Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Classics Illustrated

Hamlet wasn't just adapted for the screen. It was also became the focus of two issues of Classics Illustrated. The original Classics Illustrated was a comic book series designed to go into school libraries and, to be frank, was aimed at boys. The focus on the more adventurous aspects of the literary tales adapted through its long run bear this out. Hamlet appeared in #99 and was illustrated by Alex A. Blum. Though it was first published in 1952, Classics Illustrated often went through multiple editions to keep them in print and in the hands of young readers. As an example of how the original series focused on a boy's sensibilities, the soldiers and ghosts of the opening scene are spared 5 pages, but there is no following wedding banquet.

In 1990, Berkley Publishing and First Comics resurrected Classics Illustrated for a shorter, but much more mature run. These prestige format books had glossy paper and painted artwork, and featured some of the best artists of the time, from Bill Sienkiewicz to Kyle Baker to Peter Kuper. Hamlet was book #5 and was adapted by writer Steven Grant and artist Tom Mandrake, the latter whose work on the Spectre made him no stranger to ghostly revenge stories.

The Original
Meant to introduce kids to great works, Classics Illustrated oftens started with a "splash page" introduction before getting into the story. Hamlet thus begins with a quick presentation of the premise - the father's death, the hasty marriage and Hamlet's melancholy. Then on with the play. The dialogue, though a lot of it is cut, is Shakespeare's. The narration and footnotes help the young reader understand the action better.

It's a stiff adaptation, sticking to the facts of the action. Obviously, Horatio's historical context is cut, combining the Ghost scenes in a way that makes its appearances and disappearances more frenetic. The Ghost is larger than life and intangible, like he's rain or steam or being beamed up.
The adaptation is only really intriguing for its focus on heroics. What is Hamlet like if action and the supernatural are emphasized?

The Berkley Version
The first caption reads "Ancient Denmark", setting the play in a no-man's-land that is more Beowulf than it is the Middle Ages.
Bernardo's furs and the characters' oddly shaped word balloons create an atmospheric Denmark out of time. And of course, there's no one like Tom Mandrake to put fear in a character's eyes.
So as far as mood goes, it is achieved by page one. The Ghost is a steaming warrior with glowing eyes, one that tends to blend in with Mandrake's water colors quite efficiently.
What we have in the Berkley series is a Classics Illustrated for fans of literature, rather than fans of comics (although, ultimately, its audience is probably both). The focus is not on the facts of the story (this is CORRECT, since plot is not Shakespeare's focus either), but on mood and rendering of themes. Though Hamlet is not as abstract as say, Sienkiewicz's adaptation of Moby Dick, it is still highly expressionistic, marrying visuals to the emotion of the scene.

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