Author Adam Sexton says in the introduction to this largely successful rendering of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Unbound by the physical realities of the theater, the graphic novel can depict any situation, no matter how fantastical or violent, that it creators are able to pencil, ink, and shade.” Those depictions make this version a worthwhile addition to classrooms studying the play, although it has some pedagogical limitations.
Each character is distinctively drawn. Although stylistically consistent, we can clearly tell the difference between characters. Cassius is portrayed as dark-haired and sinister; the bearded Brutus has just the right combination of sincerity and toughness.
This manga version of Shakespeare’s story uses graphic novel conventions to dramatically convey the story that is the bane of so many sophomore English classes. For example, the characters in Julius Caesar tend to speak in highly formal language, even when they are upset or in anguish. That difficult language is made more accessible here not only through finely drawn facial expressions but by important words emphasized in the text bubbles. For example, in Act II Decius comes to Caesar’s home with other conspirators to lure him to the Capitol. Caesar relates a dream that he interprets as a sign that he should not go with them. Decius listens to Caesar’s concern and then says, “This dream is all amiss interpreted! It was a vision fair and fortunate.” Obviously, Shakespeare did not italicize anything, and I’ve heard countless student readers breeze over those lines without stopping to consider the importance of those individual words. This version will help student readers hear the inflection that brings out the most meaningful aspects of that line and many others.
Our understanding of Julius Caesar is also enhanced by the depictions of various settings—the homes of Brutus and Caesar, the Capitol, and the battlefields, for example. I also like how the art establishes mood, as in the disturbing supernatural storm described by Casca and Calpurnia: We see the slave with his hand on fire and the lioness whelping in the street.
A particularly effective scene is the description “coming from Sardis” of “two mighty eagles … gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands” as the authors break the traditional horizontal panel formation to deliver a disorienting effect that must echo what Cassius is feeling as hears the portentous scene described by Messala.
Readers who are drawn to the macabre will find it in the ghost of Caesar, as well as in the drawings of various stabbings on which this play’s plot turns.
The business in Act V involving Titinius and Pindarus is frequently confusing for students as Shakespeare used various playing areas in the Globe Theater to convey a war within the limited confines of a theater’s space. In this book, the action is clear as we see what Pindarus sees rather than having it relayed to us.
The primary disadvantage of this manga version of Julius Caesar is the complete loss of the play’s poetry. The words are left mostly intact, but they are presented in text bubbles without regard for blank verse enjambment. Also lost is the contrast between the block-prose, logic-based funeral speech of Brutus, and the emotional iambic pentameter of Antony’s funeral speech.
The weirdest element of this manga adaptation of Julius Caesar is the portrayal of Portia who is clearly shown as pregnant. Nothing in the text indicates that Portia is pregnant, except possibly the reference to her “weak condition,” which is explainable in several other ways. This editorial liberty with the character of Portia might generate some interesting discussion, but it strikes me as obtrusive. If Portia is pregnant, her motivations are understood differently than if she is not pregnant, but readers who are introduced to Portia as pregnant will be unlikely to ever consider her as not pregnant.
I enjoyed reading this manga adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. After reading and teaching this play for many years, I found this adaptation faithful to the original text (except for the Portia portrayal), and especially helpful in conveying some of the action that takes place between lines and other non-text aspects of the play.
If you have read this version or used it in class, I hope you’ll comment on how you liked it. Thanks for reading.