Based on the Greek mythological story of Orpheus and Eurudice, Dino Buzzati’s pioneering graphic novel Poem Strip was originally published in Italy in 1969 (as Poema A Fumetti), and it’s surprising that it’s taken four decades to see print in the U.S.—Marina Harss’ English translation is its first. Comics have been described as movies on paper, and this one reads like a rock ’n’ roll-sexploitation-fantasy-occult midnight cult favorite.
Poem Strip is mostly an excuse for Buzzati to reimagine Milan as a phantasmagoria as alluring as any of the artists he liberally borrows from: His plot centers on a guitar-carrying young male singer who pines for the love of his life, the spectral Eura, and literally goes to hell and back to find her. (Buzzati’s prefatory note cites a number of painters, filmmakers, and photographers—including Salvador Dali, Irving Klaw, F.W. Murnau, Hans Bellmer, and Federico Fellini—for “their valuable input” to specific pages.) Buzzati’s linework is wonderfully loose, but always concise. One agent of the underworld looks to be modeled on James Dean, then the young Ronald Reagan, though his green coloring keeps him identifiable; even Buzzati’s super-long-shot stick figures have a wiggly, wriggling life.
This being Italy in the swinging late ’60s, there’s a lot of sexuality on display: Buzzati clearly reveled in drawing nude women, setting one passage in a brothel (whose host, humorously, is an uninhabited, anthropomorphic overcoat) and crafting several of his more disturbing images around sexual torture, as with his simultaneously gauzy and hellish rendering, largely in dots, of a nude woman in the shape of a rubber duck. (Eura seems to have left her clothes behind in the afterworld as well.) Buzzati intersperses these with several outright classical images, such as the classical Greek profile, times seven, of our hero asking to see Eura, as well as more modernist touches like the buildings of Milan’s Via Saterna collapsing into each other after he knocks on the door Eura has entered. The writing itself can be windy—surrealism doesn’t always translate well. But Buzzati’s eye-stopping linework makes up for that.