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 bloodfrom a freshly opened vein. Chwast’s deceivingly child-like scrawls arepacked with inherent wit. In this adaptation, a noir-ish DickTracyesque, trench-coat wearing, pipe smoking Dante treks through theInferno, Purgatory and ultimately Paradise, led by the mustachioedVirgil in a bowler hat, spats and carrying a walking stick. Along theway he encounters the evil minotaur (in a wrestling suit) guarding theravine of broken rocks; the well endowed centaurs guarding the BoilingBlood 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 thedevils are tormenting wicked capitalists, Chwast’s is much lessham-fisted in its allegorical mission. Moreover, for those of us whocan’t help but contemplate the hereafter, Chwast’s version manages toprovide a nod to hope.
It is tempting to suggest that this condensation is “Dante forBeginners” (or Dummies, if you prefer), but nay, ‘tis not proper tospeak 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 andgraphic reduction imbues this Dante with all the modernity necessary tobe a twenty-first century tale. Chwast has succeeded in making thisclassic into something timely and just as vital today as it has everbeen – and more engaging. As Dante’s great-great grandfather, CacciaGuida says from Purgatory “You will be banished from your belovedFlorence but you will gain fame when you return to earth.”