So U.K.-based Classical Comics is all set to turn “boring into cool” by releasing their first of perhaps many Shakespeare adaptations on November 5, 2007. The epic story of Henry V. (Macbeth is due out in early 2008). Classical Comics offers three illustrated versions of the text—Quick Text, Plain Text, and the Original Text—with the theory that “One version should lead the reader to the next, fuller version—until one could quote Shakespeare in its original context!”
My theory is this: Exclamation points tend to discourage rather than achieve coolness and excitement.
Taking on this adventure of reviewing my first comic book has been enlightening. I’ll be the first to admit that outside of some Brenda Starr fetishes I closeted in the 80s, I don’t really know a lick about comics. With this in mind, I thought it best to seek out some people who do.
Opinion number one comes from Stephen Tarantino, owner of the San Francisco shop, The Collector’s Cave. The lack of “Ooooo’s” and “Ahhhhs” was my first sign that these comics are nothing out of the ordinary. After letting me know that the artwork is “nothing exceptional” and “lacks detail,” Tarantino proceeded to enlighten me on the American comic book market, stating that “it’s tough to find a dealer who does much with independent stuff” for the sheer sake of demand.
No need to read between the lines there.
But Stephen did offer me a best case scenario (or worst case reality) when he said, “whatever gets a kid to read, parents are willing to go for it.”
Well there’s the rub; kids aren’t reading. Bruce Avery, Coordinator of the Literature Program and hot stuff Shakespeare Professor at San Francisco State University, as well as co-author (with Joan Langley, Director of Education for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR) of an upcoming text on Shakespeare and pedagogy (due out in December 2008) backs up this point with some sad numbers.
“The average adolescent today spends 72 hours a week on electronic media, and reads for less than 30 minutes. So, if this gave teachers a way to get their attention, to look at the language, then there would be an opportunity to talk about Shakespeare’s language. In that sense it might be helpful. But if you’re interested in getting the play, I don’t see this as being worth much.”
Why wouldn’t the average middle schooler or high school student, or heck, college student “get” the play by way of Classical Comics’ graphic novels? You tell me.
“…Where Charles the Great, Having Subdu’d the Saxons, there left behind and settled certain French; who, holding in disdain the German women, for some dishonest manners of their life, establish’d then this law,—to wit, no female should be inheritrix in Salique land…” (excerpt taken from Classical Comics’ Henry V)
Granted this is the “Original Text” version, supposedly the version you will read after looking at the first two 144 page each versions, but come now. Are kids really going to read all three versions of the comic/play in order to “get” it, and are they really going to “get” it without the luxury of even basic footnotes, let alone the flow of iambic pentameter and the line breaks, which are absent from the bubbled text on Classical Comics’ pages? I mean honestly, can you tell me the intricacies of “Salique Law” without a footnote?
Case almost closed.
Off I trotted to talk with Brian Hibbs, the proprietor of San Francisco’s Comix Experience, to get his take on these graphic novels. Hibbs’ way of talking with me reminded me of the reality TV show The Pick Up Artist (I’m slightly horrified to admit I watched the show). After looking at the Henry V previews, Hibbs kind of walked away, looking back at my questions sort of over his shoulder, saying things like “I probably wouldn’t stock it, but if I did, I’d stock the original text and not the bastardized versions,” and “This is the seventh or eighth version of HV that someone has tried to sell us, and this is the least interesting version of the bunch.” He goes on to talk about the mediocre artwork, and explains, “There are four or five main people adapting classics because comics are hot right now (in the U.S.), and then they find artists and writers who aren’t any good to do the adaptations so no one wants them and it becomes a kind of vicious circle.”
This pretty much reiterates the story about comics (mainly Manga comics in Japan and in the US) in the October 19th edition of USA Today, which discusses the fact that “people are losing the habit of reading” any type of material, and although comics are an attempt to excite the traditional way of reading, the fact of the matter is, “there is a shortage of good artists.” (story by Naoko Nishiwaki)
Just like The Pick Up Artist, Hibbs left me wanting more, but he had no more insight to offer on these comics, perhaps because they’re really not worth seeing.
So now it’s up to me. In an optimistic light, I see the possibility of introducing a third or fourth grader to the Quick and Plain Text versions of these plays, merely as an introduction to a future reading by some fabulous, exciting teacher in middle or high school. I do not see these comics as substitutions for reading the texts and seeing the plays in all their glory—iambic pentameter, prose, stage direction, line counts, footnotes and more—with a teacher who doesn’t rely on a comic book to make Shakespeare not “boring.” Perhaps that last ingredient is the most important of them all.
Classical Comics' editions of Henry V are due for release on November 5, 2007. For more information on Classical Comics’ Shakespeare and other titles, and for images and samplers, visit http://www.classicalcomics.com .