What Makes A Good Comic Adaptation? We Asked The Experts

Hint: it takes a lot of work.

It seems like you literally cannot swing a cat (although you probably shouldn't, that sounds mean) without knocking into an adaptation of a popular comic book or graphic novel.

Seriously, the list is endless! In the past decade we've gotten movies and franchises like "Sin City," "The Dark Knight," "Hellboy," "X-Men," "Kingsmen: The Secret Service," plus everything Marvel Studios has been churning out since 2008's "Iron Man."

Then there are the TV shows: "Arrow," "The Flash," "Daredevil," "The Walking Dead" and "iZombie," for example (Don't even get us started on the stuff that's still in development, like "Preacher" and "The Wicked + The Divine"). And THEN you've got the video games like "Arkham Knight," "Marvel Heroes" and "Deadpool." Heck, there are even Broadway musicals based on comics now, and they're winning Tony awards.

So with all these writers, producers, costume designers, visual effects artists, and other creative people whose livelihoods now indirectly depend on comics, how do you make sure you're working on something worthwhile? How do you decide which parts of a character's 75 year history are important enough to keep? How do you bring a still image of a scene to life?

To get an idea of what goes into creating a comic adaptation, MTV News called up four people who come at it from very different backgrounds: Bruce Timm, a DC Universe legend whose latest series, "Justice League: Gods and Monsters" just launched this week; Greg Weisman, the producer behind hit TV shows like DC's "Young Justice" and Marvel's "The Spectacular Spider-Man;" Bill Rosemann, the creative director for Marvel Games; and Lisa Kron, Tony-award winning writer of "Fun Home," the musical based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Allison Bechdel (yes, THAT Bechdel).

Here's what they told us:

You have to know your source material – but don’t let it bog you down.


It can be tough to figure out how to adapt a story when you’re already so fond of the original. When playwright Lisa Kron first set out adapting "Fun Home," she spent a long time figuring out what made it tick.

“[‘Fun Home’] is so beautifully made and so compelling that I would start to read it with an eye to examining the structure, and I would find I was 30 pages in and had just gotten pulled into the story again,” Kron told MTV News. “It was so exquisitely made that I had a hard time ever standing outside of the story for long enough to see what was happening in it.”

But when it comes to comics that have decades of history behind them, it’s important not to be precious about certain elements.

“Frankly, you can’t be 100% in continuity because not everyone agreed with everyone who worked on these [comic] books.” Greg Weisman said. “There are things that contradict each other. Even on 'Spider-Man,' it wouldn’t take me long to find two issues that contradict each other. And we felt we had to start with a coherent, cohesive universe -- plus we needed to make it contemporary. So even if we’re telling a story as faithfully as possible, you’ve got to add cell phones.“

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Make sure your adaptation reaches more than just the fans.

Honoring fans of the original source material is important, but it’s also equally important to make sure the new adaptation works for people who have no idea who or what you’re talking about.

“I think they’re being really smart with shows like ‘Arrow’ and ‘Flash’ in that they’re bringing in a lot of the mythology from the 50-year history of those characters, but at the same time they’re doing it in such a way that somebody who doesn’t know anything about comics, who’s never read a comic book in their life, can still understand it,” said Timm. “That’s kind of what we’ve always done with our shows, we don’t want to be so inside baseball. There’s tons of Easter eggs and little nods to the fans, but the basic elements of any successful show need to be understandable without having to crack the comic book dictionary to see what everyone is talking about."

Warner Bros.


The Green Arrow from Bruce Timm's "Justice League Unlimited"...



...And from Greg Berlanti's "Arrow," played by Stephen Amell

For Kron, the process of creating something new was different because the work she drew her inspiration from is autobiographical. But "[Bechdel] really turned it over to us, completely, and I actually think that’s the most important thing," she said, "because she knew that we were going to make something different from her story, and she knew because, it’s the artist that she is… she, as well as her brothers and the rest of her family, do feel like their family is reflected in the show. But our allegiance couldn’t be to the true story. Our allegiance had to be to the work of art that we were making."

Make sure the adaptation fits the medium you’re working in.

"If you’re going to adapt anything into another medium, you’d have to at least meet the quality of the first medium, and if not, surpass it and bring something to it, so that there’s a reason why you’re adapting it to another medium," said Rosemann. "You know, you never wanna do just a quick cash grab for the sake of it. That’s when you end up with subpar adaptations and that’s not satisfying for anybody."

"So we always want to take the time to talk about who the character is, what’s the story," he added. "And once you have all that information, then we can think about, 'What game would this character be right for?' You know, you never want to introduce an element or force a character into a game that doesn’t need it, or [if] they wouldn’t function well in it or wouldn’t increase the gaming experience for anyone."

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A scene from the "Marvel Heroes 2015" trailer

That can be trickier when your medium is completely unlike the static nature of a comic book page, as a Kron discovered. “One of the first things I did with ‘Fun Home’ is think about how a graphic novel is made,” Kron told us. “Allison [Bechdel] talks about her use of juxtaposition, the gap between what’s in a picture and what’s in a caption, and how the dynamic of the comic is in the sort of dissonance or the space between those two things, and how they don’t quite match up. And how for her, that captured her experience growing up, she says that’s why she’s drawing the comic, because there was that gap between what she felt was actually going on and what the story was of their family.”

“[But] the challenge with 'Fun Home' was that you can’t do it in the same way, your elements are different. We’ didn’t have caption or close-up or words and pictures, we had bodies and space,” she said. “…In theater you don’t tell anything, you show people moving forward in time. And whether something was spoken or whether it was sung, we decided we would have these three time periods and so there was a gap between those things, between what Allison was remembering, her idea of what happened, and then what was actually in the valence of time that is moving forward, what was actually happening. The gap between memory and lived experience in that way. So that was the project, to figure out what [Bechdel] was doing and then use these other set of tools to do it."

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A panel from "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic..."

And the same scene in the "Fun Home" musical, from this year's Tony Awards

"The book is so dense, and, so wonderfully dense and so layered, and, you know, exposition in books can be just given, but it can’t work that way in a play," she added. "It has to be woven into the action in some way, it has to be revealed as things are happening, and backstory as well. So much of what happened in the songs was we had to figured out what was happening in a song and then layer in, in scenes also, all the other information."

It’s important to know who your characters are.

Warner Bros.


“The worst thing you could do is just slap a character in and not completely deliver on the potential of the character, or get it wrong,” Rosemann said. “You know, you move too quickly and you have the character acting in a way or doing things that aren’t right and just as a fan that would drive me nuts.”

Of course, Rosemann's not alone: everyone we spoke to agreed that as long as you really understand the characters and the root of the story you're working with, it's hard to go really wrong with what you're creating.

“I think if you’re doing an adaptation of a well-known, beloved character for a mass media audience, like say the Flash or whoever, part of the reason those shows are so successful is that they’re staying very true to the roots of the comic,” Bruce Timm said. “They’re not just taking the name and throwing everything else out.”

"If you are respectful of what is the core truth about a character, about the story, then mostly -- not entirely -- but mostly the fans will respond to that positively. Mostly they understand that you can’t make it all fit in, and you’ve got to tell stories that work within the show," Weisman noted. "As long as you’re true to the spirit of the thing they usually go with you."

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From the second season of "Young Justice"