An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 28, 2011

Chwast, Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Seymour Chwast. Dante's Divine Comedy. A Graphic Adaptation (New York, Berlin, and London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

Reviewed by Karl Fugelso

"Film Noir Meets Medieval Monument:  Seymour Chwast’s Adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy"

Every interpretation is, to some degree, a self-portrait.  And that may never be more obvious than when, as in Seymour Chwast’s first graphic novel, the interpreter refracts his or her response through another context, through a filter that has roots outside of both the world in which he or she operates and the one that gave rise to his or her subject.

A well-respected New York artist born in 1931, Chwast has cast the Comedy as a film noir.  In 127 pages of pen-and-ink drawings, Dante tromps through hell, purgatory, and heaven in a trenchcoat, fedora, and sunglasses, with a pipe jutting from his perpetual scowl.  Although he crosses wild landscapes, meets traditional denizens of the afterworld, and sometimes falls into a swoon that would make Sam Spade cringe, he also passes through speakeasies, burlesque theaters, and carnivals, encounters dapper dons, pug-nosed thugs, and gangster molls, and narrates his story in a fashion that would make any gumshoe proud.

In sentences as short and to the point as a bullet, he paraphrases the action, circumstances, and/or dialogue in each major episode.  In Inferno 3, he notes, “Capt. Charon ferries the new dead souls across the river to the other side”; in Purgatorio 27 he observes, “An angel wants us to ascend to the earthly paradise.  But I am tired”; and in Paradiso 31, he says, “I am forever grateful for your guidance, Beatrice,” as she joins the other souls in the mystic rose.  On occasion, his narrative is augmented by maps, labels, and remarks from other characters, as when Virgil says of the hypocrites, “The[ir] clothes are very heavy…they are lined in lead.”  And the illustrations often reinforce or supplement the protagonist’s comments.  But Chwast’s inscriptions give far more than they get, for, without them, perhaps only the most visually literate dantisti could relate the illustrations to the Comedy.

Besides being distanced from Dante’s text by a thick veneer of film noir, the images are often so minimalist that even direct references to the Comedy may be overlooked.  In the fourth of four scenes for Inferno 11, for example, a foreground figure of Aristotle in a beard and toga, but without shading or texture, stares towards us as he points a thumb towards a bar graph that would be incomprehensible without an arrow pointing to it and saying, “Reasons for Different Levels of Punishment,” as well as labels below the bars reading “not so bad,” “very bad,” and “terrible,” and labels above the bars reading, respectively, “no self-control,” “malice,” and “insane brutality.”  In the second of three scenes for Paradiso V, which would be equally incomprehensible without (and perhaps even with) a label saying, “In the sphere of Mercury,” we are given a bird's-eye view of Dante and Beatrice in a white circle interrupted by clouds and surrounded by a black sky sprinkled with stars and the sun.  And in the second of two scenes for Paradiso 34, a profile figure of Dante stares up from within an inverted blank “v” at a black sky whose particular meaning hinges on the quote above it:  “‘At this point power failed high fantasy/ But, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,/ I felt my will and my desire impelled/ By the love that moves the sun and other stars.’”

Indeed, at least some of the illustrations are so crude that they may cast doubt on Chwast’s ability to faithfully convey even their basic subject, much less his perceptions of the Comedy and/or film noir.
  In Inferno 1, the woods in which Dante finds himself are represented by a dense pattern of thick scribbles that parallel the surface of the page and do not seem to overlap each other or cast shadows.  In Purgatorio 23, the gluttonous have shaky heads with facial features that comprise merely:  “j”s, “u”s, or dots for noses; overtly scribbled rectangles or inverted commas for eyes; and wobbly rectangles, circles, “w”s, or upside-down “v”s for mouths.  And in Paradiso 16 every building behind Cacciaguida is seen from a different angle, and sometimes more than one.

Yet these seemingly crude approaches often represent inspired storytelling and clever echoes of fourteenth-century art.  The maze of scribbles in Inferno 1 is not only appropriate for a wood in which Dante has apparently lost himself, but also invokes the patterned backdrops in trecento paintings.  The primitive heads in Purgatorio 23 trade Renaissance illusionism for far more visceral expressions of starvation.  And as Cacciaguida refers back to the twelfth century, the buildings behind him match a late-medieval convention for distinguishing an architectural backdrop from the immediate circumstances of a foreground figure.

Of course, this deceptively subtle style meshes well with film noir, the Comedy, and graphic novels, for all three are sophisticated yet accessible.  Dante weaves a complex political program and profound spiritual insights into a gossipy tale peppered with bawdy references and couched in the vernacular of his main victim—Florence.  Film noir dwells on deep moral ambiguities in lurid tales of sex, drugs, and (proto-) rock and roll, not to mention violence.  And graphic novels wrap the pictorial immediacy of comic books around overtly high-brow themes and extremely intricate plots (often by writers linked to art-house cinema and coffee-house literature).

But it is perhaps in the differences between these layers, particularly the Comedy and film noir, that we can find the greatest value in Chwast’s interpretation.  As he boils Dante’s text down to what many an on-line reviewer has compared to a “Cliff’s Notes,” he concomitantly remarks on the subtlety of its language.  As he interrupts his film noir with human-headed serpents and other fantastical elements, he underscores the creative limitations of that genre.  And as he foregrounds those and other gaps between the two, he points to the many challenges of interpreting the past, particularly the impossibility of perfect knowledge, complete articulation, and absolute objectivity.  He reminds us that we cannot fully understand what something means to anyone other than ourselves, and perhaps even to ourselves.

Indeed, as he himself demonstrates, we can perhaps gain greater insight on an interpreter—and find fresher perspectives on his or her subject—when he or she does not even pretend to completely comprehend a subject, much less to fully reconstruct it.  In using an obvious mash-up to showcase what I, in my subjectivity, see as his perceptions of the common denominators between the Comedy and film noir, he sets those parallels against a backdrop of himself (and us).  He advertises that he at least facilitated any common denominators we perceive, and he invites us to see them, and the rest of his subject(s) as if through his eyes.

With any luck, he will also inspire other artists to blatantly interpret medieval monuments via cultural systems that have not hitherto been associated with the Middle Ages.  Rather than, say, burying an essay on 19th-century capitalism amid a painting of 12th-century serfs, or just dropping a Nike logo into the middle of a film about 14th-century knights, they, too, will hopefully wrap broad and deep analogies in obvious and substantial differences.  Without effacing themselves or insisting that they are presenting the truth, they, too, will hopefully give us original and extensive responses to both the Middle Ages and their ostensible lens(es).

Karl Fugelso
Towson University