Homer, Chwast, and The Odyssey
Seymour Chwast’s latest graphic novel—or “visual epic,” as it’s been described in the upper levels of the Academy—is just out, joining his stirring adaptations of The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy. The Odyssey, one of the most dreaded tomes on my high school reading list, is made beautifully compact and wittily digestible. If only he had done this 30 years ago. Recently, I asked Chwast—who is busily working on his next book (he’ll tell you about it below)—about his own Homeric odyssey. (Click the images for larger versions.)
When I heard you were doing a graphic novel about Homer, I thought it was a Simpson. Why did you choose this classic?
I was attracted to what the movies call “the Epic Sweep” of the story, covering many years and miles. It is a human story of family values. Its characters are heroes, an army of bad guys, exotic women, gods, goddesses, and monsters. I had to do this book.
How do you go about unpacking the original and recreating it as a graphic novel?
The graphic novel allows for a visual as well as literary description. The comic format allows me to use emphasis, scale, pacing, decoration, and poster-like design. Each spread is a challenge to move the story forward while they are unexpected, creative, and satisfying to the senses.
How much of the story do you invent and how much is entirely accurate?
The story is all there. Some details that have no bearing on the plot or essence of the book may have been left out. The text had to be suited to the comic style with elevated dialogue.
Whose translation did you use, and did you have a choice?
For reference and for the purpose of my adaptation, I used CliffsNotes (an overview) and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.
What is your favorite part of the story?
Penelope had to put up with all those suitors, staying faithful. I hate violence, but I enjoyed Odysseus’s final triumph over them.
You’ve done two previous classics. What’s next?
At the age of ten, my love of adventure comics paralleled the interest of other boys. But I thought comics was going to be my life’s work. Unfortunately, I was distracted by other artistic manifestations and took over six decades to finally realize my childhood ambition. I’m working now on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.