Where Have You Gone, Jolie Mary Jo?
Our Nation Turns Its Second Thoughts to You

Blessed damozel - head study

The blessed damozel leaned out
    From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
    Of waters stilled at even . . . .
    "The Blessed Damozel," Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1846)


In the immediate aftermath of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy, it was widely reported that Google and other search engines saw a spike in inquiries for variants, often misspelled variants, on "Chappaquiddick" and "Mary Jo Kopechne."  Much of that traffic was presumably driven by the zany-maniac crowd who so enjoy misrepresenting themselves as conservatives, for whom it is essential that any prominent highly-liberal Democrat be painted as the very spawn of Satan -- a purpose for which the awful events of July 18, 1969, are too useful to ignore -- but some of that traffic at least must have derived from the conundrum of reconciling the praise heaped upon the late Senator in so many eulogies with the ignominy that more typically befalls those who abandon young women to die slowly in submerged automobiles.

It was already well known before last week that the Senator was dying, but I had the impression that there was every reason to believe that the actual end would not come for some weeks or even months.  When I picked up the morning paper and saw his death headlined, it caught me by surprise.  And, perhaps out of that surprise, very nearly my first thought was:  

"Well, I imagine he and Mary Jo are knocking one back together even now in some heavenly saloon." 

Which is not a bad image, if you're of a mind to believe in a beneficent and particularly forgiving Providence.

Matt Welch is rightly perturbed with those who would suggest that Ms. Kopechne's wildly unnecessary death is somehow justified or even rewarded by the subsequent forty years of Kennedy's senatorial career.

[T]he sentiment [that Kopechne's death was somehow 'worth it'] is a timely reminder of the seductive awfulness of political ideologies everywhere and always.  The ends are always worth a few strangled means, especially to those wielding or sympathizing with power.  If you're openly musing whether the unwilling, unjust sacrifice of an innocent is worth a broad set of alleged legislative improvements, you're not asking a morally challenging question, you're answering it.

As Exhibits "A" and "B," he points to a Huffington Post piece by Melissa Lafsky and to a Guardian essay by Joyce Carol Oates.  Lafsky's column is, to this reader, pretty ghastly in any number of ways.  Badly written, for a start.  Oates' ruminations are more worthy of consideration, not only because she is a vastly better writer and thinker than Lafsky, but also because Oates places the question in a more adult and serious frame. Oates fictionalized the events at Chappaquiddick, from the point of view of the victim, in her 1993 novel, Black Water, and it is clear she has thought longer and harder about them than the general run of online commentators (present company included).  As a novelist, Oates inevitably sees Kennedy and Chappaquiddick as having literary parallels:

One is led to think of Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, rich individuals accustomed to behaving carelessly and allowing others to clean up after them.  It is often in instances of the 'fortunate fall,' think of Joseph Conrad's anti-hero/hero Lord Jim as a classic literary analogy, that innocent individuals figure almost as ritual sacrifices is another aspect of the phenomenon. 
* * *
The poet John Berryman once wondered: 'Is wickedness soluble in art?' One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: 'Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?'' 
This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions.  Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.
One could wish (I could wish) that the parallels to Kennedy's life post-Chappaquiddick were not so much to be found in American literature as in the Russian novelists.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are full of sinners and criminals whose later actions redeem them.  The Russian literary way, however, was to require that the sinner be brought low first, that he feel in a direct, personal, public way, often in Siberia, the full weight of the wrong that's been done before, at last, finding the way to a better and more laudable life. 

I do not doubt that Senator Kennedy had many painful periods of personal introspection over what he did and failed to do that night, but position and privilege allowed him to evade the consequences that would be expected to be inflicted on most of his fellow mortals.  Even those who are more admiring of the Senator than I will ever be might admit that his later accomplishments, no matter how otherwise admirable -- I leave it to the sympathetic reader to select his or her personal favorite -- are tainted at least slightly by what Auden wrote of, in a much different context, concerning this day seventy years ago:

The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.




Top: Head study for The Blessed Damozel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1876), via The Rossetti Archive.

Bottom: The infamous 1973 National Lampoon Volkswagen ad parody, previously mentioned here in early 2005.  Created only five years after the incident, this seems driven less by any hostility to Kennedy than by the fondness for poor taste and macabre humor typical of the Golden Age of the Lampoon.  Sadly, most reproductions of this appear on the sites of zealots of questionable probity, i.e., the aforementioned zany-maniac crowd.  This copy comes via the more apolitical Photobucket.


Always Presently Winter, and Never Frequently Christmas

Paul Klee - Wintery Mask

John Crowley points the way to Laura Miller in today's New York Times, explaining why in our day it is always in some sense a Narnia Christmas

Miller notes a feature that always annoyed many of C.S. Lewis's comrades — the crazy quilt of figures from innumerable and otherwise inconsistent traditions who make up the population of Narnia — and puts it down to Lewis's fondness for the medieval habit of "gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin" without much concern for their original sources.  Christmas as most of us know it today is just like that, she says:

More than Christian or pagan, [our notion of] Christmas is a Victorian fabrication.

Is this, though, such a bad thing?  The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity.  Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love.  Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.

Our contemporary, semi-secular Christmas is similarly a collection of everything yearned for: warmth, plenty, peace, family, conviviality.  Like Narnia, the holiday is a fantasy, but there are times when a fantasy is exactly what you need.

That affectionate inclusiveness that Lewis brings to the indigenous peoples of Narnia is sufficient, for me, to outweigh the more doctrinaire and troubling bits, of which there are more than a few in the books.  And I don't mind saying that, despite the relative brevity of his appearance, Mr. Tumnus is one of my favorite characters in literature.  Doesn't everyone want to spend some time in a little house like his when the cold sets in in earnest?

Now, if you'll excuse me, winter is nearly here even in Southern California and I need to finish up some shopping.


Illustration: Paul Klee, "Wintery Mask" (1925), which caught my attention today at ::: wood s lot :::, though it may not be there when you go looking for it.  Via The National Gallery of Canada, where they seem to have a continuing problem with enormous bourgeois spiders.

Dr. Seuss and the Wisdom of Popovers


Dr. Seuss was already comfortably established as a children's author when I was in short pants*, so comfortably that it was and is easy to forget that he was an inveterate upsetter of apple carts and skeptic of received wisdom.

The National Association of Scholars has been running a series of articles on higher education reform, somehow built around themes from the Good Doctor's If I Ran the Zoo.  On her weblog, Critical Mass, Erin O'Connor has reproduced her contribution (with Maurice Black) to the discussion: an essay built around Dr. Seuss' graduation speech to the class of 1977 at Lake Forest College, the entire text of which speech is here reproduced:

My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
'To eat these things,'
said my uncle,
'you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!'

as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.

Theodore Geisel became "Dr. Seuss," as Erin explains, while attending Dartmouth in the 1920s, in response to "Geisel" being banned by collegiate authorities from contributing to the school's humor magazine.  Variants on "Terwilliger" or "Terwilliker" had a recurring importance in Seuss World, including the authoritarian appearance of the latter, in the person of Hans Conried, as the titular "T" in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the very "embodiment of the worst sorts of pedagogical abuse."  The young narrator of If I Ran the Zoo, she suggests, in his utopian glee is not necessarily an improvement, as "he sounds a great deal like that generation of academic reformers, now reaching retirement, that has worked so hard to do away with traditional ideas of what is worth knowing largely because they are traditional ideas of what is worth knowing."

When he reemerges at Lake Forest many years later, the now-avuncular Terwilliger achieves his most benevolent form:

Having mellowed over time, Uncle Terwilliger appears at the Lake Forest graduation not in the capacity of a teacher, but in the special incapacity of an uncle -- who by definition has no real authority over his nieces and nephews.  His graduation advice reflects his comfortably powerless position.  When he tells students to be wary of hot air, he is telling them to think for themselves.  When he points out that popovers contain hot air, he is urging his audience to recognize that the good and the bad come jumbled together, and that in order to get at the one you have to be able to identify and reject the other.  He is, in other words, going to the heart of what education ideally enables one to do: to think independently, and to come to one's own conclusions about what to do, be, and believe.

As Thomas Mendip mused, "What a wonderful thing is metaphor." 

Read the complete O'Connor/Black/Seuss essay at Critical Mass or (with illustrations) at NAS.


Photo: "Popover with Ocean Backdrop" (at the Cliff House, San Francisco), by Flickr user Cameron Maddux, used under Creative Commons license.


*  Yes, I actually was in short pants.  There exists a photo, which I'll not reproduce here because it's not been scanned in to digital form, showing me in my bow-tied and short-pantsed Sunday Best in the company of my long-suffering Bear.  We were both of us much younger, and much closer to the same height, in those days.

Theneth From Thurberbia


The last Sunday in July brought the final stand-alone issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review section, but the Times in its decreasingly reliable wisdom did not see fit to print -- and it took Morgan Meis of 3quarksdaily to point out that I had missed -- Sonja Bolle's really lovely LAT-online-only appreciation of James Thurber generally, and of Thurber's The 13 Clocks in particular.

Prior to reading this column, I had no idea that The 13 Clocks had been allowed to go out of print.  The latest republication, under the benevolent auspices of the New York Review of Books Children's Collection, comes replete with a new introduction by Neil Gaiman, declaring The 13 Clocks no less than "probably the best book in the world." 

Neil Gaiman is a clever fellow, but in this judgment he may be wrong.  If so, he is not far wrong. 

By all means, mark me down as an enthusiast for The 13 Clocks, and for most everything else of Thurber's.  Let's trot out some examples of Thurberous murmurings in my own life:

  • At or around the time I was born, my father -- at the time a rising star engineer at Chrysler -- owned a more or less unique automobile.  It was known around the house as "The Golux," after the Golux of The 13 Clocks who is "the only Golux in the world, and not a mere device." 

[In reporting this, I must contemplate a time when I was either an infant or an as yet unrealized hypothesis.  Whichever it was, I was too young or theoretical then to have now any personal recollection of the Golux.  This was also a time when my father was something less than half the age that I am now, which is itself quite the thing to contemplate.  Hello Mother and Dad: love you much.  But I digress amid my digressions.]

  • In my junior high years, I participated in debate and speech competitions.  Among my stronger performances was a recitation of "The Night the Bed Fell" from Thurber's memoir-of-sorts of his Ohio youth, My Life and Hard Times.
  • Over the summer of 1974 or 1975, I joined with several high school friends to mount a respectful but totally unauthorized stage adaptation of The 13 Clocks.  I was director, portrayed the cold Duke, and of course came to a bad end at the hands of the Todal.  (The Todal doesn't actually have hands, I don't think.  "It gleeps," we are told.  It is not a pleasant thing.)
  • When our sons were very young, I read to them regularly.  (See, e.g., my five year old reminiscence concerning Edward Lear's "The Dong with a Luminous Nose".)  I don't recall now having read them the Clocks -- though we've always had a copy around the house, and I know they've read it themselves -- but I frequently ventured Thurber's Many Moons, which ought to be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they can rely on the advice of "experts."  I was first exposed to that story via Burr Tillstrom's 1954 adaptation, which I heard a few years later when it appeared as Side 2 of my parents' copy of the Merry Christmas From Kukla, Fran & Ollie LP.  (Again we see the good graces of my parents at work in my life.)

The authorities at the Library of America usually entrust the editing of their editions to scholarly experts on the author in question.  In Thurber's case, they entrusted the project instead to the decidedly non-academic Garrison Keillor, a fellow writer in the short and humorous vein who has never made any secret of his own debt to the Master from Columbus.  If you are going to have only one volume of Thurber around your home, that's the one to have.

Thurber seems to be in the air recently.  Music writer Alan Rich quotes him in his most recent blog post.  The passage comes from a description of the woan, an imagined creature, and includes this wonderful sentence:

Scarcely larger than a small blue cream pitcher, the woan had three buttons on the vest of his Sunday suit, and was given to fanning his paws at spindrift.

"Given to fanning his paws at spindrift."  *sigh*  Appreciators of the gift of frictionless prose owe a perpetual debt to Thurber, who composed a larger number of perfectly pitched sentences than most any American writer I could name. 

I felt compelled to go hunting to find the exact source of the passage quoted by Alan Rich.  With the aid of Google Book search and Amazon's "look inside" feature, I can inform you that it comes from "Extinct Animals of Bermuda" in The Beast in Me and Other Animals.  Keillor left that particular piece out, for some reason, although he included a number of Thurber's drawings of imagined creatures from the same collection.

Both Bolle and Rich mention their impression that "no one" reads Thurber anymore.  Well, everyone should read Thurber, early and often; that's my stand.  And honoring his talents as a writer doesn't even acknowledge that he was also, despite a near total inability to draw, one of the finer cartoonists I know.  If nothing else, he must be credited with the
Best.  Wine.  Cartoon.  Ever.  Thurber wrote of his skillls with pen and ink:

My drawings have been described as pre-intentionalist, meaning they were finished before the ideas for them had occurred to me.  I shall not argue the point.

Those who were around at the time may recall that in the 1969-1970 television season, NBC broadcast My World and Welcome to It, in which William Windom played a Thurber-like writer/cartoonist and in which animated versions of actual Thurber cartoons were inserted as commentary on the action.  Although the series was a critics' favorite, and although it and Windom both won Emmys that year, it lasted only the one season, having been scheduled opposite Gunsmoke when that program was still five long years from completing its then-record run on CBS.  Below, a sample of an episode opening sequence, complete with a laconic Thurber dog amid the credits:


Photo: Statue of a Thurber Dog, at the Thurber House, Columbus, Ohio, by Flickr user billy liar, used under Creative Commons license.

The title of this post is to be pronounced as if spoken by Daffy Duck, and makes more sense that way.

The Said-est Music in the World


Composer and Britten biographer David Matthews comments today for the Times Literary Supplement on two new classical music books. 

First up, Music at the Limits, a collection of essays by the late Edward Said, most drawn from his work as music critic for The Nation.  Here is Matthews on Said on Wagner, incorporating a valuable public relations tip:

In a review of Michael Tanner’s book on Wagner, Said will not allow Tanner to dismiss the most unpleasant elements of Wagner’s personality as irrelevant to the appreciation of his music, though he does take to task those who claim that Wagner’s anti-Semitism seeped into his operas.  (We might think better of Wagner if only he hadn’t insisted on putting all his prejudices into print, or telling them to Cosima who devotedly wrote them all down; Chopin’s anti-Semitism was equally virulent, but he is rarely criticized for it, probably because he didn’t publicize it so actively.)

Of more local interest, Matthews also notes Making Music in Los Angeles: Transforming the Popular by Catherine Parsons Smith, focusing on the period from the founding of the City of Angels through the early 1940's.  Here we learn that, notwithstanding its Alice in Lotus Land reputation, Los Angeles historically has been rather the opposite of a cultural backwater:

[Parsons' book] reminds us of a time when classical music had more obvious significance in general culture – when, indeed, it was seen as a vital and active element in the growth of Los Angeles from a town of 11,000 in 1880 to a city of more than a million in 1930.  Opera companies were quick to make visits: the US premiere of La Bohème was given in Los Angeles in 1897, the year a symphony orchestra was established; by 1910, there was a higher proportion of musicians and music teachers in Los Angeles than in any other American city.

That highlighted Fun Fact, I suppose, goes a long way toward explaining why even today Los Angeles operagoers are compelled to put up with so darned much stinkin' Puccini in their repertoire.


Photo: Members of the Albertina Rasch Ballet on the grounds of the Hollywood Bowl, 1930, via the Hollywood Bowl Museum.

Livre Free or Die


A miscellany of recent more or less literary links:

  • More on the July 4 passing of Thomas M. Disch (see below):

[H]e proclaimed himself God, and encouraged readers to set up shrines in their back gardens, so that their gardening tools would be tax-deductible.

  • John Clute in a long appreciation/memorial in The Independent declares Disch "one of the very best second-rank poets of the later 20th century in America." 
  • The McKie and Clute links both come via the recently reactivated m john harrison blog.  Harrison, who knew Disch from the "New Wave"/New Worlds era of the late '60s, provides his own view as well:

He was the best of us.

  • Speaking of M. John Harrison, whose splendid Viriconium I just finished rereading: he reports that he has an essay/review on H.P. Lovecraft forthcoming in the Guardian, which should be worth a look.  Meanwhile he helpfully provides a link to a 1933 newsreel interview with Lovecraft.  It bears itself with an air of verisimilitude, but . . . .
  • John Lanchester, in the London Review of Books, declares himself an "abject fan" of the Library of America, which is now up to its 177th volume:

I own, I find, ten of its volumes: three of Parkman, one each of Henry James, Adams, Baldwin, Frost and Stevens, the new [Edmund] Wilson, and an anthology of writing about baseball.  The books are lovely, lovely objects.  They are about the nicest books I have.  American books are in general printed to much higher standards than British books.  (Ask publishers about that, and they always say that it’s to do with economies of scale: five times as big an audience equals higher print runs equals lower costs equals the possibility to make nicer books.  So they say.)  The Library takes that tendency about as far as it will go: it’s hard not to take the volumes down from the shelves and stroke them, like a Bond villain fondling a cat.

Purrrrr.  I have maintained a subscription to the Library for years now.  Under Lanchester's influence, I counted my own LOA holdings up the other evening, and discovered that I have just recently topped 100 of them.  Oh, dear.  (And that is without even counting the dozen or so volumes I have accumulated from the Library's little sibling, the American Poets Project.)   If Lanchester is "abject," I've no idea what epithet is sufficient to convey my pathetic devotion to the series. 

  • Strict grammarian and law firm disciplinarian Dan Hull of What About Clients? reports that he has been

busy debriefing and then terminating summer help that can't or won't proofread drafts of court documents and check cites because they 'didn't really believe' all along that that was their job, and that we were just joshing.

*Sigh*   While Dan is preoccupied with sacking summer associates and proffering proofreading advice, we caution him to beware the inexorable workings of . . . Muphry's Law:

Muphry's Law dictates that (a) if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written; (b) if an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book; (c) the stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault; (d) any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

[Via Radley Balko.]

Thomas M. Disch (1940-2008)

On Saturday, in my John Berryman post, I mentioned Thomas M. Disch's use of the suicidal Berryman's ghost as a character in one of his novels.  I had no idea at the time I posted it that Disch himself, sadly, had taken his own life the previous day.

I came by the news first through John Crowley's LiveJournal, where the commenters now include Disch's surviving family members and Philip K. Dick's third wife Anne.  Appreciations, and links to appreciations, can also be found at Crooked Timber, Hit & Run, and 2blowhards.

While he will deservedly be remembered as a very fine writer of science fiction and similarly fantastic fiction, he was also a (to my mind underrated) poet.  I purchased a copy of his first collection, The Right Way to Figure Plumbing, at Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the late 70s; it ranks high on my list of books that have somehow got away from me and that I now miss having.  He continued to post his recent poetry among the entries on his own LiveJournal, Endzone.  Simply because it is an interesting poem, and not for the sake of trying to read any doomy foreshadowing into it, here is his entry from June 17:

Tears the Bullet Wept

We know that bullets sing.
Bret Harte transcribed their song.
But give them this: they weep as well,
And theirs are the most precious souvenirs
That venders hawk on the streets of hell.

What is so tragic as the lethal blast
Of thunderbolt or .38
That turns what had been present
Into past?  There he stood
And here he lies at last.
Will you not shed a single tear
For any such?  Is that too much to ask?

Here is a tear. Weigh it,
Please, Sir, on your scale--
And I will tell you the whole tale.
But only when your job is done.
Kill all the rest first.  I will wait.

I had also been trying to think of an excuse to link his "Write about Flowers" from February, just because I smiled over this passage:

Just before bed I'd been reading
Portrait of a Lady
with special reference
to Pansy, James's nightmare of a rich, dumb
American girl. Flowers are about sex, about how
to get bees to rub up against your anthers.
Teenage girls are much the same.

Born on Groundhog Day, died on the Fourth of July.  He would have been able to make something of that.  Ave atque vale.


Some previous Disch references (there are others for those who would hunt them up) on a fool in the forest:

Happy Bleepin' Bloomsday


As noted by weblogs around the globe, today is Bloomsday, the annual commemoration of that very particular day in Dublin -- the 16th of June, 1904 -- depicted in such inner and outer detail in James Joyce's Ulysses.  Among those observances is a very fine Ulysses-themed edition of Blawg Review hosted by Dr. Eoin O'Dell, of the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin, at cearta.ie.

Ulysses had no legitimate U.S. edition until 1934, the book having been seized and prosecuted for obscenity at the instigation of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, among others, and only vindicated on those charges in 1933.  It is still notorious for its naughty bits and, while certifiably not obscene, still troubles regulatory authorities and those that are regulated by them.  To that effect, see George Hunka's report at Superfluities Redux that for the first time since 1981 there will be no radio simulcast of New York City's annual "Bloomsday on Broadway" event, because the station involved is concerned that Joyce's words may draw the wrath of the FCC and such-like officious intermeddlers.   

On a very much lighter note, you may follow the link below to view an amusing short film -- containing rather more profanity (by far) than I am inclined to embed directly on this page -- in which James Joyce and his sometime secretary Samuel Beckett are found on the golf course . . . waiting . . .


Illustration: Postcard, ca. 1904, from the splendid Joyce Images site, "dedicated to illustrating Ulysses using period documents," curated by Aida Yared.

Maas Media, or, What's a Sema For?

Lot49 Attention Pynchonophiles and fanciers of cryptography:

Thanks to an email from pal Rick, I am able to point you to this Mercury News article [reg. req'd] revealing the Sinister Secret of the San Jose Semaphore.  W.A.S.T.E no time in checking it out.  Missing the message of this courier would be a tragedy.

If you haven't, you should definitely read the book (no longer featuring the fine swingin' psychedelic cover  -- and somewhat misleading description -- at right, which is on the edition I've been reading and rereading these past decades.)  There is, naturally, a Wiki to assist the perplexed.

Video of the art work at work can be found on the "Media" page of the official San Jose Semaphore site.

Only vaguely related: Followers of late 70's New Wave will perhaps recall that "Semaphore Signals" is also an old Wreckless Eric tune.  With Ian Dury on drums!

Anime'd Summer Night's Dream

Of course, you have to imagine this passage as being read in the stentorian manner of Mr. Coming Attractions, Don LaFontaine:

The year is 2017.  Global climate change has devastated the Earth.  This is now a cyberworld in constant dread of war.  The state of Denmark has grown prosperous and defended itself successfully against neighbouring states.  But could it be that its greatest threat comes not from without, but from within the state itself?

It is in this cyberworld that we find the young Hamlet.  His grief over his father's recent death turns to something far darker when the ghost of his father appears to him.  Hamlet is very soon to discover that something is rotten in the state of Denmark...

No, this is not your father's Hamlet -- or mine.  This is Hamlet from the new Manga Shakespeare series of graphically novelized versions of the plays from UK publisher SelfMadeHero.


What you get with this series are Shakespearean plots moved to imagined worlds consistent with the manga form -- hence Hamlet in a dystopian future and Romeo and Juliet set "in the highly fashionable Shibuya district of Tokyo" where Romeo (a rock star, naturally) and his love are "caught up in a bitter feud between two Yakuza families."  The dialogue is a cut-down version of Shakespeare's own, as seen in this animated version of the beginning of a Hamlet scene much prized Fools the world over. 

The rationale behind these adaptations is the predictable one: to make Shakespeare -- *sigh*, let's all say it together -- "more accessible to today's reader."

Manga is a dynamic, emotional and cinematic medium easily absorbed by the eye. Its attractive art and simple storytelling methods will enthuse readers to approach Shakespeare's work in the way he intended – as entertainment.

Shakespeare has survived worse.  Personally, I am less disturbed by any apparent "dumbing down" of the Bard -- or by the odd use of the verb "enthuse" in that last quote -- than I am by the prospect that we are only ten years away from living in an environmentally devastated cyberworld ruled by Denmark.

Hamlet and R&J came out in March, and are available domestically via Amazon; the publisher's catalogue [PDF] promises expansion of the series later this year to include Richard III, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  In the Fall, SelfMadeHero will also launch The Classical Eye, a series of graphic versions of non-Shakespearean literature, starting with selections from Kafka, Poe, and Bulgakov and moving next year to include Stevenson, Wilde, and Dostoevsky.  This cover is certainly striking, although it owes more to Dashiell Hammett's black bird than to Poe's:

[Manga Shakespeare links via John Holbo on The Valve.  For sheer amusement value, I recommend that you not miss the collection of chibi Shakespeare avatars appended as the first comment to Prof. Holbo's post.]