Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Dante's Divine Comedy by Seymour Chwast

The Divine Comedy is already half-way to being a catalog -- a long listing of sins and sinners (with a much shorter list of virtues and the virtuous) matched to their punishments, with loving detail on many of those very inventive punishments -- so that turning it into a graphic novel and making that catalog real, as noted designer Seymour Chwast did two years ago, seems like an obvious idea afterward.

Dante's Divine Comedy runs through the three long poems in less than a hundred and twenty pages of comics -- and those are Chwast's comics, which come more from the schools of poster-making and design than from the flowing layouts of Eisner and Kirby, so those pages are stark and schematic, with the emphasis equally on the look of the pages and on the matter. The skeleton of the story is still here -- a Dante out of a '30s private-eye movie is escorted through the supernatural realms by a Virgil who could be Hercule Poirot and a Beatrice who might be played by Constance Bennett -- but Chwast's retelling focuses primarily on the high points, which means running Dante and Virgil through the circles and pits of hell while showing as much misery and torment as possible.

Dante does manage to get a few cracks in about free will and the plight of the virtuous pagans along the way, but the joys of Chwast's Dante's Divine Comedy is in the long sequence of pages that would all look wonderful printed large and plastered up on a wall -- this is a book that would work as well as a gallery show, or papered up, oversized, on a wall in some downtown full of sinners who need to be suitably chastised. It's a decent introduction to Dante's original, or at least to the idea of it: due to the format, Chwast can use almost none of Dante's poetry (just the first and last lines). So Chwast's Dante is a condensed and highlighted version: there's no notes or sidebars to explain how many of the people Dante meets in Hell and Heaven are ones he knew in life -- and how much he's settling scores with the Divine Comedy -- though the parade of Italians does make the general point clear to savvy readers.

So this is no replacement for the original -- what adaptation ever is? -- but it's a striking re-imagining of Dante's realms of the afterlife through the eyes of one of the best designers and artists of the past century.

(Chwast has also adapted Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales into a graphic novel; see my review.)

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