Interview: Andrew White on Italo Calvino and adaptations.

Reposting some content that got lumped in with a whole bunch of other stuff. For searchability and the like.


Back in January, Andrew White began posting a series of work-in-progress comics adaptations to his newsletter and website. The adaptations in question are various works from the canon of the late Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino. Calvino is known for having had an interest in old newspaper cartoons, claiming them as an influence on his narrative style. His writings really burst off the page in the most joyous, quite moving way. Real moments of aesthetic wonder. For me, Andrew’s work often has that same kind of beautiful but hard-to-pin-down effect. So this should be great. The first instalments show a lot of promise.

Andrew White Enchanted Garden

Since this is such an interesting project, and maybe a comics-literature crossover made in heaven, I was thrilled when Andrew offered to answer a few questions via email. What an opportunity to try and get some insight into how and why one of the top names in poetry comics decided to tackle Calvino.

Andrew White on Italo Calvino, adaptation and process.


I first came to Calvino through If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, many years ago, and his work has been an influence since that time. I’m inspired by the way many of his book-length works are essentially short story collections, where each chapter can be read individually but the whole is greater than the sum of those parts. I’m inspired by the way he integrated formal play into his fiction while retaining an emotional and narrative core that kept the work compelling.

I first adapted a Calvino story in 2012 (A Beautiful March Day, from the Numbers in the Dark collection) and have considered returning to Calvino over the years. As you noted in your initial write-up of this project, there are also a number of Calvino-comics connections that made the prospect even more appealing.

But I’m also skeptical of adaptation, both as a reader and as a cartoonist. Adaptations that I’ve read, that I’ve considering making, or that I’ve actually made often leave me wondering, even suspecting, that the exercise is pointless. What does the adaptation offer that can’t be found in the original work? Is it losing more than it’s gaining?

As some readers might know, I’ve worked intermittently over the last several years on comics biographies of Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Virginia Woolf. That work has been on my mind because I’m revising it for a forthcoming single volume collection, Together and Apart, to be published by Fieldmouse Press. Those comics have a strong element of adaptation as well, actually, because the text is drawn primarily from the subject’s own words in diaries, letters, etc. So I wondered if I was done with biographies, or if I could find some way to continue that project without repeating myself. Calvino, among many possible subjects, crossed my mind.

Calvino was known for being reticent about his personal life and even misstating aspects of his biography (most notably, he often said he was born in San Remo, where he spent most of his childhood, rather than in Cuba, since the former felt more true to him even if it was factually incorrect). So, I suddenly realized, simply adapting a selection of his stories was the best way to produce a Calvino biography. While some of my adaptations will be fairly straightforward, I’m hoping the answer to question I posed above–what is gained by adaptation?–is that the juxtaposition of unrelated Calvino works masquerading as a biography will reveal, to readers and to me, new insights about his work and his life.


The first step was (re)reading all of Calvino. I was reading in English which excludes a few things, very possibly some key piece of material that would have pushed the project in a different direction, though to be fair Calvino’s bibliography in translation is fairly complete.

I took notes and did a bit of drawing as I read, looking for stories or moments that seemed like a good fit. Phrases that suggested more than they said or sequences with a strong visual component, for example. Calvino was fairly open about the formal constraints he set for his work, so in reading about that I soon decided on a structure for the project as well. This meant that at a certain point I had some organizing principles in mind and began to seek out stories that filled specific gaps.

Once I knew which stories I wanted to adapt, I could–inspired by Calvino–simply tackle each one individually and let the work accumulate. I’m still engaged in that process now, using the self-imposed monthly newsletter deadline to keep myself on schedule as I finish up the latter stories and return intermittently to the earlier ones. One real advantage of comics, something that could work well here if I deploy it carefully, is the way that repeated, refracted images and sequences can convey a sense of synchronicity that’s also present in Calvino’s various texts. The way his ideas are repeated or rhyme, but also evolve, as he explores them over time. So I’m sometimes returning to the stories I’ve already completed with that goal in mind. But it’s a balance, one never wants to be too obtuse or overbearing with that sort of thing…


Subscribe by Email ↓

Get the weekly Comix Report digest.


Leave a Comment