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Between the Panels: Framing Shakespeare
By Lance Victor Eaton (August 2008)

Shakespeare has proven fertile ground for virtually all media. Because of his universal themes and exciting tales, Shakespeare has also found a home among comics. Early translations of his works can be found throughout the mid-20th century's run of Classics Illustrated, but more and more publishers are turning back to the Bard to find new and more interesting ways of presenting these narratives.

Classical Comics has taken an intriguing approach to transitioning Shakepeare into graphic novels. Recognizing that the original text could be problematic in the comic medium (mostly because of spacing issues), they provide three different version of each play to address both accessibility and authenticity. The Original Text version uses the original script in its entirety. Plain Text offers a contemporary translation of Shakespeare's writings while the Quick Text version maintains the essential elements of speech but morphs them into the vernacular.

MacbethFor instance in the Original Text version of Henry V: The Graphic Novel, the prologue's opening sentence reads 'O for a muse of fire, that would acend the brightest heaven of invention! A kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene.' The Plain Text version reads 'It would be great to have some goddess of creative fire, to help us enact this play with a true representation - to have an entire kingdom for a stage and princes for acts and to have royalty watch the performance!' Finally, the Quick Text sums it up succinctly: 'If we had some help from the gods, we could give a better performance of this play.' Obviously the two modern versions don't resonate like the original. Yet they could be easily used to help students and others tackling Shakepeare to understand the linguistic differences between his time and ours.

Aside from the text, each version is entirely the same. Classical Comics also provides a brief introduction to each play, giving decent context to help readers follow the story. The dramatis personae proves quite useful because in addition to a listing of characters, it also provides readers with pictures, making actors much easier to identify as the play progresses.

With manga continuing to dominate sales of comic book trade paperbacks, it's no wonder that publishers are looking to cash in on this increasingly popular medium. Wiley (who also publish Cliff Notes, the bane of every teacher's existence) is now offering Shakespeare manga - undoubtedly to be followed by other literary renditions in the future. Wiley has begun with some of the classic Shakespeare stories nearly every high school student trudges through at some point in English classes: Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare's MacbethUnfortunately, as in much American-published manga, manga traditions are not coherently implemented. Yes, they overwhelmingly use young, wide-eyed characters - Hamlet looks almost prepubescent - and some of the paneling and action mimics manga, but they also perform what many readers of manga see as the cardinal sin. The stories are presented left to right and front to back in American reading style, as opposed to traditional manga which is the opposite. They also rarely take advantage of manga's ability to shift from iconic to realistic from one panel to the next with the same character. For instance, in some scenes between Romeo and Juliet, it would make perfect sense to pull back into iconic representations of smiling fools as the two can be understood to be, but the characters are constructed consistently, thus taking away from the more emotionally excitable moments that iconic drawings reinforce.

As for the text, these editions abridge the text to suit the needs of the panels as well as the intended audience. However, there seems to be significant work in making sure the meaning and the ideas of each speech are maintained.

Comparing Classical Comics and Wiley Manga, it's interesting to look at how Macbeth is illustrated by each publisher. Each focuses on and stretches out different scenes. So Act II, Scene I of the Classical Comics Macbeth plays out over four pages while the Wiley Shakespeare's Macbeth takes twelve pages to fully relate the scene. Additionally, the Classical Comics version clearly identifies the transition from scene to scene while the Wiley edition use Acts as chapters.

Future editions of both series will continue to introduce readers to Shakepeare, but also allow for a newly emerging field of criticism of comic translations of the classics. After all, if transitioning to comics were so simple and straightforward, we would not have several different publishers beginning to run with the idea, despite the competition.
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