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Guest Review: ‘The Scarlet Letter’

Manga Classics Scarlet Letter

Here is another guest review by manga expert Erica Friedman.

The Scarlet Letter
Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Adapted by Crystal Chan, Illustrated by SunNeko Lee
Manga Classics
Rated Z+, for Teens (age 14+), Grade 9-10

Have you ever wondered what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” might be like if the Reverend Dimmesdale was in the least bit sympathetic? The Manga Classics version takes on this challenge with eyes wide open and a little bit of flair and in the end, Hawthorne’s classic ends up being much more readable than I remember it.

The Manga Classics edition of Hawthorne’s tabloid headline-turned-novel is, in a word, beautiful. Every instance of Hester Prynne’s embroidered ‘A’ is rendered in a striking scarlet on black and white pages, making it stand out in just the way it might be presumed to have stood out from the townspeople’s somber clothing. This really drives home just how much of a physical mark that letter would have been. SunNeko Lee’s art does real justice to the embroidery which likewise would have been an affront to the people of Salem. As a visual cue for readers, the use of color and art in this one simple letter. is…stunning.

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Lee’s art is, in fact, the stand-out feature of the book, rendering what I remember as a tiresome allegory into a readable piece of tabloid fiction. Hester Prynne is lovely and serene in the face of her implacable enemies, while the respective specters of the puritan Theocracy and her own past in the forms of Bellingham and Chillingsworth dominate the page. Lee takes some liberty in the portrayal of Reverend Dimmesdale which doesn’t change the story…but significantly changes the reader’s perspective on the story. Arthur Dimmesdale as a younger, decidedly emo, man is the change this tale needed.

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Chan’s adaptation is well-done, with one exception. I’m not sure why Manga Classics added a line portraying Hawthorne as some kind of proto-feminist. It doesn’t work and feels wholly out of place. One hopes a teacher would be able to point that out. The introduction, which is a study on the tedium of a clerk’s life and the fictitious (but common literary trope) of the circumstances by which he “came into possession of” the original Scarlet Letter is handled more accurately to the text (although without the repeated acknowledgement of a former survey office clerk that clogs up both the book’s open and its close).

Overall, Manga Classics’ iteration of this novel is better than Hawthorne’s writing deserves. Whether or not it could stand in for the actual text would have to be determined by the teacher. If the teaching is to focus on allegory and Puritan life it will do; if, however, the intent is to introduce students to the sounds and feel of 19th-century American literature, it might be too pleasant an experience.

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About: Erica Friedman holds an MLS from Rutgers University and writes about and reviews manga on Okazu.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Comments

  1. A “tiresome allegory?” A manga version which is “better than Hawthorne’s writing deserves?”
    I have no objection to creating imaginative and artistic comic versions of classics, but it is unnecessary and unjustified to dismiss the original works as worthless. There are plenty of legitimate ways to critique Hawthorne’s novel; not every reader will like it. However, the casual assumption that young people cannot “relate” to anything written in language that is not contemporary, or that reflects values which they don’t share, is sad. This attitude exemplifies a serious educational and cultural problem.

  2. If any reader of SLJ still cares about literature, I ask her to please return to The Scarlet Letter and to try to read it with the attention and effort which it demands. Then read this blog again and ask yourself if the following quotes do or do not help students to respect and struggle with works of art which maybe outside their immediate experiences or their range of familiar language:
    “…a tiresome allegory into a readable piece of tabloid fiction.”
    “Manga Classic’s iteration…is better than Hawthorne’s writing deserves.”
    “It (reading the manga version) might be too pleasant an experience.”

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