Updating classic novels with a comic twist
September 30th, 2011
09:38 AM ET

Updating classic novels with a comic twist

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.”

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Pharme124

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    October 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
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    October 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
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    October 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  5. OvernOut

    Classics Illustrated. 'nuff said.

    October 3, 2011 at 3:18 am |
  6. mace9

    the classic illustrated comic series was revived in the 80s and had a run of ~30 issues. i think they picked some great titles and the artwork itself is varied and distinct from issue to issue. "the jungle", "rime of the ancient mariner", and "moby dick" are a few of my favorites based on the art alone.

    October 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  7. SLS

    As several others have mentioned, I remember the "Classics Illustrated" series in the 50's. I still remember reading the "classics illustrated" version of Victor Hugo's tragic story, "The Man Who Laughed", not something I would orderinarily come across in my normal reading (though I did read a great deal). I think that anything that brings these great stories to young people and others who might not otherwise read them is great. You never know when someone who reads a "comic" novel version of a book will be inspired to go out and read the original.

    October 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  8. Joe Miller

    I actually thought that Pride, Prejudice & Zombies was extremely clever and well written. As a dude, I wouldn't in a hundred years have picked up the book in its pure form, but to be honest, reading the zombie version made me more interested in Austin and that world. Hopefully, these comic versions can have the same effect.

    October 2, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  9. IrisInTheOzarks

    Like MixPix & many others, I was surprised by the omission of the Classic Comics of the 50s. They were my introduction to Literature and fueled a love for reading that continues today. We loved Capt Marvel, Superman, Wonder Woman,The Crypt(Who could forget The Heap or the old man "I cant run any faster,Martha, pieces of me keep falling off")? Evebn today, very popular authors , who grew up in that area, continue to plagiarize from some of those comics! I have always wished they would be brought back.It's a way of making accessible a whole new world to kids who might otherwise never enter that door. Think of Cllassic Comics as a"Gateway Drug for reading. Not a bad way to go in my opinion. Glad it is being be revived!

    October 2, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  10. mixpix

    Like others I was surprised that "Classics Illustrated" comics from the 50s and 60s were not mentioned. It was my first foray into classic literature and I read many of them as well as other comic books from Marvel, Dell, and DC. Still have about 2 dozen originals that I introduced to my children when they were young. They are both now avid readers of classic literature.

    October 2, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  11. The lost art of reading

    Unfortunately, comics are the only way some kids would ever be exposed to classic literature.

    October 1, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Errogant 2

      Considering that "classic" literature was originally written as contemporary literature I think that you are off base with your comment. It is unreasonable to expect people to read works that were written for an audience who had a very different world view. I have heard the same ridiculous comments made about comic books for over 30 years, and still fail to see how it is anything other than blind prejudice. Storytelling is one of the few truly universal aspects of humanity. The medium used is irrelevant; the importance lies in the story being told, and the tradition of storytelling being kept alive.

      October 2, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Dan

      My thinking exactly, Classics Illustrated fostered by desire to read which has never waned.

      October 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  12. Erik

    I think that what will hook kids on reading is for mom and dad or mom or dad or whoever the "parent" is in the particular family structure to READ to them each day and night. By this I do not mean merely mumbling along the words, but to actually read the story dramatically, having fun with it, investing the characters or the narrator with a voice of his or her own so that the child or children actually HEAR the power of words to create a mental landscape in which they can grow and explore throughout their lives. I love reading to my children as well as to my own students, because I feel it is important for young minds to experience the wonder that is the written word. Movies are fine, but I, for instance, am immensely grateful that I had read and reread the Lord of the Rings long before the live-action films came out. My mental landscape retains Gandalf, the Balrog, and so much more in a far more vital and meaningful way because they were my own images before someone else created some for me. I think the films are brilliant, but the books are superior.

    October 1, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  13. Steve

    I grew up in the 50's and remember the 52 pages Classics Comics from then, think they might have been a division of the Looney Tunes Group, whoever the company that printed those titles was possibly Dell.

    October 1, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  14. Spidey-Man

    "(Anyone take a gander at “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”?)"
    My hand's up.

    And I totally agree with those saying this is nothing new. Apparently this is her first visit to the comic book aisle.

    October 1, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  15. sheila kind

    Dang, I used to read Classics Illustrated all the time and it was my only knowledge of some "classics" because I never read the books, like Lorna Doone, etc. I thought those were great until I saw some comics from England, which were about the Arthurian Legends. Talk about incredible detail and beautiful drawings. They made Classics Illustrated look like scribbling.

    September 30, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  16. Seth

    Typical hater comments from people who know nothing thinking that nothing will ever work. Comic books are an option, not the rule, and possibly one that will work to introduce great works of fiction to young minds. Would you prefer no one bothered? Would you prefer everyone relied on visual and oral media, never reading a book ever?

    "1984" is fiction, and would do well as a comic book. But the haters on these forums must have mistaken it for "how-to" manual, if they read it at all. Haters, your contrition is very double ungood.

    September 30, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Erik

      Seth, "hater" is unword. Rectify. Doubleplusgood comment. I figure, if you are going to defend 1984, then go all the way in reducing the language to its essentials.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  17. mouse

    i worked for a comic dealer in the 80s (what a 1st job that was) mixed in with the hero/adventure comics and assorted junk(which there was a lot of) were the Classic Illustrated. even then i thought it was cool that someone had illustrated Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels sadly they were under appreciated and most ended up in the ¢50 pile which quickly translated to '250 for $10' box


    September 30, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  18. Bigazonie

    What an idiot...do a Google search for Classic Comics Illustrated. This is NOT a new concept. Do some research before showing your (young) age and ignorance you twit.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • husband2

      Before I read the article, I indeed thought it was about Classics Illustrated..

      September 30, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • krc

      Classics Illustrated is what I thought of, too and was very surprised it wasn't mentioned. The article acts as if this is something new. I'm very disappointed in the research. Kind of hard to believe it never came up.

      September 30, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  19. palintwit

    All of Bristol Palin's work is a 'must read' as well.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  20. R R

    The dumbing of America continues apace.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  21. palintwit

    I just finished the Sarah Palin's first two novels. I am eagerly awaiting the third.

    September 30, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Erik

      Or, you could just frequent the Romance section where the vapid sequel is assured each month.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  22. Reddwarf

    Next they'll be doing the Aeneid with the Greeks bang, splatting and ka-powing the Trojan in their beds! Just so they're faithful to the original text. ; -)

    September 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Bigazonie

      They have

      September 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Erik

      Aeneid is the Roman Epic, not the Greek. Though it begins with the end of the Trojan War, that is not the focus of the story, merely a launching off point.

      October 1, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  23. Demiricous

    Yawn it still won't make kids read them. Every kid knows a book is a book. Want your kid to read make them watch a movie with cc on and volume off.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • JJ

      How about just turnin' off the TV?

      October 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  24. dave

    Starting sometime in the 40s there was a series of comics called Classics Illustrated sold along side Superman, Batman, and the like. I clearly remember reading these in the 50s and early 60s when I was growing up. I can't say I preferred these to more popular comics, but it was nice having the story line in my head when I first read those same classics in later life. I am all in favor of anything that encourages more kids to read rather than watch TV or play video games.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • kls817

      Exactly, I have a bunch of Classics Illustrated, and they are still heavily traded on auction sites.

      September 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  25. Emelia

    'A Zombie Christmas Carol'? I know what I'm getting Mum for her birthday.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  26. hawkechik

    This isn't exactly a new idea; I know I bought some issues of "Classics Illustrated" some 40 years and more ago. Still, glad to see a return, anything to get the kids reading.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  27. SAH

    This is great and hopefully will encourage more children to read. But it's nothing new! My sister and I read many classic novels in comic book form in the early to mid 1960's.

    September 30, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  28. S T

    When I was little, I read comic strip adaptations of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain's works. I would probably have hated the novels at that age, I think these would be a great tool to introduce classic novels to younger children.

    September 30, 2011 at 1:42 pm |