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Between the Panels: Artful Adaptations
By Lance Eaton, January 2008

Adapting literature into comic art (like any other transition from one medium to another) is a tricky process that takes a succinct understanding of how the literary work can or will fit into the newer medium. With the proliferation of graphic novels hitting the stands every week and mainstream book publishers opening up comic art wings, it's interesting to look at literary adaptations. This isn't a new process - books have been adapted to comic art since the 1940s, but not always with the same range and daring reflected in some of today's adaptations.

King LearFor instance in Gareth Hind's graphic novel interpretation of King Lear, the dialogue closely follows the original language of Shakespeare's famous tragedy. In his Introduction, Hind explains and amply justifies minimal changes made to the text and offers guidance for those who may have trouble with the Bard's language. He also provides notes at the end explaining his various adjustments. He even includes a family tree of characters.

Pretty straightforward stuff. However when it comes to the artwork, Hind draws some amazing displays that are visually stimulating and successful in complementing the plot. While he does use standard panels and backgrounds at times, he also breaks out into full page backgrounds with an interesting positioning of characters. There are rare gems, such as his broken glass panels depicting Lear's realization that he has sided with the wrong daughters. The color never yields to convention, and while many pages are simply colored with vague backgrounds, others are strikingly colorful with elaborate background. Artistically, Hinds plays with King Lear's fury and emotion and projects it into a colorful and at times chaotic panorama of the human soul.

By contrast, Graphic Classics: Mark Twain proves quirky in its own right, but not as powerful as King Lear - though much of that can be attributed to the contrast of the emotionally powerful play with Mark Twain's more amusing stories. This Eureka Production collection includes some of Twain's more famous pieces - such as Tom Sawyer Abroad, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and The Mysterious Stranger - as well as entertaining pieces like The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut, Is He Living or Is He Dead, and A Dog's Tale. Each piece is drawn by a different artist, resulting in an anthology of both Twain's and the artists' work. In grayscale, these stories don't always reach King Lear's powerful evocations, but they don't need to. One feels a certain joviality within these pages and, given the subtext of Twain's stories, the use of contrasting black and white feels apropos.

RedwallBrian Jacques' Redwall is the first in a fantastic series about anthropomorphic small mammals living in a medieval world of towns and villages, peasants and raiders. Redwall follows the adventures of young Matthias as he struggles to be the adult and warrior he so desperately desire to be, and that Redwall abbey so desperately needs. Here, the artwork sustains a uniform look throughout, which makes sense because it is aimed at a younger demographic than the previous works. However, it is just as creative and makes a strong impact. Using a mix of pen and charcoal, artist Bret Blevins clearly identifies the various pieces within every panel but then applies a charcoal (or a charcoal-like) coloring to the pictures, adding a slim texture of grittiness to the work that tweaks it a cut above normal black and white or even full coloring would do.

The adaptation is a tricky process that is certainly by no means perfected and often subjective to the interpretation of the artist. However, it proves an interesting venture and, at least in the realm of comics, an interesting subgenre of emerging categories within American comics that causes us to consider the uses (and sometimes, disuses) of the medium.
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