Novel Ideas

Did you hear? Words without pictures are hot! Publishers are adapting novels into comics, comics into novels, and releasing novels that were adapted into comics along with the resulting comics.

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon, obviously. Classics Illustrated started making literature tolerable in 1941, adapting great works for the comics-reading audience. But there has been a flurry of recent activity.

Marvel has released two young-adult novels told from the point of view of Mary Jane Watson, longtime love interest of company stalwart Spider-Man. Marv Wolfman has written a novelization of his celebrated continuity deck-clearer, Crisis on Infinite Earths, for DC. Viz has published Battle Royale, the pulp classic that inspired a successful movie and manga adaptation (translated and published by Tokyopop), and they launched a line of novelizations of popular manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, Ghost in the Shell 2, and Steamboy, along with best-selling novels Kamikaze Girls and Socrates in Love.

In the other direction, Dark Horse is about to roll out its line of manga adaptations of Harlequin Romance novels.Scholastic’s Graphix imprint will launch a series of graphic-novel adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club novels, with words and pictures by the very talented Raina Telgemeier.

(I could really muddy the waters by mentioning the successful novelists who’ve been lured into writing comics by major publishers. I won’t, though, because a lot of their current output makes my teeth hurt.)

It’s interesting to watch the fluidity between entertainment formats. Again, it’s not a new phenomenon. Anyone who walked into a supermarket in the 1970s couldn’t avoid seeing novelizations of blockbuster movies, and comics versions of cinema hits like Star Wars studded the spinner racks. It seems even more common in Japan, though, where a popular manga can become an animated television series, animated film, live-action television series, and live-action film, maybe with an accompanying video game or two. Ryoko Ikeda’sThe Rose of Versailles, one of the all-time great shôjo series, was even adapted into a very popular stage version. (The musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Supermandidn’t fare quite so well on Broadway, though one of the numbers from it is currently being used in a commercial for canned biscuit dough.)

A live-action version of Ai Yazawa’s Nana just opened in Japan. (If Viz aren’t currently working on a novelization of that title, they’re out of they’re minds.) The debut of theNaruto anime on Cartoon Network seems to have led to a surge in sales for the Naruto manga. Prose versions ofTokyopop’s Dot Hack Ai Buster and Dark Horse andDigital Manga’s Vampire Hunter D are doing brisk business in bookstores.

There’s a common argument that many people who read comics do so because they find types of stories there that aren’t done as well in any other format. It’s a frequently used swipe at “new mainstream” titles that feature romance, mystery, and other popular (non-super-hero) genres – why dabble in comics versions when books and movies already meet the needs of their audience? Given the increasingly frequent wall-crumbling between comics, prose, film, and television, the argument seems to be weakening. With the right creators, engaging stories of any genre are extremely portable from format to format.
That said, did Viz really have to start its initiative withSocrates in Love? This week, Viz simultaneously released a translation of the hugely popular novel by Kyoichi Katayama and Kazumi Kazui’s one-volume manga adaptation in its Shojo Beat line. And, well, let’s rack it up as another bit of evidence in the “Popular doesn’t equal good” file.

I admit that it was mostly morbid curiosity that led me to pre-order the manga. I suspected that hugely popular Japanese novels could be just as pedestrian and annoying as hugely popular American ones (The Bridges of Madison County, for example), and I wasn’t disappointed. Just take a look at some of the back-cover text:

“Socrates in Love became a national sensation, bringing innocent love and romance to the forefront of Japan’s ultra-hip mass market.”

Does anyone else find that bit of boilerplate a bit weird? It invites a number of cynical interpretations, and I’ve never been able to resist those. “It isn’t just sentimental treacle; it’s sentimental treacle so potent that it can overcome the otherwise savvy entertainment tastes of an entire culture! Resistance is futile! Collect your absorbent facial tissues and prepare to be moved!”

I’m always game for a good cry, but it takes a bit more than Socrates has to offer. That’s partly because the formula is so familiar: Boy meets girl, boy wins girl, girl succumbs to a fatal disease. It’s Erich Segal’s Love Storywithout the class conflict or, really, any conflict at all. Average guy Sakutaro and pretty girl Aki meet in middle school, date monogamously over the subsequent years, eventually consummate their love, and Aki is diagnosed with leukemia. That’s pretty much it.

Sakutaro wonders, “Why us?” The obvious answer is, “Because you’re the lead characters in a slim, sentimental novel that’s been adapted into a so-so manga.” I haven’t read the novel, and the manga doesn’t do anything to make me want to change that. (The $18 price tag for just over 200 pages of text doesn’t help, either.)

I’m vaguely curious as to whether the characters and their relationship had more texture in the prose version, because there’s very little on display in the manga. They’re nice, attractive young people who don’t really overcome any obstacles to be together, and it’s sad that one of them is seriously ill. The argument is that the turn of events is sadder because the patient is young, and that misfortune is automatically raised to the level of tragedy as a result. Nobody’s even gone broke peddling that kind of youthful narcissism, but I’ve always found it irritating, even when I was in that age group.

Visuals are classic shôjo, attractive if not particularly imaginative. There’s some funny juxtaposition of text, sound effect, and visuals when Sakutaro tries to conceal his erection while swimming in a public pool, but it ends up seeming discordant in the manga as a whole. Aki’s deterioration is rendered with care, but pretty ultimately prevails, even at the lowest emotional points.

Maybe Kamikaze Girls will be more to my tastes. And maybe it will be adapted into a manga.