This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics
Plays are not meant to be read. This was one of my first lessons when I began pursuing a degree in theatre some indeterminable number of years back. They’re meant to be performed. Comics, however, are a great compromise between reading and performance. They are a two-dimensional way of staging great plays. No playwright has been more influential nor as famous as William Shakespeare. Whether you’re a Shakespeare snob on the level of Harold Bloom or just starting to get into The Bard, here are some comic books that will look great next to your First Folio.
This is one really for the newbies. Shakespeare Comics is an educational imprint dedicated to taking all of Shakespeare’s works and putting them into comic book format. There are no fun adaptations or riffs on the original works, just the original plays done with words and pictures. Shakespeare Comics also offers teacher’s books to assist in the learning process.
So you have a passing familiarity with old Billy’s works? Manga Shakespeare is a line from Self Made Hero that adapts a variety of Shakespeare’s works into manga format, mostly set in future or near-future Japan. These are abridged works using a variety of writing and artistic talent. Like Shakespeare Comics, the team at Manga Shakespeare is working to make the Complete Works more accessible.
To Be or Not To Be
Named after the famous monologue from Hamlet, To Be or Not To Be is from Ryan North, famous for both Dinosaur Comics and Adventure Time. To Be or Not To Be began life as a successful Kickstarter campaign and can now be found for purchase nearly everywhere. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s (arguably) greatest play: Hamlet. There’s a catch, however: To Be or Not To Be is Hamlet done as a choose-your-own-adventure comic book. That’s right. Readers get to choose just how brooding and bonkers Shakespeare’s most famous prince is each time they reread the book.
Romeo and Juliet: The War
Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s most famous play. It is also the most adapted of all his works. Star-crossed lovers from warring families transcends all time and space, it would seem, in Stan Lee’s Romeo and Juliet: The War. One of Lee’s lesser-known project, this hardcover retells the famous story set against a sci-fi space opera backdrop. The story has been criticized, but the art and production values on this book are some of the best you’ll find. Plus, nothing screams comic books more than Stan “The Man” Lee.
Prince of Cats
I did say Romeo and Juliet is Billy’s most adapted work, didn’t I? Well, Ron Wimberly did his own adaptation, setting the Montagues against the Capulets in a cyberpunk Brooklyn. Imagine Romeo and Juliet colliding with Afro Samurai and you’ve got a rough approximation of the awesome that is Prince of Cats.
Y: The Last Man
While Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece isn’t actually an adaptation of anything Shakespeare wrote, it takes a great deal of influence from and tips its hat to The Bard regularly. The main character of Y: The Last Man is named Yorick (from the gravedigger’s monologue in Hamlet), several covers pay homage, and the Fish & Bicycle theatre troupe uses Shakespeare to theorize about the origins of the plague that wiped out the Y chromosome.
Of course, I couldn’t mention comic books and Shakespeare without talking about Sandman #19 by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. Shakespeare and his themes play roles throughout Sandman, but issue #19 was a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, which prompted a controversy about whether comics could win the award in the future. Despite the controversy, it stands as the only comic book to have ever won this award and one of the best comic books of all time.