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Gianni De Luca & Hamlet:

Thinking Outside The Box

Launched in Spring 2008, European Comic Art is a new twice-yearly journal put together by the International Bande Dessinée Society, the first English-language scholarly publication devoted to the study of European-language graphic novels and comics. The IBDS also runs biannual conferences and their next one is on June 19th and 20th at the French Institute and ICA in London, bringing together experts and academics from 14 different countries. Delegates to the Conference will also receive a year’s subscription to European Comic Art. This article by me on the Italian maestro Gianni De Luca ran in their first issue. His only work translated into English to date is the Commissario Spada short story in last year’s Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics.

‘Little boxes, little boxes…’. This was the title and lyric that Pete Seeger sang in Malvina Reynold’s 1962 song. It sums up one characteristic of comics, how those ‘little boxes’ help us to know where we as readers are and where we need to go next, following panels one after the other, in neat little rows. Both the creators and the readers of comics traditionally rely on successive panels, whose clusters and configurations are composed to fit within the proportions of the page, each often framed by borders and separated by blank spaces. These usually white ‘intericonic spaces’ or, to use their less elegant English term, ‘gutters’, clearly divide the panels and overall page and define and direct the order in which they should be read, separately and yet sequentially. We can jump safely across that narrow gap from one box to the next, looking back and looking ahead, spotting differences and similarities and imagining what has taken place in between.

But what happens in comics when time, action or setting are no longer kept apart clearly from panel to panel? What happens when the same location or background spread from one panel to the next, and then another? What happens when those borders - narrow frontiers or momentary blanks, like the blink of an eye - disappear and characters are no longer defined and confined by them? And ultimately, can comics function and be readable when those guiding, signposting, demarcating boxes disappear entirely?

These may have been some of questions preoccupying the remarkable Italian fumetti maestro Gianni De Luca in 1975, when he was called upon to adapt Hamlet, the longest of the three Shakespeare plays upon which he would draw with a total of nearly 30 000 words, much of them soliloquies, into a mere 48 pages of comics. (1) To meet this challenge meant that he had to devise some different solutions, literally to have to ‘think outside the box’, to think in a new theatrical way about comics. His innovative solutions were not wholly unprecedented, and have quite a few antecedents going back through time. Nevertheless, De Luca’s resulting technique stands as an extraordinary achievement in graphic literature, a technique attempted by subsequent artists but never to the same daring, sustained extent and excellence.

Hamlet adapted by Gianni De Luca:
The "De Luca Effect" repeats actors through
dialogue across this coloured version of Hamlet.

From the very first pages, De Luca forces the reader to reassess how they will navigate not merely the individual page but the two facing pages, linked in many cases into one landscape. His trompe l’oeil effect is akin to the puzzle pictures of M. C. Escher except that De Luca’s perspective, even if shifting or from multiple viewpoints, is never surreally impossible. De Luca makes only limited use of the artifices of panel borders and instead allows his actors to roam free across the page, reappearing again and again fully drawn, frequently full figure, moving in space and time through his carefully constructed decors and settings. The page literally becomes a stage, open and spacious; his characters become players largely uncropped and unfettered by ‘little boxes’. And beyond the huge demands of composition and sheer draughtsmanship this entails, he also always maintains a path for readers to follow that is totally free of confusion, so that they never lose their way as characters switch between background and foreground, from left to right, from top to bottom, in arcs and even circles.

A similar effect of course is possible in photography through multiple exposure whereby, for example, a person’s movements or a bird in flight can be recorded, instant-by-instant, within one single print. In comics, the idea of characters moving and being repeated through the same landscape seems to go back at least as far as the American pioneer Winsor McCay. As early as his seventh Sunday page of Little Nemo in Slumberland, dated 26 November 1905, McCay uses three panels in the bottom row to show a ‘tracking shot’ of three Nemos in the same environment, first swimming in a lake of cranberry sauce, then hoisting himself onto dry land and finally walking off into dense woodland shouting ‘I’m lost!’. There’s another fine example from 27 January 1907, where McCay makes the bottom half of the page into a continuous background, which he subdivides into three panels, filled with a soaring staircase. Nemo, Flip, the Princess and their guide Icicle proceed to mount the staircase, showing the four of them anew in each panel. Hergé was famously to reuse the technique on page 35 of the 1960 Tintin au Tibet, (2) where Tintin and his companions cross the three frames of a continuous mountain scene.

Gasoline Alley by Frank King, 25 March 1934:
The neighbourhood and its assorted residents.

Other precedents from America’s newspaper supplements were occasional experiments by Frank King in his Gasoline Alley Sunday pages where he would turn the whole page into one continuous landscape. For example, on 24 May 1931, King uses an unrealistic, almost isometric perspective to turn the page into a single image, like a diagram viewed from above, of the neighbourhood and its assorted residents. This angled aerial view he divides into twelve equal panels, each containing at least one fresh character to contribute their own moment of comedy. In more of an ensemble of jokes than a strictly linear narrative, no characters appear here more than once.

King went further, however, in 1934 when over three consecutive weeks he used the whole page as one image to portray a house being built, from bare site to construction to finishing touches. The first of these, dated 25 March 1934, presents repeated images of Skeezix and his pal Whimpy as they play around the foundations dug out of their favourite baseball diamond and meet a local girl. Here the threesome move around twelve identical square panels and time unfolds in sequence, although jumping ahead sometimes by a considerable period from one to the next. (3)

Chronologically nearer to De Luca’s Amleto, Fred’s Philémon series that ran in Pilote from 1965 to 1986, as well as in a series of albums, had formal experimentation as its hallmark. In a planche that appeared on page 36 of issue 571 (October 1970) the page as a whole provides the overbearing image of a large Cheshire-style grinning cat. Individual frames into which the image is divided show different narrative stages of Philémon’s progress as he explores various parts of the animal before getting dripped upon by its saliva and then falling off its paws.

Looking much further back before photography and film through the history of narrative art, I was reminded that in several of Sandro Botticelli’s drawings made between 1480 and 1495 to illustrate Dante’s The Divine Comedy, he repeats the portrayals of Dante and Virgil as they make their way through the setting and the story. (4) Appropriately Gary Panter adopts the technique for his own re-imagining in Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo’s Inferno wherein the circles of Hell are relocated to a Los Angeles mall. (5) This is a longer tradition still, used for example in Native American paintings of great battles or hunts, where the same figures recur in a large tableau.

Detail from the 14th century French illuminated book
Roman de la Rose (Novel of the Rose).

In fact, in an online exhibit entitled ‘La BD avant la BD’ [‘Comics before Comics’], the Bibliotheque nationale de France highlights this technique in a fourteenth century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose describing it as ‘[c]inétique du déplacement’ [‘kinetic displacement’] and explaining that ‘[l]e procédé a été réinventé par le dessinateur de bd italien Gianni de Lucca [sic]’ [‘the process was reinvented by the Italian comics artist Gianni de Lucca [sic]’]. (6)

Hamlet adapted by Gianni De Luca:
Architectural space.

The technique is further exemplified throughout the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles [The Hundred New Stories], a fifteenth-century collection of bawdy tales whose unique manuscript form is Glasgow University Library ms Hunter 252. As well as giving a detailed portrait of (often intimate) domestic life in late-fifteenth-century provincial France - we have scenes of musicians, soldiers, churchmen, sailors, animals and of course lovers - the artist also manages to create a feeling for the narrative within the individual pictures. To take the example of the eighty-second illustration, analysed by Alison Adams in her 1992 French Studies article on ms Hunter 252, (7) we see a finely composed pastoral scene in which the lovers are entwined amidst the undergrowth with a further two characters behind them, the shepherd in the tree and the shepherdess making a daisy chain. When we read the text we discover that the two couples are one and the same: having made love, the shepherdess tries to convince the shepherd to re-perform the feat, but after such exertions he is happy to swing in the tree.

It is this visual technique that Lew Andrews, in Story and Space in Renaissance Art, (8) labels ‘continuous narrative’. His main examples are taken from painting of the Italian Renaissance, but the phenomenon exists throughout European traditions in both manuscript and early printed forms. In short, artists or engravers would portray several elements of a story within a single image, generally placing later events in the background. To the modern mind the contradiction of an individual character that reappears and faces his earlier self may seem peculiar, and indeed a sign of a primitive medieval world-view. In fact, if we are able to suspend belief as far as perspective is concerned and accept the illusion of a three-dimensional world represented on a two-dimension plane, why not suspend believe on the level of time-based perspective and accept that a multiple-instant ‘reality’ can be portrayed in a single frame?

Other art historians have labelled this process as ‘multi-phase’. Ronald Stewart from the Prefectural University of Hiroshima commented on the Comix Scholars’ list that ‘[t]he step away from this to simple time frames with only one appearance of a character within a picture is seen as a step away from "naive" temporal imaginings of medieval art towards a more ‘modern’ temporal sensibility’. However, as some of the examples cited above have shown, the return to ‘continuous narrative’ is, on the contrary, often a sign of a far more sophisticated and avant-garde level of comics creation.

Hamlet adapted by Gianni De Luca:
Hamlet and a counterintuitive ‘eye stream’.

Indeed, a closer reading of De Luca’s reinvention of this supposedly outmoded, even ‘primitive’ visualising process suggests that it still has much to offer in terms of expanding the potential of the comics medium. One of his major innovations is his concerted avoidance, on the majority of his pages, of conventional panel divisions, as used by McCay and King. He looks back instead to revive the earlier traditions of the large, undivided single picture and finds inspired solutions to apportioning the page and arranging the narrative flow. Architecture plays a key role in this, from steps and walls (at times thin enough to be the painted ‘flats’ of a stage set) to ceilings and window ledges, from the battlements and ramparts of the castle as the ghost of Hamlet’s father hovers overhead to the twelve arches of a covered cloister, through which Hamlet and Horatio walk and talk. Apart from one flashback divided into six uniform panels which resemble stained glass windows, he keeps to the minimum any traditional white intericonic spaces that might break up the full-page compositions: in total only four on page 2 to close in on Horatio, and three on page 15 to conclude a scene between the King and Queen and Polonius.

Hamlet adapted by Gianni De Luca:
Hamlet pacing in a circle.

It is through further innovation and directorial tour de force that De Luca choreographs his actors so skilfully across these pages, from far distance to close-up, from entrance to exit, often having two or more paths of different characters converge and then separate again in a smooth, believable manner. Through the clarity of his staging, helped by the eye-catching skintight black outfit and long blond hair of Hamlet, he is able to adjust our habitual reading directions - always top left to bottom right - to accommodate more complex, even counterintuitive ‘eye streams’, such as a serpentine ‘S’ shape on page 16 or famously on page 17 (Fig. 7) a full circle of Hamlet pacing anti-clockwise as he lowers a book in his hand and raises it again (note that he shrewdly does not have Hamlet speak while pacing). The climactic swordfight plays out across a six wide-open two-page spreads, expertly presenting the combatants to show every lunge and parry, every emotion that forms this tragic finale. Admittedly, at times, when the reiterated solitary appearances of Hamlet overlap each other, as on page 11, and change in perspective, this can result in a bizarre, unrealistic multiplicity and mixture of scale, and yet the reader-viewer soon adjusts to this device and accepts it as convincing.

There have been other authors working around the time or in the wake of Amleto who have approached De Luca’s reinvention of the ‘multi-phase’ with varying ambition and success. From other European comics of the period, Pascal Lefèvre has pointed to page 38 of Fred’s 1975 Philémon à l’Heure du Second ‘T’ [Philémon at the Hour of the Second "T"] (an earlier Fred example from the Philémon series has been discussed above), and Derib’s Buddy Longway Volume 7: L’Hiver des chevaux [Buddy Longway Volume 7: The Winter of Horses] of 1978, page 4, that are good if isolated instances. (9) Among other adaptations of Shakespeare into graphic novels, for his 1983 version of Othello, (10) Act III, Scene III, on page 57, Oscar Zarate chooses to show a maze from above to follow two sequences of dialogue, although from such a distance we see no facial expressions and little body language either.

by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

A wizard at formalist exercises, Alan Moore does seem especially fond of this device, pushing it still further in Promethea (with J.H. Williams III), (11) where have characters repeat and proceed through a Moebius-strip loop in Mercury Rising (episode 15) and through one continuous setting which unfolds like a scroll, spread by spread, for almost an entire story in Moon River (episode 14). Moore and Dave Gibbons use it on occasion, and with divided panels, in Watchmen. (12) The middle row on page 7 of chapter 7 consists of one continuous setting divided into three panels, the first showing the heroes inside the ship, the third showing them exiting the ship, an ‘impossible’ image when viewed as a whole but highly effective to show time in space. Other examples in chapter 10 include the bottom row of page 18, where the moon orbits and sinks into the one night sky, or the top row of page 26 where the same ship is shown three times flying across one snowy mountain.

Elektra Lives Again
by Frank Miller

When I asked Gibbons, he was unaware of De Luca’s device and, what’s more, he told me he had never heard Frank Miller discuss it either. Even so, its inspiration on Miller is unmistakeable in Elektra Lives Again, (13) notably on a whole page where many Matt Murdocks walks around his apartment, once again an example of it being ideal for introspection and soliloquy. Joe Sacco has also sometimes incorporated De Luca’s technique, for example in Palestine, (14) on page 38, where Sacco and his tour guide appear five times in one panel, or in a panel from Soba, (15) where the eponymous hero encircles a girl with his fancy dance moves.

Soba from War’s End, by Joe Sacco:
Fancy dance moves.

While it would be possible to catalogue still more cases of this effect, no doubt in Chris Ware’s output or in manga, from what I have found so far they amount to little more than certain special panels or pages - fascinating efforts, experiments or oddities - but mostly they bear no comparison for me to De Luca’s huge skill and sustained use, not only in Hamlet but also Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

666 Apparitions Of Killoffer
by Killoffer

One unique exception is the French artist Killoffer’s Six cent soixante-sept apparitions de Killoffer of 2002. (16) In this autobiographical nightmare, he takes this multiplication of selves, like the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity (1996, dir. Harold Ramis), to grotesque extremes. He plays with the horror and humour of finding repeated ‘apparitions’ of himself, naked, depraved, debased, a horde of uncontrollable egos overrunning his home and causing chaos in his life. Killoffer too banishes the rigid, rectilinear panel borders and lets the mayhem spread and spill over his pages. It is as if the many ‘ghost prints’ of Hamlet throughout De Luca’s version were actually all alive at once and jammed together into their dressing room, like the Marx Brothers’ crazy crowded cabin scene in A Night at the Opera (1935, dir. Sam Wood).

One of the almost unavoidable demands of drawing comics is that of having to illustrate the same characters over and over. De Luca’s is an even more demanding technique, however, because it requires you to reproduce several often full-length portrayals of the characters in subtly shifting poses as well as composing the stage-like structure of each page. I suspect this is why few people have tried it since, and few on anything like this scale. Over thirty years later, his Shakespearean trilogy stands as a virtuoso performance and a landmark in the sophistication of sequential art.


1. Gianni De Luca and William Shakespeare, Amleto (Cinisello Balsamo: Edizioni San Paolo, 1995). The other adapted plays are The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet.

2. (Tournai: Casterman).

3. Further examples of pages from Frank King’s Gasoline Alley can be accessed at Sunday Press Books.

4. These images are available via the Divine Comedy website that includes a Botticelli Gallery.

5. Gary Panter, Jimbo in Purgatory (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2004) and Jimbo’s Inferno (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2006).

6. The manuscript is BnF Français 12595 and the example is taken from folio 1. It can be viewed here. The richly-illustrated BnF exhibition is available here.

7. Alison Adams, The Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles in MS Hunter 252: The Impact of the Miniatures, French Studies 46.4 (1992), 385-94.

8. Lew Andrews, Story and Space in Renaissance Art: The Rebirth of Continuous Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998).

9. Pascal Lefèvre:  The volumes to which he refers are Fred, Philémon à l’Heure du Second ‘T’ (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Dargaud, 1975) and Derib, Buddy Longway Volume 7: L’Hiver des chevaux (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Dargaud, 1978).

10. Oscar Zarate and William Shakespeare, Othello (London: Oval, 1983. Reprinted in 2005 by Can of Worms Press, London).

11. Promethea appeared in serial form in thirty-two episodes between 1999 and 2005, all published by Wildstorm, an imprint of New York’s D.C. Comics. Promethea has also been published by Wildstorm in a five-volume book series (2001-2006).

12. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (London: Titan, 1987).

13. Elektra Lives Again was published in 1990 as an Epic Comics graphic novel, Epic being an imprint of Marvel of New York.

14. Joe Sacco, Palestine (Maple Leaf WA: Fantagraphics, 2001).

15. Joe Sacco’s Soba is available in book form as part of War’s End (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2005).

16. (Paris: L’Association). The work is available in English as Six Hundred and Seventy-Six Apparitions of Killoffer (London: Typocrat, 2005).

Posted: April 12, 2009

This article originally appeared in European Comic Art Vol 1 No 1 in 2008. A slightly different version of this essay was first published in Italian in De Luca: Il disegno pensiero by Black Velvet Editore, Bologna,  Italy to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Museo Civico Archeologico from March 7th to May 4th 2008, organised by the BilBOlbul international comics festival. With thanks to Laurence Grove for his valuable insights and editing.


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Featured Books

European Comic Art
Vol. 1, No. 1

Shakespeare a Fumetti
by Gianni De Luca

De Luca
Exhibition Catalogue

Story & Space In
Renaissance Art
by Lew Andrews

Little Nemo
In Slumberland

by Winsor McCay

Gasoline Alley
by Frank King    

by Oscar Zarate

Elektra Lives Again
by Frank Miller

by Alan Moore
& J.H. Williams III

666 Apparitions
of Killoffer

by Killoffer    

by Joe Sacco    

War’s End
by Joe Sacco