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“To dignify some old costumed claptrap”: Shakespearean Allusion and the Status of Text in the DC Comics of Grant Morrison

By Brandon Christopher

A man in black, dying, turns to his companion and says “I die, Horatio.” This line, Hamlet’s dying appeal to his companion, has been spoken hundreds of times on stage and on screen. It is a moment that draws on more than four acts of rumination on death and, for modern audiences, more than four centuries of performance and adaptation. But what if the dying man is not Hamlet, but a villain bent on destroying American culture, and what if his interlocutor is not Horatio, but a former race car driver whose disembodied brain has been housed in a robot’s body? This is the context in which the statement is made in an issue of Doom Patrol, a comic written in the early 1990s by Grant Morrison. It is one of the many Shakespearean references that are characteristic of Morrison’s more than two-decades-long tenure as a writer for DC Comics. These include Batman reciting lines from Twelfth Night, a monkey typing out Prospero’s epilogue from The Tempest, and a madman, named Tom O’Bedlam, who introduces himself by asking “Who gives anything to Poor Tom, whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame?” in Morrison’s comics series The Invisibles.1 Read individually, passages such as these seem like little more than ostentatious displays of literariness. Read together, they demonstrate a sustained interest in reshaping North American comics, not simply in terms of their status as cultural artifacts, but also in terms of basic conceptions of how and what comics mean.

Morrison’s career in American comics began in the late 1980s, as part of the so-called “British Invasion” initiated by DC Comics. Following the success of Alan Moore’s work on the horror comic Swamp Thing (1984-1987) and the dystopian superhero epic Watchmen (1986-1987), DC made a deliberate effort in the mid to late 1980s to recruit British writers to write North American superhero comics. This stable of writers, including Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, and Peter Milligan, were given stewardship of a group of marginal comics series and characters that were either moribund or cancelled. These ranged from the relatively straightforward superhero frameworks of Gaiman’s Black Orchid and Morrison’s Animal Man to the more surreal contents of Gaiman’s Sandman, Morrison’s Doom Patrol, and Milligan’s Shade, The Changing Man.2 The comics upon which these writers worked were unconventional and varied—documenting the activities of, among other things, the anthropomorphized manifestation of dreams, a superhero team recruited from an insane asylum, and a visitor to earth from the “madness dimension.” Eventually, the success of these titles led to the creation of Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics which featured a group of titles which, as Annalisa Castaldo has observed, were “more psychological and literary than average mainstream comics, and which manage[d] to attract a non-comic reading audience” ( 98). One of the ways in which these comics worked to establish their literary credibility was through a range of engagements with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and his works are quoted, cited visually, and read by characters in these comics, while names and situations from his plays are repeatedly adopted and adapted by their authors. The effects of these citations are varied. In some cases, Shakespeare’s words are inserted into the dialogue of the comics without any citation of their sources, or indeed, any explicit indication that the words are quotations at all. For instance, in Delano’s Hellblazer, an evil spirit being exorcised instructs a woman, in an ostentatiously literary non-sequitur, “Get thee to a nunnery” (47). Similarly, in the first issue of Gaiman’s Sandman, Morpheus, the eponymous hero of the comic, ends his denunciation of a group of men who have held him captive for decades by declaring “Lord, what fools these mortals be” (“Sleep of the Just” 36). Through the unacknowledged but unmistakable appropriation of Shakespeare’s words directly in their texts, Delano and Gaiman establish an uncanny literariness in their comics. In so doing, they associate their works with the powerful canonicity of Shakespeare’s plays, implicitly arguing for the literary and cultural value of their comics specifically as well as of comics more generally.

While the works of Morrison’s contemporaries assert the literary potential of comics performatively by associating their works with Shakespeare and his canon, this assertion runs counter then-prevailing theorizations of the medium.3 When these writers first began working in American comics, the most influential theorizations of comics, most notably Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art (1985) and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1994), defined comics, both implicitly and explicitly, as a predominantly visual medium.4 It is my contention that, of all of the “British Invasion” writers, Morrison’s engagement with Shakespeare is the most sustained and the most complex, especially in the ways in which it addresses not only the literary potential of comics, but also the extent to which writing underpins all aspects of comics creation. Tracing the various ways in which Morrison’s comics have appropriated and adapted Shakespeare’s works, this essay will show that Morrison’s allusions to and borrowings from Shakespeare do more than simply flatter himself and his readers by demonstrating their mutual possession of literary and cultural capital. I will argue that, instead of simply working to elevate his comics beyond their pulp origins, Morrison’s Shakespearean allusions are integral to his larger project of asserting the fundamentally textual nature of his comics work against predominant configurations of comics as visual first and textual second.

I. Dignified Claptrap

Other citations of Shakespeare by British Invasion authors draw more explicit connections between his works and their comics. In Milligan’s Shade, the Changing Man, a collected works of Shakespeare appears repeatedly on the page and is referenced in conversation by the characters (145, 162). Initially, these references seem to align with the citations by Delano and Gaiman given above, in that the focus is on Shakespeare’s oeuvre, rather than on any specific play. That is, the attention paid to Shakespeare by Milligan draws on the aura of Shakespeare as an icon of the Western literary tradition as opposed to engaging directly with the style and/or content of his works. The significance of Shakespeare in this respect is amplified by a disjuncture between text and image in the first panel in which the book is discussed (fig.1). On the page, drawn by Chris Bachalo, a character sits above a pile of books that he has stolen from an airport bookstore, complaining that “the complete works of Shakespeare was a real bitch to hide” (145). The complaint, though, is belied by the image of the books, where the book whose spine reads “Shakespeare” is not significantly larger than the two books above it in the pile, labelled as “Poe” and “Holmes. S.” Shakespeare’s works, if not visibly larger, are figuratively larger, their significance underscored by the book’s placement at the base of the pile, a visual pun that marks Shakespeare’s collected works as a foundational literary text.5 In these respects, the effects of the comic’s references to Shakespeare are congruent with the above references by Gaiman and Delano.

Figure 1: Milligan and Bachalo, Shade, the Changing Man

However, Milligan and Bachalo’s comic goes further in emphasizing parallels between the comic and what it seeks to portray as its Shakespearean antecedent. These stronger connections are foreshadowed in the above panel in two ways. First, the fact that Lenny, the character sitting above the books, is discussing the theft of books, a discussion that highlights the difficulty of “hiding” his illegitimate appropriation of Shakespeare’s text, gestures towards Milligan’s own borrowing from Shakespeare that will occur later in the comic. Second, in the image of the stacked books, the pile of books built on Shakespeare’s collected works is joined by another pile. The book on the bottom of this pile is significantly smaller not only than the book marked “Shakespeare” but also than the books stacked above it. The juxtaposition, combined with the book’s position at the bottom, right-hand side of the page, draws the reader’s attention to the spine of the smaller book, on which is visible the word “Milligan.” In this way, the image literally makes Shakespeare’s and Milligan’s texts parallel. In the issue of the comic that follows, the repeated turn to images of Shakespeare’s collected works culminates in a plot in which the eponymous hero entraps his nemesis, Troy Grenzer, by faking his own death. Confronting Grenzer, Shade informs him that he “got the idea of a mistaken suicide from a story called Romeo and Juliet” (172). With this, Milligan explicitly draws narrative connections between his comic and Shakespeare’s play. Furthermore, he does so by aligning his comic with a play that associates youth and violence, a combination whose conjunction had been a problematic one for comics at least since Fredric Wertham’s denunciation of comics in the comic-scare inducing—or at least exacerbating—Seduction of The Innocent (1954).6 In linking his text to this specific play, and to this specific moment in the play, Milligan draws attention to high-literary antecedents for the sorts of narrative and thematic material for which comics had, historically, been vilified. The result is an implicit claim both for the respectability and literary potential of comics as a medium and for the culturally-sanctioned history of their often violent content.

This pattern of generic and narrative alignment between Shakespeare and comics finds its most sustained, and most widely cited, exemplar in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.7 While Milligan’s citations of Shakespeare recur occasionally, Gaiman’s engagement with Shakespeare and his plays is both showier and more persistent. It is at its most ostentatious in Sandman #19, entitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which undertakes an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by representing an imagined first staging by the Lord Strange’s Men in 1593 in the English countryside. The audience for the play is comprised of the “real-world” Auberon and Titania and their retinue, a collection of monsters and fairies including the “real” Robin Goodfellow and Peaseblossom. Like the aristocratic characters watching Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare’s play, the audience in Gaiman’s comic repeatedly talks over the performance. Their main topic of conversation is the failure of the play to represent them accurately. Reacting to the actor playing Puck’s self-identification as “that merry wanderer of the night,” Peaseblossom interjects, “‘I am that merry wanderer of the night’? I am that giggling-dangerous-totally-bloody-psychotic-menace-to-life-and-limb, more like it” (10).8 Similarly, Peaseblossom is enraged when he discovers that he himself is the object of the play’s dramatic mimesis: “Did you hear that? Peaseblossom! That’s meant to be me, that is! Iss nuffink like me! Nuffink!” (18). Through these objections, Gaiman cheekily asserts the superiority of his representation of the supernatural, which, as Julia Round argues, “returns Shakespeare’s fairies to their folkloric roots while remaining within the parameters set by Dream‘s language” (101). Even the originality of the play’s language is at question by the end of the issue, though, as the epilogue is spoken not by Shakespeare’s Puck, but by Gaiman’s incarnation of the character, after the play has ended and the players have moved on. In this way, Gaiman’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” usurps Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, claiming first the characters and then the language of the play itself as proleptically derivative of Gaiman’s text.

Though occasional references to Shakespearean plays and characters appear throughout the series, Shakespeare himself does not reappear as a character until Sandman #75, the last issue of the series, which, like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” borrows its title—”The Tempest”—from Shakespeare’s play. In this issue, the reader is presented with Shakespeare, in Stratford, at work on his “last” play. While “The Tempest” does not make direct connections between Gaiman’s work and Shakespeare’s, it does draw attention to Shakespeare’s status as a writer of what would now be considered “genre fiction.” Early in the comic, Shakespeare is visited by Ben Jonson, who, upon being told that Shakespeare intends for The Tempest to be his “final play,” replies, “Your last, you say? Well, perhaps it is for the best that you retire your quill. You know what I thought of your most recent offerings” (12). Gaiman here seems to be referring anachronistically to Jonson’s denunciation, in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair, first staged in 1614, of “those that beget Tales, Tempests, and such like drolleries” (Ind. 114-115). Shakespeare, Gaimain reminds the reader through Jonson, was dismissed as unserious by more than one contemporary, and it is not difficult to see, as Annalisa Castaldo puts it, Gaiman’s “belief that the two of them [i.e. Gaiman and Shakespeare] share parallel paths” (107). This affinity is marked in the last panel of the series, which features an image of Shakespeare’s quill, laid down after his completion of Prospero’s Epilogue from The Tempest (fig. 2). As if the image’s associations of Shakespeare and Gaiman were not explicit enough, an ink blot emanating from the nib of Shakespeare’s quill forms a line directing the reader’s eye towards a block of text in the bottom margin of the page, which reads, “Neil Gaiman. October 1987 ~ January 1996” (38).

Figure 2: Gaiman and Vess, Sandman

Though Morrison’s various engagements with Shakespeare’s plays are not as widely discussed as Gaiman’s, they are arguably more extensive and more complex. In his early work for DC Comics, citations of Shakespeare’s plays tend to resemble the excessively literary non-sequiturs by Delano and Gaiman mentioned above. In Doom Patrol, one of the first series on which Morrison worked for DC, between 1989 and 1993, one particular villain, Mr. Nobody, quotes Hamlet’s dying lines twice. First, as he watches the death of a co-conspirator, Mr. Nobody repeats Hamlet’s last words: “Hmmmm. The rest is silence” (“Death in Venice” 20).9 Then, later, as he lies dying, he turns to one of the members of the Doom Patrol, who have been pursuing him, and says, “I die, Horatio” (“After the Cabaret” 23).10 As is the case with Gaiman and Delano, in each case Morrison leaves the passages unattributed, leaving the reader to identify the source of the quotation. Morrison’s references here, however, are more obscure than Delano’s or Gaiman’s, both of which would be familiar to a fairly wide readership. In addition, Puck’s dismissal of the Athenian lovers and Hamlet’s chastisement of Ophelia resonate with the scenes in which they are quoted in their respective comic books. In this way, they function effectively as what Richard Thomas defines as single-reference allusion in his typology of reference. Thomas argues that single-reference allusion makes “the reader recall the context of the model and apply that context to the new situation” (177). The “nunnery” and “fools” allusions recall their sources and establish, for Delano and Gaiman, a literary lineage for their stories. Morrison’s allusions to Hamlet in Doom Patrol, however, are severed from their original contexts and inserted into new contexts that are only vaguely, and not informatively, connected to their source play. The literariness evoked by these recontextualized citations has a twofold effect: it both flatters the attentive and well-read comics reader and it demonstrates Morrison’s literary credentials.

Elsewhere in his early work for DC, Morrison expresses suspicion of comics writers who insert literary references into their works. In the fourteenth issue of Animal Man, which Morrison scripted from 1988 to 1990, the brightly-coloured superhero narrative is interrupted by two pages, coloured in brown tones, in which an unidentified figure walks through a rainy, semi-industrial landscape while ruminating on a range of topics, from folk tales to quantum physics, before ending with a mild diatribe on the literary pretensions of comic book writers:

Gasworks against a restless sky, the bones of machine-age dinosaurs. Hideous metaphor.

What’ll it be next?

Choice extracts from the oxford dictionary of quotations? Trotting out the Nietzsche and the Shelley and the Shakespeare to dignify some old costumed claptrap? (7)

The unnamed figure reappears for one page at the beginning of issue nineteen, identifiable only by the presence of David Bohm’s Unfolding Meaning on his desk. Finally, in the last panel of the penultimate issue of Morrison’s run as writer of the comic, the figure identifies himself to Buddy Baker, the eponymous Animal Man, simply as “Grant” (“Monkey Puzzles” 24). In the following issue, over two-thirds of which consists of a conversation between Grant and Buddy, the reader is finally informed that “Grant” is Grant Morrison, the writer of the comic, who uses the space allotted him to continue the theme inaugurated in his first appearance, that is, comics conventions and conventionality.11 It is thus tempting to read the above passage as Morrison’s own direct commentary on comics; after all, it has been presented as such. That said, as the above examples from Doom Patrol demonstrate, Morrison himself is not immune to the temptation to drop quotations from Shakespeare into his own “costumed claptrap.” Furthermore, visual and textual references to Shakespeare continue to appear in many of the comics series that Morrison has written for DC Comics over the last twenty-five years.

II. Comics as Shakespeare

Figure 3: Morrison and Quitely, Batman and Robin

In Morrison’s later work on mainstream comics series, such as Batman (2006-2008) and Batman and Robin (2009-2010), references to Shakespeare shift from the allusive, aphoristic mode that characterized many of his earlier works in order to emphasize resonances between comic book plots and characters and Shakespearean plots and characters. For example, in Batman and Robin #2, Batman’s protégé Dick Grayson, who had previously fought alongside Batman as Robin, adopts the identity of Batman upon the original’s disappearance. When Grayson struggles in his new role, Batman’s butler, Alfred, offers the following advice: “Think of Batman as a great role, like a Hamlet, or Willie Loman … or even James Bond. And play it to suit your strengths” (50). Though the passage suggests multiple potential models for Grayson, the image underscores the primacy of Hamlet over the other possibilities by recreating the iconic pose of Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, substituting Alfred for Hamlet and the cowl of the Batman costume for the skull (fig. 3). Batman, metonymically present on the page in the anthropomorphic costume, becomes a specifically textual memory, reminiscent of Hamlet’s promise to remember the ghost of his father textually:

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
[…] And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain. (1.5.98-102)

Morrison stresses the affinities between Batman and Hamlet—both avenging murdered parents, both adopting diversionary dissolute personae—more fully in an issue of Batman from the previous year, in which Robin—in a hallucinatory flashback—relates to Batman the story of the play he has been reading: “So Alfie’s got me reading this play about the super-smart, brooding, rich guy trying to avenge his father’s murder … and it comes to me, WHAAM! / Boy! Can you imagine Hamlet if he’d decided to avenge his dad’s murder by dressing as Batman and fighting crime in downtown Elsinore?” (Batman R. I. P. 177). The reader of the comic is not required to resort to imagination, as the following page features a hybrid tableau, in which the characters of Batman enact a version of the duel from Hamlet 5.2 (fig. 4). The panel is not a direct adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, however; the text is altered and the narrative of the play is radically condensed so that the scene takes place on the walls of Elsinore with the Ghost reaching ominously from the background of the image, thereby imposing the setting of the opening act on the action of the closing one. Clearly, this is not so much an image of Hamlet as it is a collage of the aspects of Hamlet that resonate with Morrison’s portrayal of Batman: nefarious enemies, a dependable sidekick, a foreboding landscape, and an implacable, haunting past. Like Milligan and Gaiman, then, Morrison creates a lineage that extends from Shakespeare’s work to his own, though it should be noted that Milligan’s and Gaiman’s parallels are between themselves and Shakespeare, rather than between their respective works. Thus the immediate effects of Morrison’s offhand references to Shakespeare change over the course of his career, from ostentatious, and occasionally surreal, displays of literariness in comics such as Doom Patrol to the more focused parallel-drawing of his recent work.

Figure 4: Morrison and Garbett, Batman R. I. P.

This shift towards a more fully integrated engagement with Shakespeare is most evident in The Invisibles (1994-2000), all fifty-nine issues of which Morrison scripted. The Invisibles is a sprawling narrative that follows a quasi-mystical anarchic revolutionary group—the eponymous “Invisibles.” In the early issues of the series, a young juvenile delinquent named Dane McGowan is invited to join the group. It is difficult, given Morrison’s regular habit of alluding to Shakespeare, and his particular habit of alluding obliquely to Hamlet, not to read “Dane” as another such allusion. The predominant Shakespearean intertext of The Invisibles, however, is King Lear. Dane is initially reluctant to join The Invisibles, but his mind is changed by a homeless man named Tom O’Bedlam, who initiates Dane into the secrets and rituals of the group. Just as the deliberate refiguring of Batman as a literary figure, as discussed above, turns him into language, so too is Tom predominantly characterized, in his first appearance, by his entanglement in others’ words. Tom enters the comic first only as a speech bubble; his body appears on the following page. Even once he appears, Tom is, visually, overwhelmed by language: in the first panel, his speech bubbles obscure his body; in each of the second, third, and fifth panels, the panel is disproportionately taken up with his speech, while either his back is turned to the reader or his figure is indistinct and dwarfed by the figures in the foreground of the panel (fig. 5). However, in the fourth panel, which is vertically central and occupies the full width of the page, Tom’s face is presented in detail, looking straight at the reader: “Who gives anything to Poor Tom, whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame?” (53).12 Throughout the scene, Tom’s speech is a combination of passages from King Lear, original non-sequiturs and snatches of the popular seventeenth-century ballad, “Old Tom of Bedlam,” attributed by Thomas Percy to William Basse.13 Though Shakespeare’s and Basse’s verse are combined in Tom’s speech, they are not mixed. On the one hand, whenever Tom quotes from the ballad, the passages are marked by quotation marks in the speech bubble. On the other hand, when he quotes from King Lear, the text intermingles, unmarked, with Tom’s own speech: “Hello, young lovers! Tom’s a-cold! O do, de, do, de, do de. Bless thee from whirlwinds, star-blasting and taking” (53).14 Tom’s speech and lines from Shakespeare’s play are not differentiated from each other in the way that the quotations from Basse’s ballad are marked, through the use of quotation marks, as derived from someone else’s text. Instead, the two coexist, blurring the line between Shakespeare’s text and Morrison’s.

Figure 5: Morrison and Yeowell, The Invisibles

It is not, however, simply Shakespeare’s language that Morrison incorporates into his comic. The plot and imagery of King Lear also play a crucial role in the early part of The Invisibles. The series’ central theme is discovery, in the early modern sense of revealing what lies hidden within. Throughout, characters are invited or forced to see the world in which they live from different, often alien, perspectives. The first such perceptual realignment is effected by Tom on Dane, both figuratively and literally. The figurative realignment of Dane’s understanding of the world, like the whole Tom/Dane storyline, draws extensively on King Lear. Dane, in the role of Gloucester, is led by Tom to throw himself to his death from One Canada Tower at Canary Wharf: “Trust me now and jump. Do you trust me? Give me thy arm. Poor Tom shall lead thee” (108).15 As with Gloucester in King Lear, Dane’s survival reveals to him the “proper” way of understanding the world in which he lives. Also as in Lear, the fall marks the end of the process of perceptual adjustment, marked by the disappearance, in both texts, of Tom. In The Invisibles, this scene is the second reworking of Gloucester’s moment of revelation. In the first, in order to initiate Dane into new ways of seeing, Tom exchanges Dane’s eyes for the eyes of a pigeon, which enables Dane to see the world as if he were flying above it. On the page, the reader is presented with a paradoxical combination of blindness and illumination, as the pigeon’s black eyes, sitting place of Dane’s own eyes, register as Gloucester’s empty, bloodied eye sockets (fig. 6). The layout of the panel, with Dane looking up into the sky towards, but not seeing, the flying pigeon, in combination with Tom’s instruction, both physical and verbal, to “Look” (81), evokes Edgar’s words in King Lear 4.5 after Gloucester’s aborted suicide attempt: “Look up a-height. The shrill-gorged lark so far / Cannot be seen or heard. Do but look up” (4.5.58-59).

Figure 6: Morrison and Yeowell, The Invisibles

Morrison’s allusions to Shakespeare in The Invisibles are, of course, a means of laying claim to a certain kind of literary and cultural capital. In this regard, they work in conjunction with a series of cameos by literary/cultural/historical antecedents for the near-future revolutionaries about whom the comic book series revolves; among others, Byron and Shelley, De Sade, and John Lennon all feature—as characters—in some fashion in the larger narrative. With Shakespeare, however, the pattern is different; rather than featuring Shakespeare himself, as Gaiman’s Sandman does, Morrison’s comic features characters for whom Shakespeare stands as a cultural touchstone. Dane’s entrance into The Invisibles is heralded in part by his adoption of the nom de guerre “Jack Frost.” It is thus implied, and later confirmed, that “Tom O’Bedlam” is, likewise, an adopted name, a hint at a Shakespeare fetishism that will be borne out later in the series when the reader is introduced to a 1920s cell of The Invisibles that features Tom O’Bedlam and is led by a woman, Beryl Wyndham, who has taken the pseudonym “Queen Mab.” Though the literary history of Mab’s name—which probably owes as much to Shelley’s Queen Mab as it does to Romeo and Juliet—is never discussed, Tom’s decision to adopt the name of a madman, itself already a pseudonym, is discussed repeatedly in this later, though chronologically earlier, appearance. First, he is warned by his father about the potential consequences of his decision: “When one assumes a magickal name one must be prepared to face the consequences and implications of that decision. […] This name you have chosen invites madness and darkness” (Counting to None 101). The “consequences and implications” of Tom’s decision—the insanity that is fully in evidence in the earlier issues of the comic—are linked again in a later conversation:

‘Your story is preposterous, you know. If I’m standing here talking to a ghost then we’ve all gone quite mad.’

‘Serves you right for calling yourself Tom O’Bedlam.’ (Counting to None 124)

The link between Tom’s adoption of a madman’s name and his growing madness is raised again later in the series, in a moment which highlights the inexorability of the merging of Tom and his mad alter ego:

‘You chose to join The Invisibles and you chose the name ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ because you thought it made you sound dark and exciting and outrageous…’

‘Yes, but I don’t want to be mad.’ (Counting to None 138)

Thus Morrison, serial citer of Shakespeare, suggests that the act of appropriation in which he is repeatedly engaged is a transformative act, changing not only the source material, but also opening the appropriative text to unintended, though perhaps unavoidable, influence by its precursors. The result is a somewhat self-congratulatory equation: to adopt or to adapt Shakespeare, the implication is, is to become Shakespeare.

III. Viewers vs. Readers

What is it, though, for a comic to become Shakespeare? What does “Shakespeare” signify for readers and writers of comics? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Shakespeare stands, for writers on and of comics, for a dedication to and exaltation of written language. For comics, this can be a fraught position to be in. For example, in “Expressive Anatomy,” the seventh chapter of his seminal book Comics and Sequential Art, Will Eisner illustrates the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet as a means of demonstrating the potential for the human figure in comics to communicate emotional and thematic information to the reader. In Eisner’s formulation, the artist and the writer are in constant competition with each other: “This [i.e. Eisner’s “Hamlet on a Rooftop”] represents an example of a classic situation—that of author vs. artist. The artist must decide at the outset what his ‘input’ shall be; to slavishly make visual that which is in the author’s mind or to embark on a raft of the author’s words onto a visual sea of his own charting” (114). The source text, Hamlet’s soliloquy, is presented as an obstacle to the artist’s own creative process, a burden that must be borne. As Marion Perret notes, Eisner’s choice of words in his introduction makes evident his preference in the word/image confrontation: “The way Eisner sets up his experiment prejudges who will win the contest. […] ‘Slavishly’ makes this artist’s choice of image over word unmistakable” (127). Indeed, fidelity to the written text becomes less and less important to Eisner as the comic progresses, and “in the second half […] he encourages an understanding that contradicts the words in the speech balloons” (127). Thus Shakespeare’s text serves as an obstructing exemplum for Eisner, undermining his argument in the same way that his images undermine the poem they are designed to accompany.

Figure 7: McCloud, Understanding Comics

The problematically excessive textuality of Shakespeare’s works also features in comics theorist Scott McCloud’s formulation of comics in Understanding Comics. McCloud, like Eisner, posits an oppositional relationship between word and image on the comics page. In a panel of his theoretical text, which takes the form of a comic, he proposes a continuum of representation extending from perfect, photographic visual mimesis at one extreme to, it is implied, obscurant, oblique poetic mimesis on the other (fig. 7). In McCloud’s example, the object of representation is a human face. At the opposite end of the continuum from a photograph of the face, McCloud places a fragment from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2: “Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now … ” (48). The movement towards Shakespeare’s language along the continuum results in increasing mediation between the thing being represented and the audience. This is evoked both by the increasingly difficult language and by the movement, on the “writing” side of the continuum, from the large block printing of the word “FACE,” to the cramped script in which Shakespeare’s poem is quoted. McCloud’s point here, as both the text and the image above the image of the continuum underscore, is the gap between the two modes of representation which, in conjunction, comprise the hybrid representational mode of the vast majority of comics. The short lines on which the two figures stand, which would connect were they not interrupted by the stark white space at the centre of the panel, simultaneously evoke the closure of the gap between artist and writer as they deny that same closure. Likewise, the panel’s text raises the possibility of art and writing combining easily and “harmoniously” on the comics page as both desirable and naïve.

Despite this apparently egalitarian balance of word and image in McCloud’s continuum, in the definition that McCloud formulates for comics in the early chapters of his book, he very deliberates excludes text, insisting on the primacy of image on the comics page: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). The exclusion of text from the definition—if it resides anywhere in the definition it is as the pictures’ “other”—is underscored by McCloud’s naming comics’s audience “the viewer” instead of “the reader,” the term commonly applied to consumers of comics.16 In Alternative Comics, Charles Hatfield argues that the tension engendered by the juxtaposition of word and image as ostensibly discrete “codes of signification” is “fundamental to the art form”: “responding to comics often depends on recognizing word and image as two ‘different’ types of sign, whose implications can be played against each other” (36). In this way, Hatfield resists the closure implicit in McCloud’s fantasy of the collapse of representational modes of word and image, arguing instead for the productive potential of the figurative gap that McCloud literalizes in his formulation of comics production (fig. 7).

One of the ways in which comics emphasize the tensions between text and image, according to Hatfield, is by the introduction of text into the diegetic space of the comic: “such […] moments play with an ambiguity fundamental to comics: the verbal text […] reads as an image, yet typically remains distinct from the narrative reality evoked by the drawings” (38).17 Text in comics is never fully separable from image, as it is itself embedded within, indeed a part of, the visual plane of the comics page. Notably, in Morrison’s work, moments that draw attention to the graphicality and physicality of the written word often occur in the moments that his comics allude to Shakespeare. For instance, in Batman: Gothic (1990), a gangster reads a slip of paper that has been left for him:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more,
‘Tis not so sweet now as before.
‘ (40)18

The passage offers multiple reminders of the text’s existence as visual information: quotation marks, italicized text, and line divisions. In addition, the physical presence of the note within the diegetic space of the comic emphasizes the deliberately constructed nature of the speech being read. That is, the passage denaturalizes comics speech, emphasizing its literariness.

Figure 8: Morrison and Janson, Batman: Gothic

The note returns later in the comic, this time in the hands of Batman, who reads the passage accusingly:

Whisper sent Ottavio a quotation from “Twelfth Night” [sic]—”If music be the food of love…”. I checked the piano in Ottavio’s apartment. It was booby-trapped with Semtex. Music, you see? And yet Ottavio died after drinking poisoned wine. Wine you sent him. (77)

Again, the note is physically present in the panel (fig. 8). This time, though, it features centrally. The panel, drawn by Klaus Janson, structures the reader’s gaze such that the reader sees the scene from Batman’s perspective. In addition, Batman’s hand, visible holding the note, mimics the readers own hand holding the comic book. Thus the reader is invited not only to see as Batman, but to see themselves as Batman. Significantly, this moment of suture between reader and hero occurs as the hero’s superiority and success is demonstrated to be an effect of his literacy.19 In this way, Morrison and Janson bring the diegetic space into near-perfect alignment with the extradiegetic space of the comic’s reader. Faced with a blank rectangle meant to contain a passage from Shakespeare, the reader/Batman must fill it in, imposing a pre-existing text onto a purely visual representation. In their structuring of the panel and of the reader’s experience of it, Morrison and Janson offer an object lesson in the way in which visual modes of representation are almost always simultaneously textual modes of representation, demanding active interpretive engagement with the marks on the page, no matter what form they might take.

IV. The Textual Scaffold

The extent to which Morrison’s comics emphasize their fundamental textuality is evident in late issues of both The Invisibles and Animal Man, the two comics in which Morrison’s engagements with Shakespeare are most fully integrated into his work. In the third and final volume of The Invisibles, the revolutionary cell begins experimenting with a mind-control drug known as “Key 23.” The drug “affects the language processing centers in the brain. Whatever [the dosed subject] reads becomes real to him” (The Invisible Kingdom 60). Throughout the rest of the series, bits of text presented to a range of characters repeatedly manifest themselves as real to those characters. It is not difficult to see the drug and its effects as analogues of reading more generally and reading comics more specifically. Image and text exist, in Morrison’s comics, in common space, with each registering as the other. The final page of the comic exemplifies this melding together, as the text of Dane’s speech gradually expands to dominate the final two panels (fig. 9).20 In the final panel, the marks are only recognizable as letters in the context of the previous panels. Here, written language has been broken down to its constituent parts, returned to the realm of the aesthetic object. At the same time, though, the period that features centrally in the final panel must be understood as punctuation in order to resolve the previous panel’s punning on “sentence” as both a prison sentence and a grammatical unit. Even at its most abstract, then, the written word is inescapably meaningful in the text.

Figure 9: Morrison and Quitely, The Invisibles

Like Batman: GothicAnimal Man features a scene in which a Shakespearean non-sequitur confuses the characters within the comic. In Animal Man #24, two alien beings begin, inexplicably, to recite a passage from The Tempest: “‘These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits … / and are melted into air / into thin air!‘” (22-23).21 Again, the text is placed in quotation marks and italicized, emphasizing its textuality. In this case, however, the context in which the words are spoken gives some indication of the larger effect of what will become Morrison’s decades-long infatuation with Shakespearean allusions. The lines from The Tempest are a response to a question posed by Animal Man: “Who makes us suffer this way? Who writes the world?” (22). The question will be directly answered at the end of the following issue, with the aforementioned appearance of Morrison himself within the comic. The passage from The Tempest, with which Prospero dismisses the spirits who had performed the truncated wedding masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, seems initially like a non-sequitur, designed not to respond to the question, but instead to herald the disappearance of the aliens as they recite the lines. This is reinforced by the aliens’ recitation of the same lines earlier in the issue, when another character “melted into air” (20). Initially, then, the quotations read like another ostentatious display of literariness of the sort that Morrison and his contemporaries in the “British Invasion” were associated. What becomes evident before the end of the following issue, though, is that the lines are not presented as literary non-sequitur. Through these lines, and through the references to The Tempest that appear in the following issue, Morrison draws direct links between himself and Shakespeare in such a way that collapses distinctions between diegetic and extradiegetic space in the comic book and that interrogates and inverts the relationship between word and image in his comics.

Figure 10: Morrison and Bolland, Animal Man

Animal Man #25 opens with the image of a figure hunched beneath a tree. The second panel features a close-up of a sheet of paper, in a typewriter, on which the final six lines of the epilogue to The Tempest are visible. As becomes clear over the course of the page, Shakespeare’s play is being typed by a monkey.22 The monkey reappears seven pages later, only this time he types the title of the issue of the comic. This would have been a familiar sight for the reader, as the cover of the issue also features a monkey typing (fig. 10). The text that the monkey on the cover is typing, it turns out, is the script for the comic:

Frame 1 Longshot. A single tree on top of a grassy hill. The sky beyond is cloudy and sombre. A small figure sits at the foot of the tree but we can’t make out any details here. The tree is on the left hand side of the panel and the hill slopes gently down to the right. The tree is fully leaved. A calm and contemplatively moody image.

In this way, Morrison subverts the conventional subordination of text to image in comics. The first page, wordless except for the sheet of paper in the typewriter, is shown by the cover image to be entirely composed of text. The assertion of text’s primacy over image here is also an assertion of Morrison’s authority. Unlike in Eisner’s example, or in McCloud’s formulation, there is no opposition between text and image. The images here exist by virtue of the text, as Morrison’s precise script, followed with exactitude by penciller Richard Case, leaves little to no space for interpretation. Similarly, Brian Bolland’s cover for the third volume of the collected edition of Animal Man, which includes issue #25, features an image of Animal Man fading away from the feet up to reveal a silhouette made up of text (fig. 11). The text, only partially decipherable, appears to describe the image itself, in which a vast number (“infinite” in the text) of Grant Morrisons work at typewriters like the monkey in Animal Man #25. The conceit of the cover, as is partially evident from the visible text on the cover, is a reworking of the cliché about an infinite number of monkeys eventually producing the works of Shakespeare. The two covers, then, solve the riddle for Animal Man well before he meets Morrison at the end of the comic. Like Prospero, Morrison controls the “actors” in his story. Ultimately, Animal Man’s question answers itself: “Who writes the world?” (my emphasis). This, ultimately, is the effect of Morrison’s career-long engagement with Shakespeare and his works: like Peter Milligan and Neil Gaiman, Morrison constructs himself in his comics as the inheritor and adaptor of Shakespeare’s works. Repeatedly aligning himself with Shakespeare through his characters, narratives, and through the visual insertion of himself into his comic, Morrison works extensively to draw attention to the textual scaffold on which the comic’s art is hung. Embracing, rather than denying, the hybridity of the medium in which he is working, Morrison reaches back to the most celebrated writer of hybrid forms in the English language. Through their combination of iconic visuality and insistent textuality, Morrison’s Shakespearean allusions work to invert conventional hierarchies of image and text, adaptation and original, and high culture and low. The binaries, Morrison argues, are false: the monkey is Shakespeare; Shakespeare is the monkey; comics are both.

Figure 11: Morrison and Bolland, Animal Man


[1] The references can be found in Doom Patrol 52, page 23; Batman: Gothic, page 77; Animal Man 25, page 1; and The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution, page 53, respectively.

[2] Though the comics themselves were marginal, some had impressive creative pedigrees. For example, Shade, the Changing Man was the creation of Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, and a previous incarnation of Sandman had been written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, co-creators of, among other things, Captain America. That said, in each case the ‘celebrity’ creators’ tenures on the comics were brief; Simon and Kirby collaborated for only the first issue of Sandman, the full run of which lasted a total of six issues, and Ditko’s version of Shade, the Changing Man was cancelled after eight issues. In contrast, Gaiman’s Sandman and Milligan’s Shade, the Changing Man lasted seventy-five issues and seventy issues, respectively.

[3] Since, and perhaps as a result of, the influx of British writers to comics in the 1980s, this dynamic has shifted, and increasing critical attention has been paid to comics writers such as Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison. See, for instance, Annalisa Di Liddo, Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel, UP of Mississippi, 2009; Joe Sanders, ed., The Sandman Papers: An Exploration of the Sandman Mythology, Fantagraphics Books, 2006; or Marc Singer, Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics, UP of Mississipi, 2011.

[4] See Section III: Viewers vs. Readers, below.

[5] This pattern, with Shakespeare’s works sitting under another book, is repeated in the two later images of the same book in the comic (162).

[6] In another comic scripted by Milligan, Wertham’s book appears in a stack similar to the ones shown here. In that case, though, the stack has been arranged by The Riddler, a villain in Batman comics (Milligan and Dwyer 10). See Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, Reinhart, 1954. For more on Wertham’s effect on North American comics, see Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, University Press of Mississippi, 1998 and Bart Beaty, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

[7] For further discussions of Gaiman’s use of Shakespeare, see Julia Round, “Transforming Shakespeare: Neil Gaiman and The Sandman,” in Phyllis Frus and Christy Williams’, eds., Beyond Adaptation: Essays on the Radical Transformations of Original Works, McFarland, 2010: 95-110; John Pendergast, “Six Characters in Search of Shakespeare: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Shakespearian Mythos,” Mythlore 26.3/4 (Spring/Summer 2008): 185-197; Annalisa Castaldo, “‘No more yielding than a dream’: The Construction of Shakespeare in The Sandman,” College Literature 31.4 (Fall 2004): 94-110; Joe Sanders, “Of Storytellers and Stories in Gaiman and Vess’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,'” Extrapolation 45 (2004): 237-248; Kurt Lancaster, “Neil Gaiman’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Shakespeare Integrated into Popular Culture,” Journal of American Culture 23.3 (Fall 2000): 69-77; and Jason Tondro, Superheroes of the Round Table, McFarland, 2011.

[8] See A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2.1.43.

[9] See Hamlet 5.2.300.

[10] See Hamlet 5.2.294.

[11] The figure is obliquely identifiable as Grant Morrison in Animal Man #19 by way of an half-obscured image of a page from Arkham Asylum, a comic written by Morrison and drawn by Dave McKean, which was published in 1989.

[12] See King Lear 3.4.49-50

[13] See Percy 344.

[14] King Lear 3.4.55-56.

[15] King Lear 4.1.73-74.

[16] Charles Hatfield, noting McCloud’s advocation of a model of comics in which art and writing “tend toward each other,” argues that McCloud’s various positions on the place of writing in comics is “incoherent” (36). Well before McCloud, though, other critics had proposed similar delineations of the form, including in their definitions of comics stipulations that, for example, “There must be a preponderance of image over text” (Kunzle 2). More recently, Thierry Groensteen has taken the privileging of the visual image even further, questioning the requirement that text appear at all in comics by noting the long and varied history of so-called “mute comics,” comics that are “devoid of verbal enunciations, without dialogue or […] narrational text (captions)” (14).

[17] Comics criticism, borrowing from film criticism, uses the term “diegetic space” to signify “the fictive space in which the characters live and act.” Its corollary is “extradiegetic space,” which signifies “the material space that surrounds the individual panels: not only the whites between the panels, but also the real space in which the reader is located” (Lefèvre).

[18] See Twelfth Night 1.1.1-8

[19] Morrison returns to an almost identical pattern in Batman: The Black Glove (2007-2008), in which a note paraphrasing Shakespeare appears, unattributed, only to be explicated in the next issue by Batman (27, 34).

[20] The image also shares interesting similarities with the final panel of Gaiman’s Sandman (fig. 2).

[21] The Tempest 4.1.148-150.

[22] It is, in fact, an ape, but I follow the comic’s identification of it as a monkey.

Works Cited

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