Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of The No-Fly Zone! Last week, we talked about some of the mechanics and quirks of adapting comics for movies and television--and the other way around. It was the usual art school stuff we like around here, about how you translate static images into moving pictures and the like. This week, we're going to get into some even headier territory when we take on prose, video games, and even verse. Yes, Maniacs, we're going to talk about poetry.
When we say prose, we mean telling a straight story using only words and no images--novels and short stories. Now, there have been a lot of prose adaptations of comics, most of it being superhero stuff. There are a lot of novels featuring Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the like. Some of them are original stories, and others are adapted from comics. Both 52 and Crisis on Infinite Earths were rewritten as novels in the past few years. Consider this: prose leaves the author to account for details presented visually in a comic. If someone wears a blue costume in an image, we see it. It doesn't need to be stated outright. A comic writer provides descriptions for an artist and then fills in dialogue, voiceovers, and maybe some descriptive captions, but it's a collaborative effort. It's not just a comic by Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis. We've all seen well-written comics with bad art, and vice-versa. With prose, the writer is responsible for every single detail. And, many awful writers can write decent comics. They're only responsible for the skeleton of a story and some snappy dialogue. If you can't write prose, it shows immediately. If you suck, your readers will catch on quickly (unless it's Twilight, which is apparently beyond reproach). But, any story can be good. You can write anything well.
Prose really allows a writer to shine. Comics are great, but you can't fill up every page with captions lest it become an illustrated novel. There are comics like this (David Mack's work comes to mind), but they're different than reading a series of sequential images with dialogue and limited descriptive passages. Neil Gaiman's and Alan Moore's comics are pretty heavy on the captions and what amount to prose passages, so obviously, it works for some writers. But, a novel leaves the writer exposed. You either shine or fail. You can't hide bad writing. A prose adaptation of a comic could, if done well, really elevate the experience by giving us a more internal look at the story. For a comic to cover a comparable amount of storytelling ground as a novel, it would have to be unrealistically longer. Prose adaptations can allow for a "fleshing out" of characters that space might limit in a comic.
Imagine a novel that dryly described a sequence of comic panels, with the dialogue included. Imagine sound effects spelled out. Like all art, 99% of writing isn't very good. A decent comic, when gracelessly transferred to prose, can expose the story's shortcomings very quickly. Granted, publishers can always try original stories featuring comic characters, and then it's anyone's game. But, those aren't really adaptations--just original stories with comic characters. Regardless, prose doesn't always have the same impact as striking images. It has other strengths that comics do not (far be it from us to beat up on books), but in comics, things are intended to be seen and not described and imagined. Some mediums work with images and others with words. Some use both and we are meant to experience them that way. Neither is inherently inferior.
The Other Way Around:
Comic adaptations of novels have become surprisingly popular in the past few years. Marvel has its Anita Blake books. Stephen King's work has made its way to comics--including the fourth book of The Dark Tower series, The Stand, and The Talisman (which he co-wrote with Peter Straub). The publisher Graphic Classics only adapts novels, short stories, and poetry (more on that later). It's common enough in comics, going all the way back to Classics Illustrated. It's fun to read them in that we like seeing the artist's vision of the story, provided we can set our own aside for a bit. On the down side, a lot of book-to-comic adaptations are painfully condensed. We've seen Dracula done in 48 pages and it wasn't pretty. And, part of the enjoyment in reading a novel arises from the writing itself. The story doesn't actually matter as much as the telling. It's how you serve it to the reader. Good writers communicate the human experience in such a way that readers are enlightened, amused, sympathetic, inspired, or appropriately saddened. Good writers make you see the world through another's eyes. Comic adaptations too often take the skeleton of the story, illustrate it, and throw in some of the dialogue. Thus, most of the experience of reading the book has been lost in favor of a visualization and a few words of the writer's. It can be done well, but it's best when the adaptation stands on its own--as if the original story hadn't existed.
Video games--at least the narrative, immersive sort--are a strange medium in that they often mesh a story with a game. It's not like playing chess. Video games, oftentimes, have a narrative that the reader helps play out by making the right choices in sequence. Yes, you, the player, can take varying routes in a lot of the open-ended games these days, but the paths to the final goals are set--however many of them there may be. And yes, there are games like Wii Bowling or whatever, but most games adapted from comics are going to have a narrative format (or be fighting games with comic characters, but you follow). The argument about whether video games are art--along with their general fight for respectability--has been going on for a while, and it likely will settle out in their favor. They're popular and the masses usually get their way. But, a comic is a story played out with still images and words. The creators have control of what you see, though you can interpret it after however you want. With video games, you have more control over your experience of the story. Granted, every game has boundaries. But, if you want Spider-Man to just stand there on the street corner for 23 hours staring into space, he will. Every movement is unique to your experience. When a video game adapts a comic, it rarely uses a particular story or arc (though it's happened before) in lieu of taking a character and creating a new story. Rarely do game players get to relive Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men. But, even if they were adapted from particular stories, the player just assumes the role of a principle character and interacts with the world of the comic.
Yes, it's cool to be Wolverine for a while. There is something joyous about assuming the role of a beloved character and interacting in a fictional world. With the right mechanics, sound effects, and balance between story and gameplay, it can be a lot of fun. Video games can be an immersive, enjoyable experience in that they dole out novelty faster than a nickel slot machine. Push the button and something cool happens. You are part of the story. They're addictive and they're fun, when done well. It's a way for the player to take control of the narrative in a way that no traditional storytelling medium allows.
Video games are the only medium we've talked about that are not straight narrative experiences, in which you watch, read, or listen to someone else's creative work. They are games that follow a path. That means you can never experience an author's vision in quite the same way. You can follow a series of motions--gather resources, solve puzzles, and kill things-- to advance the story. But, you can't experience it the exact way a creator could dictate in another format. The designers can set a series of paths and potential outcomes, but every single time you play a game, it's different. The guiding hand of the creators is restrained to allow the player more choice in the experience. That may sound cool and it may be fun, but it doesn't adapt a comic so much as allow you to play a game with a similar character and setting. Given that most video games based on comics don't actually adapt a particular story, this is even more true. You can run Batman through Arkham Asylum, but you can't duplicate the experience of reading him as written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Dave McKean (understanding that, yes, the video game Arkham Asylum isn't adapted from their book). The medium essentially forbids it. Some Maniacs will likely call for our heads for pointing this out, but playing a video game is different from experiencing a story via movie, comic, novel, or whatever. That makes for less of an adaptation and more of a gaming experience using the same imagery.
The Other Way Around:
There are quite a few comics based on video games. Resident Evil and Halo have both had pretty successful forays into comics. But again, we run into the same disparity between the mediums. Video games are meant to be played and experienced with you in control. Part of the pleasure comes from solving puzzles and killing things yourself. A comic book can just take the skeleton of a story that most video games have and write a set narrative around them. There's no rule that says that a comic based on a game has to be bad (though most of them probably are), but it's not going to duplicate the experience of playing. That said, a good writer can flesh out the story and characters and make something that anyone can enjoy. No comic has to suck just because the source material doesn't lend itself to easy adaptation in the medium.
You might think it doesn't happen much, but just read this and this so that we don't have to list all of the songs inspired by comic books. "Ghost Rider" by Suicide is a perennial favorite here at the secret NFZ office. That lovely song has been covered by Rollins Band and the Sisters of Mercy. If you go here, you can see a website soliciting poetry about superheroes for a poetry anthology. And finally, this is a pretty fascinating article on poems about superheroes. Needless to say, most poems and songs don't directly adapt a particular comic. They address the characters and themes in broad strokes. They can't make you experience a particular narrative in a new light so much as make you reflect on a story or character--hopefully providing you with new insight.
Good poetry and music should inspire, elevate, and make you appreciate the subject. They should express an essential quality of the character or story. Unlike novels, comics, or movies, poetry and music can serve as a visceral, illuminating experience that doesn't just tell you the story, but makes you feel it with great immediacy. Like any subject, a good poem or song can make us appreciate comics and understand their characters even more than we already do.
Like video games, the tools that the mediums use are removed enough from traditional narrative that they can only adapt comics in only the loosest sense. You won't see "Watchmen: The Poem" anytime soon. But, there are certainly poems about Batman and Superman. You could certainly take a crack at casting a comic in verse, but it would either be of unwieldy length or so short as to rob the reader of much of the essential experience. But, like any other adaptation, the write creator can make something brilliant with any set of tools.
The Other Way Around:
This is much easier to write. There are plenty of volumes with poetry adapted into comics (not so much song lyrics, but that's more understandable). Marvel's MAX series Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe presented a few of the author's poems as comics (including a funny rendition of "Eulalie" with the titular woman as a mail-order blowup doll). Some of Alan Moore's poetry has been adapted into comic form. Graphic Classics often adapts poetry in its themed volumes (usually centered around an author, such as Poe, or a genre). There's an entire volume of Victor Hugo's poetry adapted into comics published by ComicsLit. Usually, the adapted version prints the original poem with corresponding illustrations. There's actually more leeway for adaptation here because the comic has to adhere to the original work to a certain degree, but also has a lot of room to play around. If the poem leaves details to the imagination, then the comic artist can take the work into some really interesting places--interesting or unbelievably inappropriate, depending on how it comes off. Unlike an adapted novel, most of the time the poem will be presented in its entirety with illustrations. This makes it less of a comic than, well, an illustrated poem, but an adaptation will be much more in sync with the original piece. Everybody can be happy.
That's it for this week, Maniacs. Get ready for next week, because we're pitting Kick-Ass against Kick-Ass! Comics and movies go head to head in next week!
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