Robot 6

The trouble with adaptation comics

Dismissed as a fad 10 years ago, big-screen adaptations bring comic book characters to millions of people every year. Just when you think they’ve peaked, out comes another blockbuster that tops the previous one. Sure, there are also the moderate hits and outright stinkers, but then there arrives an Iron Man or a Dark Knight or a Walking Dead or an Avengers. They’ve long passed the point of being a fluke. They even influence the collectors’ market, with optioning deals causing spikes in sales of back issues and original art, most recently demonstrated by the crazy prices people are willing to pay on eBay for The Walking Dead #1.

So if going from comics to film and television is so great, why is the reverse so rarely true? Comic books that adapt stories from other media (TV, film, video games, books, etc.) are only sometimes great and rarely garner the same kind of enthusiasm and attention. Someone who’s better at Photoshop than me should whip up one of those “said no one ever” images because no one has ever said, “I can’t wait for my favorite blockbuster movie to get adapted into a comic.” And yet most of us could barely keep our composure over the prospects of seeing Marvel’s The Avengers.

There are exceptions, of course. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time by Hope Larson had a lot of anticipation behind it, even from non-comics fans. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire-Slayer Season 8 got a lot of attention (although I would argue it was more because that was the only way devotees could get more “canonical” Buffy, as opposed to being excited about Buffy being in comics). There are some others, but just like these two they are exceptions that prove the rule.

Part of the problem is that most adaptation comics just aren’t all that good. Or are just OK. Whether it be a continuation of the story, previously “unseen” parts of the story or a strict interpretation of the original story, a lot of times these things just don’t have the focus they may deserve. Comics publishers have historically not put their A-list creators on them. Marketing has more often then not relied on comics fans also being fans of the original material. The strategy of going to where non-comics-reading fans of the original story are to let them know it exists was rarely used. Another stumbling block is that faithful fans of the original property will usually look for some kind of involvement by the original creators, preferably that said creators are completely and fully writing it. The more unfamiliar names in the writing credits, the more enthusiasm will drop.

Fortunately there are some signs that maybe lessons are being learned, such as with DC Comics’ graphic novel of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Denise Mina and Leonardo Manco. With Larsson’s unfortunate death in 2004, his involvement was of course impossible, so choosing Mina, someone who has written both novels and comic books, to pen the adaptation shows a commitment to the material beyond just having any old person do it. Similarly the inclusion of Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay as sole writer for Marvel’s upcoming Dexter miniseries is promising. Not that either of these scenarios guarantees the adaptations will be amazing, but it’s a valiant effort.

The other challenge is the cartooning. How beloved characters are depicted can be a deal-breaker. The Twilight graphic novel had this challenge, as it was trying to visualize the characters off the books but most readers had the movies’ actors stuck in their heads. Really, every adaptation involving a visual medium has this challenge. How many times have comic fans flipped out over the release of images from the movie that show an actor in full costume? (Moment of silence for Superman’s red shorts, please.) Adapting the likeness of an actor into comics is also challenging, as it ends up looking like a stiff photo moving through a comic book world. Or they look nothing like their real world doppelgänger. I think IDW Publishing’s Ghostbusters series, featuring art by Dan Schoening, might have the right idea — focus more on the caricatured aspects of the actors. It allows a much more dynamic use of the characters.

So maybe adaptation comics are starting to get on the right track. Maybe one day people really will say, “I can’t wait for my favorite blockbuster movie to get adapted into a comic!”

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Comments

16 Comments

Darwyn Cooke’s Parker novel adaptations have been fantastic. I rarely like adaptations, but these are some of the best.

Good post Corey. This is a question well deserving some thoughtful exploration.

I think that in a sense this could be considered a real existential challenge to the comics medium, i.e. “are we just a storyboarding committee for film, or can we take their work and build on it as much as they do ours?” Will anyone step forward and take up this gauntlet?

Random thought: the Lone Wolf & Cub books record that “In his final years, [Goseki] Kojima turned to creating original graphic novels based on the movies of his favorite director, Akira Kurosawa.” Can anyone comment on these? Do they add any insight to this conversation?

Is this article intended to cover “Movies that are strictly adapted into comics,”–i.e., the equivalent of the novelization of a movie? Or do you mean the spinoff titles, like Dark Horse’s considerable number of Star Wars comics?

BTW, a lot of Dark Horse’s Star Wars material has been quite good, particularly anything by the Ostrander/Duursema team. The two of them (with the not-too-infrequent fill-in artists) covered roughly 50 issues during the Prequel period, a 56-issue series covering the story 100 years after Return of the Jedi, and now they’re doing the origins of the Jedi order. Given the scope of the material they’ve done, I think it’s purely a marketing problem–i.e., convincing the limited fan base to spend $3.99 per month on a comic (especially when they get a Star Wars tv show FOR FREE every week on Cartoon Network).

In addition to Adam’s post, Dark Horse made their bread and butter in the 80s doing licensed books for Aliens, Predator and Terminator.

I don’t think it’s possible or even necessary to adapt works from one medium to another. I think things like Nolan’s Batman or The Avengers were successful because they stayed faithful to the tone and characters, but didn’t directly adapt any one story. Comics have so much history, that filmakers can pick and choose what they want to be inspired by and create something new with it.

For comics to adapt films or novels, I think the approach needs to be the opposite. Comics need to take inspiration from that source and then use it to build a bigger, broader world. They need to do what movies can’t, which is expand on what’s there.

You can almost look at The Walking Dead as an example of that. The comic is essentially inspired by Romero’s Dead films, but whereas he only has one film at a time – every few years at best – to get out what he wants with them, Kirkman can take that ball and run in any direction and keep it going and keep building on a monthly basis for years and years.

That said, I agree with Scott that the Parker adaptations have been great, but that’s just mostly due to Cooke’s skill and talent as an artist and storyteller. In lesser hands, they would probably have failed.

The Ray Bradbury gn adaptations published by Hill & Wang are very good – my son would not have enjoyed Fahrenheit 451 as much if he had first read the novel. He read the gn adaptation first, then the following school year read the book for his Language Arts class. He LOVED the gn. That one was also authorized by Mr. Bradbury, so that could have made the difference.

I also love the Darwyn Cooke adaptations of the Parker novels. I’ve been a fan of Donald Westlake since high school many years ago, and think Cooke has done a marvelous job.

And I absolutely adore Hope Larson’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time – it’s gorgeous and beautifully done.

I think these are key to growing the potential respect for the medium among a larger group, but you definitely have to get them where those people can find them.

That said, I has been pointed out to me by industry professionals that the Star Wars comics only sell a small percentage of what the Star Wars novels do – what’s holding those people back? And is it the distribution? Do we need bookstores to put adaptations next to the original works, rather than lumped in with the rest of the graphic novels?

A Concerned Citizen

November 29, 2012 at 5:46 am

I have to agree with the other posters here, particularly Adam. The Star Wars “Extended Universe” is very strong. In fact, one could argue that there are Star Wars comics that are much better than the prequel trilogy.

One other thing:

“Marketing has more often then not relied on comics fans also being fans of the original material.”

I hate to be a grammar nazi, but I can’t help myself. You used the word “then” when you should have used the word “than”. Sorry, but it just bugs me.

Concerned–

You know, I lurk around theforce.net’s message boards which are heavily populated by novel readers. I haven’t seen a clear response from them on why they aren’t reading the comics. They’re certainly aware of them–the “Legacy” comics and the “Legacy of the Force” novels heavily played off of each other even though they’re set 90 years apart. Also, a major character from “Legacy” showed up in the big novel “Apocalypse” recently–I won’t spoil who, and he’s unnamed, but it’s unmistakably him. (I suspect he’s unnamed in case Del Rey ever decides to declare “Legacy” an alternate future.)

My guess would be that it’s a combination of scheduling and availability, combined with a bit of prejudice. Dark Horse’s product is great, but they do have some planning issues. I love the “Dark Times” series, but it uses a slow artist and they’ve gone 2-3 months between issues and a year between story arcs. And then there’s availability: most major towns have a Barnes & Noble, but not every one has a comic shop. (Of course, B&N sells comics, but who notices that?) Finally, I sense a bit of resentment: a number of fans didn’t care for Del Rey’s future being set by the Legacy comics (even though DR and DH collaborated), and many just didn’t like the idea of Luke Skywalker having a great-grandson who’s a jerk.

“… some signs that maybe lessons are being learned, such as with DC Comics’ graphic novel of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Denise Mina and Leonardo Manco. … choosing Mina, someone who has written both novels and comic books, to pen the adaptation shows a commitment to the material beyond just having any old person do it.”

It’s two steps forward, one step back, however. I’ve just reviewed Mina’s adaptation, and one big problem with it is that it’s just too short — the plot barely gets moving before it ends on a “to be continued.” Maybe the prose-reading public would go in for a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comics adaptation, but splitting each book into two volumes is a textbook application of comics industry thinking applied to a general population problem. This ought have been a 300 page volume such that the reader used to prose books gets a whole story, not half or less of a book with a teaser on the end for the next “issue.” I think this will put off some readers, and shows some lessons are still to be learned.

My review of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo Vol. 1: http://collectededitions.blogspot.com/2012/11/review-girl-with-dragon-tattoo-vol-1-graphic-novel.html

Great comments, everyone.

Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations are among the best examples of using the strengths of comics to tell the original story. I should’ve mentioned them.

The resistance to Star Wars comics among some Star Wars fans is interesting. I’d love to hear from some of them as to why they don’t feel compelled to read them, or if they have, what turned them off to continuing. It seems to me the upcoming Brian Wood Star Wars comic set right after A New Hope should do gangbusters.

I also wish I at least gave a nod to Boom’s Adventure Time and My Little Pony comics. I haven’t read them yet but they certainly have people excited, again I think because they’re being smart in the creators they hire.

And yes, Collected Edition, I cringed at the then/than typo too. I don’t know how that got in there. I’m usually mindful of that one. I like that you caught it.

Another possible problem is that most addaptive comics are too photorealistic instead of cartoony. I wanted to do a post using the recent TV adaptions (Star Trek, CSI), the Manga versions of Sherlock and the comic adaption of Little Indian Big City as an example, but couldn’t find a copy of the latter, so it never came to fruition. Considering how Ebert described it as one of the worst movies he’d ever seen, it might’ve worked better as a comic than in live-action.
http://media.comicvine.com/uploads/8/80496/2256705-519528k03el._ss500_2_super.jpg

The aforementioned PARKER series of GN’s from Darwyn Cooke and Marvel’s adaptations of the OZ books are great examples of how to adapt something. The way it is presented…the art and design…is very important. You have to give readers a reason to re-read, essentially, the stories. Make it VISUALLY arresting.

With something like PARKER, the artist isn’t anchored to anything visually. There have been multiple films made of Parker novels to varying degrees of success but none of them have ever referred to the character as “Parker” (other than the upcoming Jason Statham film which looks horrible). Parker, the character, doesn’t bring to mind any visual cues to anyone other than fans and, in that sense, only the fact that he has big hands.

OZ is a case where it has been adapted so many times and in so many styles, visually, that there is no DEFINITIVE visual ideal short of the 1939 MGM film or, perhaps, the W.W. Denslow illustrations from the original novels. Imagination is free to run wild and Skottie Young takes that opportunity and runs with it.

When you have characters that are so very associated with the actors who portray them, the likeness proves to be an issue. Who sees INDIANA JONES or HAN SOLO as looking anything other than like Harrison Ford? Could an adaptation of, say, the HARRY POTTER novels work with an entirely different design sense than the films? What about LORD OF THE RINGS? No film James Bond has ever actually LOOKED like literary James Bond. The comic adaptation of Bond stories DO, however, but they aren’t successful.

This is where I agree with your mention of IDW’s current GHOSTBUSTERS series. They use mild caricatures of the actors. The art still has style and is dynamic and fun and the characters look enough like the actors to not be jarring to casual readers or persnickety fans. And that’s really where the trouble is: The fans. Fans need to get those visual cues out of their heads or, in the very least, loosen them. Allow the artists to use their visual flair and not be weighed down by likeness issues.

I think one of the biggest problems here is that comic books remain a “niche” medium. Despite some valiant attempts over the years they always slide back to that.
Stephen King’s Dark Tower comics garnered a lot of attention initially but people are past that now.

Another problem, as stated above, is the serialized nature of comics. If you manage to get a non-comic reader in a comic book shop to buy a product they are expecting the full thing. There’s a reason we don’t see serialized novels or movie serials anymore. The majority of people are about instant gratification when they’re paying money for it.

Which brings me to my last point. Cost versus value. Comic books cost too much for what you’re getting (to an outsider’s view). I can buy a copy of The Stand in hardcover AND the DVD for less than the complete comic adaptation would cost. A Dresden Files TPB costs more than a paperback novel and can be read in just a fraction of the time. I doubt the general populace feels they’re getting their money’s worth.

These are just my opinions. I could be wrong.

I loved the DC Comics Star Trek in the 80’s. Tom Sutton’s art was eccentric and all his own, not slavish to photo reference, and Mike W. Barr wrote some awesome multi issue storylines, especially the Mirror Universe saga. Also the Chris Claremont and Adam Hughes Star Trek: Debt of Honor. I liked many of the Aliens and Star Wars comics over the past twenty years, but they seem better suited to the graphic novel format now than the monthly series.

Personally THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, FLASH GORDON, BLADE RUNNER, & 1989s BATMAN are STAR TREK GENERATIONS movie adaptions among my FAVORITE comics ever!!!!!

They just happen to all be comic movie adaptions.

GREAT adaption can be done. its a shame they get a bad rap.

There’s a blog devoted to comic adaptations of radio shows/tv series/movies called “Secret Sanctum of Captain Video”.
Currently it’s running the Golden Age comic adaptation of the 1940s GREEN HORNET radio episode that tied The Hornet and Lone Ranger together (along with the actual radio show)!
http://captainvideossecretsanctum.blogspot.com/2012/12/captains-library-theatre-green-hornet.html

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