A long time ago, I was flicking through the books on my parents’ shelves when I found a comic. This was a surprise, because my parents generally read Serious Grown-up Novels, and this comic didn’t seem very grown-up at all. It had magic and sword-fighting in it, not to mention some pretty graphic bloodshed. There was one image in particular which was so stomach-churning that I had to skip past it every time – although I would always take a moment to peer at it round the edge of the page, testing how much I could handle.
One of the less blood-spattered panels
I read the comic over and over. It was set in ancient Scotland, and told the story of a general who received a prophecy from three witches that he would one day rule the kingdom. Consumed with ambition, he killed the king and took his place, going on to kill (there was a lot of killing) anyone he thought might suspect the truth. In the end he was killed by the rightful heir to the throne, and the very last picture showed the three witches dancing around his gravestone.
As you might have guessed, the comic was called Macbeth, and according to the spine it had been written by someone called William Shakespeare. I decided that Mr Shakespeare was a great illustrator, but that his writing could do with some work. The speech bubbles were mostly very long, with a lot of difficult phrases I didn’t understand.
As a result, I wasn’t really reading at all the first few times. Just flicking through and following the story from the pictures. But inevitably, those words started to get into my head.
‘Stars, hide your fires!’
‘Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.’
‘Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?’
These images became just as vivid for me as the pictures were – and the story came alive all over again.
I think this was the best way I could possibly have discovered Shakespeare. Because unlike a stage production or a film, a comic lets you absorb the story at your own pace. You can take your time over things you don’t understand; you can skip forward and skip back. Thanks to the pictures, I could literally see how scary and sad it was that Macbeth started out as a good man but became a monster by the end. The pictures gave me a way into the text.
There are lots of excellent adaptations of classics in comic form around these days (for Shakespeare, take a look at http://www.graphicshakespeare.com/ or http://www.mangashakespeare.com/). Macbeth will always be the one I love best, though. And whenever someone mentions the Scottish Play, this brooding face, with those sinister purple eyes, will always be the first thing I think of.
Fear not, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane...
Conrad Mason’s first children’s novel, The Demon’s Watch, is out in March 2012 and features goblins, pirates, magic and skulduggery. You can follow him on twitter – @conradwrites – and you can find him on facebook here!