William Shakespeare, adapted by Richard Appignanesi & illustrated by Emma Vieceli, 208 pages, A5 softback book, Self Made Hero, £6.99. Available in high street bookstores or online stores such as Amazon.
After a break from our mini ‘Emma Season’ on Comic Mole in order to announce some new releases for the London Expo, we’re back to round it up with another fun and informative guest article from Kate Holden! This time she takes a look at SelfMadeHero’s Manga Shakespeare version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, once again from the point of view of a reader with a degree in English Literature.
Mole note: spolier alert for Much Ado! This article is best read if you already know the basic story and characters of Much Ado About Nothing, either having read it, seen it on the stage or as a film etc.
Once again, I’ll hand you over to Kate now…
If ever there was a Shakespeare play to be adapted into comic form that would sound like a daunting prospect to me, Much Ado is it. It’s not high concept. It doesn’t have a big, obvious hook. No ghosts, no cross dressing, no magic, no fights, no deaths. Not like Romeo and Juliet, which can be excitingly summed up as, ‘two star-crossed lovers take their life!’. No, this is something different. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a deft and subtle play, jam-packed with wit. In many ways it feels like a precursor to the ‘Comedy of Manners’ genre of plays from the later Restoration period.
As the title suggests, in this play there’s an awful lot going on over not much of importance. The title itself is an understatement, since there’s a life at risk among other things, but that understatement is what makes it such a fitting title, as this is an understated work that really plays with language and meaning. To make it successful as a comic requires a lightness of touch. While this publication has the same illustrator as Hamlet – it’s Emma Vieceli again, albeit with a few years’ more experience giving a more polished look – the style and setting are quite different. Much Ado employs finer inking and more diffuse tones, so unlike the heavy and sparse feel of Hamlet, this comic has a more shoujo manga (girls manga) feel and a summery atmosphere. The setting is meticulously reproduced by Vieceli from real Italian scenery. This isn’t quite a period adaptation. Or rather, it is, but a later period from Shakespeare’s time. The overall feeling of the costumes and setting is quite timeless, which I feel works well. Much Ado is a rather deft and effortless-feeling play, and the art here matches with an elegant, light and airy classical look.
The play primarily concerns two very different couples. First we have Claudio and Hero. Claudio and Hero are young, likely teenagers. Claudio has just won a lot of honour by performing bravely in war, ‘doing with the body of a lamb, the feats of a lion’. Having come home with thoughts of battle put behind him, he notices Hero in a new light and Romance comes to mind. In this adaptation, Claudio and Hero are depicted as two wide eyed and innocent characters, often flushed or excited. You could easily compare them to Romeo and Juliet. The plotline of their romance follows a similar course, but with a comedic happy solution rather than a tragic one (Romeo and Juliet reads like a comedy until about halfway through, but I think that’s something to discuss in a later article). They fall head-over-heels in love, are torn apart by family circumstances, but fortunately there is a happy solution at the end involving trickery and a dramatic reveal!
The other couple, and the real stars of the show in this adaptation (they’re on the front cover!) are Benedick and Beatrice. These two are older and more jaded. They courted in the past, but fell out and have spent their time since incessantly battling wits. In this adaptation they look probably around their late twenties to early thirties. While not particularly old, they contrast the wide-eyed idealism of Claudio and Hero. Benedick is a lovable rogue in his dishevelled outfit with a slight Han Solo air about it. He is portrayed as flippant and cheeky, but still quite chivalrous. Beatrice is an elegant and confident lady, shown by her more elaborate and mature clothes, hairstyle and manner compared to the girlish Hero. Her personality is calm and cool, kind, but with a barbed tongue, particularly where Benedick is concerned!
Of particular note in this play is the scheming villain, Don John. He’s a strange character because he doesn’t really have a good reason to want to mess with everybody. He’s a dark character, portrayed here with black hair and clothes and a solemn demeanour. His status as a bastard child, unlike his brother, and his less gregarious personality seems to have given him an inferiority complex. He enjoys causing strife because he doesn’t enjoy socialising. Notice how he and the Prince are quite similar looking, separated mostly by the colour and style of their hair. Don John is like a shadow of John Pedro. Both characters intentionally manipulate those around them, but the Prince does so to make a match, while his brother does so to break one apart. Don John has the urge to disrupt a society he feels doesn’t welcome him, but rather than admitting his feeling of powerlessness and abandonment, chooses to say that his motivation is just plain villainy.
Manipulation is a recurring theme throughout the play. In this adaptation, notice how the theme is represented through puppets. Don John is seen with a puppet of Don Pedro, and later we see Don Pedro with puppets of Benedick and Beatrice. Masks and music also recur as themes, though this isn’t just in the manga adaptation, but part of the play. Performance is frequently employed, and for most of the play no single character seems to be aware of what everybody else is up to. Every character seems to be, for good or bad reasons, involved in some kind of secret plot manipulating somebody else! A visual theme used here is the apple. My interpretation of the apple is that it is the symbol of ‘cupid’s trap’. It symbolises romantic temptation, and the clever plot used on Benedick and Beatrice. Rather than forcing them together, they are lured to each other in order to realise feelings that were there all along.
Much Ado About Nothing is an enjoyable read. It’s a subtle and complex romantic comedy, and while it may not have the conceptual punch or high drama of some of the other plays, particularly tragedies, if you’re willing to look closely it is a real masterwork, very intricate and yet tightly plotted. While it may seem light and fluffy on the surface, it has hidden depth and complexity. The art matches well. While it’s not so conceptually or thematically bold as ‘Hamlet’ you may well find pleasure in its clever, understated and polished execution. Like the play, it may look effortless, but there’s a whole lot of thought and detail there and a huge amount of hard work!
Once again thanks go out to Kate Holden for giving her time to write this article for us here on the Mole! Kate is a member of the UK manga circle IndieManga and currently has work featured in their latest anthology release ‘Legends‘, as well as her own webcomic ‘Fan Dan Go‘, which updates twice a week.