Apr 16 2008
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.