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Editors’ Introduction

By Katherine Shaeffer and Richard Burt

In one sense, Shakespeare’s monumental reputation makes defending a ‘Shakespeare Special Issue’ of ImageTexT superfluous. Shakespeare is not just a core component of the literary canon, but the foundation upon which the English literary canon is built. The question, therefore, isn’t “Why produce a special issue on Shakespeare?” but “Why didn’t we produce a special issue on Shakespeare before now?”

Despite the apparent naturalness of such an endeavor, a special issue on Shakespeare is not without its challenges. So much has been written on Shakespeare’s work that a ‘Shakespeare Special Issue’ of any kind cannot help but retread some old ground. One way for an editor to combat this inevitability is to find avenues of approach to the study of Shakespeare that intersect with academic roads slightly-less-traveled. In our case, of course, we are juxtaposing Shakespeare Studies with the significantly less popular, yet rapidly growing, field of Comics Studies and—more broadly speaking—with the study of visual rhetoric and visual culture.

Marion D. Perret, in “‘And Suit the Action to the Word’: How a Comics Panel Can Speak Shakespeare,” analyzes several different comic-book versions of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in order to investigate the difficulties faced by comic artists charged with creating visual accompaniment to Shakespeare’s language. Perret’s focus in this 2001 article is the philosophical and poetic nature of Hamlet’s speech, and how its abstractions cause the soliloquy to resist visual interpretation: “Abstractions, by definition, are non-representational, and the metaphors that compound thoughts and suggest emotional depths underlying the philosophizing do not make the artist’s task easier” (124). This challenge of visually representing abstractions in Shakespeare is not a new one, and it is certainly not unique to comics. After all, what is a staged play if not if not visual and representational? Nonetheless, when it is possible to see the comic artist as, on some level, taking the place of an entire dramatic troupe, it is hard to deny that the artist’s task is a difficult one.

In addition to the challenge of creating suitable visuals that will complement—without over- or under-powering—Shakespeare’s text is a further obstacle that all directors of and actors in Shakespeare’s plays have been facing for years: the mixed blessing of his words’ familiarity. Especially in the case of comics which aspire to fidelity to Shakespeare’s text, informed readers will either know or easily be able to anticipate what is going to be said well in advance of the words’ appearance on the page. This leaves the burden of creating suspense, of creating interest (beyond that which would be achieved by reading one of Shakespeare’s scripts) more-or-less squarely on the shoulders of the artist. This means that the aesthetic value of the Shakespeare-related comic book stems largely (and ironically) from what it can provide that is not Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-related comic artist is expected not only to support Shakespeare’s text, but to produce something new, different and interesting in its own right. And when the artist’s work is to be juxtaposed directly with Shakespeare’s words (as in several of the examples in Perret’s article) the bar for artistic quality is set pretty high. In spite of the trials inherent in illustrating Shakespeare, however, there seems to be a continuous supply of artists who are up for the challenge.

Adaptations and allusions to Shakespeare and his works have appeared in TV shows, movies, graphic novels, comic books, children’s books and animations, as well as a host of other mediums. Recent additions to this catalogue include Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 film version of Coriolanus, Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version of The Tempest, BONES studio’s 2012 Tempest-inspired anime, Blast of Tempest or Zetsuen no Tempest (based on a manga of the same name) and Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger’s comic series Kill Shakespeare, which began its run in 2010.

Shakespeare’s plays, of all of his works, are uniquely suited to comic adaptation, as comics, graphic novels and manga tend to have many of the same components as do dramas, including: spoken dialogue, visible settings and props, visually foregrounded characters and action. It is primarily in their dimensions that these two mediums differ. While a stage play is performed in three dimensions, has sound and movement and takes time to be acted out, a comic exists in two dimensions, is silent and static and does not take up time, except inasmuch as it takes time to be read.1 While, for these reasons, most plays could be called especially suited to comic and graphic novel adaptation, most plays do not have nearly the same level of familiarity to an English-speaking (or to a global) audience as Shakespeare’s. Reputation matters. However, Shakespeare’s reputation is not the only one that matters. This special issue of ImageTexT reflects the marriage of two reputations: Shakespeare’s and the comic medium’s.

The study of Shakespeare as literature and as film needs no defense. The study of Shakespeare-related comics, on the other hand, perhaps still needs to be defended in some academic quarters. In any case, criticism of Shakespeare on film still outweighs criticism of Shakespeare in comics despite the documentation of numerous citations, allusions, and adaptations of Shakespeare in comics.2 While teaching clips of different film adaptations of the same scene in a Shakespeare course has become a common practice in English departments, teaching comics has not. It would appear that comics now occupy the position Shakespeare on film did four decades ago, dismissed as debased “low” culture and corruption. Like early filmmakers who adapted Shakespeare, comics creators who adapt or allude to Shakespeare do so because of his high cultural prestige. Who better to give comics a leg up than a figure whose name has become the industry standard for literary quality? It is not a coincidence, after all, that the first and only comic book to receive the World Fantasy Award, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Sandman #19), was a reworking of a Shakespeare play, and shared that play’s title. It is also no accident that, after Gaiman and Vess’s win, comics were declared ineligible for that same award. Even Shakespeare couldn’t save the comic book medium.

Shakespeare-related comics make for compelling study, we suggest, because they do not repeat the history of Shakespeare related films. Why should this be so, we ask? What is it about comics that make them attractive enough to attract critical scrutiny from Shakespeare professors and yet not quite enough to study in their own right at universities and colleges? Why do secondary education teachers not widely use Shakespeare-related comics, not just films like Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet? Why have the publishers of Shakespeare-related comics over the past decade tended to address secondary teachers and students, not professors and college students? In recent years, publishers have encouraged teachers to turn to comic-form versions of Shakespeare’s plays in order to make Shakespeare more accessible to students, and a number of teachers have obliged.3 UK publisher SelfMadeHero’s Manga Shakespeare line, which currently offers “manga” versions of fourteen of Shakespeare’s plays, embraces a marketing model entirely driven by teachers’ perceived needs. MANGASHAKESPEARE.COM hosts teaching resources, defends the pedagogical worth of manga and even advertises workshops. Two more UK publishers of Shakespeare-related comic books, Classical Comics and the appropriately-titled Shakespeare Comic Books, follow similar models. Of these publishers, Classical Comics is unique in that it offers three different versions of the text for each of the titles in its Shakespeare line: the complete and unabridged “Original Text,” the much-simplified “Plain Text” and the even-more-simplified “Quick Text,” which “features reduced and simplified dialogue for younger and reluctant readers” (“Education.”). The Shakespeare Comic Books site devotes an entire page to the benefits of its titles for readers with special needs, and lists as examples “reluctant readers,” “students with dyslexia and autism” and students “for whom English is not a first language” (“Special Needs”).4

We offer two observations by way an initial responses to our questions. First, comics still have a “bad” Shakespeare. As the Manga Shakespeare, Classical Comics and Shakespeare Comic Books examples make clear, the “bad” reputation comics still have is crucial to the merging of subject (Shakespeare) with form (comics): comics’ reputation as “low” art carries with it the implication that comics are easy to read, that they are accessible and that they are, simply put, “fun.” While the comic world leans on the credibility of Shakespeare—Shakespeare’s “good” reputation, if you will—in its seemingly endless quest for further legitimacy, Shakespeare, as a subject, leans on comics’ “bad” one when it comes to teaching.

Yet why should what is clearly a fantasy about Shakespearean comics, a middlebrow fantasy that literary merit will meet popular culture in some kind of perfect and palatable manner persist? Shakespeare comics are presumed by publishers, marketers, and teachers to be good, not bad. This question takes us to our second observation. Within the diverse and expansive cultural imaginary of global Shakespeare, there exists a niche market for Shakespeare for children. This market is not defined or guided by a literary teleology. Shakespeare-related comics tell us something about the way children’s literature has itself been transformed over the past several decades. Newberry Award winning novels occupy the same status—and sometimes the same shelves in the few chain bookstores that still exist—as do graphic novels like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its many sequels, as well as anglicized Japanese manga. The imagined student reader of Shakespeare comics is not a “bad” reader, as if reading comics were a kind of juvenile delinquency, but a reader for whom Shakespeare and literature in general have no essence, no singular ideal form, even as edited texts, against which one could measure or rank its incarnations in various media.

As the reader of this issue will no doubt agree, the creation of any comic book, graphic novel, manga or picture book that makes use of Shakespeare involves more than plugging story into structure; it is a negotiation of two traditions of narrative, performance and vocabulary (both verbal and visual). The six essays we present here point to the complexity created by the merging of Shakespeare’s words, themes and motifs with image/textual representation.

Cara Byrne, in “Visual Statements in Shakespearean Adaptations: Illustrating Romeo and Juliet for Children,” seeks to redress an oversight in academic Shakespeare criticism by examining the oft-overlooked issue of how Shakespeare has been adapted into children’s picture books. Byrne explores reworkings of a single Shakespeare play in a number of picture books, tackling illustrated ‘Shakespearean’ adaptation from a pedagogical perspective. Byrne focuses her article around two illustrated versions of Romeo and Juliet for children, Michael Rosen and Jane Ray’s visually intricate Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Lois Burdett’s Romeo and Juliet for Kids, which was illustrated by Burdett’s students. Pulling from J. Anthony Blair’s work on “visual arguments” and “visual statements,” Byrne examines the child-targeted illustrations in these books within as visual statements made by the illustrators.

Two of our contributors look at SelfMadeHero’s pedagogically-driven Manga Shakespeare line. Margaret Roper compares SelfMadeHero’s The Tempest with Classical Comics’s The Tempest, and asks how both of these graphic novel versions of the play fit into a larger tradition of its performance and adaptation. Roper juxtaposes these two Tempests against one another to investigate how their illustrations align with interpretations of Shakespeare’s play as, on the one hand, a fantasy in the romantic mode, and on the other, a post-colonial rumination on cultural expansion. Svenn-Arve Myklebost, in “Shakespeare Manga: Early- or Post-modern?” focuses on SelfMadeHero’s Twelfth Night and, in an analysis of the illustrator’s choices, frames the discussion of Shakespearean graphic novel adaptations within the question of “aesthetic identity,” examining the larger traditions of Early Modern verbal-visual culture and how they relate to modern-day comic-book appropriation.

F. Vance Neill, in “Interface Rhetoric in Shakespearean Comics: A Study of the Effect of Interface on the Construction of Shakespeare’s Plays,” uses linguistic precision and analytical attention to detail to discuss the impact of the comic interface on graphic novel versions of three of Shakespeare’s most famous plays: King LearThe Tempest and The Merchant of Venice. Neill explores these graphic novels not only in terms of their visual style and structure, but also in terms of how their illustration relates to historical artistic movements.

Brandon Christopher, in “‘To dignify some old costumed claptrap’: Shakespearean Allusion and the Status of Text in the DC Comics of Grant Morrison,” and Jason Tondro, in “‘These are not our Father’s words!’: Kill Shakespeare‘s Defense of the Meta-Text,” both look at Shakespeare’s presence in more ‘mainstream’ comics that are heavily metatextual in nature. Christopher examines the presence of Shakespearean allusion throughout the career of a single comics writer, Grant Morrison. Jason Tondro analyzes the recently published series Kill Shakespeare and unpacks how it plays with a host of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, mixing and matching characters to create an elaborate and adventurous meta-text. Both contributors look at how Shakespeare’s status as auteur influences comic book appropriations of his plays and relates to the presentation of the comic book writer in his own work.


[1] Obviously, these are oversimplifications. For example, though the comic medium is two-dimensional, a comic book still takes up space in three dimensions.

[2] See Richard Burt’s Shakespeares After Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture, which devotes a chapter to “Cartoons and Comic Books” (10-73). This chapter begins with an Introduction by Richard Burt and continues with a chronological listing of Shakespeare’s appearances in comic books by Michael P. Jensen and Richard Burt. The Notes (13) to this Introduction, which guide the reader to further research into comics theory and Shakespeare-related comics, are extensive and will not be repeated in full here. However, some of the Shakespeare-related comics resources listed include: Annalisa Castaldo, “‘No More Yielding Than a Dream’: The Construction of Shakespeare in The Sandman,” College Literature 31.4 (2004): 94-110; Annalisa Castaldo, “A Text of Shreds and Patches: Shakespeare and Popular Culture,” Shakespeare and Renaissance Association of West Virginia: Selected Papers 20 (1997): 59-71; Josh Heuman and Richard Burt, “Suggested for Mature Readers?: Deconstructing Shakespearean Value in Comic Books,” Shakespeare After Mass Media. Ed. Richard Burt. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 150-171; Naomi J. Miller, ed. Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults. New York: Routledge, 2003; Marion D. Perret, “Not Just Condensation: How Comic Books Interpret Shakespeare,” College Literature 31.4 (2004): 72-93; Marion D. Perret, “‘And Suit the Action to the Word’: How a Comics Panel Can Speak Shakespeare,” The Language of Comics: Word and Image, Ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 123-144; and Marion D. Perret, “More Than Child’s Play: Approaching Hamlet through Comic Books,” Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ed. Bernice Kliman. New York: Modern Language Association, 2001. 161-164.

See also Peter Holland, “Shakespeare, Humanity Indicators, and the Seven Deadly Sins.” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation. 7.1 (2012); Douglas Lanier, Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; and Amy Louise Maynard, “How Comics Help to Teach Shakespeare in Schools.” Asiatic. 6.2 (2012): 96-109.

Martha Cornog, in a brief entry for the Library Journal (Cornog and Raitari, “Graphic Novels”), offers short descriptions of the six publishers which produce series of Shakespeare graphic novels. Though not an academic analysis, this list could be of great value to those researchers looking to build their Shakespeare-related comics collections.

[3] One of the more comprehensive overviews of how Shakespeare-related comics have been approached pedagogically is Amy Louise Maynard’s “How Comics Help to Teach Shakespeare in Schools,” which appeared in Asiatic in December of 2012. Classical Comics, on their “Education” page, links to a site which offers the full text of Mel Gibson’s series of case studies, “Graphic Novels Across the Curriculum,” which, though mostly focused around the use and value of graphic novels in schools in general, does briefly mention the prominence of “graphic Shakespeare” in the classroom (13). Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, most of the easily accessible accounts of teaching Shakespeare-related comics—like those published by Shakespeare Comic Books, Classical Comics and SelfMadeHero—in schools are the testimonials archived on the publishers’ own websites, making the success of these Shakespeare-related comics as teaching tools difficult to gauge.

[4] This is especially interesting because, in the controversy surrounding the ‘dumbing down’ of Shakespeare, the discussion of readers with learning disorders, disabilities and other obstacles to access and/or understanding is surprisingly rare. However, the suitability of the Shakespeare Comic Books line for Special Needs students seems to have been more the result of happy accident than design, as the series was intended from its inception for “mainstream pupils” (“Special Needs”).

Works Cited

Burt, Richard. “Introduction, ‘Shakespeare Stripped: The Bard (Un)bound in Comics.” “Cartoons and Comic Books.” Shakespeares After Shakespeare: An encyclopedia of the bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. 2 vols. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2007. 10-13. Print.

Burt, Richard, ed. Shakespeare After Mass Media. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

—. Shakespeares After Shakespeare: An encyclopedia of the bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. 2 vols. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2007. Print.

Classical Comics: Bringing Classics to Life. Classical Comics, 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

Cornog, Martha and Steve Raiteri. “Graphic Novels.” Library Journal. 15 May 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>

“Education.” Classical Comics: Bringing Classics to Life. Classical Comics, 28 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>

Gibson, Mel. “Graphic Novels Across the Curriculum.” “Graphic Novels in the Curriculum.” Education Scotland. LTScotland, 02 Mar. 2007. Web. 11 Mar 2013. <>

Holland, Peter. “Shakespeare, Humanity Indicators, and the Seven Deadly Sins.” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.

Heuman, Josh and Richard Burt. “Suggested for Mature Readers?: Deconstructing Shakespearean Value in Comic Books.” Shakespeare After Mass Media. Ed. Richard Burt. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 153-171. Print.

Jensen, Michael P. “Entries Play by Play.” “Cartoons and Comic Books.” Shakespeares After Shakespeare: An encyclopedia of the bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture. 2 vols. Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2007. 14-73. Print.

Lanier, Douglas. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

MANGASHAKESPEARE.COM. SelfMadeHero, 02 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>

Maynard, Amy Louise. “How Comics Help to Teach Shakespeare in Schools.” Asiatic. 6.2 (2012). 96- 109. Web. 08 Mar. 2013.

Perret, Marion D. “‘And Suit the Action to the Word’: How a Comics Panel Can Speak Shakespeare,” The Language of Comics: Word and Image, ed. Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 123-144. Print.

Shakespeare Comic Books. The Shakespeare Comic Book Co Ltd, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>

“Special Needs.” Shakespeare Comic Books. The Shakespeare Comic Book Co Ltd, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>

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