Splashy video game ads that are ever-present at comics fan conventions are designed to capitalize on the overlap between gamers and graphic novel readers. Both markets have enjoyed tremendous growth over the past few years, though the video game market towers over that of comics. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global video games market was valued at $188.7 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow to $307.2 billion by 2029, while the global comic book market was valued at $14.7 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $21.4 billion in 2029.

That video games generate huge revenue isn’t itself news. Rather, the trend to watch is how comics publishers continue to invest in more sophisticated multiplatform storytelling, with adaptations aimed at converting players into new readers, beyond cookie-cutter tie-ins and strategy guides.

Born for each other

Ten years ago, trendsetter Dark Horse launched a comics adaptation, drawn by indie cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks, set in the postapocalyptic fungus-zombies universe of the video game The Last of Us. The success of the recent HBO adaptation has Dark Horse marketing the backlist titles (including a huge wall ad at its booth at San Diego Comic-Con), and in the meantime, other publishers are starting their own series designed to lure in gamers.

Titan Comics has emerged as a leader in the adaptation arena, with titles like Astroneer, Assassin’s Creed, Sea of Thieves, and Life is Strange all adapted from video game IPs. The popular Horizon Zero Dawn series will be released as a two-volume box set in September. The Dead by Daylight series (Dec.) follows suit as the first graphic novel series spin-off from the critically acclaimed horror video game, boasting expanded worldbuilding from Harvey Award–winning comics writer Nadia Shammas. A code on the cover of the books gives buyers access, if they are also owners of the game, to unique in-game features (such as “skins,” essentially a change of outfit or appearance for
a character).

The narrative flexibility of comics creates an ideal medium to adapt games, says Titan group editor Jake Devine. “Some games have a vast, intricate lore that necessitates expansion, while others have a simple plot that can then be developed in this medium for fans to gorge upon,” he adds, noting that “comics are an immersive experience, just as video games are, so it makes sense that together they form a bridge to expand their creative universes.”

Brand new publisher 50 Amp Productions launches with a middle grade series (releasing February 2024) set in the world of Terraria, an action-adventure sandbox game. There are even video games being born in tandem with graphic novel tie-ins. Consider Moonray, which is both a science fiction graphic novel series forthcoming from Brandon Graham and Xurxo G. Penalta and a video game forthcoming from Living the Line and Moonray PBC. The comic is expected to debut in October and the game by the end of the year, dually supported by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.

“Everything is happening simultaneously,” says Rodrigo Etcheto, CEO of Moonray PBC. “We’re creating a comic and a game at the same time.” But technically, the concept for the video game came first. “The game was in development for a while, and we realized, you know what, we need more,” he explains. “We need concept art. Why don’t we do a comic book and then that’s going to feed the game design? It was natural to say, ‘Let’s build it, let’s just start telling the story’ in a comic that brings everything to life while the game continues to develop.”

“The faults of the typical adaptation is that it never gets to be a full comic book, as much as it could be in the space,” says Sean Michael Robinson, publisher at Living the Line. “Moonray is the opposite of that.”

The Books of Clash, a graphic novel series by First Second, is another example of an adaptation that sticks close to its source material (the Clash of Clans and Clash Royale games by Supercell) while generously expanding on it—with the aim to not only indulge established fans of the game but also to attract new ones. It’s leveraging prestige talent: bestselling cartoonist and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang is at the helm of the creator team.

Mark Siegel, editorial and creative director at First Second, says that he’d wanted to make a Clash graphic novel adaptation for at least seven years before reaching a fruitful collaboration with the production company. The first installment of the eight-book series was published in May, and the second drops in November. “We now have fans flocking to get the books who love the game, but also have people who have never played the game buying them,” Siegel notes. “The novels expand the reach beyond that of a game and offer a very different interaction with potentially a different audience.”

Video game designers are often in tune with the way comics work—sometimes at an expert-reader level. “Many people who make video games read comics and are hip to the language and [mechanics] that comics do well,” says Matthew Weise, a video game designer and scholar who specializes in storytelling.

A winning feedback loop

Video game publishers hope a comic adaptation creates a groundswell of interest in what may be older IP. But more and more, the story is multiplatform. A comic may be adapted into a video game alongside other media adaptations, like ones for TV or film—and then, in some cases, adapted back into a new comic or spin-off in a graphic novel universe.

The Clementine graphic novel series is a part of this type of bankable feedback loop. Skybound continues to mine the Walking Dead phenomenon in the second installment of its YA graphic novel series set in its zombie-fighting world, developing the story of Clementine, a character who first appeared in the franchise’s video game. “It’s all circular and cyclical,” says Alex Antone, editorial director at Skybound. “The Walking Dead was a hit comic that was selling a lot of copies before the TV show came out. Then the TV show came out and was successful and it helped the comics. And the TV show being a success helped make a video game, which has led to more comics, including Clementine. But it is all rooted back in comics, and had those not been a success, none of this would have been possible.”

Comics are an immersive experience, just as video games are, so it makes sense that together they form a bridge to expand their creative universes.

The first volume of the Clementine series had more than 100,000 copies in its initial print run, and Skybound is going to press with a 50,000-copy initial run for the second volume, Antone says.

There are challenges to adapting games, though, including the fact that acquiring IP licenses can be pricey and drawn out. Book publishers also may be wary of a backlash on their brand, by spending resources developing what could be viewed as simply merchandise for another company. “Sometimes licensed comics are looked down on as less than,” Antone says. But to publishers forging ahead, good storytelling is the driver. “Ultimately, good comics are just good comics, and it doesn’t matter where they come from,” Antone adds.

There’s also a growing appetite for stronger narratives in games themselves, which can be developed in tandem with comics series progression. “Video game companies are taking their narratives more and more seriously,” says Austin Grossman, a game designer and novelist. “People are caring more about video games as a narrative medium and trying to raise the quality there.”

A graphic novel based on a game is an ideal way to build out the narrative aspect of a video game while also bulking up the game’s IP overall. “These video game companies are sitting on narrative IPs with millions and millions of players, and they think, ‘It’s got to be able to go to other media,’ ” Grossman says. “And graphic novels are a better fit than films in a bunch of ways. Gamers are really invested in the stories, but video games are never a fully or traditional narrative medium. They sit between telling a story and being told one. Sometimes players want the satisfaction of a traditional narrative with the characters and stories they know. They can stretch and relax and be told the story more fully.”

The lower cost of entry to a comic as the next stage to expand IP is also appealing. “It’s a lot cheaper to make a graphic novel than a video game,” Antone says. Besides, as he remarks: “Geekdom in general has always been linked.”

Nicole Audrey Spector is a freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.

Read more from our Graphic Novel Media Tie-Ins feature:

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Nathan W. Pyle’s hit webcomic 'Strange Planet', an Instagram phenomenon, has already become a graphic novel and a picture book series—and now it’s also been adapted into an animated series for Apple TV+ that premiered August 9.

Color Commentary: PW Talks with Adrian Tomine
Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel 'Shortcomings' was published in 2007, and shortly thereafter, actor Randall Park picked it up at the indie culture mecca Giant Robot. Fast-forward 16 years, and the live-action 'Shortcomings' film adaptation directed by Park, with a screenplay by Tomine, is now in theaters.

It Takes All Kinds: Graphic Novel Media
Comics source storytelling inspiration from all manner of media—video game–based graphic novels are a growing trend, but there have also been recent adaptations from such unexpected originals as a suppressed WWII opera and a 1980s cult classic film. These media tie-ins promise a timely remix in comics form in a diverse range of new and forthcoming titles.