What shape does hell take? In Norse mythology she—the goddess Hel—is a girl with a face half beautiful, half rotted away. Brave warriors had a place in Valhalla, whereas Hel’s domain is for those who did not die honorably in battle. Greek mythology does not allow for such clear-cut distinctions. Death sends you to Hades: you are down, unless by some act of godly intervention your fragments are thrown skywards to settle as a constellation, not quite a god nor solely a symbol.
But what if hell could be contained within a frame—constructed on an axis of text and image? That question of containment, of framing and fragmentation shapes the genre-defying form of Orpheus & Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration (OE), by the artist Tom de Freston and his partner the poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Published as part of Bloomsbury’s Beyond Criticism series, the book is a both a study of mythic narrative structures and an act of mythmaking in its own right: de Freston’s images follow Orpheus down to Hades while Millwood Hargrave’s words give voice and agency to Eurydice. Essays by academics and cultural critics are interwoven with the narrative, and just as there is no such thing as a self-contained myth disconnected from a wider network of stories, so the book is just one part of an ongoing collaborative project. OE is an exercise in world-building, using film, performances, and exhibitions to test the dimensions of the myth: the myth of the man, the musician, who entered the underworld to rescue his wife from the clutches of death.
I’m stuck on the cliché, “clutches of death.” Transmitting a myth quickly will do that to language—make it portable, acritical, squeezed into conventional structures. Who’s to say this is a myth of a man, his song, his rescue mission? By letting the story divide and multiply into frames and fragments, the book permits the myth its slipperiness; indeed, in the opening pages of the book, the narrative seems to have slipped from its template entirely.
We see a man, a painter, willing his wife back from the dead as he daubs her image across a triptych. We will know him as Orpheus, a self-indulgent slob dressed only in a pair of grubby white briefs. The woman on the canvas is Eurydice, she wears the dress she died in. And then she too, slips—her body falling until she is no longer contained by the painting which, wiped of its image, becomes a threshold to the underworld. Orpheus enters because he has read Eurydice’s poetry, which tells of a man who looks back and loses his wife forever. He sets out to remake the myth and rewrite his wife, rescuing himself in the process—and yet it seems the story is doomed from the start. A misplaced minotaur is appointed as Orpheus’s guide, a botched version of Dante’s Virgil, falling into frame in a manner reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation. Together they’ll follow the thread, down to catch a wife, a wife in free-fall through a grid of graphics.
De Freston’s images are loud: there will be scenes of screaming beasts, crashing canvases, bodies bound in kaleidoscopic contortions. Yes, Orpheus can sing—one wailing o which extends wordlessly across several spreads—but he is unable to listen, unable to exit his self-centered orbit. His story is told in soundless freeze-frame; it is Eurydice who speaks, who utters her own images of “welling mud,” “parcelled buds,” “tongue through teeth.” Handwritten on notepaper in a sotto voce script, Millwood Hargrave’s poems are placed unobtrusively between pages—and yet they are less like pressed flowers than gaping mouths, blooming wounds. Her language is the traumatic meeting between body and spirit, the temporal and eternal, lust and loss, a language that voices Eurydice’s ambivalence as Orpheus stumbles in the dark towards her. She knows that “an e is not just a broken o,” and when o aligns with e she will not come quietly.
This is a radical retelling, but its radicalism is not a matter of “reinterpretation.” It is true that we are inclined to read Orpheus more sympathetically—his role as lover and musician is enough to prove his virtue, and his actions appear to meet the criteria for the archetypal tragic hero: he risks all in an act of superhuman bravery, and loses the one he loves in a moment of human fallibility. However, for a story to be reinterpreted it must first be fixed, and it is the essence of myth to be shifting and contradictory. To set out to create a new version of a myth would be to misunderstand the nature of the medium—reinterpretation is inherent in the telling itself.
In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Orpheus is said to be a coward who, rather than resolving to die for love, chose to save his skin and enter Hades alive. Indeed, Orpheus’s eventual end—torn limb from limb by the frenzied female followers of Dionysus—does seem ill-suited to a hero. When his fragments were eventually gathered by the muses it is worth noting that it was his lyre, not his body, that made it to the status of a constellation, and it is this ambiguity between heroism and ignominy, pure art and bodily abjection, which has made Orpheus such a fertile subject for writers and artists.
The preface to OE places the book as one part of a mythic evolution, referencing Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), Anaïs Mitchell’s album Hadestown (2010) and David Almond’s young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey (2015). The writer Ann Wroe anatomized Orpheus’s shape-shifting form in her award-winning “biography” Orpheus: The Song of Life (2012), and has contributed an essay for OE in which she turns her attention to Eurydice. Looking back to the original meaning of Eurydice’s name (“wisdom” or “wide ruling”), Wroe asks not what OE makes new, but what it retrieves. “This meaning of Eurydice, dark germinating wisdom, has long been lost,” she writes. “But we see glimpses of it here.”
And so, to retell is never truly to make new—we are bound to an eternal return, a recurring backwards glance. The radicalism of OE, I would argue, is a result of placing those remembrances of the darker parts of the myth within a structure that retains volatility, that stays unstable. The reader is thereby granted not only an alternative reading of the myth but an alternative means of constructing narrative and making sense of what we see. In short, an alternative approach to reading.
Existing in the shadowy space between art and literature, text and image, graphic narratives are drawn towards those dark corners, to the parts of a story usually left unseen. There is something inherently subversive about the form, due partly to its detachment from genre, partly to the potential for dissonance between text and image. This dissonance lends itself to humor—I’m thinking of the cats that appear in Regina Doman and Sean Lam’s graphic biography Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI (2012), and the phallic intrusions in Piero’s graphics for Introducing Roland Barthes (2006). Even when posing as “illustration,” as demonstrated in Maira Kalman’s graphics for The Elements of Style, Illustrated (2005), the temptation to “read into” the text can prove too hard to resist.
Whether or not we refer to graphic narratives as comics, the form has always contained elements of darkness. In their “wordless novels” of the early 20th century, artists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made darkness both a matter of style and content; their heavily inked woodblock prints do not shy away from scenes we might rather not see, whether a public lynching, police brutality, or a gigantic man pissing on a city. Graphic narratives are unique in their ability to combine dark humor and unflinching representations of trauma, and yet it took until 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, for this quality to be taken seriously. Since then, the form has been appreciated as a powerful means of addressing political upheaval and human suffering: Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993, 1996) paved the way for the practice of graphic journalism, and important recent publications have included Threads: from the Refugee Crisis (2017) by Kate Evans and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016) by Sarah Glidden.
In his reports of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East, Sacco does not pose as an authority or an all-seeing eye. Instead, he enters his narratives as a character, a diminutive nerd in blank Goggle glasses. Likewise, the graphic narrative’s style of “truth-telling” is less about revelation than disorientation: it makes darkness visible and disrupts conventional patterns of interpretation. As the narrative progresses across the page, time is represented spatially—the trouble is that space is liable to becomes unstable. In OE, the underworld is an atemporal zone with no fixed spatial footholds. The grid offers no protection against falling out of frame, and images transform—without warning—from line drawings, to digital renderings, to photographs—photographs that, with their deep chiaroscuro, appear to take on the quality of sculpture.
That restless attitude to medium and representation is a symptom of the form’s entrenched self-referentiality; whether or not a graphic narrative is evidently “experimental,” it is always a comment on the way information is communicated and consumed. As readers fill in the gaps between frames and reconcile text and image, they, we, become complicit in the manufacture of meaning; the extent to which we are made aware of this process depends on the degree of disruption to the narrative flow. We are equally complicit when sequentially connecting the words of a line of text, or organizing the the simultaneously presented elements of an image. However, by combining these two processes, graphic narratives make the act of reading manifest. They reveal it on the surface of the page.
In Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), the first doctoral dissertation to be produced “entirely in comic book form,” that self-referentiality reaches its apotheosis. As the end product of his PhD at Teachers College, the book is a radical assault on academic conventions, seeking to actively deconstruct “boxed-in” thinking with an argument that leads the reader down, diagonally, across the gutter of the page and into empty space. By allowing “the visual to provide expression where words fail,” Sousanis argues, we free ourselves from linear thought processes, creating a networked, “multidimensional” mode of thinking by combining simultaneous and sequential patterns of interpretation. “Lacking access to ‘as it is’,” he writes, in a text box surrounded by crowds of eyes, “we make do with ‘as it appears.’” Making do, in this case, is less about making the best of a bad situation than taking advantage of space between appearance and reality, and seeing what we can make it do—seeing what we will read between the lines.
It took time before graphic narratives were deemed worthy of critical attention. Now, Unflattening and OE prove that the form is a mode of critical enquiry in its own right; a recognition that, in turn, makes way for a more nuanced understanding of “creative criticism.” Such criticism does more than just aspire to artistry, throwing in a few metaphors or enacting its subject matter. Instead, it weans the reader off a reliance on the text, converting them from the role of receiver to that of critical thinker: someone who is aware of their own process of reading, whether of an image, a text, or the world around them. Good philosophy has always worked in this way, pushing beyond the literal meaning of the text to force the reader to address the question on their own terms. However, what might be achieved in philosophy through complex literary techniques—I’m thinking, for instance, of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms—comes naturally to graphic narratives. By definition, the form works beyond the level of the text, making us readers of our own act of reading. What we read into the reading, however, depends on the world we have entered. Whereas Unflattening is a utopian world of sense-making, synthesis, and empathy, OE is less interested in synthesis than the act of ripping.
In Plato’s Phaedo, to live is to be torn asunder by the opposing forces of time and eternity. OE places us on either side of the rupture, and tells us to look down. The rip, the split, the tear, become an aesthetic, a subject, and a mode of thought: this is a world where making meaning is as much about rupture as it is about connectivity, where even the idealized act of “collaboration” is a type of compromise, a separation from oneself. After all, what sense is there to be made of a world where bodies break, are forgotten, exploited, and where love can tear you in two—three—four —or fragments too small to see? In this world, the “o,” the perfect whole and empty hole, is something to be feared: it is all Orpheus has left when he exits, in one piece, from the underworld, doomed to a life of singular solitude—that is, until he is torn into multiple pieces by the maenads.
Perhaps, to submit to the ripping is the most honest way to live: to enter the rupture and look death in the eye. What we see is a living hell. What we see is the world we live in.