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Marvel adapts classic novels

There's plenty of adventure, but not a shred of spandex, in Marvel Comics' new Marvel Illustrated line.

Like the old Classics Illustrated comics, Marvel Illustrated brings classic novels back to life in comic book form. First up, early this month, was the first issue of "The Last of the Mohicans." The line continues with the debut of "Treasure Island" in June and "The Man in the Iron Mask" in July.

All are six-issue miniseries. And all are written by industry legend Roy Thomas, who was Stan Lee's first successor as Marvel Comics editor in chief. As a comics writer, he's probably best known for "Conan the Barbarian" and his work decades ago on superhero titles such as "XMen" and "The Avengers."

Classics Illustrated, which debuted in the early 1940s under the name Classic Comics, was the first to transform classic literature into comics. Thomas was a fan as a kid, but he also read the comics with a critical eye.

"The one thing I didn't like about them, besides sometimes making changes in the story, is that they often just made up their own language for the dialogue," he said.

The goal with his adaptations is to use the words of the original author whenever possible. Sometimes, though, it's impossible to find a line in the book that exactly fits the situation in a comic book panel.

James Fenimore Cooper's sometimes oblique phrasing in the nearly 200-year-old "The Last of the Mohicans" has posed the toughest challenge, Thomas said.

"If I can't find something that he exactly wrote, I try to think of something that is close in phrasing. So when it is done, it has as much of a feel as I can as of if James Fenimore Cooper had written this comic book, but with an eye toward a 21st-century audience being able to understand it."

In tackling an adaptation, Thomas begins not with the original work but with a study version such as CliffsNotes when possible. That makes it easier to do an outline.

"But I have a copy of the book right there, so I can check on things."

Marvel has taken on the classics before, with its short-lived Marvel Comics Classics in the mid-1970s.

"It's always been something that Marvel's had an interest in," Thomas said. "Stan and I used to talk about it for a good 10 years or so before they actually did it in the `70s."

Thomas also is the writer of "Mystic Arcana, Book II: Black Knight," coming in July. "Mystic Arcana," with a different writer each issue, is a limited series defining the mystic arts in the Marvel universe.

"They asked me to do a Black Knight chapter set in the time of King Arthur," Thomas said.

Since the character has always been a favorite of his, he was delighted to take the job.

Among other projects, Thomas edits Alter Ego magazine, which focuses on titles and creators from the Golden and Silver ages of comics; published by TwoMorrows Publishing, it's named after the first comic book fanzine.

Thomas often has an eye on the past. When he sits down with a book, it's most likely to be a biography or history book.

"I don't really read present-day comics," he said. "I kind of glance at them occasionally. Not to say they're not good, it's just that my interests have kind of gone off in different directions."