Re-Gifting? Classic Novels and Plays Gone Graphic

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“Re-gifting” is the joking term for re-wrapped presents—those little-used or unwanted items that are sometimes conveniently handy as last-minute choices to give to someone else.  When classic novels and plays are re-packaged, so to speak, as graphic novels by publishers, are they anything more than such shallow or casual offerings?  I think the answer is a complex “Sometimes,” even though my personal history predisposes me to welcome these books.

As a working-class kid in the 1950s and 60s, I loved reading the Classics Illustrated sold at the nearby used bookstore.  These comics, first published in the 1940s, were my introduction to exciting characters and stories that I then sought out at the local library.  The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Call of the Wild, The Prince and the Pauper—these and many more classics first came my way through the yellowed but still-colorful pages of shopworn comics.   I was a voracious reader, my parents unaware of the furor back then about whether comic books could harm or twist young minds.  So, with Hanukkah and Christmas fast approaching, I have some questions for you fellow shoppers and book professionals.

Which books are on your gift-giving or ordering lists this holiday season?  If you want to share a treasured classic novel or play, will you give it in its original format or will you choose a graphic novel version?  And—if you do choose to “go graphic”—how will you make your selection?  Some versions are faithful to the original text; others use simpler language.  Some versions make wonderful use of visual elements to communicate tone and meaning, emerging as classics in their own right; others are less inspired.  There are a few amazingly creative graphic novels that are really sequels or counterparts to the originals.  You would never be accused of thoughtlessly “re-gifting” a standard classic work if you chose one of those!  Today I will highlight all these possibilities, in graphic novels for readers ages tween and up.


Author Nancy Butler (the pen name of Nancy J. Hajeski) has adapted four Jane Austen novels into graphic form: Pride and Prejudice (2010), Sense and Sensibility  (2011),  Emma (2011), and Northanger Abbey (2012).  (Before Marvel Illustrated published these volumes as part of its Graphic Classics series, it published each book serially in five separate comic book issues.)  In her introduction to Pride and Prejudice, Butler explains that she did not try to modernize Austen’s language or story; in Butler’s words, “you don’t update a classic; you give it free rein.”  Yet this view is not what the eye-catching cover by Sonny Liew and Dennis Calero suggests!  Its attractive ‘teen magazine’ headlines are deceptive.  Butler’s adaptation of this novel’s tangled courtships, family relationships, and social conventions remains solidly rooted in early 19th century, middle-class Britain.

For the story itself, Butler worked with interior artist Hugo Petrus to be sure that his images left enough room inside panels for her text-heavy word balloons and narrative boxes, richly-filled with 19th century language.  There are moments—such as close-ups on character Elizabeth’s judgmental or unhappy eyes or on two sisters’ hands as they comfort one another—when images convey and add to the storyline.  Yet this graphic version of Pride and Prejudice remains unusually word-heavy in its faithfulness to Austen.  Sometimes it takes effort to track the path of conversations held by the surprisingly sturdy, full-fleshed characters drawn by Petrus and vividly, at times garishly, colored by Alejandro Torres.  For me, these visual encumbrances make this graphic novel, which was nonetheless a New York Times “bestseller,” a mixed success.  Perhaps Butler’s other Austen adaptations, done with different illustrators, are more uniformly successful.


Some readers, though, are not ready to tackle the language of such older, classic works.  For these readers, several publishers offer graphic versions with modernized and shortened text.  A British firm, Classical Comics, even offers Shakespearean plays and some novels in three formats: original text; a modernized version it calls “plain text”; and a much abbreviated, modern version labelled “quick text”.   Its quick text Romeo says of Juliet, “She is speaking. Oh, what an angel.”  I suggest that this flat rendition of young, star-crossed love holds much less appeal for readers than contemporary works about teen relationships, worded with today’s speech and idioms. I myself would rather read—or present to someone—a contemporary classic-in-the-making about first love, such as Rainbow Rowell’s text-only Eleanor & Park or  I. Merey’s graphic  a & e 4EVER (both discussed last year in this blog).

tw_n_coverOr, if I were interested mainly in how top-notch illustrators had chosen to interpret classic works, I might look at offerings of a publisher such as PAPERCUTZ.  Its nostalgically named imprint, Classics Illustrated, has an impressive roster  of illustrators and author/illustrators, including such luminaries as Gahan Wilson, Kyle Baker, and Peter Kuper.  Manga-styled Shakespearean plays might also be a great choice for readers already tuned into this globally popular Japanese graphic format.   A British publisher, Learning specializes in graphic works–containing abbreviated, original Shakespearean language—illustrated by first-rate manga artists.

Some graphic novels play with the characters and plot of well-known classic works.  In this, they are similar to splendid non-graphic novels such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013), which retells Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the main characters’  household servants, and Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012),  which stems from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, telling the adventures of its  secondary young character, the Artful Dodger.  My delight in both those books was doubled because I recognized the ways in which they spun off and around the originals.  Similarly, I relished and can recommend two graphic counterpart novels this holiday season: for those familiar with Oliver Twist, Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew (2003; 2013) and for fans of Alice in Wonderland, Tommy Kovac’s Wonderland (2008), illustrated by Sonny Liew.

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Master author/illustrator Will Eisner (for whom the prestigious Eisner Awards are named) announces in its Introduction that “This book . . . is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist.  It is the story of Fagin the Jew.” Published when he was 83 years old, this graphic novel stems from Jewish Eisner’s regret for having perpetrated racial stereotypes himself in his early works and his evolving concerns about anti-Semitism.  The book’s Introduction and Appendix both contain examples of the 19th century stereotyped illustrations of Jews that influenced Charles Dickens, among others, and which appeared in the first editions of Oliver Twist.


In Eisner’s sepia-hued work, Moses Fagin as a broken-down old man actually speaks to “Mr. Dickens,” telling this fashionably-dressed figure that he will now learn what Fagin “really was and how it all came to be!!”  We follow Fagin from boyhood onward, seeing how limited opportunities, prejudices about Jews, and calamitous circumstances—operating within 19th century Britain’s rigid social structure—destroy the hopes and ambitions of an honest, hard-working young man.  Fagin ultimately becomes the “fence” (receiver) for stolen goods and organizer of young thieves Dickens depicts.  Eisner’s drawings sardonically emphasize the greed and grief, smugness and terror in human expressions.  Moses Fagin becomes a criminal, but adult Oliver Twist becomes self-righteous. Eisner’s use of varied white lines to depict movement as well as snow, rain, and mist work within panels and in unframed, flowing images to keep readers constantly engaged in the story.  The final pages of Fagin the Jew–where Eisner reveals the last, brutal irony of this character’s missed opportunities–are as powerful emotionally as any ironic plot line presented by Dickens.


Wonderland (2008)—originally produced by SLG Publishing as six separate comic books—is a more light-hearted work.  Yet in this fantastic sequel to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books author Tommy Kovacs and illustrator Sonny Liew do not overlook the emotional storms of the original works—the Red Queen’s murderous fury and the Cheshire Cat’s bizarre, sometimes cruel directions to the main character.  Here, however, the central figure is not Alice but the mysterious housemaid, Mary Ann, for whom the hurrying White Rabbit first mistakes Alice!

Mary Ann is a neat freak who complains because a dirt path is, well, dirty, and who cannot abide any spots on her housemaid’s white pinafore.  Liew’s inserted close-ups on Mary Ann’s forehead and eyes, changing from surprise to tears and finally to reddened, mad anger, are just one example of how cartoonish images work so well with the text here to support such emotional storms.  At another point, when Mary is vexed beyond her endurance, her word balloons contain tiny skulls and crossbones for the supposed “bad language” she is actually saying.  Color palette and panel size and shape also shift to match and reinforce the story line, as Mary Ann encounters well-loved Lewis Carroll characters plus a few new ones too.  Playing cards dot many pages, unifying chapters as well as scenes, as Mary Ann survives her own bumpy “Chutes-and-Ladders,” panel-defying journey through Wonderland.  She ends up having tea and playing chess with the White Rabbit, no longer Mary Ann’s employer but an acknowledged “friend.”


A few graphic novel versions of classics are classics in their own right.   Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation (1953; 2009), illustrated by Tim Hamilton is one of these gems.  Its text blends with powerful visual images to grip and move readers just as much as the first version, written when science fiction legend Bradbury (1920 – 2012) was a young man.  In his Introduction to this this new, 21st century classic, author Bradbury even points out that what the reader has “here, now, is a pastiche of all my former lives . . . . including the last twenty or thirty years . . . .”  This book is, in effect, a new masterwork for Bradbury, crafted in conjunction with Hamilton.  That artist’s use of color, choice of images, and drawing skills make this depiction of a dystopic future—where books are burnt and questions met with death—a stunning condemnation of aspects of today’s society.

Orange and yellow flames consume books, even as these flames eerily illuminate “firemen” whose job is to set fires, not put them out. Cooler blues, greens, and greys mark the numbed, superficial existence of people who have learned not to think or question official rules, news, and broadcast entertainment.  When one fireman does question this system, breaking away to join others who save books by memorizing them, such dangerous choices are often shown in muted yellow.  Throughout Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which books burn), Hamilton makes dramatic, effective use of black backgrounds and darkened silhouettes, with forbidding figures and other elements uniting and impelling scenes.

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Both versions of Fahrenheit 451 leave readers with the question: Which one book would I choose to memorize, if I could only rescue one book in this way?  That hard choice certainly puts into perspective the embarrassment of riches we have, in choosing between graphic and non-graphic versions of classic works!  And when both versions are great . . . perhaps there is little reason not to value both in themselves.  I know I am eagerly awaiting my library copies of the new, two volume graphic version of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008).  That novel, winner of 2009’s prestigious Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature, has now in 2014  “gone graphic” with various artists collaborating  with author P. Craig Russell in this adaptation.  Russell–an Eisner and Harvey award winner–has adapted other works by Gaiman, himself a veteran, prolific author of notable comic books and series.  I am hopeful that this graphic version of The Graveyard Book will be in its own right classic-caliber, a further example of how great literature is “the gift that keeps on giving.”




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