Seymour Chwast's adaptation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was recently released by Bloomsbury USA.
Seymour Chwast is, quite simply, a living legend of art, design, and innovation. He’s distinguished himself in a variety of fields and positions, including book cover and poster design, commercial typography, illustration, and packaging. The recipient of numerous awards, Chwast is also a co-founder of Pushpin Studios (which he recently rebranded as Pushpin Group), one of the most influential and important design studios of the past half century or so.
Never one to rest on his past accomplishments, in recent years Chwast began an entirely new era of his career with the release of Dante’s Divine Comedy, his first graphic novel. Now he’s back with another classic work he’s turned into an extended comic: a lively, entertaining, and laugh-out-loud fun adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and he’s ready to share the secret origin of these graphic novels, as well as his renewed interest in the comics medium.
Why adapt this particular work? Is there something about it that speaks to today’s audience?
For me, it’s the incongruity of something that’s known as a classic done in a style which is firmly comic style, just because you don’t normally think of those two things together.
But also, for me, the Dante [Inferno] and Canterbury Tales—Dante is my first book—and The Odyssey, which is going to be my third adaptation, are just things that I understood from when I was in high school were important to read, but I never read them. So, here’s a chance for me to catch up. [Laughter] And I found them fascinating, all three books, getting into it and realizing what great works they are.
Well, that leads into my next question. Realizing how monumental these works are in our culture, but also how rich and full of invention these books really are, I was wondering just how hard it was to edit and cut down these works to fit within the confines of a graphic novel. I mean, just dealing with the language alone is a Herculean task.
Well, as long as I could illustrate the action, it made it easier for me. So I was describing what was going on, trying not to leave out anything important, and trying to give I don’t know about the language itself. I don’t know exactly what Middle English sounds like. I just did it the best I could. It’s consistent with what’s going on.
Right. Still, I’m curious, because it retains the flavor, even though you stripped away so much of the verbal ornamentation and such. So, was it a case of where you just sort of knew when you had the lines down right?
Well, Canterbury Tales is mostly just very funny, broad humor, so it gave me some leeway in describing what was going on. But other tales were sort of serious, and one of them was anti-Semitic. A few are really very thoughtful and rich, but most of them are things that all of us now can relate to—you know, relationships, men, women, trying to get ahead, egos and fortunes and all those things. They’ve been around for a long time.
You know, one other aspect that struck me while reading your version of the work is how much of it really is concerned with a sort of medieval celebrity culture.
Well, yeah, but they were kings and queens. They were that kind of celebrities.
Right, but then, you have all the hangers-on, and all the dignitaries associated with them, as well as the whole church hierarchy. And a number of the tales revolve around members of these various positions abuse the powers granted by their stations—not unlike the political and celebrity scandals we see today. But that gets right to the heart of what this book a truly great work, doesn’t it — the fact that these characters are so very recognizable, in whole or part, in the lives of people today?
Yeah, and how relevant they are to today. Some of these tales could be considered modern, and they were somewhat political, as well, although the Dante is very political. I mean, he was really very annoyed at the church, because it was corrupt, and that’s true to some extent with Canterbury Tales—especially with some of the characters who are part of the clergy, but are in business for themselves.
Yes, and they made no bones about, either.
No, and everybody understood it! [Laughter]
They might not have had texting and tweeting back then, but they certainly had their own ways of getting the word out, didn’t they?
Well, how do you approach doing a project like this? You obviously sit down, as you said, and read the whole book. Do you wait until you’ve read it through and created a script before you draw anything, or are you sketching scenes during your first reading of the original text, or ?
No, I start with page one and sketch it out. I do it in two page spreads. And I have to keep it a reasonable number of pages, so I try to figure out, from what I’m working with—my reference or the translations—I try to figure out how long it’s going to be, and work from there.
So far, I’ve been pretty lucky. It’s worked out okay, sort of doing an outline of the whole thing, and allotting pages.
So, I start right in. Sometimes there is emphasis in part of the stories because they are more visual. I try to take advantage of things that would make a great page or a great spread, even though it may not appear to be too important. But I always consider what’s going to look good, and hope that people don’t take it too seriously.
How much do you alter your own art when working on these projects? Do you try to adopt some of the era’s visual sensibilities into your own, or do just let it all come out naturally?
Well, some of the characters are stereotypic, you know? They’re things that I can understand, and they’re things we could all understand. The characters, whether they’re good or bad, they have appropriate looks to them.
Yeah, and of course there was the class system, almost a caste system in a sense, in operation then. Basically, your appearance, actions, and thoughts were all supposed to be a reflection of your status.
Sure. And then, pompous people usually are [portrayed as] fat, and have silly expressions on their faces.
Exactly, almost too happy. [Laughter]
Now, is this all really a result of you wanting to explore some of those great books you’d heard about since you were a kid? Is that really what prompted these adaptations?
Yeah, pretty much. I can’t afford to work with a writer, and I don’t write myself. So, these classic novels, by paraphrasing and adapting it, in terms of the words, that’s something that I could do.
Right, because it is almost like constructing a Shakespearean play, because you want to build up to those one- and two-page soliloquies, so to speak. And then, there are certain scenes that you have to I mean, you have to have the butt-kissing scene. You just have to. [Laughter] That’s a classic, you have to give that it’s due.
Oh yeah, sure.
Well, I didn’t make it especially big. I made it sort of ordinary, prosaic. “It happens all the time,” you know? [Laughter]
NEXT TIME: Seymour Chwast talks about why he decided to do these graphic novels now, and why he continues working, making art long after many others might have decided to lay aside their pens and brushes and call it a day.