18 October 2010

Will Comics Adaptations Push Out Originals?

A couple years back, I was part of a Cybils judging panel that gave top marks to the comics adaptation of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, which I for one preferred to the prose novel. This year I was pleased to see Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz win Eisner Awards not just for best graphic novel for kids, but best graphic novel for any age.

Lately we’ve seen announcements of more adaptations of bestselling fantasy novels, including Jonathan Stroud’s Amulet of Samarkand and Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief. All this attention and money for graphic-novel versions must be good for the comics form and its creators, right?

Actually, I worry about what those high-profile adaptations mean for new novel-length comics.

Several years ago, soon after lots of upper- and middle-class American couples were having babies, there was a little boom in books for pre-readers, including original board books. There was also a boom in adapting established picture books, such as Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon, into the board book format—though fans complained that the adaptations were too simplified.

In a short time already-known titles drove out the original offerings with any more text than a few labels. Parents recognized the older books, perhaps from their own childhoods, and saw them as a safer buy than unfamiliar titles. The expense of printing board books made publishers reluctant to invest in poorer sellers.

Will the same dynamic play out in comics? The Lightning Thief has already enjoyed many months on bestseller lists, lots of fans, and a Hollywood marketing budget that—even if the movie sank—dwarfed what the publishing industry can pay for. How will an original comics adventure compete with that, even if it’s been conceived from the start to make the most of its format?

An additional pitfall, though not as deep, is that publishers, knowing they have a ready audience, will issue comics adaptations that aren’t very good and leave new readers less than thrilled by the format. The treatment of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight has already prompted worries along that line.

Of course, the comics business has long thrived on adaptations, whether they’re Classic Comics, TV spin-offs, reworked newspaper strips, or the endless new adventures for established characters. And brand-name properties can offer work for budding talent. As one encouraging recent example, Raina Telgemeier was able to establish (and feed) herself by adapting Ann S. Martin’s Babysitters Club novels into comics form while she completed her own Smile.

Still, I hope that the next Bone won’t get lost behind a pile of production-line Harry Potter comics licensed soon after the movie revenue has started to fade.

No comments: