Monday, May 9, 2011

Book Review: Manga Shakespeare

Graphic novels and manga. Some people love ‘em, some people hate ‘em. And some people are just terrified by ‘em. (Try explaining the plot of Inuyasha to a Baptist. It…doesn’t go over so well.)
I’ve heard varying opinions of graphic novels. Some people think it’s nothing more than a comic book, while others believe it will induce kids to read the classics, especially if those classics are translated into graphic novel form.

I’m not a fan of graphic novels in general. Once upon a time I collected Inuyasha manga books like they were crack, but I got over the addiction and plan on selling them on eBay. Interest faded, and I moved on to other addictions. *coughJaneAustencough*

But recently, a couple graphic novels that came through circulation at work caught my eye. Manga Shakespeare, is what they are called. The library acquired Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The art was what really drew my attention, partly because I never imagined Benedick to have a small ponytail, but then again, usually Kenneth Branagh comes to my mind when I imagine Benedick. (And then I imagine Benedick fighting pixies…oh dear…)

Manga Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
See? Ponytail.

So I grabbed up the both of them, checked them out, and took them home, and was much the happier for it. Obviously the dialogue was shortened for graphic novel form, which means much of Shakespeare’s rhythm and rhyme (image number 3: Shakespeare in a rap battle) is lost; but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the manga stayed true to the dialogue they kept. No fear of driving off the teens with those crazy “thees” and “thous” made the adapters translate to modern English. Instead, they used their art to convey the meaning of the words, and it works quite well, such as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Egeus is depicted as rudely interrupting Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s amorous moment. (Theseus is rather annoyed).

Onto the individual reviews, then. Much Ado About Nothing was all right. It caught the give and take between Beatrice and Benedick quite well, and the added manga bells and whistles made it all the more humorous. And of course, to add to the silliness, all the men that aren’t fathers have smooth faces and shiny hair (Don Pedro sports Legolas hair, which is just kind of funny). I think the reason I didn’t enjoy this as much was because of Don John, but that’s the reason I didn’t enjoy the play that much. It’s Don John. He sulks in a corner, and if he’s played by Keanu Reeves he talks in a monotonic American accent. He has no motivation beyond “For The Evulz”. He’s just…there. And it makes everything else seem pointless. (Or maybe that’s the point-Much Ado About Nothing, subtitle “Thanks to Don John’s Chaos Addiction”) A Midsummer Night’s Dream was much more satisfying (and, I felt, better executed overall).

I found the setting of this one interesting. It is Athens, of course, but they drew a curious mixture of the futuristic and the ancient Greek (which works, seeing as how it’s set in ancient Greece but Shakespeare mentions Queen Elizabeth in the course of the play: time travel, maybe?). The city looks modern, and Theseus has one of those clever little monitors that people can call you on. The characters wear traditional Greek clothes, but with the modern thrown in. Demetrius, for example, is depicted as a consummate business lackey. His toga covers a dress shirt and tie, and it is very bizarre, and also used to contrast to Lysander, who wears a T-shirt (and a toga-it’s all about the togas, you know).

However, the funniest parts are reserved for Puck and Oberon (who has a strange set of ram horns on his head). When Puck cries “I go, see how I go, swift as an arrow from the Tartar’s bow”, Oberon has physically picked him up and given him a supernatural toss. And when the four lovers are all quarrelling together, the pair are seated in a movie theater, Puck eating popcorn and Oberon facepalming over the ridiculousness of the situation.

And let’s not get started about poor Bottom.

The art in this one, too, was better, but it flowed with the feeling of the story.

So…will graphic novels teach kids to enjoy reading? Will they destroy books? Will the twenty-something nerds that come in the café stop talking obsessively about Pokemon?

The world may never know.


  1. Erica: So, it's about this demon.
    Baptist Person: Demon!?
    E: No, wait! He's only half demon. And he's a GOOD demon!
    BP: ...
    E: And he's got this girlfriend from the present who is the reincarnation of his old dead girlfriend.
    BP: Get thee behind me, Satan! [Runs away]
    E: Wait, I didn’t get to tell you about the naked centipede lady. Or the lewd, womanizing Buddhist monk! Or the possessed little boy who kills his whole family!

    Seriously, though, I think they could have translated “yokai” as “monster” instead of “demon” for their US audiences. ;)

  2. That's actually a surprisingly accurate transcript of what happened when I tried to explain it to Carol...