Though most of us by now have at least a passing familiarity with Victor Hugo’s epic multi-volume tale of post-Revolution France via the theater and cinema, or perhaps a few foggy memories from a week or two of high school literature class, far fewer can truthfully claim to have read the work cover-to-cover. That’s a shame. It’s a masterful study of perseverance through suffering—a searing image of the plight of the poor and the innocent victims of sweeping social strife. We witness the eternal tug-of-war between mercy and justice. Obsessive vengeance wrestles with unconditional forgiveness. Avarice mocks sacrifice. The heavy hand of past misdeeds overshadows the hope of redemption and transformation. Debts are incurred and debts are repaid—in triplicate. We meet characters who grow extravagant in their complexity as we journey with them: Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Bishop Myriel, Fantine, Thenardier, Eponine, Marius, Cosette, and many more.
How can anyone condense such a vast story and hope to do it justice? The Broadway production and various movie adaptations have tackled it with varying degrees of success, using visuals and music as a shorthand for Hugo’s expansive narration. While this isn’t the first attempt to adapt Les Misérables into a comics format, I thought Stacy King, Crystal Silvermoon, and SunNeko Lee did a fine job of expressing this story in the distinctive Japanese manga style while preserving its essentials and communicating its powerful emotion. Manga Classics: Les Misérables is one of a forthcoming series of classic literary tales adapted to manga, and its publication debut will be accompanied by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
This version of Les Misérables is very accessible to its intended young adult / middle school audience, yet it skillfully avoids dumbing-down or sugarcoating the story, and adult readers can enjoy it as well. I did. It’s certainly not a substitute for the novel itself, but it can provide a stepping-stone for younger readers and anyone who would like a reader-friendly warmup. All the key moments are captured, and the story’s continuity is preserved without annoying jumps, gaps, or clumsy interpolations. Difficult episodes, like Fantine’s descent into prostitution, and the carnage at the barricade, are handled with careful reserve and consideration for young readers while faithfully depicting the characters’ desperation and horror.
The artwork is nicely done, with beautiful detail in the background environments and building interiors where appropriate, but the focus is always on the characters, and I liked the artist’s vision of them. Cosette is a bit prettified, but that’s typical of the manga style for heroines, and she gets a similar waif-ish treatment in the Broadway and movie posters, so not a huge gripe there. Most of the art is black-and-white, though there are a few color panels.
Something I especially enjoyed was the bonus material at the end, which included character development sketches and short articles from the scriptwriter and artist (also in manga form) that provided insight into their creative process and approach to this project. A couple of 4-panel “gag” comic strips offer a lighthearted perspective on scenes from the story. The book is printed in the traditional manga style, which reads right to left, opposite to the way western readers are used to handling a book. A helpful cartoon at the beginning shows how to do it, and after a few pages, it’s not a distraction.
Here’s a link to the Facebook page for Manga Classics, where you’ll find more information about the series and additional sample pictures from both Les Misérables and Pride and Prejudice.
Review based on a limited-time-access advance digital review copy provided free of charge by the publisher via NetGalley.com