King Lear – the production blog (1 of 4)

Several years ago we asked comic creator Ilya to keep a production journal of the time he spent creating his graphic adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear for us. We’ve decided to re-post each of his four entries. The first blog entry isn’t illustrated (for reasons that will become apparent) but the following three all feature many ‘Work in Progress’ images and finished pages from the final book.

Why are we re-posting now?

Firstly, because Ilya gave a genuine insight into his creative process and it’s as good today as it was then. Secondly, we hope they might inspire some younger creators to create something. Finally, the posts were languishing at the back of a dusty cupboard on the interwebs, where they were buried. They were too good for that, we hope you’ll agree.

Currently, Ilya is helping us edit Swava Harasymowicz‘s Sigmund Freud case study, The Wolf Man, which will be published in February 2012. He also appears as an artist in our beautiful graphic anthology of London stories, It’s Dark in London, out in April 2012.

– SelfMadeHero, August 2011

A while ago now I was asked to make (and keep updated) a creative blog while at the same time preparing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear for the Manga Shakespeare series. That work’s been happening these last months, and was recently completed for publication come May 2009. I wasn’t able to do anything but scribble madly at the time, but now, during this interim period between my downing drawing tools and the actual manga itself coming out, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share various bits of the process with y’all.

So here comes a blog about adapting King Lear into manga, which we’ll aim to update regularly with both words and images until it is done.

– Ilya, March 2009

When an adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy into manga was first mooted, I started out by looking over the original text, and then trying to imagine the best and most dramatic way in which to play it. I originally studied King Lear in school, at A-level, and fondly recalled the play that I had enjoyed the challenge of so much, lo those many moons ago. Thus, in fairly short order, I came up with over a dozen very different possible scenarios in which the central action could take place.

Setting the scene

What follows is an edit of the very same text document I prepared when first talking with Emma Hayley, the publisher. If you’ve looked at any of the pre-publicity for the book then you will already know the concept that we soon settled on. And if you haven’t done that yet, then DON’T – read through the following options first and think about which would be your own favourite choice.

Next time, I’ll reveal the concept that won out as most suitable for all concerned – and tell you more about that crucial setting, including why it works so well.

King Lear – possible treatments for a Manga Shakespeare

First off, what are the overarching themes of the play?

It famously features (a rage-like) madness, extremes of emotion – both calm, and storm (a reflected and elemental fury – what scholars have termed “pathetic fallacy”). The storm scenes are widely known as the drama’s central setpiece, so one important aspect is to consider how best to stage them.

Another favourite element everyone tends to remember is the character of the Fool. So, who would play the Fool? How, and why?

Actually, when it came to re-reading the play, and even doing a quick run-through with other members of my family taking on the various parts during the Christmas of 2007 – with the aid of a plastic retractable stage-dagger and a pair of joke eyeballs, no less – I was surprised to notice how much the characters of Kent and Edmund came to the fore. They get a lot of the most significant lines.

The main action of the play – like many others, not least from Shakespeare – can be characterised as a portrait of the passing of an era. We are witness to the rapacious ambition of youth versus age; wisdom, folly, and betrayal. The play dramatises the loss of the old ways before the incursion of the new – also a common theme of Studio Ghibli anime such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, etc. A good fit for manga!

There are further practical concerns to bear in mind when it comes to the staging: I have to consider what it is that I most want to draw (I’m no fan of buildings or cars, for instance), and balance that against what will speak loudest to the Manga Shakespeare audience. Beyond them, I also bear responsibility toward attracting the widest possible audience amongst a more general readership – those who are not necessarily already familiar with manga, or even Shakespeare; ordinary folks, parental units, teachers, indeed anyone just wandering about in the bookstore looking for some entertainment, who might notice the cover, have a browse, and be encouraged to take a punt. To that end, I examine the potential of the play set against our current or imminent cultural concerns – in short, what about it speaks to the average modern reader (if such a creature exists). After all, we want the book to sell!

But most of all dammit, what would be the most fun…

So here are some possible ways to play Shakespeare’s King Lear as a manga.

1) Suits – Salaryman-style, set the action in the corporate world of big business – tackling the hierarchical savagery of an office and office politics. Commercial warfare becomes literal – boardroom battles over stocks and shares fought with fountain-pen stabbings, briefcase batterings.

Edmund, Regan, Goneril etc (the villains) appear as ambitious young executives (yuppies), the rampant individualistic market forces of modernism. The lures and trappings of consumer society are shown equivalent to a breakdown of morals and responsibility (“There is no such thing as society”), heading increasingly toward a media feeding-frenzy / cult of celebrity: the end of art and culture, ground beneath the philistine heel of commerce. What ends up destroyed are the blood relationships and fealty of family. Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.

Is the fool a street tramp? Lear likewise reduced to a beggar? In a world of ruthless “survival of the fittest” economics, the mighty storm could be a looming recession.

(and hey, present moment Blog-me speaking here, I was thinking all of this well before the recession everyone is now talking about actually hit. Damn! Um, Emma? Can we scratch what we’ve done and start over? No? Well, OK – as you’ll hopefully see, these same themes are all there in the play regardless of how explicitly they are brought forward when staged. That Shakespeare, you know, he was a clever bloke.)

One further embellishment would be to turn up the dial on this to a metaphorical extreme – Modern primitive (Robert Longo paintings, Terry Gilliam’s Crimson Assurance, Conan the Accountant). Skyscrapers could become ziggurat-like modern temple edifices (Blade Runner / modern Mayan, complete with bloody sacrifice, such as that of Gloucester), a terrifying hell where City-shark arguments are still settled by sword and axe.

1A) need it be more down to earth? It could parallel the breakdown of a Tesco-type business empire – trucking goods, import export wheeler-dealing, and/or supermarket scale economics? It could include all of the multiple octopus arms of a national or international corporation; or, filmmaker Ken Loach (Riff Raff) style, rival builders’ firms in the construction industry? Or else smaller scale big business like a supermarket / precinct in a small isolated town – Lear as head / respected pillar of local community?

1B) We could set the play within an immigrant community that is busily assimilating, and thus where the succeeding generations are divided – a Brick Lane level small-time supermarket family, perhaps Bengali. Think East is East, or My Beautiful Launderette. High street Lear.

1C) Lear is a farm supplier, and thus thematically it is the old ways of agriculture versus the new? Or is their trade in a shift between livestock and crops (as forced on farmers by central government)? Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Erk, no! It’s The Archers!

CONS: This would all work fine thematically, but the slick big-business angle would possibly involve drawing all of the stuff that I find hard – right angles, dizzying perspectives, buildings, vehicles etc – and yet, and yet, am equally fascinated by… hmmm!

How about I do layout/breakdowns for a finishing artist? Who would that be?

(See, I got really carried away by that one, so it makes for a close contender…)

2) The Last Samurai – Japan circa the 1860’s, the ceremony and rhythms of the Edo court giving way before encroaching western influence.

3) The French Revolution –  The Aristocracy versus the Revolutionaries, Firebrands and Peasants – political backstabbing and literal stabbings, (David’s) murder in the bathtub, bloody guillotine executions etc Cordelia as Marie Antoinette? And Regan / Goneril as Liberty on the barricades, or else shroud-knitting Madames.

CONS: due to modern sympathies falling with the revolutionary side, may have to attempt playing it in reverse

3A) Try the Russian Revolution – Lear as Tsar Nicholas, Cordelia Anastasia, Rasputin is the Fool! The noble aristos are of course plotting, alongside uniformed Admirals and Generals etc but they all are overtaken by the peasant, worker and soldier revolutionaries – modern technology encroaches, industry as revolution sweeping all before it. Battleship Potemkin.

Hmm, look at the ambition and failure to engage of Steamboy.

CONS: Steampunk is so not me

4) Dynastic succession – Greek Gods of Mount Olympus (displaced by what?)

No, rather, the earliest and most primal forces of all – elemental – were the Titans, displaced by the next generations, their own offspring, the smaller and sleeker Gods (so Chronos gives way to Zeus), and the new and refined classical world they bring in their wake. Lear is Saturn or Chronos, an elemental giant, his palace of mud, earth and rocks – his goddess daughters and their husbands classical beauties, small in stature by comparison (except perhaps for Cordelia, a taller and more primitive looking throwback, which is in reverse of her customary portrayals as a great beauty). They live among the clouds on Olympian peaks, in heavenly temple grandeur. Lear and Cordelia would tower over the others, maybe shrinking or brought low as their power is stolen from them, or else swelling with rage etc

This would be excellent fun to draw : spontaneous living shadow and blackness, flame, ice, crags, seas, the centre and origins of the Universe played out according to the expenditure of mighty and godlike emotions (in the storm it’s Lear who literally generates the thunderbolts?). Play it on the level of Ur myth – William Blake paintings, Gustave Dore etchings. The economies of scale and vast differences, look to the sort of stuff almost impossible to do except in comics: the Fool as a buzzing annoyance no bigger than an earworm, a gnat; centaurs etc Gloucester as a Cyclops (what about his sons Edgar/Edmund?). Listen to the music of Shriekback as a possible soundtrack: big black Nemesis, parthenogenesis (virgin birth: fashioned from clay). Bodypainting, woad, dyes and daubs…

ART: Early colour pages – a rocky colour midtone with chalky white highlights and lowlights (under black line? Lose the line?). Some drawing on greytone layers in B+W pages, mix in the new gods a la Greek black pottery. “Here’s one I made, ur-Lear.”

5) Lear as Geronimo, and the last hurrah of the Native American Indians, reduced from Wild West warriors sweeping free across the plains to broken men confined to the reservation; a King in name only, the war already lost. Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are cast as Indian princesses, of which the evil pairing are the more westernised (with white husbands?), and only Cordelia is a moccasin wearing plains princess, the traditionalist. Who among them is pure bred, and who the half-breeds?

Gloucester is the white face of the old West, Buffalo Bill, with his warring sons (Edgar/Edmund) as gun-slinging outlaw cowboys, dressed in black hat and white hat. The French as interloping forces (were they with Cordelia, or against?) (they are her suitors in actual fact, so, with) – the railroaders and cattle-barons with their vaunting ambitions are catalysts for rapid change, advancing their sweeping incursions across both the disappearing natural landscape and its native peoples. The Fool meanwhile could be a Native American holy fool, or contraire; one who does everything backwards. (I later googled and found the term for this: Heyoka. Look it up!)

5A) Dial that back to an earlier era of invasion and displacement along the American frontier – The Last of the Mohicans – or even earlier, The New World and the Pocahontas/John Smith era? Or even earlier back:

5B) Conquistadors in central south America, extinguishing Mayan or Incan cultures

6) Future primitive – Mad Max post-apocalyptic barbarian?

CONS: done for The Tempest? (this was before I had seen Paul Duffield’s version, and it isn’t really like that)

7) Egyptian dynasty of the Nile valley versus the Romans? Biblical era Egypt.

8 ) Look at the films A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I’m Going – try for a Powell and Pressburger sense of olde England, the pastoral community passing and being broken up by rapacious modern ambition, and/or wartime

9) Sunset Boulevard – The age and looks of old Hollywood glamour is lost to the ravages of celebrity gossip culture – plastic surgery, age versus youth, the fears of aging.

10) A pan-African kingdom – either tribal and semi-primitive, or else Taylor-era Liberia complete with the horrors of child soldiers and the evil complicity of the western nations etc (America? In the play it is France and England)?

Equally as much, it could be Pol Pot or Kim Jong-il or any other far eastern dictator in the role of Lear…

CONS: better suited to a military scenario? Thus save it for Titus Andronicus or Coriolanus

So there you go. Plenty to chew on. Hopefully what you can take away from this is the sheer breadth of possibilities that the transformation (or staging) of the original text allows for. It was always intended to be acted, staged, played, never to be simply read as inert on the page – unless made into manga, which so suitably brings it all to life. As you can see from my thought processes, laid bare to you here, I have a major interest in both history, and ancient as well as modern cultural shifts.

When seeking inspiration for your manga always look well beyond the realms of other mangas and anime that already exist, however much you might love them – look also to movies, music, other kinds of comic, reality, fantasy, anything and everything. The whole wide world is your oyster, hell, the universe, and not just this here universe but any and all others. The only limit is to your imagination (which means there should be no limits at all; and the more stuff you know about, the more variants you will be able to imagine.)

Tune in next time to learn more about the chosen scenario we went for…


Ilya’s adaptation ‘King Lear’ is available to buy here in print and here for the iPhone.

The production blog continues tomorrow (16th August) on the SelfMadeHero blog.

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