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The Merchant of Venice, adapted by Gareth Hinds
Bar Harbor
I've been following the work of Gareth Hinds for several years now. We were briefly colleagues, but then he left his job in the games industry to pursue his dream of being a graphic novelist, a brave move which I have always admired.

His latest book is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". I am sad to report that I found it rather disappointing. Not actually *bad*, mind you, just sort of... pointless.

It's a straight-up rendition of the story, albeit in modern costumes. But this story, while entertaining, doesn't in and of itself make very good *comics*. There is very little action, and vast quantities of talking heads.

Hinds draws his actors with faces and postures which are both expressive and effective, making them good 'actors'. But they have very little *room* to act, with an average density of around two to three sentences per panel. The two most famous speeches, "Do we not bleed?" and "The quality of mercy" each are consigned to a mere two panels. While this is not *quite* as bad as the infamous Classics Illustrated placement of "To be or not to be" in a single, indigestible panel, it isn't that much better. (In one of his books about creating comics, Will Eisner drew a version of "To be or not to be" which ran, if memory serves, over 8 pages, with rarely more than one clause per panel. This technique would obviously lead to extremely lengthy adaptations, but I'd still like to see someone try it for a full play some day.)

The rendering is almost entirely realistic, which again strikes me as playing to the weaknesses of the medium, not its strengths. There are a few moments of graphical whimsy with Shylock, such as a delightful panel where he has a huge metaphorical tornado/raincloud above his head, but the vast majority of the shots might have been stills from any community theater production of the play. This was especially disappointing after the book started with some truly imaginative endpapers: a map of Venice reimagined as a fish with a hook through its mouth. I wish the story itself had contained graphic play on that level of inventiveness.

As regards the text, Hinds takes some surface liberties, such as updating the servants' prose dialogue, but he leaves most of the poetry intact. He trims for space, but all the relevant story beats are present. His afterword comments briefly on the racist themes and the homosexual overtones, but he takes no stand on them, either in the afterword or his telling of the story itself.

I am left wondering why Hinds undertook this project. He imposes no personal vision on the play. The story is told competently enough, but this telling brings nothing new to the table. If this were a lesser-known work that he was trying to make more accessible, that would be a good reason -- but there's a good recent film of this story which is, frankly, a far more succesful adaptation, not least because it plays to the strengths of its medium.

I admire Gareth for having given up his day job to pursue more creative endeavors. I hope his next one has moreactual creativity involved.

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Oh, well, thanks. The goals were essentially as follows:

- Make the play more accessible to the reluctant reader/YA audience
- Give it an edgy, graphic update (yes, you can get this from many stage productions)
- Draw a book entirely from life (or almost entirely)
- Condense a Shakespearian play more than I was comfortably able to do with Lear (therefore tackling the problem of rewriting some parts without losing all the important poetry in other parts)
- Tell a compelling story without resorting to action, cartoonishness, some of the other conventional "strengths" of the medium. How do you feel about other talky books like Fun Home?

Obviously, your mileage may vary. But that's the answer to your question. And to your other question, the next book is The Odyssey. So yes, much more action!!


"- Make the play more accessible to the reluctant reader/YA audience"

Color me dubious. Of course, my YA days are long behind me, so I'm in no position to judge.

"Give it an edgy, graphic update"

Um, what do you mean by 'edgy' in this context?

"How do you feel about other talky books like Fun Home?"

I quite enjoyed Fun Home. I do think that that story could have been told equally effectively in prose, or several other mediums. It was a book I enjoyed because of the interesting story it told, not because it was particularly well suited to the comics form.

When your goal is telling an original, personal story, it makes sense to use whatever medium you like. When your goal is "adapt well-known literature to comics", I think it makes sense to choose works that are suited to the new medium, or to take more creative chances in the adaptation.

(And thanks for your patience in responding to what was probably a painful review to read.)

I'm not sure if you were ever a reluctant reader. I wasn't myself, and to judge success with that audience I rely largely on the feedback I get from teachers -- which is overwhelmingly positive for Beowulf, and so far seems good for Lear and Merchant. As you mentioned, a good stage production can engage the audience in much the same way, but there are two problems there; one being the lack of access most kids have to staged productions, and the other that it doesn't actually involve them reading. I'd like to promote the reading of Shakespeare as well as the enjoying of it.

I guess 'edgy' is shorthand for being modern and somehow atypical. In all of my books, I strive for a distinctive style, one that doesn't look like other comics (including *my* other comics).

I choose works to adapt not based not on how easily they will make the transition to comics, but based on what stories interest me and make me want to re-present and share them with my own spin. Also, to some extent, how close they are to the center of the literary canon. Merchant is a talky play, and I wasn't trying to turn it into something else, I was trying to share what I perceive as its entertaining and artistically compelling qualities. Certainly there are other ways I could've shown it, and some of them might be more creative or engage the viewer with more unexpected visuals, but I didn't choose to push it that way - partly because (as I noted, and for entirely selfish idiosyncratic reasons) I wanted to draw the book from life, and focus on the sort of eyewitness verisimilitude I think that approach gives it. Of course, again, YMMV. I hope you'll find more satisfying action and eye-candy in The Odyssey. Though it still won't look like a typical comic ;-)

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