Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do You Like Classics Turned Into Comics?

This is the intersection of graphic novels as a literary form and traditional... uh... literary forms. Publisher's Weekly has a story about various companies and their Classics Illustrated-style efforts to mesh all those old library books we're supposed to have read with a fresh new approach involving sequential art.

Well, maybe not all that fresh. I bought grimy copies of Classics Illustrated comics or something similar from a flea market just outside the city limits back in the early 1980s. The original line of Classics Illustrated goes back to 1941. Their adaptations were highly condensed and, in some cases, somewhat sanitized. But they were limited by page counts and the mores of the time; literary classics might contain scenes to make young readers uneasy or question authority or do something un-American or-- God forbid-- pro-Red!

Today companies seem to be taking advantage of what I hope is a more sophisticated readership and the increasing willingness of bookstores and libraries to stock comic books. You know, graphic novels. This means they can include episodes from their adaptations of things like H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that past audiences might have found distasteful or challenging. Even much maligned Marvel has a line of these hoity-toity books and they seem to be doing it full tilt boogie, or at least making the attempt. From the article:

Ralph Macchio, editor of Marvel Illustrated, a line of comics adaptations, says the company wanted to “take some classics and give them the full treatment; we didn't want to skimp or compress, [but] to do justice to the full flavor of the novel.”

Well, I'm as guilty as any comic fan when it comes to bitching and moaning about what the American companies are doing wrong. This is a case where I think they're doing right. Rather than a severely expurgated version of these stories, which really just serves as a quaint but pale substitute for the original prose-- and perhaps even a sub-literate one at that-- it seems like today's publishers are trying to make these legitimate adaptations in their own right.

And it's not just Marvel. Papercutz has the original Classics Illustrated label, but Penguin is doing Puffin Graphics (oh baby, I've got to get their version of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, by the way). You can read about the others in the PW article. Some of these companies are taking a novel, inspired approach and putting out Shakespearian adaptations with manga-style art. Okay, so sticking Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on a ringworld in distant solar system may not be the way to go, but otherwise why not try to tap into that demographic? As long as the words are Shakespeare's, the art can look any old way you think might get some 14-year-old excited about reading stuff originally written 400 years ago. Other authors could benefit from this approach, too.

After all, doesn't your mind's eye view of Huckleberry Finn resemble Monkey D. Luffy? A little? Oh come on, he's wearing a straw hat, for the love of corn!

While these new books seem to be relying heavily on the familiar-- lots of Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper-- there's a reason these books have become classics. And that's their enduring richness. These books are rarely the same twice and often reward re-reading with new insights and new excitements. So why not adapt them again and again, taking different approaches each time?

Whether or not these books sell... that's a different story. I hope they do. And I hope they fulfill Classic Illustrated's original mission-- get people interested in reading for fun those books whose cultural reputations teachers have ruined for generations by forcing them to read.

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