Emanata: Bad Alchemy

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How can you tell that a graphic novel is going to be terrible? One very clear sign: if the name of the person who drew it does not appear on its front cover. In the case of the new comics adaptation of Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, the artist’s name also does not appear on its spine, or its back cover, or the inside front cover flap, or the title page, or the copyright page. (There is no sign on any of those, in fact, that the book did not come entirely from the hand of Coelho himself–the only person they name.) There’s been an alarming trend in the last year or two of publishers identifying graphic novels as being “by” a star writer and having an “art” or “illustration” credit in small type, but this is beyond the pale.

Eight pages in, after a page-long list of thank-yous (on which the uppermost name is again Coelho’s), there’s finally a set of credits:

“written by: PAULO COELHO

adapted by: DEREK RUIZ

artwork by: DANIEL SAMPERE

and

Others”

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Sampere’s name, to be fair, actually turns up a few pages before that. There’s an introductory letter from Coelho that seems not to have been edited, and doesn’t mention either Ruiz or Sampere by name: “From the first page to the last, I have been enthralled by the superior work from Sea Lion Books and kept on the edge of my seat.” (He also notes that he was flattered that one of the book’s packagers arranged for Melchizedek to look like him.) Then there’s a letter from Sampere that definitely hasn’t been edited–which is sort of shocking for a book published by an imprint of HarperCollins. It begins: “When my manager told me if I would draw the graphic novel of The Alchemist, the first thing I thought was ‘The Alchemist?’ there’s no action on The Alchemist or super heroes! I’ve always drawn action comics.”

That may be the case: Sampere’s few previous credits in American comics include an issue and a half of Vampirella: Second Coming and a one-shot called M.I.L.F. Magnet. But he (or the nameless “others” working with him) actually manages to fumble one of the closest things The Alchemist has to an action scene: a sequence where the protagonist convinces the wind to whip up an enormous sandstorm. In this version, that’s glossed over with a couple of captions and a touch of Photoshop in a few panels.

It’s true, though, that there’s not a lot of action in Coelho’s story. There’s not even much of visual interest, really. There didn’t have to be: it was conceived and executed as a work of prose, a fable whose elisions between the quotidian and the metaphysical suggest the oral storytelling tradition rather than evoking images (even though Coelho begins his introduction by claiming that “it was an old dream of mine to have The Alchemist as a graphic novel”). What Sampere and the book’s packagers have missed is the cardinal rule of adaptations: if you adapt a work from one medium to another, there has to be something it can gain from the new medium to make up for what it will inevitably lose from its original medium.

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That’s damnably hard in comics adapted from prose, because a story that gets over on its text rather than its plot will find that most of its substance crumbles away on the comics page. Good comics, for that matter, are almost inevitably driven by a particular artist’s visual style (no worthwhile comic has ever had its art credited to “others”), so part of what comics adaptations stand to gain has to do with a cartoonist’s voice augmenting and maybe even eclipsing a prose writer’s.

It can be done–Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Donald Westlake’s “Parker” novels and the Paul Karasik/David Mazzucchelli version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass come to mind, because they both come up with ways to rework their sources into something essentially visual and driven by their own expressive techniques. P. Craig Russell’s recent adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s prose Sandman novella The Dream Hunters into comics works nicely, too, although it can’t hurt that Russell has worked with Gaiman repeatedly before, or that Gaiman’s continuing a series of stories he started as comics, or that Russell has lots of experience adapting theater and opera and fiction into comics.

But it’s not as if Sampere and Ruiz would have been able to get away with any liberties they wanted to take with Coelho’s story: the cover credit (and absence of other cover credits) makes it clear that everyone else’s efforts are entirely subordinate to Coelho’s. This version of The Alchemist is a leaden, workmanlike abridgement-and-illustration job, an “interpretation” with near-zero latitude to add anything of its own, and it’s packaged with something that approaches contempt for the people who actually constructed its contents. It’s a repulsive piece of product–a cynical milking of a publishing trend to squeeze a few more dollars out of a bestseller.

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