Both Down the Tubes and the Forbidden Planet International Blog carry the news of a new imprint, Classical Comics, which will be publishing comic strip versions of classic works of literature, starting with Henry V, Macbeth, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.
This comes in the wake of the launch of the Marvel Illustrated line (Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, The Man in the Iron Mask) and SelfMadeHero’s Manga Shakespeare range (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet). In recent years, there has been a trickle of literary adaptations, mostly in the Graphic Classics range, but also including Richard Corben’s Poe adaptations and Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy’s version of Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Now we have a river forming.
My own expectations of literary adaptations like this aren’t great. It is all to easy to lose what made them special in their original medium without finding an equivalent in the new one. But adapters who avoid producing second-rate copies can end up offending fans of the original by changing what those fans valued. It’s hard to win this game.
My favourite adaptations of prose, poetry and plays into comics are those which take an oblique approach, rather than trying simply to reproduce their source.
Martin Rowson’s adaptation of T S Eliot’s great modernist poem The Waste Land recasts it as a Chandleresque private-eye story, throwing in lots of jokes and occasional insights into the nature of modern art (and film noir).
Hunt Emerson has produced several literary adaptations, including D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and part of Casanova’s memoirs (as Casanova’s Last Stand). These turn the originals into out-and-out comedies. Emerson’s most successful work in this vein, his version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, retains the entire text of the original poem, but surrounds it with cartoon mayhem. It’s a bit like watching Shirley Bassey maintaining her deadpan composure while Morecambe and Wise cause chaos behind her.
You’d have thought that this approach would annoy fans of the original poem. But apparently Emerson’s version sells well at the shop attached to the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere, dedicated to the lake poets. They'll even sell you an “I shot the albatross” T-shirt using one of his panels.
Artwork for a page from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, adapted by Amy Cozine (script) and John M Burns (art), Classical Comics, due 2008, taken from the Classical Comics website
The Waste Land by Martin Rowson, Penguin Books, 1990
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, comics adaptation by Hunt Emerson, colour by Carol Bennett, Knockabout Books, 1989