Manga from heaven for the Bard

7th September 2007 at 01:00
As a postgraduate Shakespeare scholar and ardent comic book fan, the news that Classical Comics is to publish ability-graded Henry V comic books is interesting (TES, August 17). I know how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to hear a thankless child dismiss Will as "borin'", but alarum bells rang out when Clive Bryant, publishing chairman, claimed that he wanted "to make Shakespeare as energetic and colourful as Spiderman". What would his special power(s) be? Would he shout: "Go, quill, go!" in moments of crisis? There is a fine line between popularising Shake-speare and dumbing him down, Disney style. And my Shakeyman is already a man in tights.

Yet the series has enormous potential. Breaking down iambic pentameter into voice bubbles allows students to appreciate a line's key image. Split frames can be used for demanding lines, and lurking background figures hint at staging possibilities. However, I found Bryant's simplistic idea of a "quick text" version, which reduces King Harry's rousing battle instructions to "Get a fierce look in your eyes", depressing. Can't we offer students something better?

In Shakespeare, a word tells a thousand pictures. Comic artists face huge challenges, which, so far, most have met. I object to the toil and trouble of simplified language in voice bubbles. We do our kids a disservice if we think it's "too hard" to offer a basic version.

Classical Comics also have competition. The SelfMadeHero imprint has started a dynamic series of manga Shakespeare books. Its artwork reinforces the text, and its inventive transpositions are as good as any insightful director's. Its Hamlet broods in a war-torn cyberworld. Romeo becomes a rock star caught up with the Japanese mafia. You can have a good comic book and be true to the original.

Yet only acting can offer the full theatrical, auditory Shakespeare experience. Performing an ancient text in modern ways, and discovering the characters still compel, the issues still matter, and the language still works on stage that's the stuff that dreams are made on.

Cassandra Hilland

Hampton Boys' School,


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