Sam has a background in graphics, and this came through really strongly in his clever (and funny) paper on Manga Shakespeares, which he delivered at a Cabinet of Curiosities event this month. He started off by showing us a picture of a model of York Minster. He talked about it being ‘only’ a model, not the original – right? Everyone agreed. But then he showed us a picture of the original Minster, which of course, he explained, was the model used by the model-maker to make the model of the Minster in the first place… So which was the model, and which was the original? This depends on your starting point…
(Of course, his argument was complicated further by his only being able to show the picture of, and not the real, model of the Minster, as that was made of cast iron and encased in a glass cabinet in the entrance of the Old Assembly Rooms. See Scott McCLoud Understanding Comics, 1993
I guess this concept of original versus model, or copy, lies behind any Shakespeare adaptation/appropriation, and you can hear arguments about original Shakespeare upheld and challenged again and again at any Shakespeare conference, particularly any with a local/global or post-modern slant.
Sam’s talk gave his Manga model equality with any Arden ‘original’, and I think also attempted to refocus his audience to see Shakespeare’s works as source material for an original, new product, much as I do in my work.
Much dealt with transformation of form as a text is reconfigured through a new medium, particularly when that medium has a rigid set of conventions, such as graphic novels or Manga. I remember the Graphic Shakespeares of the 1980s, published by Oval in the UK. Ian Pollock’s King Lear, with its angry, violent, satirical images reflected the angry, violent responses to the Thatcherite/Reaganist years. Incidentally, the 1983 RSC stage version for which Pollock had designed the poster was my baptism of fire into the world of Shakespeare in performance.
The grotesques of poster, performance and graphic novel had a profound effect on me as a teenager. So I was rather surprised that Sam was not equally impressed. There was not the same sophistication in the juxtaposition of panels or of words and images, he argued. For example, he noted that the effect of Lear’s ‘Howl howl howl’ was lost because of a slavish (?) insistence on revering the ‘original text’ in the publisher’s rubric. Thus, the phrase was lost at the end of a word heavy speech balloon. I will have to double-check this, as I’m not sure that I agree, and I certainly initially turned up my nose at what I thought were the bland, black and white images of the Last of the Mohicans-esque Manga Lear. That is, until he turned to the section where Gloucester, his eyes gouged out, has been turned loose in the wilderness. At this point I began to see how manga illustrations worked, and it is very different from the aesthetic of British satirical cartooning. In an extraordinary sequence, a series of simple black and white panels, depicting the trunks of beech trees in a forest, made a grid across the page, or perhaps, they were the bars of a prison. These, in turn, were reflected in the following panel, the trees transforming into the gouges in Gloucester’s eyes – no more need be said (or, indeed, written):