Seymour Chwast: The Canterbury Tales

Zine Scene: The Canterbury Tales

Seymour Chwast: The Canterbury TalesSeymour ChwastThe Canterbury Tales (Bloomsbury, 8/30/11)

Even English nerds have trouble with The Canterbury Tales (and this coming from a self-proclaimed English nerd). Long, famously unfinished, written in archaic English, and littered with centuries-old humor, Chaucer’s classic is dense and difficult to understand. There is hope, however! Readers who struggled through Chaucer’s original will love Seymour Chwast’s witty and stylish take on the story. This new offering from the author of the Divine Comedy graphic novel revisits and revises the Middle English tome and makes it much more enjoyable.

The graphic-novel edition’s brevity gives it the edge over Chaucer, not to mention its translation into modern English. Pages of prose are reduced to captions and dry dialogue, while the action is streamlined and organized into neat panel formulations. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” is one of many short and to-the-point chapters in the story (“I met the first of my five husbands when I was twelve. They were mostly gentlemen. Didn’t God say to go forth and multiply?”).

Chwast condenses the narrative until he finds a sort of absurdist humor in minimalism — something that should be even funnier for fans of the original. However, first-time readers will be glad to know that even when the stories lose some of their impact (or sense) in translation, the essence of the story survives.

Seymour Chwast: Divine Comedy

Zine Scene: Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast: Divine ComedySeymour Chwast: Divine Comedy (Bloomsbury, 9/2010)

What happens when you drop a noir hero into a 14th Century Italian epic?  Seymour Chwast’s stylish and intriguing graphic-novel version of Dante‘s Divine Comedy provides an answer. Chwast combines dynamic illustration and easily understandable prose to give the epic a fresh new look and an unlikely appeal for non-academic readers. Those of us uninterested in centuries-old religious poetry will be delighted, but readers familiar with the original will find even more to love.

Chwast’s story closely follows Dante’s original epic, in some respects more than others. His Dante, imagined here as a noir detective, joins guide Virgil to discover the perils of the underworld, the meaning of God’s justice, and, in this case, lots of flappers. The author, now sporting a trenchcoat and smoking an ever-present pipe, regards the horrors of hell with all the hard-boiled eyes of a Dashiell Hammett hero, explaining away punishments with all of the original Dante’s stoic resolve.