Review of Les Miserables Manga/Graphic Novel


Reviewed by Paula Tupper    September 21,  2014

I grew up in the Silver Age of comic books.  My clothes were in a messy heap under the bed because my closet was stacked four feet high with the entire lines of Marvel, DC, Harvey, and Dell comics.  I stole money from my grandmother’s purse to get the newest issues of Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury, Millie the Model and Baby Huey.  My taste was all encompassing, and my hunger insatiable.   I attribute my love of reading to those comic books in no small part, and to used bookstores and jumble sales for the other part.  The best and worst part of every year came in midsummer, when I was sent to sleep-away camp for two weeks.  Best, because I loved sleeping in a tent in the woods, swimming in the lake, and eating all American camp food which was exotic to a girl raised on pierogi.  Worst because the one huge rule of law for summer camp was “NO COMIC BOOKS!”  Our tender minds were not to be corrupted by superheroes or cartoon characters for the duration of our stay.  It would have killed me, had it not been for one exception to the Iron Rule: Classics Illustrated.  For those not a product of those years, Classics Illustrated were comic books that re-told the great books of literature in comic book format.  Everything from Gulliver’s Travels to Faust were given the CI treatment, and these were often a first introduction to a work that would then be sought out at the library and read in its true form.  Summer camp allowed these illustrated magazines to be included in our CARE packages from home, and being indiscriminate in my tastes, I was more than satisfied to use these to fulfill my comic book craving.

Reading Classic Illustrated and mainstream comicbooks conditioned me to favorably  accept their modern incarnation, the graphic novel. I have read the serious books such as Maus and Persepolis, and enjoy the lighter fare of Serenity and The Dresden Files.  My son and daughter follow The Walking Dead, and I read through Watchmen.  I was therefore primed to venture into a n area very new to me, western literature transformed into Manga.

“Manga’ is loosely translated as “cartoon” or “caricature.”  Manga did not really have a widespread following until after WWII, when Tezuka Osamu drew on Japanese traditions  and techniques  and coupled them with a Disney influenced cinematic style to develop a new, distinctly Japanese form of graphic narrative.  Manga is vastly popular throughout Asia, and has been gathering a large following in Western countries.  Most of what has been sold here is traditional Japanese manga, particularly that derived from or combined with anime series.  One typically sees big eyed, attractive childlike characters, with sexually mature bodies, in melodramatic or adventure based stories with various gender combination romances.  One category is shoujo-manga, or girls manga which generally features emotions, atmosphere and mood rather than action.  Another category is bukyou, a Chinese word that roughly means “chivalrous knight” or “martial wanderer.”

I recently read a manga version of Les Miserables, that western classic of class conflict and spiritual redemption by Victor Hugo. , adapted by Crystal Silvermoon and illustrated by SunNeko Lee.  It presents Jean ValJean and Fantine as a sort of cross between shoujo and bukyou, with the kawaii cuteness pervading the panels.  I think everyone here in the west has seen or heard Les Miz in one of its everpresent incarnations.  Jean ValJean has shouted his wrenching “Who am I?” on the West End and Broadway stage, in the movies disguised as Wolverine, with his special set of skills as Liam Neeson raised the oxcart, and even in an anime in Japanese.  Fantine has been an ethereal Uma Thurman, a pixified Lea Salonga, and an emaciated Anne Hathaway.  None of this prepares you for Fantine as Sailor Moon.  The manga style has an exaggerated comic edge, so that the Thernardiers have a Laurel and Hardy look to them. ValJean and Javert are whippet thin, almost delicate and androgenous except for the facial hair.  Fantine is erotic. Even as she hovers on the edge of consumptive death, her full breasts jut like the prow of a ship. It is mildly disconcerting.

More problematic is the need for over simplification and reduction of the text.  The power of Hugo’s novel lies in not just the circumstances, but also in the fulsome and rich language.  Minimizing it to fit the panels allotted per page, and shaved of its descriptive metaphor and philosophizing leaves the story without much of its soul.

There is a lot to be said about this type of work as an introduction to the masterpiece itself.  It can only be good if the manga introduces even a small percentage of its audience to Hugo’s novel and gives them an incentive to read it in its entirety.  The manga does catch the poignancy of Fantine’s sacrifices, and the trajectory of ValJean’s arc.  It is beautifully drawn in its own style and layout, and is clean and easy to follow once you become acclimated to the peculiarities of reading back to front and right to left.  If I were sending you off to camp, I would definitely mail this off with the clean socks, extra underwear, and the hidden Hershey bar, and now I would have made your day complete.

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