Review : Classical Comics

Karen over at Classical Comics was nice enough to send me some review copies after the announcement of their US publishing deal.  Her company publishes “graphic novel” versions of Shakespeare (and other classics). I received two copies of Macbeth (they also offer Henry V) yesterday – one “original text” and one “plain text”.  This, I thought, would be interesting – I could go back and forth and compare both!  Fun. As graphic novels they are quite good.  I showed them to a colleague who is more the comic geek than I, and he was immediately impressed.  He did question some of the coloring choices, but we are talking about Macbeth here, so it doesn’t bother me at all to have a heavy emphasis on the darker colors (lots of red and black, but Macbeth himself spends the story dressed in purple).   The visuals are what you might expect, lots of violence and blood, plenty of “action”.  When we first see Macbeth (as the soldier recounts the “unseamed from nave to chaps” line) I swear he’s actually delivering a flying sidekick to one badguy while skewering another.  All it needed was some Batman style BAM! noises.  Ok, not really. There is also a massive amount of supplemental material, including a visual cast of characters so you’ll always know whose talking, maps, and a history lesson.  There’s certainly plenty to read here once you’re done with the comic itself. I chose to read the plain text version, and did so in less than an hour (two train rides).  A few times I thought I found possible mistakes in the translation, and not only consulted my original text version, but also my actual original text that I keep on all my computers, and I was mistaken each time.  Heck, I even learned a few things!  For instance I’d gotten it into my head that Lady Macbeth said “If I had a child, I’d bash its brains in….” but she does indeed say “I have given suck”, clear evidence that she did have a child.  Likewise I’d forgotten all about Malcolm’s argument to Macduff that, ahem, he’s too into the ladies, shall we say, to be king?  Unfortunately what I found over and over again is that the plain text version – which is basically a direct translation from the original, as opposed to a retelling – serves merely to emphasize everything that is wrong and hated about Shakespeare to begin with.  Some examples:

  • References still won’t make any sense, only now they stand out more.  “They tore into the enemy as if they wanted to cover themselves in blood, or create another Golgotha.”  You may understand that line a little better than, “Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds, or memorise another Golgotha, I cannot tell” but you either know the Golgotha reference or you don’t.  I suppose if you look at it in a more positive way, the plain text version leaves you with just one thing to lookup in the dictionary instead of several.  But I found it jarring.
  • Shakespearean characters talk too much.  Seriously.  Once you understand what they’re saying a little better it is more painfully obvious that they are not speaking in a way you’d expect any real person to speak.  Like after the murder of Duncan when someone (Banquo?) says, “Let’s get together again when we’re properly dressed and investigate this bloody piece of work.  We’re all too full of confusion and suspicion now — but I trust in God and for that reason I’m prepared to fight against all hidden treason and malice.”  Yes, that’s a translation of what Shakespeare had him say, but if you’re just looking to read a story cover to cover you’re left saying “Who are these people and who talks like that??”   (More on this in a bit)
  • When you translate, you take away the poetry.  I learn this when I watch the faces of my kids as I retell Shakespearean stories to them.  My 6yr old is starting to give me confused looks that say, “I don’t see what’s so great about that story, Daddy.”  In this case, our favorite final lines get translated into, “I will not surrender just to kiss the ground in front of young Malcolm’s feet and to be jeered at by the common rabble.  Though Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane, and though you’re not born of a woman, I’ll fight you to the end.  My shield’s in front of my body.  Lay on Macduff, and damned be the one who first shouts Stop, Enough!” Fine fine, yes that’s what he said, but that’s hardly the kind of thing that would make people 400 years later say, “Hey, remember when Macbeth said I’ll fight you to the end?  That was awesome.”

These are not failings of this particular edition – I could have made those same three points of any “plain text” translation.  Classical Comics also offers a “quick text” version that I did not see, although I suspect that it does away with the first two points relatively nicely since it is not bound to be such a thesaurus-driven translation as the plain text. Having vented about plain text translations in general, let me now turn to the original text version.  Now we’re talking.  Here’s exactly the kind of thing that I’d read for myself – the real text, backed up with cool pictures.  You can’t beat it.  Never ask again “What’s going on in this scene?”  You’ll know.  Oh look, two guys on horseback talking.  Cool.  That makes sense.  I will keep an eye on their offerings and may even snag copies for myself (original text only thankyouverymuch!) of plays I’m less familiar with.  Not that they’ll likely ever do a Cymbeline, but you never know. It’s projects like this that make me wish e-books were a thing of the present.  The visuals in this book are identical, regardless of what text you choose.  So how about an e-book delivery mechanism that defaults to original text, and then only when you touch a dialogue balloon does it translate itself?  That way you can choose to read the translations as you need them, or even better go back and forth and tell yourself “Ok, now I understand what happened here, let me look again at how Shakespeare really wrote it….Ohh!  Now I get it!”  I wonder if they have any plans to do a sort of 3-in-1 binding so that buyers wont have to choose which versions they want? Hint hint? All in all I find these books wonderful.  The quality of the presentation is excellent, as I said.  And the supplemental material is a complete bonus that I did not expect.  My issues are entirely with the plain text translation.  But that’s fine, because I’m holding a copy of the original text as well :). Let me put it this way, they tell me that The Tempest is coming out in January 2009.  I’ll be getting it.  I’ll probably be getting all three versions, actually.  That way my kids can grow up with them.