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March 15, 2009

Roundtable: Adapting Prose Titles to the Graphic Format


This year’s ICv2 conference, held prior to New York Comic-Con on Thursday, February 5, was a vast source of information about the industry and the trends going on now. One of the panels held that day dealt with the ongoing trend of adapting outside literary works to the graphic format and presenting it to a new audience in a new way. We here at GNR were so excited by the panel that it inspired us to go down the same topical road here, where we have gathered comics professionals to discuss what’s going on now, what it means for the industry, and what to expect next.

Joining the conversation:

Betsy Mitchell, Editor in Chief, Del Rey Books
Ralph Macchio, Senior Editor, Marvel Comics
Ruwan Jayatilleke, Senior Vice President Strategic Development—Acquisitions, Marvel Comics
Ernst Dabel, President/CEO, Dabel Brothers Publishing
Marco Pavia, Associate Publisher, Tokyopop
What are the special challenges of turning a prose book into a graphic novel or manga?
Ralph: The biggest challenge is to ensure that you’re being faithful to the source material. When you transpose the book into this different genre, it is vital that the reader get a similar experience to what he would get if he’d read the book. Of course, you can’t perfectly imitate the experience of reading the book, but you have to strive to achieve it. This is why familiarity with the source material is so important.

Marco: The ultimate goal is to stay authentic to the original source material and create a graphic novel that’s accessible to the prose book’s audience. Also—and this is obvious—pairing the right artistic voice with the author’s writing is key, and it’s a bit more challenging than one might think. I should add here, too, that Tokyopop doesn’t create straight retellings for our graphic novel and manga adaptations. Rather, we develop original stories—prequels, sequels, and side stories—set in the prose novel universe. And, finally, in this current economic climate, of course, the biggest challenge is to make sure you create a product that can sell.

Ernst: God has been really good to us; there are no special challenges, and because we are so passionate about what we do, we did it right the first time around. Fans can actually check out our very first adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight.

Betsy: A story retold in graphic novel or manga form will necessarily lose most of its original word count. The challenge is to retain the bones and sinew of the original and to present it in a strikingly visual form. You don’t want the reader saying, “Well, that was a waste of my time. The original was much better.”
What can the format add to the experience for readers? How does it supplement what the author has already created?
Betsy: A graphic novel can almost be considered the equivalent of a feature film. There will be many novels we’ll never see in the theater due to the cost of bringing them to the screen, but artists have no problem creating the most extravagant special effects, the vast reaches of space or the most bizarre fantasy landscapes. Skillful artwork can bring to life the emotion of a story without having to spell out every facial expression and gesture. For good or ill, a graphic novel will also solidify each character’s appearance. Some readers will be pleased, others will disdain the artist’s vision, but if the author has approved the final product, at least everyone knows that it was a worthy try.

Ernst: The fans now have the pleasure of enjoying some fantastic graphics as they read the story, and since we work so closely with the authors, they know that the artwork is exactly as the author envisions it.

Ralph: The graphic format may allow readers to enter the world of the novel a bit more easily because you have illustrations. You see the progression of the story visually, and this is a different layer of experience than reading the prose and imagining on your own. This supplements the author’s work by providing the reader with a visual framework that goes beyond the words themselves.

Marco: Take the graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which, for me, introduces a whole new level of meaning to Auster’s story. When executed right, the format adds a truly unique perspective that can further enhance and expand the prose experience. Maybe one day people will be talking about the graphic novel adaptation in a similar fashion to “the film version” of a novel.
How have prose writers embraced the format?
Ernst: Our prose writers have embraced the format with ease.

Marco: To be honest, I’m a little surprised at how—in the case or our Tokyopop graphic novels and manga—writers have embraced the format without bias. At first I wasn’t sure that the writers we work with knew what manga was, but they have fully embraced the concept of visual storytelling.

Betsy: Jim Butcher, to take one example, is a longtime comic fan. He was delighted to take the opportunity to script an original story from his Dresden Files universe. Welcome to the Jungle retained his trademark snappy dialogue and the story was an easily believable side adventure in Harry Dresden’s life. Diana Gabaldon is scripting a full-length graphic novel adaptation of Outlander told from Jamie Fraser’s point of view—in essence offering her fans an original story, since there are many scenes and conversations that don’t appear in the original novel. Gabaldon’s checkered past as a writer of Scrooge McDuck comics for Disney is serving her well!

Ralph: Both Stephen King and Orson Scott Card have upped their commitment to Marvel. By all accounts, they’re pleased with how Marvel has presented their works.
What types of prose books are the most suited for adapting to the graphic format?
Ralph: I think the kind most suited are the ones with the most visual elements. If you have a book which is largely a drawing room drama, which occurs largely in one room, it probably won’t work so well as a novel with great action scenes and stunning landscapes.

Ernst: As long as it’s an excellent story, then it should be adapted for fans to enjoy.

Marco: I don’t think there’s a limit; in my experience, it begins with an editor who has a vision.

Betsy: Due to the costs involved in hiring so many contributors to the job—pencilers, inkers, scripters, letterers, colorists if the work is in four-color—economics demand that authors who have a large and loyal fan following are the best choice for adaptation. Titles with a strong dose of the fantastic seem to have been the most successful so far: Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series have done very well.
How do you feel about adapting classic works to the format? What does it add to those works? Is there any negative to it?
Ernst: I love the classic works. There are some terrific stories which could be adapted, and it would give us some excellent visuals to enjoy as we read. I do not think there are any negatives.

Marco: I’m for it as long as it brings a fresh perspective to the work. It’s like live theatre—I’ve seen Richard III performed a few times, and the one “adaptation” that has remained with me was a production about 15 years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It starred Ian McKellen and was set in a 1930s fascist state. In contrast, we’ve all seen Shakespeare adaptations that put us to sleep. I think the same is true with manga and graphic novel adaptations. The first question should be, “What are you trying to say with the adaptation?”

Ralph: I enjoy working on the Illustrated line because its reader-friendly format may entice potential readers to the classic, where they may never have picked up the novel, finding it intimidating. The only possible negative I can see is that a reader may consider this the final experience and not seek out the novel itself. We’d like to encourage Marvel Illustrated readers to go to the source material for the truest experience.
Are there any genres or types of books that you think would not work well for adapting?
Betsy: Ummm…maybe suburban-angst novels? Fiction set too solidly in our everyday world? On the other hand, I’ve read enough manga to realize that virtually any subject can be made more interesting in visual form.

Marco: I don’t think so—again, as long as the editor has a vision, and the writing and art complement each other, adding verve to the storytelling, I don’t think there’s any genre that can’t be made into a graphic novel. Of course, the end result isn’t always what was planned, but, as my grandmother used to say: that’s what makes horse racing.

Ralph: As I stated earlier, a book whose setting is basically one locale and whose physical movements are restricted would not be the ideal candidate for this line.

Ernst: No, if my brothers and I have a great story in any genre, we can and will adapt it well.
How much involvement would you like the original author to have? Would you want them to write the graphic adaptation themselves?
Ralph: It would be wonderful if the authors could look over what we’ve done with their material and comment on it. While most of the authors on the Illustrated line have passed away, both Stephen King and Orson Scott Card are very much alive and see everything of their work before it sees print. And the offer has been made for them to do the adaptations themselves if they were so inclined.

Ernst: It really depends on the author. Some want to write the graphic adaptation themselves, while others only want to approve and nothing else.

Marco: As much as the author is comfortable with—for the most part, the authors whom we’ve worked with have been involved in many stages of development, from the outline to final script, and they are often intimately involved with approvals for character designs and artwork. I want author involvement.

Betsy: The original author can have as much input as he or she desires! From a publisher’s point of view, it’s valuable to be able to say that the author is closely involved. Whether or not that involves writing the actual script is completely up to the individual. In either case, he or she has full approval over the final product. Dean Koontz, for example, is relying on Fred Van Lente to script the upcoming Odd Thomas graphic novel (we’re tentatively calling it Odd Is on Our Side), but he rewrote Odd’s lines fairly heavily in order to keep his voice as close as possible to the character he’s created for the novel series.
How do you find an artist to translate the work?
Ernst: It’s hard to explain. We just have a knack of finding the right artist to translate the work.

Betsy: It’s fabulous if the artist is already a fan of the author, but not absolutely necessary. We seek out styles appropriate to the story, make sure the author is happy with the proposed artists, and then go to each artist and ask if their schedule and pay rate match up with what we’re seeking. It’s a happy, happy day when all those stars align!

Ralph: The editorial staff works closely with our Talent Management people to locate the right penciler for a project. We try to tailor the penciler’s style to the subject material. Right now we’re looking for an artist to do Shakespeare’s The Tempest and we’re on the search for a penciler with a whimsical, fantasy-oriented touch.

Marco: We have an extensive stable of artists around the world, and our editorial team has had a good sense of who is a good match for a particular prose novel.
Do graphic novel adaptations bring new readers to the format?
Ruwan: Absolutely. Stephen King’s Dark Tower and The Stand have attracted many new readers to this medium and have resulted in new faces appearing in many different retail spaces. Respective series based on Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Microsoft’s Halo universe have all generated a tremendous amount of buzz, a great velocity of sell-through, and pulled a significant number of its core fan base over to the sequential arts side—which is a big win for the creators, Marvel, and retailers!

Marco: You bet—we’ve seen that with our Warriors manga, which are original stories set in the superpopular Warriors YA novel (published by HarperCollins) universe. The consumer for the Warriors manga is the novel fan who is relatively new to the manga category.

Ernst: Yes, they do. I have numerous emails from comic book readers who now read novels because of our work, and book readers who now read graphic novels.

Betsy: They can definitely bring new readers to the author, at least as shown by our experience with In Odd We Trust, the first Koontz graphic novel starring Odd Thomas. We chose the black-and-white, manga-style format specifically to appeal to teen readers. Odd himself has pages on MySpace and Facebook, and his total friend count jumped by thousands of names on both sites after the manga release. Pretty good for a fictional character!
How can the graphic industry respond to the needs of those new readers, the ones who have not purchased many (or any) graphic works before? Is there a better way to get new readers to stay with the format beyond the initial adaptation they buy?
Betsy: That’s a great question. All I can suggest is to keep the quality level on the graphic novel as high as humanly possible. Fans of full-length novels can be turned off by a story that’s too flimsy, even if the art is strong.

Ruwan: Of course, I can’t speak for the industry, and there is no tried and true formula for success. Otherwise, every single novel to comic book would be a runaway success. We know that compelling content, respecting the story, and being able to put talented creators are part of the equation to attracting new readers to the comic book and graphic novel medium. And I would say that the aforementioned also applies to any type of content being rendered in the graphic fiction medium. In terms of new reader retention, it’s impossible to predict what exactly will make him or her buy more graphic novels except to make sure that one’s backlist and frontlist content is fresh, engaging, and has range. Throw in a bit of hard work, talent, and luck—and the odds ain’t so bad.

Marco: I’m all for putting samples online for free—we put a chapter or more from most of our graphic novels and manga on our website to read for free. One of our most viewed “adaptations” is Vampire Kisses, an original manga series set in the universe of the prose novel. The last time I checked, the manga has been viewed nearly a quarter of a million times on our site alone (we also put it up on Myspace, HarperCollins’s site, and elsewhere), and the manga series is an international bestseller. We will also cross-promote within the prose novel to attract new readers. The key is to expose new readers to the vast world of manga and graphic novels beyond their initial experience; with Vampire Kisses, for example, we’ve cross-promoted other gothic-themed manga that we publish within the series.

Ernst: I find that the majority of our first time new readers who read one of our graphic novels also go and read all of our other graphic novels as well. Dabel Brothers plan to have a massive library of graphic novels in the future to keep readers entertained for years to come.
What would be your dream book or story to adapt into a graphic novel?
Marco: Oprah’s autobiography.

Ernst: My dream is to adapt my novel, which is almost completed (grins).

Ralph: I would love to do several of the pillars of Western literature, such as Faust, Paradise Lost, and The Inferno. Those would be my top three choices right now.

Betsy: That would be telling. I’m still working on it!