In recent years, several high-profile novelists have turned to comics or allowed their work to be adapted. But Chuck Palahniuk doing so is something special, which just might actually lead to new comics readers — and even better comics.
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Chuck Palahniuk announced that he was going to be producing a sequel to Fight Club as a graphic novel. It’s a long way off; it’s not expected to appear before 2015, and it doesn’t have a publisher yet (although Palahniuk’s reportedly talked with several), nor an artist. But it’s supposedly in the works, and Palahniuk recently revealed some plot details:
The sequel will be told from the — at first — submerged perspective of Tyler Durden as he observes the day-to-day tedium of the narrator’s life. Because 20th Century-Fox created the convention of calling the protagonist Jack, I’m calling him Cornelius. He’s living a compromised life with a failing marriage, unsure about his passion for his wife. The typical midlife bullshit. Likewise, Marla is unsatisfied and dreams of accessing the wild man she’d once fallen in love with. She tampers with the small pharmacy of drugs that her husband needs to suppress Tyler, and — go figure — Tyler reemerges to terrorize their lives.
One of the themes of the original Fight Club was a particularly male form of disillusionment that comes with corporate labor in polite restaurants and antiseptic cubicles. The men who came to Fight Club were normal men who didn’t have an outlet for the adrenaline-fueled excitement of fighting. Beneath all the cleverness and surprising prose was an implicit argument that men had evolved to crave this kind of raw and dangerous competition, and that climbing the corporate ladder and first-person shooters had failed to satisfy as forms of sublimation. That the narrator would be unsatisfied in a domestic life, even with his dream girl, makes perfect sense, and it might allow Palahniuk to further explore these themes.
Of course, this sequel will have to address the differences between the novel and the film. The 1999 movie is more famous, but the 1996 novel was just as much a revelation. Palahniuk’s terse prose, use of the second person (“you”), use of snappy “refrains” that changed as they were repeated throughout the novel, and the novel’s jumping around in time — Fight Club the novel was something radically new. It read like something written for the then just-dawning internet age, for young people with short attention spans, yet somehow managed to accomplish this while still being literary. It was a rare work that managed to be both smart and punchy. While the film adaptation made many excellent choices of its own, much of its genius comes from successfully adapting the novel’s radical style.
The novel does end differently, however. In the movie, Tyler’s mission succeeds and his alter ego and Marla get their happy ending. It’s a typical happy Hollywood ending, but accomplished with a stylistic panache that drowns out any objections. In the novel, Tyler’s bombs don’t explode, and the narrator is stuck in a mental hospital, which he seems to confuse for Heaven. Through the orderlies, we see that Fight Club is still alive and well… and preparing for Tyler’s return.
In Palahniuk’s description of the sequel’s plot, he seems to be following the trajectory of the movie’s ending, rather than his own novel. There’s certainly a precedent for that. When Arthur C. Clarke wrote the sequel to 2001, he made the planet visited in the original Jupiter, although it was Saturn in Clarke’s novel. Closer to home, when Bret Easton Ellis penned a sequel to his novel Less than Zero, he wrote a follow-up to the original plot but incorporated the existence of the movie into the sequel. Given the popularity of the film version of Fight Club, a sequel that’s accessible to viewers of the film who haven’t read the original novel certainly makes sense.
On the other hand, the sequel to Less than Zero might offer a cautionary tale. Bret Easton Ellis and Palahniuk are indisputably the most successful authors of transgressive fiction. The 1985 novel Less than Zero was Fight Club before Fight Club: a short and punchy novel, perceived as being written for MTV attention spans, which nonetheless showed impressive literary skill. Less than Zero more directly examined the cynicism of the L.A. rich than male corporate disillusionment, but the novel took readers to some very dark places and was frequently denounced for its content. As this shock waned, it came to be acknowledged as a classic — one that was also a cut above the novels it was likened to in the 1980s, most of which have been forgotten. Amusingly, Ellis’s 2010 sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, received far better reviews, but despite a huge marketing campaign has come to be seen as a commercial disappointment. Just because you’re finally doing a sequel to a beloved book doesn’t guarantee a huge hit.
Then again, Palahniuk’s career has taken a very different path than Ellis’s. It was the success of the Fight Club movie that made Palahniuk’s novels into best-sellers. For years, he became the hip thing to read, at least among a certain set. Disaffected college kids who didn’t read much that wasn’t assigned by a teacher would read everything from Palahniuk, and you could hear them arguing over which novel was best in cafes. For years, everything Palahniuk wrote became a best-seller. And unlike Ellis, who took greater and greater spans of years between his books, Palahniuk churned out new novels at the rate of about one a year.
As time wore on, however, the buzz about Palahniuk gradually changed. You could hear it in the cafes. The question became, Was Palahniuk treading water? His writing had a certain style, and that style didn’t seem to be evolving. True, he tackled new subjects, most recently with a surreal series set in Hell (of which two books, 2011′s Damned and this year’s Doomed, have so far been released) and a slick riff on classic Hollywood (2010′s Tell-All). But the sheer newness of Palahniuk’s terse style and refrains, under covers bearing one-or-two-word titles, wasn’t new anymore. Inevitably, his new work was seen as not living up to his classics. For his part, Palahniuk has consistently discussed his style as if it were a universal literary value. This might help that style’s cause against the stodgy old guard, but it might also prevent that style from adapting and evolving. But sales of his works have reportedly dropped. And I don’t hear the debates over his work in the cafes anymore.
Perhaps that’s inevitable. Perhaps Palahniuk was a staple of a certain generation, of a certain subculture in a certain place and time. Perhaps his audience has aged, and the new twentysomethings have new literary fads to follow. But Palahniuk wasn’t simply a fad. He’s a real writer, with real literary panache. At least in my circles, he’s a giant. And it’s not overstating the case to say he changed how novels were written. Page-long descriptions in the past tense were already on their way out when Fight Club was released, but Palahniuk morphed the novel into something shorter, punchier, and more than likely written in the present tense. The rise of flash fiction is at least in part due to Palahniuk’s influence. And at least part of why his work hasn’t felt as new anymore is because it’s being published alongside so many Palahniuk imitators.
In terms of Palahniuk’s career, doing Fight Club 2 as a graphic novel (or series of graphic novels; the format’s apparently yet to be determined) might be just what Palahniuk’s career needs. It’s something new, something different. Of course, one would expect Palahniuk’s style to be retained, since this would be a sequel, and its style should reflect that of the original. But combined with comics panels and visual storytelling, that style’s inevitably going to come off very differently.
Moreover, as Palahniuk’s pointed out, there’s a large overlap between his audience and those who read comics. Although necessarily a generalization, Palahniuk’s readers are probably disproportionately a little weird, a little disaffected, a little smarter, and likely to be in their early thirties. In other words, they’re basically the audience Vertigo used to attract. Palahniuk fans are the kind of people who probably didn’t grow up on graphic novels but tried them in the 2000s. They’re people who are probably more interested in independent graphic novels than super-heroes. They picked up The Sandman or Preacher or Maus or Johnny, the Homicidal Maniac — or more recently, Asterios Polyp — but they don’t have any sense of a comics canon, the way people who buy comics on Wednesdays have. They’re willing to read a comic if they hear good things, and they don’t look down on the medium, but killing off Wolverine means nothing to them. In other words, they’re basically exactly the people we in comics wanted to attract, as we championed comics as a medium. A lot of these people have tried comics but aren’t regular readers, and Fight Club 2 could be a way to get them back.
In recent years, we’ve seen comics industry make a lot of attempts to appeal to a more mainstream adult audience. Marvel’s produced copious comics starring Stephen King’s characters, and Vertigo’s adapted the hit novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Some of these have been more successful than others.
But Fight Club 2? Written by the original author? Available only in comics? That might just be a game-changer.
This isn’t because it would be written up in every major news outlet. It would, but so would lots of high-profile comics projects. You could grab headlines with a Twilight comic, but by now we’ve all seen that headlines don’t translate into permanent comics readers. High-profile projects are great, and they might even sell, but like big-budget movies, major news stories haven’t necessarily created many regular comics readers. It’s one thing to get someone to step into a comics store, or a bookstore, and buy a comic, or to get someone to click “buy” on a graphic novel listing on Amazon. It’s quite another thing to make comics part of someone’s culture, the same way movies and TV and novels are.
Perhaps more than any of comics’ other media coups, Fight Club 2 holds that promise. That’s because the people to whom Fight Club 2 appeals are exactly the kind of people who aren’t scared of comics and are more than willing to try out something different, if you give them a product that appeals to them. After all, they tried out Fight Club. While I’m not going to hold my breath, having been disappointed before, Fight Club 2 probably has more potential to bring new readers into comics than any of these previous high-profile projects.
Heck, it might even spur an effect in comics not unlike what the first Fight Club spurred in novels: the creation of more works, designed to appeal to this new audience. In comics, this would mean works more concerned with dynamic storytelling, crafted for a general audience, rather than more stories dripping with continuity or aimed at readers already familiar with comics history and tropes. In other words, to help put the “novel” into “graphic novel,” which isn’t simply a reference to the length of a comic but to the culture of novels, in which readers can reasonably expect to pick up a novel (or the first volume in a series) and understand everything.
Fight Club 2 might help change its readers’ culture, bringing them more permanently into comics. But it also just might help change comics’ culture too.
I am Jack’s dejected but still optimistic hope.