A dumbfounding piece of meta-allegory, Jimbo in Purgatory is an English Ph.D.’s rarebit-dream. Veteran underground cartoonist Panter devotes one enormous page to each canto of Dante’s Purgatorio—except that Dante is represented by the scribbly cartoon character Jimbo; Virgil is a boxy robot named Valise; the other characters are depicted as monsters, ’70s rock stars, and Yul Brynner in Westworld; the mountain of purgatory is an enormous academic testing center; and virtually all the dialogue is quotations from classical and English poetry (and dirty limericks) that allude somehow to the episode of Boccaccio’s Decameron that corresponds to the relevant canto. Got it? Good. Now open your books and begin the exam.
As brief as it seems, the book is impossible to take in without prolonged effort; you have to unpack, cross-reference, and stare at each panel’s hermetic geometries to even begin to make sense of it. As intense as the formal schema gets, though, it’s OK to kick back and drink in the pictures. Every page is a heroic act of design, illuminated borders and all, and Panter’s dazed chicken-scratch resolves into virtuosic eccentricity. Even so, Panter’s purgatory is a closed system—its visual content is a nightmarish compacting of 20th-century popular culture’s trash heap, but nothing escapes from it—and the implication is that the lines from Ovid and Dryden and Chaucer that make up the language of Jimbo’s limbo are likewise condemned to be neither here nor there, meaningful only as currency within academia.