Adapting a Screenplay Into a Graphic Novel

Adapting a Screenplay Into a Graphic Novel

Part One: Getting Started Before You Get Started

Graphic novels are everywhere. Barely a week goes by without an announcement in the trades that another one is being made into a feature film or series.

Now, you want in. And you’re thinking about adapting one of your spec screenplays to make that happen.

Excellent—the creative rewards can be pretty significant. The financial ones, on the other hand … are a bit more of a crapshoot.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take this from the top.

THE BACKSTORY

Long before I was writing screenplays, I was drawing. Like, a lot. In the sixth grade, my school even “published” a comic book of mine by photocopying and distributing it to the class.

This is what you might call foreshadowing.

Years later, my frequent writing partner, Rhonda Smiley, and I wrote a time-traveling, genre-blending, big-budget action-adventure spec that rotated through several titles before landing on Blowback. It was generally well received, including taking top honors in the science-fiction category of a screenwriting competition. But still … No sales. No options.

During one pitch, we were asked if it was based on a graphic novel. The answer was no, but it had crossed our minds to adapt it in the opposite direction. That seemed to garner interest. And for us, motivation.

Most screenwriters create spec after spec, trying to hook a buyer. After a while, you begin to brainstorm ways to separate yourself from the competition.

Maybe an adaptation was one of those ways. We could present our story to a buyer in a dynamic, visual way, while also directly engaging an audience.

This seemed like an undertaking worth undertaking.

Having now navigated through the entire process, our minds haven’t changed, despite the challenges.

So, if you’re considering going down this same road, maybe we can serve as a metaphorical GPS, and share what you can expect, along with a few tips to make the trip more rewarding.

Make sure everyone hits the bathroom before we head out.

A LAY OF THE LAND

The first thing you should do is get familiar with the world of comics and graphic novels, in general.

Obviously, most people have heard of Marvel and DC, the “Big Two.” But despite their market dominance, they’re just one part of the wide spectrum of stories you can find. And, thankfully, there are plenty of places to find them.

A Twitter hashtag search for #comics or #indiecomics is a good place to start. What books and creators are people talking about? Do any storylines or artwork spark your interest? Users are very happy to offer recommendations, if asked.

There are also lots of websites out there geared for the comics audience. Genre sites frequently cover the medium, too, and you can read reviews there of the latest releases. Many sites even include sales charts to show what’s popular or trending. Check out Comic Book Resources, Bleeding Cool, and The Beat.

If you want to hold these magical creations in your hands and flip through the evocative images, just stop by your local comic shop. Ask the staff what they’ve discovered lately.

It’s a good idea to check out some of the classics, too, like The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

After investigating what’s out there, buy some of those books and read them. Most are available in both hardcopy and digital. Support and embrace this community you’re vying to become part of.

Beyond researching the comics themselves, it’s a good idea to pick up a book or two on creating them. Part of our process was digging into Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel by Daniel Cooney. It was comprehensive and chock full of useful information. Two thumbs up.

We were also lucky to know a few comics industry veterans. They generously accepted our invites for a meal and gamely responded to a thorough interrogation.

Scour your network to see if there are any connections you can reach out to. If they agree to meet, make sure to write down all your questions beforehand, and then take good notes. Like, opposite the way you did it in high school.

WEAPON OF CHOICE

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the world, the next thing to do is decide what screenplay from your library you’d like to adapt.

With a visually exciting story and an epic canvas, our Blowback spec felt like a natural candidate. But the medium isn’t limited to just action and adventure. Despite the dominance of superpowers and spandex, there’s actually a wealth of stories about almost every subject you can think of.

There are books about coming of age. Books about mental illness. Books about the immigrant experience. You can find horror, romance, science fiction, and comedy. Even that other thing.

As you’re considering your options, ask yourself what you hope to get out of this.

Although almost any writer would love their comic to get snapped up by a studio and made into a big-budget movie, the odds are stacked against it.

This is a complex endeavor, and if that’s your only goal, you might want to save yourself some time and capital and create a teaser instead. A few comics pages that show a proof-of-concept, but not a complete story. Essentially the “trailer” of the comics world, but without the “In a world …” voiceover.

If you still want to make a full-length graphic novel, though, my suggestion would be to focus on creating the best one possible, and let the ancillary opportunities develop organically.

If your goal is to sell as many books as you can, it’ll help your chances if you pick a script that already fits into one of the most popular genres.

In 2021, sales of graphic novels for adults were up over one hundred percent. And comics for kids have been a growing segment for years now. Along with manga, other trending genres include Crime/Mystery, Fantasy, and LGBTQ.

While we’re talking about marketability, consider your “brand.” If you have a sizable following through social media, do you have a screenplay to adapt that would appeal to that built-in audience?

Or maybe you don’t care about sales. If your goal is to just get a story out into the world, despite a limited potential audience, you should absolutely take that plunge. Just go into it with open eyes and tempered expectations.

FORM IS FUNCTION

Having picked the script to adapt, you have some options on what form it should take.

Even with a serious edit, a feature screenplay will roughly translate to a graphic novel that’s over a hundred pages. But you can also divide it into smaller sections.

Although we ultimately decided to do a full graphic novel, we considered releasing Blowback as a miniseries of three or four traditional thirty-two page “floppies.” Taking this approach would obviously require a bit of rewriting to create satisfying endings and cliffhangers for each issue.

The advantage with this is that the price point for readers to pick one up is significantly lower than with a graphic novel. Which makes trying something new and unfamiliar much more palatable.

Plus, after you release all your issues, you can follow with a collected edition. Referred to as a trade paperback, this could even give you an additional revenue stream.

Although Rhonda and I would love to get Blowback made into a film or television show, our primary goal was to have a finished version of our story designed to go directly to readers. Which isn’t something a screenwriter normally gets to do.

For the most part, a screenplay is a blueprint for something else. It’s a tool to create a movie. With a graphic novel, you’re creating that final product yourself. And that product goes in an uninterrupted line from page to audience.

Lastly, as someone who has been frustrated by notes from studios and networks, I most appreciate that this version of your story can be all up to you. Let them change it in the movie version.

The graphic novel—your pure idea—will remain unsullied for all eternity.

Next up, let’s get that eternity started with "Part Two: Screenplay to Script."

*Feature photo by James Hereth

Adaptation Contest
James Hereth is a Screenwriter and Editor who co-wrote Chris Pratt’s movie debut. His first graphic novel, Blowback, can be found on Amazon.
More posts by James Hereth.
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