At the tail end of the Great Depression, Russian-born publisher Albert Lewis Kanter had an inspired idea: he would take famous works of literature — Moby Dick, The Iliad, The Three Musketeers — and make them more accessible to readers by adapting them into comic books. The first issue of Classics Illustrated (then called “Classic Comics Presents”) rolled off presses in 1941, and soon caught on with the reading public. For the next twenty years, Kanter’s company adapted dozens of titles, from Les Miserables to The Last of the Mohicans, and created a companion series for younger readers, Classics Illustrated Junior.
Declining comic sales and the growing popularity of Cliff Notes eventually forced the Gilberton Company to cease publication of Classics Illustrated, but the concept has been enjoying new popularity in the twenty-first century. In 2007, Papercutz acquired the rights to the Classics Illustrated name, re-launching the line with Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Other publishers have been releasing their own adaptations of literary masterpieces as well: Marvel Comics, for example, has recently published comic-book editions of Pride and Prejudice, Treasure Island, Sense and Sensibility, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, while British publisher Self Made Hero has brought a Japanese sensibility to the Bard’s most famous plays with its Manga Shakespeare line.
We’ve assembled a team of experts to help teachers, parents, and librarians find graphic classics that will appeal to their favorite readers. Join Snow Wildsmith, Esther Keller, Robin Brenner, and me for a lively discussion about graphic classics. At the end of the article, you’ll find a complete list of all the titles we mention. (Author, title, publisher, and ISBN numbers have been provided for every book.)
SNOW: I’m really, really picky about classic adaptions, but there are some I’ve enjoyed. I’ve been a casual Sherlock Holmes reader, picking up his story here and there, and I liked Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard’s adaptations of A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. The art is clear and easy to follow, but the use of a muted color palette keeps the appropriate Victorian feel. I haven’t read their adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles yet, but it’s next on my list. Teachers should be aware that the adaptors don’t censor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work in any way, so all the original drug use and old-fashioned prejudices are still present.
The Manga Shakespeare series has been hit-and-miss in my opinion, but I did like their adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays: Twelfth Night. Nana Li’s art is as cute, funny, and romantic as Shakespeare intended and her characters were distinct enough to be easily told apart, important in a story where there are so many characters. Adaptor Richard Appignanesi abridged the work, but did not change the language, which is important for teachers who are loath to use re-written adaptations.
ESTHER: I get very weary of classic adaptations. Though I haven’t read all that many classics in the scheme of things, I just feel you should really read the original. But sometimes an adaptation entices readers to read the original or helps struggling readers understand the bare bones of the classics. So perhaps I shouldn’t be all that cynical.
I love Sterling Publishers’ All Action Comics. When I first read the series, there were only two: Dracula and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Since then, they’ve adapted The Odyssey and have a version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the works for 2012. I particularly liked the Saturday morning cartoon-like drawings. The adaptations stick close to the story, though by no means capture the heart of the story.
Marvel has done a great job adapting a few classics. I never could read the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum. It bored me to tears, but I couldn’t stop reading the adaptation by Eric Shanower. In true Marvel fashion, the illustrations are top notch and the story… not so boring after all. Marvel also did a fabulous job with Treasure Island. I never read the original. But now I’m tempted… I just need the time.
And a teacher friend of mine told me she was teaching Beowulf for the first time in ages for a twelfth-grade AP English class. I pointed her to Gareth Hind’s adaptation. The illustrations alone pop. There’s so much detail and action in the drawings that you can almost forget the text. But this will truly make it accessible to struggling readers. And while this is a bit of a departure from the original, I love Kid Beowulf. It was clever and you do need knowledge of the original to understand why it’s so clever. It’s a great tie-in for language arts teachers. And the kids will like it!
Recently, a few of Ray Bradbury’s books were adapted into comics. (He talks about it in this video.) The adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 really captured the mood of the original title. Though of course, it’s not the original. And while I never read the original, the adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes is really creepy!
ROBIN: I too am fairly critical of adaptations. The admiration for the original work and the desire to celebrate must be present for both the artist and the writer for an adaptation to work. The idea of just taking a story and slapping together a sequential art version is not enough.
Thus, for me, the adaptations that succeed the most come from a devotion to showing off the original story. Eric Shanower’s meticulous and vivid retelling of the saga of the Trojan War, Age of Bronze, is gorgeous and clearly driven by his own yearning to do the tale justice. Complex, political, and unafraid of showing a culture that is in many ways quite different from our modern world, Age of Bronze brings to life what is to many a distant, dusty script. Given its authenticity to Greek culture and mores, however, it suits high school students and up best.
More difficult to find, but worth it if you can, is David Wenzel’s colorful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This graphic novel barely rested on the shelf in my library before it was grabbed by the next eager reader. [Editor's note: Amazon has released a Kindle edition.] The sad part was having so many parents and kids ask me where The Lord of the Rings adaptations were and having to inform them that sadly Wenzel never took on that epic task. Similarly, the recent adaptation of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn clearly came from a love for both the animated film and the canon of the novel, especially with Renae DeLiz’s gorgeous art, and it’s solid addition to any collection because of it.
As for Shakespeare, I stand by my opinion that it has yet to be done as well as it could be. There have been many solid titles, including Gareth Hinds’ adaptations of King Lear and the particularly difficult task of adapting The Merchant of Venice, but none of them of quite lived up to what I consider the enchantment of the plays. Many adaptations instead drastically disappointed me (as with many of the Manga Shakespeare adaptations mentioned above.)
I’m a firm believer that most people would do best to see Shakespeare performed before they ever have to read the original play, and sadly Shakespeare is frequently taught precisely the other way around. Graphic novels could be the perfect way to do this without showing movies or taking an entire class to the theater. However, many adaptations are focused on whittling the scripts down to a 100 or 200 page book, and I think that’s the wrong tack to take. Shakespeare can take up to four hours to perform. Why not let each line sing, like it does in performance, with the gestures and visual clues to back it up and make it comprehensible to a modern audience? Yes, that would make for a long book. But it would make for a vivid, lovely work, and in the right hands it could be just as transformative as reading Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (two lengthy graphic novels that pack quite the narrative punch.)
ESTHER: Robin, I couldn’t agree more on your take on the Shakespeare adaptations and I could not have said it better myself. The only Shakespeare play I ever enjoyed was the play I first saw performed. (Much Ado About Nothing. My mother took me to see the movie. I was horrified at first! Me? Shakespeare? But I was surprised that I not only understood and followed the play when I saw it performed. I understood it!) While many of the Shakespeare adaptations stick the original language, they don’t make it any more comprehensible to the average reader.
KATE: Marvel’s two Jane Austen adaptations — Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility — are both solidly presented. I thought the cover of Pride and Prejudice — which looks like an issue of O Magazine, circa 1810 — was a clever and subtle way to link Austen with contemporary romance authors without resorting to a picture of a shirtless Mr. Darcy. At the same time, however, my inner curmudgeon was frustrated that both series emphasized romance over social commentary; we tend to treat Austen as the Founding Mother of Chick-Lit, when her writing is, in fact, as complex, political, and astute as Charles Dickens’ and Emile Zola’s.
For younger readers, I like Joann Sfar’s adaptation of The Little Prince, which really emphasizes the strangeness of the story and the characters. Some many find it a little too otherworldly for their tastes, but I thought Sfar’s approach helped inoculate the material against excessive sentimentality while staying true to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original illustrations.
I’m also a big fan of the Erik Shanower-Skottie Young Oz series. Esther and Snow both mentioned The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but Shanower and Young have also adapted two of the lesser-known sequels: The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. I actually like these sequels better than the first novel: they’re darker and weirder, with more memorable villains and landscapes. Both are now out in trade paperback and hardcover editions, and make a great collection to a school library.
Getting back to the Manga Shakespeare editions, I think they point out one of the biggest challenges for adaptors: antiquated language. I applaud Self Made Hero for preserving Shakespeare’s original language, but can’t help feeling that students might have been better served by a modern-language version. As I noted in a 2007 review of the first two Manga Shakespeare titles, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, “to be useful as pedagogical tools, adaptations must illuminate an aspect of the original that’s difficult for modern audiences to understand.” I elaborated:
In the case of Shakespeare, it’s the language, not the basic plotlines, that poses difficulty for most readers. If your illustrations for, say, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech simply show him looking pensive, then you haven’t added anything of explanatory value to the original. Shakespeare is especially tricky in this regard because so much of the action takes place off stage. Reaction and reflection lend themselves nicely to soliloquies, but are difficult to capture in pictures.
And that, for me, is where a lot of comic-book treatments of Shakespeare break down: they don’t really bring the text to life, they just add a lot of noisy visual accompaniment to it.
ROBIN: One aspect of adaptations like these that I must give credit to is the way they can bring a text alive for a reader. I had a younger guy come in to my library one day, who was in as far as I recall eighth grade, and they were being required to read Beowulf. It was rough going, and he was very frustrated by trying to get through the poem. I went to the shelf and brought out Gareth Hind’s adaptation, which I was able to reassure his parent had the full text, and he was immediately excited. He and his mom came back later in the week to thank me — Hinds’ version had not only allowed him to get through the text but had made him excited about his reading.
CLASSICS BY AUTHOR
- Pride and Prejudice. Adapted by Nancy Butler, Illustrations by Hugo Petrus. Marvel Comics, 2009. ISBN: 978-0785139164.
- Sense and Sensibility. Adapted by Nancy Butler, Illustrations by Sonny Liew. Marvel Comics, 2011. ISBN: 978-0785148203.
Frank L. Baum
- All Action Comics, No. 4: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Adapted and illustrated by Ben Caldwell. Sterling Publishers, 2012. ISBN: 978-1402731532.
- The Marvelous Land of Oz. Adapted by Erik Shanower, Illustrated by Skottie Young. Marvel Comics, 2011. ISBN:978-0785140870.
- Ozma of Oz. Adapted by Erik Shanower, Illustrated by Skottie Young. Marvel Comics, 2011. ISBN: 978-0785142478.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Adapted by Erik Shanower, Illustrated by Skottie Young. Marvel Comics, 2009. ISBN: 978-0785129219.
- The Last Unicorn. Adapted by Peter Gillis, Illustrated by Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon. IDW Publishing, 2011. ISBN: 978-1600108518.
- Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation. Illustrated by Tim Hamilton. Hill and Wang, 2009. ISBN: 978-0809051014.
- Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Illustrated by Ron Wimberly. Hill and Wang, 2011. ISBN: 978-0809087464.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Hound of the Baskervilles. Adapted by Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard. Sterling Publishers, 2009. ISBN: 978-1402770005.
- The Sign of the Four. Adapted by Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard. Sterling Publishers, 2011. ISBN: 978-1402780035.
- A Study in Scarlet. Adapted by Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard. Sterling Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-1402770821.
- Classics Illustrated Deluxe Edition, No. 1: The Wind in the Willows. Adapted by Michel Plessix. Papercutz, 2008. ISBN: 978-1597070966.
- Age of Bronze, Vol. 1: A Thousand Ships. Adapted by Erik Shanower. Image Comics, 2001. ISBN: 978-1582402000.
- Age of Bronze, Vol. 2: Sacrifice. Adapted by Erik Shanower. Image Comics, 2005. ISBN: 978-1582403991.
- Age of Bronze, Vol. 3: Betrayal. Adapted by Erik Shanower. Image Comics, 2007. ISBN: 978-1582407555.
- All Action Classics, No. 3: The Odyssey. Adapted and illustrated by Ben Caldwell. Sterling Publishers, 2010. ISBN: 978-1402731556.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- The Little Prince. Adapted by Joann Sfar. HMH Books, 2010. ISBN: 978-0547338026.
- King Lear. Adapted by Gareth Hinds. Random House, 2009. ISBN: 978-0763643447.
- Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet. Adapted by Richard Appignanesi, Illustrated by Emma Vieceli. Self Made Hero, 2007. ISBN: 978-0955285615.
- Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. Adapted by Richard Appignanesi, Illustrated by Sonia Leong. Self Made Hero, 2007. ISBN: 978-0955285608.
- Manga Shakespeare: Twelfth Night. Adapted by Richard Appignanesi, Illustrated by Nana Li. Self Made Hero, 2009. ISBN: 978-0955816994.
- The Merchant of Venice. Adapted by Gareth Hinds. Random House, 2008. ISBN: 978-0763630256
Robert Louis Stevenson
- Treasure Island. Adapted by Roy Thomas, Illustrated by Mario Gully. Marvel Comics, 2009. ISBN: 978-0785125952.
- All Action Classics, No. 1: Dracula. Adapted by Michael Mucci, Illustrated by Ben Caldwell. Sterling Publishers, 2008. ISBN: 978-1402731525.
- J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic. Adapted by Charles Dixon and Sean Deming, Illustrated by David Wenzel. Ballantine Books, 1990. ISBN: 978-0261102217.
- All Action Classics, No. 2: Tom Sawyer. Adapted by Tom Mucci, Illustrated by Rad Sechrist. Sterling Publishers, 2008. ISBN: 978-1402733994.
CLASSICS BY TITLE
- Beowulf. Adapted by Gareth Hinds. Candlewick Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0763630232.
- Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath. By Alexis Farjado. Bowler Hat Comics, 2008. ISBN: 978-0980141917.
- Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland. By Alexis Farjado. Bowler Hat Comics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-9801419-2-4.