by William Shakespeare, script adaptation by John McDonald, art by Will Volley
(Covers to Romeo & Juliet – from left to right; Original Text, Plain Text, Quick Text.)
Worthy is really such an ugly word isn’t it? Worthy is just this side of boring, worthy is bland, worthy is acceptable for teacher.
And that’s the big problem for Classical Comics, publishers of what can only be called very worthy adaptations of classic literature. They started out adapting Shakespeare and have branched out into Shelley, Dickens and Bronte – and they do a really, really good job of it as well. The adaptations are solid works, full of good art and writing.
Their unique selling point are the three separate versions of each book; Original Text, Plain Text and Quick Text – a differentiated learning experience designed for different ages and different levels of understanding. Which again, points out the worthiness of their works. These are graphic novels designed as teaching tools. Indeed, they also produce teaching resource packs and all of their promotional literature speaks of the educational value of the work.
(The three different versions of the same, famous balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet. From the top: Quick Text version, Plain Text version, Original Text version. From Classical Comics’ Romeo & Juliet.)
The story we all presumably know; of Juliet, a Capulet and Romeo, a Montague, who are lovers from families at war. But Juliet is to be married to Paris and Romeo has been banished from Verona for his involvement in the death of Tybalt. Desperate times call for desperate measures - plan is hatched for Juliet to feign death with a sleeping draught and have Romeo spirit her away. But poor Romeo never gets the message informing him of the plan and, seeing Juliet seemingly dead, kills himself to join her. Juliet, on waking, sees her love lying alongside her, truly dead from poison and decides to join him. As the famous last lines profess:
“For never was a story of more woe,
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.“
With these adaptations it’s almost pointless to talk of the story, especially something as well known as Romeo & Juliet. We all know it’s a brilliant, masterpiece of love and disaster. Most of us have read the play, or at least seen one of the films. Any adaptation stops being about the story and instead becomes all about the delivery of the story. And this particular adaptation captures the story well, but as someone of ever advancing years I know the story so well that I look for something a little new, a little different in these classical adaptations. I found that with the Manga Shakespeare volumes I read from SelfMadeHero (Twelfth Night and The Merchant Of Venice) – a new way of experiencing a great story. And that just isn’t here in these Classical Comics adaptations. The words are there, and the quick text and plain text versions actually read better as comics than the original text. With the sheer volume of text needed in the original text version the words all too often overwhelm the artwork and the pace of reading doesn’t match the pace of the art.
The art by Will Volley is actually good stuff, extremely pretty in parts, and always functional but relatively uninspiring and hampered in the original text version by the sheer weight of words on each page.
(From the Classical Comics Original Text version of Romeo & Juliet. Too much text on top a a very nice page of art – stunts the flow of the artwork.)
Yet I also have to look at these with a view to the market they’re obviously being aimed at. Everything about Classical Comics is set up to sell these comics to educators and to parents looking to get a little accessible Shakespeare into their children’s lives. And I have to say that I think it’s accomplishing what it sets out to do.
Certainly that’s the anecdotal evidence from Jason Cobely’s weblog (relevant posts here, here and here). Jason’s not only the very talented creator of Winston Bulldog but he also teaches English to teens and has some experience in both writing the Classical Comics version of Frankenstein and delivering the text to his pupils. And if he says that they work in the context they are designed for then I have to believe him.
They may come across as worthy reads to this reviewer but to children in their teens, turned off by the complex, exaggerated, theatrical language of Shakespeare I can see these full colour, well illustrated graphic novels being a very attractive alternative and a wonderfully exciting breath of fresh air. For that I think we should be praising Classical Comics for their commitment to encouraging new readers to experience some of the classics of English literature.