Can you handle epic poetry only in small doses?
Recent books by renowned graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast may be your answer. In his latest, “Homer: The Odyssey” (Bloomsbury), Chwast has given us a visual sibling to that famous series of classic condensations, “Cliffs Notes.”
Ok, that’s a bit too reductive and unfair: Chwast does far more here — he truly achieves an original interpretation of an ancient tale.
On the other hand, he does perform a wonderful service for a great work of epic poetry that’s long on praise and short on readers who aren’t in 12th -grade English class. He strips away the intimidation factor while preserving the original work’s integrity.
“Listen, Calypso, you’ve held me prisoner here too long,” says Odysseus, laying on a lounge chair beside the temptress, sipping a cocktail as though they were on the Riviera. At another point — which I have to highlight, for an obvious reason (see, uh, the name of this blog and the Waterhouse painting in the banner) — Odysseus stands atop a “Flash Gordon” rocket ship and explains, “I wanted to hear the Siren’s song. The crew lashed me to the ship so I could hear it but not go mad.” That image also adorns the cover of the book.
Chwast has a deft ability for touching on the key points of the action and the key monologues — a skill he demonstrates in two previous adaptations of classic epic poetry, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
I’ve seen other illustrated versions of this story — you may have, too — but most seem so static, so flat. They try to give us a realistic representation of what Odysseus must have looked like, but so much vitality and life drains from the story in the process.
But Chwast follows the lead of other revolutionary versions of this eternal story (James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” for instance, and the Coen Brother’s movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to create his energized interpretation.
In Chwast’s adaptation, you witness a cast of thousands, like you’d find in a Cecil B. DeMille epic. His black-and-white sketches are clean, bold reinventions of a story first sung by the blind poet of Chios.
- The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘as a Mountain Lion Exultant’ (patospapa.wordpress.com)
- The World’s Best English Epic Poetry – Dante’s Inferno (in English Translation) (antipodeanwriter.wordpress.com)
- Is the Future of Graphic Design in its Past? (bigthink.com)
- Glimpses and Sightings of an Epic: On David Ferry’s “Aeneid” fragments (nickowchar.wordpress.com)
- The 13th century’s Stieg Larsson (nickowchar.wordpress.com)