One of the many things to love about comic books is that they’re one of the most democratic forms of literature: easily-distributed, quick to understand and share, using images to cut through the fat of written narrative. But they’re so much more than just dumbed-down books, MOM. The images in a comic book are literature in their own right, telling stories that have the ability to transcend written language (you could say cave paintings are the first recorded stories, after all).
There are a lot of reasons why someone might choose to adapt a classic written work into a graphic novel. It could be an attempt to convince The Youth™ that reading can be cool, or maybe it’s the desire to refresh an older work and remind contemporary audiences why that work still matters. It could serve to reinforce the power of sequential arts and comic books as legitimate literary forms, or as an ambitious experiment in illustrating complex prose and themes. Whatever the motivation, the results are frequently spectacular, as seen in the examples ahead.
Adapted by Hope Larson (Square Fish, 2015)
Hope Larson adapted the book – which is now a major motion picture as well – into a graphic novel just a couple years ago. With beloved stories, especially those that wind up getting made into movies, there’s always the fear that the interpreted visuals of the characters won’t match how you pictured them, but this adaptation keeps things simple: The two-tone illustrations don’t detract from the magic of L’Engle’s story, and instead breathe subtle life into her words.
Adapted by Peter Kuper (Crown Publications, 2004)
Kuper’s starkly black-and-white, cartoonish illustrations are the perfect complement to Kafka’s bleak absurdism in this classic man-becomes-bug story. The text is often interwoven with the images, radiating out from alarm clocks or falling down the page haphazardly to emphasize the unfortunate Gregor Samsa’s panic and distress. It’s not that Kafka’s story itself is obtuse, but his prose is so straight-faced that it can be difficult to visualize the surreal plight of his protagonist. So this visual adaptation offers a clear and fittingly comic take on the tale. Side note: Another of Kafka’s works, The Trial, was adapted into a graphic novel with illustrations by French artist Chantal Montellier in 2008.
Adapted by R. Crumb (W.W. Norton and Company, 2009)
Underground comix-master Robert Crumb is known for works that have been called scatological, pornographic, and genius, so it raised plenty of eyebrows when he chose to tackle the good book. True to form (and to the source material), his illustrated Book of Genesis does contain explicit sex, including incest, but it’s a surprisingly straightforward, literal adaptation. The intense focus of his tightly crosshatched illustrations, along with the choice to use original text from the book, earned him several Eisner nominations and a Harvey award.
Adapted by Damien Duffy and John Jennings (Abrams ComicArts, 2017)
Artists Duffy and Jennings are no strangers to the world of comics, having curated an exhibition of sequential artists in their 2008 project Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics. They bring a surgeon’s precision to their adaptation of Butler’s historical fiction/time travel mashup exploration of race and sex, opting to substitute blocks of prose with dramatic illustrations in places. The book’s intro, for instance, is reduced to a single page in the graphic novel. The timeliness of this release is important to note, as it revitalizes unresolved discussions around what it means to be a woman of color in America. Plus, the sense of frantic movement created by the artists’ colorful, layered outlines is a very cool touch.
Adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuccheli (Picador, 2004)
Paul Auster is one of the most impressive and intimidating writers of the last 50 years, so it’s great news for those of us with attention spans shortened by our television-babysitters that part one of his acclaimed New York Trilogy was meticulously adapted into a graphic novel (released first in 1994, and then again in 2004 with an introduction by comics legend Art Spiegelman) by cartoonist Paul Karasik and artist David Mazzuccheli (of Batman: Year One fame, among others). The postmodern, meta-detective story is extremely well-suited to the expanded possibilities offered by the visual format.
Adapted by Ronald Wimberly (Image Comics, 2012)
Ronald Wimberly went the extra mile with this adaptation, exchanging the doomed, whiny teenage protagonists of Romeo and Juliet for Tybalt and other secondary characters. Infusing the somewhat-tired work with a modern day Brooklyn setting and hip-hop influences, and with new text written entirely in iambic pentameter, Wimberly’s book is a pinnacle example of what the graphic novel medium has to offer.
Adapted by Tim Hamilton and Ray Bradbury (Hill and Wang, 2009)
Despite arresting images by artist Tim Hamilton and the full help and cooperation of Bradbury himself, this project drew some criticism upon its release due to the seemingly missed irony of condensing a book about the dangers of illiteracy into a mostly visual format. However, fans of Bradbury know the writer’s professed love of all forms of literature, including film and comic books, so this truly well-done adaptation should fit comfortably on your shelf next to the original version.
Adapted by Miles Hyman (Hill and Wang, 2016)
Another authorized adaptation of a modern American classic, this time by the author’s own grandson, The Lottery in graphic novel form has the feel of a hushed, slowly-unfolding horror film. Because the original story is fairly brief, the illustrated treatment allows it space to breathe, really drawing readers in to the chilling ritual of the townsfolk.
Adapted by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics, 2006 and 2004)
Just like there’s more than one way to skin a cat (or, in this case, a sinner), adaptations of written works take a lot of forms. Many people point to the Seymour Chwast version of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2010) as the go-to graphic novel for Allighieri’s classic narrative poem, for good reason. More difficult to track down but equally rewarding are Gary Panter’s Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory, which are loose adaptations of the poet’s journey told in a punk-rock zine style, where hell is an underground shopping mall in Los Angeles. The earliest versions of Jimbo’s Inferno were published by Matt Groening, and Panter worked as a set designer on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, so definitely try to track down his graphic novels if you’ve ever wondered what The Divine Comedy would be like if it had tackled contemporary pop culture and punk satire as hard as it did politics and the church.
Various authors and artists; edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories Press, 2012-2013)
This series is the mother lode of beautifully illustrated and refreshingly adapted classics, featuring stories from throughout the globe and human history. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Tale of Genji, Candide… the list of tales is as staggering as the list of contributing artists, who include Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Milton Knight and Molly Crabapple. And it’s not just the far past that’s brought to these pages; you’ll also find the poetry of Langston Hughes, Marquez’s dreamlike epic One-Hundred Years of Solitude, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest here. It’s a veritable library made into a series of elegant artworks, and perhaps the ultimate example of the capabilities of the humble comic book.
Have you read any of these literary remixes? Are there books you wish were graphic novels? Let us know in the comments!
Lauren is a freelance writer and artist who is also on twitter @YasBruja.