“The Graphic Cannon” and the golden age of the graphic novel

“The Graphic Cannon” and the golden age of the graphic novel

September 30, 2011


We all know how the story goes: book becomes bestseller, bestseller becomes Hollywood blockbuster. It’s expected that our favorite reads will one day leap off the page and onto the silver screen. But today, popular volumes are finding a second life on the shelf, visually reimagined as comic books.

A seemingly limitless number of classics are available in kid-friendly comic versions, from20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to A Tale of Two Cities. The Diary of Anne Frank, Fahrenheit 451,and even The Book of Genesis have all been transformed into comics. Marvel Comics, the publisher of superhero favorites Spider-Man and X-Men, has its own series of Jane Austen adaptations, with comic versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

September brought the release of two epic books given the graphic-novel treatment: a modern classic, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, adapted by cartoonist Seymour Chwast.

These new publications represent very different approaches in adapting prose for panels. The Kite Runner Graphic Novel, illustrated by Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo, is realistically rendered, taking advantage of a luscious palette of color, light, and shadow to enhance the book’s emotionally compelling and dramatic story. The comic version doesn’t stray much from the original, with the text adapted by Hosseini himself.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chwast takes a much more minimalist approach. Chwast’s drawings are simple and playful, and he adds many of his own jokes, creating a lighthearted read. The title of each story is introduced alongside a silly quip from little characters, sometimes a cartoon of Chaucer himself, saying things like, “Readers must be eighteen or over.” Cartoonish touches and playful anachronisms help bring these stories into this century.

Hope Larson, a cartoonist whose graphic-novel version of A Wrinkle in Time will be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says she thinks the graphic-novel adaptation trend will continue.

“Now that teachers and librarians have witnessed the power of comics to lure in reluctant readers, we’ll see more and more adaptations of literary classics and popular fiction,” she says. “Educators and parents are beginning to see comics as more substantial works, or at least useful tools for increasing literacy.

“Comics can be literary, or they can be pure entertainment,” Larson says, “or they can fall somewhere in between. The form is capable of incredible diversity.”

Others agree that comics can be used to get reluctant kids into reading.

Terry Gant, owner of Third Coast Comics in Chicago, whose store sees traffic from all ages, says, “I definitely get parents coming in, saying their kid doesn’t like reading, but they’ll read The Three Musketeersif it’s a funnybook.”

Gant expects the main audience for adaptations of books such as The Kite Runner to be book clubs, whose members have already enjoyed the original.

John Porcellino’s comic adaptation of Thoreau’s Walden, published in 2008 by Hyperion, has been used in many classrooms and educational settings. He is encouraged by the ability of comics to make classics available to wider audiences.

“One of my main impulses for doing the book was that, even though I was a huge fan of Thoreau, it took me 20 years and four attempts to get through Walden all the way!” he says. “My hope with Thoreau at Walden was that it could be a doorway to his actual writings.”  The comic combines simple images with text from Thoreau for a beautiful and inspiring read.

Russ Kick, editor of the The Graphic Canon, a three-volume anthology containing comic adaptations of 190 literary works (including this author’s), is also excited about the potential for comics to enhance classics.

“Something really great can happen when you bring together two forms of art. I believe we’re in the golden age of the graphic novel, and comic art in general,” says Kick.

“There’s an almost endless number of extremely talented artists with a radically diverse rainbow of styles and approaches. When they use the greatest works ever written as their source material, the results are often amazing.”

The first volume of The Graphic Canon is due out in April from Seven Stories Press.

Comics may serve as a great companion to literature, but is there anything they can do that movies can’t?

Larson, whose book will be released at the same time as a film version of A Wrinkle in Time, thinks there may be some things comics can do better.

With comics, she says, “there are fewer cooks in the kitchen. You aren’t constrained by running times or the MPAA, so it’s possible to remain faithful to the original work. Comics also have a number of storytelling advantages, including the ability to integrate a character’s internal monologue in a way that would be clunky or impossible in a film.” She’s eager to compare the two adaptations, since the two projects are unrelated.

In the case of The Kite Runner, the comic book’s ending is perhaps more faithful to the original story than its cinematic counterpart. Both versions tackle the difficult job of presenting disturbing material sensitively, but the movie adaptation omits a particularly gruesome scene of an attempted suicide. The comic-book version leaves it in.

In some ways, it’s more jarring to see such bloody, realistic scenes drawn in a comic style, when we’re more used to seeing cartoon characters be cute, or engage in over-the-top, superhero “ka-POW”-style fighting. In the future, it will be interesting to see how other dramatic, emotional stories are rendered on the page.

Kick is hopeful that more-ambitious comic adaptations are yet to come: “At some point, I think every work of classic literature will have at least one graphic counterpart, and no one will think twice about that.”

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