Much ado about manga

School is almost out and that means one thing: It's time for summer reading lists.

But this year, students who dread the idea of plodding through Shakespearean verse to learn the tales of star-crossed lovers and ruthless rulers can take heart. Wiley Publishers, famous (or infamous) for its Cliffs Notes study guides, has come out with Shakespeare in manga.


So far, Haml et, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are available in the graphic novel style spawned in Japan and given full flower in the U.K. and U.S. Rated for ages 13 and older and priced at a mere $9.99, these abridged versions of the best-known plays in the English language are now vividly depicted in classic action-packed manga style: a kind of Saturday morning cartoon version of Shakespeare. The books, which came out in January, are classic manga: over-the-top illustrations depicting some of the great moments in Shakespeare with characterizations that might seem more suited to Harry Potter than the great Bard. They will be followed in a few months by Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

To read or not to read? That seems to be the only question.


"Not many people like Shakespeare, but I guess if they liked manga then they would like that kind of stuff," says Alex Yang, 17, an 11th-grader at Dulaney High School. "I think [having pictures] does help because you can actually understand what's going on."

Count Mari Shigeta, 14, among the manga enthusiasts. She spent her early childhood in Japan where manga debuted and now attends Edison Middle School in Champaign, Ill. Shigeta likes to read, but on the classics she was succinct: "It's just so much easier to read [Shakespeare] this way. The plays are really intimidating. Manga isn't."

Enthusiastic as some kids are about the new line of manga editions, adults aren't as sure that manga is the way to bring Shakespeare or other classics to the masses of kids moaning at the thought of reading beyond the YouTube curriculum.

While illustrated Shakespeare might be used occasionally to enhance a lecture, says Linda Storey, an 11th-grade English teacher at River Hill High School in Howard County, she wants the real thing in her classroom. "I'm a Shakespeare purist, and I don't want any other translation other than the Folger work for school."

Deborah Peifer, a former theater director and professor of theater in Chicago, who has also been a theater critic for decades, calls Shakespeare in manga "an appalling idea, and a significant leap downward in the ultimate dumbing down of our country." Peifer, who regularly taught Shakespeare, says "The richest, most varied, most brilliant, most moving language ever put to the page really doesn't need pictures. ... And anyone who thinks that cartoons are the equivalent of live performance is really clueless about the experience of the theater event."

But other teachers say they can see a role for manga in introducing students to the classics.

"I teach Romeo and Juliet and I know I wouldn't use it in class, but any version of an original has its benefits," says John Sharbaugh, an eighth-grade English teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle School in Howard County. "West Side Story has its value versus Romeo and Juliet, and it's interesting to compare the manga version to the original, so that might be useful to students."

The Maryland State Department of Education supports the idea of graphic novels and comic books as a way to help reluctant readers develop a love of reading, says Bill Reinhard, department spokesman. "It's something we've always embraced," he says. "Anything that gets the kids to read is a good thing."


Reinhard emphasized that comic books and graphic novels should not replace the real thing. "It's a supplement," he says. "It shouldn't be the primary textbook."

Julia Bloch, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches Shakespeare, points out that the Bard himself borrowed stylistically from others. "We have a long tradition in early theater of borrowing from this form and that form," she explains. "It would be historically and literarily inaccurate to say that to put Shakespeare in manga form was to somehow distort the work's purity. There's many ways to read Shakespeare. Abridged isn't my first choice, but it might be others' [choice]."

Illustrated versions of the classics aren't completely new. In the 1950s, Scholastic Books released numerous classic novels and biographies in abridged comic book form under the title "Junior Scholastics." The comic books were best-sellers for decades, as kids of all ages chose the graphic version of classics from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy and Sir Walter Scott.

Greg Tubach, senior editor at Wiley who developed the idea for the manga classics series, says there's a good reason to develop manga versions of the Bard: "Shakespeare is still one of the most recognizable and most taught writers in the English language, and manga is an ever-increasingly popular form with kids and adults alike. Tracking sales of manga and popularity, we put one plus one together and decided this was the way to go: Shakespeare in the manga form would be perfect."

And Tubach enunciates what kids are not embarrassed to assert, "Shakespeare is so intimidating to students and a general reading population. Anything I can do to make it more accessible is an A-plus in my mind."

Tubach disagrees with critics who say manga is dumbing-down the classics. "We kept the language intact. We just shortened it a bit," he says. "We really think that the combination of Shakespeare's story-telling and the manga interpretation is a winner."


Sonja Rittenhouse, 19, a member of the Anime Club at Temple University where she is minoring in Asian Studies, thinks the manga-zation of the classics is more of a gimmick. "While the market for manga in America starts with kids as young as 7, the younger-end audience is drawn in to manga by anime TV tie-ins. These kids are less inclined to browse real books than young teens, making young teens the starting age audience for these classics. And by that time they are probably already reading Shakespeare in school anyway."

And high school students don't necessarily think Shakespeare in manga is an easy read. "I think that you would still need to have the language explained," says Christiana Sabett, 16, an 11th-grader at Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County.

"Manga's kind of hard to understand, too," says Trevor Scheckelhoff, 15, a ninth-grader at Atholton High School in Howard County. "But," he adds, "it's easier to read than Shakespeare."