On Comic Book Adaptations

This article isn’t about comic book movies. Quite the opposite in fact. What follows is a semi-directionless musing on why there are so few good comic books that adapt their stories from books and movies.

As far as art goes movies are special. For some reason movies, and almost no other medium, thrives on creative theft. Well not theft, because it’s perfectly legal and every art form thrives on thievery in one way or another. Movies adapt source material. Right now they adapt other stories more often then they create new ones. But even historically speaking when a movie adaptation of a book came out people would think nothing of it, except for the fans (I hope it stays true to the book), nowadays movies also adapt comic books (I hope it stays true to the comic), and even other movies (It better be better than the first one). But the same isn’t true of comics. I would have said comics and books once upon a time, but Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman have written Dr. Who books, so I don’t even know anymore. Books aside comics almost never adapt books, rework past comics, or adapt movies. Except for when they do.

The problem is when they do it tends to be terrible. That’s because, up until relatively recently, comics have only attempted two kinds of adaptation.

One is the adaptation of “classics.” These comics tend to be aimed at those too stupid to read the original books. There’s sorta no way of sugar-coating it – most companies that focus on adapting classic books into comic form (especially public domain books) are targeting an audience who just can’t read very well. I have no inherent problem with this concept, to be honest. Kids who aren’t going to read Frankenstein should at least get a chance to take in the story and themes. But mainly these books oversimplify. Instead of creating a faithful adaptation and letting the visual nature of the medium help those who need it they create books that, through and through, are aimed at the lowest common denominator. They are often clearly shoddy, rushed through works, and rarely maintain the integrity of the source material. And they almost never do what a good adaptation should do – create an interesting new take or lens to view the work through.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good adaptations of classic books, because there have been. The Classics Illustrated line, for instance, seemingly favours interesting artists. I haven’t managed to read most of the line, but a standout name is Rick Geary. For those of you who don’t know Rick Geary is an artist whose style borders cartoony and realistic in that faintly grotesque way artists like Richard Corben do. Rick Geary favours non-fiction works, mainly a series of docu-comics about Victorian murderers. Geary did two comics for Classics Illustrated, an adaptation of Great Expectations and of the Invisible Man. I’ve only read the latter, but it was excellent. His documentary style added to and complemented Wells original text and the story was largely intact. The Invisible Man is also a much better book for this sort of exercise – it’s already very short, so you don’t have to loose much in the simplification process. All this means it works, though I suspect that may be in spite of the format

The Second type of adaptation is licensed adaptations. This is popping up more in recent years, therefore kind of negating the desperation between types one to two and three, but whatever. Licensed adaptations are everywhere. From children’s comics based off the latest big blockbuster to long running licensed series occasionally dabbling in direct adaptation. Think of Star Wars, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Transformers, Pacific Rim, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly comics. These tend to vary pretty drastically in quality, but mostly when these sort of series to direct adaptations (as opposed to sequels, prequels, or the further adventures of the characters). This also pops up when you get things like Twilight comics (I have no idea if these actually exist, and I refuse to look them up), or things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Warriors, and any number of others. Some good adult books get adaptations too, a few of Neil Gaiman’s works have been adapted, but given that Neil Gaiman is a comic writer in his own right that feels strangely unnecessary.

Much like the adaptations of classic books these licensed comics tend to feel rushed, corporate, and generally sloppy. Mainly comics like Joss Whedon’s work best – comics that, instead of adapting, extend the story of a show or movie. Also see the Pacific Rim prequel, designed to explore more of the unseen world building that went into the film. Comics that adapt scripts can be interesting, Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Alien adaptation is fairly wonderful, rushed to be sure, but still peppered with flashes of brilliance. It’s also fascinating to read it, because it seems to be and early version of the script. Tales of Sand is another similar exercise, and it received generally very positive reviews (I have yet to read it myself).

Of course, in recent times (yes, even more recent then number two) there’s a new adaptation-related trend. That is, of course, the horrible bastardization of classic characters in new context. Think I, Frankenstein . The earlier example of this trend (that I can think of right now with no research) is Alan Moore’s excellent League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Mainly what this trend entails is talking a character from a copyright free classic and either putting them in a modern setting, increasing the violence, or regularly taking their clothes off. Generally these are about on par with I, Frankenstein. There are a few exceptions, including the aforementioned League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Warren Ellis’ Aether Mechanics (one could make an argument that Planetary falls in this category, but only sorta). These sort of books largely don’t qualify as actual adaptations, for the same reason the latest SyFy movie featuring Abe Lincoln isn’t a biography.

So mainly I’ve spent this article tearing apart comic book adaptations, so it’s time to talk about a few GREAT ones.

To understand what makes a good adaptation perhaps it’s best to look to good adaptions in film, to touch base with pieces of art more universally viewed. There are a core few films that are recognizably brilliant adaptations of brilliant books; Apocalypse Now, No Country for Old Men, The Maltese Falcon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Psycho, and more. There’s also a large number of phenomenal adaptions that are either superior to the source material, or change it drastically enough that they become a very different kind of adaptation. These include Blade Runner, Jaws, Drive, and pretty much the entirety of Hitchcock and Kubrick’s oeuvre. All these adaptations, to varying degrees, do one thing alike – they alter and adjust the source material to better fit the new medium. Most of the director’s involved also adjusted the thematic focuses of the original to better reflect things that concerned them. So it has to be with comics. One cannot lift a story from one medium and plunk it unaltered into a new one, that’s far too square-peg-in-a-round-hole to ever fully work. Comics alterable length is a considerable advantage in this regard, but as a medium that’s A) mainly visual and B) made up of static images some changes are always going to have to be made. There are literally no exceptions to this. I will eat my hat if you can find one.

It all rests in the quality and ingenuity of these changes. Ultimately, while one can use the original story as the starting point for an entirely new one, that’s not really making a good adaptation then. A good adaptation should feel original, and new. It should smoothly transfer one medium to another, and the end result should be well executed for a comic under normal circumstances. It can reflect new artistic concerns, while still keeping an awareness of the original’s intended themes.

So here are those examples I promised:

City of Glass – Perhaps one of the all-time best literary adaptations going, Paul Auster’s City of Glass, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli, is a phenomenal work. It brilliantly innovates and adjusts in order to make this book work as a comic. It’s engaging, beautiful, and some say a more successful piece of art than the original book. ”

Parker – This comic, based on a book by Richard Stark and adapted by Darwin Cooke, is fabulous. Cooke wonderfully contrasts caption and dialogue free panels with narration heavy scenes in a far bolder manner than most. This is perhaps best exemplified by the lengthy opening sequence completely free of any text at all. Leaning heavily on comics’ visual nature (Cooke also occasionally uses infographics) allows him to fully drag one medium into another. Many artists are more hesitant than Cooke is! and it pays off. Parker is a bold, effective adaptation.

The works of P Craig Russell – I love P Craig Russell. For my money he’s one of, if not the, most talented people working in comics right now. The reasons why are a whole article in of themselves, however suffice it to say his command of anatomy, layouts, panel composition, stylization, pacing, and even eminata rival anyone else in the industry. And he prefers adapting stories to writing them. What this means is that P Craig Russell is better at adapting books and short stories than most people are at writing them. One of Russell’s favourite things to adapt are operas, which, if you extend the previous metaphor, is less like fitting a square peg in a round hole and more like carving a lump of wood into a swan and then fitting THAT into a round peg. He takes a medium primarily based around sound and translates it to a silent, static medium intended for a large group of people who probably have limited musical knowledge. It’s seriously mind-blowing stuff. But perhaps a better example of his talent is the Coraline comic. Based off the Neil Gaiman book of the same name Coraline is a perfect adaptation. Russell knows when to use huge chunks of Gaiman’s original text and when to let the art speak for itself. He knows how strongly to rely on art to represent rather abstract concepts. He knows when to let his own artistic sensibilities overtake Gaiman’s and when to hold back. It is an absolute masterclass in everything I’ve been talking about.

Obviously there are a few simple reasons why comics don’t dabble in adaptation as regularly as they could. The first is that the comics industry is still superheroes first, everything else second. Adaptations tend to fall in the “everything else” category. The other reason is money. Comics like Coraline are commissioned by the publishers and authors. Other than this type of situation it’s just too expensive for comic writer’s to buy the rights to books and movies. It’s a huge price to pay given that it’s a hard thing to sell down the line. That’s why there’s a slight increase in adaptations of public domain books. Have you noticed how many Lovecraft adaptations have come out of the woodwork lately? But actual, even semi-popular, books and films are just too expensive. Sadly even a relatively well-sold comic probably wouldn’t make enough money to make it a successful venture. That’s it. There’s no grand artistic reason. No inherent flaw in transferring one medium to another. It all comes down to the state of the comics industry. Hopefully an increase in online comics and more and more classics entering the public domain there will be a more diverse collection of comic book adaptations.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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