Adapting Public Domain Literature to Comics – The Introduction

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Reading Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the first time was an enlightening experience for me.  I was still relatively new to the comics scene and at 16 years old I had just started reading and collecting, using the gas money my parents gave me to get to school to fuel my funny book obsession.

The League introduced me to an incredible new phenomenon far more stimulating than the super hero stories I normally read: it used famous characters from classic public domain literature in a totally original graphic narrative.

It wasn’t until maybe a year, a year and a half ago that I really started to take an interest in comics that utilized these classic texts for inspiration.  That’s about the time I started working with Kelly Roman on his on his graphic novel, The Art of War.  In The Art of War Kelly takes the ancient military document by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu and uses it to construct the backbone of his own original narrative.  His is a graphic novel that combines one of the most well read public domain works in history, one written as an instructional manual for waging war, with a unique tale from his own imagination, and the resulting synthesis yields something never before seen in comics.

There are WAY too many good Fables covers to choose from!

While doing some editing work on the book I started to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the public domain comics I had read in the past.  Things like The League and Bill Willingham’s Fables sprung to mind.  I wondered why someone would use characters created hundreds of years ago?  Why would they adapt a text without a narrative?  What are the benefits of adapting a work instead of creating something completely original?  What are the weaknesses?

Thus began an intellectual journey that’s taken me nearly a year to put to paper.  While some of the answers to the questions I’ve posed above may seem glaringly obvious, I think it’s an incredibly complex issue without a single easily explained answer. In writing all this I’ve found that I still don’t have the vocabulary to put everything I’m thinking into words, though I shall try my darndest.  My goal is to break down what I think are some of the strengths and weaknesses of adapting public domain work to comics and how creators might go about it successfully.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more updates, but as I’ve been writing all day my brain feels sufficiently drained.  Each subsequent word I type sounds less ideal than the last and so I leave you with the promise of genuine cerebral stimulation in your future, if you are but bold enough to read with an open mind.

Goodbye for now,

Ben

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