Dante’s Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast takes on Dante’s Divine Comedy, giving the classic journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven a 1930s twist

Seymour Chwast is an icon of the design world. AIGA, an American professional designers association, suggests that he “helped reintroduce the long divorced principles of illustration and design.” This is his first graphic novel, however, and he’s chosen to go back to the classics and illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Divine Comedy tells the story of a fictional odyssey that its author undertook, travelling through Hell, Purgatory and finally Heaven, to catch a glimpse of God. It’s a cautionary tale – on his way through the underworld, Dante spots a lot of local characters he knows to have been sinners, and he places them in grim, tortured situations ranging from wrestling with serpents to perpetually drowning in excrement.

I can’t claim to be particularly familiar with the original but Chwast seems to have created a lacklustre comic version. The most interesting part of Dante’s original is clearly the horror of Hell, but Chwast manages to make this look more tedious than horrible. The sinners barely seem to be suffering and the tortures are too simply illustrated to hold much fear.

He also dresses the few non-naked inhabitants in 1930s-style clothing, which struck us as a peculiar modernisation, given that it has little relevance to either the present day or the time the book was published.

Compare the illustrative style to the works of previous great artists inspired by the fire and brimstone, and you’re left with little emotional attachment. The text doesn’t help either – by cutting down the complexity it loses the detail.

Most of the best classical adaptations around at the moment either include the original text or at least make an attempt to come up with a solid simplification. This hasn’t bothered, leaving the whole endeavour empty of much worth.

There may be something of merit in here for Dante aficionados – not being one I find that hard to pass judgement on. From my perspective however, as a general consumer of comics, I have to admit to being sorely disappointed. This may have made the Divine Comedy more accessible but it also makes it stupefyingly dull.

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