Last week, my departmental colleague, Ed Wiltse, invited Stephen Shapiro, cultural critic at the University of Warwick, UK, to give a campus talk entitled “Do Not Resuscitate: Zombies and the Crisis of Senior Health Care / Student Debt Peonage.”  The lecture offered listeners a chance to think about why the zombie figures prominently in both contemporary visual narratives (most notably in AMC’s series, The Walking Dead) and recent demonstrations of civic resistance (“zombie walks” staged in protest of, for example, tuition hikes and government bans).

Early in the lecture, Shapiro took an unusual – and for me, highly intriguing—position on screen adaptation of original literary content (considering, in this case, the transformation of The Walking Dead comics into the far more “popular” (i.e. consumed by “mainstream” audiences) cable series of the same name.  Instead of succumbing to the usual fetishization of ur-text that typically informs discussion of adaptation, Shapiro focused on how such mainstreaming allows occluded, repressed contemporary social problems to be surfaced in the framework of an already extant literary work.  Just as the original literary work (a film from a prior time, a novel, a comic) emerges out of its own cultural, national, and social milieu and is thus circumscribed by it, a contemporary adaptation made available to a larger or different audience, can plant timely, silenced, concerns into the rich soil of what was already, perhaps, a trenchant social critique in its original form.  In this view, the strange glut of monstrous presences on American screens today (vampires, aliens, human mutations, zombies), both original and culled from comic books, offers a rich vein of exploration in itself.

            

This, coupled with the fact that I am teaching a course this semester on adaptation, has me thinking a lot about what happens when a work makes its way from one medium to another.  I’m even struggling with the verb we use when we signal the shift:  “adapting” a work suggests that the first work has a certain primacy (the first original screenplay, comic, novella, poem…) and that the adapter has modified the contents to fit a new situation (to my ear, this sounds, somehow, lesser). “Translated?”  “Re-envisioned?”  “Transformed?”  Media theory now works with more objective terms including hypertexts, intertexts and “transmedia,” but I believe the evolving definition of this last term relies on the notion of a single, spread-out text with components available from across media:  webisodes, a cable series, comics, several films, even fan fiction combining to produce one text that cannot be completely “read” until—and probably not even then as new content may emerge at a later point—all media components are experienced.  Think of The Matrix, for example, and its scattered breadcrumbs across a wide range of media.  Transferring aspects of a text into a new medium is never uncomplicated, and reminds me that every act of “translation” yields a new text (no less for The Incredible Hulk as for an English translation of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke).

Adaptation is a hot topic today, and one that I think many of us in comics studies find relevant and compelling.  Recent posts by Nicolas Labarre and Ian Hague on the Comix-Scholars List; the latest cfp from the International Conference on the Fantastic on the Arts (“Fantastic Adaptations, Transformations and Audiences“); Pascal Lefevre’s important essay, “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?  The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn Images” from Gordon, Jancovich and McAllister’s collection, Film and Comic Books; the exciting, rather new (2011) interdisciplinary journal, Adaptation, put out by the Centre for Adaptations at DeMontfort University, plus the sheer volume of Hollywood and cable productions of adaptations of comics and graphic novels (from many genres including action, horror, fantasy, autobiography and “art”) offer those of us who study comics another compelling, interdisciplinary, theoretical framework to shape our thinking.

           

So, here is my extended question for you:  how do you think about the relationship between the “original” comic work and its offspring (see, another problematic word!)?  What verb best captures the transfer of material (themes, characters, world) from a comic produced in one medium and then re-situated in a new medium (e.g. Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld and Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans as webcomics turned printed books that are not quite “collections”; Ghost World making its way from character sketches in Daniel Clowes’ Eightball through the Fantagraphics 1997 graphic novel into Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film of the same name)?  Do you take it case by case, or think that there are fundamental processes (and/or effects) that undergird the whole operation of adaptation?

About Adrielle Mitchell

Adrielle Mitchell is a Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY. She is a comics scholar whose work is informed by visual and media studies, cultural theory and formalist criticism.

2 responses »

  1. Hi Adrielle! I really enjoyed this post when it went up a couple of weeks ago, but I’m just now getting around to leaving a comment. I’m actually working on a piece now that includes a comic adaptation, so your question is very relevant to me right now. One of the things that I’ve noticed recently is how comfortable I have become treating the adaptation as another original work, rather than simply an offshoot (a term often treated as derivative in a pejorative way, unfortunately) and I’ve noticed the same approach in other critical scholarship as well. As you say, “Transferring aspects of a text into a new medium is never uncomplicated, and reminds me that every act of “translation” yields a new text.” I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to take this notion of “newness” or “originality” seriously when no text is really ever new, but always rife with narrative allusions and structures that are indebted to previous works and traditions. It seems like in this YouTube era every aspect of our culture can be gleefully and unapologetically mined as creative resource. Even this trend itself isn’t new – I think about the concept of signifyin(g) in African American folk literature, for instance. And of course, comics have a tradition of passing through the hands of many creators within a single issue or an entire collaborative series. So in any case, I think that to talk about adaptation today requires some acknowledgement of this moment we live and write in where everything is original…and nothing is.

  2. Alek Trencz says:

    Some instances of adaptation use the prior text as notation, making only medium-specific alterations – a generational relationship which I might call “emanation.” It procedes from the surface of its source and doesn’t often occur with much qualitative fidelity. The Watchmen movie demonstrates this approach to such an extent that it seems like an exercise which illuminates the false promise of such dogmatically literal adherence.
    There are also those which result from a kind of creative reverse-engineering which sublates the original authorial voice while preserving some subjectively favoured essence. This, more common process, I sometimes think of as “transduction.” In many cases the galvanising essence that’s carried over is some crucial dramatic tension and/or central character dynamic, but occasionally it’s something more metatextual, as with the Naked Lunch movie in which most of the events and images either come from books by W S Burroughs other than Naked Lunch itself, or are the product of Cronenberg attempting to idiomatically “play along.” In that particular instance, the communicated portion of the “original” work is its title.
    In commercially minded adaptations, the most important force being transduced from one form to another is its appeal, and, for the adapter, the appeal of the “original” isn’t necessarily inseparable from the content.

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