Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 22, 2011

Midway through life …

Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise (2010), adapted by Seymour Chwast, 127 pp.

Remember those illustrated classics from the 1950s & 1960s? Treasure Island, Great Expectations, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in comic book form? Most adults were snobbish about them, and I remember the illicit pleasure of sneaking one into the house. You could get the main idea of the plot, and they were perfect intros to Dickens, Verne and Stevenson for someone not ready to hoist the real thing.

Nowadays, you can’t get away from graphic novels, although rarely does anyone use this format to adapt a classic. But now we have Dante’s Divine Comedy, via the talented Seymour Chwast.

I’ve read Dante’s Inferno, and I can tell you it’s a tough slog. All those obscure references to people Dante knew — Florentine politics, Dante’s own problems (he was exiled for many years for supporting the wrong party). You probably know the plot: Dante’s losing faith, so his dead amore, Beatrice, arranges for Virgil to guide him through the seven circles of Hell, up through Purgatory (seven more circles), and into Paradise. En route, he runs into famous people (some Greek philosophers, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, a few popes, political enemies, etc.), making this the perfect revenge fantasy: he gets to make up the punishments. I can picture him, tapping his fingers together and whispering “Excellent!”

In Chwast’s version, all black and white drawings, Dante wears a trenchcoat, fedora and sunglasses, and Virgil, nattily dressed in suit, bowler hat and spats, carries a cane. Some of the damned look like they’re dressed for 1930s Hollywood parties — slinky dresses for the women, top hats and tails for the men. But most face eternity naked as the day they were born, whether blown about by winds (carnal sinners), pushing rocks around a circle (the avaricious), mud wrestling (the wrathful), lying on hot sand (blasphemers) and so on and so forth. The ninth circle holds the worst of the worst: betrayers and traitors, frozen in ice (What?! No flames!?). And who wins the prize for being the most despicable? It’s a three-way tie: Brutus and Cassius (for betraying Caesar) and Judas (you know why).

Chwast’s demons, complete with horns, wings, tails and hooves, watch over the torments and menace Dante, but Virgil and Beatrice keep him safe. As Dante moves up through Purgatory towards Paradise, demons are replaced by angels, and Beatrice grows more beautiful. Dante’s sunglasses come in handy; soon, he can barely look at her.

In Chwast’s version, it’s easy to get into Dante’s groove, but you can’t help wondering, OK, if there really is a Hell, which circle would be the worst?

Check out more of Chwast’s artwork at PushPinInc.

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