How a new wave of graphic novels is revitalizing classics — and pushing diversity
When HarperCollins approached Fred Fordham to illustrate a new graphic novel in late 2016, the U.K.-based artist knew the project was more than just a gig. He knew its impact would make waves.
“Like something out of a spy movie, my agent slid this little notebook across the table to me while we were sitting in a cafe,” Fordham recalls to EW. “I opened it really secretly, and it said, ‘How would you feel about doing the illustrations for To Kill a Mockingbird?’”
Crowned America’s favorite novel by PBS earlier this month, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is but the latest literary standard to become a graphic novel. Fordham’s adaptation, released Oct. 30, lightly edits and restructures the 1960 Alabama-set narrative but stays true to the original book’s empathetic message.
“The themes are every bit excruciating in the graphic novel as they are in the novel, and every bit as important,” Fordham says. “Hopefully, it’ll be a fresh way of encountering the story.”
As racial tensions permeate politics and pop culture (in films like The Hate U Give, BlackKklansman, and Get Out, to name a few), Fordham’s To Kill a Mockingbird adaptation is as relevant as ever, and it’s not the only one. At a moment when racial, gender, sexual, and religious tensions are at the forefront of American and global politics, several classic books are being reshaped into graphic novels, with their themes of inclusion and tolerance moving to the fore.
In March, Little Women — Louisa May Alcott’s story of four sisters who grapple with adversities inherent to female adolescence and young womanhood, including gender stereotyping and choosing between family and self — inspired the graphic novel Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a modernized version of the original 1868 novel that now includes LGBTQ characters and characters of color.
“Their struggles felt universal to me, especially feeling like I always had less than others. So it’s an absolute honor to be writing a retelling of it. But [artist] Bre [Indigo] and I wanted to see ourselves in the characters too, which is why we made the family diverse and one of the characters LGBTQ,” author Rey Terciero says in a statement to EW. “Being LGBT myself, I’m just happy to be creating a book that I wish I could have read as a young reader.”
Ideas of religious tolerance are also finding their way into the graphic novel canon. Earlier this month, Penguin Random House published Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation. And in light of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting less than four weeks after its release, the graphic novel resonates with haunting power.
Random House is also set to release a graphic novel of The Handmaid’s Tale in March. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian drama has, of course, regained mainstream popularity (and then some) since Hulu released its TV adaptation in 2017, to Emmy-winning success. Artist Renée Nault says Random House approached her to tailor the 1985 original to a graphic novel in late 2015, but as she’s worked on the project since then, the story has felt increasingly urgent.
“Politically, it scarily just got more relevant as I was working on it,” Gault says. “It was kind of nightmarish to see, but the issues of gender and oppression drew me to it anyway.”
Whether it’s disturbing or comforting (or both), these harsh realities are enduring, but they are increasingly opening dialogue as these stories reach a new audience as graphic novels.
“Graphic novels are another medium of storytelling, just as film or TV are, so we can reach a whole new demographic,” says Fordham. “It certainly shouldn’t be viewed as an easier alternative to reading the prose, but it’s a different representation of the same great story.”