Wham! Pow! Egad! Classics get comic treatment

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The Independent Culture

Marcel Proust's masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, got the cartoon treatment. William Shakespeare's Henry V can be read in an hour in comic-strip format. And now, to the further consternation of traditionalists, a succession of literary classics including Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Charles Dicken's Great Expectations are to follow suit.

Classical Comics, the publishers behind the launch of the comic-strip Henry V this month, hope to expand their repertoire to encompass every Shakespeare play in the next five years, as well as a host of classics from the literary canon.

Clive Bryant, chair of the publishers, said the point was to make classics more available to a wider audience and augment understanding when pupils turned to reading the original texts. But some have criticised the venture for appealing to time-challenged students who may well not bother reading the real thing at all.

The Shakespeare comics come in three versions – the "unabridged", with illustrations, "plain modern English" and "quick text"' which reveals the story in shortened form with simplified dialogue. The other classics come in original versions bearing authentic texts and " quick text" adaptations.

In Henry V, the king's rallying call to his troops – "once more unto the breach, dear friends" – is one of Shakespeare's most quoted lines. The phrase survives in the "quick text", but is followed by "take a deep breath and fight". In Macbeth, launched next year, Lady Macbeth's call to her husband: "But screw your courage to the sticking place And we'll not fail" is changed to "we won't fail".

Mr Bryant hopes the comics, illustrated by artists who have worked on the Spider-Man series, will inspire disaffected readers to appreciate the classics by "breaking down barriers".

His critics include the Queen's English Society, which warned that these are "dumbed-down" versions which could backfire by allowing pupils to avoid tackling the language and themes of the originals. But Mr Bryant insisted it was not a case of dumbing down but "clueing up" today's younger generation, who may otherwise not read the classics at all.

"When I read Great Expectations, I struggled to visualise Miss Havisham. So to have her in graphic format, it makes younger readers enjoy the story because they have the imagery in front of them. The graphics can also help some pupils to remember text by providing visual prompts.

"Other students can't overcome their feeling that a book is 'boring' if it is Victorian or Elizabethan, so this changes that," he said.

He also pointed out that in some novels, the original themes have been lost through popular film adaptations. "We want to produce A Christmas Carol with the theme of social injustice highlighted. The film has largely shown it as a ghost story and a nice Christmas tale but in Dickens' novel, the class differences in Victorian England was a major theme," he said.

Dr Bernard Lamb, chairman of the London branch of the Queen's English Society, said: "Pupils may just enjoy the cartoons and not connect it with Shakespeare. A lot of the beauty of Shakespeare is in the language more than the plot."

From classics to comics

* Marcel Proust

Proust's seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past was adapted into a double-volume comic novel by the artist Stephane Heuet in 2001.

* Agatha Christie

It was announced in August that several of Christie's 80 detective novels, already immortalised on television, film, stage and in audio books, were being adapted as comic-strip editions.

* Shakespeare

Among the recent crop of comic-book Shakespeare plays includes the Manga Shakespeare series – cut-down versions of plays in a Japanese cartoon style, drawn by established manga artists, whose characters have the typical big eyes and snub noses of the genre. In May, the publisher Self Made Hero announced its first productions would be Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, with Richard III and The Tempest to follow.

* Homer and Goethe

The Classics Illustrated series of the 1940s brought abridged, comic-style versions of literary masterpieces such as Homer's Odyssey and Goethe's Faust. Between 1941 and 1962, sales of the series totaled 200 million, with adaptations including Don Quixote, Frankenstein, Hamlet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jane Eyre, Lord Jim, Macbeth, Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, Silas Marner and A Tale of Two Cities.