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Interface Rhetoric in Shakespearean Comics: A Study of the Effect of Interface on the Construction of Shakespeare’s Plays

By F. Vance Neill

The use of Shakespeare in comics is more than mere adaptation. It is an attempt to stage a production of a Shakespeare play without depending on the theatrical apparatus. It is putting a new face on extant material in order to transform that material for a new end. Several methods for creating a new face exist, among them: live-action film, animation, television, picturebooks, posters, manga, and comics. Each of them bring their own unique requirements to the creation of the final product. Each has inherent qualities that must appear in the interface of their products, and those qualities generate a category of interface that cannot be confused with the interfaces of any other method. Thus, despite the similarities between manga and comics, the interfaces of their products could never be exchanged with each other and remain as either manga or comics. For this reason, the focus of this study is on comics. Moreover, this study examines the rhetorical effect of interface on the presentation of Shakespeare’s plays in comics.

In short, an interface is a lens through which a cultural artifact is seen and perceived, and as such, it makes an argument about the artifact for which it is a lens. As suggested, every cultural artifact has an interface, despite that term’s solid cultural link to computers and communication technologies. Understanding what that interface is and how it works is crucial to knowing how an artifact affects an audience. This study examines five comic editions of three Shakespeare plays—King LearThe Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice—in order to elucidate on the interfaces that they use to make arguments about these plays. Through these plays, the concept of interface rhetoric will be explained and demonstrated, and the arguments of the interfaces about their respective plays will be discerned through the three case studies of two editions of King Lear, two editions of The Tempest, and two editions of Shakespeare plays—King Lear and The Merchant of Venice—created by the same comics artist, Gareth Hinds.

Explaining the Concept of Interface

The interface of a cultural artifact involves visual style, form, arrangement, color, texture, and—depending on the artifact—shape and interaction. For example, shape has little (and interaction has no) bearing on a painting as a cultural artifact. Most paintings have the same three-dimensional shape, and they all lack interaction. In contrast, shape and interaction are integral components in the cultural artifact of a telephone. In comics, the interface specifically entails the ratio of text and image, the number and shape of the panels, the lettering, the amount and types of balloons, the spatial arrangements—within each panel, each page, and across the pages—the visual style of the images, and the color scheme.

Regardless of the exact components in play within a cultural artifact, each component signifies and generates a message or an argument. Thus, although an interface is a surface, it is a surface with semantic depth that does not necessarily depend on the co-presence of language. Those semantics of the surface construct a filter through which the overall message or argument of a cultural artifact is, metaphorically speaking, refracted or transmuted. Kenneth Burke called such a filter a “terministic screen.” He was discussing the idea in terms of language, but David Blakesley has already demonstrated the applicability of Burke’s concept to images in his examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.1 At this point in history, the entire name of the concept has become metaphorical because even the word “term” has been cut from its moorings in language, and its referent has shifted to the semiotic sign, which refers to any type of simple cultural construction that has a denotation. Examples of signs range from colors and shapes to music to single items in a formalized system like the equals sign in mathematics to words. The word “screen” always was a metaphor, even with Burke. In this context, the semantics of the surface create their own argument about the content of the cultural artifact. Consequently, in generic terms, the receiver of the artifact only perceives the argument of the cultural artifact as the terministic screen of the artifact’s interface permits it to be seen.

The difference between interface and content becomes noticeable when the content remains the same, but the interface changes. With the stable content of a Shakespeare play rendered in the medium of comics, the interface becomes discernible because the difference between one comic version of a Shakespeare play and the next one is its interface. Even the adaptation of the content of a Shakespeare play does not quite disrupt the ability to perceive the interface, because scholarship on adaptation has made us sensitive to the workings of adaptation, and the content of the original Shakespeare play provides a stable base that makes comparison possible. Moreover, the adaptation is generally of the content, which is the narrative of the Shakespeare play, and the content is sufficiently abstract to distinguish it from the concrete materiality of the interface.

This principle lies at the base of all theater and makes possible the performance of different productions of the same play. It explains why various productions of Shakespeare plays have chosen to revise the settings of those plays in order to enhance the plays’ applicability to the contemporary audiences of the era. Essentially, those directors have provided a new interface to the play. For example, the narrative of Shakespeare’s Henry V remains the same, even if one production is a faithful recreation of the play’s historical moment, and another chooses to reframe the play in the setting of the Second World War. What has changed is the interface, which controls how the receiver perceives the narrative. With the setting of the Second World War, Henry V adduces a comparison between modern and medieval warfare and becomes a commentary on war—which is accomplished without necessarily altering the play’s narrative. Furthermore, even if the director makes cuts that alter the narrative, the core of the play’s narrative is preserved so that the play is still recognizable as Henry V, and the receiver can discern the setting of the Second World War as a layer imposed on Henry V.

Defining Interface Rhetoric

Knowing the concept of an interface helps to understand interface rhetoric, but by itself, it is not a sufficient explanation. Rhetoric itself is a contested term as Jennifer Richards explains in her book Rhetoric: The New Critical Idiom, although she focuses on rhetoric as a strictly linguistic phenomenon. Visual rhetoricians have striven to expand the sense of rhetoric so that it includes images. Interface rhetoric acknowledges these developments in addition to the collected knowledge of established disciplines such as art history and semiotics. It pertains to how the surface of a cultural artifact argues about the artifact itself.

Interface rhetoric may sound like another name for style, but it is not. Style only explains one piece of an artifact’s surface, whereas interface is a term meant to cover every aspect of the surface. Moreover, in the expanded sense of rhetoric that visual rhetoricians advocate, style by itself does not suffice as a rhetoric. A better basic sense of rhetoric is Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as the available means of persuasion2 joined to Gunther Kress’ concept of multimodality,3 which does not limit the mode of communication—in other words, a semiotic, epistemic rhetoric.

The interface of a cultural artifact may be its surface, but it has meaning; and that meaning constructs an argument. In part, this insight originates from Roland Barthes’ theory of connotation and multiple meanings that he articulates in “Myth Today” and “Rhetoric of the Image.” Another source is Kenneth Burke’s concept of terministic screens and its adaptation to images by David Blakesley. The fundamental idea is that an image may construct an argument through the connotations of its details. If one extends that concept to a larger unit than a single image such as the entire surface of an artifact composed of multiple images and modes (for example, a graphic novel), then an argument can be constructed from that multiplicity of signs (visual and textual). Each sign contributes certain meanings that, when combined with the meanings of the other signs in the artifact’s surface, can build up a complex of meaning that makes a line of argument. In other words, signs turn into phrases and sentences of meaning that holistically elaborate into an argument about some topic. Interface rhetoric concerns the values and ideology that the creator of an artifact imbues in the surface of the artifact. To a degree, it is a transference of Wayne C. Booth’s notion of the implied author to the semiotic realm.4

Adaptation and Appropriation

Interface rhetoric also intersects with adaptation and appropriation in that all three processes address the imposition of a lens over a source. The type of source may differ among them, but each process modifies some source at a certain point. As explained, an interface provides a front to a specific body of content, and interface rhetoric is the process of creating that front and integrating it with the content. However, that content might not be original to the cultural artifact, and that is where adaptation and appropriation enter as explanatory theories. They intersect at the point of a cultural artifact using unoriginal content. In this case, the word “unoriginal” refers to material that pre-exists the cultural artifact and does not refer to a lack of cleverness or innovation. In this study, the pre-existing materials are the Shakespeare play scripts that are the bases for the graphic novels discussed.

Outside of interface rhetoric, adaptation and appropriation refer to different yet related processes. They differ by their degree of directness. Adaptation is a direct modification of a source whereas appropriation is an indirect use of a source. Julie Sanders contrasts the processes:

An adaptation signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext or original […] On the other hand, appropriation frequently affects a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain. […] But the appropriated text or texts are not always as clearly signalled or acknowledged as in the adaptive process. They may occur in a far less straightforward context than is evident in making a film version of a canonical play. (26)

Throughout her book, Sanders returns to the Shakespeare play being made into other kinds of cultural artifacts such as movies, musicals, and novels—but not comics. Nevertheless, the distinction that she makes between the processes of adaptation and appropriation still applies to the Shakespeare comics discussed here. Adaptation often occurs in the form of converting a source from its original type of cultural artifact (or “genre” as Sanders puts it) to a different type such as from play script to film. However, the conversion is often impure, involving contractions, omissions, and expansions of portions of the source. Thus, an adaptation often is not a one-to-one transposition when the source is refashioned into a different type of cultural artifact. It changes the source but not to the degree of an appropriation. In contrast, an appropriation treats the source as one ingredient among many and may obscure the source in the way that it is used in the new cultural artifact. Appropriation is an allusive use of a source.

Both adaptation and appropriation are filters like interface rhetoric is, but they focus on content instead of the surface that presents the content to the audience. In other words, they manipulate the source content to transform it. This transformational aspect must not be confused with the “terministic screen” aspect of interface and its rhetoric. It alters the core of the cultural artifact, not its presentation.

In the context of this study, adaptation refers to the direct use of a source in a new medium, or the type of cultural artifact. Two broad categories of adaptation exist: the holistic transformation of a source from one medium into a different medium (in this case, a Shakespeare play script into comics) and the partial transformation of a source from one medium to another. A few of the graphic novels studied here fall into the holistic category of adaptation. They largely avoid excising, compressing, expanding, or altering sections of the play script that is their source. Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel of The Merchant of Venice belongs to the partial category of adaptation in that it uses every type of adaptive strategy—excision, compression, expansion, and alteration. The only instance of appropriation in this study’s corpus of Shakespeare comics is “The Tempest” issue of Neil Gaiman’s comic book Sandman. Gaiman deploys Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an allusion and as quotations. However, the plot of the comic book issue is neither a holistic nor a partial adaptation of the source. The play script is employed thematically, serving as a comment on the issue’s plot.


For the interface rhetoric of comics, cartooning plays an important role due to its predominance in creating images in comics. In its purest form, cartooning lacks additional meaning. The purest form of cartooning refers to a theoretical abstraction in which the lines of the cartoons, the outlines of figures and objects, lack any style whatsoever and, thus, avoids expressing an attitude. In practice, the purest form is impossible. However, if a line or an abstract shape (for example, a strictly geometric circle) could avoid being expressive, then cartooning is devoid of connotation. Most examples of cartooning “in the wild” are expressive. Although cartooning abstracts from the forms in reality, it is representational. Cartooning is not intended to convey an attitude about the world but is an efficient means of representing it. For example, in the comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz draws the strip’s characters as outlines, but he means for his audience to perceive the characters as children (such as Charlie Brown, Sally, Lucy, and Linus), a bird (Woodstock), and a beagle (Snoopy). However, cartooning does not appear in its purest form. It can project a world view, especially considering its kinship with caricature, which is a satirical type of drawing. In Peanuts, the abstract, outline drawing may be representational, but it also mimics a child’s drawings. In this way, Schulz draws his audience into the world of children, encouraging that audience to view the world from a child’s perspective.

Cartooning also can use the resources of two-dimensional plastic art. A cartoonist can access the visual styles of various artistic movements and schools to enhance his or her visual message. Schulz remains within the mainstream of cartooning in that he uses its inherent qualities of realism and abstraction. Nevertheless, other comics artists blend the styles of various artistic schools and movements into their cartooning. As Scott McCloud explains in Understanding Comics, nothing about the medium of comics prevents an artist from accessing the resources of the art world such as techniques, movements, and styles, and some comics artists, such as Dave McKean, do.

In the case of the comics editions of the Shakespeare plays that are being examined in this study, it is clear that each artist has chosen a distinctive visual style for each comic. For example, Ian Pollock draws on Expressionism for the visual style of his edition of King Lear, whereas Gareth Hinds uses a realistic style for his editions of King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. As will be demonstrated, not only does each artist choose a style for their work but may even select a different visual style for each project. What the work of these artists reveal is that they both draw on the resources of the art world, even when those resources may be historical.

Analyzing Two Editions of King Lear

The effect of an interface becomes discernible when the content remains the same yet the surface—that is, the interface—changes between two cultural artifacts. Currently, two graphic novel editions of Shakespeare’s play King Lear exist.5 Mostly, the two editions do not edit or adapt their source but use it in its entirety. Shakespeare’s King Lear appears in three editions, the Quarto, the Folio, and the modern conflated edition that combines both. The graphic novels are not careful to note which editions are their sources but make assurances that they have not edited their sources. From the perspective of script completeness, they demonstrate the difference that a change in interface makes. One is King Lear by Gareth Hinds. The other is William Shakespeare’s King Lear by Ian Pollock, which is part of the Graphic Shakespeare Library series. Pollock’s edition announces on its cover that it is “the complete play!” Hinds, in some notes, clarifies that he has mostly left the play intact. In both cases, they are referring to the play script, mainly its dialogue as the stage directions become subsumed as images. Thus, the main difference between them is the interface.

Having the same content means that methodologically, one can focus on the visual aspects of the graphic novels. Generically speaking about cultural artifacts, content is the ideational substance beneath the presentational surface. In the case of a play script, content refers to the narrative, including plots, characters, and settings. These graphic novels are both editions of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Furthermore, they contain the same narrative and the same dialogue. In fact, the most striking disparity between the two graphic novels is their interfaces. The visual styles of them sharply contrast with each other. Ian Pollock’s edition features an expressionist visual style, whereas Hinds’ edition has a realistic visual style. Opened side by side, the visual styles of the two editions clash with each other. From a visual perspective, the difference between them is undeniable.

Nevertheless, the difference between them extends beyond their visual styles and includes their color schemes and their use of the resources of the medium of comics. Pollock’s color scheme is bright and warm yet not fully saturated. His colors have a slightly translucent quality without being pastel. Hinds’ color scheme is prominently pastel except for the black to demarcate the features of characters and objects. Their respective use of the medium of comics is jarring in that they share little between them. Ian Pollock stays within the mainstream of comics. In contrast, Gareth Hinds draws on techniques from early comics and takes inspiration from “alternative comics” as Charles Hatfield calls them.6 Thus, his use of the medium of comics is unconventional, treating each page like a stage instead of as rows of strips of panels.

From examining their interfaces, one can derive the arguments that Pollock and Hinds are making about the play. Because it is the same play, what the interface rhetoric reveals is the respective artist’s attitude toward the play. How do Ian Pollock and Gareth Hinds see Shakespeare’s play King Lear? Pollock seems to view the play as an expressionist narrative putting emotion at the center of human experience. Hinds appears to have a nearly reverential attitude toward the play, striving to preserve its historicity and its origin as a play.

The artwork in Pollock’s edition of King Lear seems to be influenced by Expressionism.7 The images are exaggerated and distorted and do not conform to a classical version of beauty. They feature bright colors and the lines are at times scraggly. The figures are distended from their expected shapes. They might be confused with caricature if they were modeled on public figures.

Figure 1: Pollock’s visual style of Expressionism

Pollock’s visual style departs drastically from not only conventional beauty but even conventional art. A contemporary audience might expect something closer to a Rembrandt painting, even in cartooning, than a Kandinsky or Klee painting. The benefit of Pollock’s visual style is that it places emotion in the forefront of the audience’s attention. Every line and blotch of color conveys the emotions of the individual character and the tone of the current scene. Every visual detail evokes an emotional resonance.

For example, in the case of figure 1, the emotional register is of conspiracy and hauteur. Pollock achieves the conspiratorial quality through the close juxtaposition of the scheming sisters and the selection of merely an oversized head for one sister. The enlarged head suggests the tight focus of the cinematic camera’s close-up shot, but within the picture space, it is literally an oversized head floating in space and blocking out any other people in the room. The hauteur of Reagan and Goneril seeps out of their distended faces. Regardless of the size of each sister’s head, each sister’s face has distorted features such as their absurdly long and narrow noses. Their eyes are also positioned distantly from their noses, portraying the sisters as looking down their noses at people. The sisters’ pictorial disdain for others is confirmed by the dialogue contained in the panel, which discusses their father’s schedule for staying at their houses after he abdicates the throne. The implication is that neither sister wants to play hostess to their father. Reinforcing this impression of their hauteur is the predominant color of red used in the sisters’ clothing and faces. The red is not simply a mark of their royalty but a sign of the sisters’ enslavement to their own passions.

The counterargument to calling Pollock’s visual style Expressionist is that he is obviously tapping into the resources of cartooning. There is no denying that cartooning is part of his artistic repertoire, and cartooning is expressive. As Norbert Lynton points out, all artwork is expressive on some level: “All art is expressive—of its author and of the situation in which he works” (30). However, even Lynton concedes that there exists a difference between expressive and expressionist art. He continues, “but some art is intended to move us through visual gestures that transmit, and perhaps give release to, emotions and emotionally charged messages. Such art is expressionist” (30). Although Pollock may draw on the resources of cartooning as they are described in books such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics and Will Eisner’s Expressive Anatomy for Comics and Narrative, his visual style does not exclusively rely on those resources. The images defy categorization within the scope of cartooning. To explain it, one must have recourse to the rest of the art world, in which concepts and movements such as Expressionism exist. In other words, Expressionism is the only means of explaining the entirety of Pollock’s visual style for his edition of King Lear. Other art movements and concepts did not concentrate on the artistic rendering of emotion like Expressionism, although other art movements such as Surrealism did use distortion as a technique. Surrealism concentrated on inanimate objects.

The effect of Pollock’s visual style is that the audience is compelled to notice the emotions in the characters running through each scene. Metaphorically speaking, every bit of anguish, despair, anger, derision, and lunacy is thrown into the audience’s eyes. Even a casual glance at one page of the graphic novel strikes the audience with raw emotion. The distorted and exaggerated features of the characters’ faces demand notice because Pollock draws them disproportionately to their bodies, and the lines and colors in the heads are unusual (see figure 1).

Despite the graphic novel being printed, its visual style makes it feel handcrafted and that sense is extended to its lettering. In concert with the rest of the graphic novel, the speech balloons use traditional comics lettering, which was originally handwritten in a drafting style (see figure 1). The choice of lettering signals an unique, handcrafted cultural artifact. In other words, the graphic novel has the feel of an artist’s book, akin to William Blake’s illuminated books of poetry. The effect of this handcrafted feel increases the humanity of the graphic novel, supporting Pollock’s desire to illustrate the humanity of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

The heightening of emotion extends to Pollock’s choice of artistic medium, watercolor, invoking the reality of the unreal, or the subconscious. Watercolor as an artistic medium is generally translucent because less paint is applied with each stroke and additional water can dilute the saturation of the color. Using paint for the illustration of comics panels is not unprecedented. Comics artist Alex Ross has made a career out of painting his panels in gouache, for example, the graphic novels Kingdom Come and Marvels. The issue is not so much the use of paint but the type of paint. The gouache that Ross uses allows for saturated colors, thus, reproducing the classical realism to which audiences are accustomed. Pollock’s decision to use watercolor produces a different effect from gouache or pen and ink. Watercolor gives an ephemeral effect. Even when it is thick, it appears slightly gossamer, and with thinner applications of the paint, this appearance becomes obvious. The images in the graphic novel have a dreamlike quality enhancing its emotional resonance. Because they are dreamlike, they are associated with the subconscious, and that association links to the emotion in the images’ visual style. The connotation of watercolor involves emotion because its colors are filled with light; thus, they seem natural and humane.

The only anchor for the audience is the graphic novel’s conventional use of the comics medium’s elements. The speech balloons have the typical color scheme of black text on a white background. Nearly all panels are placed in rows and stacked on top of each other. Images remain contained within the borders of the panels. The shape of the speech balloons is rectangular instead of being elliptical. In other words, Pollock’s edition avoids experimentation. The conventional use of the medium forces the audience to focus on the artwork, thereby allowing the visual style of the images to affect the audience.

In contrast to Pollock’s edition of King Lear is Hinds’ edition, whose visual style is realistic, but whose use of the comics medium is experimental. The images evoke a different emotional resonance. Like Pollock’s, they draw on the resources of cartooning pertaining to detail and abstraction, but they tap into the movement of realism in the art world. As Brendan Prendeville notes, there are many forms of realism in visual art; thus, realism covers a broad spectrum, but it excludes movements like Expressionism and Surrealism (7). Realism does not have to be naturalistic, but it does need to resemble objects in the real world. The visual style that Hinds uses in his edition of King Lear might be at the lower end of realism due to its reliance on the techniques of cartooning, but it still is realistic, compared to the visual style of Pollock’s edition.

Hinds’ visual style may be called realistic pictorially and conceptually despite the fact that it does not comport to culturally received notions of realism such as those influenced by the paintings of Rembrandt, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, and photography.8

Figure 2: Hinds’ visual style for his King Lear, an abstract realism

In his King Lear edition, Hinds creates a visual style that is historical and abstract yet possesses the visual detail that one expects from realism (see figure 2). Scott McCloud discusses the continuum of abstraction in representation in his book Understanding Comics. Remarking on the connection between words and pictures, he states, “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures”: (49). He gives a pictorial representation of it on pages 52-3. Hinds’ visual style is detailed yet abstract. It skirts the fantastical in its choice of artistic medium, watercolor.

In terms of its use of line, it follows the Kirby style as McCloud describes it: “In the mid-sixties, Jack Kirby, along with Stan Lee, staked out a middle ground of iconic forms with a sense of the real about them, bolstered by a powerful design sense” (55). The Kirby style involves a degree of abstraction within an artistically realistic framework. It is neither photorealism nor trompe l’oeil nor Rembrant-like realism nor Rockwell-like realism. Simultaneously, it does not approach the level of abstraction of abstract art, Abstract Expressionism, or text. As McCloud puts it, it occupies a “middle ground,” and that middle ground is not strictly cartooning—at least, not in the sense of The New Yorker cartoons or the comic strips like Peanuts. It resembles adventure comic strips such as Steve Canyon and the Marvel comic books such as Fantastic Four and X-Men of the 1960s and 1970s.

This realism is supported yet mitigated by the artistic medium of watercolor. In the history of visual realism, naturalist and known picturebook author Beatrix Potter and painter Charles Burchfield used watercolor for the purpose of realistic art, which coincides with the historical dimension of Hinds’ visual style for King Lear (see figure 2). Simultaneously, the character of watercolor mitigates this realistic aspect: “When moistened with plain water a transparent stain is obtained which is then applied in washes to white or tinted paper” (Peter Murray and Linda Murray, Dictionary of Art and Artists 558). The aspect that sets watercolor apart from other media is its transparency, which generates a ghostly or ephemeral aspect. The connotation of the transparency of watercolor is fantasy. Because watercolor produces “a transparent stain,” the images created do not seem representational.

Thus, Hinds’ visual style, although realistic, conjures up two connotations for the graphic novel’s audience: historicity and fantasy. The historicity lends gravitas to Hinds’ edition of King Lear, whereas fantasy confers the sense of fable upon the narrative. The combined line drawing and watercolor images generate an argument about Hinds’ vision of Shakespeare’s King Lear. He positions the play as a fabulous history or a historical fable. He wants his audience to take the play seriously on two levels: as a historical precedent and as a moralizing narrative. His visual approach to King Lear argues that there is a serious lesson to be learned from this particular narrative, which is composed of historical and fabulous elements.

Analyzing Two Editions of The Tempest

In some respects, the issue of interface may become more important when the narrative has been adapted for another purpose. A case in point is Shakespeare’s The Tempest: whereas the Classical Comics edition of the play is a performance of the full play, Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess adopt the play’s material as an element in the storyline of the last issue of the Sandman comic book. It functions as an allusion rather than as an autonomous narrative. In this instance, the interface of these visual quotations becomes paramount because the interface carries more of the message than the snippets. In other words, the argument of the snippets stems from their status as allusions and the message of their interface. Thus, the attitude struck towards the material is more obvious in the Sandman‘s “The Tempest” than the Classical Comics‘s performance of the play. Nevertheless, both comics evoke a worldview.

Both comic renditions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest retell its narrative yet present it differently. The Classical Comics edition of the play operates as another performance of the play as written by Shakespeare, replicating the full script of the play, using the medium of comics in its mainstream form, and enacting a visual style that invokes a live performance utilizing the latest in stagecraft technology. Its narrative structure shows the entire play in all of its narrative complexity from the opening scene to the epilogue. In contrast, the Sandman issue of “The Tempest” is structured like a collage. Gaiman and Vess have extracted portions of the play, rendered them in the medium of comics, and arranged the pieces into an assemblage integrating the issue’s overarching narrative. The included play material is used thematically and as set pieces to aid the issue’s overarching narrative. The illustrations of the set pieces have their own visual style. Vess’s artwork for the set pieces resemble water-color paintings rather than the pen and ink drawings that predominate the issue.

Within this structural difference lies messages about the play itself. For the Classical Comics edition, the message is that the play is important as a drama, as a narrative. This message comes across because the visual style of its artwork is realistic bordering on being naturalistic while its deployment of the features of the medium of comics is mainstream. For the Sandman issue, the message is that the play is only crucial as a cultural allusion—as a symbol representing certain ideas. Gaiman and Vess accomplish this message by carving up the play and only serving selections while rendering those sections in a dream-like visual style.

The difference in visual style between the two renderings of the play contributes to the construction of their respective interfaces and their messages. The Classical Comics edition of The Tempest draws on the school of realism. Although the content of the images sometimes involve the magical, the approach to rendering them as ink drawings is naturalistic.

Figure 3: The Classical Comics edition of The Tempest evinces a visual style of high realism, despite its fantastical content.

Even the images portraying the use of magic take inspiration from nature: spells are drawn as lightning bolts and clouds. Their coloring may not be natural, using florescent colors and pastels, but their shapes and luminescence are. Thus, the most unrealistic elements in the story are drawn as if they were part of nature. The visual style is reminiscent of Hal Foster’s comic strip Prince Valiant, in which the characters, landscapes, animals, and buildings were drawn realistically mimicking the visual objects in nature and in human civilization of the historical period. The visual realism borders on being cinematic, akin to a special effects film such as The Lord of the Rings.

The realism invokes a couple of connotations. The first is the idea of a live, theatrical performance because every aspect of a theatrical performance must be realistically executed. The invocation of theater reinforces the play’s status as a theatrical artifact and as a piece of literature. Visual realism, especially in its naturalistic form, connotes classicism in that the classics of art, particularly the work of Rembrandt, strove for naturalism; thus, there exists a historical affinity between the status of classic and realistic. This affinity brings the status of classic to bear on the Classical Comics edition of The Tempest, encouraging the graphic novel’s audience to think of the play as a classic. The connotations of classic, theatrical, and realistic combine to induce the audience to view the graphic novel as serious and conveying a weighty message.

Although the comics elements of the graphic novel are not realistic, they are mainstream and do not interfere with the message of the visual style of the graphic novel. By being mainstream, they become largely invisible, especially to an audience of experienced comics readers, allowing these elements to recede in the background and to adhere to the traditional typographic principle of transparency. For the most part, the balloons in the graphic novel appear as balloons in any comic (comic strip, comic book, or graphic novel). They are outlined in black ink. The letters are black on a white background. Moreover, the balloon lettering seems more transparent because it is not hand drawn but uses standard type as seen in newspapers, magazines, and books. In this way, the balloon lettering is typographic, enhancing its unassuming appearance. The one discrepancy from mainstream comics balloons is the employment of color for the speech balloons of the spirits in the play such as Ariel and Ceres (see figure 3). The balloons have a colored outline and colored lettering. Moreover, the colors are symbolic of what the spirits represent: for example, Ariel is a spirit of the air, so the color in his balloons is a pastel blue. The color blue is associated with the air and the ocean. Considering that Ariel assists Prospero in creating the tempest that shipwrecks the king of Naples, the duke of Milan, the king’s family members and retinue, and the sailors, one can perceive Ariel as a spirit of the air who has a link with the ocean. The color symbolism is not only historical but also natural because it calls forth the idea of nature. Although it may be a cultural construction, its longevity in Western culture means that it feels transparent, just like traditional typography. Furthermore, in the medium of comics, there is some precedent for coloring speech balloons. The most recent and well-known precedent is the Sandman comic book created and written in part by Neil Gaiman. As Gene Kannenberg, Jr., explains, Todd Klein’s lettering for the Sandman was groundbreaking at the time.9 However, the success of the Sandman effectively created a new norm for comics lettering. Although Todd Klein’s lettering is still distinctive, the use of his techniques in lettering has gained a mainstream acceptance within the comics audience. Therefore, even this departure from the approach of mainstream comics—coloring speech balloons—is no longer unusual, thus, becoming more transparent to the comics audience.

The Sandman version of the play takes a different tact toward the comics medium. In contrast, it is experimental and reflects the influence of modern art in its disposition of the elements of comics that explicitly cite The Tempest.

Figure 4: Inset of a watercolor page representing a fragment of Shakespeare’s play that includes a panel of the main visual style of Sandman No. 75, “The Tempest”

It is arranged more like a collage. The elements are not always contained within a panel. They sometimes spill into the white space of the page. Furthermore, the speech balloons are treated like pieces of manuscript and have the same shape as narrative boxes in mainstream comics. In other words, the bits of included dialogue are not treated as speech but as decoration, another element in the visual composition of the page. The text itself retains a relationship to the images in the panels and to the themes of the issue, but its presentation is governed more by visual composition than textual composition.

The presentation of the dialogue also marks the visual style of the Tempest material in the issue: a style that connotes otherworldliness. In the explicitly cited material from the play, the images in the panels appear to be rendered as watercolor (see figure 4). The quality of watercolor inspires the audience to view the images as being dream-like. They look insubstantial, so they conjure up the notion of dreams and dreaming. This notion is appropriate to the Sandman comic book, which chronicles the life of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, and the specific issue of “The Tempest,” which tells the story of the creation of William Shakespeare’s last play commissioned by Morpheus. Simultaneously, it taps into the connotation of theater being like a dream. These semantics come to the fore in watercolor images. Consequently, both the images and the speech balloons are presented as unreal. They may realistically imitate actual objects such as pieces of manuscript parchment and people, but the visual style applied to them marks them as being unnatural.

Analyzing Two Works by the Same Author

Gareth Hinds is the only comics artist who has adapted multiple Shakespeare plays as graphic novels, affording another opportunity to examine how interface rhetoric works because it demonstrates the principle of an artist crafting a distinctive interface for each cultural artifact. Hinds created two Shakespeare graphic novels, The Merchant of Venice and King Lear, yet the interface for each graphic novel is distinctive: King Lear features a historically accurate, realistic, and fully colored visual style and The Merchant of Venice utilizes a spare, pen and ink visual style that reframes the play in modern Italy. Correspondingly, Hinds’ King Lear deviates little from the original play, and his Merchant of Venice severely adapts the original play, cutting large portions from it. In this way, Hinds’ Merchant of Venice operates like the revisionist theater productions of Shakespeare plays. The director heavily edits the script and alters the setting in order to comment on a current social issue. Although the adaptation itself is a lens imposed on the source, the issue is the employment of visual style and the components of the comics medium to convey a secondary meaning, an argument, about the play itself.

In these graphic novels, Hinds projects a certain attitude toward the source material, Shakespeare’s plays King Lear and The Merchant of Venice: primarily that the plays are simply source material to him but secondarily that the plays each have a specific perspective. For King Lear, his attitude seems to be veneration because his approach to the play is conservative. For The Merchant of Venice, he transforms the original play into his own narrative. His intensive adaptation of the play borders on appropriation without crossing that line. These attitudes are embedded in the interfaces of the two plays, and the arguments of those interfaces are that King Lear is a historical fairy tale, whereas The Merchant of Venice is a modern narrative of current society.

The most obvious contrast between the interfaces of these graphic novels is their color palettes. The King Lear graphic novel features a full color spectrum, favoring the pastel versions of each hue (see figure 2). At the other extreme, the Merchant of Venice graphic novel showcases a limited color palette—gray, white, black, and gray blue. The palettes convey messages about their respective plays. The rainbow, pastel palette for King Lear lurches toward realism while imputing a fanciful quality to the play. The whimsical sheen connotes a type of historicity or fabulous quality to the play. In part, the use of a full range of color associates the images with traditional art, which was concerned with illusionism and became a historical artifact, transferring the historicity of traditional art to the images of the graphic novel. Consequently, its palette marks the play as being apart from contemporary concerns.

In opposition, the color palette of The Merchant of Venice proclaims its modernity and relevance to contemporary issues, constructing this message via its selection and limited use of colors, suggesting artistic minimalism. The limited number of colors announces the modern/contemporary contents of the graphic novel. The colors reinforce this impression. Moreover, the specific colors in the chromatic range are white, black, and gray or gray blue. Collectively, the chromatic range effuses modernity in the sense of industrialization. The industrial aesthetic is tied to grayscale and coldness. The infusion of blue adds coolness to the images, achieving an alienation effect, invoking a sense of aloofness or impersonality. Those emotional qualities are associated with industrialization. Gray, of course, is linked to metal, the prime feature of industrial architecture, and black is industry’s darkness, whereas white is its artificial light. The evocation of industry resonates with the play’s contents focusing on mercantilism, a related, historical predecessor to industrialization.

Another key difference between Hinds’ Shakespeare graphic novels is their visual style, how the characters and objects are depicted. Hinds selected a different visual style for each graphic novel. For The Merchant of Venice, he chose a realistic pen and ink style. Pen and ink drawings were the first to be printed using mass image reproduction technologies such as half tone which started in the late nineteenth century. Because of that historical circumstance, it is difficult to associate pen and ink drawings with anything but modernity, especially when they are presented in a printed book such as a graphic novel. His King Lear, in contrast, is rendered in watercolor with ink contours. Watercolor resonates with the connotation of history, simpler times, and pristine nature—the opposite of industrialization. Due to the watercolor and the broad color palette, the modeling on the characters and objects in the images is more realistic than The Merchant of Venice, enhancing the impression of historicity for the graphic novel.

Lastly, Hinds’ Merchant of Venice uses a mainstream approach to comics whereas his King Lear incorporates early comics techniques. Instead of rows of strips, Hinds utilizes the entire page, creating each page as its own visual design as a theater stage. Panels sparingly partition space (see figure 2). Several pages are open with their visual organization depending on the traditional methods of visual hierarchy that Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen describe in their book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, especially the significance of top, bottom, left, and right. Hinds constructs his pages to show progression and flow, and in this sense, it is akin to a theater director telling his actors where to position themselves on the stage at each moment of the play. He enhances this sense of progression and flow through the occasional use of a dashed line running from character to character and area to area on the page. The line thus guides the beholder’s gaze.

Besides this compositional difference, Hinds treats speech balloons differently in each graphic novel. The speech balloons of King Lear include standard speech balloons, black text on a white background inside of an oval or rounded rectangle with a tail on it, but also colored speech balloons in which the balloon’s background color changes. Some reverse the color scheme, a black background with white text. Some have a less opaque background that lets through the page’s background color. Some use a fiery background color. The significance of these changes is that they reflect the mood of the character speaking. Largely, the balloons’ background colors change for King Lear’s speeches. When they do, they enhance the emotional resonance of his speeches; thus, for example, the fiery background underscores his anger. The black background evokes his despair. The words themselves convey these emotions, but the background colors reinforce them, making the emotional tone of the speech more apparent to the graphic novel’s audience.

This more expressive approach to speech balloons contrasts with the mainstream approach used in The Merchant of Venice that invokes the connotation of modernity. All of the speech balloons have the traditional color scheme of black text on a white background. Furthermore, every speech in the play is contained within a speech balloon. A few of the speeches in King Lear were laid bare and free of boundaries on the page. This mainstream approach to speech balloons marks the graphic novel as being modern because the mainstream approach to comics did not consolidate until at least the 1930s with the emergence of the comic books Action Comics and Detective Comics and cannot be said to have completed the regimentation into convention until the 1960s with the birth of Marvel Comics and its comic books such as The Fantastic Four. Hence, the graphic novel’s hewing to convention signals that it is modern (both as a cultural artifact and as comics). That modernity is consonant with the connotation of modernity and industrialization that the graphic novel’s color scheme and visual style invokes. Together, the interface instills an argument about The Merchant of Venice being a modern play without accounting for Hinds’ decision to set the play in modern Italy instead of its original setting in the play itself.

That decision is not only another difference between the graphic novels but is part of the interface for each. It moves into the area of visual content (as distinct from the play’s content, which could be viewed as the graphic novel’s narrative content). Nevertheless, the notion of the interface can include visual content and to some extent, depending on the cultural artifact, may be determined by it. In Hinds’ two graphic novels, the visual content of King Lear maintains the original setting of the play itself. Thus, the characters’ clothes are medieval. The landscape is pristinely natural, and the buildings reflect medieval architecture. In short, the visual content seems to be historically accurate. Diametrically opposed to his approach to visual content in King Lear is his Merchant of Venice. For that graphic novel, he dispenses with historical accuracy and updates the play to enhance its relevancy to a contemporary audience. The most noticeable mark of this change is the clothes of the characters. From an American perspective, the characters’ clothing is reminiscent of the styles in 1920s America, a historical yet still modern era from the vantage point of the contemporary period. In the graphic novel, the fashion distinguishes it as a modern tale. Thus, Hinds filters the play’s narrative through a lens of industrialized modernity, the hallmark of 1920s America.

The two Shakespeare graphic novels by Gareth Hinds, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice, demonstrate that interface rhetoric can happen with the same biological creator but in different cultural artifacts created by that person. For his King Lear, Hinds crafted an interface that is realistic and historically accurate, connotes historicity and otherworldliness, pulls techniques from early comics, and modifies the conventions of comics for emotional impact. For his Merchant of Venice, he executed a realistic interface that exhibits a minimalistic influence, connotes industrialization and modernity, and cleaves to a conventional approach to comics. These interfaces present their own arguments about their respective plays. The interface of King Lear argues for the play as a kind of historical fable. The interface of The Merchant of Venice promotes the idea that it is in fact a modern play that is relevant to contemporary society. The support for these arguments exists in the interface itself, not in the content of the graphic novels.


The comics editions of these Shakespeare plays reveal the role of interface in the creator’s construction of the plays for their audiences. Interface is not only a viable concept (outside of computers and communication technologies) but also permits the discernment of a certain aspect of persuasion in comics. These particular editions of Shakespeare plays evince the presence of interface rhetoric. The case studies of two editions of King Lear, two editions of The Tempest, and two editions by the same creator demonstrate the rhetorical effect of an interface on potential audiences. The two editions of King Lear explain how the same content can be interpreted differently due to its interface. The two editions of The Tempest expose the fact that adaptation of source material does not hinder the interface from signifying and arguing about the content. Lastly, the two editions of Shakespeare plays by the same creator indicate that a change in interface does not occur merely among different creators but also can happen within the career of the same creator among various projects, and that change still signifies and argues distinctively for each interface. Therefore, the examination of these comics editions of Shakespeare plays points out the existence of interface and its rhetoric and, moreover, the rhetorical effect of interfaces on the content of their cultural artifacts on their audiences.


[1] See Blakesley’s article “Defining Film Rhetoric: The Case of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”

[2] In On Rhetoric, Aristotle states, “That rhetoric, therefore, does not belong to a single defined genus of subject but is like dialectic and that it is useful is clear—and that its function is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case […]. In addition, [it is clear] that it is a function of one and the same art to see the persuasive and [to see] the apparently persuasive” (Kennedy 35).

[3] See Kress’s essay “Multimodality.”

[4] See Booth’s book The Rhetoric of Fiction.

[5] Other comics editions of King Lear but do not qualify as graphic novels in the strict sense: SelfMadeHero “Manga Shakespeare” King Lear, the “Comics Illustrated” King Lear, and Farrens and Dunn’s “Graphic Shakespeare” King Lear. Manga are not graphic novels because they do not give a single complete narrative within one set of covers, despite both being codices and using comics as their medium. Likewise, the other editions function as comic books rather than graphic novels because of their relative brevity. They are designed to be quick reads, not to follow the intricacies of a complex narrative. Basically, they treat the material as if they are writing an issue for serial publication.

[6] See Hatfield’s book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature.

[7] Historically, Expressionism was an artistic movement that happened during the early decades of the twentieth century and was geographically concentrated in Germany. Norbert Lynton summarizes the historical event this way: “Expressionism is associated principally with two informal groups of artists: the Dresden group that called itself Die Brucke (the bridge), formed in 1905 and dissolved in 1913, and the Munich artists who exhibited under the aegis of an almanach entitled Der Blaue Reiter of which only one issue appeared, in 1912″ (34). Expressionism included the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein, Erich Heckel, Ernst Kirchner, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Although Lynton insists on the absence of a movement called Expressionism (35), the discipline of art history does in the sense that these artists all worked on a related project that can be described and identified with a certain kind of style. In his narrative history of art The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich identifies certain qualities with Expressionism. He asserting that “[w]hat upset the public about Expressionist art was, perhaps, not so much the fact that nature had been distorted as the result led away from beauty” (437). Expressionism did not hold with classical aesthetic principles: its key technique seems to be distortion.

In describing Kandinsky’s contribution to Expressionism, Gombrich provides an insightful summary of the position of the artists associated with the movement: “If the doctrine was right that what mattered in art was not the imitation of nature but the expression of feelings through the choice of colours and lines, it was legitimate to ask whether art could not be made more pure by doing away with all subject-matter and relying exclusively on the effects of tones and shapes” (440). The concern of Expressionism was to let emotions show up in every detail of the artwork itself rather than the subject of the artwork.

After Lynton begrudgingly acknowledges that there was a core concern for Expressionism (39), he remarks on Expressionism’s relationship to abstraction:

Kandinsky sought to connect the visual matter of art to the inner life of man. Abstraction was not essential to this, but rather the tuning of pictorial means to the emotional or spiritual urge within the artist. Instead of reinforcing the false values of a materialistic society, art thus used would help people to recognize their own spiritual worlds. (43)

Lynton’s description clarifies that abstraction was not a necessary condition for Expressionism. Rather, what truly mattered was, as Gombrich put it, “the expression of feelings through the choice of colours and lines.”

Norbert Wolf presents the most succinct description of the movement’s style. He states:

At the onset of the development, the crucial thing was to overcome passive depictions of nature a la impressionism and tap individual emotional powers, by employing brash bright colors and “brutally” reduced forms. The laws of perspective, faithfulness to anatomy, natural appearances and colours counted for little or nothing; distortion and exaggeration became an equivalent for rendering the material world transparent to the psyche. (9)

Wolf’s mention of “colors” and “distortion” echoes what Gombrich says about the Expressionists’ approach to art. The central point is that the Expressionists used color and form to represent emotions instead of subjects. What mattered was “the psyche,” not the material world. For that reason, abstraction was a possibility but not a necessity. Most Expressionist paintings still had figures in them—people, plants, animals, buildings, and objects. What distinguished them from Impressionist and traditional painting was their treatment of the figures, “distortion and exaggeration.”

[8] Prendeville and Edward Lucie-Smith offer definitions of artistic realism. Prendeville sums up realism in art as “realist painting may either show an intense interest in the social or present an equally strong preoccupation with the visible (to which I referred broadly by using the term ‘pictorial realism’)” (12). Prendeville seems to be invoking a distinction similar to Lucie-Smith’s: a contrast between concept and surface. Prendeville does not explicitly define pictorial realism but indicates a definition for it when he describes the academic approach to realism: “Some twentieth-century realism draws on classical prototypes, via the post-Renaissance academic tradition and its methods and institutions: linear perspective, the academic nude, the public-scaled work” (8). Later in his introduction, he makes a comment that links this description of academic realism to his term “pictorial realism”: “An overarching theme of this book concerns the interplay between this intersubjective, inherently intimate, dimension of realism and its more impersonally public, and latently academic, side” (9). He contrasts two ways of approaching realism in the passage, distinguishing one approach with the adjective “academic.” The opposing approach does not seem concerned with the visible per se, whereas Prendeville has established the academic approach as being preoccupied with the visible. Thus, when he labels “an equally strong preoccupation with the visible” with the term “pictorial realism,” he leaves the impression that pictorial realism is equivalent to the academic.

Lucie-Smith articulates the two branches of realism as “[r]ealism is always readily qualified by the artist’s conception of what is happening, as distinct from his perception of it” (11). His binary is not exactly the same as Prendeville, but the invocation of a binary, one of whose terms deal with the picture plane, echoes Prendeville’s bifurcated schema of realism. Lucie-Smith spends little time defining conceptual realism, but he gives a detailed definition of its opposite: “Perceptual realism is, in theory at least, entirely concerned with the business of sight: with the business of seeing things without preconceptions, as innocently as possible. In its most extreme guise, perceptual realism becomes a record, not of objects, but of the way in which light falls upon and reveals objects, or is obstructed or interrupted by the presence of objects—which may include figures—within an environment” (11-12). Lucie-Smith is making a distinction between the idea or subject-matter that informs an artwork (conceptual realism) and the material instantiation of an object or figure (perceptual realism).

These two definitions bring to the fore one aspect of realism: the visible portrayal of objects is paramount to one understanding of realism. Lucie-Smith even notes that the popular notion of realism stops there. The conceptual or intimate understanding of realism does not enter the public’s mind. In one sense, the idea of pictorial or perceptual realism is the first test that most people apply to art. From that perspective, it makes sense to rely on it as the first definition of realism while keeping the intimate or conceptual definition of realism in the back of one’s mind. Conceptual realism helps to explain how an artwork can involve a degree of abstraction yet still be considered realistic. The primacy of the visual definition of realism allows one to bracket out certain visual styles while the conceptual definition of realism permits one to include art that deals with realistic subject-matter, historical or contemporary, yet has a degree of visual abstraction.

[9] See Kannenberg’s essay “Graphic Text, Graphic Context: Interpreting Custom Fonts and Hands in Contemporary Comics.”

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