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Arisia: Graphic Novels of Prose Works

I’m on the Arisia panel: Beyond Classics Illustrated—Comic Book Adaptations of Prose Works.

(Picture from here.)

Now, I would prefer that this be Graphic Novel Adaptations of Prose Works. But you can’t have everything.

By the time you read this, Arisia will be over and I’ll be home in the shop or something. But, let’s get on with it.

I’ve read comics pretty much my entire life. Some of them were Classics Illustrated. CI wasn’t bad—I liked it as a kid. But the “classics” that were illustrated weren’t generally works that I needed to see illustrated since I read them myself such as Little Women, Huckleberry Finn, etc. (I had issues with Huckleberry Finn but then I have issues with all adaptations of Huckleberry Finn. Someday, I’ll do a post about it.) Works that I didn’t read on my own, I didn’t necessarily need to read illustrated since they didn’t hold my interest—I’m looking at you, Ivanhoe.

All that said, it does seem fertile ground for an adaptation. In the interest of research, I read the following graphic novel adaptations of prose material with which I was familiar:

  • 1984: The Graphic Novel, George Orwell, Fido Nesti
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel, Harper Lee, Fred Fordham
  • The Odyssey: Homer, Gareth Hinds
  • Macbeth: Shakespeare, Gareth Hinds
  • Ringworld: Larry Niven, Robert Mandell/Sean Lam
  • The Stars My Destination: Alfred Bester, Byron Preiss/Howard Chaykin

All of these are intended to be full explorations of the work. They are not reimagining the work but presenting the work as representative of the original. That said, they are adaptations—as a film or a play might be. They cannot be the original—the original is available to be read. I think—I hope—they are intended to present a different dimension of experience to the original. In addition, I chose these because I thought they were not works that required the original to be understood.

These are all fine works. They are well-produced and well-illustrated. Each individual work had an interesting visual approach. In 1984, Nesti took almost an almost Edvard Much approach to the illustration. Howard Chaykin took a sort of fifties serial illustration approach to The Stars My Destination. Hinds took a different approach between The Odyssey and Macbeth. In The Odyssey, the figures looked robust and strong—almost material ideals though they were clearly real people. However, in Macbeth, the figures looked more differentiated and less ideal. Ringworld is in a manga style. Fordham used a sort of Andrew Wyeth sensibility when he drew Mockingbird.

I mention the art because the visual creation is what’s brought to the table in the graphic narrative. One is not imagining Scout in Mockingbird; one is seeing her right there on the page. Imagination is not required.

Visual narrative is completely different from prose narrative. I’ve been working on adapting one of my stories into a comic. The original was 1200 words—barely a story at all. At this point, the story is twelve pages long and only a little over half done. Things that could be glossed over in a sentence might take six panels in a comic. Conversely, a scene that might require 200 words could be shown in a single panel. It’s a different medium.

This presents the first hurdle for the visual adaptation: what to leave in. What to leave out. Does the prose work in the confines of the comic? What to do if it does not.

Film and television adaptations have similar problems but different tools. For example, the outside narrator has a long and honored history in comics. Most narrators in films are at best redundant and at worst distracting. In film/television, the scene has to show real people in a sequence of time. Sequence—even timing within a given panel—is under much tighter control in comics. In Bruno, Chris Baldwin drew nearly every strip as one long horizontal panel, unbroken by any divisions. He managed to show both character interaction and the movement of time in a single image.

Given the premises that 1) the adaptation cannot be the original, and 2) the adaptation must stand on its own without requiring the original, how do the example adaptations measure up?

Macbeth, 1984, and The Stars My Destination all seem to have a similar problem: they are being too faithful to the original material. In 1984 and TSMD, a significant amount of prose is lifted directly from the original work and entered into the graphic novel. This means that the reader is getting overlapping information. A lot is coming from the page—the interior of the broken ship in TSMD and Winston’s apartment in 1984—and a lot is coming from the embedded prose. It feels conflicted. I see the Winston’s apartment. I don’t need to see it described. I see the Foyle’s ship. I don’t need it to be described.

What I want is the information I’m getting from the imagery and the information I’m getting from the prose (if any) to complement one another. Not repeat and not conflict. Macbeth has a similar problem—we read Shakespeare for the language as much as anything else. A graphic novel of a Shakespeare play without the beautiful dialog doesn’t seem to have much point. That said, it seemed to me that a graphic novel of Macbeth should go where a play wants to but can’t. Not sure Hinds’ effort did that for me.

Hinds was more successful with The Odyssey. The work was still dialog-heavy but in this case, the characters were all talking to each other. I do think he would have been better off leaning more on the visuals and less on the prose.

Mockingbird is much better. There is some narrative prose but not all that much of it—some could have been cut but that’s just me. Lee’s book contains a great deal of dialog which transposes well to the graphic novel form. Most of the prose Lee uses is to set the scene and that is well done with Fordham’s art.

Finally, Ringworld. The art/prose balance is very good here. There’s a bit of leading prose to set up the Known Space concept—it worried me when I started it. But it disappears pretty quickly. That said, I don’t like the art. This is not an objective observation. I just didn’t like it. Adaptation’s good. Dialog is good. Hits the story points properly. But I kept getting bogged down in the actual visual character representations.

I think the first issue to be handled with any visual representation of a prose work—be it film, television, or comic—is if the art works for the reader. As I said in the very beginning, comics are primarily a visual medium. If the eyes don’t like the work, you can stop there. That is an entirely subjective—and I suspect, unconscious—response. For example, I like the roughness of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä manga. It’s very different from the smooth imagery of the film.

This is one thing one can get from just looking at the work.

The second hurdle is how to represent the prose work structurally. As is pretty obvious from what I’ve said previously, I’m in favor of letting the art do the heavy lifting. There’s a lot of narrative description and observation that can just be shown rather than told. That said, artistically, showing appears to be much more difficult and requires a higher level of creativity than telling. Too much telling turns the comic into illustrated prose. That’s fine but I don’t think it’s the goal. Barry Moser is one of the finest illustrators I’ve ever seen but his work is absolutely dependent on the surrounding text. I think graphic novels should be something different.

The third hurdle is the same as for any visual media: how to visually represent the characters. I consider this separate from the artistic approach of the work. Chaykin’s choice to represent TSMD with a retro sensibility is one thing. But how he chooses to draw Gully Foyle’s face is independent of that.

This problem is addressed head on in Fordham’s Mockingbird. The strongest image almost anyone has of Atticus Finch is his portrayal by Gregory Peck in the film. Peck was six foot/two and towered over many people in the film. Fordham chose to portray Finch as average sized—in some panels smaller than some of those around him. The courtroom scenes often show people sitting or from shoulder to the top of the head, with only a single individual in a given panel. This makes it impossible for Finch to tower over anyone. His face is broader than Peck’s and he has the look of an accountant: an ordinary-looking man containing extraordinary strength of character.

I have a problem that I have a great deal of trouble transitioning from a film or television representation of a character to a representation of that same character in a comic. Spock or James Kirk? Can’t read the comics. Mal from Firefly. Nope. I think it’s an uncanny valley problem—they look enough like the human that inspired them that I can’t accept the differences. It’s curious that I don’t have the same problem with actual people—a comic containing Barack Obama doesn’t bother me at all.

I had no such problem with Fordham’s Finch. His Finch could not be mistaken for Gregory Peck. Gold star for Fordham.

In conclusion, do not let me put you off of any of the works I’ve discussed. These are completely subjective opinions. They’re mine. They don’t have to be yours.

I’m just pointing out some considerations.

Authors

1 thought on “Arisia: Graphic Novels of Prose Works”

  1. For two years, when I worked in comics, I was the editor of Acclaim Comics’ Classics Illustrated line. We got the right to reprint the old CI books, with refreshed color and reset type. I could, when needed, make small editorial changes, but mostly they were straight copies of the old 48-page comics, which left us with 12 pages in which to add what were essentially Cliffs Notes: brief, punchy articles on the author, the plot, character, and themes of the works. And because publishing is publishing, we only brought back the books we thought people were likely to want/read (the original CI was based on the readings of the line’s founder, who liked some things that none of us, pretty well-read folks, had ever heard of). So we started adding works to the line. The brief was: publish works that were likely to appear in school syllabi. So we did some more Shakespeare (Henry IV parts 1 and 2), the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and a bunch of other things. My very favorite was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, written by the late and wonderful Terry Bisson and illustrated by Kevin Kobasic, which never saw print–the line closed down before the publication date. And when the Broadway producers of The Scarlet Pimpernel musical wanted to purchase 10,000 copies of the Scarlet Pimpernel CI–which had not heretofore existed–we adapted that, too.

    That was a revelation in many ways: I did the adaptation, so I was more than usually up-close-and-personal with it. First, I had to deal with the shortcomings of the original (which is a whole other communication). But then… the space limitations on dialogue are unbelievably trick. Even in a book which has been adapted to film and that you think would fit into a graphic novel format…there’s no space for more than a sentence or two per panel. The idea of reducing To Kill a Mockingbird’s dialogue to that format makes my head hurt. Although it would be pretty easy with Boo Radley’s dialogue.

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