Good Tickle Brain's Mya Gosling interprets Shakespeare one stick figure at a time
This story was originally published on June 11, 2018.
What if Cliff's Notes had Cliff's Notes?
Mya Gosling's Good Tickle Brain is a web-based comics series that reduce Shakespeare's works to three panels. Named after a Falstaff line from Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry IV Part 1 -- "Peace, good pint-pot. Peace, good tickle-brain" -- Gosling's stick-figure interpretations of ol' Will's works have garnered acclaim across the web for their wit, particularly her "Which Shakespeare Play Should I See?" flowchart, which has allowed her to transition from being a library cataloger to a full-time comic artist.
Gosling has expanded her focus to include Keep Calm and Muslim On, written by her friend Andrea Annaba, and Sketchy Beta, the world's only rock-climbing comic strip, as well as three-panel interpretations of many other plays and movies. But the website's namesake Shakespeare strip is when I first discovered Gosling's work during last year's Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival (A2CAF). My kids fell in love with her The Complete Works of Shakespeare in Three Panels book, which inspired them to go on and dive deep into the Bard's full catalog of plays as well as the film and graphic novel versions.
Gosling will be at this year's A2CAF festival June 16 & 17 at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, and I emailed with her about all things three-panel Shakespeare.
Q: Which play was the hardest to condense into three panels?
A: Most of Shakespeare's comedies were very challenging, as the plots are often complicated, wide-ranging, and nonsensical. Cymbeline was probably the hardest overall to summarize: that wonderful, crazy play has just about every single ludicrous plot twist known to humankind in it. Shakespeare's tragedies are comparatively easy to summarize; someone makes a bad decision and everyone ends up dead.
Q: What is it about using three panels that serve comics so well?
A: The three-panel grid is sort of my structural foundation, which I can alter and build on depending on the comic I'm working on. My comics are quite text-heavy, and three- or four-panel layouts seems to allow for a good balance of text and images, with neither overwhelming the other. Obviously, I often change the format to suit the content, but if I'm staring at a blank page, I'll generally gravitate towards three panels and then work from there.
From a storytelling standpoint, almost all stories and jokes can be broken down into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. For this reason, I feel that the three-panel format is ideal for summarizing anything from entire plays down to individual speeches. It's very succinct and convenient.
Q: I know you’ve had a lifelong interest in Shakespeare, but did the comic end up pushing you deep into study -- and do you ever feel boxed in by having to be something of a Shakespeare expert, even if a casual one? How often are you rereading the plays to get ideas?
A: I think the important thing to realize is that my interest in Shakespeare manifests itself in exactly the same way as my interest in The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or board games or rock climbing or any of my various other obsessions. When I'm interested in something, I consume as much of it as I possibly can. With The Lord of the Rings that means not only reading the novels (including The Silmarillion) and seeing the movies, but also reading annotated companion volumes, compilations of Tolkien's letters, and other supplementary materials. With Shakespeare, that means not only seeing the plays (including the three parts of Henry VI), but also reading Shakespeare-related histories, biographies, actor and director memories, and production diaries. I'm not studying Shakespeare: I'm geeking out about Shakespeare in the same way that I geek out about everything else that I like.
You'll note I specified "seeing" the plays as opposed to "reading" the plays. I actually only read a play if I'm doing a complete scene-by-scene comic adaptation of it. Shakespeare's plays are meant to be performed, not merely read on a page. This is not to say that you can't get anything from reading Shakespeare, but for me personally, I connect with his work much more when I see it in performance. I actually haven't READ most of Shakespeare's plays; my familiarity with them comes primarily from having been fortunate enough to have SEEN them repeatedly in performance.
So no, I don't feel boxed in by having to be a Shakespeare expert, because I'm not pretending or even wanting to be an expert. I'm a fan, and that's enough.
Q: Your comics were a gateway for my then 10- & 8-year-old sons. They felt pride in having a bit of Shakespeare knowledge and that encouraged them to explore Shakespeare for kids rewrites and graphic novels, which led to watching classic film interpretations, and eventually, reading the original plays. And then writing sonnets. And having dinner discussions about Julius Caesar. It’s been wild to see them eat this stuff up. When did you realize your comics could have a real impact on kids who might otherwise have no interest in or be intimidated by Shakespeare? Has that knowledge impacted the way you tell your comic versions?
A: IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY TO HEAR THAT, YOU HAVE NO IDEA!!!!!!
No, but seriously, hearing about how my comics have helped kids get excited by Shakespeare is one of the highlights of my job. I love getting emails from teachers telling me how they're using my comics in their classrooms to help students engage with Shakespeare.
My intention when I started Good Tickle Brain was not to create some sort of Shakespearean educational resource; it was simply to share my own, personal enjoyment of Shakespeare by highlighting some of the more absurd and silly aspects of his plays. However, it became almost immediately apparent to me that this approach would be a great way to help overcome what I consider to be the greatest obstacle to understanding and appreciating Shakespeare, namely the unconscionably widespread tendency to take him seriously.
There's this misguided notion that Shakespeare's plays are somehow Great Literature, when in fact they were popular culture, the Elizabethan equivalent of Game of Thrones. Having said that, it's important to recognize that Shakespeare is not easy, especially if its encountered only on the page in the classroom, as opposed to being brought to life, as intended, on stage or screen. I'm hopeful that my comics cannot only introduce people (not only kids!) to Shakespeare's characters and plots in a fun, irreverent way that can help break down that comprehension barrier.
Q: Your comics seem to be loved by Shakespeare fans, but have you ever gotten crabby feedback from an uptight scholar who criticized you for the reduction nature of the comics or that they heartily disagree with the things you highlight in the three panels?
A: I've been fortunate that my work has been embraced not only by Shakespeare fans, but also by Shakespeare practitioners, including actors, directors, educators, and academics. So far -- and this is a miracle on the internet -- I don't think I've received ANY negative feedback.
I think one of the most important moments for me was when, fairly early into my Shakespearean cartooning career, I was contacted by educators from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, asking if they could use some of my illustrations in their work. The realization that this very respected organization, whose raison d'etre is Shakespeare scholarship and outreach, saw educational value in my work was very affirming and made me feel that I not only had a right to sit at the big kids' Shakespeare table but was also contributing something to it. I've had a similar experience with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.; all these esteemed scholastic Shakespearean institutions have turned out to have excellent senses of humor and have been simply wonderful in encouraging and supporting my work.
As with any subject, there are always the occasional mansplainers out there who periodically try to "enlighten" me, but by this stage, I'm confident enough in both my Shakespeare expertise and my abilities as an author and artist to not let that bother me. After all, if people don't like my work they can always create their own Shakespeare webcomic!
Q: You branched out in your three-panel series to include non-Shakespeare plays that are presented at the Stratford fest. Is that your only criterion for which plays you adapt? What are some other plays you’d like to do eventually?
A: I've also been doing three-panel summaries of the Ohio Light Opera's recent seasons! I've been going to the Stratford Festival and the Ohio Light Opera with my family almost every year since I was three or four years old. While they are wildly different organizations, they have both heavily influenced my interest in all kinds of theater over the years, and I like to create comics of their seasons as a sort of token of my appreciation.
I've done three-panel summaries of Shakespeare's apocrypha (plays attributed to him at one time or another which he either did not write or was only peripherally involved with) and would like to expand those to include the works of his contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. I'd also like to do more musical theater three-panel summaries, as musical theatre really was my first theatrical love. But really, I'm up for summarizing ANYTHING in three panels. I've already dabbled in summarizing Star Wars and would love to tackle Star Trek as well. And then there's The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter. To quote Pistol from The Merry Wives of Windsor, "The world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open."
Q: What’s your next complete stick figure Shakespeare book?
A: I'm probably going to tackle A Midsummer Night's Dream next. It's one of the most commonly taught and performed Shakespeare comedies, so maybe it'll be a useful resource for people ... but more than that, it's just a lot of fun! In fact, I'm worried about how I'm going to adapt it. While it's comparatively easy to make tragedies hilarious, it's hard to make a good comedy funnier than it already is.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
For more of Mya Gosling's work, visit goodticklebrain.com.