Graphic novel adaptations of classic and contemporary prose works have surged in the past few years as more publishers explore ways to create book-length comics that can be used to encourage literacy and can also function as legitimate works of art in their own right. The earliest comic adaptations of classic prose works were Classics Illustrated, started in 1941 by Albert Kanter. Highly abridged, these comics were meant to “slip some literature in as a gateway drug to real books,” says Jim Salicrup, the editor of the current line of Classics Illustrated from Papercutz, a publisher of children's and YA graphic novels.

The original Classics Illustrated were published until the early 1970s, according to Salicrup. Then, in 1990, First Comics and Berkley Comics brought the line back, “using top writers and artists” to create “more contemporary-looking books.” Papercutz acquired the line in 2007 and is now reprinting these First and Berkley books as hardcover editions, as well as publishing Classics Illustrated Deluxe, a new line of classic adaptations produced in Europe and translated for the U.S. market, which Salicrup said has “almost three times the pages of the original [Classics Illustrated].”

The Berkley and First Comics “were 20 years too early,” Salicrup claims. The publisher ran into a problem faced by other early publishers of adaptations and graphic novels in general: getting the books into general bookstores. Diamond Comics, the dominant distributor in the comics shop market, did not distribute to the general book market until recently, and trade bookstores chafed at buying on a nonreturnable wholesale basis as comics shops did. “Marketing the books proved difficult at first,” says Tom Pomplun, who started the Graphic Classics series of adaptations in 2001. Graphic Classics has published 18 books, “[concentrating] on presenting shorter pieces. The print run for graphic classics ranges from 3,000 to 10,000, he adds, and they are “never [selling] as much as I would like them to.”

But in recent years publishers from Marvel and Image Comics to trade book houses such as John Wiley, Penguin, and Abrams as well as educational publishers like Capstone and Abdo are adapting classic works of prose into comics in hopes of reaching new readers.

Byron Priess and Puffin Classics

The situation changed considerably as “comics were accepted as a legitimate medium,” Salicrup says, and found a place within bookstores and libraries. Ironically, the acceptance of comics led to an increase in comics adaptations of already legitimate classic literature. In 2005, the late Byron Priess, publisher of Byron Priess Visual Productions and a visionary comics publisher who foresaw the rise of the graphic novel in the conventional book market, put together a packaging deal to launch Puffin Classics, an imprint of adaptations published by Penguin. “The graphic novel genre was on the upswing,” says Dwight Zimmerman, who worked with Priess at the time. Puffin Classics included Treasure Island, adapted by Tim Hamilton, and Dracula, adapted by Becky Cloonan. “They sold well enough that we were asked to do more. They obviously were not best sellers,” Zimmerman says, “but still successful until the [death of Priess and later] bankruptcy of Byron Priess Visual Productions.”

Many of the same classics are continually adapted: Shakespeare, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Three Musketeers, and The Scarlet Letter. However, these days publishers are striving to give more pages to the adaptations than the limited pages in the original Classics Illustrated. Ralph Macchio, editor of Marvel Illustrated, a line of comics adaptations, says the company wanted to “take some classics and give them the full treatment; we didn't want to skimp or compress, [but] to do justice to the full flavor of the novel.” Marvel Illustrated has recently undertaken adaptations of The Wizard of Oz and Pride and Prejudice to great success, and it will begin serializing Sense and Sensibility in April 2010. While Marvel Illustrated has already published many of the staples (it first released The Last of the Mohicans in 2007), the house plans to “move forward with those which were successful and have sequels,” Macchio said. Along with Sense and Sensibility, which continues the Austen adaptations, the adaptation of the second book in Baum's Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz, recently began serialization, and Ozma of Oz, the third is in the works.

New Classics, New Approaches

Thomas LeBien, editorial director of Hill and Wang, publisher of Fahrenheit 451, which was adapted by Tim Hamilton, says, “I aspire to do more than a 64-page reduction exclusively for students who need this opposed to the original. With the length and sensibility, I'm thinking of it as a translation rather than adaptation.”

For the holiday season, It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has just released three small adaptations of Christmas short stories: “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum, adapted by indie cartoonists Lilli Carre, Joel Priddy, and Alex Robinson, respectively.

A Christmas Carol has been adapted 30 times,” series editor Michael Signorelli of HarperCollins says. “These can find a literary audience and still span commercial opportunities. As Christmas stories interpreted by talented artists, one hopes that makes these books art objects.”

“I have tried to broaden the definition of what is considered a classic,” Pomplun says, offering collections of work by Rafael Sabatini and H.P. Lovecraft, a collection of Louisa May Alcott and an upcoming collection of stories by African-American authors.

Sterling Publishing, owned by Barnes & Noble, started a line of adaptations aimed at young readers in 2007, All Action Classics, that has released such mainstays as Tom Sawyer and Dracula, and plans others like The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island. Sterling also plans to release a classic Chinese novel, Monkey's Journey to the West. “Not a lot of people know about it,” says editor Francis Gilbert, adding that initial printings of All Action Classics titles are about 15,000 each, and they are “selling very nicely.” Sterling has another line of adaptations aimed at older readers, Illustrated Classics, a packaging deal from U.K.-based Metro Media, which first published Kafka's The Trial in April 2008 and also includes The Picture of Dorian Gray and Crime and Punishment. The series editor, Michael Fragnito, says that although he “wouldn't brag about the numbers, [they are] strong, steady sellers.” Marvel Illustrated's Macchio says he hopes to tackle “some other real heavyweights of literature such as Paradise Lost, The Inferno, and Faust, books which have a huge visual canvas.”

How to Adapt a Literary Tome

As far as heavyweights of literature, Shakespeare has been the most popular. The Bard's work has been tackled by many of the publishers releasing graphic adaptations, including several publishers who focus solely on Shakespeare, among them Amulet, an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, which publishes manga versions of Shakespeare's plays. Amulet books are packaged in the U.K. by Metro Media; Amulet has released 10 books in the series and plans to do two more, according to editor Maggie Lehrman. Other publishers have also adapted Shakespeare into the manga style. John Wiley released Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet as manga, as well as The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn, all of which were released between January 2008 and January 2009. “Shakespeare and manga is the perfect marriage,” says John Wiley editor Greg Tubach.

Making the Bard's work appealing to modern readers has always taken many forms. Much like theatrical producers, publishers seek to place the works in contemporary settings and update the language and situations. Indeed, the approach to adapting Shakespeare's settings for comics, whether in the manga style or not, differs among the adaptations. Puffin released a science fiction version of Macbeth in a manga style that Nick Smith of the Pasadena Public Library called “awkward. I think that it is difficult to radically alter Shakespeare without putting off some of the audience.” Amulet's adaptations tend to alter the plays' settings; says Amulet's Lehrman, “the goal is to look at the plays from a new angle, a fresh interpretation, and they're great for classroom discussion about setting and how it fits with the story or doesn't.”

Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Brookline, Mass., says she enjoyed Amulet's Romeo and Juliet, which has a modern Japanese yakuza crime setting: “If you're modernizing Shakespeare, go all the way. The yakuza is a good setting, and it gets people to take a look at it.” John Wiley's adaptations, however, take the opposite approach. “We are true to the plays context,” says Tubach, noting that in Hamlet it's Denmark and Macbeth is Scotland.” Barron's Educational Series, which publishes adaptations of Shakespeare as part of its own Graphic Classics line, offers about 24 classics titles (including Shakespeare). “The art is designed to show the story as if watching the play unfold on a stage,” says Frederick Glasser, sales director of academic/select trade markets for Barron's. “The characters are portrayed in a very realistic style, and there is a strong focus on facial expressions.”

But some of the biggest problems in adapting Shakespeare, as well as other classics, remain the abridgment of the text and the work's original language, which can be difficult and off-putting for modern readers. “Obviously in Shakespeare the complexity is in the language itself, [and] our manga retains the [original text],” says Tubach. “The plays are to be performed, not read, and in a cool way manga is performance.” Both the Amulet and John Wiley adaptations are necessarily abridged, but Tubach says they were “careful to preserve the cohesiveness of the narrative.”

On the other hand, the British publisher Classical Comics has a different approach. The publisher releases its full-color detailed adaptations of classic works in three language versions: Original Text, Plain Text, and Quick Text aimed at different reading levels. Clive Bryant, chairman and managing director of Classical Comics, says all three versions use the same art, so, in a classroom setting with different reading levels, “everyone can go through the same book together and contribute to class discussions on the text.”

Children's and YA publisher Candlewick Press takes a different approach to easing the difficulty of Shakespeare's language when it published Gareth Hinds's The Merchant of Venice. “Gareth begins with a loose prose approach, gradually sneaking in more Shakespearean language until by the end of the book we're getting full-on Shakespeare,” explains executive editor Deborah Wayshak. “The strategy assures that readers are engaged before offering them a challenge.” Hinds has done a few other adaptations, including King Lear and Beowulf, which he self-published before Candlewick picked them up for publication, and the press will also publish his upcoming adaptation of The Odyssey.

But publishers still have to find a balance between the need for condensing--letting the artwork do the work of the prose--while still retaining the essence of the original. “It was more a matter of graphic translation,” LeBien says of his approach to adapting Fahrenheit 451. “With the reduction of text, in order to capture the narrative and emotional arcs, panel and page layout have to convey some of that [as well as] choices of palette that capture the stylistic choices of Ray Bradbury.” Eisner Award--winning comics artist Eric Shanower, who adapted the text for Marvel's popular Wizard of Oz (with illustrations by Skottie Young), says he utilized the “Masterpiece Theater approach, keep it as close to the original as possible,” with “one page of text for one page of comic. I kept the dialogue basically as Baum wrote it, cutting out description, leaving that to the artist and colorist.”

As many publishing professionals point out, the route to a successful adaptation is finding the right talent. “If it's not done by [experienced professional] comic artists, it's not formatted in the way it should be and will be stiff and forced,” says Brenner. Over at Marvel Illustrated, Macchio explains that the literary adaptor of most of the books, Roy Thomas, was an English teacher who had also worked in the comics industry for 40 years. Shanower has made his own comics based on the world of Oz, and also writes and draws Age of Bronze, an award-winning history of the Trojan War, which he started in 1991 and is based on The Iliad. There are three collected book volumes of Age of Bronze from Image Comics, and the first volume is in its fifth printing, according to Shanower.

While the classics do sell, they can be a tough sell to young readers. “Classics deserve a classic,” Pam Cady, a graphic novel buyer at the University of Washington Bookstore, asserts, saying she looks for the highest quality when choosing comics adaptations to stock. Cady says the Marvel Jane Austen books are “getting incredibly popular.” Cady speculates the sales “might be to older readers buying for younger readers,” and Shanower agrees: “Kids are not the audience that makes the purchase.” Nick Smith says at his library the titles aimed at young readers circulate better, as well as “[comics adaptations of] contemporary literature. Nancy Drew or Maximum Ride adaptations circulate faster than versions of Dickens or Shakespeare. I haven't seen any classics for older readers circulate heavily.”

He singled out Papercutz as “doing the best job, with their Brothers Grimm and Through the Looking Glass. Those fly off the selves.” Brenner has a similar experience with more adaptations of contemporary prose works that “are already popular; for example, Maximum Ride goes out two times a month, 21 times a year, and manga Shakespeare [went out] twice total this year.” Glasser says the Barron adaptations are intended as a “great supplement to the original works,” and he “has heard lots of great success stories from teachers who work with reluctant readers, special ed kids, and ESL students.” Yet, as Tubach suggests, “even general readers, might opt to reread the manga instead. It's a perfect refresher course on classics.”

Despite efforts to popularize classic literature by using comics, there remain teachers and parents who fear that comics adaptations are often just second-rate introductions to great literature. There is a fear that comic adaptations of classics “are watered down, 'super-lite' versions that bear little resemblance to the originals and students will use them as a kind of cheat,” says Glasser. “Barron did everything to offset those criticisms.”

LeBien also addresses another concern of publishers: “The graphic novel doesn't cannibalize sales of the original. They re-energize the originals.” He continued, “For Fahrenheit 451 and iconic works like it, any kind of adaptations, force new engagement and energize conversations about what the book does and doesn't accomplish.” In the end, Candlewick's Wayshak points out, “The new book has to stand alone and succeed on its own merits, but comic editions of classics are arrows pointing back to the source.”

Click here to see our selected listing of graphic adaptations of classic prose works published in 2009 and coming in 2010.