Adapting Public Domain Literature to Comics: How it’s Done

Before I blast off into theoretical realms unknown I think it’d be beneficial to lay a solid foundation for the ideas I’ll be talking about later in the series.  First and foremost is the term public domain, which I’ll be throwing around a lot and transmuting into an acronym when I get tried of writing it (PD).  If something is in the public domain, and in our case we mean any literature in the PD, it is no longer under any sort of copyright protection.

So anyone that’d like to publish, let’s say The Art of War, can.  It being written over 2000 years ago puts it out of reach of even the most dedicated copyright lawyers of the period.  That isn’t to say that you can copy modern translations of the work though, present day lawyers will jump all over you for that.

Here’s another example: Let’s say you wanted to write a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in comic book form. Well Cole Haddon has done just that in his comic series “The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde.”  Seeing as the venerable author died in 1894, at the tragic age of 44, and over 100 years have passed since his demise, his work has fallen out of copyright protection and into the public domain and is now open for adaptation.

The same is true for other such masterful authors as Jane Austen, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker; the list goes on and on.  Granted things get a bit trickier if you want to use works penned by the recently deceased authors of our age, what with copyright laws seemingly being pushed back to infinitum by our legislators, but that’s besides the point.  For the third and final time – Public domain literature is free of copyright restrictions and can be adapted and tweaked at will.

So how have comic books creators taken advantage of this phenomenon?  Over the past few years I’ve noticed 4 main classifications of adapted PD literature in the graphic storytelling medium: 1) Strict adaptation, 2) tweaked adaptation, 3) untold adventures, and 4) the patchwork universe.  Of course there are always exceptions to every rule and these classifications are by no means immutable, but I think they do a good job of setting up the ground work for discussion.

A strict adaptation is when a creator takes a novel and transforms it into a visual tale.  Here the writer must pick and choose which words to rip from the prose and feed to the reader while the artist must do their best to make sure that their every picture is worth a few hundred words at least.

This has got to be the most difficult PD adaptation a creator can undertake.  They hack and slash the time-tested work of a master, reassemble it into something that communicates the story visually, and then find an artist with the ability to make it look and feel right.

Unfortunately, unless the finished product is something of such surpassing brilliance that it outshines its progenitor, most of these graphic novels tend to be merely an introduction to their meatier original material.  Great examples of this type of PD adaptation can be found in the Puffin Graphics collection.

Tweaked adaptation occurs when a creator changes the events of the original work to suit their own creative desires.  That probably sounds incredibly vague but for those of you well-versed in mainstream comics think about Marvel’s “What If?” books.  There the writer changes an important event in the history of the Marvel U, e.g. General Ross originally becomes the Hulk instead of Banner, and then reveals an all-new aftermath over the course of the comic.  It’s still a Hulk story with the same events leading up to the Gamma Bomb explosion, but stars a different Hulk.

A good public domain tweaked adaptation is the Wachowski Brothers’ unfortunately unfinished Doc Frankenstein series.  In the comics Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster is a super genius hounded by warriors of the Catholic Church.

Awwww yeah Doc Frankenstein!

The Wachowski’s utilized the classic origins of the motley monster (with one or two slight adjustments) to cement the foundations of their tale, but from there tell a decidedly different story in a completely different and original universe!

The tweaked adaptation is almost like a catch-all category for the comics that don’t quite fit into the other more defined classifications.  In the end, a tweaked adaptation stars characters from one specific public domain universe and can be subject to an almost limitless number of variations depending on the whim of the creator.  They can rewrite history, add new main characters, tell the tale from a different point of view, modernize the story, or take classic characters and put them into an entirely new universe, like the Wachowskis did.

Untold Adventures is a very common type of public domain adaptation found in comics.  As of right now I’m not quite sure if the Untold Adventures should be just a sub-category of Tweaked Adaptation, but bear with me.  By definition (my own of course) they’re simply stories about public domain characters that haven’t been told by the original author but are told in the original universe.  I’d also like to include a few small stipulations: 1) the PD character’s origins remain relatively untouched unless the tale takes place at an earlier date, 2) the setting remains true to the original and outlandish, non-genre events are kept to a minimum (no alien attacks or time traveling madness here).

Any of the recent Sherlock Holmes comics fit the bill for this one.  Tarzan comics, which usually begin as adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs original novels, inevitably become Untold Adventures once the creators have run out of material to adapt.

On an interesting note in Tarzan: Le Monstre by Stan Manoukian and Vince Roucher, Tarzan actually goes toe to toe with three other public domain characters: The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde.  While I would consider this an Untold Adventure, it has elements of the Patchwork Universe as well.  There is bound to be crossover between the categories and this comic is a perfect signifier of that fact.

Finally we come to the Patchwork Universe.  These occur when creators combine different public domain characters and universes into one overarching narrative.  In these stories the Big Bad Wolf might fall in love with Snow White, or Sinbad the Sailor might meet John Carter of Barsoom in an attempt to expel H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds aliens from the red planet.

The first volume of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen combines elements purloined from such megalithic authors as Jules Verne, Sir Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, and many many more.  Bill Willingham’s Fables goes even further, drawing from ancient fables, legends, folk tales as well as the public domain to tell his stories.  As I said above the Patchwork Universe contains elements from multiple PD universes and combines them into one narrative.  Simple as that.

How many Fables can you spot?

WHEW!  And there you have it, how public domain literature is utilized in comics today.  Obviously this is a constantly evolving phenomena, with new comics being written and published daily, but I think it does a passable job explaining just what a PD comic can be.  I hope this was informative and I’ve got more on the way so stay tuned!

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4 thoughts on “Adapting Public Domain Literature to Comics: How it’s Done”

  1. Pride and Prejudice and Zomies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (as novels) fit into the patchwork (or ‘genre mashup’) category don’t they? I’ve never been exactly sure.

    1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters would be “tweaked adaptations” in my mind. I haven’t read them, but from my understanding they only contain characters from Jane Austen’s work, not the work of other public domain authors. That’s a requisite of the “patchwork universe” category.

      Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I haven’t read either, but unless he’s going up against Bram Stroker’s Dracula, I’m going to say that’s just an awesome book idea. Thanks for the comment and I hope I answered your question!

  2. An nice introduction to the concept of PD in comics, but there are a few factual errors:
    “Tarzan: Le Monstre” was written by Lovern Kindzierski. Stan Manoukian and Vince Roucher were the artists. So Lovern plotted the intersection of Tarzan and PD characters.

    Tarzan isn’t in the public domain… at least Burroughs Inc. doesn’t think so:
    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120228/18543417906/edgar-rice-burroughs-inc-using-trademark-law-to-prevent-use-public-domain-stories.shtml

    “Tarzan: Le Monstre” was written with the express written consent of the Burroughs Inc..

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