Bringing Classic Tales to a Modern Reader

Literature as Comics

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Bringing Classic Tales to a Modern Reader: Literature as Comics

This is the eleventh installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Richard Graham. Richard is an associate professor and media services librarian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studies the educational use of comics and serves as the film and art history liaison. His posts examine the connections of UNL, Nebraska, and the larger literary world with the comics medium.


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prominent work of American literature, The Great Gatsby, has once again been adapted into the film medium. If you are like me, you may be wondering whether five times is finally the charm for an adaptation that’s as compelling as the original. You may also still be trying to rid yourself of Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in your mind, and hesitant to replace that image with Leonardo DiCaprio. So what is it about some prominent works of literature and their inability to translate well into other mediums? Fans and scholars of Shakespeare often deal with a mish-mash of successes and failures regarding translation of their beloved Bard, but certainly comic book aficionados have enjoyed the recent run of big screen adaptations of their superheroes, such as the smash hit Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Dark Knight.

However, my ten-year-old’s recent purchase, a comic book version of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, has set my mind to wondering about the reverse: just how successful are works of literature translated into the comics medium? Now, by “successful,” I’m not necessarily referring to whether an adaptation is true to the original; rather, I subscribe to Thomas Inge’s assertion that the adaptation be evaluated in terms of its success as a comic book and how creatively it uses and expands on the artistic and technical possibilities of that medium. As Dirk Vanderbeke has observed of a comic book adaptation of Paul Auster‘s novel City of Glass, “it is not faithful to the novel, but to its own reading of the novel, and it affirms that sequential art can not only join the discourse on Auster‘s text, but also take its position as a work of art in its own right.” In other words, the comic must be able stand alone on its own merits.

Ada Price at Publisher’s Weekly has also ruminated here and here on comic book adaptations, though as a means for publishers to grow existing audiences and fan bases. To her, publishers achieve success when the comic editions of classics are arrows pointing back to the source and translate into larger sales.

Educators also like to discuss their concerns that comic adaptations present weak substitutes for the real thing; they are afraid students will choose these newer, flashier versions over the originals, echoing their previous concerns about students watching film adaptations. After all, why would students plow through the Great Gatsby when they could flip through a comic book (or watch one of the five film versions) and glean a basic understanding of the same story? To many teachers, an adaptation is deemed good when it supplements the original and acts as a gateway for otherwise reluctant readers. Remember the iconic Classics Illustrated comic book series? Those tales adapted from famous works of literature recently went digital in a further effort to sneak good literature into the digital diets of a younger generation.

The past few years have given rise to a vast number of graphic novel adaptations of classic texts and literary fiction. Titles like Beowulf, Fahrenheit 451, Crime and Punishment, and The Kite Runner have become available as graphic novels. Different artists have different approaches to converting these hallowed texts. Some artists, like Canterbury Tales illustrator Seymour Chawst, take liberties with the text, supplementing the original stories with anachronistic references and modern humor in order to make the writings more accessible to a contemporary audience. Other artists adhere more strictly to the time and place of the originals. Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo's adaption of The Kite Runner conforms carefully to the framework and dialogue set by Hosseini's novel (probably because Hosseini converted the text himself). But no matter how much artistic license the adapters take, the texts all serve the same purpose: to bring classic tales to a modern reader.

With the parallel expansion of graphic novels and electronic reading devices, it will be interesting to see how content and medium fuse to reshape the landscape of the literary scene. As literature continues to fall from shelves and find a home on the web and screen, illustration and film/video may take a more prominent role, but if the classic texts survive because they are truly universal and relevant to readers of any era, we need not fear their extinction and, in fact, should welcome the diversity in which these stories present themselves.