From Panel to Screen | Adapting Comics to Animation

Comic Books, graphic novels; many of us like nothing more than to curl up with one after a long day and follow the adventures of our favourite superheroes. Often we look at these and we think, “That was incredible. I hope Marvel makes that into the next Avengers film.” Often though, we think, “That would make a good animated series” and oftentimes, it does.

Animation allows creators to tell a story through a moving visual medium, fuelling our imaginations and bringing characters to life. Many series draw their inspiration from comics, having storylines adapted from its source material. The most common and popular of these are American Superhero animation. Both Marvel and DC have risen to the top of this field, having adapted many of their media, from Batman and Superman to Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. The thing is, each of these, and many of their fellow heroes, have multiple adaptions each. So, what is it that allows for comics to be carried over into motion so seamlessly?

Well, let’s look at the way the art style and plot transfers by looking at the work of Belgian cartoonist, Hergé. One of his most famous works, Tintin was adapted twice into animation. Firstly, in the 1960s, retaining almost none of the books’ plot elements, and then again in the 90s with a far more faithful adaption. What made this work so well was the clear source material that could be coherently drawn upon, as well as a solid art style which the animators could replicate. Sure, there were a few touches added and elements taken out for production, mainly for runtime purposes, but the beauty of Hergé’s, ligne claire (clear line) style has garnered critical acclaim. The writers and animators had done their research and that is why this works.


Similarly with The Smurfs and Asterix, other powerful, European comics that were adapted for the small screen, the style is distinct, allowing a reader to make that jump to animation with an easier transition period and much less, “Well, that doesn’t look right.” Japanese Manga do this very well also, adapting its runs into anime, often mimicking the source material exactly. By relying on the style and plots of the Mangaka (the manga author), the show has chance to blossom, adapt arcs into seasons, and follow through with interesting characterisation and plot development.


Where this fails, for the most part, is in filler episodes, those often-created seasons of a long running anime that are created for the sole purpose of allowing the manga’s author to get far enough ahead of the anime for the company to adapt again. These fillers are often choppy plots, slung together to do exactly what it says on the tin, making sure to hit a reset button at the end of an adventure and never really adding to anything. This can hurt sales and causes many shows to crash and burn in popularity.

We get why the companies do this as manga usually is still being published alongside the anime, unlike in the cases of American comics (yes, they are still being published of course, but the source material of various storylines can be drawn upon). What about in the case of adapting the concept of a comic, but not necessarily the storylines? We can often see this on the small screen. Both the US and UK versions of Dennis the Menace have several adaptations, taking characters and concepts, but not the plots. Does this cause the shows to suffer? No. The case here, however, is that while the characters all have their quirks and mannerisms, they are episodic and so translate better to an episodic animated medium. This is very common with comic strips such as Garfield and DuckTales (both versions), for example.

Okay, so what if there is none of this, larger serialised plots, character development and predominantly fresh stories that are just references to its comic storylines. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the 2003 series, is a great example of this. It features many characters from the comics, updated for a more modern audience, developing its content for a more family-friendly, Saturday morning slot, but retaining the characterisation of the grittier, still-image original. This series shows that a style can change and still have a successful adaption of a comic.


So, how does one achieve a successful switch from stills to animation? It is a variety of things. It is storylines expertly researched, characters and styles fleshed out and rounded, taking the believability of one art form and transforming it into another. Comics and graphic novels are recreation of course, but many of them, like books, throw us into a world of intrigue and suspense, a soap of sorts, and that more often than not, leads to a beautiful animated series when done right. With the fairly recent circulation of motion comics, the metamorphosis of media is apparent. We are moving forward with designs and with our bond with our favourite characters.

A powerful momento in this adaption from comic to screen is often incredible. One who reads comics but never looks at animation can move to that medium, and one (even through films) can think, “That was good,” and pick up a comic that they may otherwise never would have tried. As a nerd who loves both media, looking on at this symbiotic relationship that supports both industries is proof of how seamless the adaption, in whatever form, can be, and that is beautiful.

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