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Review of Dante's Divine Comedy by Seymour Chwast

By Nicholas A. Theisen
Chwast, Seymour. Dante's Divine Comedy. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010.

Known for his innovative commercial artwork and illustration in the bi-monthly The Push Pin Graphic, Seymour Chwast's first graphic novel, Dante's Divine Comedy, surprises as much because of its seeming simplicity as because of its light-hearted treatment of Dante's La Divina Commedia, a text that takes itself all too seriously. It is drawn in a relatively unadorned, minimalist, perhaps cartoonish black and white with little in the way of complicated cross-hatching or shading effects. This "simple" style juxtaposes quite starkly with rather graphic images of, for example, a devil splitting open the bellies of the sowers of discord (48) or the drunken, naked revelry of those who refused to turn away from the decadence of the world (115). The cartoonish style of Chwast's noir-ish adaptation of Dante seems to simultaneously assume and resist the childish or "comical" implications of his chosen manner of presentation.

There are many things that Dante's Divine Comedy proclaims itself to be, often in ventriloquized voices. Chip Kidd's blurb reads, "Seymour's take on this timeless classic is not only charming and clever, it is so cannily rendered that it makes Dante's complex masterwork easily understood for any reader." It does no such thing, but in the end this is to the book's credit. Marian Bantjes adds, again in blurb form, "I have to say, seen through Seymour Chwast's eyes, Hell doesn't look so bad." For Dante, to increase the appeal of Hell would be a very dangerous turn to take.

To use Dante's Divine Comedy as an aid to comprehension both misses the point of its being an adaptation and may, ultimately, do more harm than good, because as often as not, in relating "what happens" in a coldly analytical film noir-ish tone, it misses the point. This is most apparent in Chwast's telling of the story of Paolo and Francesca in canto 5 of the Inferno (20), where the "events" of Paolo's affair with his brother's wife, Francesca, are related as straightforwardly as an afternoon soap opera. The film noir styling of this fedora-and-trenchcoat Dante keeps him coldly alienated from what happens to the young lovers, when the point of the episode in the Inferno is that Dante identifies with them, feeling their pain as if it were his own, and that the deception of sin lies in such an identification. Likewise, the analytical tone of Chwast's adaptation allows him to gloss over, for better or for worse, the more prickly moments in the text, like why in Inferno canto 14 Dante chooses to out his former teacher, Brunetto Latini, as a homosexual; why the lowest depths of Hell are referred to as the Judecca, as much an allusion to Judas as to the Jewish ghettos of Italian cities; or the presence of Cato, a pagan and a suicide, as the guardian of souls in Purgatory. Moreover, some things Chwast relates simply do not appear in Dante's text. In Chwast's version Dante is "returned to [his] earthly form" (126) and gazes up at the stars from the hill, one supposes, he stood at the base of at the story outset, where in the Paradiso Dante's vision of the Empyrean concludes the poem without epilogue.

Chwast's version also misses the most basic aspect of Dante's poem, the poetry. Dante's lines struggle to contain and describe what he sees in his final vision of heaven, and the poetry is taken to its limits, as it tries to manage its own weakness. All of this, for Chwast, is as simple as "I am allowed the direct vision of God. I see a world bound together in love" (126). Again, Chwast's text is devoted more to the narrative conventions of film noir and less to the complexity and ornateness of Dante's language. The book is, perhaps, simply too short, at 127 pages, to illustrate the text and faithfully represent Dante's rich poetic language.

As an "Introduction to Dante," Chwast's Comedy fails miserably; one would be better off simply reading a Wikipedia article. However, there is no need to judge the adaptation by these standards, standards that are eerily reminiscent of the age-old prejudice that comics/cartoons must render things simply for an audience of the uninitiated, as if it were a modern day Classics Illustrated. For Chwast's graphic novel also stands in line with a very old tradition of illustrating Dante's works, a tradition that has, by now, rendered the Comedy one of the most illustrated books in the Western Canon. Gustave Doré's etchings are perhaps the best known, but there are also the drawings of Botticelli and the watercolors of William Blake and Salvador Dalí. In each case, what is at issue is how each artist envisions Dante's journey and thus interprets it, rather than a slavish devotion to questions of accuracy or fidelity. Chwast moves quickly through Dante's text, with generally only one or two pages per canto, and, while he uses many of the conventions of film noir—private detectives, terse narration, immaculately dressed bombshell blondes—his visual style has little in the way of the dramatic lighting effects and chiaroscuro that one normally associates with noir. If anything, Chwast's style is carnivalesque: the gates of Hell are the entrance to a funhouse (14), the minotaur looks like a sideshow strong man (30), Lucifer is dressed as a master of ceremonies (60-61), Marco Lombardo is a midway barker (78), and the angels of the primum mobile are synchronized swimmers straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical (121).

Even so, the visual language of noir is still present: Dante is a Sam Spade type private eye, Beatrice's wide brim hat is cocked forward at the perfect angle to cover only one eye, Virgil is more Peter Lorre (in The Maltese Falcon) than Roman poet, and the action cuts very quickly between scenes/circles, often with little explanation as to how Virgil and Dante (and later Dante and Beatrice) move from one locale to the next. One interesting and, perhaps, unintended side effect of this deliriously rapid movement through litanies of sinners, penitents, and saints is a breaking down of the rigidly logical structure of Dante's world of the afterlife. Like any modern edition of the poem, Chwast includes general maps of the three primary domains (10, 64, and 94), but, as with the poem, it is difficult to locate each scene/page within the context of this greater whole without considerable effort. The reader never quite knows where Dante is aside from the immediate locus of the allegory at hand.

It is to Chwast's credit and indicative of his style that Dante never seems to be sufficiently grounded; he and Virgil often float on spare backgrounds and drift amidst the forms of saints and sinners alike. His take on Dante's selva oscura (dark wood) has the character Dante almost floating in a pattern of tree branches that completely lack perspective (11), which has the effect of intensifying Dante's isolation. This effect is echoed later in the forest of suicides where the individual souls themselves become the flat, perspective-less plane of interwoven tree branches. Similarly, as the souls of the lustful in Inferno 5 (19) are buffeted about the plane of the page by "furious winds," so too are the words that describe what happens, and the full profile of Dante and Virgil makes it unclear whether they observe the sinners "above" them or are just another piece of the overall design of the page.

Despite Dante's Divine Comedy being proudly proclaimed to be Chwast's first graphic novel, he is at his best when the pages reflect his talents as a designer and ignore the temporal logic of space that underlies so-called sequential art. The massiveness of the giant Antaeus is masterfully emphasized by his nearly filling the entirety of a two page spread (54-55). In addition, the explosion of sinners turning into snakes (from Inferno 24, 44-45) that decorate the inside of the front and back covers reminds one of the innumerable souls who populate this afterlife, revealing their anonymity in a way that the narrative, such as it is, properly cannot. So many of Chwast's full page "panels" are diagrammatic, meaning elements on the page framed by outline, inset, or the addition of text can be taken in any order and need not be read sequentially as narrative. On the single page of Paradiso 13 (106), against the backdrop of a starry sky we see Adam, who bears the legend "greatest wisdom"; Solomon, who is labeled "the smartest king"; Christ, also "greatest wisdom"; a Do-gooder, "bound for hell"; and a thief, "bound for heaven." God, in the center of the page, points to the Do-gooder and says, "I don't draw rash conclusions!" Even though God's comment seems to be directed specifically at the dichotomous relationship of the thief bound for heaven and do-gooder bound for hell, in Chwast's text, his admonition could as easily apply to all the figures on the page—perhaps even to the book as a whole. It is important to take this last extrapolation into consideration, as Chwast's diagrammatic pages, which are numerous, are most analogous to the maps at the head of each canticle. Just as those maps serve as a guide to the topography of Dante's journey, so too may these diagrammatic pages act as a guide for how to navigate the litany of sinners, saints, sins, and virtues that Dante's and Chwast's texts comprise. What Chwast's adaptation perhaps emphasizes is how Dante's text might be read as a catalogue, rather than as a linear narrative, of descent and ascent.

In the end, what might recommend Chwast's Dante's Divine Comedy most are its whimsy and humor. A plaque next to the gate of Purgatory reads, "ENTRANCE by invitation only" (72); Ugolino's gnawing on Ruggieri looks as if he's taking a bite out of the image and page (57); the angel Gabriel is an early 20th century leather clad aviator (125); and the parachute of the messenger of God who comes to confront the demons guarding the gate of Dis bears the legend "Official 'Heaven Sent' Messenger Service" (26). All of these little touches and more may indicate that Dante's Divine Comedy does not take itself too seriously so as to act as an important counterpoint to the gravity of the poem it adapts.

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