Seymour Chwast shows no small ambition in attempting a “graphic novel” adaptation of Dante’s Commedia, but unfortunately, the results are not that impressive. The poetic elements of Dante’s work are almost entirely obliterated, as the language is reduced to narrative prose, simplified dialogue, and an assortment of fragmentary captions and labels. Chwast uses aggressively anachronistic visual designs, making Dante a tall fellow in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, while Virgil wears a bow tie and a bowler.
The pace is quite fast, with approximately one page devoted to each of the hundred cantos of the Commedia, and many of the pages having only a single panel of illustration. There is a lot of creative and effective variety in the hand-lettering of the text, although a few grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. “Cerberus … allows we poets to enter the circle” on p. 21) take a little of the joy out of that too.
Some of the most effective panels are the ones that are schematic–although when it comes to the maps of the three realms, Chawast’s deliberately simplified style cannot hold a candle to the intricate triptych by Paul Laffoley. And this sort of competition is one of the reasons that this book faces an uphill battle among readers. Given that the story is unchanged from, and the words less engaging than, its original; it becomes Chwast’s task to captivate us with image and visual design. And he is hardly the first to undertake this very specific task. Gustave Dore’s engravings illustrating the Commedia are one longstanding and well-known example of an accomplished execution of the graphic form for this work. An even better (though unfinished) version was produced by one who could be considered a principal creator of the “graphic novel” in Western culture: William Blake.
In the end, Chwast’s adptation seems deficient in the sort of grandeur and gravity readers want (and for many centuries, have gotten) from Dante’s work. It strikes me like nothing so much as a brilliant student’s notebook, drawn while hearing the poet recite his age-defining vision.