To Be Or Not To Be… A Graphic Novel

So the question was asked, Should books be translated into graphic novels?

And generally, my answer is… no!

There are some books that work really well as graphic novels.  Sandman, Watchmen, Violent Cases, Y The Last Man, Batman, Superman…  The main thing you’ll notice that ties these all together… is that they all started out at comics and graphic novels.

One of my pet peeves is when modern publishers take something that didn’t begin as a graphic novel and attempt to turn it into one.  One example of this is Neil Gaiman’s illustrated story Sandman: The Dream Hunters.  This prose story is lavishly illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, a Japanese illustrator best known for his work on Vampire Hunter D and the Final Fantasy series of video games.

The Dream Hunters is a fantastic story with wonderful illustrations.  But apparently someone somewhere thought… this should really be done in the style of Sandman.  And to do it they brought on one of the best Sandman illustrators P Craig Russell.

P Craig Russell, in addition to illustrating the wonderful Sandman story “Death and Venice,” Russell also illustrated one of the most beautiful single issues of Sandman, the fiftieth issue entitled “Ramadan.”  The story is beautiful from start to finish and is by far one of my favorites in the entire run of Sandman, especially the illustrations.

But even though Russell’s version of The Dream Hunters isn’t that bad… it loses a lot in the translation from Amano’s illustrations.  Still, Russell manages to keep the new version in line with the Sandman issues of past and, in that case, it actually works fairly well.

But… That isn’t the only adaptation of Gaiman’s prose into a graphic novel.  Enter The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch.  This time, the adaptation is handled by another Sandman alumnus, artist Michael Zulli.  Zulli is best known as the illustrator of Sandman issues 70, 71, and 72, an arc titled “The Wake.”

And boy is it fantastic!  Zulli brings the Sandman characters to life in ways not seen before as his artistic style is hyper-realistic.  In addition, no inker was used for these three issues, so the combination of Zulli’s pencils and colorist Daniel Vozzo’s colors is a staggering contrast to the rest of the series illustrators.  Zulli’s work shows a particular contrast to that of the illustrator of the previous story arc Marc Hempel, who works in a more cartoony, angular style.

But Zulli’s work on Miss Finch… is just unnecessary.  The prose version of the story was originally included in Gaiman’s first collection of short stories entitled Smoke and Mirrors, but… only in the U.K. release.  Why?  Stupid editors, probably, as the story is great!  But it didn’t need to be illustrated, regardless of the beauty of the art.

Still… these sorts of adaptations are at least understandable, given the nature of the writer and his popularity within the comics community.  Additionally, Gaiman is involved in many parts of these adaptations and has a descriptive enough style that one could certainly get a great set of illustrations out of the prose (and these artists have!  beautiful, if unnecessary, art).

But then we have books like The Kite RunnerFahrenheit 451, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I’m certain dozens of others, being translated into comics.  At this point, I would ask… what can be added by making the book into comic format?  Is there anything in the text that would benefit from being condensed into pictures?  How much of the beauty of the language is lost in translation?

These are the same questions I would ask if someone is going to make a film of a book.  Can you do it justice?  Will you lose the authorial voice when rewriting it?  Do you plan on staying true to the characters, themes, and imagery of the novel, or are you going to hire actors who look NOTHING like the descriptions of the characters because you want star power to bring in box office bucks (I’m looking at you here Golden Compass)?

Overall, I understand the desire to adapt novels into comics.  You’re hoping to find a way to get a story to an audience that might not otherwise encounter it.  But is dumbing down the content of a novel, not originally visualized in the comic format, really the way to go?

Kids like reading comics, especially adventurous stuff like Bone and Tin-Tin, because they’re clever, funny, and gorgeously illustrated by really talented artists.  But maybe, just maybe, The Kite Runner doesn’t need to be experienced in the same way.

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