As the graphic novel format becomes more popular in the trade book marketplace, there's no shortage of half-hearted attempts to translate books into comics to make them more "accessible." In truth, the impulse is as old as those "abridged" comics versions of classic novels that were around as early as the 1940s. But good book-to-comic adaptations, of course, don't just put pictures with the dialogue--they use the unique aspects of graphic novels to create an entirely new art work, which can lead to new understandings of both classic and contemporary works of prose. Here are some of my picks for excellent comics created from, inspired by or otherwise connected to their prose counterparts.
City of Glass by Paul Auster, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli (Picador, $14, 9780312423605/0312423608). This black-and-white, starkly psychedelic comic is the perfect medium to reimagine Auster's meta-meta, self-referential classic from the New York Trilogy. The story of a detective who gets mistaken for Paul Auster and gets more lost the more he finds out, this tale becomes even trippier with the artists' clever manipulations. There's also an introduction by the grand old man of literary comics, Art Spiegelman.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, adapted by Peter Kuper (Three Rivers, $10.99, 9781400052998/1400052998). Past master of alienation Peter Kuper captures both the desperate, sweaty terror and the absurdist humor of Kafka's classic tale of Gregor Samsa's transformation. If you've never been able to picture an oversize, humanoid cockroach, this is a big help.
Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book by Herman Melville, adapted by Sam Ita (Sterling, $24.95, 9781402745287/1402745281). On a lighter note but still admirably literary, this is a beautiful multi-genre adaptation: it's a comic book and a pop-up. The story is told in panels around central masterpieces of paper arts by Robert Sabuda-apprentice Sam Ita. The text is pure Melville honed down to the essentials, and the delight of watching the Pequod and the White Whale rise from the page is tempered only by the sobering image of the floating coffin in the final layout.
Shakespeare's Hamlet Manga Edition by William Shakespeare, adapted by Tintin Pantoja (Wiley, $9.99, 9780470097571/0470097574). [Full disclosure: This review was presented in altered form at BookStream's TitleWave.] Manga isn't my favorite sub-genre of comics, as I'm not the target audience--it's made for teens and tweens. But in an exception to the usual rule, it's surprisingly illuminating just to see the text of Shakespeare's plays while you're also seeing the action. I experienced several weird new insights into Hamlet while reading this one. The artwork is garden-variety manga, but the format helps both teens first figuring out Shakespeare and adults looking for a way back in. The other Manga Shakespeare titles from Wiley, all at $9.99, offer similarly de-familiarizing experiences, especially the manga-natural teen romance of Romeo and Juliet:
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet Manga Edition (9780470097588/0470097582)
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar Manga Edition (9780470097601/0470097604)
Shakespeare's Macbeth Manga Edition (9780470097595/0470097590)
Beowulf, adapted by Chris Ryall and Gabriel Rodriguez (Idea & Design Works, $17.99, 1600101283/9781600101281) and Beowulf, adapted by Gareth Hinds (Candlewick, $11.99, 9780763630232/0763630233). The Old English epic Beowulf has recently received a couple of well-done graphic treatments, which is quite logical since Beowulf may be our first superhero. The Ryall/Rodriguez adaptation is itself adapted from Neil Gaiman's animated screenplay version and rewrites the epic from behind the scenes, imagining Beowulf as a more compromised hero. It's very postmodern (and there's some sex), but tightly plotted and satisfying. Gareth Hinds' version sticks to the original text (lettered in Gothic script) but really shines in the wordless action sequences, and his Grendel is truly scary. Both shed new light on the original: Hinds explores visceral, physical heroism and terror, while Gaiman & Co. probe the political and interpersonal subtleties of the tale.
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi (St. Martin's Griffin, $19.95, 9780312354855/0312354851/) and The Left Bank Gang by Jason (Fantagraphics, $12.95, 9781560977421/1560977426). Not literary adaptations per se, these two highly enjoyable and clever graphic novels are nevertheless inspired by literature: to be precise, the literary scene in Paris in the 1920s. Bertozzi's dual-tone romp puts Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso and others at the center of a supernatural mystery involving absinthe and a means for getting inside paintings. (Do read this one before recommending; the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund went to bat for a Georgia bookseller when he was prosecuted for selling this comic to a child, as it contains several scenes of a naked Mr. Picasso.) Beloved Norwegian cartoonist Jason reimagines Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound and others as struggling comics writers in an alternate version of the famous scene and then gets wacky as the writers decide a bank heist is the only way to make ends meet. Both are great starting places for a discussion of a moment in literary history.
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist Volume 1, various artists (Dark Horse, $17.95, 9781593071714/159307171X)
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist Volume 2, various artists (Dark Horse, $17.95, 9781593071721/1593071728)
The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist Volume 3, various artists (Dark Horse, $14.95, 9781593074920/1593074921)
The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan with various artists (Dark Horse, $19.95, 9781593078317/1593078315)
O.K., wrap your head around this one. The indisputable masterpiece of fiction about comic books is Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Picador, $15, 9780312282998/0312282990); his tale of a European immigrant and a pugnacious Brooklynite who find fame with their creation of a comics character called the Escapist captures the energy, passions and limitations of the "Golden Age" of superhero comics in the 1940s. In a strange meta-twist, the imaginary (prose) comics hero has since become a real (comics) comics hero, as great writers and artists have written graphic stories featuring the Escapist and the other characters from Kavalier and Clay's world. Amazing Adventures volumes 1-3 are collections of stand-alone stories from luminaries including Mike Mignola, Dean Haspiel, Will Eisner and Eddie Campbell, ranging from gothic to goofy. The Escapists is Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant sequel to Chabon's book, a full-length graphic novel starring a group of indie comics artists who reinvent the Escapist character and become targets of a big comics company who wants to buy them out. It's a whole world springing out of Chabon's inspired prose concept: that comics are, in the best sense, escapist fiction.
Hope you enjoy these book-inspired comics. If you know some I've missed or have comments or questions about those I've included, feel free to e-mail me. Happy reading!--Jessica Stockton Bagnulo