“Poem Strip” by Dino Buzzati, A Graphic Novel

“Poem Strip” by Dino Buzzati (1969) – 218 pages        Translated by Marina Harrs

 Like many others, I’ve learned to trust the books that New York Review Books (NYRB) selects for their re-prints.  It seems today that most of the books of fiction that I read are either new books that have gotten strong reviews or New York Review Book re-prints.  “Poem Strip” by Dino Buzzati is another NYRB book.  It is different from most of the NYRB books in that it is a graphic novel.  


Usually NYRB has a strong introduction to their re-prints, but “Poem Strip” has no introduction.  I can understand why NYRB made this decision, because the last thing you want is to clutter up a graphic novel with extra writing.  Besides I was able to find the background information for the book using Google searches. 

 Dino Buzzati actually achieved fame as a novelist, not as a graphic novelist.  Apparently his novel “The Tartar Steppe” is well regarded.  He was also a skillful painter and illustrator, so it was only natural that he would write a graphic novel.

 “Poem Strip” is very much a work of the late Sixties, that sexy wild psychedelic time. It is about Orfi, a popular rock singer in Milan, Italy, and his girlfriend Eura.  These names have their significance, because this story is actually the re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  In “Poem Strip”, Eura gets deathly sick and is taken down into the Underworld.   Orfi goes down into the Underworld hoping to use his great singing talent to convince the leader of the Underworld, who is depicted as the headless Excellent Jacket or Guardian Demon, to allow Eura to leave the Underworld and come back with Orfi.  The leader of the Underworld offers Orfi any woman of his choosing other than Eura, but Orfi has his heart set on his girlfriend.  Then the Excellent Jacket asks Orfi to

“…sing about the things that you
still know, that we have lost
the beloved mysteries”

 The dead people of the Underworld have everything they could possibly ask for, except they lack  “the most important thing, the freedom to die.”  Without the fear of death, some of life’s most powerful feelings do not exist.    

 The artwork in “Poem Strip” is surreal and extraordinary, as the examples I’ve included here show. Most of the women in both the world and the Underworld are depicted as naked.   Some readers may wonder why; others may ask ‘Why not?’. The rating would probably be a soft ‘X’.  This is the swinging Sixties after all. I will let you discover those pictures for yourselves.  

  “Poem Strip” is a fun book, a quick read.  The story is clear and coherent, and I liked that it was based on an ancient Greek myth.   This book is a high-quality graphic novel, not a comic book, a strong antecedent for Art Spiegelman’s Maus series and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series and Posy Simmonds’ graphic novels.

 Do any of you have any suggestions for other graphic novels?

11 responses to this post.

  1. NYRB… graphic novel… based on Greek mythology. My mind is officially blown.

    Graphic novel recommendations, hmm… I haven’t read very many, but there’s always The Sandman – popular for a reason. Then there’s The Arrival, which is wordless and brilliant. I might even call my favorite webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court a series of graphic novels when in print form – it’s drawn a bit funky at its start but it’s got one of the best stories I’ve ever read (written, drawn, filmed…) and is brilliantly written and plotted. But that one’s still ongoing and can also fall into the “kids” and “comics” categories so I’m not certain how much it’ll appeal to you… it is wonderful, though.

    Those are the only noteworthy three I can think of at the moment (excluding Maus, of course). I might be forgetting a few others (I’m a bit tired right now…) but these are definitely some favorites. I’m still trying to get into graphic novels myself so I can’t be entirely of use. I am trying to read more graphic novels… I’m just not making a particularly serious effort. Poem Strip actually seems like a good choice to revisit this project…


    • Hi Biblibio,
      I’ll follow up on your leads; I’m not familiar with The Sandman, The Arrival, or GunnerKrigg Court.
      I went to the graphic novels section at one of the big local book stores. Most of the books there were anime’, these Japanese comic books which really don’t interest me at all. Then there were a bunch of superhero comic books which also don’t interest me. The only adult graphic novels they had are ones that I’d already read.
      I always give extra points for works that are based on Greek myth like ‘Poem Strip’ is, but even though it is based on a myth, it is still wildly imaginative both in story and picture in its own right.


      • Posted by johnj on April 21, 2013 at 10:24 PM

        quote: ‘Most of the women in both the world and the Underworld are depicted as naked. Some readers may wonder why’
        buzzati said he did so to sell his book; but he loved to speak in a provocative way, for example he used to say that he was a painter with the hobby of writing books
        if you read carefully the poem you can understand the real answer: the hell is here, because we don’t care about death, and so everything becomes boring; so we attempt to stay happy thanks to excess of sex; but without death even it remains boring, because in it there is the promise of new life and so of our death: this is the ultimate reason for which we love it
        …sorry for my poor english…


        • Hi Johnj,
          Interesting… It sounds like you are quite familiar with Dino Buzzati’s work, his philosophy underlying this story.

          I want to get back to some of his other books. I’m not sure if he has any other graphic novels.


          • Posted by johnj on April 25, 2013 at 8:33 AM

            i don’t think he wrote other graphc novels, but i’ hope you’ll be glad to know some facts

            1. before ‘poema a fuemtti’ he had written an illustrated tale: ‘la famosa invasione degli orsi in sicilia’

            2. the intuition according to which hell coincides with one or more cities born in an article in 1964: ‘i segreti della MM’ ‘the secrets of MIlan Subway’: buzzati during the construction of the Milan subway would go through a tunnel to find himself someywhere in the city​​; he finds himself treated according bureaucratic mode, but then he discovers that he has arrived to all effects to hell
            buzzati was a journalist on the ‘corriere della sera’, he used to write both of facts and of his magic world; his deep idea was that reality IS magic (‘realismo magico’); if you compare his books to italo calvino’s you see that they both used fantasy, while before them in italy was preferred a realistic plot to make us to understand social issues; calvino wrote so to make us free (in some way tolkien had a similar idea, but calvino did not used symbols; he was a marxist who understood the limits of an ideological illusion); buzzati uses fantasy because he was sure that reality is not what we usually perceive; he was often considered as the italian kafka, but i don’t think this is a good way to describe him; may be he can be considered similar to borges

            3. he loved to paint ‘storie dipinte’: paintings with a paradoxical description of the contents

            here he says that he did not think to inlustrate a book after ‘la famosa invasione delgi orsi in sicilia’

            may be the most interesting inlustrated book with this kind of images is ‘i miracoli di val morel’, with 39 unlikely votive regarding imaginary miracles of Saint Rita of Cascia

            4. sometimes he wrote what he dreamed

            5. federico fellini loved bussati’s books; they wanted to make a movie about a journey in the afterlife with a lot of ‘poema a fumetti’ themes:
            ‘the protagonist, at least since they realizes that he is dead on, must pursue a specific goal for the rest of the story’
            ‘The man spiritually backward, as the majority of today will continue ‘for a while, even in the afterlife’, to have their wishes and feelings that burdened and grieved his life. – The man spiritually advanced will be ‘much more’ free and many worldly interests are now the outsiders. But he, too, which has not yet reached the peak, meet ‘some qualms, temptations, which will tend to restrain or even to pull it back.’

            6. in buzzati’s painting there are a lot of influences, like Dalí, Beltrame, Murnau e Friedrich, Bellmer e Rackham, Pop art and many others

            7. two years before ‘poema a fumetti’ hugo pratt wrote ‘una ballata del mare salato’, so in italy we yet knew aht is a graphic novel even if we did not call it this way

            i hope i’m useful


  2. Hi Johnj,
    Thank you very much for all of the wonderful material in these articles. They are a welcome addition to my original article on “Poem Strip”. “The Bears’ Invasion of Sicily” looks like an excellent book to check out. I find children’s books can be just as significant as adult books, and I suspect in the case of Dino Buzzati this is particularly true.


  3. Posted by johnj on April 26, 2013 at 8:52 AM

    you are right; for example the ‘babau’ (an imaginary monster usually named to make the little children to fear) is an illusion… even if it’s real!
    ‘il deserto dei tartari’ is usually considered buzzati’s masterpiece but i prefer his short stories, his illustrated stories and his articles; his goal was to make us to fear and to wonder; the italian poet giovanni pascoli wrote that there is a ‘fanciullino’ (a little child) inside us who always marvels and fears; he believed that a poem has to touch this aspect of the reader; in some sense in buzzati there is this approach; they both always spoke about death, they both used to use childish language mixed with sophisticated words


  4. Posted by johnj on April 26, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    here you can see some aother miracle votive ‘ex voto’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOu47Z9tOGk


  5. Posted by johnj on April 26, 2013 at 9:23 AM

    here you can find a development of ‘i segreti della MM’ in italian, and try to transalte it with google or something better
    “Nell’interno delle automobili ferme stavano le persone, per lo più uomini soli. Anch’essi non sembravano ombre, bensì individui in carne ed ossa. Con le mani sul volante, immobili, sulle facce pallide un’ottusa atonìa come per effetto di stupefacenti. Essi non potevano uscire neppure se avessero voluto, tanto le macchine erano serrate le une sulle altre. Guardavano fuori, attraverso i finestrini, guardavano lentamente, con espressione di… anzi, senza nessuna espressione. Ogni tanto qualcuno toccava il clacson, emetteva un flebile colpetto, senza fiducia, così, neghittosamente. Pallidi, svuotati, castigati e vinti. E più nessuna speranza.
    Allora mi chiesi: è forse questo il segno che siamo veramente all’Inferno? O incubi del genere avvengono abitualmente anche nelle città dei vivi?
    Non sapevo rispondere.”

    google translation:
    “In the interior of the cars were still people, mostly single men. They also did not seem to shadows, but individuals of flesh and bones. With your hands on the steering wheel, real estate, on a dull pale faces atony as a result of drugs. They could not leave even if they wanted to, so the machines were locked on each other. They looked out through the windows, looking slowly, with expression of … indeed, without any expression. Every time someone touched the horn, emitting a faint tap, without trust, so lazily. Pale and drawn, chastened and losers. And no hope.
    Then I wondered: Is this a sign that we are really in Hell? Or nightmares like that usually take place in the cities of the living?
    I did not answer”


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