A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have already ranted on VL about my difficult relationship with the classics having been force-fed them at school. How different would it have been if Classical Comics were around in the days of my youth? Classical Comics take the rather tedious (my opinion only!) classics and turn them into visual delights that I would defy any child to put down. The graphics are utterly mind-blowing.
I’ve had a chat with Managing Director of Classical Comics, Karen Wenborn and here’s what we talked about…
Can you tell me how the idea for Classical Comics came about?
It’s a long tale……Clive and I worked together in another lifetime and he had written a book called ‘POP Success’ in his ‘spare’ time. Having read it I suggested that he use cartoon illustrations to get some of the points across. Clive being the perfectionist he is, decided to look at how cartoons were created and produced the drawings himself.
He had just finished reading ‘Tipping Point’, and the news was full of stories about the decline in literacy in this country. (Told you it was a long story!)
The three circumstances combined and he had the idea of creating ‘comic book’ versions of Shakespeare that would encourage children to read, and that this might be a ‘Tipping Point’ to get this ‘Playstation generation’ into books. The fact that neither of us had publishing backgrounds or experience in any similar industry didn’t stop the germ of that idea growing into Classical Comics.
There are other publishers doing similar things. What have you done differently?
Quite a few things! The Shakespeare books are produced in our unique (so far!) three text versions, Original Text (the full unabridged play) Plain Text ( unabridged again, but in modern English) and Quick Text (reduced dialogue and modern English). Each version has identical artwork telling the full story, enabling children of 9 years onwards to absorb the full play, and having gained that understanding they can move on to the delights of Shakespeare’s language.
Many children (and adults for that matter) have found the language to be a barrier, certainly at first, and usually at school. These books provide teachers, students, children and adults with the means to ‘get into’ the plays in a form that is up to date and appealing, and at a level that suits them.
In education this is crucial, and provides differentiated teaching across all skill levels.
Our other classics in the series, tales from Bronte, Dickens and Shelley to name but a few, have two text versions, Original and Quick Text as the language isn’t such a barrier.
The books are in full colour throughout…..younger readers need ( and demand) that materials given to them at school echo those used at leisure. My 11 year old son won’t countenance black and white graphics on TV or in computer games – why should his books be different?
Our books are drawn in context. Historically accurate and as described/proscribed by the author.
They aren’t interpretations, they are graphic versions of the original texts.
You have been criticised for “dumbing down” these texts, most notably by The Queen’s English Society. How do you answer your critics?
As our script writer John McDonald says, ‘we aren’t dumbing down, we are clueing up’.
Access to these amazing books can seem like an elite club for those who aren’t skilled readers. We provide the key to the door. People can then choose whether they move through the text versions or are happy just to have read the story. As Original Text is always available, I’m struggling to see where the dumbing down comes from. I’m convinced that Will S would have loved our books…….in fact he’d have probably had the idea before we did!
What do you think the graphic novel can do that the straight texts can’t?
Not everyone learns in the same way, for some, the artwork provides the ‘hook’ for others the language does that. When we start to read, we usually use picture books and comics that illustrate what is going on….why stop just because we are adult?? With Shakespeare, plays are obviously meant to be a visual experience too, we provide the backdrop and the actors, William Shakespeare provides the words.
Our teachers resources show how the artwork can be adapted across the curriculum, using ‘no-text’ versions, as a for instance, where students can insert the characters thoughts to determine motivation, or they can re-write the story in their own words demonstrating comprehension.
oh, and they are stunning to look at too!
And the other way round… are there any limitations to transcribing the story into graphics?
There are some books that are so big (in every sense of the word) that limiting them to around 150 pages would be difficult without compromising the story. We wouldn’t want to do that, so our titles are carefully chosen as those suitable for ‘conversion’ into a graphic novel.
Which classics lend themselves best to this form? And what would you say is considered a ‘classic’?
Those with plenty of dialogue provide a good flow, plays being an obvious choice. I guess there is some learned definition of a classic that I’ve not seen, but for me a classic a book that is as vital and engrossing today as it was when it was written. Which gives us plenty of scope!!
How long does the whole process take, from selection to publication?
Its a long process! The script itself takes months, longer with the three text versions for Shakespeare. Then the artist is chosen to match the style of the book. From there it takes anywhere from 10 months to two years to complete a book. Some artists paint the book in watercolours, others provide the linework and inking for a colourist to finish. Then they have to be lettered, and the production process begins. In the meantime we research the subject/author to provide the basis for the extra pages (or back matter as we are meant to call it in publishing!) aiming to provide both the casual reader and students with information that is new to them – the real Macbeth being an example. In the process I become a world class bore on the topic in question. Don’t get me started on the life of Mary Shelley!!
How do you decide which scenes to illustrate?
That is, to a large extent, down to the skill of the scriptwriter. In Shakespeare they are all illustrated, for the others the scriptwriter will also use narrative to keep the flow.
The books are checked for continuity at every stage of the process.
Where do you get your artists from and do they have a tight brief or do you let them have artistic freedom?
Once we’d met our first artists, we discovered a tightly knit community who would recommend others to us. We attend comic conventions where we’ve met artists from all over the world.
Yes, they do have freedom, (within the confines of character descriptions and the script) for instance our monster in Frankenstein matches Mary Shelley’s vision. Not the green bolted version from the films, but (at first) a rather beautiful figure who decays as he is rejected.
Oh, and the artwork needs to be historically accurate!
The comics come have detailed teachers notes to accompany them for classroom application. Are the comics aimed solely at schools or are you hoping kids will just want to buy them?
So far, in the UK at least, sales via booksellers have been as strong as those in education.
Mind you, it is early days – it’s not a year yet since Henry V, our first book, was published!
We’ve had some great stories so far of children taking the books into school as casual reading – and here we are talking about 11 year olds reading Macbeth out of choice, and pronouncing it great fun (and gruesome). I’ve had mothers phone me to say that their children – especially boys – won’t put the books down, and when can they have the next one please?
We’ve had over 150,000 downloads of our free SATS resources so far, so schools are obviously welcoming the format, and thank you emails have come from around the world, and from all types of schools and colleges from UK public schools via City Academies through to village schools in South Africa. to How great is that!! We are making a difference, and that’s what counts.
The Teachers Resources have already gone to re-print, and we are in the process of developing the next sets to match the autumn book releases. Coming soon…the whiteboard resources to complete the set!! We already have the books and artwork available with Comic Life software, as feedback from teachers was that multi-media books and resources were essential.
You have been taking over the world with Awards (a silver IPPY), celebrity endorsements (Patrick Stewart is a fan) distribution in the United States and Canada and now translation into Japanese… is there anywhere left to conquer? What’s next for Classical Comics?
The rest of the world!! 🙂 We’ve also been (or rather Henry V and Macbeth have) nominated for Cybils and now shortlisted for book design awards. Can’t tell you how thrilling that is for the team. We have interested parties talking to us about further translations, and Cengage are producing ELT versions of all the books that will be published worldwide. These are great as they come with cd’s of the plays being acted out.
At the moment we are quite (!!) busy getting A Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Frankenstein ready for publication. All in two text versions, plus US translations………and the teachers resources…… The US launch is in October, all very exciting.
We’ve also got the 2009 books in production, still in various stages. I think I’ll stop there as I may need to lie down in a darkened room for a while……
And in true Vulpes Libris styleee I have to ask you to name your five top reads and can you tell me why you love them?
Have I already bored you with my library of over 3,000 books and growing? And you want me to pick just five? 🙂 Here goes, finally selected on the basis that I couldn’t put these down and read them straight through from start to finish:-
The Play Room – Olivia Manning. I was given this to read at school, when I was fourteen. It had a huge impact on me for a number of reasons…a dark tale with many a moral, beautifully written. Children and adults living together but in parallel worlds. Nothing changes! 🙂
Harry Potter. Any of them. Didn’t everyone imagine that something like this would happen to them when a child? Sheer, wonderful, magical escapism. I don’t understand the intellectual snobbery that abounds over JK Rowling’s books. The way the writing changes over the series as Harry grows (or JK Rowling does – whichever – it works) the themes, the characters…I love them all.
One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovitch – Solzhenitsyn. Gripping from start to finish. Awed at the skill of the writer, captivated by the story.
The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger. Heard the hype and so delayed reading this. But in the end couldn’t resist – thankfully. The idea behind this is totally original. This book left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness for lives wasted. A finely crafted tale and one I that I heartily recommend. Although the concept is so very original that friends tell me it is hard to get into. Keep trying would be my advice!
Only one left 😦
John Wyndham, Huxley, Louisa M Alcott, Nevil Shute (I love 50’s writers), Rankin, PD James, Michael Marshall……….Lynne Reid Banks……I’ll go for…
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters. Dickensian? Perhaps. Lesbian? In parts. Not to be compartmentalised, this book’s plot twists actually made me gasp….clever, clever story, absorbing characters who are never quite as they seem. Fully describes the dirt and squalor of the times, dens of thieves, servants and high society…..and relationships…the story is fast paced and simply dashes you through to the totally unexpected conclusion. Rather like a ride down rapids in Victorian dress.The foxes are very grateful to Karen for giving us time from her hectic schedule to answer these questions. And for brightening up our page with the stunning graphics… wow!!!