[ Small Chirp ] Do novels work in comic book form?

Graphic novels, these literary, comic-book-style stories, have become increasingly mainstream since the ’80s–enough that even a square like me has read Watchmen and the Sandman series. They are creative and thought-provoking and wonderful.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. There is a growing trend in the graphic novel world that I’m not sure what to make of: adapting pre-written novels into graphic novel format.

A few months ago, I was browsing Barnes & Noble and saw a graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Since Coraline looked a little older than her book self, I guessed it was produced as a way to bring the older Sandman crowd in to check out some of Neil’s other work. I finished it in a sitting and went on my way.

Not too long after that, my mother came home from the library with another graphic novel in her hand.

“I saw this and remembered you’d read it,” she said. “I don’t think you’ve seen this version, though.”

I had read the book, all right.

It was Neverwhere, again by Neil Gaiman, and one of my favorites. There were a few elements in the graphic novel that didn’t synch up with what I’d imagined—Door’s face was tattooed, and the artist took the description of the Marquis de Carabas’ complexion as “very black” literally, making him a nonhuman character rather than a dark black man—but I actually found myself enjoying some of these stylistic surprises.

I thought I was wise to what was going on at this point. Neil Gaiman is a very prominent figure in the comics world, so I assumed he was adapting his novels one by one. Then, last week, I was stunned to find a graphic novel for Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. This is my Favorite Novel of All Time. This was getting personal.

Graphic novel versions of regular novels make me a little wary–I get the same feeling as when a beloved book is coming out as a movie.

I’m not sure whether to trust another person’s imagination with characters I love.

Apparently, companies like Marvel have been adapting classics to graphic novels for the last few years. The idea seems to be to make great stories more accessible to people who are intimidated by the language of Austen or Shakespeare, while also presenting a fresh take for those who loved the original. I had to laugh when I saw Pride and Prejudice styled like a glossy magazine.

But I find myself a little torn. Part of me is excited to see artists and writers collaborating to share stories. The adaptations I’ve read have been fun, thoughtfully drawn, and reasonably faithful representations.

Is it a good idea to adapt books into graphic novels?

On the other hand, Pride and Prejudice isn’t Seventeen magazine. One of the reasons I loved Something Wicked This Way Comes so much is the poetry of the language. You have more imaginative freedom reading a graphic novel than watching a movie, but there’s definitely an element you give up as well.

When you strip out all text except dialogue and minimal narration, you lose the chance to see how someone made the story work.

So where do you stand? What book would you love (or hate) to see in comic-book form?

7 thoughts on “[ Small Chirp ] Do novels work in comic book form?

  1. Part of me wants to say, “Keep your mitts off my classics, you illiterate hordes!”, but they’re not my classics, and it’s not really a question of illiteracy. They’re very different mediums, and I love me a good graphic novel. They’re fun.

    Once I overcome that knee-jerk elitist gut reaction (which, I suspect, halfway comes from a sentiment of “I had to suffer through the first, unimaginably slow 3/4ths of Tale of Two Cities, and you should too!”), I don’t think these adaptations are a bad thing at all.

    Full disclosure: I did groan when I saw Twilight graphic novel on the shelf though.

    I’d love to see something by Steven Brust as a graphic novel–Oh, just looked it up. Apparently it has already happened. Uhm.

    I have just googled few of my favorite novels and authors, and apparently, they all have a graphic novel version out. That’s…kinda awesome. In a sneak-up-on-you-and-live-in-your-closet-without-you-ever-noticing way. 😀

  2. Given that I’m a comics person by trade, I’ll confess to being a bit biased when it comes to the value of a comic book. There’s a lot that can be done with visuals that simply cannot be accomplished by prose, and vice verse. That said, I don’t believe that every story is meant for pictures in the place of its prose. For that matter, I don’t find every play as effective when read as when performed.

    In the end, what it comes down to for me is: What is the purpose of the work? What message is being conveyed, and can that message translate across every media in an equally effective manner?

    There is something tactile and unlimited about reading a book. The mind forms an entire world, free of limitation. My imagining of Middle Earth is probably not the same as my mother’s. I hear the voices of the characters, see their forms, and every time a media provides this information for me, I lose something in the process. This part of why I usually dislike films based on books, unless they’re drastically different. Film versions of characters tend to re-write my internal versions, but they never have the vague nuance that my mind managed to achieve on its own.

    What I think the reader stands to gain with a graphic novel (or film, for that matter) is greater depth to the tone and emotion of a story in a more targeted and efficient way. Effective visuals can instantly establish a mood that might take a book chapters and chapters to build. I even remember seeing a comic book about a cave-in that managed to create an increasing sense of claustrophobia by subtly manipulating border and frame sizes throughout the piece. Gradually the visuals became more cramped and narrow, drawing the reader into the experience in a way that words alone could not accomplish.

    If the message is dependent on the beauty of the form itself — the use of the language — then something is going to be lost in the transfer to a new media. However, if the message is dependent more on the sensation created or concepts explored (particularly if there is a heavy reliance on symbolism), a skillfully done graphic novel might suit the story just as well. Maybe even better.

    I’d be curious to see if the mood from “Crime and Punishment” could be effectively conveyed in comic form. The first chunk of that book is written in a way that you almost feel trapped by it, so when the murder is committed, it’s almost a relief. Which I find an amazingly interesting bit of writing. I’d love to see visuals that could create a similar sensation. A graphic novel attempt of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” could also be pretty fascinating. Or a complete train wreck!

    Pfff, why do I make comics again? Clearly, based on the length of the posts I write, I should be making novels!!

    • Awesome comment! Sorry I haven’t responded sooner, I got swamped. It was really interesting to read your thoughts on the power of visual art, and I agree that color and proportion can create an immediate, visceral emotion that tales more time to create with words. In my lit class, we actually just spent a week discussing a movie, trying to decide how we would adapt it successfully to the page. As a writer, I’m learning what to do by getting down into the bones of written stories, so losing pages of text in favor of description makes it harder for me to appreciate everything that was done with the book. As an artist, I imagine it’s much more interesting for you to see images achieving the same goals. From that perspective, it’s a great thing for the best stories we have to get translated into graphic form, so you’ve got the same timeless, moving material to learn from in your preferred medium.

  3. Before I ever dabbled in writing, I liked to draw. So, it seems perfectly natural to me to at least consider a graphic form of a book. Even just a picture book option. Actually, accessibility – as you mentioned it – it the best reason to do it, I think. Since. I started to get back into writing, it has blown me away how many people just don’t read for pleasure. I guess it’s a bit like iPhoning the book – bringing the joy to th masses. I like it. Maybe graphic novels will be The Next Big Thing.

    • I don’t know. Accessibility is great, but with all due respect to artists, making a “picture book” for those who don’t read for pleasure feels a little patronizing. I do like graphic novels adaptations as an experimentation/exploration platform for those who read novels and want to see them approached from new angles.

    • Poe would be sweet in graphic novel form! Lovecraft would be awful, though. So much of his work relies on “indescribable” horror and sights terrible enough to cause madness that artwork by definition has to fall short (unless the images actually do cause insanity, in which case we’ve got another problem on our hands).

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