23 December 2009

Derivative Works

The latest New York Times bestseller list for hardcover comics includes adaptations of the Book of Genesis (#1), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (#2), and Pride and Prejudice (#5). The seven “original” books are all about Batman and the Joker (four titles), the X-Men (two), and Green Lantern (one)—additions to superhero sagas that have been running for decades.

That leaves all the original comics stories on the paperback bestseller list. Even there, however, there are two more Batman titles, Bill Willingham’s mashup of traditional fairy tales and the modern world in Fables, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, originally inspired by the Charlton superheroes.

The number of adaptations and sequels reflects yet another difference I’ve noticed separating prose literature from similar books in comics form: the comics world is more respectful toward derivative works. Publishers Weekly just ran a whole story about adaptations of literary classics into comics form, along with a list of recent and upcoming titles.

Thus, in the comics world, people praise Jon J. Muth’s adaptation of Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang's screenplay for M as a graphic novel, and it is quite striking. Critics don’t respect prose “novelizations” of movies the same way—even novelizations that do a good job of storytelling.

Artist P. Craig Russell just adapted Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters into comics form. No one seemed to ask what’s significant about adapting a story written just ten years ago and published with many illustrations into a graphic novel. Rather, the review site IGN praised it as “as faithful an adaptation as one could ever hope for.”

In contrast, when novelists with literary ambitions rewrite older stories or obviously build on them, they usually present themselves as not just adapting the material for a new form or audience, but reworking it to make a new statement. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist prequel to Jane Eyre. Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar is a feminist version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (which in turn had traveled to the same territory as Jules Verne’s Deux Ans de Vacances, but dystopically).

Occasionally a literary novelist will build on popular culture, but almost always with post-modern distance and irony, as in Donald Barthelme’s fanfiction. Frederic Tuten’s Tintin in the New World brings Hergé’s cartoon hero together with characters from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in a postmodernist mashup. It’s not just a Tintin story, we readers must understand; it’s about a Tintin story. In contrast, Isabel Allende wrote a sincere swashbuckler in Zorro (2005)—and has her literary reputation recovered, even though that book got good reviews?

TOMORROW: So what?


ericshanower said...

And Lord of the Flies is based on The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne.

J. L. Bell said...

Because of the large number of schoolboys stranded alone on an island, I see more similarity between Lord of the Flies and Deux ans de vacances.

But the larger desert-island genre certainly draws from The Coral Island and other books: Robinson Crusoe, Haakon Haakonsen, Swiss Family Robinson, etc.