Critical Appraisal: The Landscape of Hell

The representation of Hell as a cartographic region has its origins in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Dante adapted the imagery already present in medieval painting and sculpture to comment on his political situation and his own scientific and theological beliefs.  He populated it with real people, including political heroes and villains, good popes and bad popes, adulterous princesses, and monsters human and mythological.  On Dante’s spiritual journey, he traveled with the Roman poet Vergil down the various circles of Hell and then up Mount Purgatory.  Finally, led by his beloved Beatrice, he journeyed through the heavenly spheres until he was in the presence of God.

The Divine Comedy remains a challenge for readers, since the intricacies of 14th century politics of Italian city-states is not an easily accessible avenue.  While Ezra Pound used the Divine Comedy as a template for his epic, labyrinthine, and fragmentary work The Cantos, the artists profiled here use other means to gain entrée into the darkness and tortures of the Inferno.  Seymour Chwast adapts Dante’s epic by creating a world full of characters from noir films.  Gary Panter takes his beloved character Jimbo into the Inferno and Purgatory, studding the surreal punk odyssey with characters from pop culture.  Finally, Wayne Douglas Barlowe travels to Hell to paint landscapes and portraits of the inhabitants.  He creates malevolent views and horrifying visages with the steady hand of a disinterested observer, more naturalist than moralist.

Hell, like art, depends on the tastes and temperaments of the creator.  We create our own hells, as the clichéd saying goes.  Those hells can be inhabited by contemporary politicians, pop cultural footnotes, or biological horrors.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, adapted by Seymour Chwast (2010)

Seymour Chwast of Pushpin Studios has adapted the Divine Comedy in a series of illustrations.  Given the scope and ambition of Dante’s epic trilogy, Chwast has had to economize.  But the poetics of visual economy are what make this work stand out, because the artist is famous for his graphic design.  (Chwast is one of those graphic artists many have seen, yet few know him by name.  His 1967 “End Bad Breath” anti-Vietnam poster is a classic.)

Placing the Divine Comedy in a noir setting places the work in a time more familiar to modern readers, at least in terms of the visual grammar.  Flapper girls and pipe-smoking detectives exist in our collective memory more easily than the political machinations and theological debates of 14th century Italian city-states.  The Black and White Guelphs are now rival gangsters.  Beatrice is a demure dame.  Chwast makes the monsters and the tortures playful looking, an ironic visual commentary to the horrors of the Inferno.  With the horrors of Treblinka, Abu Ghraib, and My Lai, a three-headed dog seems a bit gauche.  While the medieval theocratic world of Dante has long since faded, at least in post-Enlightenment Europe, the horrors will be all too familiar.

Chwast’s adaptation is no substitute for Dante’s original, although that was probably not his intention.  A familiarity with the original will give readers a better appreciation of the illustrations.  But a familiarity will be necessary, since there is little in the way of commentary or notes.  In that department, check out Penguin’s annotated editions.

The playfulness and economy of Chwast’s images place him in the tradition of William Blake and Gustave Doré, both illustrators of the Divine Comedy.

Jimbo’s Inferno by Gary Panter (2006)

Gary Panter came to prominence in the heyday of the punk movement.  His style is dense, jagged, and darkly humorous.  In the Eighties Panter created the sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1986 – 1990, CBS), providing a surreal and anarchic take on tacky postwar pop culture.  Panter also worked with Art Spiegelman in the seminal comix magazine RAW (1980 – 1991).  Under the creative direction of Spiegelman, RAW offered a venue for avant-garde, international, and underground cartoonists and visual artists.  The decade saw the emergence of comix as legitimate visual art.  (The more mainstream comics owned and published in DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, etc. being considered “art” is a separate but interrelated debate.)  Gary Panter’s cover for Raw Volume 2, No. 1 (the issue subtitled “Open Wounds from the Cutting Edge of Comix. ”) reduces the Ernie Bushmiller character to a Picasso-esque smudge.

Panter has taken a different track than his fellow artists with Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory.  While Spiegelman tackled his inner demons and the legacy of the Shoah in the award-winning autobiographical Maus I & II, Chris Ware dealt with the interior life in the austerely drawn Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth.  Panter goes in the opposite, using the ubiquitous Jimbo to travel to the depths of hell and the terraces of Purgatory.  Jimbo resembles Bart Simpson with his spiky hair and snarky naïveté.

True to his punk heritage, Panter chooses a mall as the location of the Inferno.  “Don’t try to pass a pop quiz on Dante’s hell based on a reading of this comic: it won’t work,” says Panter in the opening passage.  “[C]anto by canto, characters are fused, action inverted, parodied, subject to mutation by my odd memories and obsessions and my odd whims, sentences are clipped.”  Instead of Vergil, Jimbo travels with Valise, his parole robot.

During his journey, Jimbo encounters drug addicts, monsters, robots, traffic jams, and space aliens.  Instead of the Western Canon that Dante “sampled,” Panter uses the grammar of pop culture.  And at the end of the volume, Panter lists “thirty-three best loved vinyl recordings” (the Inferno had thirty-three cantos).

Fantagraphics has produced a lavish volume with huge pages and a gilt cover that oddly reminiscent of Gustav Klimt (if Klimt was in a Los Angeles punk band).

Jimbo in Purgatory by Gary Panter (2004)

Jimbo’s Inferno charted the journey of Gary Panter’s eponymous hero through the hellscape of the modern mall.  Jimbo in Purgatory continues with Jimbo and Valise, his parole robot, this time traveling through a Purgatory re-imagined as an “infotainment testing facility.”  Panter opens the volume with a short introduction on the life and times of Dante.  He lays out Dante’s literary legacy, since the Divine Comedy directly influenced Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, and James Joyce.

The book is a scant thirty-three pages and measures even larger than Jimbo’s Inferno, but the cover retaining Inferno’s faux Klimtian gilt highlights.  Jimbo and Valise travel and encounter various pop cultural icons as they quote excerpts from Dante, Boccaccio, Joyce, dirty limericks, and numerous other sources.  The sources are referenced at the bottom of each page, but are unnumbered, adding a challenge to interpretation.  Dante’s Purgatory begins with Dante and Vergil meeting Cato.  Panter has Jimbo and Valise meeting Cato Fong, Inspector Clouseau’s houseboy and martial arts expert.  Jimbo and Valise also converse with the disembodied head of the Westworld character played by Yul Brynner.  At the end of Dante’s tour of Purgatory, he finally meets his long lost love, the luminous Beatrice, the personification of beauty and innocence, a terrestrial counterpart to the Virgin Mary within Catholic doctrine.  Within the subversive grammar of Panter’s vision, Beatrice is portrayed as Twiggy (real name: Lesley Hornby).  Twiggy fame and notoriety originated in her thinness as a fashion model.

Throughout the book, Panter maintains a rigid almost mannerist division of panels.  On some pages, the narrative moves forward.  On others, the panels split up a massive picture.  The division of images and architectural design harkens back to another monument of Christian doctrine, the Sistine Chapel, itself an innovative amalgamation of Christian and Greco-Roman classical imagery.

The volume ends like Jimbo’s Inferno: with a list of thirty-three albums that Gary Panter fancied, from the well-known (Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience) to the rare (Science Fiction, Ornette Coleman) to the just plain odd (Music for Robots, Forrest J. Ackerman).  Using the grammar of pop culture and sampling the Western Canon like an encyclopedic DJ, Panter spins an epic journey.  A hallucination and a dream that plays like a labyrinthine knock-knock joke.

Barlowe’s Inferno by Wayne Douglas Barlowe (1998)

Wayne Douglas Barlowe has a successful career as an illustrator for fantasy and science fiction books.  Even if one doesn’t know him by name, his style is unmistakable.  While fellow illustrator Boris Vallejo takes his cue from the noble tradition of the American pin-up, Barlowe renders his subjects with the disinterested expertise of a natural history illustrator.  Barlowe’s pictures retain the flavor of John James Audubon.  What Audubon did for birds, Barlowe does for Guild Steersmen, dinosaurs, and Overlords.  The Audubonian emulation continued with the publication of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1979) and the companion volume Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy (1996).  In each book, the aliens or mythological creatures possess a physical presence that bespeaks a plausible reality.  He designs these beings with a meticulous anatomical accuracy.  Beneath the fantastical exteriors (scales, skin, fur, etc.), one can observe the bones and muscles.

Barlowe gave vision to his own imagination, not the ideas of others, in Expedition: Being an Account in Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage of Darwin IV (1990).  The world and creatures are entirely fabricated, but the book itself has a feel of a National Geographic feature article.  Writing as a participant on the voyage, Barlowe and a fellow alien species travel to Darwin IV.  The planet presents an alternate evolutionary track with varieties of animals in a coherent ecological system.  Unlike Earth, the animals lack jaws and eyes, Barlowe theorizing Darwin IV experienced a prolonged period where the sun was blocked by clouds or fog.  The results are visionary, beautiful, and thought provoking.  (Barlowe brought this same artistic and scientific rigor to the creature design of Avatar, the only saving grace in that otherwise overlong, tedious, morally simplistic cinematic train wreck.)

Barlowe’s Inferno brings together the two strands of his previous work and welds them into a uniquely innovative version of Hell.  He reprises his role as the artist-traveler, in this case working like a netherworldly John Singer Sargeant painting portraits and landscapes.  Instead of the Post-Reconstruction nouveau riche and the Grand Tour, we see Belial, Lilith, and Molech.  Instead of cathedrals and canals, we see the teeth of Leviathan crushing cities made of bricks, the bricks made of souls hammered and smashed into place, Procrustean and sadistic.  Because Barlowe’s work espouses a natural history ethic, he also included the portrait of an Australopithecine demon, a kind of Darwinian Cain and a wry callback to the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.  A “firstborn” chews a soul in the desolate landscape, the creature a remnant of the original inhabitants of this alien environment.  Barlowe posits that Hell was colonized following Satan’s Fall in the same manner of human colonizations.  The fallen angels became demons and then dominated the landscape in the manner akin to human deforestation, urban development, and gentrification.  Demons have designer handbags, this time made from filleted human skin.

Barlowe renders the textures with haunting precision.  Demons have skin like stone and the damned have bodies warped like funhouse mirrors, their stony bodies morphed into ironic tortures.  The book, a combination travelogue-natural history catalogue, makes, to paraphrase Milton’s description of Hell, “darkness visible.”  Barlowe’s darkness is culturally diverse, physically horrific, and uniquely visionary.  It represents a modern homage to Dante’s Inferno and a daring extrapolation on the theme of damnation.

Brushfire by Wayne Douglas Barlowe (2001)

Wayne Barlowe returns to Hell in this slim volume.  Subtitled “Illuminations from the Inferno,” he presents the reader with a series of frightening visions, simultaneously horrifying and erotic.  A civil war brews in Hell between the Demons Major Sargatanas and Astaroth.  The reader is shown Astaroth’s Herald and Standard-bearer.  The Herald is “marginally humanoid” with two wings sprouting from a malformed mouth sitting within the middle of its chest.  It appears like a wicked parody of the term vagina dentata.  On another page, a succubus beckons with stony skin and cloven feet.  The eroticism is alienating, since one can’t escape the fact her skin is cold stone.  We see Hannibal and his Army of Souls, reminiscent of the Deadites from the classic film Army of Darkness.  The picture gives no quarter to anything like camp or humor as in the Bruce Campbell cinematic masterpiece.

Continuing the multicultural aspect of Hell, Barlowe depicts a group of Behemoths, huge beasts of burden to Sargatanas.  Stabled like giant horses, the Behemoths used to be chamberlains, viziers, and court officials of Chinese emperors.  One need not go far these days to find an appropriate public official deserving this treatment in eternal damnation.  One might be less eager to start pointless wars if one had this punishment as a reward.

One of the most frightening visages Barlowe depicts is that of a Scourge.  It is “a winged and limbless enigma” with the face like that of an African mask.  Morphologically perverse, its classification remained that of a demon.  Its purpose was to subjugate souls.  “Without flocks of them there could, and probably would, be complete chaos in the streets of Dis.”  While the inhabitants of Hell exhibit bodies bent, broken, and battered, twisted into incoherent shapes, and subject to chaotic tortures, its leadership and organization is rigid, authoritarian, and orderly.  The stark contrast between these two phenomena gives Barlowe’s vision a ferocious punch.

One on the last page, the reader sees a battle-scarred veteran from wars in Hell.  He gives General William Tecumseh Sherman’s expression that “War is hell” a physical form and then turns it into a sick joke.  One is thankful that soldiers only have to die once when they are involved in armed conflicts.  In Hell, soldiers are given no such luxury.  They unquestioningly obey the fickle orders of their sadistic superiors, suffer horribly, and then fight again and again.  The prospect of such an existence is numbing to even contemplate.

Wayne Barlowe again delivers with his dark illuminations.  Even today, with our myriad horrors and catastrophes, our everyday sadism and incompetence, art can show us there can be something even more horrifying.

3 thoughts on “Critical Appraisal: The Landscape of Hell

  1. What is it about Hell and its environs that still attracts us, even post-Age of Enlightenment? A desire for punishment, some element of sado-masochism within our culture? Great fodder for decadent art/artists, Hell so diverse, so horrific that artists can take their gloves off, knowing their worst imaginings are tepid compared to the pit of Desolation.

    Good piece, drawing lots of different strands together. Careful, you may morph into Robert Anton Wilson…


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