Getting kids to read the classics can sometimes be a challenge, and these days, getting adults to read can be even more challenging! What writer Adam Sexton and his posse have done is to create a series of visually compelling versions of classic plays and novels in Manga form. Below, my interview with the author.
JD: The Manga Editions of literary classics—from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter—are utterly original. How did these books come about?
AS: I wish I could say the books were my idea, but in fact the project was the brainchild of an editor at John Wiley and Sons named Greg Tubach. To this day I’m not sure why he solicited me for the Shakespeare Manga series, though it may have been because at the time I taught writing and literature at an art school (Parsons).
Greg didn’t know much about manga himself, other than that the form was growing like crazy, nor did I. But a Japanese co-worker at the Park Slope Food Coop directed me to a Japanese language bookstore in midtown Manhattan, and a friend of mine from college introduced me to two teachers of comics at the School of Visual Arts: Matt Madden and Jessica Abel, who are well-known comics writers and artists in their own right. Matt and Jessica suggested former students who they thought would make good collaborators, and I began auditioning artists.
Over the course of the following two years I worked with five gifted comics artists (Candice Chow, Eve Grant, Yali Lin, Tintin Pantoja, and Hyeondo Park) to adapt four of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. I wrote scripts—screenplays, basically—that were scrupulously faithful to Shakespeare’s texts, only shorter, and the artists illustrated them. Wiley liked the results enough that they requested manga adaptations of The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, on which I collaborated with Yali and Hyeondo.
JD: Were you a comic book fan as a kid? Why do you think graphic novels have gained such popularity and such respectability in recent years?
AS: I’m ashamed to say that I read precisely one comic book as a kid. As fate would have it, though, it was the Classics Illustrated edition of Julius Caesar. Reading the comic got me so jazzed about Shakespeare that I pulled my parents’ four-volume edition of the plays from our living-room bookshelf and made my brothers perform the assassination scene with me. Then I dressed up as Julius Caesar for Halloween. I saw my first Shakespeare play—Julius Caesar—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years later, and I’ve been devoted to his work ever since. All thanks to comic books. Which was maybe the main reason I decided to participate in this project: I wanted kids to be able to have the same transformative experience I did with comics and Shakespeare.
Graphic novels are popular and have gained respectability recently because so many of them are so good. Alison Bechtel’s Fun Home was the best book of any kind that I read the year it came out.
JD: Tell us about your other books.
AS: My book Master Class in Fiction Writing (McGraw-Hill) offers instruction in fiction writing by means of great novels and short stories of the past and present. You really can learn how to write great characters by reading Jane Austen, learn story structure from Joyce, etc. Essentially, Master Class teaches you how to read like a writer. I’ve also edited three published anthologies: Love Stories, which is about tennis; Rap on Rap (hip-hop); and Desperately Seeking Madonna. I used to be a music critic.
JD: What is your writing practice like—specifically, how do you balance your job as a teacher with your work as a writer?
AS: Because I’m now in charge of the writing program in the adult-ed. division of NYU, teaching is the least of it—I’m sorry to say I teach only one class a week. In addition to my administrative job, I have a six-year-old son, Alexander, with whom I spend my weekends and most of my evenings. That leaves early mornings, which is when I write. Which is a challenge, since I am sooooo not a morning person.
JD: What's your greatest obstacle as a writer?
AS: Besides the morning thing? It’s hard to truly revise something, I find. I move a lot of commas around, but that’s not the same as revising, is it? And yet genuine revision is of course necessary.
JD: Is there a form or genre of writing you have always longed to explore but have yet to?
AS: I’ve never written a memoir—until now. I’ve written a hundred pages about something pivotal that happened to me when I was a teenager, and I hope to write a couple hundred more. Thanks for asking!
JD: For more on how to write your own classic, check out my writing site, http://www.bangthekeys.com and writing book, http://www.bangthekeys.com. And until next week, I leave you with the question, if you could take a beloved work of literature and turn it into a Manga edition or graphic novel, which would you choose and why?