Manga Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

A comic review article by: Penny Kenny
The plot of Twelfth Night is, for the most part, light and improbable. After Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria, she disguises herself as a boy and becomes a servant to the Duke Orsino, who is in love with the beautiful Olivia. However, Olivia spurns the Duke's affections and falls in love with the disguised Viola. Meanwhile Olivia's cousin, the opportunistic Toby Belch, and her maid Maria plot the downfall of the steward Malvolio.

This plot relies on the characters falling in love at first sight and then being incredibly dense and fickle. However, that's part of its charm.

In this manga version in which the main couples all seem to be in their late teens or early twenties, the story plays out much more realistically than when watching older actors in the roles. After all, the age group shown in this adaptation is noted for sudden enthusiasms and inexperience.

Teen girls will be able to identify with Viola and Olivia who can't get the guy they really want to pay attention to them. While Orsino is a bit of a drip--could he just take "No" for an answer already?--by the end of the story, he has grown up enough to be worthy of the more mature Viola.

This version of Shakespeare’s play is the first that has had me as interested in the Malvolio subplot as I am in the main story. There's no hiding the fact that Malvolio is a bit full of himself, but there's also a real sense of nastiness in the way Sir Toby and Maria deal with him. Again, that plays into the strong sense of justice and retribution teens have.

Richard Appignanesi retains the familiar text with what appears to be very few abridgements. A line here or there is missing from some speeches, but the meaning and beauty of the dialog remains intact. It has to be difficult to decide what stays and what goes--especially when dealing with the institution that is Shakespeare--but Appignanesi does a fine job, as all the scenes and dialog flow smoothly.

Nana Li's art reminds me of the style Tania Del Rio used for her manga version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It's shojo complete with impressionistic panels decorated with flowers and sparkles to denote emotional states. However, it's adapted to a more compact format--giving it a brisker, mainstream comic feel.

The characters are easily identifiable at a glance. Li is careful to give them all distinct looks. Whoever came up with the idea of including the colored, introductory insert that attaches a name to the face of each character deserves a bonus. It makes the volume more reader-friendly by giving readers a chance to "meet" the characters before tackling the prose.

I do to wonder, though, whether Li is a fan of Haru Sohma of the Fruits Basket manga. With his long, fur-collared coat and melancholy countenance, Duke Orsino bears a bit of visual resemblance to that tormented character.

While not a great deal of page space is devoted to the physical setting, the backdrop of 1930s steampunk allows Li to throw in a couple of nice aerial battle flashbacks that flesh out the background of one of the supporting characters. More in evidence is the use of "Super Deformed" versions of the characters to create a comic moment.

In Super Deformed style, the artist draws the character as short and cute, a bit like "Hello Kitty." Li uses this convention to great effect in several places. One of my favorites is the scene in which a disguised Viola tries to escape a love struck Olivia. Caught in the crushing embrace of the even tinier Olivia, the tiny Viola is adorable.

In a stunning two-page spread, a super-deformed Viola in glasses ponders the love triangle while around her gears turn, ropes entangle, Orsino broods, Olivia daydreams, and a normal-style Viola is caught between. Here the graphics and words combine to create a beautiful, sustained moment that couldn't be achieved on the stage.

Teens and older readers can enjoy Manga Shakespeare: Twelfth Night as a well-done adaptation of the classic romantic comedy, or just as a good story on its own.

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