x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

From Batman to Bah Humbug Man

Is this an adaptation too far? Batman's latest outing is as Scrooge figure in a comic-book version of A Christmas Carol, while Shakespeare gets a similar treatment.

Innocent days - Batman's first appearance in 1939. In Batman: Noël, a new comic-book treatment of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, he is cast as an embittered Scrooge figure. AP Photo / Heritage Auction Galleries
Innocent days - Batman's first appearance in 1939. In Batman: Noël, a new comic-book treatment of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, he is cast as an embittered Scrooge figure. AP Photo / Heritage Auction Galleries

The works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens have been adapted more often than those of any other writers in history, with Romeo and Juliet and A Christmas Carol the favourites for reinterpretation. The Bard's romantic tragedy is believed to be the most filmed play, while Dickens's festive novella has been reworked for theatre, cinema, television, radio and even opera. But this month, both classic stories will appear in a medium that has, for most of its existence, been considered too lowbrow for such fare: comic books.

Although comics - or graphic novels, as some have chosen to rebrand them - have trod a path towards intellectual respectability in recent decades (with adults now their primary readership), neither adaptation could be considered conventional. Dickens's seasonal morality tale has been brought to the colourful page with the help of one of the medium's most enduring characters - Batman. Ebenezer Scrooge's central role is filled by the Caped Crusader, while the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future - keen to teach him a lesson in empathy - are represented by Catwoman, Superman and the Joker, in Lee Bermejo's Batman: Noël.

Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers is also wholly transformed in the futuristic Romeo and Juliet: The War, masterminded by the Spider-Man creator Stan "the Man" Lee. Described as "a tragedy that spans all of space and time", it is the story of "two groups of superhuman soldiers who turned the Empire of Verona into the most powerful territory on Earth" while two people from the warring factions secretly plan to marry, "hoping their union can be what brings peace between the warring factions".

Published by 1821 Comics in coffee-table format, the book depicts an epic vision of the future with a level of detail beyond anything Hollywood studios have ever tried to create. Illustrated by the Singaporean artist Skan Srisuwan, it blends the styles of US superhero comics and Japanese manga and, although some might consider it a little gaudy, there is no denying it fits the grandeur of the story, adapted here by Max Work.

"It's the most well-known love story in the world, so when you are going to start with something, go to the top," Lee told the website Cosmic Book News.

"If this does well, we will probably have a sequel, and then who knows, we may do Hamlet, we may do King Lear ... Shakespeare wrote a lot of things, but there were other greats, too."

Lee and Bermejo are clearly on the same metatextual page. In the Dickensian superhero adaptation, the writer attempts to explore the common ground between the greedy, misanthropic Scrooge and the increasingly jaded and isolated Bruce Wayne, as depicted in recent Batman lore.

The story sees the Dark Knight apprehending Bob, a blue-collar Gotham resident struggling to put a roof over his son's head, who resorts to working for the Joker. Stepping in for the spirit of Scrooge's deceased business partner, Marley, is the ghost of Robin, Batman's dear departed sidekick.

"As a younger man [Scrooge] was presented as a disturbed but bright fellow - he wasn't quite that bitter old man," Bermejo told USA Today. "That's very easily analogous to Batman's own history. My hope is that there's something familiar in it, and there's also maybe something that can introduce [new readers] to that Batman world."

The comic marks Bermejo's first published work as a writer. For more than 10 years he has illustrated stories written by others, including issues of Superman and X-Men. Contributing both words and his own brand of highly-detailed pictures to Noël, the comic would be a rare one-man operation, were it not based on a story by one of the greatest novelists ever.

Dozens of literary masterpieces such as Moby-Dick, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe were adapted into comic form as part of the popular Classics Illustrated series, which ran between 1941 and 1971 - but Bermejo and Lee's out-there interpretations are a far cry from those faithful re-workings. Will the arrival of a futuristic Shakespeare comic and a superhero spin on Dickens just a few weeks apart mark the beginning of a new movement of literary/comic mash-ups, or will the genre disappear back into the void from whence it came? Time will tell.

Batman: Noël was published in the US on November 8 while Romeo and Juliet: The War will appear on November 30