As a follow-up of sorts to his illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy (2010), graphic artist Chwast embraces a kindred spirit in Chaucer.
Though the credit reads “adapted by Seymour Chwast,” “transformed” or “subverted” might be more precise. Here the pilgrims who tell the tales ride motorcycles, with the artist himself as the host and Chaucer waving from a sidecar. They spin stories of lust in which characters seduce each other with jaunty language: “Hey, babe, let’s party!”; “Come here, big boy. Show me your stuff!” Yet Chwast recognizes that he is doing in large part what Chaucer did, “writing in the English vernacular of the time.” As these tales comment upon and interrupt each other, Chwast aims to illustrate nothing less than the human condition, filled as it is with profound differences between men and women, romantic betrayal that barely pays lip service to monogamy, jealousy taken to lethal extremes and fables that have morals that are a little too pat for the narratives they accompany. There are plenty of beheadings, repeated bursts of flatulence and, as the cartoon Chaucer explains, action “complete with swash and buckling.” There is also a cross-cultural expanse to the epic storytelling, with biblical figures, Greek gods, Roman emperors and Arabian legends all represented within this graphic condensation of Chaucer’s classic into tales that are often as little as a few panels each.
Not quite the achievement that the Divine Comedy was, but a work that finds an artistic common denominator for Chaucer and Chwast.