Bang! Pow! Zwounds!: Richard III as "Graphic Novel"

Editor's Note: Once again, I'm adapting personal email into 'blog posts. I shall mutlti-task, and you shall dig it. This comes out of a discussion with a director friend of mine who was tasked with considering a production of Richard III based on a graphic-novel approach.

So: "a pre-1700's graphic novel story," eh? First of all: Do we mean a graphic novel written and drawn in the "pre-1700s"? A graphic novel setin the "pre-1700s"? And why the "pre-1700s"? Do we set Richard the Three in 1699, or Roman-occupied Ireland, or dare we make it 1485? {Ed.: I've since learned that the particular audience in discussion rejects any Shakespeare set later than that as being too much a departure from historical accuracy. Hilarious.} But my greater confusion here is what on earth we mean by "graphic novel." That's a little bit like saying, "Let's produce a Richard the Third like a pre-1700s movie story." Graphic novels are a medium about as varied as cinema.

But not everyone knows that, and were I to assume (thereby making an ass out of you and ume) a thing or two, I might assume we mean a sort of highbrow comicbook approach. Somehow. Which is still about as clear as the mud from which one might need a horse in order to extricate oneself.

My assumption however is based on the following facts:

  • The most commercially viable and well-known printed graphical storytelling of the prior and current centuries has been "comic books"; and
  • "Graphic novels" is a popular term for comic books when you're trying to lend them prestige, or raise people's opinions of them from out of the pulp.

The term "graphic novels" also frequently refers to works that have a little more length or over-arcing story to them than some, but that usage is a little reductive as it implies all "graphic novels" were written in one go (like a novel) when in fact the majority were originally published in a serial manner. Comic books, in other words, then collected into the so-called graphic novel.

So what are we to do with a concept based on highbrow comicbooks? In short (HA HA HA) there are too many different kinds of graphic novels to know what we mean when we use that ill-defined term, and the differences traverse everything from art to layout to content. A few varietals:

  • Maus - seminal in raising the reputation of comicbooks; it casts mice as Jews and cats as Nazis in a true story of one family's experience of the Holocaust
  • The Dark Knight Returnsand Watchmen - in a fit of zeitgeist, Frank Miller and Alan Moore both eschew/satirize the bubblegum aesthetic of superhero comics; Miller by taking a classic hero and giving him hard-boiled moral ambiguity, and Moore by taking superhero archetypes and subjecting them to a dystopian environment and socio-political realities
  • From Hell - Alan Moore here again, this time writing an exhaustively long "graphic novel" that delves into one possible explanation for the identity of Jack the Ripper
  • Sandman - what began as a pitch by Neil Gaiman to revitalize some of DC Comics' forgotten characters evolved into an epic story with a beginning, middle and end that chronicles the king of dreams (and his family: Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Destruction and Delirium [formerly Delight]) whilst tying in extensive details from the world's mythology, literature and religion

And those are fairly conventional examples, as far as just form goes.

I suppose the thing I can't quite wrap my mind around yet is why exactly to apply this concept to this particular work of Shakespeare's. As I see it, there are other plays of his - even other Histories - that might be better fits.

Henry V is a pretty good Superman/superhero analogue. Hell, the Henry VIs have those constant turn-overs that would make pretty interesting structure for exploring "serialized" storytelling on stage. Richard III may be episodic enough for serialized storytelling, if that's the angle, but I can't quite make it work without adding layers.

Recently it has been tremendously popular to adapt graphic novels into movies and, even more recently, television. The Walking Dead, for example, is an on-going serialized story that's perfect for television. But they also adapted Watchmen into a film, which tried to do too much and with so much flash that the vital humanity of the story was lost. Even Ang Lee made a superhero movie with the first Hulk Hollywood blockbuster, which in my opinion is practically a lesson in what elements NOT to take from graphic storytelling when adapting from it.

When they go wrong, what many adaptions have done is adhered too closely either to the content or the form of graphic storytelling (or both). When a graphic-novel story is transported cross-media, it's an injustice not to re-conceive at least a little. Two Frank Miller comics have been adapted into what most consider to be quite successful movies - his Sin City and 300 - and both with a keen eye on staying loyal to the aesthetic of the source material. I would argue, however, that as graphically similar as these movies are to the artwork from which they came, they are in fact very thoroughly re-imagined into a cinematic landscape. Miller went on to direct his version of The Spirit, which copped Sin City's look and failed miserably, lacking the originality of the other two adaptations.

Graphic novels, or comicbooks, work because of the spaces between the panels and how our minds fill those in. They give you some of the interpretive freedom of books or radio, with more of the visual fireworks of TV or film. It takes a certain amount of mental coding to read them, but that can be learned intuitively, and when a good unity between the words, layout and illustrations can be achieved, the story-telling is enhanced.

Simply sliding that on top of a film, the languages do not converse. Movies are all about seeing change, seeing it very closely. Just because one of the steps to creating them involves story-boarding doesn't mean that a medium that utilizes frames and composition will automatically translate. You're still filling in the white spaces. You're still animating the iconic.

When it comes to adapting a live show into a "graphic novel" context, there are a few examples from which to pull, but most of them take a fairly satirical (or lightly tongue-in-cheek) slant and have more to do with traditional superhero comics than more varied graphic storytelling. I was in a production of Stand-Up Tragedy in college for which the director brought the main character's comicbook imagination somewhat to life on stage with enormous puppet cut-outs, but that was for one sequence only and functioned rather more as a simple staging element than as anything functional.

Vampire Cowboys here in New York have done many a popular show using comicbook tropes, but these are largely original productions and focus on the combat elements (not a bad notion at least by the end of Richard III). I don't know of any examples specific to only the medium itself - not the characters within them, for example.

So anyway: why Richard III in this context? Perhaps we are thinking of him as a character similar to superheroes like Marvel's X-Men mutants, who are ostracized and persecuted for being different, said difference being what makes them special and powerful? Perhaps Richard's story is episodic enough to remind of serialized story-telling - there is a strong procession of scenes of mounting ambition and stakes. Perhaps we're thinking aesthetically of something that utilizes iconography, or stained-glass windows, both of which comic books owe something to.

Yet in discussing all this, what I'm struck by is a very different idea. Richard III reminds me of nothing so much as the trend in television over the last five years or so for highly successful, critically acclaimed shows to feature a main character who is morally flawed. Don Draper of Mad Men is a philanderer, Walter White of Breaking Bad is someone we've watched become (or simply come into being) a ruthless criminal, Dexter is a fracking serial killer, and a host of other shows have followed suit - Damages, Boss, etc. In other words, tragedy makes for great television. In terms of a contemporary hook for RIII, that's where my mind goes. Those shows are incredibly effective, and we root for some of the worst characters in them the hardest. Did this begin with Tony Soprano, or Richard the III?

I have no ideas, however, about how to invite those influences on a production. That's an entirely other conversation. One we should have soon!


I can't get down with the word "weekend." Try as I might, my preference in calendars makes me see them as "week bookends." On top of that (or perhaps because of that...?) Sunday usually feels in whole or in part like the start of a new week to me. It's amazing the way that eighteen years of habitual schedule can influence us -- I still get the equivalent of incomplete-homework dread at some point come Sunday.

My weekend past was a very full one, and full too of creative influences that I feel compelled to share and thereby digest in full. Chronologically, then: Friday night

Friend Patrick

came out to Queens and had dinner and discussion with

Wife Megan

and me. Saturday I was up early for acupuncture (during which I fell asleep and dreamt; a first for me), browsed my way through the city and found but did not purchase my new computer and desk, then at night saw a live performance by

Break of Reality

, who were promoting sales of their new CD. Promoting successfully, in my case. Saturday night, too, there was much dreaming. Finally, Sunday, W.M. and I roused ourselves in time for

a great brunch

with Friend Geoff in the West Village, had a bit of a scenic walk and then attended the much-anticipated musical adaptation of


. The weekend wound down with drinks at

a bar

where a friend was DJ'ing, then home for dinner and a late bedtime.

I'm suffering a little this morning from all that activity and the lateness of last night's hour but: goodness, was it ever worth it.

I often lament the lack of cultural occasion I have time for. If it were up to me, I would have seen every off-Broadway show of the past ten years. It is ultimately up to me, of course, but I prioritize things such as food, or sleep. Such is the weakness of my artistic appetite. It feels wonderfully fulfilling, then, when I have a weekbookend like this last, more full of creative experiences than of errand and obligation. Perhaps nothing specific will come of it all, but you never know. Every experience feeds into the cauldrons of our minds, to pop up at the most unexpected moments, and the dinner with Patrick is just as likely to influence my next acting role or writing as is the one play I've seen in months. It is certain that Break of Reality will be accompanying me on my journeys through the city over the next few weeks, however. I only wish I had a recording of one of the covers they performed Saturday:




. Lots of different bands have covered this metal classic. BoR's was the definitive.

Speaking of personal responses to such things, a few words about


. It's hardly a unique response on my part, but I was struck by how much the show made me want to build something of a similar idiom. I wasn't swept up in it. In fact, on the whole I was disappointed by how few moments from the show moved me. Great work all around (with some favorites: the lyrics, the ghost children and the performance by the actor playing the cat) but somehow it was for me more a show of ideas than a show of emotion, or catharsis. That's about as personal as a preference can get, and I can say with some confidence that most of my colleagues have a more emotional appreciation of the work of the downtown New York theatre scene. The show invited an imaginative response from the audience, and it got it (my appreciation of the ghosts on this particular matinee was darkly mirrored by the trauma of the little boy sitting in the row ahead, who had to leave the theatre for crying). I only wish it had connected with my heart a bit more. There's a mini-narrative in the story about Coraline's father braving a swarm of wasps so she can flee to safety. It was told simply, and even had a distinct moral, which can be deadly to verisimilitude. Yet it moved me. It surprised me with my own response. I wanted more of that.

All-in-all, a good lesson to take with me in my creative pursuits moving forward. This weekbookend is destined to be rather the opposite of last, I'm afraid. Travel, and lots of time spent with people rather too young to discuss literature or, indeed, even downtown theatre. (They do have their own charms, of course.) Still, it will be a good weekbookend, just in different ways. And I've a secret plan to finally buy that laptop . . . though still not

the loverly desk

. . . and burrow out a little creative space for strengthening some of my own creative homework . . .

Face to Face

Curious side effect of my acceptance into the Cult of Facebook: I believe it has affected the readership of this here 'blog here. Unfortunately, I am not computer-savvy enough to figure out how to quantify that change. I do know that the readership growth (growth in this context being a very, very relative term) for Odin's Aviary has slowed over the past year, though I attribute that more to Google Reader and RSS feeds than anything related to Facebook. No, the more interesting change -- more interesting by far -- is how many people are now reading my thoughts who haven't been privy to them for five, ten, and in a few cases even twenty years. I could no doubt increase this number by "tagging" friends for each entry, were it not that I'm pretty lucky to get as many posts published as I do with the time I have, anyway. The point is that my audience has had an intersting development in quality lately, in spite of a seeming falling-off in quantity.

Now, I'm not trying to imply that people I already know who read my 'blog are in some way better than them what don't. By "quality," I mean the overall identity of my audience. (An "overall identity" is a pretty interesting-slash-meaningless concept, but you get what I mean. I hope.) When I first started doing shows in New York -- which is as much as to say, when I started being a true professional actor -- I quickly became fascinated with the relationship between audience and creator. This fascination existed in a very immediate sense, not some theoretical or academic speculation, and it continues for me today. Just who are these people who are coming out to engage in theatre? And, perhaps more interestingly, who are the ones that no one on the production side knows, and what do they come seeking? Odds are, when you're sitting in the audience of an off-off-Broadway show, most everyone around you knows somebody involved in some respect (so watch what you say) but there are always at least a handful who don't, who are there for an evening's entertainment, or for something they don't even know yet. Maybe this isn't as curious as I find it; after all, in big productions all sorts of strange people are filling the 1000+ seats and looking for something other than seeing their friend on stage. Still -- to my audiences -- who are you, really?

So both are interesting, friends and strangers. Hello. Welcome. Try not to rely on this 'blog for too many of those promised fart jokes.

Wife Megan

and I have had several conversations lately about people we feel we know who don't know us -- Neil Gaiman, mostly. It's a very Gaiman-y season. I recently re-read

American Gods

(and I rarely re-read books) and rented


. I just read and loved his two-shot Batman comic "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?", we're seeing the musical adaptation of


this Sunday and seeing the man himself at a talk at Used Housing Works Bookstore in the latter half of the month. May is positively Gaiman-esque. And it's funny, because we both feel awfully close to the man, and he has no idea about us. Really, we have no idea about him, personally. It's just that his writing has influenced us so, kept us company, driven away boredom and provoked thought and emotion in us, that, well . . . it's hard not to want to make the man breakfast the next morning. Oh, you're up! How do you like your eggs,

American Gods

? I have cleaned and pressed your trenchcoat,

Anansi Boys

. Please,

Fragile Things

, don't bother about the bed. I need to change the sheets anyway.

Yes; I acknowledge that analogy as just this side of creepy. Alright: Way over here with me in downtown Creepyburg.

What does this have to do with showcases presented in under-99-seat theatres, or a 'blog that gets in just over 50 hits on a good day? I suppose what I take from it is that we extend farther than we may be aware, we influence more, touch (perhaps at times inappropriately) many more lives than can be evident, even with the aid of all things TwitterFaceSpace. It's a reminder I value. It reminds me, in fact, of a big reason for doing this stuff -- all this exploring, communicating, connective stuff -- in the first place. Because it matters, to people we know and those we have yet to meet.

Act, then Write. Or, the Reverse.

I'm attending another open call today, this one for

The Folger

. If I and my esteemed readers have learned anything about auditioning this month past, it is that it doesn't really matter in a direct sense. Certainly, people have joined casts by finding their way through the open-call process, but it's such an unpredictable blend of circumstances that it would make a statistician wince. No, the way to get work is to know, and thereby work with, lotsa folks. Open calls are a part of that, of being seen and staying on the ol' radar, but not direct lines to the President, as it were. Still and all, every so often one comes up that provokes some dreaming. And, as I've also iterated numerously at the Aviary, dreaming's an important part of the process.

The Folger is one of those D.C. theatres that I grew up visiting. Between that,

Arena Stage


The Little Theatre of Alexandria

is the space in which I was formed into a young acting enthusiast. I've actually performed there before. They hold an annual festival of short, high school Shakespeare productions, and I was a part of one

Winter's Tale

that graced their Elizabethan stage. As I'm sure you can imagine, at age fifteen it was quite a thrill. And, lest you be duped by my omissions: It would be quite a thrill today, tomorrow, and when I'm eighty, too. As something of a topper, they're doing two favorites next season --

Much Ado About Nothing



. My favorite comedy, and my favorite tragedy (though in recent years,

King Lear

has been giving the Dane a run for his money in the racetrack of my preference). So, I dream. I'll pop in midday and lay out my Romeo for them-what-make-the-tough-choices, and I'll do my best to enjoy the rush.

In the meantime, I'm plenty busy.

T.S. Eliot wrote

that April is the cruelest month, and I've often wondered how much his opinion had to do with taxes. In addition, work gallops apace, unrelenting in its demands on me as the new office-manager/HR-coordinator/assistant. Finally, I'm traveling for the next two weekends, to such far-off and fanciful locales as Pennsylvania and Virginia. Yet, yesterday, as I was writing Friends Mark and


to break the bad news of feeling unable to contribute much to a new writing project . . . I got an idea, and wrote a story for it. Because, dang it, nothing is more motivating than being told, "No."

I love that the universe keeps throwing writing ideas -- nay, entire fictitious worlds! -- my way. Thanks, universe (read: friends).

* * *

Well. That happened. It was fine, apart from some nit-picking on my own part. The start went better than the end, and I thought I'd at least get a chuckle. Alas, no, but I can hardly blame the casting assistant. I lost a little breath control toward the end (it


an awfully long line to carry through) owing to, I think, nervousness and not enough abdominal stretching, but overall I feel pretty good, and it's always nice to know one's resume and headshot may now be occupying space in someone else's files. I don't believe they were casting, however. Maybe a few roles, but I doubt it. Couldn't say exactly why, really. Only the casting assistant was there, and something about her "thank you" -- just a feeling. Of course, as we've already learned, Dear Reader,

my "feelings" rather suck


Lately I've been fantasizing quite a bit about what it might be like to be a professional writer. Fortunately, I just read a book on

Neil Gaiman

that disabused me of some more fanciful notions. It is hard work indeed, becoming a paid writer, and then even harder work still to stay one. Heck: The high degree of fame and accomplishment that Gaiman has accomplished only makes his life more chaotically busy. The only advantage over acting I see is that most of the rejection that happens is written rather than spoken (and seemingly it actually gets done, instead of letting one drop off the face of the earth, tied to one's own sense of expectation). It would even seem that writers need to do as much networking as actors. Who could have imagined that an acting career would be so much like so many others?


should have, for one. Art imitates life imitates art, etc.

Still, it is a nice fantasy, this idea of doing work that I want to, when I want to, and receiving compliments and praises left, right and center. Plus, I could sit at a nice desk (you can justify the expense and cost of a "nice desk" when it supports your primary income) and drink tea and dream about more fantasies, and more teas, expensive teas, teas that defy you to resist their calming, meditative influence! Dear God! It would be beautiful! There would be affectionately attended potted plants during the day, not the neglected, lonely aloe I have now! At night, candles with subtle musky scents, that I could monitor regularly enough to make them of actual FLAME, and not a flickering LED! I would read and write and read and write and write some more!

And man, oh man, but I'd miss acting. *sigh* Anyway, it appears that fantasy is based largely on soothing things, and if I've learned anything at all in my life to date, it's that soothing things don't generally pay the bills.

Hugh McLeod

is of the opinion that staying busy with the business of living actually aids one's creativity. Maybe I should teach yoga.

There'd be mats, and Vinyasas, and chanting, and . . . !