Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Odyssey by Seymour Chwast

If you're a renowned graphic designer and illustrator in your seventies who's looking to add yet another career on top -- and you're not planning on slowing down at the day-job -- I'd have to suggest starting to adapt great works of world literature into graphic novels. It's worked out pretty well for Seymour Chwast, after all.

Chwast is one of the great visual minds of the 20th century and still a principal of The Push Pin Studios, which he co-founded in the 1950s. He's also the author of puckish re-imaginings of Dante's Divine Comedy (with Dante as a hardboiled '30s PI and Beatrice as the ultimate dame) and The Canterbury Tales (on motorcycles), both of which are good introductions to what's impressive about those works while also being graphically interesting collections of almost poster-like pages.

Chawst's third trip to that well was 2012's The Odyssey, presented in retro-SFnal garb like an episode of Flash Gordon. (Chwast's point, clearly, was to draw a comparison between the serial nature of Odysseus's adventures and more modern takes on that form -- his work is full of sly seemingly-minor details like that.) As with the first two books, this is a much more faithful rendition than it first appears: like a acting company, Chwast puts different clothes on the characters and sets them in particular scenery, but tells the same story in the same way.

Chwast's Odyssey is bookended with pages of Homer talking to his guide dog Prince, but the bulk of the book adapts the original Homeric text directly, in twenty-four books that directly follow the Greek poetry. Therte's clearly a lot less text, since Chwast is telling the story visually, but all of the story beats are there in the same order. In particular, unlike a lot of retellings of this particular story, Chwast leaves the first eight years of Odysseus's wanderings as a flashback in the middle -- this book may make it into a lot of school libraries, but it's not simplifying or dumbing down the material at all.

Chwast's SF skin does make for occasional odd moments, as when Calypso helps Odysseus make a (literal) raft to leave her island, while all other travel is by Art Deco rocketships between what Chwast draws as different planets most of the time. And Odysseus's feat of strength and eye in front of the suitors -- stringing his bow and shooting an arrow through a dozen axe-handles -- meshes weirdly with the ray-gun fight that ensues when he and his son Telemachus fall on the suitors immediately afterward. But bold stagings do things like that, and those moments are transitory: most of the time, the SFnal frame is merely a frame (and a thin one at that), allowing the Homeric story to show clearly through it.

Chwast's art is boldly graphic, to the point of what some may think of as stiffness. But a closer look at the faces of his characters, particularly his very expressive Zeus, belies that: Chwast's thin pen lines are very precisely placed exactly where he wants them, at times making his pages look like a bas-relief or an exhibition poster. This is a particular view of the Odyssey, but it's still clearly Homer's Odyssey throughout. Chwast here threads the Scylla and Charybdis of originality and faithfulness in a way even Odysseus would approve.

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