I chose the American frontier circa 1759 (the same as in James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel, The Last of the Mohicans) as the setting for my graphic adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Fenimore Cooper’s novel is itself a great action-adventure page turner and thoroughly recommended, as is the movie version directed by Michael ‘Miami Vice’ Mann, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis.
So, why did I go for this particular solution?
Because it fit so darn well. And the more I researched and learnt about the time and place and peoples involved, the better and better it became.
The plot of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in a nutshell (or two)
In the original play by Shakespeare, an aging Lear seeks to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The eldest two have already been married off to the English Dukes, Albany and Cornwall. France and Burgundy, meanwhile, are suitors for the hand of his youngest – and favourite – Cordelia. Lear’s fatal mistake is to make a competition out of it – “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” When Cordelia refuses to play along, Lear casts her out.
A secondary plot complements this first: Edmund, the illegitimate son of one of Lear’s most trusted subjects, the Duke of Gloucester, strives to replace his brother Edgar in his father’s affections. In the same way, Regan and Goneril take full advantage of their sister Cordelia’s fall from grace – even so far as to challenge the king their father, Lear.
Shakespeare shows us how rights of succession may become perverted, through ambition, deceit and betrayal – leading to what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all: families as well as nations at war.
A Native American Lear
In this, our version, Lear is an aged Iroquois chieftain who divides his kingdom (by the marriage of his daughters) between the opposing colonialist forces of England and France. By rejecting Cordelia, given to France, he effectively throws his entire lot in with the English. The former balance of power he held is at an end. Lear has doomed not only himself, but also his people.
Not only is this entirely accurate to the original play, it is historical fact!
In the mid-Eighteenth century both England and France fought to expand their empires in the New World of North America, involving the native American Indians already living there. When the Iroquois tribes entered into a formal alliance with the English it spelled the end of New France, but also their own power base – making England the new masters of the North American continent.
There’s no way Shakespeare could have known this – he wrote the play 150 years earlier, in about 1605!
Wait! There’s more…
Further parallels soon cropped up, and they are no less striking:
> Famed fearsome warriors and skilled traders, the Iroquois were, first and foremost, farmers. The basis for their way of life was a triumvirate of agricultural crops – corn, beans and squash – also known as The Three Sisters. In Lear, we have the three sisters: Goneril, Regan, Cordelia! Fact!
> Iroquois creation myth centres around Twin Brothers. One is good, while the other is evil. This in turn relates to the brothers in Lear Edmund and Edgar (although they are merely half-brothers, and not twinned). Fact!
> It was the habit of colonial settlers to christen the lands they occupied with place names familiar from the homelands they had left behind (hence “New” York – formerly “New” Amsterdam, when it was Dutch – “New” Jersey, Birmingham; and so on). Locating the action of the play in lands once belonging to the Iroquois League entailed specific locations, in this case around Lake George (as it became known by the English; the French preferred it Lac Du Saint-Sacrement, or “Holy Lake”. The Indians may have originally called it the Horican.) Not too far away is the settlement town of Albany, and – oh look – the Duke of Albany is a character from Shakespeare’s play (he’s married to Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril) Fact!
> In Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans, most chapters begin with an epigram – a short literary quotation reflecting on the action, and a common feature in literature of the time. A great many of these incidental commentaries are taken from various plays of Shakespeare – including Lear, for Chapter XVI. So in one sense, by smooshing the words of one together with the flavour of another, we return the favour, tipping our hats to a fellow aficionado of the bard. Fact!
And, one last fact!
> It is generally believed that the Aborigines of the American continent have an Asiatic origin – their high cheekbones suggestive of Tartar heritage. Further, Fenimore Cooper himself writes (in his introduction to the 1831 edition of …Mohicans), “The imagery of the Indian, both in his poetry and oratory, is Oriental.” So what could be more fitting than a manga (a Japanese comic book idiom) featuring Native American Indians for its heroes and heroines!
Weird accidents of fate such as these are gifts just too good to pass up.
Here are early character sketches of principal players. Pinned up above my drawing board, these at-a-glance references helped me keep track of the various outfits of clothing, as well as primary (facial) characteristics.
Indian tribes often adopted captives (helping, in part, to keep their numbers up). Although neighbouring Huron were mortal enemies to the Iroquois League, I myself make Kent – Lear’s faithful old retainer, himself an elder statesman – a Huron, long since taken in by Lear.
King Lear himself begins in full ceremonial garb, not least a splendid eagle hat (his personal totem is an Eagle, and that of his tribe, Bear). He was probably an early trading partner of the colonials, so much of his “Sunday-best” outfit is made up of European clothing properly belonging to an earlier era (Queen Anne, circa 1710) – notionally, gifts from among the first explorers to his kingdom. Note, for instance, the buckled court shoes.
One early model for Lear was the Mohawk Sachem Theyanoguin, also called King Hendrick (although he was killed in battle in 1754). I adopted his prominent facial scar (to indicate Lear is an old warrior).
Also caught up in the struggle are the early colonial Americans – settlers and rangers in the Davy Crockett mould. Gloucester and his sons take on frontiersman roles analoguous to Natty Bumppo (no, really), aka Hawkeye, in Fenimore Cooper’s excellent Leatherstocking series, which includes Last of the Mohicans. In that book Hawkeye’s mission is to rescue two daughters belonging to a British Colonel, Munro – one of them, Cora, being mixed race (her mother most likely an African slave). For the sake of being transposed to the Lear plot, this pairing become instead sons to Gloucester himself. I preserve Cooper’s conceit that one has a black mother, as this best explains – within this period setting – why Edmund is seen as “illegitimate”.
In addition to pin-up sketches I prepared an entire “look book” for the adaptation, before daring to draw even the first page. From that, here is a look at just one page – ideas for characterising Lear’s eldest daughter Goneril. Note the clippings added (trigger images from various manga and anime – for inspiration!). Note also the concentration on how her eyes might look – the reader should always be sure of which character they are looking at, even in the closest of close-ups.
Um, ignore “Gonerilla”! (King Lear as Planet of the Apes?!)
The Three Sisters
What’s also great about the Iroquois notion of the Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash), is that each of them was taken to represent essential physical attributes:
corn – the chest or heart
beans – legs or else fingers, basically stamina or will
squash – the head, or sense
These in turn even accord with the individual character of each of Lear’s daughters:
Goneril – squash, as the scheming brain of the three
Regan – beans, as the action-girl, the strength or driving force
Cordelia – unquestionably, the heart
When it came to designing the colour section (character list), the first pages seen when you open up any Manga Shakespeare book, I took up the colour code suggested by these same crops (yellow, green, orange) – plus the opposing forces of Red (England) and Blue (France), much less natural shades within the landscape. You can also spot the same colour code in use on the cover design.
That’s it for now. Back to the drawing board!
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. You can read the first blog entry here. This is the second post of four.
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