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Transformers: Transforming the Classics

hinds_odysseyThe classics are deep, rich works of art that have many treasures to offer a reader. However, students don’t often encounter the classics by choice, and it seems increasingly rare for a young reader to fully experience the joys of a classic text when first they meet. I was one of the lucky ones who did enjoy them, and 
my mission now is to use art to show 
just how cool these stories actually are. When I hear, for instance, that my Odyssey not only got someone through Homer’s epic poem but that it also enabled the reader to really enjoy it and read more deeply into it, then I feel I’ve done something meaningful.

Pictures are the oldest form of communication, transcending language barriers. The comics medium involves pictures and words working together to create different effects than either could achieve alone. It offers many of the qualities of watching a play, yet readers get to slow down and appreciate the words at their own pace.

I want the words and pictures to be equal partners, so I abridge the text of the original work to achieve the right balance and keep the book to a reasonable length. I’m abridging some of the greatest authors of all time, though, so I have to do it thoughtfully! I want to cut only things that are unclear, repetitive, or nonessential. I look for ways to summarize passages visually. Often a single panel can suggest a lot — for example, the latter half of Act IV of Romeo and Juliet (which is about the preparations for an intended wedding between Juliet and Paris that never takes place) I was able to summarize on one double-page spread. I discuss many of these decisions in the author’s notes of each book.

It can be quite difficult to give the reader the same experience as the original texts via another medium with its different strengths and weaknesses. Pictures can quickly convey character and emotion, or transport the reader to exotic locations. On the other hand, they can be clumsy for conveying things like sound and subtle motion.

Sometimes I have to use different storytelling devices to achieve the same effect as the original. A memorable example is in The Odyssey, when Odysseus is reunited with his dog, Argos, who has been faithfully awaiting his return for almost twenty years. This is arguably the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole story, and I wanted it to be just as powerful in my version. But it turned out to be very difficult to convey gracefully the moment when Argos, having recognized that his master has returned at last, contentedly dies. The transition from almost-dead to actually dead was too subtle to convey clearly in pictures alone, without using a cartoony device (such as Xs for eyes) or intruding with narration, either of which would have ruined the emotional tone. So in that case I decided to add something that wasn’t in the original: Athena appearing to lift Argos’s young spirit out of his old body and take him away, perhaps to Mount Olympus.

Here’s one more example, from my current project — a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems. Poe uses a tremendously high ratio of narration to dialogue, so in most cases I chose to include narration as well. But to convey the total darkness of the cell in “The Pit and the Pendulum,” I found it more effective to remove the narration. I show ghostly images of the prisoner feeling his way around the cell in silence, as opposed to using completely dark panels with added narrative description. When the cell is illuminated later in the story, the narration returns, to simulate the return of sight.

In my job, every day brings challenges and opportunities like these, and that’s a big part of what keeps me fascinated with the comics medium itself — and using it to transform the classics.

From the May/June 2015 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Transformations.

About Gareth Hinds

Gareth Hinds’s latest book is Macbeth (Candlewick).

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