Dante was a poet of the thirteenth Century. Born in Florence, his wife was chosen for him when he was just 13, but his true love was a woman named Beatrice. In the Conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibilines, Dante was on the side of the Guelphs. But after his side won, they split into the Black Guelphs and White Guelphs and a new civil war erupted between them. This time, Dante was on the losing side and was banished from Florence.
For 19 years, he remained in exile, roaming from city to city in Italy. During this time, he wrote his Divine Commedia, populating heaven, hell and purgatory with people from his own life, both friends and foes. It takes the form of a dream that becomes a real experience for the poet, and takes him through Hell, Purgatory, and on to heaven.
Written as a poem, it can be very difficult to understand, and Seymour Chwast has adapted it into a graphic novel, making it much more understandable, as well as far shorter.
One day, Dante finds himself in a dark and lonely wood. He attempts to find a hill to climb out and see where he is, but is confronted with three large cats who bar his way. The Poet, Virgil, appears, and offers to lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory, and then on to heaven, at the behest of three women from Dante's life, one of whom was his lover, Beatrice, who had died.
Dante returns home to write his last will and testament, and to wonder if he will ever come back, and then is guided by Virgil to Purgatory. First, they must cross the river that leads to the lands of the dead. And even though Dante is still living, the ferryman agrees to take him across. Partway over, there is an earthquake and Dsnte faints. When he wakes, they are on the shores of Hell. Ahead is Limbo, where the virtuous Pagans reside.
They are greeted by Minos, the judge of the Second circle of Hell. Here they witness people being punished for falling to one of the many deadly sins. The last circle of Hell is frozen, while it is only the fifth circle of Hell that is hot. The Ninth Circle of Hell, actually, a pit, is the domain of Lucifer and is the realm of betrayers. Worst and last is betrayal of one's Lord.
Climbing down Lucifer's body, they soon find themselves climbing up- up into purgatory. In Purgatory, Dante is marked with seven P's or Peccatae- sins. He must atone for these as he climbs to Heaven or he will not enter Heaven. Just like Hell, there are those outside Purgatory who cannot enter- those who didn't take a stance on moral issues, who are plagued with flies and bees, and one man of Dante's acquaintance who put off his salvation until the last minute- so God is making him wait to be saved.
Various sins are atoned for as Dante climbs the Mountain, passing those who fell short of the love and perfection of heaven, until he reaches the peak, and the edge of Heaven. Here, Virgil must leave him, as he cannot enter heaven. Instead, his role is taken over by Dante's Love, Beatrice.
At each level and step into heaven until Beatrice can no longer smile, as the radiance would blind Dante. All around them, the souls of heaven dance and sing for the glory of God, surrounded by beauty and light. Dante himself is allowed a glimpse of God and finds him to be love, and his love of God and his faith increases. Several times, he is passed messages to pass to those on earth from sufferers in Hell, Penitents in Purgatory and the Saved or Angels in Heaven- mostly about the corruption in the supposedly Holy Church, who Dante rails against at several points.
Those who have read the Inferno, or the Purgatorio, or the Paradisio, know that getting through this poem (which is truly epic in length), is a struggle. But Seymour Chwast has rendered each scene down to its essence, allowing the reader to understand what is going on and why. Given that, I'm not sure that depicting Dante as a 1930's style "Hardboiled Dick" Detective, complete with trenchcoat and hat, was all that good of a choice, unless he was trying to depict Dante as somewhat cynical and jaded, and perhaps he was, considering all that had happened to him in his life up until that point.
Chwast's style is remarkably the same throughout. He does plenty of nudes, but they are all done very tastefully, whether the naked bodies are being tossed about in the air or lying about in the excrement (yes, that is one of the punishments in Hell). Even the Title page, which has a demon and Virgil, with the demon slowly eating him up until only his shoes remain, fits into the theme.
My biggest problem in the story is that, unless you have read the poem, or are reading it side by side, much of the story's detail and immediacy is lost. And being in black and white is also somewhat limiting (seeing faces drawn by themselves didn't quite suggest "Sticking up out of the ice" to me- drawing it in color would have been better.
This is a great book, but it is really best when you have already struggled with the poem or are reading it side by side with the graphic novel. On it's own, it's okay, but the immediacy of the story, I feel was lost, and the ending seemed a little abrupt. Graphically, the story makes more sense than when reading it as a poem, but unless you have read the poem, you may find the story shallow. Recommended, with caveats.