How Does That Work Exactly? Adapting Comics to Audiobooks: A Talk with Nick Martorelli
Today I am pleased as punch to engage in a discussion of details. When you think about it, both comics and audiobooks have suffered similar slights in terms of their legitimacy in the eyes of the gatekeepers. Though comics are a combination of words (good!) and art (good!) something about the combination strikes folks as bad. Similarly, when someone listens to an audiobook, something about the process of listening and understanding rather than using your eyeballs and understanding strikes some people as subpar. Imagine then the ultimate combination: A graphic novel adapted into an audiobook form.
Nick Martorelli is an executive producer for Penguin Random House Audio and has produced audio adaptations of multiple graphic novels including Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, the Hilo series by Judd Winick, and the Max and the Midknights series by Lincoln Peirce. He is additionally, I am happy to report, a fellow willing to answer questions about complicated things. Things like how you manage to turn the visible into the audible.
We spoke not long ago . . .
Betsy Bird: Nick! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. If you could, please start us off by telling us a little about who you are, what you do, and how you came to such a unique position.
Nick Martorelli: Betsy, I’m thrilled to be talking to you. A little about myself: I’m an executive producer at Penguin Random House Audio, where I am responsible for producing about 100 audiobooks per year. I’ll read the book, discuss potential narrators with the author, and then hire a narrator and director. It’s then on me to make sure the book is recorded and delivered in time for it to go on sale. I used to be a performer myself (a “retired actor” is the phrase I use), and I’m so fortunate that I get to work with actors, authors, sound designers, and directors to make these great audiobooks.
I’ve always been a fan of audio storytelling – I listened to abridged books on tape when I was younger, and I had collection of old time radio shows. The storytelling in programs like “The Shadow” or “The Jack Benny Show” had a huge influence on me creatively.
BB: Well, any friend of Jack Benny is a friend of mine. Like a lot of librarians, particularly those that were in the profession both before, during, and after 2020, I’ve been watching the amount of interest in e-audiobooks steadily increase every year, with a huge spike occurring in tandem with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. From your end, how has this increased demand affected what you do?
NM: According to the Audio Publishers Association, 2020 (the most recent year for which industry sales data is available) was the ninth straight year of double-digit audiobook growth. The increased love we see for audiobooks has been great, and it means we’re producing more and more of them! Personally, it’s been really fun because we get to work on lots of different projects, and we’re releasing programs that we might not have done a few years ago. It means a lot more titles across my desk, more actors that I get to work with, and more opportunities to experiment with what audiobooks can be.
BB: Part of why I’m so excited to talk to you today is that you’ve been responsible for translating the visual medium of comic books into an audible medium of audiobooks. I’ve no idea where to even start when talking to you, so let’s do so simply. How does an audiobook producer accommodate for books where (some might estimate) half of the storytelling is visual?
NM: That translation from one medium into another is both the hardest and most satisfying part of working on graphic novels. After I read the book, my first step is always talking to the author about the tone, the mood, the feel of their work that we’re trying to create in the audio product. And it’s these mood conversations that start to address how to handle the visual elements. Are we going to have a narrator describe things? Do we want to expand the dialogue to cover some of it? Do we want to rely on the sound design to convey the action? How realistic, or stylized, or artificial, should that sound design be?
But we ask even larger questions like, what parts are we okay NOT adapting. I work on an illustrated series where I like to say that each illustration is one of three kinds – vital to the story (and needs to be adapted), helpful to the story (which might not need to be included if the action is explained in narration), or extra to the story (and omitting it makes the audio stronger.) Some of those latter ones are flashbacks, or visual jokes, or references that would pull the listener out of the flow of the story. That can be one of the hardest things in adapting graphic novels – what visual elements are the ones that should be omitted, in order to tell the story in the best way.
BB: Sound not dissimilar to what happens when you adapt a book to the screen. Now some audiobooks have full casts. Others rely on a single narrator. Which of the two formats suit graphic novel adaptations better, to your mind?
NM: I think that audiobooks of graphic novels shine brightest with a full cast, but I can imagine ones that might benefit from a single reader. Every book is different. When producing, I’m always thinking of what will make the most sense to a listener. What is the best way to offer them a compelling, clear story. With a large cast of characters, the clarity of individual voices is important – when we hear Hilo or Lunch Lady, we need to immediately know it is them talking. That’s where the full casts shine. But I can also imagine a graphic novel that is built around a more traditional narration, and perhaps a single reader would help evoke an isolated, internal mood of that book. A highly illustrated novel (like The Last Kids on Earth series, or the Real Pigeons series) really works with a single narrator. Those books are written primarily in text with illustrations supporting the story; hence the single voice.
BB: And what is, to your mind, the most difficult aspect of these adaptations? What do producers need to watch out for?
NM: If I say “Every book is different” again, I’ll sound like a broken record – but every book is different. Sometimes writing the script is the difficult part, and for other projects it could be finding that first idea that sparks the process. When that is the case, I’ll often read the graphic novel a few times, and when I start imagining what it might sound like, when I start to hear it in my head, then it’s time to talk to the author and director to get them excited.
And what to watch out for? I’m always conscious of whether we are capturing the tone, the style, the emotional truth of the book itself. Take Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley as an example. I want people who listen to the audiobook version to feel like they’ve experienced the same book as someone who read the print version. We have to infuse our audio with the style of the artwork, the grace of the coloring, all while not making the audiobook too different thematically. I never want it to feel like the audiobook is pulling ahead of the graphic one, or we’re changing the fundamental experience of the story. The author’s original work always leads everything we do.
BB: Can you tell us about some particularly successful audiobooks you’ve worked on over the years?
NM: One of the first full-cast books I produced was Obsidio, the final volume in the Illuminae trilogy by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I had the chance to learn what was done on the first two books, and then build on those elements with my own ideas. That was a fun creative challenge – finding ways to embrace the choices that had already been made, and also find new creative opportunities within the text.
I’ve already really enjoyed working on Lucy Knisley’s graphic novels – Stepping Stones and Apple Crush, which I’ve already mentioned. Those books are so wonderful, and they have such a wonderfully subtle understanding of what it’s like to be a kid. I’m particularly proud of those adaptations, really striving to preserve that subtlety in a format that sometimes requires a little less of it.
I’m also lucky enough to work on our Star Wars titles, where I am on the team that brings our full-cast audiobook originals to life. I am a huge fan of the original Star Wars radio dramas produced by NPR, so the chance to bring Star Wars back into the audio format is an honor. If I’m being honest, it’s a dream come true.
BB: Finally, can you tell us what you’re working on next at all?
NM: My summer schedule is full of traditional audiobooks. I’m looking forward to listeners getting to hear Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel, by Beth Revis. We have some exciting casting lined up there. And I read These Fleeting Shadows by Kate Alice Marshall in a single sitting, and I’m casting a narrator for it now. It’s a spooky, twisty tale – The Haunting of Hill House meets Knives Out – that I couldn’t put down.
BB: I appreciate it!
NM: Betsy, it was a delight to talk with you about these projects I love so much. Thanks for having me!
Many thanks to Nick for taking the time to answer my questions today and to Kate Smith and the folks at Penguin Random House Audio, Listening Library for setting this all up.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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