Perusing the comic book and graphic novel offerings at Barnes & Noble, I didn’t expect to see Elizabeth Bennet peeking out at me between the latest issues of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and Spider-Man.
But there she was, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters, lovingly sketched on the front of a graphic novel from Marvel. The cover of “Pride and Prejudice” was styled like a teen magazine, suggesting that readers delve inside for Lizzy’s dating advice and curing boy-crazy sisters.
Beyond the intriguing cover, it read like a comic book – that is, if you expect your comic books to contain the Bennets battling for their social status.
Glancing around the shelves, I began to see more of them. Their bold, graphic covers blended well with the other surrounding superheroes and dark tales. There was an issue of “Sherlock Holmes” alongside graphic novelizations of “The Kite Runner” and “The Alchemist.” Two shelves down, I was overjoyed to see “The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath” sketched out in stark, black streaks.
The idea of literary comics, which has become increasingly popular the last few years, feels like a natural progression to artists and authors alike.
“If you love Charles Dickens, then you love serialized fiction, and if you love serialized fiction, then you’ll love comic books,” Janet Lee, a Marvel Comics artist, said. “The way a lot of what we consider ‘classics’ were written at the time, they were popular fiction. Comics are popular fiction. It seems like a natural marriage to me.”
Lee can relate firsthand. When she fell into conversation with one of Marvel’s assistant editors at a convention, he revealed that he was working on Jane Austen serials for the comic book company. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” were the first to roll out.
An Austenphile herself, Lee reached out to him later with the “geekiest email in the world” asking to be considered if they were looking to include different artists for future serials.
Soon, Lee was delving into the gossip-laden world of Highbury and Emma Woodhouse in five installments for Marvel. Now, she’s hard at work on issues of Northanger Abbey. Both have been passion projects for Lee, who has a degree in English literature. “Emma” is her second favorite Austen novel, with “Persuasion” being the first.
While author Nancy Butler was in charge of spinning Austen’s wordy text into five digestible installments, Lee had to bring the world of Miss Woodhouse to life.
“‘Emma’ is a happier story,” she said. “For all of her faults, she’s just apple pie. We wanted to do sort of a bright, pastel, candy-tone kind of feel in the illustration. ‘Northanger’ is making fun of Gothic literature, so you really want it to be more Brontë-esque, on the moors with a hand-to-forehead feel.”
Instead of translating movement and action in a typical comic, Lee had to convey emotion, facial expressions and reactions while keeping each panel interesting as a vehicle for the story. The ads between pages also present a bit of irony. “I love how some of the ads are for comics like ‘Venom,’ she said, laughing. “The juxtaposition there is just awesome.”
Over the last decade, Jane Austen’s works have skyrocketed back into popularity. Film adaptations and other literary mash-ups (anyone take a gander at “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”?) have put her back in a contemporary sphere, where her characters and their timeless personalities continue to thrive. Lee would like to think it’s because “we’ve finally hit critical mass where enough people understand her genius.”
R. Sikoryak began exploring the idea of literary comics in 1989, when he drew a strip for RAW Magazine. The then-emerging artist wanted to make a good impression on the magazine.
“I wanted to do something epic, but not pretentious,” he said. “My idea was to combine the most epic poem I could think of, which was Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ with the style of the most unassuming disposable comic ever, which was ‘Bazooka Joe’. I felt like I hit upon something that would keep me going for a long time.”
Sikoryak released his first collection of literary comic strips in a volume called “Masterpiece Comics,” in 2009, which featured an intriguing cast of characters bursting across the cover, including William Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Voltaire and Oscar Wilde.
The 64-page collection, spanning 20 years of his work, combines popular comic strip characters and classic tales. “Candiggy” places Ziggy in the lead role of Voltaire’s “Candide” while “Dostoyevsky Comics” tells the tale of Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment” through Batman.
“I was struck by the comparison of the poor Russian student who wants to take the law into his own hands versus the rich American playboy who wants to take the law into his own hands,” Sikoryak said. “It wasn’t just the incongruousness of Batman committing murders in 19th century Russia, but the parallels and differences between the two main characters.”
Sikoryak also discovered a (somewhat) disturbing parallel when working on “Good ‘Ol Gregor Brown,” which interweaves Kafka’s Gregor Sampsa and Charles Schulz’s classic Charlie Brown strip. “It was very unnerving to be writing the dialogue from the novel in my parody of Schulz’s handwriting, and thinking ‘This is something Charlie Brown would be saying on a particularly bad day,” he said.
As an artist and fan of great literature, Sikoryak believes the market is growing because artists are tapping into classic novels as source material. While some are faithful retellings, he also sees promise in artists who view literature as more of a “jumping-off point” and add their own creative spin. At times, “faithful adaptations” can read a bit dry, he said.
Sikoryak himself is a fan of literary comics and recommended retellings such as Posy Simmonds’ “Gemma Bovery,” Gary Panter’s “Jimbo in Purgatory,” R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis Illustrated,” Manga Shakespeare and “The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liasons,” for an all-encompassing experience. Lee is also a fan of "A Zombie Christmas Carol."
Each artist faces a balancing act, not only of what to include from the original novel, but how to make the retelling engaging and individualistic at the same time.
“It’s a delicate dance,” Lee said. “The original book is always so, so wonderful that we wonder if there should be a second product out there. Putting comics and classic literature together is like geeky pleasure on two different levels. We all put so much love into them. If they’re done well, they allow readers that might never pick up this particular book to enjoy a classic and encourage them to read more.”