Pride, Prejudice and Comic Books: Talking to Nancy Butler

Nancy Butler on Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice #1, due in stores in April

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is one of the most celebrated and revered works of fiction in history. There are websites and blogs dedicated to its author, spin-off books written in its style, and multiple movies adapted from its story.

And beginning in April, the timeless story of Bingley, Darcy and the Bennet sisters will be brought to life in a five-issue comic book from Marvel Comics.

"This is a book that is beloved by everyone from academics to the little old lady on the street," said the comic's author, Nancy Butler. "Everybody loves this book. Hollywood loves this book; Bollywood loves this book – the BBC production, the many movie versions, the many other productions. The BBC just did all the Austen books. Bridget Jones Diary is just a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. At any point and time, there's someone filming a Jane Austen story somewhere."

Beyond the attention given to straight adaptations recently – like the Oscar-nominated Keira Knightley movie of 2005 – Pride and Prejudice has also been noticed by the throngs of fans of the Twilight book series. Bella, the main character in Twilight, is an avid reader of Austen novels, and Twilight's much-obsessed-over vampire Edward has been frequently compared to Pride and Prejudice's Darcy. Twilight actor Robert Pattinson recently told Newsarama of his role as the gentlemanly Edward: "It's funny because teenage girls are still obsessed with Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff and people like that. It doesn't go away; it's still a male ideal and I guess Edward is those [guys]."

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

Butler, who herself makes a living from Austen-mania as a writer of novels set in the Regency time period, understands this timeless attraction to Darcy and thinks his character is a key element of the book's ongoing appeal.

"One of the reasons the story is so enduring is because Darcy represents a new type of hero," explained Butler. "He's this shy, kind of awkward man from nobility. He's not out slaying dragons. But he's rescuing Lizzie in other ways, by dealing with Wickham and correcting everything with Bingley. So this isn't a knight in shining armor, but he is doing these very noble things. And he does it anonymously. He rescues her sister and doesn't want anyone to know about it. He's a different kind of hero."

In fact, the author admitted, his status as an anonymous hero makes him ideal for comic book adaptation, since he came before other chivalrous heroes like Superman and Spider-Man.

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

"He's an anonymous hero. That's a great tie-in right there to comic books already. But you know, that's a problem in the Jane Austen world. A lot of these Austen blogs – and there are a lot of them – they're all like, 'oh, what is this comic going to be? Darcy in a cape and tights? Or Darcy with huge muscles?'" Butler laughed. "And I've gone on there in a couple cases and said, no, it's a very respectful story. No one flies or repels bullets."

The purists among Austen fans may wonder about the idea of their acclaimed novel being turned into a comic book, but Butler points out that it's no different from a movie adaptation.

"It's very much like storyboards for a movie," said the author, whose comic scripts are being penciled by Hugo Petrus. "Of course some had to be cut or pared down. The scenes that everyone loves are in there. The ones that show up in every movie -- those are in there.

"But Pride and Prejudice is tough because it's a lot of talking heads," she said. "I talked to the artist, Hugo, who is terrific, about ways he could angle his visual camera so that it's not just a bunch of people sitting around in a drawing room talking. He's got shots from outside a window; he's got shots from up above the characters. There are no sword fights or people riding to the rescue, so we're trying to figure out ways to make the panels more dynamic. And I think he's doing a terrific job of that. He's what's going to make this book. I'm basically retelling Jane's story, but he's had to come up with a way to add dynamism to these scenes."

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

Yet Butler said the unique flavor of the book's talking scenes are also part its charm, pointing out that many of today's romantic comedies in film are merely loose adaptations of the verbal confrontations found in Pride and Prejudice.

"To me, Jane Austen created the archetype of the battling couple. They're not quite as volatile as Rhett and Scarlet, but there are all kinds of sparks flying in Pride and Prejudice," she said. "Every time I go over the drawing room scenes and all the great conversations, it's very clear to me that Jane Austen introduced this concept of skillful banter between couples. That banter equals foreplay. And that's very appealing to people. That's what all the romantic couples in the movies are anymore. It's all about couples sparring."

The Pride and Prejudice adaptation is part of the Marvel Illustrated line, which has been adapting various classic stories since May 2007, including Treasure Island, Moby Dick and Man in the Iron Mask. While the line isn't one of Marvel's top sellers in comic book stores, the ongoing interest in the collections – particularly from libraries – has driven its success.

But Pride and Prejudice is a little different from past Marvel adaptations because it's based on a book that specifically appeals to women – something Butler herself pitched to the line's editor, Ralph Macchio.

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

"I'm friends with Ralph and we talk about comic books all the time because I'm a fan. And I told him, 'I think you should do something that would be a little more geared toward female readers,'" Butler said. "He said he thought the classics had broad appeal. But come on. Treasure Island's a boy book! It's written for boys. I'm not saying a girl wouldn't read it, but it's a boy book. Moby Dick is a guy thing. So anyhow, he said, 'Like what?' And I said, 'for instance, Pride and Prejudice.' And he said, 'Why? Is that popular?'"

Butler said that after she educated him on the book's popularity, Marvel decided to give the "female" angle a chance – something that has already proven to have attracted the book's fans.

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

"I think when Ralph and his staff decided to do this, they had no idea this existed. People were coming into his office saying, 'I hear you're doing Pride and Prejudice! I don't work in your division, but can I work on that project?' He was astonished," Butler said with a laugh.

Now it's up to Butler to not only satisfy the Austen-obsessed masses, but translate a revered novel into five comic book issues that the young readers of Marvel Illustrated will enjoy and understand.

"It was exciting until I started to do it, then I realized you're tampering with the god-head, kind of," she laughed. "So yeah, it was intimidating because I suddenly realized that all these people that I was going to have to tell about it were going to be sitting in judgment of what I did. As a writer of Regency novels, I always had a lot on my shoulders as I wrote historical romances set in that time period. But this is a whole new level.

art from Pride and Prejudice #1

"But I think I've captured the essence of the novel while still making it accessible. I write in a style where I start out with kind of an old-sounding vernacular. And I ease into a more modern tone," she said. "I sent the first issue... and Ralph passed it around and got a lot of people saying how surprised they were that I could shorten these conversations and really get the essence of them and the flavor of Austen without it having to be a hundred pages long. So I was very glad to hear that. That's what I was trying to do – capture the flavor of Austen."

Elsewhere on Newsarama:

9 to Watch in 2009: The Movies

9 to Watch in 2009: The Comics

Marvel Announces Spider-Man 4 Date, Revises Film Schedule  

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