I just finished reading Nicki Greenberg‘s tremendous graphic adaptation of Hamlet, and I can only hope that it gets a worldwide distribution. It’s a monster of a book at over 400 pages (it was delivered to me not by postal truck but by forklift), but they’re lush and glossy and striking pages, with the characters’ action set against a wildly colorful montage of what might be called “psychedelic Victorian” imagery, laden with thematic symbolism. If you’re a person who couldn’t ever picture yourself saying to somebody “Hey! I’m reading this book by this guy called Shakespeare and I can’t put it down,” then I urge you to get your hands on Ms. Greenberg’s Hamlet. But you will have to have big hands.
What I liked about Nicki’s version was the way she combined the unorthodox with the conventional. Hamlet is apparently an ink blot, and when we see him conversing with Barnardo and Marcellus in the opening scene they are wielding brushes, bringing to mind the old saw about the pen vs. the sword and foreshadowing Hamlet’s choice of using lines spoken by an actor (the actors consisting of red ink, not black) as a potential murder weapon. The characters are all living ink blots dancing across each dazzling page, as they sometimes dissolve, like Ophelia, or bleed into each other, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The King and Queen’s attendants are octuopus-like blobs. Each character is some slightly mutated beast, whose personality is partially revealed by some physical attribute that Ms. Greenberg has given him (or her, or it). I loved the inventive way they were conceived of and drawn.
Whereas many graphic novels (and admittedly the ones I am naturally drawn to) are laid out cinematically, employing close-ups, panoramas, and multiple vantage points in conveying the story, Nicki more or less uses the frame of the single panel as the stage. I would normally think of this as a weakness; the advantage of the graphic novel being that one can manipulate the viewer’s experience in ways that one can’t in the written word or on the stage. But this was definitely one of the strengths of the book. It is a play, after all, and Hamlet is the one thing that does not need a wholesale reimagining, especially when the book presents itself as such a visual feast to begin with. I give her a lot of credit for that.
The bottom line is that I didn’t just “appreciate” this book, the way I have sometimes felt after reading Shakespeare. I very much enjoyed it. Imagine that! The Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, is here, so stay tuned to them for publication details in October.