REVIEW: Manga Classics – Romeo and Juliet (2018, 2020)

An adaptation of the 1597 Classic by Stacy King, Crystal S. Chan, and Julien Choy

Romeo and Juliet: Manga Classics

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

This is the second book by Manga Classics that the gracious folks over at that company were nice enough to let me peruse, with the first Being The Count of Monte Cristo. I won’t bore everyone re-treading the same pre-amble as with that review, but I will summarize that I very much enjoyed that edition, and love the idea behind the whole initiative – an attempt to get kids and younger adults to get into classic literature without throwing huge 800 page tomes their way. I felt the respect for the source material was, perhaps, one of the best things about that book – as it avoided the many pitfalls others have fallen into making “manga versions” of things when they were not, in fact, a part of the Japanese manga (comic book) scene.

Romeo and Juliet is the classic tragedy of western literature. Created by William Shakespeare, it is tale of two very young lovers from Verona, Italy who defy the wishes of their feuding families, get married then, and tragically, end their own lives in the name of love. It is their deaths that ultimately help the rival families of the Capulet’s and Montague’s find reconciliation. Manga
Classics brings an incredible new reading experience with this adaptation of Shakespeare’s most popular and frequently performed plays: Romeo and Juliet.

Manga Classics product page
Romeo and Juliet | Ch01 Pg04

Going into this book, I was somewhat worried, as the Count of Monte Cristo is largely available in Modern English readily, whereas any adaptation of a Shakespeare play has a choice – keep the archaic, yet poetic language of the original play, or adapt it into modern language and perhaps lose some of the wordplay and witty dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the dialogue was largely left intact from the source material, albeit cleaned up a tad. While this could make it hard to read for some folks, this would make it a great source to help one’s understanding of the language in the actual book – I recall occasionally using a supplementary Cliff notes book in high school whenever doing a Shakespearean assignment (I was big on British Lit back then) – honestly this would have been way better.

The art style is clean, well done, and consistent with many shoujo comics of the near past without losing itself to modern clichés. I personally love the manga style from the middle to late 90’s, so I especially liked this one. I will say that, of the two, I preferred the Count of Monte Cristo a bit more, but that could be that I’ve read Romeo and Juliet so many times that it does not hold the same “oomph” as it once dead, whereas I’ve never fully read The Count. All-in-all, still a solid read and a great addition to anyone’s manga or classical literature library. As I said in my previous review – Schools and libraries should really look into getting a ton of these, you’d probably be surprised how popular they’d be.

REVIEW: Teddy (2021)

A Graphic Novel by Laurence Luckinbill; Adapted by Eryck Tait

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

July 1918. Preparing to speak to an eager audience, 61-year-old Teddy Roosevelt receives the telegram that all parents of children who serve in war fear most: His son Quentin’s plane has been shot down in a dogfight over France. His fate is unknown. Despite rising fear for his youngest son, Teddy takes the stage to speak to his beloved fellow citizens. It is, he says, “my simple duty.” But the speech evolves from politics and the war, into an examination of his life, the choices he’s made, and the costs of his “Warrior Philosophy.”

Official description

Teddy Roosevelt is one of those Presidents that comes to mind when one thinks about the great orators that we have had in the past in that very office. I won’t get too political here, but recent events in the political world make me look back at old speeches and feel some weird sense of nostalgia for a time that is WAYYYY before my time – a time when The President was remarkable and gave intellectual lectures as speeches rather than ridiculous messes designed for sound-bites. This graphic novel, about Theodore Roosevelt, encapsulates this very well as it showcases a oration by Roosevelt that is intertwined with biographical information.

Despite being a history major, I am not 100% certain that this was an actual speech or if its pieced together from various speeches and ideas that Roosevelt espoused. Either way, the storytelling here is remarkable. The speech is right after Teddy has learned that his son is missing fighting Germans during WWI – he was told that giving a speech in his state of mind was likely a bad call, but he does it anyway. He talks about his rough upbringing as he was very sickly as a child. It was only through sheer perseverance and respect for his father that he was able to largely overcome most of his ailments or at least learn to keep them at bay.

Interior page

Giving the speech as a former President, Roosevelt lashes out at President Woodrow Wilson, the man that unseated his chosen successor William Howard Taft, and himself when he attempted to run for a third term. Wilson is accused of causing deaths of many (including Teddy’s soon, not confirmed dead at this point) and paving the way for German domination of the world. The speech is fairly “hawkish” and really shows the mindset America was in at the time. The speech is peppered with an overview of Teddy’s life, and what it means to be a real patriot as well as other themes.

I absolutely loved the story here, and despite being skeptical of the format initially, it works very well. The art style, minimalist with blacks and blues, is great and not something you see too often. I’d love to see more of these made from other well-known speeches in the future. This is honestly a great book, as one could toss this into a school library or assign it as a class project, and I think kids would really gain a bit of extra understanding that merely just reading a speech or textbook does not allow. Definitely recommended!

REVIEW: Black Star (2021)

A graphic novel by Eric E. Glover (Author), Arielle Jovellanos (Illustrator)

Black Star by [Eric E. Glover, Arielle Jovellanos]
Cover via Amazon

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I was awarded a review copy of Black Star. The plot was intriguing, but I was und=familiar with the creative team, so I had no idea what to expect. What Black Star is, is a solid debut for Eric Glover, one would never guess that this was his first foray into comic writing (granted, this was originally a screenplay) by what we have here.

[…] In order to retrieve samples of an alien flower that may hold the key to saving countless lives, Harper North and her crew of scientists must journey to Eleos, a dangerous planet in deep space. But as they approach Eleos, their ship is caught in an asteroid storm and as it hurtles towards the surface, its reserve shuttle detaches, landing over 100 kilometers away. When the rest of the crew perishes in the burning wreckage of the ship, North races towards the rescue shuttle built for one, hoping to fulfill their mission and survive.  But North isn’t alone: The team’s wilderness expert is still alive and hell-bent on hunting North down and claiming the shuttle for herself.

Press synopsis excerpt

It’s hard to talk about this without giving away tons of spoilers, so I will attempt avoid that. This is an unconventional disaster story of sorts – a survival story akin to Lord of the Flies, in that the protagonists are not necessarily “good guys”. Perhaps the strongest thing about Black Star is its emphasis on moral ambiguity. This is the story of people doing things they need to do in order to survive. Sometimes that means making tough decisions and hurting others, selflessness is not always an option if you believe your own survival is the key to saving the world. That also comes with a burden, can one live with their choices if bad things are done?

There is a point in the book where one of the characters actions was pretty upsetting, I realized that they had basically “turned heel” entirely – their actions are rough to witness and really make you question if, in the same shoes, a sane person could go through with such an act.

All-in-all, Black Star has really put Eric E. Glover and Arielle Jovellanos on my radar. If this doesn’t get picked up as a film, I’m hoping this is successful and they continue in the comics industry. Not only is the story interesting, but it avoids cliches in a lot of comics. The story structure almost reminds me of European comics, such as ones found in Metal Hurlant and Humanoids to name a few. The storytelling has a darker edge, and doesn’t feel the need to have “a happy ending” for the sake of it. I would definitely recommend this book.

V for Vendetta (1982-5)

By Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Warning: there are spoilers in this review, by reading this I assume you are familiar with the works of Alan Moore, or at least will not be offended if I discuss the ends of a few of his books.

 

“Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. ”

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As the cold air creeps into our homes, and the smell of pumpkin spiced confectioneries seems to permeate our everyday lives, I figured that today would be the perfect day to look back at a literary classic that is relevant to this very week (November 5th to be precise). It’s the story of a future Europe riddled with fascism and the one man (?) willing to try to change everything for the better. If that means razing it to the ground to start over, that’s par for the course for our hero. Of course, I’m talking about Alan Moore‘s dystopian masterpiece V for Vendetta.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Most of V for Vendetta originally appeared in black-and-white between 1982 and 1985, in Warrior, a British anthology comic published by Quality Communications. That publication went under in 1985, leaving the story unfinished. DC comics came to the fans rescue and encouraged Moore to complete his work, an act that seemed awesome at the time, but has led to years of litigation and sour grapes between the two parties. I’m not going to touch on that too much, but it’s hard to consider that if Moore had his way, V for Vendetta wouldn’t be the cultural lightning rod that it has become some 32 years after pen touched paper.

It’s hard to write about any version of V for Vendetta in 2014 without stumbling over many modern uses of it’s iconography, most notably with the modern anarchist-driven protest movements led by the self-styled “hacktivists” that go by the name Anonymous. It can be argued that they have slightly missed the point in their use of the iconic Guy Fawkes masks and other homages, but one cannot ignore their passion for their hero – the antihero named V. Artist David Lloyd has been quoted saying: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.

Protesters Camp Out In Front Of European Central Bank

Before I get too far, I wanted to drag out my soap box for a minute. Notice, I said “literature” up there and not dismissive things such as “comic book” or “graphic novel”, because, as pretentious as this must sound, I feel that this is one of the many examples of sequential art that can easily be considered a classic of modern literature. Even today, comics somehow still have a near hundred year old stereotype as either a silly or childish storytelling medium. This is, of course, the established art community trying to resist new mediums, much in the same way that video games get the cold shoulder by critics and art lovers alike. I challenge anyone to hold in one hand a popular book such as 50 shades of Gray and in the other a copy of V for Vendetta and come to the conclusion that the former is in some way a better piece of literature. Just because something has pictures in it, it doesn’t immediately mean it’s inferior. Love him or hate him, Alan Moore has been one of the few comic writers to break this elitist barrier and gain even the slimmest amount of recognition by the non-comic media.

The story of this book is pretty complex, but it mostly boils down to the story of a girl named Evey Hammond, and how a chance encounter with a domestic terrorist (or a freedom fighter?) changed her life. It’s Bonfire Night in London in the far off future year of 1997 (I always love joking about dates in sci-fi, don’t mind me). A down on her luck young girl named Evey has resorted to prostitution due to her inability to find a job, and makes the mistake of soliciting men who are undercover members of the state secret police, called “The Finger.” These men plan, not to arrest her, but to rape and kill the poor girl until a cloaked figure calling himself V steps in and takes care of the situation. V is a well-spoken, seemingly intellectual, anarchist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, a long black coat, and a tall old-timey hat, all fashioned to look like the infamous Guy Fawkes. What follows is the story of how V slowly dismantles a fascist regime through both ideas and bloodshed.

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The backdrop for this dark world revolves around uprising of the villainous white supremacist group Norsefire. Sometime in the late 1980’s there was a large-scale nuclear war that ravaged the Earth, and while Britain was unscathed physically, it led to economic and social scars. After something like 5-6 years of lawlessness and rioting, a group stepped up with claims that they could bring stability back to Europe, this was of course with a cost. Norsefire implemented a by-the-numbers Orwellian nightmare upon the populace including mass surveillance and re-education campaigns. Racial and political cleansing was soon instituted, leaving most of the populace afraid to do anything that would remotely put themselves on the state’s radar.

To understand how Moore thought up Norsefire, one has to look back at the British political climate in the early 1980’s. Many were scared that the conservative ideas of politicians such as Margaret Thatcher were leading towards the acceptance of ideals usually held by radical groups such as The National Front and The British National Party. These groups were after political offices, and many felt that any success they might have would pave the way for something akin to Nazi Germany. As a result, many anti-fascist and anarchist groups popped up to “fight” the dangerous ideologies behind these Nationalistic parties, and it seems Alan Moore was very active in those scenes. Alan Moore was interviewed back in 2000 by a site called Blather about his creation of Norsefire, and here is a snippet about what he had to say:

“Well, exactly. You know, like originally, when I thought “Oh, I’ll make fascists the villains,” it was precisely so that I could sort of do a bit of propaganda, I mean, remember at the time I think I was still – I mean, this was 1981? 1980-81? – I mean, I was still involved with Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, things like that – but it doesn’t do anybody any service to actually just do a load of cartoon Nazis, you know, with funny monocles and cigars and accents […] they’re just caricatures. “Ve ask ze questions”, you know? Whereas in fact fascists are people who work in factories, probably are nice to their kids, it’s just that they’re fascists. [Laughs]. They’re just ordinary. They’re the same as everybody else except for the fact that they’re fascists. Like, in order to really -I mean, I’ve read somewhere that – I’m sure I’m not going to get this exactly right but the basic quote is something like – “Total understanding is total love.” It’s something [like that] or vice-versa. ”

V-for-Vendetta-2

One of the more refreshing things about the character V is that he is no hero. In fact, he does some pretty deplorable things in order to further his cause. I liken him to other villain-protagonists like Dexter, Light from Death note, or even Tony Soprano. In the comic at least, it becomes pretty evident that V’s time in the Norsefire concentration camp system may have shattered his mind completely. As readers, we are challenged to determined if he is sane or psychotic, hero or villain, due to his morally ambiguous acts. At one point he goes as far as torturing one of the former guards of Larkhill concentration camp in just about one of the most messed-up ways imaginable.

The man, Lewis Prothero, was once the site Commander of the camp, and was promoted to a role not unlike that of a news pundit. He basically takes information from a state computer system and broadcasts it to the masses. V kidnaps Prothero from a train and dresses him up in old Larkhill clothes. Prothero wakes up, and very quickly is driven insane by a combination of an overdose of the same drugs that were used to experiment on V and the shock of seeing his prized doll collection burned in a mock recreation of mass killings of camp detainees that he oversaw. Usually when V does stuff like this, he is seen wearing a more grotesque mask that is similar to a clown.

V-for-Vendetta-1

I actually plan on reviewing the 2005 film based on this comic, but I do want to point out that much of V’s “dark side” is absent from the movie version of the character. We do see him getting revenge on folks, but it’s in a borderline heroic way. Many see the film, and do not realize that there is a duality to the character that makes him very unlikable at times. For example, V’s entire reason for taking Evey in was to use her to get at a priest known to be a pedophile (Evey is only sixteen in the book), one can assume that she was going to be left to get raped and killed along with the priest, that is had everything gone to plan. This is one reason I mentioned the misguided idolization by internet hackers earlier – to them V is a modern hero, but the book says otherwise. To V the ends justify the means, and he is just as willing to inflict all manner of atrocity to end the reign of the Norsefire leadership. The only difference is that V is willing to die, and has no plan to lead if he meets his goals.

Moore later revisited this idea with another character in his book The Watchmen. One could say that the character Ozymandias is the main villain of the piece, but when you think about what he actually did it becomes a gray area that involves testing your own morality. Ozymandias did commit mass murder on a terrible scale, but he was working towards a “good” result. He planned to stage an alien invasion to bring the world together and stop an impending a nuclear holocaust. It could be argued that in by blowing up cities such as New York City and Paris he actually saved billions of people that would have died otherwise. Then again, some of the best villains in fiction are heroes in their own story, and are only bad to us because we don’t agree with their methods.

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The edition of V for vendetta that I am using for this review happens to be one of the trade paperback editions released in the 2000’s prior to the release of the theatrical film. Between issues of the 10 comics, there are a handful of “making of” vignettes and other extras that are pretty entertaining. I’m unaware if these were part of the original DC run, or if they were added when the comics were grouped together as a trade paperback, but their inclusion is still very nice. Since the comic was originally black an white in Warrior, a lot of the first chapters are pretty drab despite being in color. In a way this adds to the dystopian feel of everything as it seems like everything is always dark, dingy, and sick in some way. With such a text heavy script, David Lloyd was able to create panels that were both exciting and somehow action-packed even when very little action was going on. The griminess somehow makes the art age better than some other 80’s comics. Even classics like The Watchmen seem older in comparison. Compared to another text heavy comic such as The Dark Knight Returns, with it’s multitude of “talking head” panels, this was a breath of fresh air.

I think a copy of V for Vendetta should be on the bookshelf of most comic fans, and read alongside many other subversive classics like Orwell’s Ninteen-Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book is a challenge to anyone used to the typical hero vs. villain motif seen in most fiction, and plays up things like moral ambiguity. This isn’t a story of “The Government” vs “Freedom” like some would like for you to believe, that’s too simplistic. This is the story of how we rationalize things that could be seen as heinous, even evil, if it means a greater goal can be reached. Do the ends really justify the means? If that means that we’re better off with a draconian fascist police state, that’s one option that a character like Detective Finch strives for. If that means we’re better off with freedom through anarchy, that’s yet another option that V stands for. This book is the key to keeping someone from looking at things in a truly dualistic manner (i.e. “good” vs “evil”) and to see all of the factors that go into the choices one makes. Think of what the mask represents – the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mercenary that tried to kill King James and his full parliament on that fateful day over 400 years ago, to some he was a hero, and to others a terrorist.

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