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Hell reimagined in comic strips: the influence and transformations of Dante and

Virgils Conceptions of Hell in Swamp Thing: Love and Death and Antoinette Kehrt
Camilo Alejandro Garca Camelo
Throughout history may representations of hell have been created using Virgils Aeneid or
Dante Alighieris Divine Comedy as source of inspiration. However it is also important to
note how these conceptions keep not only influencing a relatively recent medium such as
the graphic novel, but how it changes throughout differeng titles. The main objective of this
text is not only to show how Dante and Vergils depiction of hell is still used in graphic
novels and comic books today, but also to show how this vision changes throughout
different authors and their personal interpretation. For this purpose I have chosen two books
in particular: Swamp Thing: Love and Death by Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette and
Antoinette Kehrt Zurck by Olivia Vieweg. Although both examples are catalogued as
Graphic Novel, each one of them has a different visual treatment. However they do share
one thing in common that relates them with Vergil and Dantes works: the descent into hell
as a pilgrimage either in a physical or spiritual way.
Lets see how hell functions inside these comic books: in Swamp Thing hell is not that
different from Dantes conception as a place of torment for damned souls. However instead
of being a space divided in specific areas reserved for each sin, this place is chaotic and
formless. Unlike Dantes hell, there is no presence of God because everything inside of this
dimension is built on mans suffering. The place is cluttered with demons that taint and
mock everyone who enters. The Swamp Thing has a Half-Demon/Half-Human guide in
hell called Etrigan who agrees to be the Things guide in exchange of a flower worn by The
Phantom Stranger, Swamp Things former guide in heaven. The main reason why the
Swamp Thing decides to take a tour to these spiritual realms is to rescue the soul of his
friend and lover Abigail Crane, whose soul was damned to remain in the pandemonium by
her uncle and Swamp Things foe, Anton Arcane.
The Swamp Thing asks for the reason of this hells existence: Demon howcould God
allowsuch a place?(Moore, pg.131), Etrigan gives a very revealing answer:

Think you God built this place, wishing man ill and not lusts uncontrolled or swords unsheathed?
Not God, my friend. The truth is more hideous still: these hills were carved by men while they
breathed. God is no parent or policeman grim dispensing treats or punishments to all. Each soul
climbs or descends by its own whim. He mourns, but he cannot prevent their fall. (ibid, pg.134)

The previous fragment shows that God has no power in the damnation of men. Every
individual is responsible for descending into Hell, which is manmade, and compared to
Dantes vision there is no hierarchy or retribution regarding the sin committed ; only chaos.
But both visions share one thing in common: mens actions determine their downfall, and
thus construct Hell. Another interesting aspect of this fragment is Gods absence in the
creation of Hell and his inability to prevent the damnation of the human soul. In
comparison Dante constructs a system known as contrapasso in which the sin corresponds
to the punishment:
Contrapasso is one of the few rules in Dantes Inferno. It is the one law of nature that applies to
hell, stating that for every sinners crime there must be an equal and fitting punishment. These
punishments, however, are rarely simple or obvious and are usually metaphorically rather than
literally related to their respective sins. (Kameen, pp.37)

Although the punishment is metaphorical instead of literal, it still shows a previously

established order, unlike the case of Swamp Things universe. In comparison with the
previous two books, in Antoinette Kehrt Zurck Antoinette, the main character does her
journey alone, and she is not going to a realm of the dead, but to her hometown Harzberg
am Harz, to face her own personal hell, one created by memories of bullying and being an
outcast because her mother was mentally ill. She could have stayed in the United States
where she is a successful publicist married to an actor. Besides she had sworn to herself
never to return to Germany: Eigentlich war ich sicher, dass ich nie wieder einen Fuss nach
Deutschland setzen wurde. Geschworen hatte ich es mir.( Vieweg, pp. 12) yet she still
keeps an eye on her hometown watching it from a webcam that surveys the place and sends
the images online to her computer. She describes her situation as being both a warden and
a prisoner of her hometown: Wie ein Gefnginswrter berwache ich das Bild und bin doch
selbst ein Gefngene. (ibid, pp.12)
Suddenly she sees herself as a ghost floating in front of the camera which for her is the
signal to return. She is not exactly pleased of getting this message; her reaction is quite the
opposite: Was Die sah ja aus wie ich? Was zum Teufel war das? (ibid, pp.14) This scene

is similar to

Mercurys appearance on the Chapter IV of the Aeneid in which the

Messenger delivers Jupiters order to Eneas of leaving Carthage and Dido and head to his
final destination, Italy, as a ghost that vanishes in the air. So Mercury spoke,and, while
speaking, vanished from mortal eyes,and melted into thin air far from their sight.(Vergil,
Dryden, pg. 165) Aeneass response is of shock, yet after receiving the message he decides
to leave and fulfill his destination as founding father of Rome: Aeneas, stupefied at the
vision, was struck dumb, and his hair rose in terror, and his voice stuck in his throat. He
was eager to be gone, in flight, and leave that sweet land, shocked by the warning and the
divine command. (Ibid, pg. 166) Antoinette follows the same path and breaks her oath, if
only to return once to her hometown : Das war der Tag, an dem mir klar wurde: Ich muss
zurck. Einmal noch. (ibid, pp.14)
So it can be seen that in both Virgil and Olivia Viewegs work, the protagonist is reluctant
to take the fateful journey; it is only until they see a ghost or a messenger that they feel
forced to leave their comfort zone and face their destiny. An insight of how this process
work can be seen on the essay The Function of the Gods in Vergil's "Aeneid" by Dorothy
Clinton Woodworth in which she sees Mercury as a psychological force that forces Aeneas
to change his mind and leave Dido:
Others seem to be symbols of psychological forces. In this group I place Mercury, whose
appearance, as interpres divum, love miissus ab ipso (Iv, 356, referring to Iv, 222-78), to Aeneas in
Carthage is one of the incidents most resented by some readers of the Aeneid on the ground that it
deprives the hero of all free-dom of will. On the contrary, Mercury represents the voice of Destinyone might call it conscience - working in Aeneas' own mind. (Clinton Woodworth, pp.117)

The same can be told about Antoinette as she keeps on watching her birthplace via
webcam, although she had sworn herself never to return. Her own conscience is too strong
to let her forget her troubled past and the only way for her to achieve inner peace is to
travel back home. The ghost she sees that night on the camera is the trigger for her journey,
just as Mercury was to Eneas. Clinton Woodworths analysis keeps showing the
similarities between the characters of Antoinette and Aeneas:
As Prescott says (op. cit., p. 282) : "Mercury accomplishes here what in modern literature Aeneas
himself would accomplish by a calm consideration of his moral obligation." But as in modern
literature some objective episode - the taunt of a Tyrian, the complaint of a follower, or perhaps the
naive comment of Ascanius - by calling Aeneas' attention to the fact that he was building Dido's
city instead of his own, would serve to crystalize his "calm consideration" into action, so Vergil,

after careful preparation, introduces an objective messenger from Jove to remind Aeneas of his
neglected duty toward the fulfillment of his destiny and that of his race. That Aeneas is not deprived
of free will, in his own estimation at any rate, is shown by his deliberation in the verses immediately
following Mercury's disappearance (Iv, 279-86), in which he is represented as eager to go but
uncertain how to accomplish his departure. That Aeneas' conscience had been troubling him even
before Mercury's message, which merely served to hasten his decision, the poet informs us
explicitly when he makes Aeneas tell Dido (Iv, 351-55) that his sleep had been disturbed every
night by dreams of warnings from his father and thoughts of the wrong he was doing to his son.
Mercury, then, symbolically representing Aeneas' conscience, is one of the numerous supernatural
instruments used by Fate in dealing with human beings.(Clinton Woodworth, pp.117-118)

This passage shows that the protagonists could have refused to travel and face their fate:
Antoinette was doing quite well as a graphic designer in Los Angeles and had settled with
her boyfriend; Aeneas had the chance to marry Dido and help build Carthage, yet they
decide to leave because the spirits they see are a manifestation of their conscience that
urges them to face the unknown and meet their fate so that their stories comes to full
closure. And in both cases they must enter The Underworld or Hell to fulfill this purpose.
Now it is time to make a distinction between the different conceptions of hell in the works
analyzed: while the Comedys hell, the Aeneids underworld and Swamp Things
pandemonium are places found in the afterlife, Antoinettes hometown is located in the real
world. And while Aeneas goes to the underworld to find clues about his destiny and the
future of Rome, Antoinette travels back to confront her own past and reach some inner
peace. There is a similarity in the Divine Comedy and Swamp Thing: Love and Death,
regarding the role of a woman as the main reason to descend into hell, and both main
characters have a guide with them.
However there are differences between the reasons and development of these characters:
Dantes motivation is because Beatrice wants to save him from evil through Virgils
guidance, while the Swamp Thing goes to save Abigail Cranes soul from eternal
damnation and Etrigan works more as a bodyguard that helps the Thing and Abigail escape
from hell. Still both women are objects of love from the protagonists. In the case of
Antoinette kehrt zurck and the Aeneid, there is one special detail: the guide in both cases
is female. Aeneas has the Sybil of Cumea while Antoinette goes by herself. And they share
something in common with the Divine Comedy as Beatrice guides Dante indirectly through
his spiritual journey. On Swamp Thing things work a bit different as Abigails soul is not

conscious and she needs to be rescued. But still she is still the main reason why the Thing
travels to another dimension.
Each journey to hell has been depicted in different techniques and corresponds to different
times of history, yet graphically they share similarities that keep showing up. For example
Sebastiaen Vrancxs Illustration of Mercury bidding Aeneas has the messenger flying from
left to right inside the image, just like Antoinettes ghost glides in front of the camera.
Both Aeneas and the real Antoinette are located at the bottom left of the picture. On the
background there is a landscape with buildings that resemble both Carthage and Harzberg.
Notice how both spirits come from a projection device although they differ from the
historical context each illustration was made: Mercury appears from a cloud or a smoke
curtain, Antoinettes ghost shows up in a computer screen.
But not only Olivia Viewegs book can be compared only with Vergils work: It has points
in common with The Divine Comedy and Swamp Thing: Love and Death as well. One of
these aspects is the forest. For Antoinette is her temporary hostel: Ein Hotel brauche ich
nicht (ibid, pp. 37), the one place where she can relieve all the stress from meeting her
childhood acquaintances once again. She remembers the episode of how she stopped being
bullied by her friends at school as she climbed down a pretty disgusting sewer pipe, and
almost choked inside of it. She remembers the reaction of all the members of the group
except from the leader of the gang and the biggest bully, Jonathan Gruber. That is how it is
revealed her resolution to find Jonathan one last time and settle things up between them.
For The Swamp Thing in comparison the forest(in the shape of a swamp) is its natural den.
Here the Thing gathers the power it needs to defeat its nemesis Anton Arcane and send him
back to hell. The swamp also works as a portal in which the Thing relaxes, levitates and
reaches to a different plain of existence so that he can save Abby. As well as in Antoinette
kehrt zurck the forest becomes the place of passage that enables the protagonists to get
close to their main objective. For Dante the forest is the embodiment of his spiritual
struggle against evil, which he can only exit with the guidance of Beatrice and Virgil:
The dark forest--selva oscura--in which Dante finds himself at the beginning of the poem (Inf. 1.2)
is described in vague terms, perhaps as an indication of the protagonist's own disorientation. The
precise nature of this disorientation--spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political--is itself
difficult to determine at this point and thus underscores two very important ideas for reading this

poem: first, we are encouraged to identify with Dante (the character) and understand knowledge to
be a learning process; second, the poem is carefully structured so that we must sometimes read
"backwards" from later events to gain a fuller understanding of what happened earlier. (Raffa,

This shows that for Dante the forest more than a place it is also a process in which he
attains a higher degree of knowledge about himself. For Antoinette it is the forest where she
understands why she has taken this journey in search of her harasser Jonathan. The Swamp
Thing reaches other spiritual realms where he gets a bigger understanding of how does
paradise work, the existence of God and more importantly the conception of Hell as a
human creation. And Aeneas has to enter a forest by suggestion of the Sybil, so that he can
find a golden bough located in a tree treasured by the queen of the Underworld Proserpine
access the deepest parts of the underworld:
In the neighb'ring grove
There stands a tree; the queen of Stygian Jove
Claims it her own; thick woods and gloomy night
Conceal the happy plant from human sight.
One bough it bears; but (wondrous to behold!)
The ductile rind and leaves of radiant gold:
This from the vulgar branches must be torn,
And to fair Proserpine the present borne,
Ere leave be giv'n to tempt the nether skies.
The first thus rent a second will arise,
And the same metal the same room supplies.
Look round the wood, with lifted eyes, to see
The lurking gold upon the fatal tree:
Then rend it off, as holy rites command;
The willing metal will obey thy hand,
Following with ease, if favor'd by thy fate,
Thou art foredoom'd to view the Stygian state:
If not, no labor can the tree constrain;
And strength of stubborn arms and steel are vain.(ibid, pg.216)

The fact that only the chosen people can break the golden bough means that the decision of
who enters the underworld is already predetermined; by succeeding in doing this task
Aeneas is closer of fulfilling his fate as founder of the roman empire, so entering the forest
seals his final fate.
Once the protagonists of the books enter Hell or the underworld, they find its inhabitants,
that rage from damned acquaintances to horrible demons. In the case of Antoinette kehrt
zurck she finds herself as the center of attention when she arrives and finds that it is the

birthday of Julia her best friend at school, and all her former schoolmates appear only to
remind her how mean they were to her and to show that in comparison she has a way better
life than them. The flashbacks presented side to side to the encounter with the schoolmates
in pages 30 to 31 are meant to show their monstrous, sinful side from childhood.
If there is a parallel from this scene with former graphical representations in art history, it
can be seen on the representations of Sandro Botticelli from the 8th circle of the Divine
Comedy, as descripted in the following fragment of the introduction from The Drawings of
Sandro Botticelli for Dantes Divne Comedy by Kenneth Clark:
One of these is so vivid that it appears in almost every illustrated Inferno. It occurs in Canto XXIII,
where Vergil and Dante have descended to the realm of Hypocrites. Below we found a painted
people with slow steps, weeping and seeming exhausted and overcome they wore cloaks with deep
hoods before their eyes such as are made for the monks of Cologne. Outwardly they were gilded so
they dazzled, but within all lead. They pass the wretched figures nailed to the ground, without
raising their heads. No wonder that this marvelous image inspired one of Botticelli most memorable
drawings, and perhaps the most profoundly Dantesque of all Blakes illustrations.(Clark, pg. 12)

The previous paragraph not only shows the influence of Botticellis drawings in every
illustration that came after him, but it helps understand conceptually why are both sides of
Antoinettes acquaintances shown: These persons are doomed to remain in Harzberg, or as
Antoinette calls it Hell. She has, with her success as a publicist and her moving into the
United States, set herself apart from hell. One can see a parallel with Swamp Things
descent to Hell as the Thing meets again two of his former enemies: Sunderman, a military
contractor who wanted to make experiments on the Things body and who is condemned to
lick the hooves of a demon called Muttlecrunch and Anton Arcane who was sent back to
hell and now suffers as his body is being devoured by maggots. Here the Swamp Thing is
the purest character as he is an earth elemental wandering through a space of evil and
An even starker comparison can be formulated when analyzing the depiction by Botticelli
of the damned in the plain of Tolomea, as shown by Kenneth Clark:
In this ring are punished traitors against the bond of hospitality who lie here with half their faces
above the ice and their tears freezing in their eyes, thus depriving them of the relief of tears.
Alberigo tells Dante that the damned of this ring are often brought in spirit to Tolomea before their
bodies have in fact died, so that they feel the torment of their guilt before death. (Clark, pg. 74)

A similar punishment can be seen in Antoinette kehrt zurck when Antoinette finally sees
Jonathan Gruber in a hospital. He had suffered a pretty bad motorcycle accident that left
him paralyzed from the waist down in his bed. But that is not all: before the accident he had
lost his family business (a furniture store) in a fire, which the insurance company did not
cover. That created tensions among his family and his father stopped speaking with him
since. And to make things worse he lost his girlfriend after his paralysis. His desperation
comes palpable after he tells his story: Ich bin ein Wrack, Antoinette! Ein Wrack! Ich
komme hier mein Leben lang nicht mehr weg! Das ist die Endstation!(Vieweg, pg. 68)
After seeing him in this state Antoinette feels sorry for him and tells him that his former
girlfriend, thanks to Antoinettes help found a well paid job in New Zealand and has found
a husband and formed a family: Sie hat zwei ssse Kinder und ihr Mann ist ein ganz
wunderbarer Mensch. Ich hab einen Job in einen unserer Partneragenturen in Neuseeland
verschafft. (Ibid, pg.71) And she ends with a rather confirming sentence about Jonathans
disgrace: Sie lebt am anderen Ende der Welt. Und du bist hier. Fr immer. (Ibid, pg.71),
showing that he is already living in hell before death.
For the nemesis of the Swamp Thing a similar condemnation suffers Arkane as his head
can only be seen from the decomposed, insect ridden body he is punished with. Even so he
remains defiant and feels confident that he has fulfilled his revenge against the Thing:SuhStill I huh-had my ruh-revenge, didnt I? Yuh-you have cuh-come for muh-my niece, I take
it? Shes up ahead Wuh-when you sum-see her, you wont-wuh want her. (Ibid, pg.132)
The Swamp thing ignores him but Arcane still wants to know how long has it passed since
he was thrown back into hell: Nuh-no! Wait Puh- please, before you guh-go Huh-how
many years have I buh-been here? (Ibid, pg.132) The Thing gives him a mortifying
answer: Since Yesterday (Ibid, pg.132) Arcane digests the news quite bad as he screams in
pain: Yesterday?EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE (Ibid, pg.132) The torment must be very
gruesome for Arcane to think that a long lapse of time had passed after his defeat and return
to Hell. Just as Jonathan, Arcane is trapped and in both cases the images are similar to the
representations of Botticelli, Flaxman and Dor.
Antoinette had a similar motivation of revenge against Jonathan and wanted to shoot him
with a gun she kept in her lunchbox, but as she sees the miserable situation he is in, she

changes her mind: Aber es kam anders Und ich become die Chance dir noch einmal ins
Gesicht zu sehen. Vielleicht ... ist es doch gut wie es gelaufen ist. (Ibid, pg. 74) However
she decides to make an offer that might end at least his earthly suffering: Jetzt sag mir nu
reinsund bitte sei ehrlich soll lich dir gleich eine Kugel in den Kopf jagen oder
hngst du noch an dem bisschen Leben, dass du da hast? (Ibid, pg. 74) Jonathan wants to
know why she is asking him that question and her answer is very interesting: Frher wart
ihr die Hlle. Jetzt bin ich die Hlle geworden. (Ibid, pg. 76) She confirms that because
Jonathan was hell for her, now she will be hell for him. By giving him that choice he is now
given the possibility to finish it all but the one who pulls the trigger must be Antoinette. In
the end he decides not to let her pull the trigger but she leaves the offer open: Just call me
and I will be there for you!(pg. 77) although she has gotten her comeuppance by
exchanging the role of the torturer with her enemy. When she receives a text message from
one of her former friends in which it says that Jonathan has fallen into a coma and he is
now in intensive care she does not bother to answer as she knows her mission has been
accomplished and now she can return to her new home.
In Swamp Thing: Love and Death revenge, instead of being a source of retribution it
becomes a source of further disgrace for Anton Arcane as The Swamp Thing has been able
to retrieve Abigails soul from the demons that were about to maim her. Arcane, scared that
his only victory against the Thing is vanishing he actually starts to move in an effort to trap
the Thing in Hell: You ruh-rescued her! But Thuh-that was my revenge! That was all I had
luh-left in this place! She must stuh-stay! Duh-damned like me damned like meeeeee!
(Ibid, pg.137) The pursuit shows hells landscape as one with architectural forms, monsters
and tortured beings, similar to the illustrations of the Aeneids underworld by Sebastiaen
Vrancx. And while Arcane bites The Swamp Thing on the leg, Etrigan kicks his head and
opens the portal that helps The Thing and Abbys soul escape, leaving Arcane to rot
After this lengthy analysis it can be concluded that not only the motifs of hell present in the
Aeneid are still present in this generations Graphic novels but they are also reshaped into
new, more actual forms. Swamp Thing: Love and Death transforms the metaphysical space
from Dante into a chaotic realm that keeps the premise of mens sins as essential for its

construction, while Antoinette kehrt zurck brings hell into the real world, filled with
personal demons from the past which she must face. In each case hell is reimagined in new,
exciting ways that keep the conception of Dante and Virgil alive for new readers to


Sebastiaen Vranckx
Mercury Bids Aeneas to Leave Carthage (Book IV, lines 554ff.), ca. 1615
Black chalk with pen and brown ink, washed with brown ink, heightened with white; 113 x 157 mm
Antwerp, private collection

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pages 13-14. The ghost appears at her screen. 2013 Digital Color on

Swamp Thing: Love and Death. Pg. 104 -105. The Swamp Thing meditates in the forest and
levitates into another dimension. 1983

Gustave Dor, Descent into Hell.

Woodblock print

Sebastiaen Vranckx
Aeneas Enters The Underworld (Book VI) ca. 1615
Black chalk with pen and brown ink, washed with brown
ink, heightened with white; 113 x 157 mm
Antwerp, private collection

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pages 30-31. Antoinette reunites with her acquaintances in Julias birthday
party. 2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

Sandro Botticelli, Hypocrites. Quill on ink, ca. 1480-1495.

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pages 37. Antoinette sleeps on the forest. 2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

Gustave Dor, Dante in the dark wood. 1868. Woodblock print

Swamp Thing: Love and Death. Pg. 130 -131. The Swamp Thing meets Sunderman , and Etrigan
explains the creation of hell. 1983.

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pg. 50-51. Antoinette leaves the sewer pipe and the harassment stops.
2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

Gustave Dor, Traitors: Bocca. 1868.

Woodblock print

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pg. 60.

Antoinette meets Jonathan again.
2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

. Swamp Thing: Love and Death.

Pg. 132. The Swamp Thing meets
Arcane. 1983.

John Flaxman, Traitors, 1781, pen and ink.

Sandro Botticelli, Traitors. Quill on ink, ca. 1480-1495.

Gustave Dor,Caiaphas. 1868. Woodblock print

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pg. 68-69. Jonathans suffering. 2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

Sebastiaen Vranckx
InThe Underworld (Book VI lines 548ff) ca. 1615
Black chalk with pen and brown ink, washed with brown ink, heightened with white; 113 x 157 mm
Antwerp, private collection

Swamp Thing: Love and Death. Pg. 136-137. Arcane, bent on revenge, chases The Swamp Thing,
Etrigan and Abigails Soul . 1983.

Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, pg. 74-75. Antoinette gets even. 2013 . Digital Color on Pencil.

-Virgil, Virgils Aeneid, trans. John Dryden with Introduction and Notes (New York: P.F.
Collier and Son, 1909). 28/9/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1175
-Moore, Alan, Bisette, Stephen, Swamp thing: love and death, Canada, 1990, Vertigo
-Vieweg, Olivia, Antoinette Kehrt Zurck, Kln, Egmont Verlag, 2013.
- Clinton Woodworth, Dorothea, The Function of the Gods in Vergil's "Aeneid". Source: The
Classical Journal, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Nov., 1930), pp. 112-126Published
-Clark, Kenneth, The Drawings of Sandro Boticelli for Dantes Divine Comedy, Switzerland, Tames
and Hudson, London.

-An Illustrated Dutch Translation of Virgils Aeneid by Sebastiaen Vrancx - See more at:
-Kameen, Joseph, Darkness Visible: Dantes Clarification of Hell. Online version:
-Raffa, Guy, Hypocrisy. In Danteworlds, A Readers Guide to the Inferno. Online version:
- http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/gallery10.html
- http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/gallery12.html

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