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Converting Classics Into Comics: Bringing Literature into the 21st Century

09/30/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2011

With the death of Borders and the rise of electronic reading devices, some literary naysayers are already bemoaning the inevitable disappearance of tangible books. Pages are turning into screens, words into megabytes, bookmarks into memory cards. But there's nothing to be sad about. The ability to carry the entire scope of human knowledge and artistry in the palm of a hand is probably a fair tradeoff. And it's not as if the departure of physical books will deter great writers from coming forth and sharing their stories. You might have to browse webpages rather than bookshelves to find them, but good writing and innovative texts will never fall by the wayside.

The metamorphosis of the novel

Just as the basic literary medium is evolving after a long, autocratic reign, so too is content of literature undergoing some dramatic transformations. The graphic novel has secured a place at the top of the new regime and is demanding to be taken seriously. What started as patriotic superhero pulp in the 1930s has quickly developed into a reputable art form. With such greats as Watchmen, Maus, and The Sandman series more-or-less universally esteemed as true works of literary merit, few modern critics continue to write comics off as juvenile smut. Having established credibility and earned the respect of even the snootiest literary circles, graphic novels are taking the opportunity to revolutionize the way we read.

Aside from transcending the realm of superheroes and newspaper funnies to create unique and innovative narratives, comic-book art is finding a new way to turn the world of literature upside-down. The past few years have given rise to a vast number of graphic novel adaptations of classic texts and literary fiction. Titles like Beowulf, Fahrenheit 451 and Crime and Punishment have become available as graphic novels. During the past month, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales were both released in illustrated comic form. Recent conversions also include Jane Austen titles, Walden, Treasure Island, Dracula, Moby Dick, and a profusion of Shakespearian works.

If Shakespeare wrote a comic book...

Different artists have different approaches to converting these hallowed texts, but the goal, as delineated by Betsy Mitchell of Del Rey Books, remains constant: "...to retain the bones and sinew of the original and to present it in a strikingly visual form." Some artists, like Canterbury Tales adapter/illustrator Seymour Chawst, take liberties with the text, supplementing the original stories with anachronistic references and modern humor in order to make the writings more accessible to a contemporary audience. Amulet, publisher of Manga adaptations of Shakespearian works, isn't afraid to tweak the context of the plays. Amulet's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, for example, is set in modern-day Japan against a criminal yakuza backdrop.

Other artists adhere more strictly to the time and place of the original stories. John Wiley's Shakespearian adaptations are careful to maintain the exact context of each play. Fabio Celoni and Mirka Andolfo's adaption of The Kite Runner conforms carefully to the framework and dialogue set by Hosseini's novel (probably because Hosseini converted the text himself). But no matter how much artistic license the adapters take, the texts all serve the same purpose: to bring classic tales to a modern reader.

Side effects

Some literary enthusiasts have raised concerns that such adaptations present weak substitutes for the real thing. They're afraid students will choose these newer, flashier versions over the original classics. Why would teens opt to sweat through the thick, taxing tome that is Crime and Punishment when they could flip through a comic book and glean a basic understanding of the same story? The hope is not that graphic novels will supplant classic texts, but that they will supplement the original stories and provide a gateway for otherwise reluctant readers.

With the parallel expansion of graphic novels and electronic reading devices, it will be interesting to see how content and medium fuse to reshape the landscape of the literary scene. As literature continues to fall from shelves and find a home on the web, illustration may take a more prominent role in education and student credit cards will pay for PDFs instead of overpriced paperbacks. If the classic texts survive because they are truly universal and relevant to readers of any era, we need not fear their extinction -- we need only accept their adaptation.

Tim Chen is the CEO of NerdWallet, a personal finance website that recently released its rankings of the top 10 credit cards of 2011.