Over the past few years, as serious comics publishing takes root at traditional book publishers and as comics houses diversify their lists to attract a general readership, publishers are seeking out and working closely with popular prose novelists to turn their bestselling novels and prose stories into a wide range of derivative comics works. Publishers as diverse as Marvel, Tokyopop, Yen Press, and Del Rey Books are teaming well-known prose authors with artists and editors to create new graphic works that can generate impressive sales and in many cases attract comics fans. These new graphic novels are sometimes straight adaptations of popular prose works or, more often these days, they take the form of original stories based in the literary universe of the prose works.
By utilizing existing prose works and engaging their loyal and enthusiastic fan bases, publishers strive to attract a combination of longtime fans of prose authors as well as bring in new readers to both the comics medium in general and to the original prose works. Publishers are also using these adaptations to create “universe-expanding stories,” according to Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, senior editor at Tokyopop, in L.A., the manga and comics publisher, who is working on a few adaptation projects based on well-known HarperCollins prose properties. What Diaz-Przybyl means is that these works often open up new narrative possibilities for the original prose author—or the adaptors brought in to work with the author—who are often happy to be able to explore subplots or revisit minor characters and events from the original prose and expand them into completely new narratives that are still tethered to the familiar.
Straight Adaptation or Expandable Universe?
“It was a natural transition to take with the built-in fan base,” says Kurt Hassler, publishing director of Yen Press, an imprint of Hachette, who is working on straightforward comics adaptations. Yen Press has published comics adaptations of James Patterson's Maximum Ride (in manga style) and Daniel X; Stephenie Meyer's international megaseller Twilight (which just released a 300,000-copy first printing of its manga adaptation), as well as a comic based on the television show Gossip Girl. “So far they are straight adaptations, with the exception of Gossip Girl,” Hassler says.
Not everyone sees the straight adaptation as appropriate when working with prose writers. In July, Dark Horse is publishing Troublemaker, a continuation of bestselling novelist Janet Evanovich's Alex Barnaby series, about the adventures of Alex, a feisty female NASCAR mechanic. Sierra Hahn, editor of the comic, says the house preferred to “have the creator of the series involved” to produce a “continuation, not a rehashing of something that already exists.” Dark Horse used this approach with acclaimed TV writer Joss Whedon when it turned his wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show into Buffy Season 8, essentially a comics continuation of the TV show. It was actually through Buffy Season 8, Hahn says, that Dark Horse and Evanovich “forged a connection.” Evanovich cited Buffy Season 8 as a favorite summer read in an interview, Hahn says, and “we were really enthusiastic to reach out to her. After we started talking and [learned] she is a huge fan of comics, it easily segued into an interest in her writing comics.” Troublemaker, which was written by Evanovich and her daughter, Alex Evanovich, was also an opportunity for them to “revisit characters while trying something new,” says Hahn.
When Tokyopop entered into a distribution deal with Harper Collins a few years ago, “it was part of a related deal to do graphic novel adaptations of various series,” explains Diaz-Przybyl. HarperCollins sent Tokyopop “a huge box of books,” and Diaz-Przybyl says “[we picked] what we thought would work best, what stood out from a sales perspective and what we thought would appeal to the fan base” of the original works. In the end, Tokyopop chose to do a series of trilogies based on the bestselling catcentric Warriors series—the books follow the fortunes of contending clans of wild cats—by Erin Hunter, a pseudonym for the series' three-person writing team. The house is also producing graphic novel side stories based on Ellen Schreiber's goth-girl/vampire-wannabe series, Vampire Kisses, and others based on the fantasy world of Wicked Lovely, a YA novel by Melissa Marr. “I am a big believer that format dictates content,” Diaz-Przybyl says about her process of working on these properties. “You read the novel. It's a really fulfilling experience. You want to relive it, so read the novel again. I want the comics to do something the novel can't,” she explains.
The Warriors comics adaptations are “side stories, half the size of a typical manga, due to a time constraint to get the first book out to cross-promote with a novel,” Diaz-Przybyl says. The first trilogy follows a major character from the first set of novels “off having his own adventures” after being kidnapped and disappearing from the novel series. Other Warriors comics (so far there are about eight manga-style titles) provide the “backstories of the major villains,” including “a new view of a villain through the cat who loves him,” says Diaz-Przybyl. Also, Tokyopop just released the first volume of Seekers, which is based on another Erin Hunter series about bears. “The Seekers novels are early in conception for Erin Hunter properties [with only] four books, so we couldn't really do side stories,” says Diaz-Przybyl, explaining they instead chose to do the Seekers comics as prequels, showing “the early life of the bear cubs.”
Marvel has also undertaken several projects based on prose works, which range from straight adaptations and prequels to original stories. The house has published graphic novel versions of the first three Anita Blake novels by Laurell K. Hamilton, but most notably Marvel has published a series of works by Stephen King, who is having a number of his works translated into comics by Marvel as well as by Del Rey and DC Comics. Marvel has released graphic novel adaptations of King's The Dark Tower, The Stand, and a short story, “N.” “We haven't adapted it,” says Ralph Macchio, editor of the King comics at Marvel, of The Dark Tower comic. “It's a prequel volume, showing the young life of Roland and how he became the Gunslinger, how life took a toll on him, and how it led up to the first book.” The Dark Tower, initially released as a periodical comic, just completed the first 30-issue story arc, and Marvel is “embarking on the next 30-issue arc continuing to deal with Roland as a young man,” according to Macchio. King's The Stand, however, is “a straight adaptation over 30 issues, fully adapting the novel,” Macchio says. “N,” a short story from King's latest collection, Just After Sunset, is also a “straight adaptation,” done by Mark Guggenheim with art by Alex Maleev. “We had the opportunity to take a Stephen King short story and break it into four issues, which is just the right length to take a short story and do something interesting,” Macchio says.
Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, also has “quite a mixed bag going on right now, both adaptations of existing works and original graphic novels set in the literary universes of bestselling novelists,” Del Rey editor-in-chief Betsy Mitchell tells PW. In early May the imprint will release the first volume of its adaptation of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman: The Road of Trials, which is also Del Rey's foray into serialized periodical comics, a first for a traditional book publisher. Also, coming up in May from Del Rey is a straight comics adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's surprise hit literary mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The house is also offering a comics “retelling of Diana Gabalon's original Outlander novel [science Ph.D., Gabalon's unusual novels are described as unclassifiable combinations of historical and science fiction and romance] from the viewpoint of the book's heartthrob hero,” says Mitchell. “This allows us to begin the graphic novel earlier than the events of the prose work, and to show us a number of scenes and discussions that Claire [the novel's heroine] is never privy to in the original version.” In addition, Del Rey is working on original works set in the world of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series, and “original graphic novels set in Kim Harrison's bestselling Hollows series starring witch Rachel Morgan and her vampire partner, Ivy Tamwood,” Mitchell says. Indeed, Mitchell says the choice between a straight adaptation or creating an original story based on a popular work is clear: “we've seen, by comparing print runs, that readers get much more excited about original stories than they do about [literal] adaptations.”
Nevertheless, at Scholastic, creative director David Saylor, who is also founder and editorial director of Graphix, Scholastic's graphic novel imprint, says the publisher sees straight adaptations as an opportunity to “take familiar properties, which are well loved [and] had had a run in the series market, and revitalize them by bringing in new content and audience.” Graphix has released four graphic novel adaptations of the first Baby-Sitters Club books, a wildly popular teen series by Ann M. Martin, first published in the 1980s, which has sold more than 170 million copies. The house has also published three graphic novels based on Goosebumps, R.L. Stine's children's horror fiction series. Each of the graphic novels, which are anthologies of three Goosebumps stories, have been “pared down.” Saylor also pointed out that using already “successful Scholastic properties” was an opportunity to overcome an early “resistance to graphic novels for kids” in a market that sometimes sees comics as a lesser version of prose. While Scholastic has had success with its straight adaptations of the Baby-Sitters Club, he suggested that the house may consider doing original stories based on the series, if Martin could “carve out the time.”
Scripts, Art, and Author Input
After deciding on which approach to use, publishers must make decisions concerning scripting and art, while considering the desires of both the original creators and the fan base. “We look at [projects] on a property-by-property basis, and get a sense of the property and who the target audience is,” says Hassler of Yen Press. “There's no standard template.” He continues: “We look at art that will best convey the work, but also best appeal to the target audience.” Using Maximum Ride as an example, he notes that when searching for an artist, he researched existing fans of the novel and discovered that “the artwork fans [liked] was in a manga-influenced style.” So Yen chose a Korean manhwa (the Korean word for manga) artist, NaRae Lee, to adapt the work. With the Warriors comics, Diaz-Przybyl notes that through “Disney and manga style” fan art, Tokyopop decided the manga-stylized art “doesn't bother [the fans] too much.”
What style suits the tone of the original work is also a consideration. For the Baby-Sitters Club, Saylor says artist Raina Telgemeier turned out to be “a huge Baby-Sitters Club fan” and her own writing had already been “influenced by Ann Martin's voice.” Telgemeier, Saylor says, was the “perfect artist to write and adapt—she had the sweetness and charm we were looking for.” Macchio says Marvel's King comics went for different looks for The Dark Tower and The Stand: for The Stand, the art by Mike Perkins has, according to Macchio, “a dreamy, ephemeral quality that can also be strikingly in-the-face in violent parts,” whereas the art in The Dark Tower by Jae Lee “is very realistic, and transports [the reader] to another world. It's not ephemeral, but solid all the way through.” Joelle Jones, the artist for Evanovich's Troublemaker, according to Hahn, “has a slick style with great details in the background,” which enhances Evanovich and her daughter's “great job describing views and environments.”
While some authors—who often turn out to be big comics fans themselves—prefer to script the adaptations themselves, more often they oversee a creative team brought together by the publisher to transform their prose into visual storytelling. “The best work comes from the author him or herself,” Mitchell says about the process of writing the graphic novel scripts, but “lacking that option, we choose adaptors who are avowed fans of the work.” Mitchell used The Talisman, which is scripted by Robin Furth, as an example. Considered an expert on King's works, Furth “was Stephen King's research assistant for a number of years and had access to him when she needed to pick his brain,” Mitchell explains.
Furth also outlined the story plots for Marvel's Dark Tower, which were then scripted by veteran comics writer Peter David. “She knows more about the Dark Tower than anybody but King,” Macchio declares. “She was a touchstone for us. When we get a finished story arc from her, we know we have King's approval.” Similarly, the Erin Hunter team provides Tokyopop with “detailed plot synopses,” after which artist Dan Jolley “does the panel breakdowns and dialogue,” says Diaz-Przybyl. “Our original creators have been very involved,” Mitchell says, emphasizing that Diana Gabaldon and Kim Harrison wrote their own scripts, and “Dean Koontz creates lengthy story outlines and works back and forth with his adaptor on the actual scripting.” For Troublemaker, Hahn says Evanovich and her daughter were excited “to tap into another medium” and wrote their own script.
“Most of the [original creators] are very enthusiastic,” says Hassler. But different authors “may want a different level of involvement.” Unsurprisingly, all the publishers stressed the authors' approval. “At the end of the day, we show everything to the original creator,” says Hassler. “Nothing gets done if Stephen King doesn't approve,” Macchio says.
Authors' involvement also adds legitimacy for their fans and avoids a critical problem with visualizing prose works—the artists' view of the world may not match how fans have imagined it. “Certainly our visualizations may not match what every reader has cherished in his or her mind—how could we possibly meet everyone's varied imaginations?” Mitchell says. “We concentrate on meeting the author's own guidelines.”
A Bridge Between Comics and Prose
Perhaps the most interesting prospect of these projects is the “cross-pollination” between comics and prose readers, as both Macchio and Saylor phrase it. Most publishers hope that their comics will encourage prose readers to check out other comics and bring comics readers to the original source material. “I'm sure we have created a bridge,” says Macchio. Hahn adds, “Janet has a loyal fan base and a direct link with them. I hope, with the graphic novel, fans will be attached to that story and experience.”
On the other hand, as evidence of an increase in fans to the franchise, Mitchell says about Dean Koontz's character, “Oddie's Facebook page jumped roughly 10,000 friends to more than 48,000 after the publication of In Odd We Trust, the first Odd Thomas graphic novel.” To encourage new readers of the original work, Mitchell says, “We include a chapter from the original Odd Thomas novel in the back of our graphic novel, and we'll repeat that with Odd Is On Our Side, which comes out this fall, as well as our future Odd graphic novels.” Similarly, Tokyopop provides “short manga comics” of Warriors to HarperCollins to put in the novel's last pages, according to Diaz-Przybyl.
To ease the transition of new fans into these properties, publishers must “do the groundwork necessary to invite new readers into the graphic novels,” says Mitchell. For example, Hahn points out, in Troublemaker “Alex [the main character] catches everybody up to speed with a voice-over in the beginning, creating what her voice is, and moving quickly from there.” Says Macchio, “With The Stand or 'N', you don't need any previous knowledge. You start The Stand where the novel starts, and Dark Tower explains everything at the beginning, and just like anything else you learn about the world as you go.” On the other hand, with the Warriors, “because they're side stories, it's a high bar for people not familiar with the stories,” Diaz-Przybyl says. In this case, she says, the graphic novels “work to support the existing franchise, rather than bring new readers in.”
While finding new fans for these works can be something of a moving target, publishers still market the books in a variety of ways to hit various audiences. “Marketing for the Warriors graphic novels is left to HarperCollins,” says Diaz-Przybyl, which allows the publisher to coordinate the prose works with the graphic novel releases. “Our authors allow us the use of their mailing lists and Web sites, and we've traded back ads with the publishers of their prose works,” Mitchell says. Hahn at Dark Horse notes about working with Evanovich, “We're working with a creator who really knows her audience and industry. It's a wonderful opportunity to learn how to market to a new audience and approach bookstores with something new to us and to them.”