Marco Tabilio’s dreamy depiction of Marco Polo recording his famous narrative Il Milione, also referred to as The Travels of Marco Polo and The Book of the Marvels of the World, begins with Marco Polo relating his many adventures to fellow prisoner Rustichello while imprisoned in Genoa after the defeat of his fleet. Tabilio’s drawings transport the reader into this absorbing tale of world geography, politics, and the international trading culture of the 13th century. But Marco Polo: Dangers and Visions is not a straightforward travelogue; instead, it is a speculative and occasionally anachronistic illustration of a man and his coming-of-age.
Dangers and Visions doesn’t deviate from or challenge Marco Polo’s historical memoirs. He begins with Polo’s youth, during which he reunites with both his long-absent father and his uncle and joins their expedition to the court of Kublai Khan, and ends with his return to Venice and subsequent capture during a disastrous sea battle against the neighboring republic of Genoa. Marco is curious and tolerant, talented with languages, and favored by powerful rulers. Even so, it’s hard to take Marco at his word: it’s clear from the events depicted that he withholds elements of his story from Rustichello, and Il Milione has a historical reputation as a creative story, not a factual one.
The art is the supporting framework of the story. Many of Marco’s recollections are studded with dreams, nightmares, and bouts of illness, including a memorable episode where, in a transition from youth to adulthood, the skin of his face crumples and sloughs off, revealing an older version of himself. While dense with text in some pages, other sections of Marco’s memories are soundless and nearly blank. Each new destination on Marco’s journey is treated to a stunning and detailed map. These maps are reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts and copperplate engravings from Polo’s era (1254-1324). Monsters twine themselves through oceans and around the borders of the known world, a political map of the Holy Land depicts men at war, and the body of Genghis Khan demarks an almost anatomical division of his kingdom.
The more regimented panel art is also full of content, surprisingly so when you realize how much Tabilio makes use of negative space. Perhaps to offset these details, Marco and other human characters are gestural figures with wide, empty eyes, and unadorned clothing. Tabilio is capable of human depiction—Marco is recognizable no matter what the scale is—but for the most part, people are background noise. The result is a captivating story that requires re-reading to absorb its many layers.
Rustichello remarks that Marco’s tale “makes for a coming-of-age story.” It is, and it’s also a mid-life crisis. Marco is in his mid-40s at the time of this prison-imposed storytelling, and his thirst for travel and more youthful ambition have been quashed by a melancholy love affair, his father’s death, and his catastrophic losses at sea. During his year-long imprisonment, Dangers and Visions implies that Marco is on his last legs (“I can’t die before I finish,” he says, whereupon Rustichello begs the prison doctor to save his protagonist). Never mind that the historical Marco Polo lived another 25 years after his release; it was by all accounts a quiet life. For Tabilio’s Marco, that might have seemed like dying after all.
Graphic Universe recommends this title for readers in high school, though it’s appropriate for a younger audience, if that audience really enjoys fine print. The content is on par with Hergé’s Tintin.
Marco Polo: Dangers and Visions
by Marco Tabilio
Graphic Universe, 2017