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Feature Tue Jul 06 2010

One-Shots: Dan Carroll

Dan Carroll writes (well, adapts) and illustrates the webcomic Stick Figure Hamlet, also available in book form. He was able to take a break from circles and lines, and talk about why his vision of "the greatest work of literature in human history... with pictures" helps teach Shakespeare's works, and potentially classic literature as a whole.

Name: Dan Carroll
Job: Managing Editor
Age: 32
Education: An unsurprising BA in English from Skidmore College
Location: Avondale
Hometown: Providence, RI
Favorite place in Chicago: Kuma's, when you can get in.


Most importantly, what's your favorite burger at Kuma's?

Metallica, medium.

Okay, now we can move on. Did you grow up wanting to make your own comic?

Depends on what age you're talking about, I really didn't start reading comics until I was about 12.

How come?

I would occasionally pick one up at friend's house, but wasn't passionate about them until I got the flu or something when I was 12. On the way back from work, my mom stopped off and picked me up a comic book for a treat. It was an issue of Fantastic Four that I found out, years later, was by Walt Simonson. I didn't know who drew it at the time but knew that it was amazing. And so I started a lifelong love right there. By 13, I wanted to draw them.


Did your parents encourage you when you wanted to draw comics?

They constantly reminded me that I'm very good at math.

Did you study art in college at all? Did you ever want to go for art?

I was a studio minor without enough art history credits to get a minor. I always enjoyed making art, without wanting to go through the the rigamarole that comes with an artistic career.

What possessed you to recreate Shakespeare through stick figures?

Almost as a joke. A few years ago, as a brainstorming activity, I was having friends throw one-liner titles at me, so I could draw them a funny picture. One of my friends suggested The Winter of Our Discontent, and I drew him a goofy stick figure for Richard the III, standing in the snow. In order to make him a hunchback, I gave him a weird oval body, and I liked the look of it. It was a dopey little drawing, but I just liked how it looked...and decided that Stick Figure Shakespeare would be a hilariously insane project, just devoting a 300 page comic to one single joke, over and over again. I decided on Hamlet very quickly -- it wouldn't be as funny to do an irreverent, cartoony version of a comedy. I wanted to go with the most overwrought, emotional tragedy I could find, and that was Hamlet.

Act III, Scene IV

That really leads into the next question: why did you pick a serious play?

That's one of the basics of comedy, taking two ridiculous things that shouldn't be together and putting them together. That's why people love things about ninja bears and pirate sharks. Even after I went back and did a second draft of the first scene, didn't make a lot of effort to do more than a one-joke sort of ha-ha stick figures. There's no attempt to make the characters look different from each other.

What would up happening was that the second scene, just to keep myself from getting bored, I started drawing out the characters. By the third scene, I realized that I was trying to make it irreverent and funny, but the third scene is already funny without my help. Very little work was needed for me to make it funny, and I started looking at the play with an eye towards what's already funny in here, that I can bring out. There are countless scenes where I was doing Hamlet as Groucho and Polonius as Chico.

Anything else that inspired you, besides the Marx Brothers?

The biggest thing that ended up influencing it was that around halfway through the first act, I started getting e-mails from teachers telling me that they loved it, and they wanted to use it to teach their students.

Act III, Scene III

That's great.

It was really flattering and also a little terrifying. It was a challenge, like step up your game, and actually do this right as a Shakespeare classic.

You said that when teachers started looking at it, you started taking it more seriously. What changed about the comic after that?

A closer reading of the text. More of an effort to, if I didn't get a phrase, to research what it meant and try and work that into the art. Part of the result was almost beating myself up, just because there's jokes you can't include, because the English language has drifted and there's no way to reproduce that joke...

Right. I think what's cool about stick figures, like ninja bears, is that they're accessible. Everyone knows what they look like, they're kind of universal, an easy reference point. Reading your comic, you don't go too obscure with it.

It was a decision I made early on -- whenever possible, avoid anachronisms. I didn't want to flagrantly insert anything that would break the time period...thought I still cheat about that, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are blatantly done as Bert and Ernie, the ghost in the first scene is a Pacman ghost.

You do dip in and out a little.

I avoided putting in the actual objects that would be flagrant anachronisms.

Why do you think it's important that it be accessible? Why not just English nerd it up and throw in every term in there that no one's going to get?

Because why am I bothering if no one's going to understand it? I mean, part of what the teachers were telling me was that I was getting students who would not otherwise be interested in reading Shakespeare into reading it. If it's just one long endless in-joke, that completely defeats the purpose.

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