Robot 6

Six by 6 | Six great comic adaptations


Excerpt from “City of Glass”

Sure, everyone gets worked up about turning comics into movies, but what about the other way around? Cartoonists have been attempting to cram great works of literature or art into tiny panels since the birth of Classics Illustrated. But many of these adaptations, despite the noblest of intentions, fall horribly flat or fail to evoke a tenth of the original work’s greatness.

There are exceptions of course; comics that not only manage to capture or add to the spirit of the original work, but in a few cases are the equal or better of the source material. Here then are six such examples. Feel free to include your own nominations in the comments section.

1. City of Glass. Well duh. David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik’s masterful adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel was one of the great comics of the 1990s, and it – along with Rubber Blanket – established Mazzucchelli as a daring, innovate creator capable of producing work miles ahead of the material he had done for DC and Marvel (which wasn’t too shabby either). It remains a stunning, seductive, work; a knotty, elliptical mystery novel about identity and the nature and purpose of language and fiction that refuses to provide easy, pat answers or conclusions. And rather than simply illustrate Auster’s novel, Karasik and Mazzucchelli add to it, creating indelible images that add depth and meaning to Auster’s words, particularly during Peter Stillman’s famous monologue sequence. Thus, some argue that the comic surpasses Auster’s original in quality. I don’t know that I would be able to dissuade those people from such a presumption.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

2. 2001 by Jack Kirby. It’s hard to think of two artist further apart in style and tone than Jack Kirby and Stanley Kubrick (well, OK, it’s not THAT hard). And yet Arthur C. Clarke’s tale of man reaching the stars and evolving into a higher life form seems tailor-made for Kirby’s interest and talents. Melding the finished film with Clarke’s book and an early draft of the screenplay, Kirby gives the story his all, creating stunning, vast interplanetary scenes and creating dynamic, highly charged layouts. Although it’s much more literal and expository than Kubrick’s version, and it stumbles in trying to convey certain plot points that were easily delineated in the film, it’s still a fascinating, compelling work and deserves re-evaluation.

3. Outland by Jim Steranko. The 1981 film Outland, directed by Peter Hymas, is a respectable but largely run-of-the-mill science-fiction film that can basically be summed up as “High Noon in outer space”. In the hands of Jim Steranko, however, the story becomes something much more exciting and grander. Originally serialized in Heavy Metal, and strongly influenced by Kirby,  Steranko fills his pages with challenging, dynamic layouts, creating huge, double-page spreads that feature corridors that seem to stretch on for miles or complex montages that sometimes sacrifice easy, panel-by-panel readability for the sake of a composition and sense of grandeur that can take your breath away.  It’s a great example of how a gifted artist can make the most mundane material seem vibrant. (FYI, check out this lengthy conversation about both 2001 and Outland.)

4. Boswell’s London Journal by Robert Crumb. Crumb spent a good part of the ’80s trying his his hand at different formats – biography, nonfiction, autobiography, etc. – in the anthology Weirdo, including adapting a number of prose works. My favorite of those is probably his five-page excerpt from Samuel Boswell’s London Journal. Crumb makes the implicit deliciously explicit, drawing Johnson cavorting with prostitutes and attempting to get in the dresses of a number of pliable women in between discussing philosophy and literature with learned men or feeling sorry for himself. If that doesn’t sound like the ur-Crumb comic, I don’t know what does.


5. Green Tea by Kevin Huizenga. The premise behind Sparkplug Comics’ 2002 anthology Orchid was simple: Get a handful of alt-cartoonists to adapt some classic and not so classic Victorian ghost/horror stories. Huizenga’s pick, concerning a man who has frightening visions of a murderous monkey that seems to spur him onto commit horrible crimes (or at least suicide), would be noteworthy enough on if the cartoonist had been content to keep within the boundaries of the story. But Huizenga ups the ante considerably by having the tale bookended by his modern-day everyman Glenn Ganges, who relates a similar story involving the harrowing vision of a dog with … something … in its mouth. This simple addition lifts the story from mere adaptation into something original and inspired and remains one of the author’s best works to date.

Story continues below

From 'The Book of Jonah'

From ‘The Book of Jonah’

6. The Book of Jonah by R.O. Blechman. Crumb’s not the only cartoonist that’s attempted to adapt books from the Bible. In 1997, Blechman retold the story of Jonah and the whale, using his usual sardonic, urban tone. The end result is the story of a man desperately attempting to avoid his fate (in this case God’s order to turn the city of Ninevah away from their wicked ways) and being thwarted at every turn. The book ends with the nebbishy Jonah failing at his task and bearing witness to God’s terrible wrath and then – just when everything seems to be over – he has to suffer through the whole thing again. Combining both spiritualism and dark cynicism with large dollops of humor would seem to result in a schizophrenic book, but Blechman manages to walk the narrow tightrope he’s created rather well, resulting in an oddly touching book.



Good list. I’ve always been partial to Sienkiewicz ‘s “Moby DicK” for that Classic Illustrated .

I think Rob Davis’ adaptation of Don Quixote is worth mentioning. While I wouldn’t say it exceeds the quality of the novel it successfully use comics’ unique properties to add new dimensions to the story.

Oh man, second on that Sienkiewicz Moby Dick. In fact, First Comics published a ton of great CI’s by Gahan Wilson, Kyle Baker, Rick Geary, Mike Ploog and many more.

I always liked Mignola’s adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Sienkiewicz adapting David Lynch adapting Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is a cool comic.

Those Eclipse CI books were good, though my favorite was John K. Snyder’s versions of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Secret Agent.”

Chris Mautner: The modernized Classics Illustrated comics (modernized is relative — it’s been close to 25 years since they came out) done by the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz, Jon K. Snyder, Mike Ploog et al. were originally published by First Comics, not Eclipse.

Some cool choices, but no love for Chester Brown’s adaptations of The Gospels of Mark and Matthew? Or “The (Basil) Wolverton Bible”?

I think the Marvel Comics adaptation of Logan’s run may be better than the movie. Certainly the second half, where Kraft, Perez and Janson reduce the most boring part of the movie to a single splash page.

Anonymous — You’re right, it’s First not Eclipse. My bad. I’m currently a little drunk. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

I haven’t seen Wolverton’s Bible yet, but Chester Brown’s Gospels are a great choice! I’m kicking myself for not remembering it.

oh man, that green tea adaptation. Martin Rowson’s Tristram Shandy is pretty sweet, too.

Chris Mautner: The Wolverton Bible illustrations are a complete mindf**k… I remember seeing an illustration or two in copies of the old evangelical magazine “The Plain Truth” while sitting in a dentist’s office as a child. The recent Fantagraphics collection is recommended, though you can see a collection of the illustrations (in rough context) here:

“Alien: The Illustrated Story” by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson deserves to be on this list. Not only is the artwork gorgeous, but the chestburster scene is improved since we don’t see the dinky little legs scurrying across the screen (cue up Spaceballs’ use of “Hello My Baby”). They just republished it last year, and IDW also put out one of the Artist’s Editions which really takes a look into how the art gets made and how the script was adapted (IIRC it has Goodwin’s script-to-comic notes in it too).

Also, the 2001 comic introduced Machine Man, who would have made the 2010 movie much cooler with an appearance.

Of course the best adaptation ever produced is Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto, an adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Pluto is not a remake or reimagining or a sequel – it’s a comic adaptation of another comic. And one of the finest comics ever made.

I just re-read the first issue of Marvel’s adaptation of BLADE RUNNER for the first time in probably 20 years. The Al Williamson artwork is gorgeous and makes the issues worth tracking down.

I agree with Doug that the comic book adaptation of Ridley Scott’s ALIEN should be on this list. It was the first graphic novel to make the New York Times best seller list. Like the film, it holds up tremendously well 34 years later.

Honorable mention would be Dark Horse’s 1993 adaptation of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Great work by Steve Moncuse, Art Adams and Terry Austin here.

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