Graphic Novel Adaptations | Brilliant Visual Retellings

Thousands of comics adapt books, short stories, epic poems, plays, musical productions, political documents, TV shows, essays—even podcasts. The graphic novel adaptations here offer readers a different, wonderfully illustrated path into stories. 

How many times have we read or watched or listened, imagining the story playing out as a graphic novel? It is not a unique feeling. Classics Illustrated adaptations broke ground in 1941. Today, thousands of comics adapt books, short stories, epic poems, plays, musical productions, political documents, TV shows, essays—even podcasts. Some hold fast to their inspiration, while others alter setting and characters, such as a new spin on the classic story of Frankenstein or a surrealistic take on a Greek tragedy with a mostly animal cast.

Adaptation into comics can make a long, wordy work easier to get into. It can also extend the reach of a story that was popular in the past but is now surprisingly appropriate to the present. Heroes and heroines long gone can speak to readers today, lending inspiration and bravery. Adaptations can also highlight what was lacking in a text-only title, or draw attention to other aspects of the tale.

The graphic novel adaptations here offer readers a different, wonderfully illustrated path into stories. The bounty that follows embodies only a small selection, favoring variety and currency. Discovering even more can be a pleasant challenge, and we also list some previously reviewed choices to start readers on their journey.

Butler, Octavia E. (text) & John Jennings (illus.). Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. adapted by Damian Duffy. ComicArts: Abrams. Jan. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781419731334. $24.99. SF

When society crumbles, whom do you trust, and how can empathy help and hinder survival? In the chaos of a post-apocalyptic California, teenager Lauren leaves her burned-out community to trek north, away from the looters, fires, and bodies, and toward safer places for building a life. To ground herself, she conceives a new religion, Earthseed, which holds change as the only constant. In fact, God is Change. As she and her small group of allies trek north, they must deal with killers, wounded and dying people, and more disorder, plus learn to use guns and scavenge to stay alive. Supremely appropriate to the dystopian plot, blocky art from Jennings (Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation) sears the eyeballs with colors of flame and earth. VERDICT As real-life chaos dominates the news cycle from the 2021 U.S. Capitol attack to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, this parable from multiple award-winning Butler warns all-too-realistically that the most powerful responses to change and chaos must include trust and mutual caring.

Dutton, Talia. M Is for Monster. Harry N. Abrams. Jun. 2022. 224p. ISBN 9781419751974. pap. $17.99. HORROR

Scientist sisters Frances (“Frankie”) and Maura collaborate on innovative, magic-infused laboratory projects with support from Frances’s mate, Gin. But an experimental misstep results in Maura’s death. Guilt-ridden, the grieving Frances channels her overactive feelings of responsibility into bringing her unfortunate lab partner back to life through “mechanical necromancy.” Alas, Maura’s corpse revives with a wholly different personality. Assisted by the ghost of the original Maura, the creature attempts to pose as the sister so that Frances won’t take her apart to try again—which would destroy her new life. Soon conflicts develop among the three individuals around identity, expectations, and guilt. Is the new personality “M” a mistake to be fixed, or a benevolent side effect of a tragedy no one could have foreseen? Dutton’s debut deploys striking shades of teal with black and white to tell the engrossing story with a simplified realism. VERDICT Part of Abrams’ Surely line of graphic novels, which is dedicated to showcasing LGBTQIA+ creators and stories, this clever Frankensteinian fable is recommended for youth and adult collections alike.

Euripides & Anne Carson (text) & Rosanna Bruno (illus.). The Trojan Women: A Comic. New Directions. May 2021. 96p. ISBN 9781780375908. $12.13. LIT

The Trojan War is over. All that remains are the women of Troy, grieving the killing of their warrior men by Greek troops. As gods Athena and Poseidon plot next steps, former Trojan queen Hekabe laments her slain husband and sons, reflecting bitterly on the fates of daughter Kassandra and daughter-in-law Andromache. As for the Greek woman Helen, Hekabe despises and blames her for the slaughter. Yet it was Hekabe’s son Paris who, by abducting Helen, triggered the conflict. Now these women can only bury their dead and wait to be ferried to Greece as slaves and concubines. Poet and classicist Carson’s (Antigonick) slangy, contemporary dialogue pairs superbly with Bruno’s (The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson) rambunctious, symbolic visualization in crude, smudgy gray scales. In this work, Hekabe is an aging dog; Andromache a wounded poplar tree; Helen a silver fox in high heels; and the chorus of Trojan women appear as dogs and cows. VERDICT Carson offers an unsettling, modern take on war and its women victims.

Harari, Yuval Noah & David Vandermeulen (text) & Daniel Casanave (illus.). Sapiens: A Graphic History: The Birth of Humankind, Vol. 1. Harper Perennial. Oct. 2020. 248p. ISBN 9780063051331. pap. $25.99. HIST

Harari, Yuval Noah & David Vandermeulen (text) & Daniel Casanave (illus.). Sapiens: A Graphic History: The Pillars of Civilization, Vol. 2. Harper Perennial. Oct. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9780063212237. pap. $25.99. HIST

Working with stone tools, micro-communities of Homo sapiens in Africa eventually became eight billion humans worldwide, some two million years later. In historian Harari’s (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) whirlwind account of how this happened, a cognitive revolution occurred about 70,000 years ago when humans developed speech, and thus, storytelling, which spread knowledge, including non-physical concepts like religion, money, corporations, and ethical principles. These made it easier for large groups of people to cooperate and to migrate across the globe. But all this had a cost—innumerable animals went extinct, as well as other Homo species. Later, an agricultural revolution led to unimagined cultural progress, but also great disparities among humans and great danger for planet Earth. Casanave’s (Wine: A Graphic History) brilliant rendering incorporates a myriad of inventive formats: a card game, TV show, newspaper, advertisement, circus side show, crime investigation, and travel brochure. Superheroes and time travel also figure in. VERDICT This fascinating and entertaining saga about humanity may not promote agreement with Harari’s analysis, but it will encourage readers to think deeply about themselves, their communities, and a collective future on Earth.

Hill, Joe & David M. Booher (text) & Zoe Thorogood (illus.). Joe Hill’s Rain. Image. Oct. 2022. 160p. ISBN 9781534322691. $21.99. HORROR

Honeysuckle is bursting with joy as her girlfriend, Yolanda, arrives to move in with her, setting off neighborhood homophobes. But then the sky opens up, not with rain, but with skin-shredding crystal splinters that kill Yolanda, her mom, and most of Boulder. Heartbroken, Honeysuckle decides to walk to Denver to notify Yolanda’s preacher dad. Mystery and more tragedy ensue as Honeysuckle wonders who can be trusted on her trek and why clouds are producing the deadly fulgurite crystals, spreading worldwide. What began as Hill’s (Locke & Key) apocalyptic adventure-tragedy novella becomes a simpler but deeper drama of character in Booher’s (All-New Firefly) adaptation. Yet, the resolution seems rather quick and the malefactor’s motives conflicting. Colorist Chris O’Halloran’s palette of nonprimary hues beautifully supports and complements the lithe, appropriately awkward art from Thorogood (The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott). VERDICT Booher’s adaptation sensitively enhances characterization, and the art team establishes a vibrant visual world for the tragedy. The gripping story holds up despite issues with pacing and one character’s incentives, and fans of Hill’s work as well as other aficionados of apocalyptic fiction will likely relish it.

Huxley, Aldous (text) & Fred Fordham (illus.). Brave New World: A Graphic Novel. adapted by Fred Fordham. Harper. Apr. 2022. 240p. ISBN 9780063055254. $24.99. SF

Bernard would prefer a modest, private life, coupled one-to-one with a beloved woman. But this makes him an outsider in his futuristic London, redesigned to abolish jealousy, hunger, pain, and conflict. Babies grow from cloned and incubated eggs, while sexually “everybody belongs to everybody.” Romantic and familial attachments are forbidden, and the feel-good drug SOMA is the answer to all unhappiness. So, Bernard faces censure and even exile until he discovers Linda, a former Londoner living as a traditional parent with her son John on a reservation in New Mexico. How will Linda and John react when Bernard brings them back to London? Unlike George Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s dystopia uses pleasure instead of pain as motivator, but it leads readers to question whether pleasure is enough. This fine adaptation succeeds with Fordham’s (To Kill a Mockingbird) candy-colored art, conveying the simple, sugary charm of a pleasure culture that delights but may not satisfy. VERDICT Huxley’s classic satire forces readers to question any ideal life they might want. This engaging rendition offers food for thought.

Lloyd Webber, Andrew (text) & José María Beroy (illus.). The Phantom of the Opera: Official Graphic Novel. adapted by Cavan Scott. Titan Comics. Jan. 2022. 112p. ISBN 9781787731905. $29.99. HORROR

The tragic love triangle of a disfigured music master, his beautiful soprano idée fixe, and the chanteuse’s handsome suitor debuted as a 1910 French novel and has been reincarnated countless times via film, television, stage, radio, literature, and music. The beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber production remains on Broadway 36 years after its 1986 London opening. More of a complement to that show than a substitute, this sumptuous graphic novel lacks some of the creepy, feverish quality of stage and screen versions, but allows fans to linger on favorite scenes and discover finely drawn details. Enjoying the secondary characters in little moments is possible with comics, whereas in a production, one tends to focus on the leading roles. Scott’s (Star Wars) able adaptation includes much of the singing within character dialogue. The opulent, jewel-toned art from Beroy (Rivers of London) incorporates close-ups effectively, and one-panel riffs off M.C. Escher’s labyrinthian staircase. VERDICT Fans of the stage spectacle will enjoy this different path into the story, savor the elaborate period depictions, and perhaps grasp more about character relationships than possible when witnessing the drama live.

Menendez, Valentín Ramón & Theodore Kaczynski. Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future: The Graphic Novel. self-published. Apr. 2021. 229p. ed. by the Blackest Pill Books. ISBN 9798732866919. pap. $17.50. TECH

Ted Kaczynski resorted to murder, as he wrote, to attract attention to his views. He, a multi-degreed prodigy who quit academics to live in the woods as a recluse, sent bomb-laden packages to 16 people during 1978–95, killing three and wounding many. He agreed to desist if a major newspaper published his “Unabomber Manifesto” about the disastrous consequences of society’s industrial-technological system. The 35,000-word document appeared in the Washington Post; readers’ tips led to his capture and life sentence. Kaczynski holds individual liberty as the highest human necessity. He finds evil in what he portrays as freedom-killing bureaucracies and the regulations required to live in a technological society, which is also destroying nature and all life on Earth. His prescribed cure: a violent revolution. Menendez (Dead Kings Have No Dreams) delivers haunting gray scale montages that extend the textual content in creative and approachable ways: cameras on drones, TV-headed humans, dreamlike goldfish, various Kaczynski figures as narrators—even chibi-style caricatures. VERDICT Kaczynski’s analysis, if not his prescription, echoes warnings from many scholars and writers on industrialization, futurism, and the environment. This bold venture, making the original manifesto easier to understand, and therefore to counteract, belongs especially in university and large public libraries.

Morris, Jordan & others (text) & Tony Cliff (illus.). Bubble. First Second. Jul. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781250245564. pap. $19.99. SF

Fairhaven exists under a tranquil, bogus “sky” that protects residents from murderous imps and other strange creatures out in the Brush. But imps get in somehow, and so residents are recruited to join Huntr, a hilarious, satiric take on the gig economy, in which volunteers battle marauding imps to solicit star ratings from onlookers. Actually, hunting malevolent critters has become Fairhaven’s most adventurous side hustle. Carrying the story are the rough-and-tumble affections among imp killers Morgan, Annie, Van, and Mitch, who must deal with Morgan’s Brush-living dad and with Bonnie, a honcho in the mysterious corporation backing Fairhaven. Cliff’s (Delilah Dirk) high-energy, color art is just right for the story. Like “The Adventure Zone” graphic novel series, this adapts a Maximum Fun-produced podcast serial, a 21st-century version of 1940s radio soap operas like Our Gal Sunday. Writers Morris and Morgan scripted the original podcast episodes. VERDICT Bursting with outlandish action, droll and bawdy insults, occult forces, and secret schemes, this launches adventure lovers on a wild, if sometimes incoherent, ride that’s absurdly funny, yet feels good.

Ricca, Brad (text) & Courtney Sieh (illus.). Ten Days in a Mad-House: A Graphic Adaptation. Gallery. Apr. 2022. 160p. ISBN 9781982140656. pap. $19.99. MEMOIR

Seeking a reporter job in 1887 under the pen name Nellie Bly, veteran news writer Elizabeth Cochran Seaman aspired to continue her investigations. So, she weaseled her way into an interview with the editor of the New York World and snagged a plum assignment: feign madness to get herself committed to the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island and then expose malpractice. Once there, she confronted horrific treatment aplenty: icy baths, forced labor, spare and horrible food, abusive nurses, and neglectful doctors. Guilt-ridden at abandoning fellow patients when it was time to leave, she poured her emotions into vitriolic articles that prodded a grand jury into providing an unheard-of $1 million for care of the city’s residents who had been diagnosed with mental health conditions. Ricca (True Raiders) vividly recreates Bly’s gripping tale, while newcomer Sieh crafts pen-and-ink, engraving-style art that renders period settings, clothing, and personalities with disturbing detail and emotional resonance. VERDICT Those who take modern investigative journalism for granted will be captivated by Bly’s groundbreaking work. She shattered stereotypes about women and revealed their power to bring about social justice. Valuable for women’s history courses and a good read-alike for Mat Johnson’s Incognegro.

Tipton, David & Scott Tipton (text) & Ron Joseph (illus.). Sherlock Holmes: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. IDW. Mar. 2016. 120p. ISBN 9781631405570. pap.$19.99. M

In Nicholas Meyer’s popular 1974 novel, Dr. Watson witnesses his beloved comrade deteriorate from cocaine addiction, while refusing help. So, Watson recruits famed physician Sigmund Freud and bustles Holmes off to Vienna on the pretense of cornering Holmes’s archnemesis, Moriarty. The two doctors convince the detective to be treated, and it goes well. Then Freud is confronted with a speechless woman patient who has escaped a sinister kidnapper. Soon, all three men are hot in pursuit of the culprit, culminating in a dramatic struggle atop a speeding train. The Tiptons (Star Trek) ably condense considerable text into sizable yet manageable word balloons, while Joseph’s realistic, luminous art makes the Victorian characters seem almost modern. VERDICT Meyer’s adventure-mystery tweaks the Holmes/Watson canon to fill gaps in the original stories and flesh out the characters in distinctive ways. The Tiptons’ adaptation adds visual charm and period atmosphere. It will likely engage Holmes fans, as well as those new to his appeal.

Wilson, Edward O. (text) & C. M. Butzer (illus.). Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation. adapted by Jim Ottaviani. Island Pr. Nov. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9781610919586. $28. MEMOIR

From his childhood fascination with ants to his breakthrough discoveries about social insects at Harvard, Wilson lived the life he wanted—to great success and great controversy. Bug anatomy was considered legitimate for scientific study. But asserting that chemicals shaped insect sociality broke treasured nature/nurture paradigms by explaining behavior in terms of evolution—a new approach termed “sociobiology.” Scientist and librarian Ottaviani (Hawking) gives loving attention to Wilson’s musings, especially his infatuation with nature. Hanging out in mangrove swamps in a hurricane, ascending above the tree line without a coat, losing colleagues’ favor because of his views—all were part of his rich scientific life. Much of the story features multiple Wilsons: the older narrator Wilson and the younger Wilsons he describes. Butzer’s (Gettysburg) vibrant color art depicts people rather simply but charmingly and renders ants and other creatures with much more detail. VERDICT Some explorers conquer mountains; Wilson conquered the smaller world, concluding that the future of natural life science lies in the still smaller worlds of biochemistry. This skilled and enjoyable adaptation should appeal to readers with their own dreams and who face the costs and rewards of forging ahead despite obstacles.

Also, Do Not Miss These Previously Reviewed Titles 

Anderson, Laurie Halse (text) & Emily Carroll (illus.). Speak: The Graphic Novel. Farrar. Feb. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780374300289. $19.99. F

Atwood, Margaret (text) & Renée Nault (illus.). The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Mar. 2019. 240p. ISBN 9780385539241. $22.95. F 

Cervantes, Miguel de (text) & Rob Davis (illus.). The Complete Don Quixote. SelfMadeHero. 2013. 296p. ISBN 9781906838652. $27.50. LIT

The Epic of Gilgamesh. Kent H. Dixon (text & tr. from Sumerian) & Kevin H. Dixon (illus.). Seven Stories. May 2018. 204p. ISBN 9781609807931. pap. $19.94. LIT

Fitzgerald, Scott & Fred Fordham (text) & Aya Morton (illus.). The Great Gatsby: The Graphic Novel. Scribner. Jun. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781982144524. $30. F

Frank, Anne (text) & Ari Folman (adpt.) & David Polonsky (illus.). Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation. Pantheon. Oct. 2018. 160p. ISBN 9781101871799. $24.95. BIOG .

The Graphic Canon of Crime and Mystery, Vol. 1: From Sherlock Holmes to A Clockwork Orange to Jo Nesbø. Seven Stories. 2017. 352p. ed. By Russ Kick. ISBN 9781609807856. pap. $29.95. M

Herbert, Frank & Kevin J. Anderson (text) & Raúl Allén & Patricia Martín (illus.). Dune: The Graphic Novel, Bk. 1. ComicArts: Abrams. Nov. 2020. 176p. ISBN 9781419731501. $24.99. SF

Hobbs, Eric (text) & Noel Tuazon (illus.). Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama. NBM. 2014. 184p. ISBN 9781561637294. pap. $13.99. F

McKenna, Aline (text) & Ramón K. Pérez (illus.). Jane. Archaia. Sept. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781608869817. $24.99. F

Moffat, Steven & Mark Gatiss (text) & Jay (illus.). Sherlock: A Study in Pink. Titan. Feb. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9781785856150. pap. $14.99. M

Myers, Walter Dean (text) & Guy A. Sims (adpt.) & Dawud Anyabwile (illus.). Monster. Amistad: HarperCollins. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9780062275004. $17.99. F

Okorafor, Nnedi (text) & David Brame (illus.). After the Rain. Abrams. 2021. 128p. adapt. by John Jennings. ISBN 9781419743559. $22.99. Horror

Orwell, George (text) & Fido Nesti (illus.). 1984: The Graphic Novel. Harcourt. Aug. 2021. 224p. ISBN 9780358359920. $22. SF

Remarque, Erich Maria (text) & Wayne Vansant (text & illus.). All Quiet on the Western Front. Dead Reckoning: Naval Inst. Jun. 2019. 176p. ISBN 9781682473337. pap. $24.95. HIST

Rivera, Gabby (text) & Celia Moscote (illus.). Juliet Takes a Breath. Boom! Box. Dec. 2020. 176p. ISBN 9781684156115. pap. $14.99. F

Sikoryak, R. Constitution Illustrated. Drawn & Quarterly. Jul. 2020. 128p. ISBN 9781770463967. pap. $14.95. HIST

Thompson, Hunter S. (text) & Troy Little (illus.). Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Top Shelf. 2015. 169p. ISBN 9781603093750. $39.99. F

Vonnegut, Kurt & Ryan North (text) & Albert Monteys (illus.). Slaughterhouse-Five. Archaia. Sept. 2020. 192p. ISBN 9781684156252. $24.99. F

Wimberly, Ron. The Prince of Cats. Vertigo. Sept. 2012. 144p. ISBN 9781401220686. $16.99. F

Martha Cornog is a longtime LJ reviewer, who was a 2020 Eisner Awards judge and has co-edited several books about graphic novels in libraries. 

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