Hamlet in Ink: Classics Illustrated

This is another one of my earliest encounters with Hamlet, although I’m having trouble figuring out exactly when I would have run into it. Part of the problem is the convoluted history of just about any major comics publishing line, but particularly the history of Classics Illustrated.

From the Wikipedia page:

Classics Illustrated is a comic book series featuring adaptations of literary classics such as Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Iliad. Created by Albert Kanter, the series began publication in 1941 and finished its first run in 1971, producing 169 issues. Following the series’ demise, various companies reprinted its titles.

Since I hadn’t been born during the first series, the release of Hamlet as Issue #99 in 1952 doesn’t affect me. I’ve found some online illustrations from this first version, and it’s not the one I remember plucking off the shelf at Tumbleweeds Comics in Edmonton’s west end.

CLASSICS_CLIG_099_Hamlet_019.480x480-75Here’s a sample page from that first version. Other than the wavy gutter that divides the page horizontally, it’s a fairly typical comic book layout. And it takes two soliloquies from 3.3 and drops them into individual panels — which, given the necessary size of text in a comic book, leaves me hoping that Classics Illustrated came with a magnifying glass.

Besides that problem, the comics version of Hamlet suffers from very static imagery. I like the bold, monochromatic colours (a king that not only wears purple, but wears ONLY purple!) and the poses, which call to mind Restoration-style acting postures (ie. static physical representations of “mild guilt,” “moderate guilt,” “extreme guilt,” etc.). But when you only get one single “stage image” per soliloquy, the speeches get even more dull than they risk being in the theatre. Toss some heavy-handed narration into the mix, and you’re not doing Hamlet whole lot of favours, here.

But for my young Shakesgeek self, it was the second Classics Illustrated version of the play, which was adapted by Steven Grant and Tom Mandrake sometime in 1990 (it was Issue #5 of the second series). By the ’90s, they were being marketed as “graphic novels,” although this book was merely a standard 32-page comic with a high-stock cover. None the less, it was a very handsome volume, and some of the inking techniques were new to me, using painterly brushstrokes around the edges to distinguish the book from your standard Marvel or DC comic.

ClassicsIllustratedGravediggerThe panel layout varied as well, possibly in an attempt to make the story more dynamic and theatrical, or even in some cases to represent Hamlet’s fractured mind. I couldn’t find many images online, but here’s a couple of panels from 5.1, where the swirling clouds, jagged word bubbles, and gloomy cross-hatching combine to cast the Prince under multiple graphic shadows. Even the layout, with the top panel bleeding around the bottom, reinforces a metaphor by seeming to box Hamlet into the grave being dug by the Clown.

Despite all these visual flourishes (and there are a lot of them, especially whenever the Ghost turns up), I found myself disappointed by this adaptation after stumbling across it in the public library today. Despite ruthless cuts to the text, it suffers from the same problems as the 1952 comic — too many words, not enough (moving) pictures. And despite Hamlet’s poofy purple shirt and Romantic-hero hair (a vast improvement over the Prince Valiant cut in the original!), he is so often illustrated in face-obscuring shadow (or shown in long-shot, or from behind) that I rarely feel up-close-and-personal with the brooding Prince. When the close-ups come, they come as extreme close-ups, like this one, which anticipates the reappearance of the Ghost in 3.4. It’s a dramatic image, and one that probably stirred my teenage heart when I first saw it; but in a 32-page work condensing a four-hour play, these moments of drama are few and far between.ClassicsIllustratedhamletcl-3-4-5

There is probably something worth studying here, and that’s the actual adaptation of the text. I’m always fascinated by what different adaptations leave out, or choose to represent through means other than dialogue. Perversely, I like the fact that Classics Illustrated opts to “cut in” on 1.3, with Polonius just wrapping up his windy farewell speech to Laertes (“…And this above all, to thine own self be true…”), or that Hamlet’s 3.3 soliloquy (“Now might I do it pat…”) is eliminated entirely, replaced instead with a shadowy form appearing, then withdrawing from behind Claudius while he is at prayer.

Above all, I like the enthusiastic editorial coda, which acknowledges how full of holes this version is: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.”

Like I said, I don’t remember when I purchased this comic — if it was early in 1990, then it would have been prior to encountering the play in print, on stage, or on film — so when I laugh at the notion that kids would read a comics version of Hamlet and then run out and read the whole play…? Well, it’s surprisingly likely that I was exactly that kid.

P.S.: The fabulous Hamlet compare-and-contrast site, Hyperion to a Satyr, offers a scene-by-scene comparison of both Classics Illustrated Hamlets. Click here to get all the relevant entries on one page.



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