Manga Shakespeare

September 29, 2007

I was lucky enough to go to the launch party of Self Made Hero’s range of Manga Shakespeare comic books last night. The party was held at Bodhi gallery, on London’s fashionable Brick Lane, and featured copious amounts of booze, including sake, which I sadly missed out on.

Anyway, the books themselves are great. I picked up copies of Richard the 3rd and The Tempest, both of which are wonderfully illustrated. The former is drawn in a gothic style, kind of like Vampire Hunter D, with a brooding and lowering King Richard. The latter makes use of Hokusai-like waves to create the island on which Caliban and company are stranded upon.

The launch also gave me the opportunity to act like a semi-coherent fan boy with the artists, all of whom were at least five years my junior.


22 Responses to “Manga Shakespeare”

  1. tom Says:

    Looks like you’re getting spam trackback.

    Have you seen the manga bible?

  2. neilstewart Says:

    Yeah, not sure what to do about that!

    Not seen the manga bible- is it good? Self made Hero are doing a bunch of other books, including The Trial and Crime & Punishment, apparently…

  3. Dan Says:

    I haven’t got around to reading ‘The Tempest’ yet, but ‘Richard III’ was suitably evil. I was a bit less sure of their adaptation of ‘Hamlet’, in that a lot of the most important bits (i.e. the soliloquies) suffered extreme cutting. Which slightly spoiled it for me – but perhaps this is just because it’s the Shakespeare play I know best. I guess for a teenage audience it sort of makes sense to limit the existential navel-gazing.

    On a related note, I’d highly recommend the Edgar Allen Poe collection ‘Nevermore’ which is being released at the end of the month. I think you’ll find it was excellently proofed.

    I’m looking forward to ‘The Trial’ as well, which I should be getting a first look at tomorrow.

  4. neilstewart Says:

    Yeah, I suppose that’s the problem doing a play in comic form, that the staginess can be diluted. I suppose Hamlet is the Shakespeare play that would suffer most from this though, since it is probably the most introspective of his.

  5. Dan Says:

    Oh, and also, I don’t think we were too gushing and embarrassing while talking to that artist. I’m sure he’ll suffer much worse once he hits the big time. I like to imagine that he was flattered to be asked to sign his work, rather than being appalled by how we ganged up on him…

  6. neilstewart Says:

    That’s a relief! Being innebriated didn’t help too much…

  7. The Bard Says:

    The Bard is crushed that his “Hamlet” has been “mangaled.”

  8. lo-fi Says:

    I’ve seen some of these, but never purchased. Should I buy? My first 2 vols of MPD Pyscho arrived today! I am already very disturbed.

  9. neilstewart Says:

    Bard: surely it’s a good thing that Shakespeare is being introduced to new audiences who may not otherwise read his works?

    Lo-fi: they are good, and reasonably priced, so probably worth taking a punt! MPD Psycho looks cool.

  10. The Bard Says:

    I suppose some will find their way to the “real” Shakespeare via Manga, but I rather suspect that Manga will become a substitute for the real thing (rather like Cliff’s Notes etc become a substitute for reading and thinking about a work). I also suppose that Manga will more or less relate the plot of each play, and that is ironic since Shakespeare borrowed all but 3 or 4 of his plots. Hence, it’s not so much the plots that are important as what Shakespeare does with them. Hence, what Manga does with the same plots (which you can call Shakespeare, but in many ways aren’t) becomes simply Manga, and not Shakespeare–if you get my drift.

    I’m not sure the target age group for Manga is, but if it is people in their teens then they’re old even to be reading the real thing, which isn’t that difficult or beyond their abilities.
    The Bard

  11. neilstewart Says:

    I can certainly see what you mean, but I’m not sure that “crowding out” happens in the way you describe. Just because a form of art is succesful in one medium, it doesn’t follow that to adapt it to another medium detracts from the original version. Would you make the same argument for film versions of Shakespeare’s plays? Admittedly, not all have been succesful, but I would contend that a film like Throne of Blood adapts Macbeth admirably, and with no detriment to the play on which it is based. Likewise, these comic books do interesting new things with Shakespeare. Also, I would argue that comics are a medium that is very similar to theatre.

  12. neilstewart Says:

    Not seen that one, must watch more Kurosawa!

  13. Dan Says:

    By the way, I proofed A Midsummer Night’s Dream yesterday – initially I was a bit unsure of the artwork, but it grew on me as the story progressed. It worked as a whole very nicely, highlighting the comedy and moving along fairly briskly. Worth a read.

  14. Tom Says:

    A few things…

    From the FT review (
    which i got from you’re

    “The form is also truly inventive. The books all shun a regulated grid of comic book squares, and offer varying shapes and sizes of picture for emphasis.”

    When was the last time this guy read a comic book?

    I completely agree that comics are a good medium for rendering scripts; similar to film you can keep the dialogue intact and go crazy with the set design but comics have the advantage of not being constrained length wise in the same way that films are also you can go REALLY crazy with the set design. They do lose some of the human dinension that you get from a performance but you lose that in reading the plays straight too.

    When I read Midsummer nights dream I remember thinking “this plot could be straight out of Ranma 1/2”

    4. there’s a really funny bit in Ranma 1/2 where they’re performing Romeo and Juliete.

    5. There is no five.

  15. Tom A Says:

    Love it.

    I think Shakespeare is pretty much perfect for comic book form, and definitely no worries about them being a substitute for the original texts. His plays translate beautifully: in fact, that’s surely one of their most startling attributes.

    I like the idea that they translate so well into other mediums because of their mythic quality. Besides the breathless facility and beauty of the original language in which the plays were written, there are the stories themselves, and the stories are constructed out of powerful symbolic oppositions and themes that clash, duplicate, fragment and re-combine, but which are rarely ever resolved and hence echo on in human culture. These building blocks of story can be translated into any other art forms or languages and they resonate across translations in the way that myths can.

    It’s a very structuralist (Levi-Strauss) reading of myth and story but I think it works for these ancient tales. After all, almost all Shakespeare’s plays are based on older tried and tested stories and legends. Just as comics can benefit from building themselves on the majestic foundations of his plays (I’m thinking of Gaiman’s Sandman story, Dream), so Shakespeare built his plays on well established resonant northern European myths and legends, though his versions of these stories are almost the only ones that anyone reads anymore.

  16. neilstewart Says:

    Thanks Tom & Tom, two excellent replies! I saw that FT article but haven’t yet read it, I will do so today. It sounds a bit “FT talking about comics, lolz!!!” though…

    Tom A: I think the idea that you put so well is the one that the Bard talks about above, but you both come to very different conclusions. Whereas the Bard sees Shakespeare as the apotheosis of these myths and recasting them as traducing Shakespeare’s genius, you seem to be saying that the reason that Shakespeare is so effective, and works so well in many different media, is because his stories are so universal. That he happens to be history’s greatest playwright and a master of the English language is a bonus!

  17. The Bard Says:

    Some interesting points above, and a hurried reply, I’m afraid. Shakespeare’s stories may be “so universal,” however, as I indicated before, the irony is that most of Shakespeare’s stories/plots are not his own, but borrowed from other sources (although ti is true he did change details). Hence, the appeal in Shakespeare is what he does with those sources, namely transform them through his own words. That is to say, at rock bottom, in any given play, the power of the play lies in those words in that particular order. Other works that are based on or adapt Shakespeare’s plays become works in their own right.

    In the midst of all this, I am reminded of the adage that there are only 6 or is it 7 original “plots” that writers have endlessly rewritten–itself an interesting conundrum, but perhaps to the point here. Ultimately, it is not what a writer says, but how he says it; rather like the power of paintings of “a cornfield” lies in how each individual painter applies paint to canvas.

  18. neilstewart Says:

    Thanks everyone for all your comments- this is far and away my most commented-upon entry ever, and some really interesting points have been raised. I’m going to have a think about all this and comment again soon…

  19. Dan Says:

    Re the Bard’s last comment. Although I agree with your final sentence, it seems to me that you overlook the audience’s interpretation and understanding of the play/artwork that is produced. The creation of (and techniques used in) “art” may be important to the end result, but if that result is not appreciated as the creator intended, has it succeeded? I’m thinking in terms of the cycles of critical and audience popularity that all artforms go through; the rediscovery of previously unpopular pieces and the falling from favour of the successful.

    Although I think Shakespeare probably transcends these cycles to some extent, is there anything wrong with exposing him to new generations in terms they are more likely to engage with? In an ideal world, young people would read Shakespeare’s work (as you suggest they are capable of) as I – and I’m sure, other commenters here – did. But is this realistic in the days of multiple media?

    Also, while I was slightly disappointed by the manga adaptation of ‘Hamlet’, I have been equally disappointed by theatre adaptations. So, where do you draw the line? It’s quite rare to find a full, unabridged version of any of Shakespeare’s plays being performed on stage – but are the abridged versions worth less? Or should we only sanction performances/films/comics which are “as Shakespeare wrote them”?

  20. neilstewart Says:

    I’m not sure it’s unrealistic to expect young people to read Shakespeare per se, Dan. I do agree with you that having them read Manga Shakespeare is not going to dissuade them, though! And I agree that thinking in terms of “faithful” versions of Shakespeare is something of a dead end. What exactly is faithful? Is it the full “hey nonny nonny” Globe experience, that is supposed to replicate watching theatre in the early 17th century? Garrick, or perhaps Olivier or Gielgud? Or Baz Luhrmann?

  21. Dan Says:

    Have you seen Branagh’s film version of Hamlet? Unabridged, and the only film I’ve ever been to that had an interval because it was so long. Excellent. Also, if you get a chance, I think there’s an audio version of his stage version, which is similarly great.

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