From Page to Screen — How the East and West Adapt Comics For Film and TV10 min readReading Time: 8 minutes
It seems like we can’t get enough of comic book adaptations and the genre has taken our cinema and television screens by storm. Some of the most popular and well known films and TV shows today are comic book adaptations. These shows have become so mainstream that even those who are not familiar with the source material can enjoy the adaptations.
The east and west have both created their own styles in adapting comic books, with both experiencing great success. What are the differences and similarities between the eastern and western adaptations? How much of the source material is factored into their adaptations? And what might these production processes tell us about the way eastern and western culture shapes our film and television?
Western vs Eastern Comic Books
Western comics today are dominated by the two biggest publishers in the US: Marvel Comics and Detective Comics (DC). These two giants have had a long history and their characters, such as Captain America and Iron Man from Marvel, and Superman and Batman from DC, have achieved mainstream success. However, there are still a few rising stars in American comics including Image Comics which is most famous for their series The Walking Dead.
Eastern comics on the other hand have been led by Japan. Japanese comics, known as manga, have become a huge cultural influence in Japanese society and the industry is now worth ¥ 612.5 billion (US$ 5.6 billion). There are several manga publishers in Japan and perhaps the most famous is Shōnen Jump which at one point was responsible for all of the most popular manga titles in Japan such as Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and Gin Tama.
The audience and the comics influence one another to shape the characteristics of western and eastern comics. Western comics are created for a largely male audience, with male readers making up nearly double the percentage of female readers. When it comes to Japanese manga, males make up the majority but only by a small margin and the difference is closing in, with recent polls showing a near equal percentage of female and male readers.
The male-dominated fanbase of western comics is both a contributing factor and a result of western comics’ focus on superhero stories, especially male superheroes. Japanese manga branches out into a variety of genres, including shōnen (boys manga), shōjo (girls manga), isekai (reincarnation), mecha, slice-of-life, and many, many more. This creates a huge variety of manga for animes to be adapted from.
The Rise of Asian Comics
Outside of Japan, other Asian countries have also been seeing success with their own comic industries.
China is a notable example with their comics, known as manhua. The popularity of manhua is fueled by the internet which has helped make publishing manhua easy even for independent artists and also makes manhua very accessible for readers.
South Korean comics, or manhwa (not to be confused with manhua), are also an example of Asian comics being driven by the internet. Manhwa has sparked a subgenre called webtoons which are different in format from regular manhwa as they are online comics designed to be read on your phone.
The Philippines is another Asian country with comics on the rise. Filipino comics, known as komiks, are unique from previous examples as they are actually inspired by American comic styles rather than Asian comic styles and this influence can be seen in the art and aesthetic of the comics.
Western vs Eastern Adaptations
It’s no secret by now that Marvel and DC have had huge financial and critical success with the film adaptations of their comics. The superhero film genre is in its golden age and has arguably revolutionised cinema through popularising the concept of film universes where multiple films can occur within the same fictional universe despite focusing on different characters and storylines.
To adapt their comic books, Marvel and DC have both invested in the creation of their own in-house production studios. Marvel Studios is a subsidiary of Walt Disney and has produced 24 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. DC Entertainment is a subsidiary of Warner Bros. and has a film division focused on the DC Extended Universe.
Although Japanese manga is adapted into films too, they are more commonly adapted into TV series known as anime. Manga publishers and animation studios are separate entities but do work together when adapting a manga into an anime. Different studios have different styles — Ufotable is one of the biggest studios and is known for their use of claymation in recent series Demon Slayer and Fate/Stay Night, MAAPA is another studio that is becoming increasingly popular for their high-quality productions which includes the final season of Attack on Titan and Jujutsu Kaisen. Kyoto Animation is known for their more upbeat and cheerful animes such as K-On! and Clannad as well as their practice of paying their animators fair wages to encourage them to produce better work.
Producing an anime is incredibly unique due to this process and often leads to discussions among fans whenever mangas are adapted. What studio is producing the anime? What is the studio’s typical style? What other animes have the studio produced before? How likely is the studio to adapt the manga faithfully? These are all some of the things that anime and manga fans pay attention to that make the process of manga adaptation so unique.
Manhua and Manhwas are following in the footsteps of Japanese anime and many have been adapted into anime-style TV series as well. They use a similar art style to anime and use 2D hand-drawn animation.
A few examples of popular Korean manhwa series that have been adapted and have received notable success include Noblesse and Tower of God. Filipino komiks have seen their own share of adaptations too, including Trese which was recently released on Netflix.
However Chinese manhuas are unique as manhuas are sometimes themselves adaptations of web novels. The anime-style TV series known as donghuas which are adapted from the same web novel may even come before the manhua. An example of this would be the incredibly famous web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi which has both a completed live-action adaptation as well as an ongoing donghua and manhua.
Adherence to Source Material
Western comic adaptations draw from a long and extensive history as some of the characters have been around for decades and have gone through several different incarnations. This makes adapting western comics more flexible as adaptations can be viewed as just another incarnation of the comic book series or character. Since some of these stories have been around for generations, attempts are also made to make adaptations more relevant and appropriate for today’s audience.
Western comic book adaptations typically follow a format where they use a superhero and pit them against one of their classic enemies. How things evolve in between can be up to the filmmakers as long as the story stays in line with the character’s motivations and the series’ general story. Some western comic book film adaptations do pull from specific story arcs, such as Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War which draws from the 2006 comic series Civil War. However, comic book film adaptations have reached such a wide and mainstream audience that the percentage of viewers that have seen the source material actually fall in the minority. Although paying homage to the source material is good for fans of the original comic, there is leeway for the filmmakers to take some liberties.
Since western comic book adaptations are not always designed to be page-to-screen copies of one another, fans tend to look at other elements to determine the authenticity of the adaptation. One element that fans like to critique is costume design. Superheroes go through different costumes over the years and films are tasked with designing a costume that is accurate to the comics, symbolic enough to be easily associated with the character, and practical enough to feel realistic in a live-action film. Ultimately, it could be said that the focus of western comic book adaptations is to create a film that anyone — comic and non-comic fans alike — can understand and appreciate.
On the other hand, eastern comic book adaptations tend to follow their source material very closely. Animes are often made closely after the release of a manga to capitalise on the manga’s success and existing audience. Animes also function as a different medium by which to convey the original story that the author is trying to tell, so the anime is usually a page-to-screen, panel-for-panel recreation of the manga. Even when the anime makes a creative decision to deviate from the source material, it will still begin with the same characters and premise and may still return to the same arc as the manga after a while. When anime fans decide whether or not they should watch an anime, they often look to the manga for an idea of whether the story appeals to them.
Because of the close relationship between manga and anime, sometimes the manga will not be able to keep up with the anime. Thus anime tends to suffer from having to include filler episodes that do not contribute much to the plot but are necessary to fill the weekly air time of the show. Nowadays with the rise of streaming services and online viewing, animes can be released as a whole season instead of in weekly episodes which helps to condense the runtime into just the important plotlines.
Live Action vs. Animated
Both western and eastern comic books delve into their fair share of live-action and animated adaptations. Live-action is typically used more for films, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a western example and Rurouni Kenshin as an eastern example. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse for the west and basically Studio Ghibli’s entire filmography for the east. However, animation is seen very prominently in TV series, such as the various DC cartoons including Justice League and Teen Titans, as well as the multitude of anime that would be too long to list here.
Of course, not everything works in live-action. Comic books allow for the unreal and for imaginative, fictitious settings and stories. Not all of this can be translated into live-action and sometimes live-action adaptations can feel awkward as a result. Not only does animation feel like a natural progression from hand-drawn comics, it is also extremely versatile.
A common misconception about animation is that it is meant for kids, However, both the east and west have made it clear that animation does not have to appeal to just one specific audience. DC’s most recent series Harley Quinn is unafraid to include foul language, innuendos, queer themes and even a little bit of gore. Animes like Neon Genesis Evangelion are considered classics among many adults and contain lots of gore and sexually explicit imagery.
The Comic Book Community
Regardless of whether you are a fan of western or eastern comic books, there is no doubt that comic books have brought people together. Passionate fans form communities to connect and build bonds upon shared interests. Today, some of these communities are among the largest and most loyal within pop culture. Conventions, cosplayers, fan art, and all sorts of different expressions of love for comic books have become a testament to the power of comics.
Adaptations have only served to widen the audience and expose more people to the world of comics. The high demand has also helped give adaptations the capabilities of modern filmmaking and animation. As the comic book industry continues to grow, we can only expect more of such adaptations to grace our cinema, TV and even computer screens.