Vulpes Libris

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.

Interview with Karen Wenborn of Classical Comics

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!!!

About Eve Harvey

Eve Harvey is a bookaholic. She is forever to be found with her nose in a book. If there are none around then newspapers, magazines, the back of cereal packets, road signs or the tiny washing labels found on the seams of jumpers will do. Eve used to have full time job as a children's bookseller and she was the very first Waterstone's Children's Expert Bookseller in Scotland. Her first love was definitely literature for children and teens, about which she has nerd-level knowledge. However she has since become involved in grown-up books and has co-written her first adult novel with Cath Murphy. Eve and Cath Podcast, blog and have far too much fun on their website Domestic Hell. Eve lives in a field just outside Edinburgh in Scotland with her daughter and son and two dogs and two rabbits. She also has some tanks of tropical fish and vows one day to start up a marine aquarium. And the day she signs her very first publishing deal she is going to celebrate by buying a pair of Horsefields tortoises. You can find Eve through her Agent, Ella Kahn at DKW Literary Agency. She's also on Twitter or on her website :

22 comments on “Interview with Karen Wenborn of Classical Comics

  1. rosyb
    August 8, 2008

    Thanks for such an interesting interview. This has brought up so many interesting issues for me.

    Right, I have to apologise in advance for a ridiculously long comment, here. Please bear with me! 🙂

    I have to admit to feeling a bit squeamish about the idea of Shakespeare in comicbook form. I have studied a lot of Shakespeare – at school, university and for my MA in Theatre Directing (don’t ask!) and so I have my own prejudices. I have also never been that fond of comics. But have been thinking recently – having been reading people raving about Manga and The Dark Knight etc – that I really should put those prejudices to bed and investigate graphic novels properly sometime.

    I do think that any version of Shakespeare is an interpretation – I don’t see how it can’t be. Even putting pictures around the original is an interpretation (and what constitutes the original is usually open to debate too come to that.) But that – for me – is the brilliant thing about Shakespeare, that the text holds so many possibilities. Which is what makes it great stuff to study.

    But this is also exactly why I think we shouldn’t be so precious about Shakespeare. We should be able to do him any which way – set in any time in history, puppets, one-man shows, Reduced Shakespeare company, mime, in tights. You name it, he can take it. And this is exactly why he is still with us.

    I remember reading about an Ibsen festival in Norway where every possible version and interpretation and artform was represented. We are far less playful here with someone like that, but I think it is a sign of healthiness – of the indomitable place of respect that a writer has in the culture when people can do that. That is why I don’t agree with those people who feel the classics should never be presented in different ways.
    Although, that being said, I don’t think that something is “good” just because it “gets people reading” as people tend to say. But if something can get people reading and also be good..well! Far from dumbing down – I think we should be demanding high quality from accessible forms, genres, mediums and from popular culture. (This is something Leena brought up ages ago and I keep returning to…we really need to write about this sometime, Leena.)

    So, for me, it comes down to the quality of the modern texts and, perhaps most of all, the quality of the artwork.

    I love the look of the cover you have previewed for “A Christmas Carol” on your website. Some of the more straight cartoony looking ones like Henry V appeal less to me personally in an aesthetic sense – but that’s just a matter of taste I suppose. I found what you said about representing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein very interesting as I found reading the book a revelation in comparison to the received image and story passed through the culture. It must be interesting “negotiating” the needs of the original text with the idiom and expectations (needs even) of the graphic novel form – and particularly so when dealing with a novel rather than a script. I would have thought the popular image of Shelley’s monster might have lent itself in an obvious way to the graphic novel idiom and the fact you chose to go against that strikes me as a bold and interesting move.

    I was also interested in the use of the word “scriptwriter” – as I was wondering about the background of the writers. I imagine it could be a fascinating challenge to “translate” Shakespeare into a modern simple language, with full consideration of the way it works dramatically, yet still do something interesting with that simpler language so that it can be a good and dramatic piece of writing in its own right.

    Potentially, comics might be able to get across things about the plays that would be very difficult for children to understand otherwise and I have to say that the fusty dusty tremulous clipped RP-accented old BBC versions that I was shown at school were hardly exciting and schools can as easily kill Shakespeare for people as excite them about it (I cannot even look at Julius Caesar without shuddering and don’t think I’ll ever be able to approach it without associations of catatonic boredom.) Purists seem to forget that “Measure for Measure” is full of puns about Syphilis (impossible to translate and often these sections are the most cut in the stage/tv versions) and Macbeth’s dramatic killing scene is interrupted by some bloke ambling on (possibly played by a well-known comedian at the time) and burbling on about pissing for twenty minutes. Not just rude and low-brow, but rather boring too when you don’t know what he’s on about (and even if you do for that matter).

    I first fell in love with Shakespeare at school through Polanski’s Macbeth – gory, melodramatic, easy to watch and understand…I don’t now this this is the best film version of Macbeth I’ve ever seen (the RSC Trevor Nunn version I found later and is far more nuanced and better acted) but it was riveting, exciting, supremely watchable and I loved it. It is often film that has captured Shakespeare in an artistic sense better for me than anything else – particularly (I was thinking recently) non English-language films – which is interesting as they are the very ones that don’t have to deal with the language “problem”. Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood and Kozinsev’s Hamlet are the best in my opinion – finding visual poetry and imagery as an equivalent film language to Shakespeare’s words. But Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is also excellent – wonderfully acted, bright, colourful in a way that all teenagers can relate to, and so bold and confident in its use of Shakespeare’s language that the juxtaposition of modern context and old language doesn’t even strike you as odd after a few moments.

    I am rambling now. (When am I ever not?)

    What I basically think is that versions and interpretations are exactly what makes Shakespeare so interesting. The texts are not in a coffin. They are living and breathing and hold infinite possibility. The best artistic versions have strong interpretations. And what was exciting to me as a teenager was when I suddenly saw the creative spaces in the texts to find my own versions and interpretations.

    Thanks again for this piece! Fascinating stuff.

  2. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    I’m going to have to apologise for the length of my comment as well. I seem to have written another essay.

    I found this interview very interesting but also very frustrating. However, I had a hard time figuring out why.

    Like Rosyb, I am rather protective of Shakespeare; I also agree that Shakespeare’s works SHOULD be interpreted, adapted, and allowed to flourish as living texts. The same goes for Austen, Dickens, Shelley, et al. The fact that _Clueless_ is probably the most thematically faithful film version of Jane Austen’s _Emma_ out there says a lot about how well adaptation can work. Besides, I’m a medievalist. The authors I study are ALL adapters. I also, of course, thoroughly approve of comics.

    So I should like this project…but something about it rubs me the wrong way. After agonising over it all for a bit, I’ve figured it out: it’s the attitude behind it that has me hissing and fluffing out my tail.

    This attitude can be encapsulated in Ms. Wenborn’s assertion that the comics “aren’t interpretations, they are graphic versions of the original texts.”

    Dear Ms. Weborn:

    No, actually, they ARE interpretations. As Rosyb points out, “any version of Shakespeare is an interpretation”; that observation extends to include graphic novels as well as stage productions and films. To frame the comics as THE TEXTS, whole and entire, but presented with exciting! new! pictures! (IN COLOUR!) is to embrace, cheerfully, the assumption that graphic novels are just illustrated texts; the pictures accompany the words but don’t affect them. The words tell the story, while the pictures accentuate the words.

    Yet…the pictures are telling the story too, whether or not they are meant to do so. From clicking through the thumbnails on CC’s website, I can already see that some of the artists are leaning towards the hoary old “evil-characters-are-ugly-and/or-swarthy” tradition. Yet…evil? Uncomplicated evil? In Shakespeare? Shakespeare’s villains are frequently two-faced, with complex or obscure motivations; think of Edmund from _King Lear_ or Iago from _Othello_. One character actually describes Edmund as “proper” (handsome). Should he be drawn as a leering, drooling psychopath? Should Iago’s villainy be clear to us via his cartoonishly hideous facial features but mysteriously hidden from Othello? Hell…should Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester be drawn as beautiful, when Charlotte Bronte pretty clearly describes both of them as plain?

    If you think so…then fine. It’s your interpretation. I may not agree with the portrayal, but that’s my problem, and I’m free to post reams of criticism all over the web. Just don’t deny that you ARE interpreting the text. If you draw Lady Macbeth continually looking as if she is smelling something bad, you’re interpreting her character, and readers will be influenced by what they see.

    The danger, as with any interpretation, is that those readers will never look further, taking the graphic representation as the ONLY representation. It’s an acceptable danger; if it weren’t, no one would ever dare to produce a play on stage. However, acknowledge it for what it is, please. You are NOT presenting the authoritative version of the text. There IS no authoritative version of a production of _Macbeth_…and your comic is basically a production of _Macbeth_.

    The “this is not interpretation” comment is even more problematic when one takes into consideration the “modern” and “quick text” versions. As anyone who works with subtitles will tell you, translation is not an exact art; it involves a hell of a lot of interpretation. The “quick text” versions will also necessarily eradicate subtlety unless the graphics that accompany them are more than just static illustrations…and from what we can see above with the side-by-side _Henry V_ comparison, they probably kind of aren’t (i.e., the pictures don’t increase in subtlety when the text DECREASES in subtlety). If the pictures HELP tell the story (as the action in a stage production would), then fine…but if they’re just there so the reader has something to look at, then the “quick text” versions ARE going to read as dumbed-down. (I also notice that you have chosen to frame the original texts as if they are prose, not verse, thereby eradicating an important aspect of Shakespeare’s plays…but that’s a whole other rant.)

    The adaptations of the novels will be even more obviously interpretations than the adaptations of the plays, as graphics will supposedly replace a lot of the authors’ descriptions. Again, go for it, but don’t make the mistake of believing that your version is not an interpretation. I’m gazing in perplexity at the drawings of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, and I’m wondering where on earth your artist got the idea that they looked like that…but that’s the artist’s decision…the artist’s INTERPRETATION. Perhaps someday someone will actually give us a plain Jane. Who knows?

    I do think this is an interesting and profitable project; I just wish the attitude behind it didn’t seem to be, “Comics are for kids, so let’s simplify these texts by (da-da-DUM)…making them into comics!” Comics are not only for kids, and they are by no means simple. In fact, turning a text into a comic adds a whole new layer of meaning to it. I haven’t read any of CC’s texts from cover to cover, so perhaps I’m being unfair; I just hope that 1) that layer is there and 2) the creators do realise that it is an interpretive layer.

    To end on a positive note: I am very intrigued by what I can see of the _Frankenstein_ graphics and would quite like to read the comic version.

  3. Trilby
    August 8, 2008

    Of course Shakespeare should be interpreted in different ways – that’s the beauty of theatre. Every production brings something new to the text; every performance, even when the same actors are involved, will be slightly different from the last. But I can’t help feeling that such interpretation is best placed to happen in the theatre – part of the reason that a lot of students struggle to “get” Shakespeare is that they never have the opportunity to see the plays performed. *That’s* when they truly come to life.

    I share Kari’s reservations about the likelihood of some readers ever progressing beyond “quick text”. The beauty of reading is that the power is in the hands of the reader: the power to imagine characters, scenes, emotions, impressions. Personally (and it’s only a personal opinion), I feel that comics rob the reader of that experience and turn up something much more akin to (the comparatively passive experience) of watching a film.

    Eve, I’m intrgued by your negative response to “classics” – perhaps because the word seems to me to cover huge expanse of literature. Did your teachers really turn you off everything from Beowulf to TS Eliot? Really? Or do you mean the school syllabus: Shakespeare, Austen, Chaucer, Blake et al?

  4. RosyB
    August 8, 2008

    “The beauty of reading is that the power is in the hands of the reader: the power to imagine characters, scenes, emotions, impressions. Personally (and it’s only a personal opinion), I feel that comics rob the reader of that experience and turn up something much more akin to (the comparatively passive experience) of watching a film.”

    Oh my goodness, oh my goodness I really disagree with you here Trilby – about film that is. Film at its best is not a passive experience at all. Watch “Ran”. It is superb. And full of stuff you need to interpret. I think it is more that most mainstream films work to formula and don’t necessarily use the full potential and language that film can do. I think there is nothing passive necessarily about the experience of watching films at all. I think you are badly underestimating the power of the visual to be intriguing or poetic or symbolic, suggestive or subtextual…

    It is like saying that listening to music is passive. But surely that depends on the music and the ability of the listener to interpret its language…

    As for whether theatre is better – theatre productions are quite capable of being absolutely appaling – and this is someone who spent quite a few years working in theatre.

    I think the greatest versions of Shakespeare I have seen have been films. Although the best theatre productions of Shakespeare have been pretty good and most of the best have been in shoe cupboards at the Edinburgh fringe.

    If kids got a chance to see good productions that would be great. But I think what transformed Shakespeare for me was to learn to READ it as drama rather than just poetry. That is something they do not do in schools and it can transform the whole thing – not just in terms of understanding but actually, strangely, in terms of how the poetry itself works – how the rhythm communicates the drama and displays the intentions of the characters.

  5. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    Trilby: I disagree that reading comics is as passive an experience as viewing films, but I do agree that these particular comics are being presented more as storyboarded films than as comics. What is frustrating about them, as well as about film versions of many “classics” (whatever that means), is that viewers may settle on the graphics as authoritative and never get as far as the original texts. I know people who refuse to read _The Lord of the Rings_ because they think it will be “boring” compared to Peter Jackson’s films. I always try to read books before I go to see movies based on those books…and even then, I know there’s a danger of the film version irrevocably changing my view of a certain character or scene. However, a reader can always choose NOT to see a film. I think the whole see-the-film-or-read-the-comic-first thing is possibly a bit backward.

    On the other hand, not all comics are like storyboarded films. Some–especially the original ones not based strictly on texts in different forms–DON’T rob the reader of the experience of imagination but instead promote that experience.

  6. RosyB
    August 8, 2008

    Just to add about Kari’s point about goodies and baddies. I do sort of agree and also about Jane Eyre (although isn’t this a feature of graphic novels that I was reading about entertainingly on your ranting website – the way that heroines are often similar and have to be beautiful and the heroes have other generic looks etc. Come and shout at me if I’m wrong on that! *She says ducking quickly*). But another part of me is thinking that doesn’t this also depend on the age of the readers to some extent. I think goodies and baddies do appeal to children and perhaps that is why Polanski’s Macbeth initially appealed to me – because it was dramatic and gory. And that Macbeth and Richard III are such popular plays. And yes, the P film did lead me into the play. I loved Macbeth, which I studied at school, and my idea of Macbeth from reading the text developed to be rather different from the Polankski character – much more sympathetic and equivocal and thoughtful for a start.

    But, the Polanski definitely lead me in in the first place.

    I do think it can be useful to have seen a version before first reading the play as a youngster because you can still imagine your own version but you have the story and characters and sequence in place so that you can read the text easier without stumbling around worrying about the significance of some ancient Greek analogy when really it is really just a throwaway comment between two soldiers watching a gatepost or something. (Or a joke about pissing.)

    I suppose I am thinking to myself here that there is always this worry that give people something they understand and they’ll never “progress” onto the hard stuff…But does anyone know that this is really the case? I mean I read loads of children’s versions of tales of Troy etc when I was a kid but I’ve never heard anyone going, “oooo, it is bad for Roger Lancelyn Green to write about Ancient Greek myths because his readers will never progress onto the real stuff.”

  7. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    RosyB: Yes, but there are many different versions of Ancient Greek myths. We’re not telling kids that they ARE reading Ovid when they read Roger Lancelyn Green. Plunking a “quick text” comic in front of a kid and going, “This IS Shakespeare; you can understand it perfectly well in this shortened, simplified version,” is misleading. All I want is some kind of acknowledgement that the comic is an interpretation.

    However, kids do learn in different ways. It was unfair of me to imply (through omission) that NO kid would EVER benefit from reading the comic first. Silly, silly Kari.

    Re. the similarity of all comic heroines: as my Rant implied, this is actually a problem I have with comics. I don’t think it should be a requirement that all heroines have huge breasts and pouty lips, just as I don’t think it should be a requirement that all villains have little black beards, pointy noses, and a tendency to cackle for no particular reason. Goodies and baddies may SOMETIMES appeal to SOME children, but our overwhelming cultural belief that all children’s literature has to be about Obvious Good Versus Obvious Evil is maddeningly false. Look at fairy tales (though I’ve got to warn you that I go all bouncily angry when people imply that fairy tales are only for children; they’ve been around for a long time, whereas only relatively recently in literary history have they been “relegated to the nursery,” as J. R. R. Tolkien puts it). Look at them CLOSELY. They’re not centred around the opposition of good and evil but the opposition of inside and outside, us and them, here and there. The hero goes out into the world. What he finds there in the unknown sometimes harms him…and sometimes aids him. Monsters can try to eat him or help him answer a riddle; the wilderness can bring danger or knowledge.

    For the last several hundred years, we’ve been trying to mould this landscape into one in which the hero represents absolute good and the monster absolute evil, but the underlying patterns are still there, and we’re by and large failing. Part of the reason Batman appeals so strongly to people is that he is the hero not as representative of goodness but simply as representative of us. He accesses the same darkness as the monsters he fights, and he defeats them with this darkness; he protects the inside by drawing on the powers of the outside, and he fits properly into neither space. Batman belongs to a very old tradition of heroism that has nothing to do with lily-white heroes and squinting, sneering, two-dimensional villains (though, yeah, Batman’s villains are often portrayed in this way. Some writers give them quite a lot of depth, though).

    Sorry. I wrote my thesis on medieval monster-heroes. I tend to go off into lectures whenever the subject comes up.

  8. rosyb
    August 8, 2008

    On the other hand – there is also an undeniable pleasure to “villains have little black beards, pointy noses, and a tendency to cackle for no particular reason”. I am supposed to be writing about this in a while so it’s a bit stupid to go on about it now but Olivier’s Rich III for example. Ridiculous stereotyped pantomimic stuff. But I challenge anyone not to absolutely love it.

    Fairy tales – well yes. Not quite sure what you are saying – we don’t tend to reveal the full frightening horror of them to very young children, do we?…Well I can imagine we do receive certain messages about safety and danger and outsiders and insiders and all that. But to use another equivalent – look at kid’s rhymes. Ring o ring o roses is all about death and the plague but my 3 year old niece certainly had no idea about that. Complexity and ambivalence and old patterns and messages and life and death may be wrapped into these tales, but surely it is like a process where you tend to have different responses at different times of life or they speak to us in different ways at different times of life…or we just take it in subconsciously. Or never take it in at all.

    I do agree about the interpretation thing though I imagine Karen W probably didn’t mean it like that (not to put words in Karen W mouth). I expect she just meant that the books weren’t put in modern dress or set in Colonial Africa to make a point about Imperialism or in the 1940s to make a point about fascism or all the characters being transvestites or something – like a theatre production might be an overt “interpretation” to make a point.

    Honestly, you sound like a lawyer in a court of law! We’ll never persuade anyone to guest piece for us again at this rate. 😉

  9. Trilby
    August 8, 2008

    Sorry, haven’t had a chance to read everything, but I just wanted to respond to you Rosy, to clarify:

    “Watch “Ran”. It is superb. And full of stuff you need to interpret.”

    I wasn’t really talking about interpretation – that’s something that comes a stage later in the cognitive process. I was talking about the actual activity that’s going on in your brain while you watch a film or television (less than when you’re asleep, according to the scientists). Watching something is a much less strenuous (I don’t use the word perjoratively!) for your brain than reading: there’s one more stage of “translation” that has to happen (I can see a man driving a car on screen, but if I read the sentence “a man was driving a car”, my brain has to work to create that picture). Comics, for better or worse, remove that stage.

    (Music, since you mention it, is a very different phenomenon – but that’s Oliver Sacks territory!)

  10. Jackie
    August 8, 2008

    Kari, I think Disney has been the main villain behind the rigid good vs. evil of fairy tales, they really don’t do nuance at all. And because of Disney’s pervasiveness, it’s become a societal mindset. The main problem I have with them is that nearly all of their baddies are handicapped or physically ugly, thus associating the two in the minds of generations of people. “Finding Nemo” is the exception, with the little clownfish having a deformed fin.

    Personally, I think it would be better to have read Shakespeare in any form than not at all. In times past, there was cultural references that was common to most people, such as Greek myths, Roman history, certain poems and legends.Nowadays a large portion of the population has no idea who, say Icarus is. So even if all a person read was the Quick Text of Henry V, they would still have the gist of the story and I’m sure that a certain percentage would go on the read it in the original language. I see the Classical Comics as a stepping stone or enhancement to the original work.
    While I haven’t yet looked at the website, the images here are quite striking. As an artist myself, I’m impressed with the bold colors, strong lines and atmosphere. They are very good looking in an aesthetic way. I hope I can find them after their American release, because I’d like to see them up close.
    And thanks to Ms. Wenborn for a very interesting and fascinating interview. I’m really glad VL decided to explore graphic novels this week.

  11. rosyb
    August 8, 2008

    Hey Trilby – not being argumentative (well you know me but..) where did you get that info from? Because that’s quite interesting if it’s true. I find it really hard to believe for one second that the brain activity watching Memento say is less than reading. I found watching that film exhausting to watch! (But if I’m wrong about that I’d love to know as that’s quite interesting in fact.)

    Then again don’t they say computer games are best of all…;)

    I found this. About how different films result in different levels of activity. Of any interest?

  12. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    RosyB: You should see me in court. “Your honour, I would like to submit that this fairy tale is NOT, as previously believed, all about sex, but also includes some elements of drugs and rock and roll. And a poodle.”

    I agree that understanding complexity is a process, but there’s a difference between seeing different meanings in a story at different ages and being taught that the morally simplistic versions are the ONLY versions. I’ve had students who think that a good/evil conflict must necessarily be at the centre of EVERY piece of literature ever written. No, I’m not exaggerating. They start essays on everything from “Little Red Riding Hood” to _Beowulf_ with statements such as, “Since the dawn of time, the struggle between good and evil has been essential to literature.”

    Trilby: I’m not sure that comics entirely remove the translation stage of immediate interpretation. In a film, action is continuous; we see and hear a woman walk across a room, pick up a glass, and drink from it. The director may insert cuts into the scene so that we are seeing the woman from different angles or skipping part of her journey, but we have to imagine relatively little of this particular scenario. In comics, there is no actual movement. We are seeing a series of still pictures; we have to fill in almost ALL the action rather than just bits and pieces of it. In addition, we are not hearing the characters’ voices or any other sounds in the scene; we imagine those details ourselves. I agree that our brains are not working in the same way they do when we read, but they ARE working. I think of the process as being a sort of combination of what happens when we view art and when we read literature.

    I’ll try to sound less like a lawyer. Maybe I should move for a recess, though…

  13. Kari
    August 8, 2008

    Trilby: Okay! And I can stop being all pedantic and boring and go eat a butter tart!

    Mmm…butter tarts…

  14. Alex Pheby
    August 8, 2008

    Not terribly convinced by the brain activity links, particularly those that put the effect down to the influence of the cathode ray tube – a device which is now almost completely extinct. Are we okay if we watch soaps on an LCD TV?

  15. Ariadne
    August 9, 2008

    What an interesting discussion. I’m just trying to write (fiction) about a summer drama camp that teaches Shakespeare to children in innovative ways. The language is the main stumbling point for children, but then I don’t think children are taught to _enjoy_ language any more – see how poetry has dropped off teachers’ radar, reduced to the wretched Liverpool poets (sorry, but _that’s_ what I call dumbing down!). Yet word play can be wonderful, so can rhythm and rhyme and meter and all those things people run scared of, and teach children to run scared of. Making up your own words like Shakespeare did – how liberating for a child!

  16. karen wnborn
    August 9, 2008

    Morning all, just arrived in France on holiday, so thought I’d spend a quiet 10 reading the comments – amazing!!
    Thanks to all for getting involved.

    The most stirring comment so far is:- “Comics are for kids, so let’s simplify these texts by (da-da-DUM)…making them into comics!” I haven’t read any of CC’s texts from cover to cover, so perhaps I’m being unfair; I just hope that 1) that layer is there and 2) the creators do realise that it is an interpretive layer.
    Not having read them is a TINY stumbling block I thnk, but no, the texts weren’t simplified by making them into comics…..people (children too) learn in a variety of ways. Not all can access WS’s language straight off. That’ s where the three text versions make a massive difference to students and teachers.Differentiation. Really important in education.

    Then thanks for this…”I do agree about the interpretation thing though I imagine Karen W probably didn’t mean it like that (not to put words in Karen W mouth).
    Absolutely right. 🙂 Every fresh performance of any play is technically a different interpretation. I was indeed talking about our books being a ‘performance’ set in the correct period etc etc.

    Finally – must go as a cool terrace harbouring a glass of wine is looking very attractive……but one more thing…. I wouldn’t expect anyone having read any Quick Text version to say that they had ‘read Shakespeares play’.
    (Although if they wanted to say that, who would I be to stop them??) But I would expect them all to say that they fully understood the story. Hopefully more than a few would then go on to explore the original text . Our version or a Quarto/Folio facsimile, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they WANT to read.

    On the subject of dear Jane – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately!!

    Cheers all,


  17. clom
    August 11, 2008

    Interesting set of articles about this topic. Lots to discuss (and plenty that’s already been discussed)

    I’ll just wade in with a couple of observations.

    Quick text v. original text- For me, an adaptation from an original version to a simplified text version is fraught with potential hot-button issues. The question you really want to ask is what the aim of the adaptation is? Is it to tell Shakespeare’s story to an audience that is still only finding their feet in terms of reading. Is it preferable to immerse them in an original version or do you want them to have an idea of the story before embarking on the serious business of “hearing” Shakespeare’s lyrical genius for the first time? This is a scenario where a re-telling can be very useful. A good example of using a classic text with a simplified form is the Barrington Stoke Modern Text version of Alan Grant & Cam Kennedy’s graphic novel adaptation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped. A modern text retelling of a story like Kidnapped is particularly useful because the strongest aspect of Stevenson’s story is the narrative and is thus well suited to adaptation. With Shakespeare the “right approach” becomes infinitely more complex, primarily because of it’s reputation but also because the language is, in itself, integral to the appeal.

    I also think that the extent to which young people today read comics is overstated and the percieved desireability of the graphic novel to teenagers is perpetuated by an enthusiastic adult audience. Yes, there are graphic novels out there that engage young people in reading but I have found that these are young people who see themselves as readers.

    Which begs the question, exactly who are these Quick Read versions for? Are they actually being read? And are they being read for enjoyment? Or being used as “educational resources” in the classroom? There is a significant difference between the two. Using a simplified text to enable a class or student to get the “bones” of a play’s structure before delving into the “meat” of the plays language is an altogether different thing to sitting down and reading a graphic novel for pleasure.

    I’m eager to pick up some of the CC editions and have a look. I was browsing through the Book Festival bookshop and came across the “Self Made Hero” editions of Kafka, Poe and their Manga Shakespeare series. I particularly liked their Richard III which struck me as a beautifully executed interpretation where the form, content and design all converge to create a beautiful and compelling version.

  18. dave
    August 13, 2008

    I didn’t have a problem with the texts at all – I am afraid I wasn’t too impressed with the artwork. Its a good idea, I hope it takes off.

  19. karen wnborn
    August 14, 2008

    Back again, Hi Dave, we have different artists drawing each book, so Jane Eyre and Frankenstein are very different to Macbeth (for instance). I hope that you find some of the others more impressive. A Christmas Carol is a particular favourite of mine, with Scrooge et al being vividly brought to life.
    Clom, converting the plays is fraught with pitfalls. It’s interesting that whilst abridging the text (even when losing some of the better know lines) seems to attract little comment, but simplifying the text tends to be rather like striking matches in a gunpowder factory. If these texts encourage reading, ignite an interest in Shakespeare or simply provide a cracking read, they are doing their job. Encouraging debate is no bad thing either!
    Young people reading comics is yet another interesting topic. In one major study it was found that school libraries containing graphic novels increased their footfall by over 50%. Assuming that the feet in question belonged to students, and that they then went on to pick up a book, it would seem to indicate some interest from children.
    Before I go, the question ‘who are the QT versions for?’ begs an answer.
    Children as young as 8 pick them up out of curiosity and can usually be found 15 mins later engrossed in the story. 12 year old boys have amazed parents and teachers alike by reading them for pure enjoyment. And yes, they are used in schools as educational resources. With great success. A number of pupils have then requested that their parents buy others in the series. So, having fun and learning at the same time – sounds good to me!

    Favourite quote from the discussions “Your honour, I would like to submit that this fairy tale is NOT, as previously believed, all about sex, but also includes some elements of drugs and rock and roll. And a poodle.”
    makes me smile every time……and could someone tell me where to get these ‘butter tarts’?

    Thanks to all of you for providing interesting feedback and thought provoking comments. Very much appreciated by the team.

  20. Kari
    August 14, 2008

    Well, I can’t ignore THAT request.

    A butter tart is a type of Canadian pastry (Wikipedia, which I have, to my shame, consulted, tells us that Scotland and France offer similar desserts, but butter tarts themselves are often considered uniquely Canadian. I just wanted to make sure that this was the case. Students, you do not have permission to cite Wikipedia in your essays. Ever). You can find recipes all over the web. The main ingredients are butter, sugar, and eggs, but you may want to add various other food-bits (I like pecans in mine; the result is similar to a teeny little pecan pie). The butter tart I ate just after I wrote that comment did contain pecans, but it also had chocolate drizzled over it. It was a very, very good butter tart.

  21. karen wnborn
    August 21, 2008

    I’m afraid that my fingers have strayed over to Wikipedia on more than one occasion. 🙂

    ok, as I’m still in France, I will now conduct a search for said items.
    Consider yourself responsible for every extra pound I gain.

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2008 by in Entries by Eve, Fiction: Graphic novels.



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