The Drawing’s the Thing

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.


1 Comment

Filed under Graphic Novel, Graphic storytelling

One response to “The Drawing’s the Thing

  1. george

    An abridged review in today’s Age Newspaper – Melbourne Australia.
    Thought you may find the interpretation interesting.

    Theatre is embracing a comic strip aesthetic. In the last month, Melbourne has witnessed the playful spectacle of the Hairspray musical, powered by Hana-Barbera style animation; and the impersonal beauty of contemporary China, supremely realised through panels and strips in Robert LePage’s Blue Dragon.

    Now the graphic novel turns to theatre for inspiration. With a cute, surreal and critically acclaimed version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby under her belt, Nicki Greenberg brings us Shakespeare’s Hamlet, staged for the page.

    How might it fare, in comparison to other productions of Hamlet? It mightn’t hold a candle to John Gielgud at the height of his powers: “the best actor in the country from the neck up”, as Kenneth Tynan waggishly put it. But nor does it suffer the vagaries of Brendan Cowell’s hollow ear (in what was surely the worst performance of the title role yet ventured at Bell Shakespeare, against decidedly lacklustre competition).

    What about a film adaptation? Take Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. Would you prefer your Hamlet played by Mel Gibson, or a black lion cub, prancing around like some kind of brooding, histrionic necro-Kimba? Queen Gertrude performed by Glenn Close, or a doe-eyed giraffe with six human breasts? Claudius: Alan Bates, or a fox tormented by his own cunning? Ophelia: Helena Bonham Carter, or a squirrel rent asunder by the words of others?

    It’s a tough call. Graphic novels have different limitations and freedoms; the page is neither screen nor stage. Greenberg’s Hamlet is unique – a densely imagined pictorial engagement with Shakespeare’s text that unlocks fresh secrets. Jaded critics might rail against the substantial edit, and the occasional, niggling typographical lapse, but they’ll also marvel at the way the Bard’s language is heightened and given strange new emphasis through visual artistry.

    Greenberg’s conceit is that her actors are ink spots. We start behind the curtain. Hamlet, back turned, holds his own face in his outstretched hand. It’s a gesture of self-reflexive brilliance – the kind that inspired Chuck Jones in Duck Amuck, where Daffy got painted into ridiculous corners by an unseen animator.

    This isn’t simply a great visual gag, though. The mutability of Greenberg’s creations plays a critical role in the drama. When our lion cub Hamlet tears at his cheeks great gashes appear under his eyes; black ink dribbles from his hands to the floor. In the soliloquy: ‘To be or not to be …’, he wields a sword-like pen, cuts off his face and produces a score of masks that flit off into a clockwork world.

    The clockwork motif – drawn in vibrant yellows, oranges and reds – proceeds from the suggestion that ‘time is out of joint’; it hovers behind the machinations of court and Hamlet’s own frenetic procrastination. Against this, a second motif takes root: a garden overrun by flowering weeds, its significance fully realised only at Ophelia’s mad scene.

    These ill-blown seeds flourish often from Hamlet’s feigned madness and paranoid philosophising. Yet it’s in Ophelia’s first appearance that they germinate. Laertes delivers a controlling patriarchal speech, couched in botanical metaphor:

    The canker galls the infants of the spring,

    Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,

    And in the morn and liquid dew of youth

    Contagious blastments are most imminent.

    At this, Ophelia’s squirrel-like form breaks out into a mess of Venus flytraps that devour her. By the time Polonius has taken up his son’s thread, there is little left of his daughter to be burnt. He manages: “These blazes daughter / Giving more light than heat, extinct in both / … You must not take for fire.” What remains of Ophelia – her face and private parts – burns in a stylised auto da fe.

    A sophisticated engagement with Shakespeare lurks behind every seemingly innocent flourish. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are one-eyed twins, the gravedigger and Yorick the same species of three-eyed Fool. Superficially, Claudius is a wily fox and it wasn’t until I got to these lines that I spied his secret:

    How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!

    The harlot’s check, beautied with plastering art,

    Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

    Than is my deed to my most painted word.

    Claudius’ nose uncannily resembles a human finger, a black-painted fingernail perched at the end.

    Nikki Greenberg’s Hamlet is replete with such buried treasures and enigmatic insinuations. Stylistically, her characters emerge from the manga tradition. Comparing her Hamlet-figure to Kimba the White Lion isn’t frivolous. This graphic novel reminded me most strongly of Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume manga epic Buddha, in which the creator of Astro Boy redrew the life of Gautama Buddha in contemporary idiom. It has the same big eyes and irreverent reverence, the same quirky but profound dialogue with the text.

    Yet the lustrous, colourful and detailed backgrounds come from a different place – not quite the numinous illustrations of Graeme Base, but some parallel, digitised dimension.

    It’s a marvellous book that will appeal to gifted kids, as a stepping stone from Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories, say, to the real shebang. For lovers of comic books and Shakespearean drama (and those who devoured Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics in their youth) this Hamlet is an essential acquisition for your library. For everyone else, it remains an intriguing jewel, refracting light into some obscure corners of Shakespeare’s immortal classic.

    (A version of this review appeared in The Age, 30/10/10.)

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