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Classical Comics:

Turning Classics Into Comics

With William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde getting visual makeovers as graphic novels, the 2008 Comica Festival hosts a talk on Sunday 16 November with adaptors Richard Appignanesi,  Ian Edgington and Jason Cobley, together with their visualisers Mustashrik (Julius Caesar), Chie Kutsuwada (As You Like It) and Ian Culbard (Picture of Dorian Gray),  John M. Burns (Jane Eyre) and Mike Collins (A Christmas Carol).

Whatever would the Bard of Avon have made of the countless ways his plays have been creatively reinterpreted? Just look at what the movie-makers have done to them, transforming Taming Of The Shrew into the Hollywood musical Kiss Me Kate, rocketing The Tempest into outer space as Forbidden Planet or casting Leonardo DiCaprio as a cool, modern-day Romeo. Rather than revolving in his grave at a speed of knots, I suspect William Shakespeare might well be quietly chuffed that his writings live on centuries later and inspire fresh interpretations in such a variety of media.

When it comes to the medium of comics, there’s currently a vigorous trend, notably among new British graphic novel publishers, for stylish strip adaptations of the works of Shakespeare and those of other literary giants. Unlike the modest newsprint comic books of America’s old Classics Illustrated, these are quality book productions, strikingly illustrated and well printed and designed, running to as many as 200 pages. The timing seems right. Shrewd motivations behind this wave of classics being converted into comics have been the Government’s concern at declining reading levels, particularly among boys, and its endorsement of graphic novels in its 2008 commissioned report Boys Into Books as a key way to encourage even reluctant youngsters to take up reading.

As Wendy Cooling of Bookstart commented, "So many children get into reading through comics and picture books, and in these days of heavy advertising, visual literacy is a skill for life as well as a gateway to endless pleasure." Ian Rankin, raised on comics and writing his first graphic novel, fully supports the campaign in Scotland and cites evidence in his own family. "My son has no interest in English at school, but he has devoured the Manga Shakespeare’s and the shortened-text version of Henry V, plus the graphic novel of Kafka’s The Trial." Behind these brand new and thoroughly modern Classics Illustrated reimagined for the new millennium lie two enterprising young British publishers, SelfMadeHero and Classical Comics.

As You Like It
adapted by Richard Appignanesi & Chie Kutsuwada

SMH’s director Emma Hayley scooped the 2008 UK Young Publishers of the Year award for her inspired pairing of the Immortal Bard with the most popular form of graphic novels among the young, manga or Japanese comics. A generation of British youth has been weaned on watching animation from Japan or anime and reading manga, so making and reading their own seems totally natural. Their artwork breaks out of those conventional boxed-in panels and employs far more varied and dynamic layouts, angles, cropping and bleed effects off the edges of the page. This is Shakespeare streamlined, his words reduced but unmodernised, his players transposed to some radical locales. Romeo and Juliet wander a Japan of Yakuza gangs and J-Rock stars, while a muscular Macbeth struggles in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo with floating snake witches, a four-armed Macduff and a cyber-ninja deathsquad. Manga Shakespeare may come in a compact size and in black and white, apart from some colour character pin-ups at the front, but with 200 pages they have more room than the old Classics Illustrated to convey moment-to-moment motion and emotion, to make reader’s feel they are there, inside the action, inside the speaker’s head.

Julius Caesar adapted by Richard Appignanesi& Mustashrik

Clive Bryant over at Classical Comics is taking a much more authentic approach to settings, styles and texts. There are no "unkindest cuts" to his Shakespeare plays nor Bryant’s other adaptations, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre, made to be illuminated by John Burns’ sumptuous watercolours. Adapting the texts faithfully can present problems. Adaptor Sean Michael Wilson was anxious not to spoil special scenes in A Christmas Carol by fixing them to one specific visual, and so chose to leave the death of Tiny Tim vague. "We made it so that almost nothing of the dead child can be seen. Only the fathers emotions are shown, the rest is left with ‘room to breath’, for the readers to imagine it themselves."

Bryant’s solution for those who find odd period English too difficult to read is to offer a simpler alternative, a "Quick Text" edition with "the full story in quick modern English for a fast-paced read." Classical’s Shakespeare range also comes in an intermediary third variety, "Plain Text", a halfway house between the other two, more wordy though in regular English. In all of them the vibrant full-colour artwork stays the same, only the balloons and captions change. Readers can find the level that suits them best and graduate from Quick to Plain to Original as their grasp of the story strengthens.

Nobody had tried to adapt a totally unabridged Shakespeare play into comics before the Brazilian artist Von attempted the Scottish play in 1979. It took him three years to find a publisher, Anne Tauté at Oval Projects in London. One challenge is that Shakespeare was not writing for the relatively cramped confines of the comics page but for loquacious stage, so without breaking them down into several parts and panels, long soliloquies and orations could result in some Zeppelin-class speech balloons overshadowing their speakers underneath. Some critics were hostile; Clive James in The Observer moaned that "The words are the most graphic presence… The drawings are hopelessly inadequate beside them, but that would have been inevitable even if they had been the product of talent." Undeterred, Tauté pursued Von’s vision, assigning Argentinian illustrator Oscar Zarate to Othello and British maverick Ian Pollock to King Lear. As she told me in 1982, "You can set it in space, under the sea, anywhere you like. I love it if you can take it off the stage and put it into the Fellini’s and Bertolucci’s, rather than Jonathan Miller and treading the boards."

Tauté‘s eventual four plays were republished recently by Can of Worms Press, who are now continuing in her spirit on new complete adaptations. Publisher Tobias Steed explains, "We’re seeking to provide more than simply contextual illustration to aid the reader. Each of our illustrators takes a particular and holistic approach to the play and is free to interpret as any director might in staging the play." Several are in the works, but for starters Steed has assigned acclaimed animator Oscar Grillo to reconceive The Tempest, out early next year. As this play, or scenes from it at least, are part of the National Curriculum, Steed will offer schools one set scene extracted as a ten-page fold-out for use in classrooms. In another innovation, this November Ian Pollock’s King Lear is making the leap from the graphic novel page back onto the stage as the Bristol theatre bases their production on his idiosyncratic vision.

The Tempest
adapted by Oscar Grillo

Following a similar line is SelfMadeHero’s Eye Classics imprint, which teams distinguished, distinctive artists with expert adaptors. After their version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Marguerita, the husband-and-wife partnership of Andrzej Klimowski and Danusja Schejbal are completing Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, adapted already this year by Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy for the literary heritage celebrations at the Edinburgh Festival and for NBM Books by Italian maestro Lorenzo Mattotti. There is always room for another version of these timeless tales, as makers of movies and television know so well. So Wilde’s Picture Of Dorian Gray, on our screens again soon, can live again in comics from Ian Edgington and Ian Culbard, while their next job is the whole Sherlock Holmes casebook. Also from SMH, French-based author and playwright David Zane Mairowitz has collaborated sparklingly with daring French artists Chantal Montellier on Kafka’s The Trial and Alain Korkos on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray
adapted by Ian Edgington & Ian Culbard

Over at Walker Books, they are covering everything from Gareth Hinds’ Shakspeare renditions and favourites Robin Hood and Beowulf to Marcia William’s delightful cartoon strips of Shakespeare and Dickens for younger readers and "Graphic Pop-Ups", comics with eye-popping fold-outs, starting with Dracula. Shannon Hale for Bloomsbury has given Rapunzel a Wild West makeover as a sassy long-haired cowgirl, while Quirk Books have tied in with the latest David Fincher film and released an utterly charming, sepia-tinged hardback re-telling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. With Marvel Comics also in on the act, there’s never been a more exciting, innovative time for graphic adaptations of our greatest masterpieces. Lou Cameron, illustrator of the 1955 Classics Illustrated version of The War Of The Worlds, once remarked, "It began as one of the best ideas in the field." That idea seems to be still working well nearly seventy years later.

Gavin Housley from the graphic novels department at Foyles provides one high-street retailer’s perspective on the genre: "There are other countries which are far more familiar with graphic novels than we are as a nation on the whole and as a result these ‘adaptations’ are relatively new to us. I think they are often a good introduction for the younger generation to work that they would usually not attempt to read. They are all selling well at the moment, which I think is partly due to the aura surrounding the original work and their inherent ‘newness’ as visual pieces. I think there is a great deal of room for this genre to grow, providing it is done well and that the effort is put in to make them ‘adaptations’ as opposed to the badly drawn dumbing down that I sometimes come across. Of course some of them will need to be simplified to a degree, but this needs to be done properly."

Frank Norton-Hill at Reading’s dedicated manga shop Red Garden Manga  adds his views: "The Manga Shakespeare series has a good following. It has proved to be a means by which the reader is able to understand the plot/storyline more clearly, without losing the original concept, as the text is retained. Shakespeare enthusiasts have welcomed the alternative viewpoint that the manga provides. Guys in secondary education have appreciated the pictorial approach, helping them understand Shakespeare in greater depth. I am aware that the books have been used for drama adaptation of his works in schools. Most adults, who may have struggled with the original text in earlier years, only wish that the manga version had been available to them. They are now given the opportunity to return to these works with enjoyment."

"For the other works, which now have a manga format, such as Master & Margherita and Nevermore there is interest, but not to the same degree as the Shakespeare. Other titles due for release will be supported, although I am not sure about the Sherlock Holmes series, but we will see. Some of the difficulty with these books, from my point of view, is that more mature readers may not venture into a dedicated manga bookshop. But those who do, acknowledge the efforts of SelfMadeHero to bring classics to a more general reading public. I am sure that there is a future for this line of interpretation of classic works of literature, but fear that the marketplace could become swamped as publishers recognise the demand for manga and want to get on the ‘bandwagon’."

And to conclude, Emma Hayley from SelfMadeHero comments: "Marrying classic texts with cutting edge visuals gives our books a global appeal. The fact that big trade houses abroad, setting up new graphic novel imprints, have bought the translation rights to our titles in a number of key territories is testament to the rise in the graphic novel market globally. In the USA, our Manga Shakespeare titles have been reprinted several times. In the UK, sales of our backlist continue steadily in the trade, and sales direct into schools are really picking up some momentum now. By this time next year, we will have 16 titles in our Manga Shakespeare series. We expect our new Sherlock Holmes series, which launches next Spring with Hound Of The Baskervilles, to be a best-seller, what with it coinciding with the release of two new Sherlock Holmes films. Graphic novels and manga, as long as publishers continue to maintain high publishing standards, will in my view continue to grow worldwide!"

Cheap and cheerful comics for kids used to be commonly perceived by parents, teachers and librarians as damaging to children’s literacy and even their eyesight. This stigma was what Russian-Jewish immigrant Albert Kantner was up against in 1941 in New York when he conceived of condensing famous plays and novels into a single American comic book. To finance the first issue featuring The Three Musketeers, Kantner and partners gambled $8,000 on printing a quarter of a million copies. They tripled their investment. Kantner set himself up as the publishing company Gilberton and rebranded the trashy-looking Classic Comics into the classier Classics Illustrated at a pricier twenty-five cents without advertising, their colour interiors still on standard newsprint but packaged inside painted covers on card stock. Sales were phenomenal, peaking at two to four million copies every month and exporting to 36 countries in 26 languages. Profits were equally huge, because the stories were public domain and artists got only one flat fee, so there were no royalties due.

It’s debateable how many schoolchildren based their homework on these often overly simplified versions, and how many of their teachers noticed. Classics Illustrated never claimed to replace their source material, urging readers, "Don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original." It took until 1947 before the series tackled any Shakespeare, plumping for the blood-soaked Julius Caesar. In all, 169 different stories were adapted in the States until the company closed in 1971.

After some revivals and continuations of the brand over the years, these original Classics Illustrated are making an unexpected comeback here in a revamped, re-mastered format courtesy of collector and dealer Jeff Brooks. "The re-colouring is vibrant and fresh and we print the Regulars on a high-gloss inner paper within a laminated cover in perfect bound form, the Juniors the same except for Matt inner paper. Now with a spine, they look much more substantial." Kicking off with high-impact, high-recognition titles like War Of The Worlds, Oliver Twist and Robin Hood, Brooks is offering the ‘Regular’ series at £2.99 and the ‘Junior’ range at £2.50 of fairytales from British newsstands and bookshops.

Christophe Gaultier’s stylish Robinson Crusoe

Meanwhile, Classics Illustrated are also back in the States from Papercutz,  available here through Turnaround. They are mixing American adaptations revived from the 1990s by Rick Geary and Kyle Baker with recent painted classics translated from France, such as Marion Mousse’s moody Frankenstein and Christophe Gaultier’s stylish Robinson Crusoe. That familiar black-and-yellow logo still promises "stories by the world’s greatest authors", stories we are still hungry to read.

Posted: November 9, 2008

This article originally appeared in The Bookseller in 2008.


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