It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a novel in possession of a great story must be in want of an illustrator…
When I was very young, Illustrated Classics introduced me to a world of literature I wasn’t quite ready for. Big stories, like Moby Dick or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or, my personal favorite, Around the World in 80 Days, were all made more accessible by being presented in comic book format.
Illustrated Classics have been around in one form or another by various publishers for a long time—in fact, the versions I read were first printed when my father was a kid. And while the more snobbish can be dismissive of these books, looking at them as simple “cheat sheets” for students unwilling to spend the time actually reading the novel in question, I’ve always seen them as a gateway drug. At the time that I read these, I simply didn’t have the attention span (or vocabulary) to follow the originals, but being presented in a visual format helped me understand, visualize, and get lost in these worlds.
But that doesn’t mean I stopped enjoying them when I got older. Today, they’re a way to quickly revisit a favorite story without investing the same amount of time, and it’s always interesting to see how an artist chooses to depict your favorite characters or scenes. Sometimes it’s like seeing the storyboards for a movie that never got made.
I was already well acquainted with the works of Jane Austen by the time I dove into Marvel’s 2000-era line of Illustrated Classics. These comics were produced from 2007 until 2013, covering everything from The Iliad to The Wizard of Oz.
But rather than indulging in a story easily translated due to its action-packed nature or distinctive visuals, I thought I’d look at a couple that were more challenging for the adapter and artist alike: Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility.
Both of these were adapted by award-winning romance writer Nancy Butler, who’d always wondered why comic books didn’t try to attract more girl readers and thought of this as a step in the right and oft-neglected direction. Each adaptation was originally released as a five-part comic series, but were then collected and released as trade paperback volumes, as well as hardback.
What struck me most about these adaptations, however, wasn’t the nature of the words, but just how the differing artwork affected those words. P&P is illustrated by Hugo Petrus, while S&S is illustrated by Sony Liew. The former attempts character designs that are more realistic in nature, while the latter opts for something more cartoonish. And it has a distinct effect on how the books are read and enjoyed.
Petrus is at times hamstrung by his own realism, choosing images of characters in the midst of talking that, had they been a snapshot taken with a cellphone, would have instantly been deleted. They convey the realism of the moment, sure, but aren’t always pleasing to the eye. Of course, the alternative would be to have everyone always in a perfect pose, and that would have been just as problematic, since it no longer conveys anything dynamic.
Liew, on the other hand, not only draws more cartoonishly, he delves at times into a level of “chibi” level cartoonishness. While not at all realistic, it’s highly effective at conveying moments of humor and nuance when it’s most needed, far more so than a more realistic style can.
That said, I personally would have liked to have seen a combination of these two art styles—something that knew when to be realistic and when to cartoon it up, but feel consistent at the same time.
I must admit, however, that I prefer P&P’s imaginative covers (some done by Liew), which are set up like the covers of a Cosmo-like magazine, featuring such cover lines as “What to think when he thinks you’re thinking,” “17 Secrets about SUMMER DRESSES,” and “How to CURE your BOY-CRAZY SISTERS!” The cover images are done in muted tones and styles more appropriate to the age, rather than being all bright colors and revealing too much skin.
Butler’s adaptations of the text can be problematic at times, however. In P&P, while all the key moments are there on the page, the transitions sometimes felt confusing, almost as if she expected the reader to be familiar with the work already. Some of these shortcomings are made up for in S&S due to the artist’s ability to convey more than just how a character looks or where they are at any given moment. It’s a better example of how an artist and writer can work together to convey meaning.
As for the stories themselves, well, it’s Jane Austen, isn’t it? Of course it’s good. Her satirical wit shines through as clearly on the illustrated page as it does in the original formats. If you are a fan of Illustrated Classics like I am, the series as a whole is worth checking out. Remember, they cover a lot more than just Regency-era romance.
An earlier attempt by Marvel discussed:
Originally Published in KODT #237