, which brings it into close proximity to the work of American underground cartoonists like Rick Griffin and Greg Irons, who were expanding the comics form themselves across the Atlantic as Buzzati inked his masterpiece. But the psychedelia is never overpowering, the visuals never wrest control from the narrative. A strong current of Continental expressionism tempers the flowery glow of the op-art sequences, scratchy lines or unforgiving edifices providing a concrete counterpoint to the liminal extravagances of the more hallucinogenic passages. Each image, no matter how oblique, is in thrall to the point Buzzati uses it to make: frequently devastating visual counterpoints to the haunting, metaphysical lances thrown by the text.
That text, then (expertly translated by Marina Harss), is a mod restatement of the myth of Orpheus that digresses into an extended "Explanation of the Afterlife" as well as several lyric suites on various states of being. It's a decidedly '60s narrative setup, but any hints of overweening, "Jesus Christ Superstar" triteness are brushed away by the complex, elliptical prose Buzzati wraps his pop art in. This really is a poem strip, with the narration only sketching out the literalities of scenes in broad strokes, rolling out thunderous proclamations and evocative wordplay the rest of the time. Buzzati's poetry is very much behind the times his pictures so perfectly evoke; he is basically a poet in the high Modernist style of Tristan Tzara or T.S. Eliot, spinning litanies of vivid imagery and lyrical juxtapositions out of single, overarching abstract concepts. Death is the moment "when strange noises come from ancient deserted rooms, when the autumnal sorcerers trail their long dark shadows through the gardens of joy, when marching toward certain victory the soldiers sing"; night is "the far-off bell, the far-off voice calling out over the rooftops, the howling dogs in the vast countryside beneath the glow of the moon".
It's beautiful writing, and an atypical, highly successful counterpart to the type of imagery Buzzati pairs it with. More than that, it's not the easiest kind of writing to make work in comics, where the image-making is usually left entirely to the art, but Buzzati is sensitive enough to the medium's demands that it comes off without a hitch. Sometimes the words' imagery is given a direct illustrated counterpart, others a more abstract conceptual mirror, but never do the words and pictures cease to interact with one another, and never do those interactions feel unnatural or forced. It's comics broken out of the idea that every line of text must have a direct pictorial answer, comics that get expansive with both the art and the writing at different times in different ways rather than moving in a constant lockstep. The result is something that imports the power of written poetry and wordless fine art into comics while retaining the power-in-simultaneity of the medium itself.
The plot is no less elegantly handled. It's another re-telling of a story everyone knows, and Buzzati treats the specifics (musician loses girl to death, regains her in the underworld, loses her again at the border between his world and hers) more as forgone conclusions than dramatic flashpoints. The real pathos and conceptual meat comes when Buzzati uses the story's ancient tropes to explore his own ideas. The guitar-strumming hero's passage from life into afterlife occasions an extended, meditation on death, the "gift of a wise God", without which the world holds no mystery or sense of urgency and importance. Death, Buzzati tells us -- via the empty jacket who serves as the infernal realms' "guardian demon", is the only reason for love, the thing that pushes us into feelings so monumental that we perpetuate our species in defiance of it. Love is "the ultimate bliss, but never joyful, never, for it would be nothing without the knowledge deep down that one day all this would end".
It's easy to suspect that Buzzati was writing about more than abstract concepts: Poem Strip was his last major work, and within three years of its release he would pass away after a long battle with cancer. There is a profound sense of urgency to Buzzati's carefully weighted words and slashing brush lines, something greater and more powerful than the monthly deadlines that pushed the ink from superhero artists' pens. In context the book's end, in which the rescued maiden holds her lover back from returning to life, telling him "You know it's pointless... let's say goodbye instead, a real goodbye," is absolutely heartbreaking. The Orpheus story holds the most power for the young and young at heart, those with the fullest conviction that death is worth wresting even the already dead from. There is a tragic grandeur to seeing it retold with such beauty by a dying man, to seeing it bent toward an acceptance rather than defiance of the ultimate end.
Like so many of the "mature" comics that would follow it, Poem Strip is a refutation of a heroic narrative that everyone's seen innumerable times before. Today, that structure itself has become another cliche. Buzzati got there before most of the others, and that's rather impressive in and of itself; but what makes this comic really worth remembering is the poetic touch with which it treats the medium, the way the potentials it uncovers for comics work against its sense of futility. Buzzati didn't lived to see comics' future, and it's anyone's guess how much more interested in it than any other artistic developments he would have been.
But he was building it.