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Between the Panels: Classics as Comics
By Lance Victor Eaton (January 2007)

Transforming classic books into other media can be a troublesome process and, if not outright controversial, at least met with mixed responses. Conservative cultural critics will always believe the purity of the literary work to have been lost. Quite possibly this may be the case, but something encouraging also happens. More people can access the classic and begin to understand and possibly appreciate it.

Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers recently decided to produce graphic novels of Shakespeare's plays starting with Macbeth and King Lear. And, just like performances on a stage, these two graphic novels seem not at all alike. In a different approach, there's a complexity and diversity within the anthology of Graphic Classics: Jack London. Tom Pomplun editor and chief of Eureka Productions, injects a great deal of variety and style in any of his Graphic Classic titles.
The corruption of power permeates both Macbeth and King Lear, but it's the true driving force of Macbeth, as he and Lady Macbeth contemplate sinister deeds against King Duncan. As near as one can tell, the actual spoken parts are presented verbatim, yet the translation or version the source material is taken from is not referenced within the book.

The basic layout of the panels feels over regimented, as with the straightforward angling of each panel shot. This boxiness is magnified by the use of rectangular speaking bubbles throughout most of the book, which means page after page yields rectangle within rectangle within rectangle. The use of art and spoken parts also fail expectations. In long speeches and soliloquies, the artist should try to break up the text through several panels, allowing the character to move or show some life, much as an actor would not idly stand still while delivering such parts.

King LearBy contrast, King Lear - though still reflecting the box-like style seen in Macbeth - has more dynamic art within panels filled with bright colors and odd shapes, invoking chaotic elements that give the impression of a Picasso influence upon the artist. Ian Pollock, the artist, draws exaggerated cartoon caricatures. Surprisingly, this works within the context of the story, especially when the fool appears and Lear begins to lose his mind. The art beckons with a surrealistic aesthetic that seems to perfectly capture the play.

Both books open up with an introduction of the characters as well as a plot summary, explaining everything that happens within the pages of the story. Both also provide indicators when the story has traveled into a new scene or act. Evidently, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers intend their graphic novels to be considered as education supplements for a classroom and so they produce a sterilized product which - though it has the potential for vibrancy - falls short.

Jack LondonGraphic Classics Volume Five: Jack London, Second Edition provides twelve pieces from London that not only fairly represent his more interesting though lesser known works, but also include a variety of artistic styles, most of which seem to blend well with the story being told. Pomplun includes several that are not comic art. Short pieces (War and How I Became a Socialist) are text with an accompanying illustration. By including these pieces, Pomplun adds an element to his graphic novels that was popular and prevalent in the emergence of comic books in the 1930s but has since lost favor.

While Pomplun follows the text as closely as possible, he also adds artistic and stylistic pieces to his versions, that don't necessarily change the story but do add detailed backgrounds or colorful characters in the backdrop.

Though classics should be preserved in their original form, that doesn't mean they cannot be introduced in other forms to help acclimate people to the cultural canon. Yet, as in the case of Macbeth above, attention should be paid to ensuring the classic fits naturally into the new medium. Pomplun, by comparison, has been working on such challenges for years and though he may not have mastered it, he certainly represents the potential of quality that classics can reach in comic art.
Editor's Note: For more on comic art versions of the classics, see also Awesome Illustrated Classics.
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