King Lear – the production blog (3 of 4)


Drawing style

I deliberately don’t do shonen or shojo: the teenage market styles that so heavily characterise most of what we see of manga outside of Japan. There’s just so much more to manga – an entire comic-book medium or narrative form instead of any single illustration style.

For authentic Japanese manga styles quite unlike what is most often (mistakenly) taken to be the requisite look, I would point at both Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and Koike and Kojima’s Lone Wolf & Cub.

As editor of three volumes of Best New Manga, I took it upon myself to collect a wide range of international material within its pages, including – but not limited to – Japan. That same philosophy carries over into my own work.

Plus, I’m no teenager. I’m neither Japanese, nor pretending to be. Thus my manga looks like something unique to me, my own life experience, personal feelings and situation.

The strength of Manga Shakespeare is that, by its very nature (Shakespeare + Manga influence, and crafted by largely UK and UK-based creatives), the hybrid essence of the form is upfront and central to the look and appeal of this book series. Taken as a unit the titles look suitably varied.


And to quote the bard, “the play’s the thing”!

This is to some extent an old man’s play – in the same way that old folk like Placido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa would look ridiculous in the teen drama West Side Story, you can’t cast teens in many parts in King Lear, and certainly not the lead. Every actor limbers up throughout their stage or film career so that they might take on the grandaddy of all Shakespeare roles with sufficient life experience and gravitas. And hey, I’m now an old git – so I also suit this particular play!

Somehow though I feel it would be disingenuous to take the greatest tragedy ever written in the English language and make it about pretty girls and prettier boys, or including knockabout chibi style slapstick. Those are fine in their place, but that place isn’t here – at least not by my reckoning (you can pretty much take everything here as my opinion, no more and no less). Emma Vieceli carries it off in Hamlet, which, lest we forget, is about a younger man’s tragedies – whereas I don’t think I could carry that off on Lear.

There is still room for comedy even within a great tragedy (surely one aspect of Shakespeare’s greatness as a writer). Scenes within Lear are leavened by their comedy aspects or comic potential, and those follow through into our version here – but towards the end the laughter does come to a dead stop.



I did try to elongate the physique of my first character sketches (based more in the fashion-plate style of Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone, doyennes of children’s book illustration in the UK, than any attempt to look “more manga” – in the current sense most people understand that). This ploy soon dropped away, however. Required to produce pages at such speed (10 pages fully finished and toned per week, every week) I fell back into existing stylistic tips and habits that I’ve developed. No matter – manga to me is all about the narrative, the storytelling, and the surface style is almost by the by.

Digital vs. Manual

As an admirer of Rob Deas, artist on Macbeth – and with his help and advice – I spent some time considering the virtues of Syntec, a make of drawing tablet where you “draw” directly on the screen, rather than suffer the disassociation of hand to eye co-ordination as with previous models. After a few long, dark nights of the soul I elected not to take that leap – Old dog, new trick, no time in which to make any false starts. Still, that new tech was verrrry tempting.

So everything is hand-drawn. I’m not a very slick inker, feeling much more at home in pencil. Working fast with a range of Pitt artist pens (my favoured tool – they wear out almost instantly but are one of the few implements to suit the speed at which I draw and the weight of my hand), I tried to make a virtue out of my rough-house finish. Add to that the deliberate colour-separation look of the tone values, which again add to the deliberately untidy feel of more natural forms and textures – suitable to this, my chosen backwoods setting.



With a very few exceptions tone values throughout are limited to 10% and 40% black, and applied in Photoshop in layers. This is worth noting – any tone applied to your original art, whether mechanical or as here via computer, once pages have been scanned in, will gain by 10% when it appears in print. If you intend using 80% tones or above, you might as well revert to black!

This limitation to a single light and single darker value helps give the visual style some sense of integrity or a neat uniformity. I can’t easily express why it works – it just does. Simple solutions are often the best.

What you may notice is that the dot-separation effect is not applied across all tones. I try to make the European intruders (French and English forces) stick out in their surroundings, to suggest that they do not belong there. They should feel more artificial, not belonging to the rough finish and grit of nature – as the native American Indians (such as Kent) do, and likewise the colonial Americans (Gloucester). Characters living between both worlds, such as the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan, wear outfits that are a crazy patchwork mismatch of natural and artificial looking tones. Likewise the ceremonial wear Lear customarily sports – most likely European duds gifted by previous European contacts. Note also his buckled court shoes at the start.

Similarly, in the colour pages at the start the palette stays limited to shades of orange (squash), green (beans), and corn (yellow) – the hues most often seen in nature, and reflective of the Iroquoian “three sisters” (see previous blog entry). The Blue of the French and the Red of the English are intended to shout out as dyed fabrics, all European and sophisticated (ugh!)

As with the clothing, so tone values are also applied to suggest variation in skin colour between the three racial groups present (White, Black and “red” Indian). Black and Indian have tones applied, except where they are trying to become more European (again the sisters, probably wearing make-up or living a lot more indoors. I had originally intended toning them as full Indians and then working into it with white, but somewhere down the line forgot and added tones to their whiteness as form and shadow, as with the properly white characters: too bad. They are full-blood Indians, and not half-caste). If readers pick up on any of this, they will realise that Goneril’s servant Oswald is an Indian boy.

Check out what Albany thinks about some of that, in the fourth panel of page 78:


And that’s enough for now – if you want to see more of my drawings, buy the book already!

Next time, we’ll look at aspects of panel and page design – angle, layout, bleed, POV etc – and how these affect narrative.

You can buy a copy of King Lear from any good bookshop or comicshop nationwide. It is also available to buy online here in print and for the iPhone.


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 and second blog entries here and here. This is the third 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

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