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The Wolk Rule: One Simple Way to Know a Graphic Novel Will Be Terrible

Certainly, we’re all familiar now with the degrading notion of comics being treated as glorified movie pitches by people who see them as little more than stepping stones to a more profitable medium, as well as comics and graphic novels being churned out by opportunistic publishers frantic to latch onto pop culture phenomena ranging from Barack Obama to Lady Gaga with cross-media tie-ins.

But as may come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read a Bluewater comic ever, treating comics like an easy way to cash in on an unrelated property without showing any respect for the comic book medium or its creators rarely results in a high-quality product.

There are always exceptions, of course, and works that transcend the pitfalls of adaptation to become something far more than a rote storyboard of a book, movie, or TV show. So how’s a comic book reader to know the difference? Well, according to esteemed comics critic Douglas Wolk in his Emanata column at Techland, there’s a simple litmus test that I like to call The Wolk Rule:

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.

Please observe the cover of the graphic novel to the left, an adaptation of the novel The Alchemist by author Paulo Coelho, which Wolk has singled out as a prime example of the phenomenon. Simply looking at the cover, most people would probably come to the conclusion that this was a graphic novel created entirely by Paulo Coelho.

It is not. It is a graphic novel adapted by Derek Ruiz and illustrated by Daniel Sampere.Wolk continues:

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.

It is indeed alarming, particularly because comics is not an industry with a sparkling history of rewarding or acknowledging its creative talents in appropriate and fair ways for their work. And while this has improved within the industry in many ways, it’s depressing to see a book publisher (HarperCollins, for the record) treat the people responsible for the scripting and art of this book — the two components that literally allow the adaptation to exist as something separate from the original novel — as so unimportant that you can’t actually find out who they are unless you go digging.

It’s a pretty clear message, and one that tells us a great deal of what we need to know: The comic, and the people who made it, are so marginal in the eyes of their publisher that it is willing to openly advertise this insignificance on the front of the graphic novel itself.

Comics has managed to raise its profile in the eyes of the mainstream considerably in the last decade or so, and attract a lot of cross-media interest, but the price for that higher profile and those opportunities is vigilance about the rights and recognition due creators, particularly when they are in the hands of those who understand the least about the comic book medium, and apparently, who have the least respect for it.

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