Adapting Novels Into Comic Books — An Inside Look

This article is by Grant Alter, Editor-in-Chief of Dabel Brothers Publishing. 


When people think of comic books, most of the time, they think of spandex superheroes and BIFF BAM POW.  Four color tales of caped modern-day gods swooping in to save the day, restoring order and justice and aimed at children.  And those do exist, thankfully.  They’re great fun.

But comics are a medium just like any other.  Like film, prose, or photography.  There’s virtually no limit to what sort of story you can tell.  And there’s almost no task more rooted in playing with form than the comic book adaptation.

In my career as a writer, I’ve done a few original format comics, but most of the work I’ve had published has been adaptations of popular novels to the comic book form.  I’ve made comic books for fans of Richelle Mead, Dean Koontz, and very soon, Kevin Hearne.  For all the similarities between writing original comics and adapting, there are also some pretty significant differences.  I thought I would take a moment today to give you an inside scoop into how we at Dabel Brothers make our NY Times bestselling graphic novels.

Sit Back And Read

When you’re writing your own story, you start with daydreaming and fantasizing.  But when you’re adapting, obviously, you start by reading the book.  I start every project by reading the book as a fan would.  No note-taking, no real thought about the comics format.  I want to have the experience you did as it helps me understand how you became a fan of the book in the first place.  That excitement is our stock in trade and I want to be able to capture that feeling as much as possible.  So I make myself comfortable, maybe I grab a beer, and I sit back and read the novel, feeling and imagining and picturing all along the way.  If I can get lost in this story, I want to on that first reading.

Fear Nothing – art by Bob Gill (click to enlarge)

Finding Rhythm And Beats

That’s the fun part.  Next comes the least fun part, in my opinion.  The second reading is about finding rhythms and beats and figuring out how many issues I need to do the story justice.  The advent of the e-reader has made the entire process much easier for me as I used to have to do everything one-handed, holding the novel open in the other.  But now, I put the e-reader on the table and I start making notes.  I found a few years ago that it’s easiest for me to write on a tablet, so from this point on, I work in front of a tablet and an e-reader.  The first thing I do is break the book down, outlining it by chapters.  I have a concern that novelists never even consider.  Writing in a serialized format such as comics, I have to end every single issue and graphic novel with a moment that will bring you back into the store for the next installment.  I’m currently adapting Hounded, the first novel in the Iron Druid Chronicles series by Kevin Hearne.

Side note:  if you have not yet read these books, I could not recommend them more.  We approached Kevin to work with him based on how much I personally loved the first 3 IDC novels and writing the comics has been a dream job.

Iron Druid - art by Tirso Llaneta (click to enlarge)
Iron Druid – art by Tirso Llaneta (click to enlarge)

So, I determined early on that Hounded should be broken up into 10 issues.  That means that I need to find 10 moments compelling enough to draw you, the reader, back into the store.  And that 5th one needs to be the best of the lot.  Once I’ve finished breaking the novel down, I start compiling a document with every character and location description that I can find in the book.  And if some character isn’t adequately described in the text, I write the author to ask how he/she pictured them.  One thing that makes Dabel Brothers unique in our field is how involved we want the authors to be.  Our goal is to make the author squeal in excitement, knowing that if we capture the pictures from their imagination, the fans will have the best possible experience.  At this point, I confer with the artist to get character designs created and approved by the author.  It’s a conversation and while sometimes, we nail it on the first attempt, sometimes it’s a back and forth.

A Collaborative Medium

While the artist works on this, I work on the script.  I write in full script with panel details, notes, possible angles, suggestions for page layouts, in addition to the dialogue and captions.  The way I figure, the panel descriptions are a personal note from me to the artist.  That’s where I may invoke a movie I saw, a feeling I want to capture, a song I want them to listen to while they think about how the panel should look.  That part of the script is a place for me to say whatever it takes to get the artist to see the image I have in my head.  My education background is in film and acting, so I often discuss “camera” angles and motivations and what the character is thinking or feeling to help the artist capture the proper facial expression.  This is a collaborative medium and so the page you see is the result of the author’s mental picture filtered through me, then through the art team, then lastly through the letterer.  And I will include notes to each member of the team to help communicate what I see.

Dark Swan - art by Dave Hamann (click to enlarge)
Dark Swan – art by Dave Hamann (click to enlarge)

Once my script is finished, my editor reads it and suggests any tweaks he may have caught.  Then it goes to the author or the license owner.  They have an opportunity to change anything that’s not perfect and I’ve had authors give me additional notes to add to the script about the historical reality of certain armors or locations.  This is incredibly helpful.  Once it has been approved, the penciller draws rough pages for us.  These give us an idea of layouts and it’s a chance for us to correct any miscommunications before too much work has been committed to the wrong path.  Once those have been approved, the pages are finished.  Inks, colors, and letters are added.  As the writer, I then give it another look and anything that looks wrong gets fixed.  The same process occurs with the editor and again, the author.

When adapting a novel, we NEVER forget that these characters are the author’s babies and as such, they may have been living with these characters for decades, talking to them and seeing them in their mind’s eye.  A healthy respect for that fact is an absolute requirement to create a successful adapted comic book.  If the author is unhappy, it’s highly likely the fan will be as well.  And we are always aware that happy fans are the goal.  We want for you to be so excited about our adaptations that you just have to share them, buy copies for friends, post about them on your social media.

A New Dimension To Your Fandom

The books already exist and they’ve already captured your imagination.  We want to expand on that and add a new dimension to your fandom, but never lose respect for what brought us all together in the first place.

The story.

We make ourselves available on social media, at conventions, and at events to talk to the fans.  We typically gather a group of super-fans to act as consultants to help us make sure we aren’t missing anything.  We run Kickstarters to bring the fans closer on the creative process as we have in our ongoing Kickstarter campaign for the adaptation of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria books.

Riyria - art by Max Raynor (click to enlarge)
Riyria – art by Max Raynor (click to enlarge)

Adapting a novel to comics is the ultimate in fan service and as a result, we pick the fans’ brains as often as possible.  After all, we all want the same thing.  Truly jaw-dropping, faithful, AMAZING comic adaptations.

Questions To Consider:

Do you think adapting someone else’s stories would “take the fun away” from the creative process?

What do you think would be easier to adapt: a novel into a graphic novel, or a novel into a screenplay?  Which would you rather do?

What fiction novels would you like to see adapted into graphic form?

About the Author:

Grant Alter is Editor-In-Chief of Dabel Brothers Publishing.  He has extensive credits writing and editing in the field of comics and graphic novels.  Currently, he has helped the launch a successful kickstarter campaign for the adaptation of MIchael J. Sullivan’s The Death of Dulgath.  The project can be viewed here.

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Ross Eberle
9 months ago

Why hello there!

First of all, you have my heartfelt and sincere thanks for having written this article. As at least one other person stated, it is well-written and indeed very helpful. I also have a question: Are you currently accepting graphic novel adaptation-requests? And if so, are you willing to work with a self-published Indie author. If so, then by all means, please read on…

First and foremost, my name is Ross Eberle. Ray Eberle (Wikipedia: ) was my grandfather, a former, famous Big-Bang singer!

On this note, I’d like to find out if you’d be willing to host a new book series on your web-site, which is one I’ve been writing since I was 14, 15, or 16. It is the Sky Fighters Novella Series, a coming-of-age epic saga, which involves two teenage boys, who live two distinct lives. After an attack on Earth by hostile, demonic aliens, the friendly, welcoming leader of a neighboring alien planet (Master Mantecado) hurriedly contacts 13 humans on Earth. His goal is to collaborate with said humans in bringing the Sky Fighters, an elite group of half-angelic warriors back from extinction. Both young men become highly-involved in the re-creation of the Sky Fighters. However, their greatest foes, the Python Demons have their sinister eyes upon them, as well as the rest of the multi-verse. Earth is now their newest target. They’ll stop at nothing to take over or destroy it, Sky Fighter Land, and Evensongland outright.

The Sky Fighters also have mystical powers, including Elemental Attacks, Teleportation, Invisibility, and once they’re strong enough, they grow a set of wings and are able to fly! The series is currently 7 parts in length. I am also in the process of writing at least 1 more part for it, plus an additional standalone/spin-off title. If this would be something you’d be interested in publishing on your site, I’d be very glad to work with you!

So, please let me know just what you think.

Respectfully, Ross

P.S. It would be swell if my novel series could be adapted in a manner similar to how Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles was.

1 year ago

Thanks for this article – very helpful ! I have a question – I am trying to create a comic from a really old novel – still not in the open domain. I have no contact with the author or publisher. However I am so fascinated by it. If I post the stories on my website will this be a license or copyright violation ?

3 years ago

Awesome post. Thank you for the explain everything. I have a question here,
usually writing a novel take 6 months or 2 years to finish the story. I’m so wondering how many times usually it will take for converting the story to the graphic novel? because It’s something I have to do but I’m scared if I take too much time doing it.

5 years ago

Sorry, I’m not sure why I didn’t notice questions.
But I’ll answer them now.


Woelf Dietrich
5 years ago

Awesome post, thank you. For me I think it would be easier to use a graphic novel as foundation for a novel, like an outline you’d write for a story. As for a novel into a screenplay, someone once told me that shorter form prose like short stories and flash are far easier to adapt to another visual medium. It makes sense, I suppose, if you have the creative freedom to deviate from the existing text. You also have more room for interpretation than you would a full length novel.

I love Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire. However, I’d go crazy mad if they decide to adapt David Gemmell’s Rigante series.

Matthew Williams
Matthew Williams
5 years ago

I’m curious. Is there typically a threshold of book sales that are required before a story is normally considered for adaptation as a graphic novel? Or might some books that failed to sell well work better as a graphic novel, because of the visual aspect?

Reply to  Matthew Williams
5 years ago

At this point in our company, we aren’t able to take as many chances as we might like.
In another response, I mentioned an equation.
Typically, whatever sales may exist for the property we are looking at, you can typically count on a fraction of those fans being interested in the comics format.
So as of right now, we need the sales numbers to be fairly high in order to have a good fan base to sell to.
Down the road, it would be fun to take some chances and see if we can move less popular properties based on the sales presence of some of our tentpole licenses. For that to work though, we will need to condition our readers to take chances on other books based on the consistency of the quality of our products.

I do have several books in mind that I would personally like to pursue if given a chance and I know all the others do too.

Thanks for your question,

A Howitt
A Howitt
5 years ago

Wow, this is so cool to see! Your article was so detailed, it was lovely to understand the process of how a novel becomes a comic book. I’m glad you mentioned that you first sit down and read it and try to get lost in the book. Makes me want to make my books a comic book too! Thanks for this interesting insight into something I’d never thought of before.

Reply to  A Howitt
5 years ago

You are most welcome.
What we do is not always easy, but the end results are pretty gratifying.

5 years ago

Thank you for this insightful look into your process.

How do you go about selecting a book to adapt? What makes one book a better fit than another? Do you approach the authors, or do they approach you?

I’m looking forward to the Riyra adaptation. Michael J. Sullivan is one of my favorite authors.

Reply to  Greybeard
5 years ago

Well, typically, one of us reads a book or hears about a book that we really enjoy and we contact the man who gets our licenses.
He looks at the novel’s sales figures as well as their social media footprint and if both of those things look promising after he uses this equation he has, he sends an email to the author or the author’s agent.
In terms of Riyria, one of the Dabels was a huge fan and sent books to all of us to read.
In terms of Iron Druid, it was my idea.

Sometimes, the license holder does approach us. That has started happening more since we announced a couple projects of ours.
But we had to get a bit of a roster first.

Michael has been fun to work with and I can’t wait to get the graphic novels into fans’ hands.

Grant Alter
Grant Alter
5 years ago

I am happy to answer any questions any of the readers might have.

Reply to  Grant Alter
4 years ago

Hello Grant
I own the literary rights to two books written by author Thomas P. Kelley titled ‘The Black Donnellys’ and ‘Vengeance of The Black Donnellys’. My son brought up the idea with me just the other day to turn these historical fiction novels of the five Donnelly family members that were brutally massacred, and the incidents over a 30 year period that led to their demise into a graphic series. Any suggestions?


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