Comic books: 'Les Mis,' 'Pride and Prejudice' go manga

  • Article by: ANDREW A. SMITH , McClatchy News Service
  • Updated: September 3, 2014 - 7:16 PM

UDON’s “Les Miserables”

If anyone needs evidence that comics can tell any kind of story, adaptations of two Western literary classics by UDON should put the subject to rest.

UDON Entertainment (yes, named for the Japanese noodle) is a graphics studio that publishes mostly manga-style comics, graphic novels, art books and English translations of Asian comics, with strong ties to the video game industry. And yet, despite being best known for comics like the various “Street Fighter” series and art books like “World of Warcraft Tribute,” UDON (and its partner Morpheus Publishing Limited) has recently adapted “Pride and Prejudice” and “Les Miserables” in the manga tradition — and done them well.

For some, that may seem counterintuitive. Novels don’t come much more rooted in Western culture than Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” or Jane Austen’s “Price and Prejudice.” How could a Japanese approach work? And should it even be tried?

But that’s selling UDON, manga and the comics medium far short. As UDON Marketing Director Christopher Butcher explained, the company is hoping to reach and satisfy a number of different audiences.

“First and foremost, the line is a response to what we feel is a lack of quality adaptations of classic works in the marketplace, particularly for schools and libraries,” he said. “We wanted to put together books that looked and felt like commercial work at the same high quality we normally produce. But because of that, we feel that ‘Manga Classics Pride & Prejudice’ could be just as likely a manga fan’s next favorite shoujo manga! Really, anyone who has wanted to read the classics, or who loves the classics and wants to rediscover them in a fresh way, is going to love what we’ve done.”

And it certainly is fresh, especially to those of us who grew up with the stodgy “Classics Illustrated” adaptations of half a century ago. And while U.S. publisher Papercutz currently has a high-quality “Classics Illustrated” line, they haven’t yet gotten around to “Les Mis” or “Pride.”

So it falls to UDON. And they have done a beautiful job.

“Manga Classics Les Miserables” ($19.99), drawn by SunNeko Lee, falls into the “big eyes” style of manga. As is usually the case with this style, it’s a little cartoony here and there, especially with girls, with even the men looking a little feminine. But anybody who has seen the standard illustration for “Les Mis” the play — the one with the little girl with the big eyes — can intuit just how well this style meshes with the subject matter.

The art by Po Tse in “Pride and Prejudice” ($19.99) is rendered in a related style. Once again, women have larger and rounder eyes than is normal, men are a bit feminine and Po Tse even indulges in chibis (the small, deformed cartoon characters usually played for laughs) in some scenes. But by and large Po Tse’s panels are lavishly illustrated, with elaborate rendering (especially for hair) that borders on the “photorealism style” employed by some Western artists. All in all, U.S. readers should feel pretty much at home.

UDON also is promising manga adaptations of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” Jane Austen’s “Emma” and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” for this winter.

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