A Helluva Dante

From Gustav Doré to Seymour Chwast and scores of artists in between Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) The Divine Comedy has been one of the most illustrated books. The most recent is Chwast’s graphic novel adaptation.

Dante’s hell is Chwast’s heaven. Imagery flows from him like blood
from a freshly opened vein. Chwast’s deceivingly child-like scrawls are
packed with inherent wit. In this adaptation, a noir-ish Dick
Tracyesque, trench-coat wearing, pipe smoking Dante treks through the
Inferno, Purgatory and ultimately Paradise, led by the mustachioed
Virgil in a bowler hat, spats and carrying a walking stick. Along the
way he encounters the evil minotaur (in a wrestling suit) guarding the
ravine of broken rocks; the well endowed centaurs guarding the Boiling
Blood River; and the teeming masses of serpents attacking the sinners.

We all know the pitfalls of Hell. But Chwast’s version is not your grandmother’s Divine Comedy. While it does bear a spiritual relationship to Art Young’s Inferno,
an adaptation set during the American Depression-era, where all the
devils are tormenting wicked capitalists, Chwast’s is much less
ham-fisted in its allegorical mission. Moreover, for those of us who
can’t help but contemplate the hereafter, Chwast’s version manages to
provide a nod to hope.

It is tempting to suggest that this condensation is “Dante for
Beginners” (or Dummies, if you prefer), but nay, ‘tis not proper to
speak of it as such. While this is perhaps the most accessible Divine Comedy,
it is far from being a whittled down version. Its verbal concision and
graphic reduction imbues this Dante with all the modernity necessary to
be a twenty-first century tale. Chwast has succeeded in making this
classic into something timely and just as vital today as it has ever
been – and more engaging. As Dante’s great-great grandfather, Caccia
Guida says from Purgatory “You will be banished from your beloved
Florence but you will gain fame when you return to earth.”

 


 


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes a weekly column for The Atlantic online and is the "Visuals" Columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of over 160 books on design and visual culture. And he is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Someone once asked me what I planned to do with a double major in Graphic Design and Italian Studies. Sounds like Chwast beat me to it!

    I will have to look for this gem on my next trip into the US. It may just be the stepping stone to reading the massive work in modern Italian.

  2. Someone once asked me what I planned to do with a double major in Graphic Design and Italian Studies. Sounds like Chwast beat me to it!

    I will have to look for this gem on my next trip into the US. It may just be the stepping stone to reading the massive work in modern Italian.

  3. Someone once asked me what I planned to do with a double major in Graphic Design and Italian Studies. Sounds like Chwast beat me to it!

    I will have to look for this gem on my next trip into the US. It may just be the stepping stone to reading the massive work in modern Italian.