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A Helluva Dante

By: Steven Heller | September 17, 2010

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.”