In a sharp departure from its usual target audience, Marvel Comics is courting the literary and educational crowd with Marvel Illustrated, a new imprint devoted to adapting classic literature into comic books. Since its launch in May 2007, it has transformed titles like The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers into comics miniseries, with many more on the way. Roy Thomas, a comics legend and former English teacher with a long resumé of comics adaptations, currently writes the Marvel Illustrated titles. Thomas; David Gabriel, Marvel sr. v-p of sales; and Marvel associate editor Nicole Boose talked with PWCW about taking the classics to the comics shop market and beyond.
PW Comics Week: What was the genesis for Marvel Illustrated?
David Gabriel: Both Dan Buckley [president of Marvel Publishing] and I have fond memories of the Classics Illustrated line from when we were kids. We’ve been coming up with ideas, formats and stories that will bring in new readers to comic shops and expand our reading audience. We’ve been asked repeatedly by librarians, book buyers and other fans of the aforementioned Classics line to bring back a line of classics.
We played with the idea and decided to work with our popular method of creating comic stories in five or six (or eight) issue [story] arcs, then collecting them into hardcovers. This way, much more of the stories remains untouched and unchanged. Most people forget that when many of these classics were originally written, they appeared as installments in weekly or monthly magazines, or told as narratives over a period of time. So the format really seemed to work for us.
PWCW: How do you select which books to adapt?
Nicole Boose: We started with Last of the Mohicans because it's a boyhood favorite of our CEO, Alan Fine. From there, we’ve come up with the ideas internally, and there really hasn't been any shortage of excellent suggestions coming from all over the Marvel office.
Roy Thomas: I suggested The Iliad when they suggested The Odyssey, saying it would be nice to do them in chronological order (and besides, The Iliad is my favorite work of literature), and also Moby-Dick, another of my favorites.
PWCW: What made you decide to use only one writer to adapt such a wide range of material, despite varying the artists?
NB: Roy has an established history in comics and in teaching literature, so he was a natural candidate. He also has a deep-seated commitment to keeping the source material very much intact. So having him work on the majority of the adaptations gives them a stylistic consistency. That having been said, we know there are a lot of great writers who are knowledgeable about both classic literature and the comic format, and we do have upcoming projects lined up with other writers attached.
PWCW: Are these adaptations primarily intended for educational use?
RT: They have a potential educational function, of course. Though I hope both that they would never be used for a book report, in lieu of actually reading the book, and that they would be good enough that they almost could be used for that purpose. But the fact that they'll be sold in their ultimate graphic novel form through bookstores as well as to libraries and in comics stores means they are intended primarily as entertainment.
And why not? Over the centuries, The Iliad and Treasure Island and the rest have entertained even more people than Fantastic Four and Spider-Man—and have some of the same sources. Is it just a coincidence that The Man in the Iron Mask was one of the first books adapted by the company that owns Dr. Doom?
PWCW: How has this process been different from working on a traditional superhero comic, or even a comic book adaptation of a TV show?
RT: You can take a superhero anywhere, but the journey for the novel is already circumscribed and your choice is to delineate it. Most comics adaptations of TV shows, of course, only adapt the characters, with new stories. This is closer to what I did for Topps with The X-Files back in the 1990s when I would retype virtually the entire script (or dialogue, anyway, and most of the stage directions), and then edit it down to 44 pages. Naturally, I don't retype the novel, but I do that editing in my head.
PWCW: Do you consider comic books themselves to be literature?
RT: In the popular sense, yes, and that means eventually, at least potentially, in a larger and more permanent sense, as well. Dickens and Dostoyevski and other authors intended their work to make them a living. Homer (whoever he was/they were) was the same—so were most of them, actually. The permanence came later and is always in question anyway. After all, Moby-Dick languished in relative obscurity until a handful of critics decided it was the closest thing yet to the Great American Novel—and that was only in the 1920s, well over a half-century after it had been written. If Melville and maybe his friend Hawthorne ever suspected his accomplishment, they were just about the only ones.
PWCW: Have sales of the single issues met expectations?
NB: We always knew that the single issue sales would be relatively modest, whereas the collections would garner the most attention, and that's pretty much what we're seeing.
DG: In a superhero-dominated market, it's impossible to expect these types of books to be among the top sellers. However, in terms of [sampling] and awareness and getting the product out into people's hands, they have actually surpassed what we intended in the beginning.
PWCW: Did you ever consider forgoing the singles altogether and publishing original graphic novels?
DG: No, we are the industry's leading comic book publisher first and foremost, and our main focus is always on comics and the direct market comic shops.
PWCW: Where do you expect most of your sales to come from for the collections bookstores, the direct market or some other type of distribution?
DG: We’re hoping that a lot of the book buyers both in regular chains and the mass market will get behind the line. We’re also expecting a large number of library buyers to want to stock these on their shelves. It’s still unknown at this point. At any rate, we're looking to make a big splash with them in March of 2008 by releasing all three of the first volumes [of Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island and Man in the Iron Mask] at the same time. This will create a much more impressive display in bookstores and in comic shops.
NB: I'm also very interested in how the library community will respond. It seems that individual libraries can vary a lot in terms of what comics material they circulate—but classic literary adaptations are appropriate in almost any library. So, I think these could be a stepping stone toward making the comics format more of a universal library presence.
PWCW: What kind of response have you gotten about the books from teachers and parents? How about retailers or traditional Marvel fans?
RT: Generally favorable, though I wish comics stores I knew of would stock more copies of the actual comics. My local store, Heroes & Dragons in Columbia, S.C., [is] waiting for the graphic novels, and I've told them I think that’s a very shortsighted attitude. But they’ll carry the graphic novels.
NB: Teachers, parents and librarians have been responding very well so far. I haven't had much of a chance to gauge the reaction of traditional Marvel fans, but I'd love to get more of their feedback, whether it's positive or critical. Someone from the office recently told me that our Treasure Island adaptation was one of the best they'd seen, and I thought that was really flattering.
PWCW: What's coming up for Marvel Illustrated in '08?
NB: We have three new projects on the slate, which will be available in monthly installments: The Iliad will be on sale starting December 19, The Picture of Dorian Gray will be on sale starting December 26 and Moby-Dick will premiere in February. We have a few others that will be announced later in the year, including one that I think will make a wonderful splash.