I love anime and manga, but there are times when I regret how fully I have devoted myself to these mediums. I have long ago given up on keeping up with movies, comics, and books, all in order to become as knowledgeable about anime and manga as I could be. That also means that I’ve never read many of the books that are heralded as literary classics, even though many of them sound right up my alley. That is, until I discovered Manga Classics.
As their name implies, Manga Classics are a line of books that take well-known stories of classic literature and adapt them to the manga format. It’s a cooperative effort between several writers and artists, which has seen quite some success. My local stores have entire shelves dedicated to the series and I noticed that I haven’t been the only one checking those out.
Technically the books aren’t recognized as manga by mainstream sites like AniList. They are created by a Western company, so though the artstyles and reading order are akin to manga, the powers that be deny it that prestigious label. In spite of that, I feel that Manga Classics does a great job at competing with similar efforts like the old World Masterpiece Theater anime and Variety Art Works.
The art does a great job at taking the settings and characters—which are of course steeped in Western cultures and history—and giving them a sensible manga-styled make-over. It is not too overbearing, so you won’t be stuck with a bishounen Count of Monte Cristo or a moe-fied Marianne Dashwood. It’s stylish and dignified; visually akin to other manga while never straying from its cultural roots.
I read 3 of the books and intend to purchase several more. So far I’ve consumed The Count of Monte Cristo, Sense & Sensibility, and Les Miserables. All of these have been adapted before, though never with so much success and in such an accessible format. I was only familiar with The Count of Monte Cristo beforehand, thanks in large part to Gankutsuou. Compared to Gankutsuou, Manga Classics acts as a much more faithful adaptation of the story. It brilliantly captures the high emotions, the intrigue, and solid characters of Alexandre Dumas’ original. This time with less mechs and space-travel mixed into it.
Surprisingly, it was actually Sense & Sensibility that I ended up enjoying the most. It’s a tale set in late-18th century England, where a mother and her young daughters are cruelly robbed of their inheritance. Their brother John is the sole heir to their late-father’s estate and is coaxed by his wife to not share any of the wealth with his sisters. They are left impoverished and bullied out of their house, forcing them to leave everything behind for a much humbler life.
Reading it was a captivating insight into the high-class society of old. It’s a love story filled with intrigue, as the Dashwood sisters navigate the complicated social customs of their time. A time when marriage was often more about elevating the wealth and status of one’s family than about actual love. It’s a story that often had me outraged at its twist and feeling intense sympathy for the hardships of its characters.
Since the manga are all constrained to a single volume, they do of course lose some of their original complexity. The last few pages of each book contain notes by the team on how they went about adapting the source material; including how it was decided what content to leave out. A perfect adaptation was never going to happen, but I experienced no hinder on account of this cut content. The stories feel complete and focused, at least speaking from the perspective of someone new to them.
What complaints I do have are common issues typical of “real” manga as well. The art chooses its battles wisely, preferring to make important panels shine while dialogue sequences are often left with empty backgrounds. Other such shortcuts are noticeable at time—i.e. faces not being drawn on semi-distant characters—though never to a degree that it became a bother.
The books also favor drama and romance over anything action related. There are adaptations of Dracula and Jungle Book, but I can’t comment on how exciting those are in either their original version or in these adaptations. Not yet, at least.
I can safely recommend Manga Classics. If reading classic literature in manga format sounds interesting to you, then I recommend hitting up their website and taking a look through the catalog. There is a lengthy preview available for each title that should give you an idea whether the adaptation is something for you or not.