As comic books become recognised as serious art, we look at six of the best graphic novel adaptations of classic works of literature.
Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen, adapted by Nancy Butler and Sonny Liew
Jane Austen and Marvel Comics might seem a more improbable match than Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy, but this adaptation (initially released as a series of comic books) manages the superheroic feat of bridging Regency England with the fast wham-bang-kapow world of the Avengers et al.
Romance writer Butler strips back the witty dialogue, while Liew’s art has a sweet, cartoonish quality that accentuates the humour. What becomes clear is how tight and pacey Austen’s plotting is. Little wonder her writing continues to have such influence in contemporay pop culture and literature.
There’s a Pride and Prejudice companion volume, but its misjudged art mistakes the Bennett sisters for the cast of forgotten 90s soap Melrose Place.
The Great Gatsby: A Graphic Adaptation
F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted and illustrated by Nicki Greenberg
Melbourne comic book artist Nicki Greenberg spent six years adapting Fitzgerald’s perennial text. It’s a bold reworking, with the characters made literally monstrous – Nick is a frog-like sea creature, Daisy a muppet-like thing of fluffballs and pipe-cleaners, while Gatsby is a strutting seahorse.
Cast in sepia-tones and assembled more or less as a photo scrapbook, this vivid retelling evokes the languid prose of the original, but (unusually for an adaptation) seems to add far more than it takes away. There’s no sense of abridgement or simplification. Instead, Greenberg’s delightful, if somewhat nightmarish, vision amplifies the subtleties and subtexts to make them as compelling as the familiar, tragic plot.
Homer, adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds
If we’re talking classics, books don’t get much more classical than Homer’s Odyssey. This faithful retelling is told in big, colourful and realistic images designed to demystify the ancient poem.
Keen readers of the Percy Jackson series will appreciate seeing some familiar faces, while also getting a grounding in the origins of the hero’s narrative – a structure that props up pretty much every big-screen superhero blockbuster to date.
Where this comic might differ from most is that its hero – while muscle-bound – is unusually flawed and human, given to more than a little infidelity, disastrous leadership and murder. That said, some of the values (particularly around women) are uncomfortably, if unsurprisingly, outdated.
To Kill A Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel
Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham
For decades, English teachers have struggled with this book-list favourite – how to convince a class it’s a literary masterpiece, when the first third is so bogged down in seemingly irrelevant biographies of Atticus Finch’s extended family?
Londoner Fred Fordham trims back those histories and shifts other elements around to streamline the plot. But this is a powerful and respectful retelling, with colourful, clean-cut artwork that captures something of the sparse visual poetry of Robert Mulligan’s critically acclaimed 1962 film adaptation.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay
Although not quite graphic novels, these lavish volumes are still worthy of a mention. Illustrated by Jim Kay and released annually (this is the fourth tome), the books manage a particular kind of magic, namely detaching Rowling’s fictional world from its cinematic counterpart. This is quite a feat, meaning that a new generation raised post-Daniel Radcliffe has a fresh chance to discover the joy of reading, with rich and detailed illustrations that reward extended study – while still allowing the imagination to do its work. The aesthetic here is cosier, weirder and, yes, more magical than the films ever managed to capture.
A Wrinkle In Time
Madeleine L’Engle, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson
This American children’s classic (recently a so-so film) has been adapted by acclaimed cartoonist Hope Larson. Illustrated in a clean, deceptively simple and monochrome style, it’s a great example of how graphic novels can effectively tease out a character’s inner life and thoughts with a minimum of exposition.
Misfit Meg lives in a small town with her strange – if prodigiously clever – family, oppressed by the endless local gossip about her missing father (and generally odd family). Much weirdness ensues, with a bit of help from mysterious women Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who.