What's your favorite Marvel title? For a great majority of people, this is likely one of the spate of incredibly entertaining movies the studio has produced over the past few years, from the irreverent Deadpool to the mind-bending Doctor Strange to the earnest and action-packed Civil War. For many others, it's a moment from the pages of Marvel's comics: Peter Parker’s return as Spider-Man last year and the second “Civil War” event this past summer were both utterly captivating stories. For me, it's actually something I discovered a few weeks ago: Marvel’s adaptation, in comic form, of Moby Dick. It’s beautifully rendered, thoughtfully written, and remarkably true to the original. More than anything else, though, the graphic novel presented incredibly powerfully the energy and stakes of the tale, something that it’s easy to miss while reading Melville’s beautiful prose.
This adaptation was the product of a branch of Marvel known as Marvel Illustrated. Started in 2007, the branch publicized comic versions of classic literature, including The Illiad, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and, of course, Moby Dick. After adapting Jane Austen’s Emma in 2011, however, the imprint published nothing but titles related to L. Frank Baum’s world of Oz for the next two years while inevitably petering out. It’s now defunct, but the works it produced were wonderful: vibrant, energy-full, beautiful versions of texts that made them more accessible a while maintaining their power and depth.
I think there’s huge potential for the endeavor to be revitalized, albeit with a slightly different focus. After all, there is a place where powerful classic texts are frequently read by somewhat reluctant audiences who find them difficult to access: High School and Middle School. Marvel adaptations of these texts could show up in classrooms as companions to them, both to facilitate easier understanding and also start classroom discussions about how such powerful texts outlive their creators and form fertile ground for adaptation. The success of models like this has been proven time and time again by companies like No Fear Shakespeare, which subsist successfully on making classic texts more accessible to modern audiences. A similar undertaking by Marvel could revitalize the Marvel Illustrated imprint while making English classrooms across the country just a bit more fun.
And for those who say that it couldn’t work, perhaps because students simply aren’t interested in these books, that they simply can’t or won’t connect with these texts no matter their form, I would say to have some faith. Have some faith in teenagers, who so often showcase brilliance that astounds us. Have some faith, too, in the authors who wrote timeless works and the works they wrote. Read shakespeare and keep an eye on his body count, which is almost always absurdly large enough to keep even the most reluctant readers entertained. Read Austen for her uproarious humor, Faulkner for his vibrant energy, Melville for his beautiful prose. Their works are classic and timeless for a reason, and their power could be captured and made even more accessible to any audience, if only we tried.