For as long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been adapting them to other media in attempts to gain a different perspective on what the story has to offer. From the moment the first actor stepped out of the chorus to start “performing” the myths and stories of Ancient Greece to the film adaptations of popular novels today, almost every mode of artistic expression has turned to the written (or spoken word) for inspiration.
The visual arts in the West have always had a long association with literary adaptations, as painting. sculpture, and other modes of representation were preoccupied with interpretations of the Christian Bible for hundreds of years. Even when they moved on to more secular subject matter, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to draw upon imagery from classical literature for their subject matter.
Of course, the use of illustrations in literary works to augment a story is an even older tradition, as the earliest manuscripts, predating the printing press, were filled with decoration and ornamentation. One only has to look at any page from the Book Of Kells to appreciate that. More prosaic forms of the illustrated novel have also existed for some time, of course, but it wasn’t until the means of mass producing printed material became common that the illustrating of books began in earnest.
Harry Clarke, perhaps most famous for his stained glass, and Aubrey Beardsley both had great success with illustrating the works of Edgar Allen Poe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With the introduction of the comic book in the earlier part of the twentieth century, the practice of telling stories with pictures and words became commonplace. I can still remember as a child the Classic Comics imprint that specialized in abridged adaptations of classic childhood adventure stories by authors such as Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson.
So it’s no surprise that as comic books have become more sophisticated and broadened their audience base to include adults as well as children, that their literary adaptations have grown accordingly. Of course, the work of some authors lends itself more readily to this form than others; the chances of seeing a graphic novel version of To The Lighthouse by Virginia Wolfe are probably slim while it wasn’t surprising to find that an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere had been produced by Vertigo, the DC comics’ graphic novel imprint.
As with most comic/graphic work, the adaptation of Neverwhere is dependant on the quality of its illustrations as much as, if not more than, the writing for its ability to tell the story. Like a movie or a play, the graphic novel is a synthesis of the visual and the literary arts. In some respects it’s an even purer form than the others, because it only has those two elements at its disposal, while the others can utilize sound and visual trickery that’s not available to those working in a static format.
The story of Neverwhere is deceptively simple. Richard Mayhew is your typical office drone working in London England. His life consists of work and doing what his fiancee instructs him to do. He drifts along in this manner until one day he stops to help a young woman who he sees lying injured on the sidewalk. This moment of compassion will change his life forever.
The young woman he helps turns out not to be from the London he knows, but a London that exists underneath the city he is familiar with. Her name is Lady Door and we quickly find out that she is in serious trouble indeed. Her whole family has been killed by persons unknown and she’s desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the killers until she can find out who was responsible for ordering the killings.
Although Richard initially doesn’t become involved with Lady Door’s quest, he soon finds he has no choice in the matter. Once he has been exposed to the world of the London below, he finds that the people in his own London no longer recognize his existence. Not only has his job disappeared, but his Bank card has stopped working, and his apartment is being rented out from under him. In desperation, he seeks a way to find the Lady Door again, hoping that she can find a way for him to regain his old life.
He joins Lady Door and her companions and sets out on the quest to help her find the one who ordered her family killed. As the journey continues, Richard grows and rediscovers his sense of self worth and value as an individual that had been trampled under foot by his fiancee and the realities of working a boring office job. Although he spends a good deal of his time scared out of his wits and wishing he were back in his London, he is more alive then ever.
Author Mike Carey and illustrator Glenn Fabry have done an amazing job in both telling the story and creating a visual representation of the world it takes place in. While they have had to streamline and leave out some bits from the original novel to accommodate the medium, they have done so without sacrificing any of the elements essential to the tale. What I found especially powerful was their willingness to let the illustrations speak for themselves and tell the story pictorially in places.
There are some truly wonderful moments, where they have elected to use large panels that succeed in both setting the scene and generating the atmosphere of the moment without any dialogue. It’s times like these when you realize what makes this media so special and how potent great visuals can be. With one or two panels, they are able to accomplish what would take an author three to four pages to describe.
To my mind, Glenn Fabry’s illustrations captured the world Neil Gaiman described in his book perfectly. While I had never developed any clear idea of what individual characters would look like, I had an image in mind of what I thought the world should look and feel like. Fabry was able to capture the essence and atmosphere of this world, a sort of 19th century England gone to seed, with a strong sense of the exotic and fantastic thrown in for good measure.
For those of you who are fans of Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere and are looking for a visual adaptation of the novel, Vertigo’s presentation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is the perfect solution. It’s as exciting as the original story and superbly illustrated. What more could you ask for?