Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Manga Classics: Les Misérables

A while ago, when visiting Stockholm with a friend to watch Fun Home and The Book of Mormon, we stumbled across something hilarious in a local bookstore: a Pride and Prejudice manga. It was so over-the-top and ridiculous (Mr. Darcy casually sheds nearly all his clothing to show off his pecs during a proposal), I literally cannot remember the last time I laughed as hard.

Noticing the same publishing house had released a Les Misérables manga, I rushed to buy it, expecting another wild and hilarious ride.

Who knew Manga Classics: Les Misérables (story adaptation by Crystal S. Chan, art by SunNeko Lee, published by UDON Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing) would turn out to be one of the best adaptations of Les Mis I've ever encountered?

If you're unfamiliar with manga, just keep in mind that it's read from right to left.

The musical is the reason I love Les Misérables, so naturally, I kept comparing the two while reading the manga.

My first impression is that the manga is paced better than the musical. Fantine's story and Jean Valjean and Cosette's early relationship get the space they need, while barricade scenes are cut down. The focus stays on the four characters that have volumes of Victor Hugo's original novel named after them – Fantine, Cosette, Marius and Jean Valjean.

Overall, I'd say Valjean's struggles are a little easier to understand in comic format than as musical songs. At only 337 pages (down from Hugo's original ~1,500), I'm honestly amazed how thoroughly the manga explores its characters.

The Petit Gervais moment.

I suppose the style of the art may throw off some of us Western readers (Cosette's eyes are as gigantic as you'd expect), but personally, I adore SunNeko Lee's art – and I'm not even a manga fan. I think the character designs are fitting and the artwork is beautiful and detailed from start to finish.

I'm posting this page for no other reason than that I really, really like Javert holding out his hand to Jean Valjean.

The manga is intended at teenagers, so I was a little afraid it would gloss over the saddest parts of the story. Far from it. A couple of panels are actually too graphic for my tastes, but overall, it does a great, effective job portraying the awful things the characters go through. Fantine's and little  Cosette's fates are equally heartwrenching. The following two pages really stopped me on my tracks.

This is cruel.

And this... I'm not even going to post the previous page, it's seriously too awful to look at.

I also like the portrayal of Javert. The manga doesn't antagonise him, and while it doesn't delve too far into his mind, the characterisation is very book-accurate. I'm especially glad that Javert's extremely black-and-white view of the world is highlighted early on:

This manga gets Javert.

Something almost every adaptation of Les Misérables gets wrong is everything about Cosette.

Take the musical. Fantine sacrifices everything for her daughter, and Jean Valjean risks his life to save the man his adoptive daughter loves – yet their big solos don't even mention Cosette. And when it comes to the character herself... She has as little time onstage as humanly possible, she's a cute kid turned into princess ingenue and that's it.

Luckily, this manga is the opposite of that. Jean Valjean and Cosette's early relationship is given an especially big amount of space, and those pages are some of the best in the whole book.

I adore this.

I absolutely adore this.

(quiet sobbing)

Jean Valjean takes care of her! Becomes a father to her! It's incredible how this, the very thing at the heart of the novel, feels so fresh and new when reading the manga, since it's so overlooked in the musical. It's handled perfectly here (though, to be honest, the focus drifts off of these two during the Paris scenes).

"I cannot let Javert take me away from her," I'm not crying, you're crying.

I'm going to explode.

Marius is also portrayed well. He is the focal character of the Paris part of the story. He's surprisingly three-dimensional, idealistic but a little bigoted and selfish sometimes. At times, you feel just as frustrated and annoyed with him as you do reading the novel.

That's Marius Pontmercy, all right!

Marius and Cosette's love story is a bit sugary but still super cute.


The barricade characters are glanced over with as little detail as possible, and personally, I think that's a good decision. Keeping them in very minor roles helps to keep the focus on Marius and Jean Valjean. This is almost all Les Amis character development we get:

I like Enjolras's design, and how they mercilessly mock him.

Then again, a single page of a comic can be worth a whole chapter in a book – or a full musical song. I think that's especially evident in Javert's suicide:

In two pages, this manga does a better job than any other adaptation of this scene.

The ending of Les Misérables is hopelessly melodramatic, no matter what... But this version did squeeze some tears out of me.

I love the artwork on the page on the left, and also every single thing about this.

Who's crying? I'm crying.

I don't know if you've figured it out yet, but I absolutely adore this manga.

There are a couple of out-of-context details (Marius finds the U.F. handcherchief but Ultime Fauchelevent is never mentioned, Enjolras dies hand in hand with some drunk that surfaces out of nowhere), but in general, Crystal S. Chan's script does a great job getting the story across in a way that's both accurate and easy to follow. It even includes some things most other adaptations omit, like Marius's backstory and the coffin trick Valjean uses to get out of the convent!

Seriously, of your teacher ever assigns you to read Les Mis and you want to take the easy way out, please read this manga instead of watching any of the other adaptations.

I'm not saying a good adaptation cannot take any liberties – despite all my griping, I obviously think the musical is a great adaptation too. But after 150 years of different variations of the story that have taken every liberty imaginable (and with a new, sexy BBC series in the works as we speak)... I'm just really glad to have a compact, contemporary and widely available adaptation that's reflects both Hugo's words and the spirit of his novel. The book is a very heavy read and thus not for everyone, so I think it's good to have a lighter yet accurate version of the story out there.

And now, to help us all dry our tears after those last pages, here's a little goodie from the end of the book to finish off this blog post:

The only time the prisoner number is mentioned in the manga. Somehow, I feel like this is a jab at the musical.

Pages scanned from Manga Classics: Les Misérables, art by SunNeko Lee. Find out more about Manga Classics.

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