Apr 16 2008


Published by at 8:12 pm under reviews

Spark Notes / Sterling Publishing just put out the first three titles in their series of Shakespeare graphic novels. They have nicely designed covers, a catchy series title (“No Fear Shakespeare“), and they weigh in at a hefty 200+ pages each. They look like they’re doing a lot of things right, so I was keen to check them out.

The books only give art credits, they don’t mention who wrote the text. I must assume that it’s the collective work of the Spark Notes editors, and so they get the majority of my criticism. I started with Romeo and Juliet, but I put it down after about 20 minutes, because I couldn’t read any more. They’ve simplified the language of the play, but not in a way that makes it read more smoothly. Instead it feels stilted and clumsy. R&J is in my opinion one of the most beautiful pieces of writing the world has ever seen, and it has been butchered. I should note that I’m certainly not the target market for these books, and kids might enjoy them more — but stilted language doesn’t appeal to kids much either, in my experience.

The art has a friendly feel to it, and the artist either went to Verona or looked at a lot of reference, because various parts of the city are recognizable. The layouts are clear and easy to follow. But the drawing seems a bit clumsy to me, and I don’t like the “acting” of the characters. Some of the jokes come off well, and some fall flat. The characters are often drawn with odd little triangles on the sides of their noses.

I put down R&J and started on Macbeth. I started out liking the art better, and somehow the heavier mood made the butchery of Willy’s words bother me less; but I still gagged on passages like “Wait! You incomplete speakers, tell me more.” I have to say that even though I like the artistic style, I soon found the actors are a bit too one-note with their always-desperate eyes, and some of the layouts and narrative choices make me think it’s drawn by someone fairly new to the medium.

Finally, Hamlet. This was my favorite, and I finished it. The acting is more dynamic, the drawing is more confident, and I guess I started to get used to the language because it didn’t bother me quite as much (though again, I still tripped on certain awkward passages). Some of the visual symbolism was a bit simplistic, but overall it’s a good effort.

For comparison, I would say that this series slightly edges out the Manga Shakespeare series artistically, but that Manga Shakespeare is a somewhat better read. Note that I didn’t finish any of those either, because the style was just too tacky for me. I also just found out about a series of classic adaptations published in the UK that you can get in three different text versions with the same art — original, plain prose, and abbreviated/contemporary. This is something I would have liked to do with King Lear, except that I think it’s commercial suicide to actually print a book that way (especially in color, which these are). Anyway, I don’t particularly like the art I saw on their website, but the text adaptation appears to be pretty good. I’ve ordered a short-text version of Macbeth to check out.

By the way, I apologize if I’ve hurt the feelings of any of the artists involved (because if they’re anything like me, Google will have instantly pointed them to this review). I’m probably not the target audience for these books anyway, being a hyper-critical long-time reader of Shakespeare as well as a competitor. I have a great deal of respect for the professional work ethic required to produce books of this length, and I expect all of these artists to have bright and lucrative futures ahead of them. I also think Shakespeare sets the bar very, very high.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Competition”

  1. Karen Wenbornon 17 Apr 2008 at 8:37 am

    Hi Gareth, an article that captures interest and is thought-provoking too.
    Our text adaptation may not suit (apart from original Text, obviously) but I’d be interested in your feedback.
    We try to match the artwork to the tone and style of the book – this varies throughout the Shakespeare plays and becomes even more diverse with the others in the series, Frankenstein et al. Liking (or otherwise) will be as dependent on personal taste as would watching the plays being performed by actors one loves or hates.
    The books do seem to be hitting the spot where it matters – introducing children to classics. Or in some cases, introducing them to reading somehing other than instructions for the latest electronic game. I can speak with some authority on this as a parent. Persuading boys to read is a challege worthy of Hercules. As to commercial suicide……….we’ll have to wait and see……..

  2. adminon 17 Apr 2008 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for commenting. Feel free not to answer this publicly, but are people buying multiple text editions of the same work? Because if they are willing to do that then your strategy is good — if not, then the three editions of each title would seem to be competing against each other.

    I should note that my artistic tastes are fairly wide-ranging but do not favor the now-predominant ‘mainstream’ style of inking & computer coloring, which is what I’m reacting to in your books.

    My Macbeth arrived just now, so I’ll sit down with it this weekend and check it out, then maybe give it its own full review or add an update to this post.

    Thanks again,

  3. tobyon 14 May 2008 at 7:33 am

    i liked the manga shakespeare too – in fact, the animated panel sequences on their website make me wonder about the utility of adding this as a feature on your website. maybe you can publish online one of your graphic novels. sequence the images accordingly, timing their delivery speed and angles of entry, etc. to accentuate the impact of the content…fight scenes go fast, brooding images slow, use panning, zooming, etc. imagine the effect of totally controlling the delivery of the graphic novel images to the reader…wow!

    On a totally different note, I just discovered a series of “far-west” (wild west) themed graphic novels in Italy, named “Ken Parker” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Parker

    The art is great and plot lines are quite different from the typical American’s reverence for the wild west themes. What’s more interesting to me is the amazing accuracy in depictions of the habits and relics of the late-1800s – naturally, there’s a lot of poetic, Mediterranean interpretation of the life of a Redfordesque cowboy.

  4. Garethon 14 May 2008 at 8:06 am

    Animating the presentation (especially of a whole GN) would be a huge amount of extra work, and it’s not clear to me how to monetize that effort. I have considered doing partially-animated ‘trailers’ for the books, but even that seems like a pretty big time sink. However, Candlewick has hinted that they have some sort of plans for the electronic rights, so perhaps they will do something like that.

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