Fantasy Comics Adaptations of Classic Literature

And when I say “fantasy” I don’t mean “chicks in chain-mail being rescued from dragons”– I mean fantasy as in “fantasy football.” Here’s the background for this post: a while back, cartoonist Scott Chantler (of the excellent recent graphic novel, Two Generals, among other things) put out a call on Twitter asking other cartoonists what book they would most like to do a comics adaptation of. If you know me and follow my blog, you know what my answer was: The Count of Monte Cristo. Some of the responses from other cartoonists, though, got me thinking about comics adaptations I’d really like to see.

So, just for fun here are a few of my “fantasy picks” for comics adaptations of some of my favorite books:

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – Adapted by Tony Millionaire and Kevin Huizenga

OK, I know there’re a ton of comics adaptations of Moby Dick–from the venerable Classics Illustrated version to an interpretation by Will Eisner–but frankly none of them (that I’ve read, anyway) manage to get it quite right. From the versions I’ve looked at (and there are for sure some that I’ve not read but should have, like the Bill Sienkiewicz adaptation) they seem to suffer from one or all of these three problems:

Drawing that doesn’t capture the tone of the novel – The tone of Moby Dick, both the narrative and the writing itself, is an odd combination of ornateness and grittiness. The drawing style of a comics adaptation of the book should reflect this tone and evoke it visually. I took a glance at some recent Marvel adaptation of the book and, despite the artist being an excellent draftsman, the art style looked like it would have been right at home in an issue of Deadpool. Even the great Will Eisner gets the tone of the book totally off-the-mark:

Complete lack of humor – OK, so Moby Dick isn’t a wacky laugh-a-minute gag-fest, but there is some humor in it. I think that the book’s status as a piece of CLASSIC LITERATURE makes people assume that it’s got to be dull-as-dirt serious. It isn’t. There are definitely some funny bits. The whole bit where Ishmael and Queequeg first meet at The Spouter-Inn (chapters three and four, maybe?) is hilarious. Even one of the books main images, Ahab on-deck with his peg-leg anchoring him in place via various “auger holes” he’s had drilled in the deck, is pretty funny.

Excising the non-“whale action” parts – For some reason people’s natural impulse when thinking about adapting this book is to completely remove anything that’s not a part of the main narrative about Ahab and the whale. Even the blog post I nabbed that Eisner image from contains this quote, about how readily-adaptable the book is: “You can leave out the chapters on rope, ruminations on predestination, and zero in on the story of one man trying to kill a whale.” No, no! Please don’t. That stuff is about half of the book and it’s a huge part of what makes the book as great as it truly is. Take it out and you’ve basically got an 1800s version of The Hunt for Red October. I think people avoid this because they think about adapting a book for comics as if they were adapting a book for film. They’re not the same thing. Comics can handle the historical/philosophical rumination–and any decent adaptation of Moby Dick has got to have that stuff left in.

Fortunately there’s an (imaginary) fix for all of the above. The first two issues could be solved in one fell swoop by getting the great Tony Millionaire on-board for art chores. His artwork has a perfect scrimshaw-ish look that’d be great for this story:

His Maakies strip is dark and funny at the same time; he’s a master of pathos. As far as the visual style goes, Millionaire is capable of modulating his style to fit the tone of whatever story he’s working on. Witness the various visual incarnations of his Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow characters that appear in various forms in everything from charming children’s books to the often-raunchy Maakies.

To “solve” the third issue mentioned above, I’d bring in Kevin Huizenga to do the actual adapting of the work into breakdowns/thumbnails. Kevin’s truly amazing at using the language of comics to communicate complex philosophical and theological concepts. Here’s an example where his character, Glen Ganges, sort of mentally travels through time  Richard McGuire-style as he returns from the library:

I think Kevin would could really dig in and do some interesting things with all those historical and philosophical digressions and Tony Millionaire’s art would look amazing. Heck, there’s already even a Tony Millionaire book jacket for an edition of the novel:

John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat – Adapted by Mark Martin

I run hot and cold on John Steinbeck. I found things like The Pearl, and even The Grapes of Wrath, hard to get through because of Steinbeck’s heavy-handed moralizing throughout. On the other hand, I really enjoy some of his more humorous work like Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, one of my absolute favorite books.

I’m going to grant, for the sake of this blog post, that you could even get away with a comics adaptation of Tortilla Flat in today’s socio-political climate. The book’s basically about a group of extremely lazy (but quite noble in their own way) Hispanic men in Monterey, California whose life-goal is mainly to stay as drunk as possible. It’s an incredibly funny book and even more-so because Steinbeck has all the characters speaking in an odd Arthurian phrasing. The chapter titles–like “How Danny was ensnared by a vacuum cleaner and how Danny’s friends rescued him”–are straight out of  The Tales of King Arthur. The book reads like Thomas Mallory narrating a Cheech and Chong movie.

There’s regrettably a somewhat short list of people that come to mind in the modern cartooning world when you think “funny.” Johnny Ryan is one for sure, but his over-the-top gross-out humor (as much as I love it!) isn’t really what’s needed here. Tortilla Flat calls for someone who can do fall on the floor funny but who can also give these characters the sort of goofy, noble charm they have in the novel. The answer is Mark Martin.

Sadly, Mark Martin isn’t as much of a household name cartooning-wise as he really should be. He’s probably best known for his Batman parody character from the 80s, Gnatrat. He’s an amazing cartoonist, though, and incredibly funny. When I imagine a Mark Martin Tortilla Flat, I think of his flat-out hilarious Montgomery Wart stories:

He’s clearly got the cartooning (and timing) chops to pull of the more madcap parts of the story (which is most of it), but he can also do imagery that moody and beautifully rendered. Imagine the early 30s Monterey of Tortilla Flat drawn like this–gorgeous!

“But, wait,” you’re saying, “All that guy’s characters are, like, these weird frog creatures.” You know what? I’m cool with that. Do the adaptation with animals. It worked for Art Spiegelman, right?

Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South – Adapted by Christophe Blain

Yeah, I guess you don’t usually hear folks say, “Melville, Steinbeck…. Portis.” But you should! Charles Portis is one of my favorite modern writers. He’s got a small but amazing body of work, much of which unbelievably was out of print for a long time. Recently (thankfully) he’s come back into the limelight a bit due to the success of the Coen Brothers adaptation of his best-known work, True Grit. Any of Portis’s books could potentially make for an interesting adaptation to a visual medium. If I’d been picking the Portis novel for the Coen Brothers to adapt (curiously, no one asked me) I’d probably not have picked True Grit. I’d love to have seen an over-the-top film version of Portis’s hilarious conspiracy theory send-up, Masters of Atlantis, done Raising Arizona/Big Lebowski style. For a comics adaptation, though, I’d pick my absolute favorite Portis novel, The Dog of the South.

For art duty, I’d pick the extraordinary French cartoonist Christophe Blain. The Dog of the South is a classic American road novel and you may be thinking, Why the heck would you get a French cartoonist to do a novel so steeped in Americana?! Gus and his Gang: that’s why.

Gus and his Gang is the most recent of Blain’s work to be translated into English and published domestically. It’s Blain’s take on the Old West–and it’s amazing. Part of what makes Gus so interesting is the unique approach that Blain–a non-American–has taken to this very American of subjects: where most of us Americans would probably have approached in the typical “sheriffs, hold-ups, and gunfights” fashion, Blane produced a book that uses those trappings to tell a story about a group of womanizing friends.

Blain also has a great feel for the subtle humor of character interaction, and The Dog of the South would be a great place to showcase that, with its classic “naïve protagonist traveling with rogue companion” premise. The characters in the book travel from Little Rock, Arkansas to Belize. In Gus, Blain did an amazing job drawing Old West-era America; I’d love to see him tackle more contemporary (Dog of the South takes place modern times, circa mid-70s) settings.  Here’re a few samples from Gus—Imagine!

OK, I could go on like this a while, picking “fantasy comics adaptations”… I won’t though. But, I’d love to hear yours!


Skip to comment form

    • Isaac on 7/8/2011 at 9:35 pm

    How about Eddie Campbell (breakdowns) and Kate Beaton (pencils & Inks) on some Wodehouse?

    • Eric on 7/9/2011 at 12:48 am

    I have actually been hoping that Colleen Coover would do a Wodehouse adaptation for years, first after seeing her Clue set (, and then after seeing her Blandings treatment:

    I think Campbell/Beaton would do a fantastic Psmith.

    • Ben on 7/9/2011 at 10:36 am

    @Isaac – That’d be fantastic for sure. I think Kate Beaton could do any number of classic literature adaptations pretty damn well.

    • Ben on 7/9/2011 at 10:37 am

    @Eric – Wow, those Colleen Coover things are amazing!

    • Isaac on 7/9/2011 at 11:36 am

    Thought of another one: Lolita adapted by Jason Little (breakdowns, pencils) and Craig Thompson (inks). For a different Nabokov I’d probably just give the whole thing to Jason Little, but I feel like Lolita needs a little more lush roughness.

    Have you seen any of Matt Wiegle’s adaptations / illustrations for SparkNotes? They’re pretty sharp.

    And let me remind you that you really ought to read the Sienkiewicz Moby-Dick. I think it’s pretty successful. Another Moby-Dick that I would especially recommend since you have a kid in the house is Sam Ita’s pop-up adaptation.

    • Isaac on 7/9/2011 at 11:40 am

    Oh! And why not The Orchid Thief by Jon Lewis, with occasional flashback sequences (orchid-hunting) by Steve Bissette?

    • Ben on 7/9/2011 at 1:41 pm

    @That’d be a great Lolita. I’d definitely want Thompson doing finishes. You gotta have his elf/pixie-girl drawing skills. The real problem with a Lolita adaptation, though, is that (much like film) you can’t really pull off the whole “untrustworthy narrator” bit. Images are so authoritative that I don’t really know how you could pull that off.

    • Eric on 7/9/2011 at 6:46 pm

    I would like to see a collection of Southern cartoonists taking on Flannery O’Connor short stories. You, Chris Schweizer, Dean Trippe, Dustin Harbin spring to mind. I’d stretch this to transplanted-to-the-South cartoonists to get Eleanor Davis on board.

    • Ben on 7/9/2011 at 10:35 pm

    @Eric – I’m a huge Flannery O’Connor fan, so I’d be on-board for sure! I used to live a couple of blocks from her childhood home in Savannah.

    • Eric on 7/9/2011 at 10:54 pm

    Were I the editor, I’d ask you to do “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” I could also see you doing a good job on an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

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