An author, somewhere in history, though usually long ago, writes a story that speaks so profoundly to the universal human experience it never fades for time, but the context and details may go out of date. The author is known for this telling, this piece of canon in our literary history. It is easy to want to be that writer, penning the first Pooh stories, or fabricating Wonderland, or toasting tankards of mead with Hrothgar.
These pieces of literary canon are ripe for retellings, modernizations, sexifications, apocalyptifications, and mash-ups. Little Red Riding Hood is as honest today as it was in 1697. Our society still views girls as sexual objects who need a strong hand to keep them on the right path, are still tempted and shamed for wanting to burn brighter than a full cloaked, chaste flower. Our society still believes that girls need to be punished when they stray, more so if they enjoy themselves, still need a strong man’s protection. There are still predators out there who believe girls don’t have the right to say no.
And writers being writers, love to take these stories and retell them from their own imagination. And, I think, writers want to live for a moment at the desk of their icons.
Retellings are good, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Good retellings are good, anyway, and bad ones are bad, just like bad stories are bad and bad writing is bad. It doesn’t matter if it’s a retwirled Tristan and Isolde, or a spunky comedic Snow White. Many of these stories need to be modernized so their messages can be accessed by a new generation who desperately, desperately needs to understand the point of the wolf and the strength it takes to stray from the path.
I have three favorite comics that do this exceptionally well.
- Fables by Bill Willingham. Outstanding storytelling and planning, his excel spreadsheets must be a thing of beauty. Fables combines all Fables from all time and cultures, and plops them into this sort of fairy land where each prince, princess, or queen holds court over their kingdoms, each culture of fables have their own countries, but they all exist together by the laws of storytelling we writers already adhere to. Something terrible takes their world though, and they are forced to flee into ours where they live scattered and segregated and always on the run. Fables who look human get to live with humans, while those that don’t are sort of imprisoned at the Farm (or elsewhere, depending on the storyline.) Everyone has a part to play, Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf tending to be at the center of it all. There are spinoffs and more than a dozen graphic novels, all of them beautifully illustrated and exciting. The handsome Prince Charming of all the princess stories? Yeah, he’s just one guy who gets around. He’s handsome and dashing and also a scoundrel, and the ladies eventually leave him, embittered. Rose Red and Snow White are sisters at odds. The Big Bad Wolf is the sheriff. It’s sort of like the tv show Once Upon a Time, but more complex and impressive and also came first.
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Oh my gosh do I love this comic series and the movie too. I love the cobbling together of the world’s greatest literary figures in this secret society that protects the world in secret. Mina Harker? She’s from Dracula. Captain Nemo. Allan Quartermain, Dr. Jekyll, Hawley Griffin (The Invisible Man). Dr. Moreau makes appearances, John Carter too (ON FREAKING MARS.) Emma Peel. Prospero. In the movie they added Tom Sawyer, which I thought was brilliant, also because he was so handsome and roguish (sigh.) I love the idea that all these literary greats exist in one world, their stories were real and EXISTED. I love that the writers had imagination enough to weave them together the way they did. Clever writers.
- My third favorite are actually companion graphic novels for a middle grade book series called The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor which is a sort of continuation/retelling on Alice in Wonderland. The books are phenomenal, no kidding, they are cool as hell. I highly recommend them, regardless of your age. They have that sort of timeless quality that Harry Potter and the Narnia series evokes, despite its intended age group. The books are big and can be quite dark. My favorite character, Hatter Madigan, is the queen’s personal bodyguard. When the queen’s sister, Redd, performs a coup on the royal family, Hatter Madigan gets Alyss, the Queen’s daughter, out of Wonderland and into the real world, but they are separated. Alyss quickly loses touch with Wonderland and sort of becomes Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland. And then the plots of the books unfold from there. But there’s like ten years between when Hatter Madigan takes Alyss to the real world and when he finds her and takes her home to save her kingdom. He spends that time searching the world for her and getting into adventure and that is where the comic comes in. They are in graphic novel form called HATTER M and are beautifully illustrated and really wonderful to read. I live Hatter, he’s too fantastic, sort of a steampunky Sherlock Holmes with a cool hat.
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