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Saturday 8 December 2012

Dante’s Divine Comic Book

Dante Alighieri (circa 1265 - 1321) is one of the most famous figures of European literature... and also one of the earliest. Although commonly associated with the Florentine Renaissance, he actually predated people like Botticelli and Michelangelo by two hundred years. The famous portrait of him in Florence Cathedral (left) wasn’t painted until more than a century after his death.

Dante’s most famous work is a long narrative poem called The Divine Comedy. This is in three parts, containing detailed descriptions of, in turn, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Not surprisingly, the first part—called the Inferno (which is simply the Italian word for Hell)—is the best-known and most popular. I bought my copy from a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge when I was a student in 1977, and—despite several abortive attempts—I still haven’t read it. It’s one of those books, like Finnegans Wake, that in spite of being one of the coolest things ever written just sits there on the bookshelf, decade after decade, not getting read.

What’s needed, of course, is a nice reader-friendly comic-book version of Dante's Inferno. And that’s exactly what Hunt Emerson has just produced (available from Hunt is best known to Forteans for his long-running Phenomenonix feature in Fortean Times, but he’s also produced what might be described as “intelligent but irreverent” comic-book adaptations of various literary works ranging from the Book of Leviticus (with Alan Moore) to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. And now he’s done the same for Dante.

The complete poem of the Inferno is over 4700 lines long, so in a 71-page comic adaptation it’s inevitable that you end up with a somewhat condensed version of the original. For example, there is no mention in the comic book of Saladin in Limbo. On the other hand, when Dante meets the group of classic poets in Limbo he has to put up with a couple of pages of really bad limericks, which I’m sure aren’t in the original. People who are used to Hunt Emerson’s style will be expecting this sort of thing... although according to the helpful endnotes by Kevin Jackson, the adaptation is surprisingly faithful to Dante. [I thought I'd found an error in that the comic puts Aristotle in Limbo, who doesn't appear by name in Dante's version... but he is referred to obliquely as "the Master of those who know". Thanks to Kevin Jackson for putting me right on this!]

As well as giving the reader a vivid picture of the topography of Hell, as envisaged by Dante, Hunt Emerson’s version also provides an interesting insight into the nature of Dante’s poem itself. It really is a work of the Renaissance, and couldn’t be anything else. If it had been written earlier, during the darkest days of the Middle Ages, it would have been a simple warning to sinners about the dire punishments awaiting them in the afterlife, presented in a pious framework of the accepted Christian cosmology and demonology of the time (the same would have been true if it had been written centuries later, in a post-Reformation Protestant country).

In fact, the poem draws heavily on the pre-Christian mythology of Europe, and of Italy in particular, for its symbolism and terms of reference. But the thing that really comes across loud and clear is that Dante wasn’t as interested in providing a warning to future sinners as he was in cataloguing the misdeeds and torments of all the specific individuals who’d pissed him off over the years. To quote Dante (the comic-book version, that is) “... Hell was a sort of personal revenge theme-park, dedicated to getting back at all the bastards that have done me down in my life.” In other words, Dante’s Inferno isn’t pious moralizing, it’s satire. That’s why it’s great literature – and it took a comic-book to bring that point home to me!

Now, if only Hunt Emerson could be persuaded to take on Finnegans Wake...

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