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Roundtables: Can You Listen to a Graphic Novel?

I started listening to audiobooks about 20 years ago when I started working at the Brooklyn Public Library. I borrowed a few titles that I loved and started to listen on my drive to and from work. I fell in love with them. I loved getting stories from audiobooks. Audiobooks have lots of uses. My aunt has been blind since she was a young adult, and she reads with audiobooks as she never mastered braille. Students with learning disabilities use audiobooks to help with reading fluency and reading comprehension. Same for Multi-Language Learners (also known as English as a Second Language.) And there are lots of people like me—commuters. I assume others like me also listen while exercising and doing quiet activities like knitting, crafting, or housework. 

I’ve listened to all sorts of audiobooks. I found that books I normally won’t pick up to read, I can pick up and listen. It’s helped me expand genres and expand my reading, which as a librarian is invaluable. Reader’s advisory is such an important part of my job.

But my first “comic” audiobook experience was purely accidental, and I wrote about it in this post about Invisible Emmie.

Since then, I’ve noticed many audiobooks of graphic novels. Nimona won the Odyssey Award for excellence in production of an audiobook in 2017, and this year, Hey, Kiddo was the 2019 winner!

But does the listener really get the full experience when listening to a story that is meant to be told as sequential art? Can you listen to a comic book?

I asked my fellow Good Comics for Kids bloggers to weigh in on the discussion.

Q. Please describe your experience with audiobooks before discussing graphic novels as audiobooks. How long have you been listening? When and where do you listen?

Mike Pawuk: I’m actually not a die-hard audiobook reader, but I enjoy them from time to time. My commute to my library is fairly short (about 15-20 minutes) so it’s difficult for me to get into a book for such a short amount of time. I have listened to audiobooks while running outside and that’s been enjoyable. 

Robin Brenner: I am a dedicated audiobook listener at this point — and started in earnest perhaps five years ago because of the length of my commute to work (plus enjoying listening to things while doing other rote activities, like cleaning the house). My commute was originally around 1 hour each way each day, and now it’s up to 2 (4 hours total!). I listen to many things (audiobooks, music, podcasts), but I love in particular the artistry and fun of listening to a great book brought to a different medium by an excellent audio production.

Esther Keller: I think I’ve been listening to audiobooks for 20 years or so. I was just starting my career when the public library began heavily curating them. I tried them out and have not turned back. I have a short commute, much like Mike, but I listen when I drive. I listen when I do housework or cook, and I’ll listen when I exercise. I’ve also started my kids on audiobooks. My 10-year-old is a real reader and he loves to read in print and to listen.

Lori Henderson: I listened to audiobooks a lot back when my commute was 45 minutes to 1.5 hours one way and I had plenty of alone time in the car. Back then, I was consuming them like water. Now my commute is much shorter, and I dislike stopping so soon. Like Mike, I’m not a die-hard fan, but do enjoy them from time to time.

Q. Do you prefer a certain type of audiobook? What type of audiobooks do you listen to?

Robin: Due to my job as a teen librarian, I do often listen to teen titles, but I also particularly like listening to books I might not otherwise tackle, including longer adult nonfiction titles, such as history and science works.  I find that if I’m having trouble with a print edition of a book, it’s sometimes worth giving the audiobook a try to see if that works better for me and will bring me to finish a book.

I’m also one of those people at this point who knows which narrators she really likes, and will look for titles read specifically by them. (I often joke I would marry just Steve West’s voice.)

Esther: At this point, 99% of my reading is children’s or teen. Call it an occupational hazard, but I really prefer YA and children’s literature to adult literature. Still, if I didn’t push myself, I’d often keep to one type or one genre of books, so I use audiobooks to push the limits of my interest. Which, I see, is really similar to what Robin said! For instance, I had no interest in The Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland, but I pushed myself to read the first title, so I’d at least get a taste of the series. (And in turn, suggested it to my son who I think has almost finished the series, some volumes in print and some in audio.) I’ll also read nonfiction titles this way. In part, I attribute the increase of nonfiction reading to audiobooks. Lastly, I use audiobooks for titles I just can’t move up in my print reading pile. 

Lori: My favorite type of leisure reading is cozy mysteries. There are several series that are long, so I could work through a series much faster while commuting than I could reading. I’m not picky about narrators, especially since there weren’t a lot of options when I started, but I do have my favorites.

Q. What are some of the elements of listening that you enjoy?

Robin: For me, it’s a match of production to the story and characters. I’ve grown to note the wisdom in choices in different kinds of productions: Multi-voice or single narrator, sound effects or not, or music or not, all play into what works (or sometimes jars the ear). I find myself drawn to the cinematic productions that take the time to think through ambient noise and manipulation of sound to make things work for that specific story.  

For example, the Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff have extraordinarily good full cast audio productions.  If you’ve seen the books, they are very visual titles, with lots of artwork and design going into the page and the layout of the text.  So, how to translate that into an audiobook?  They did an amazing job, including adding crackle to voices coming in over intercoms and adding (when on a spaceship) the low ambient hum of the ship workings below everyone speaking. That series also involved an AI slowly losing its grip (or is it?), and the voice actor (Lincoln Hoppe) is particularly wonderful in that role.

Esther: I love a good story. But the narrator (or narrators) makes a huge difference. I was once listening to Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar on audiobook. The narrator just didn’t gel with me. I found myself irritated by the reading and so I just stopped the book and took it up in print. I don’t always do that. Sometimes, I’ll push through, and sometimes, I’ll just abandon it in both audio and print. But other elements can make a difference. Different narrators for different voices. Music can help set the atmosphere, but it isn’t a deal-breaker. Ultimately, the narrator just has to go with the title and “sing” to the audience. But that can be different for every reader.

Lori: I enjoy a narrator who is just as invested in the story as I am. Several of the audiobooks I’ve listened to are told in the first person, so hearing a narrator really take on the role and not just read the words really pulls me in. I’m not too interested in music or sound effects. I find them distracting from the story, just as I would find outside noises distracting when I’m reading. I consider full production audiobooks more like radio dramas than book readings. I don’t mind one narrator using different voices for different characters, though hearing a deeper voiced man trying to sound like a woman can be humorous at first.

Q. Which graphic novels have you listened to on audiobook?

Mike: I’ve listened to some graphic novel adaptations over the years. There weren’t that many early on in the 1990s and I’m pleased they’re making a resurgence. My first graphic novel adaptation was for the Star Wars: Dark Empire audiobook, which adapted the Dark Horse Comics comic book series that first appeared in 1991. The audiobook adaptation from Time-Warner came out in 1994 and was a treat since it was a full-cast audio drama and featured even sound effects from the movies and John Williams’ score. Time-Warner has done other audio adaptations including the Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi and Superman: Doomsday and Beyond – adapting the Death and Life of Superman storyline from the 1990s. 

Robin: Full disclosure: I served on the 2020 Odyssey Award Committee, so I’ve listened to quite a number of graphic novels on audio, including the title the Committee selected as the winner, Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka and a full cast. Due to serving on that committee, I must refrain from discussing any eligible titles in specific from that year, but I can say that I’m heartened by the increasing number of producers and creators willing to tackle that challenge.

Esther: Recently, I listened to both Nimona by Noelle Stevenson and New Kid by Jerry Craft. I’m currently listening to Roller Girl. I first read Invisible Emmie, which is more of a hybrid but has enough elements of a comic to be included in this discussion. I’d like to listen to more, but I depend on my public library for titles and the waits can are sometimes long. 

Lori: I listened to New Kid by Jerry Craft.

Q. What are your thoughts on these adaptations from a production point of view?

Mike: Though I haven’t listened to graphic novel audiobook adaptations recently, I know they put a lot of work in the audio adaptations. The ones I listened to many years ago were great and much like a radio show. 

Robin: To my mind, translating between the two formats is a challenge in particular due to how to represent aurally the cues and details in the images on the page. To succeed, I think you need to figure out how to make sure that the listener doesn’t miss out on anything that is evident in the images, so that there isn’t, for example, a joke in a panel that doesn’t make sense when you hear it because you can’t see the visual gag.  That can be really tricky, and thus I think the more producers work closely with creators to go through each panel and each scene to think through how to adjust to the audio realm is incredibly important in getting it right.  I imagine there must be a temptation to treat the word balloons as a script, but there’s so much in the images that can’t be lost.

Esther: The productions I’ve listened to do seem to treat the word balloons as a script, and that’s why I’m so ambivalent about whether or not the producers are succeeding in the adaptations. I remember, when I picked up a print copy of Invisible Emmie, after listening to it in the car, and flipped through the pages, seeing certain scenes as a comic made so much more sense. It had sounded and felt awkward while listening. It almost felt choppy. The same when listening to New Kid by Jerry Craft. But with New Kid, I had already read it in print. Nimona worked a little better for me, but like Mike said, it was like a radio production. Recently, I’ve also been picking up more podcasts and introducing them to my children, so I had listened to a podcast called the Two Princess and it was like an old-time radio show. A play, a show on the radio (erm, mobile device!). And the same when reading Nimona or New Kid. It was staged as a play. Which worked on some level to follow the story.

Q. What are your thoughts about the fact that the reader doesn’t see the art when listening (unless reading along with a book)?

Mike: That’s my one concern, since the art and story combined is what makes a graphic novel so special—sort of like the wonderful mix that chocolate and peanut butter make when they combine. I don’t tend to think of an audiobook adaptation of a graphic novel to be a better way to tell the story, but an alternate adaptation of the original source material, much like how there are adaptations of comic books done as plays, musicals, movies, video games, and animated films/shows. Each can have their own merit, but I still love the original format. 

Robin: I am definitely a reader who is naturally a visual learner (and I have a very visual imagination, hence why I was drawn to comics in the first place), so I understand the hesitation in believing a graphic novel can be successfully reproduced in this format. The key is to make sure to make the audio storytelling as rich and complex as the graphic content on the page.  It’s hard, and I think a lot harder than producing a prose audiobook, but it’s achievable.

Esther: When I read a graphic novel, I often go back to “reread” the art, because I’m so much more focused on the print and realized I miss the pictures. But I find the artwork can change the tone of a story. So while the stage productions of the graphic novels are wonderful, I feel like something is missing with the artwork. I often think of my aunt, who has been blind since she is a young adult, and think would she be getting the entire story from the audiobook? The answer is likely no. Color, panel layout, even lettering, are part of the storytelling of a graphic novel.

Lori: While I think audiobooks are a good way to have a story told, there is still a lot that is conveyed through the art that is missed in an audio-only format. Words and inflection can say a lot, but not as much as art, which is why I would love to see some of my favorite prose novels translated to graphic novels.

Q. Any thoughts or ideas to add on?

Mike: In this audio world, where so many more people are listening to audiobooks, and there’s an increasing amount of research that shows that listening to an audiobook is “as good” as reading a book in print, it’s just exciting that more graphic novels may also find new readers via this translation.

Q: Have any of you had any sense as to how popular your audiobook productions of graphic novels are in your collections?  Are readers and listeners finding them?  Has anyone done any displays or recommended lists for fans to help them find the best productions and readers?

Esther: I used to have a thriving audiobook collection, but the interest wasn’t enough to justify the cost. I now mostly purchase titles that will support the curriculum, like titles being read in class. We also partner with the public library with a program called MyLibraryNYC, so we promote library cards (students and teachers are allowed fine-free cards) and the public library services heavily. So I steer students to Overdrive. Based on my wait for titles via Overdrive, I’d say some of the graphic novel audiobooks adaptations are pretty popular.

Titles Mentioned:

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Hey Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

New Kid by Jerry Craft

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Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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