Even before Peter Jackson brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy was widely acknowledged as the ur-text for modern fantasy fiction. The series set standards for the genre across not only literature, but all media, inspiring everything from role-playing games and knock-off novels to direct adaptations and officially licensed material — from pinball machines to pipes. One thing, however, is missing from that list.
Why has there never been a Lord of the Rings comic book? The more you look into the long history of comic book adaptations — especially of major nerd blockbusters — and the long history of attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings, the more inexplicable this question gets.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
On paper, at least, the idea is a sound one. There is a long history for comic book adaptations of classic genre literature, stretching all the way back to 1941’s Classics Illustrated — a series which added pictures and speech balloons to the likes of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and The War of the Worlds for decades. And though the trend for transforming words into words-and-pictures has waxed and waned throughout the years, the literary adaptation remains a potent idea for comics success, demonstrated by last year’s critically acclaimed Slaughterhouse Five from Boom! Studios.
It’s not just the Kurt Vonnegut classic that’s been pulled into comics lately; titles like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — better known to most as Game of Thrones — and Frank Herbert’s Dune have received multi-volume adaptations from mainstream book publishers in recent years, providing publishers with what would appear to be evidence that such an adaptation was possible, and likely had an in-built market, especially if the property had a movie or television show behind it.
Comic book adaptations of known properties can mean big business for publishers, something that’s been the case since Star Wars saved Marvel from financial disaster in the 1970s. In the years since, entire companies have been built on the success of adaptations and spin-off material created around existing movie and book properties — look at what Aliens, and to a lesser extent, Predator, did for Dark Horse in the late 1980s, bringing a new audience to what had been a mid-level black and white indie publisher and transforming it into one of the largest U.S. comic companies — while characters and concepts created as part of this ancillary material can help a property grow in popularity even when it’s offscreen. Consider, again, what happened to Star Wars as a result of Dark Horse’s publishing program in the 1990s when paired with Del Rey’s line of novels.
The idea that adaptations can keep a property alive — or, better yet, make it thrive for a new audience — is unlikely to be lost on those familiar with Lord of the Rings. The books were initially published in 1954 and 1955, but achieved arguably the peak of their popularity almost half a century later when Peter Jackson adapted them for the big screen. That was far from the first time someone had translated Tolkien’s story for other media, however; by that point, there had been no less than four radio versions, two television adaptations, a stage play, and an earlier animated movie based on the opening book in the trilogy — each of them ensuring that more and more people were exposed to the saga.
Arguably, each of the pre-Jackson adaptations were missing something, whether it was appropriate effects to match the story’s scope, the space to tell the story in full, or simply — in the case of the multiple radio plays — visuals to take some of the heavy lifting off the audience’s imagination. The comics medium could have answered all of these concerns, and yet, somehow, the world is still surprisingly devoid of Lord of the Rings comics.
It’s a mystery that becomes even stranger given that there is, in fact, a Tolkien classic that’s already been adapted in comic form, with the resultant project so successful that it’s been a perennial seller since its debut more than three decades ago.
The Hobbit: An Illustrated Edition of the Fantasy Classic was originally released as a three-issue series by indie publisher Eclipse Comics, launching in August 1989 and selling surprisingly well, based on contemporaneous sales charts. The first issue outsold that month’s Sandman, G.I. Joe, and Suicide Squad, amongst many others, ranking 63rd on the chart for the month. (Another book it sold better than was the first issue of DC’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which feels only fitting, really.)
The series was written by Chuck Dixon, the same guy that also wrote DC’s Nightwing and Robin for years in the 1990s, but the real star of the book was David Wenzel, a former Marvel creator whose lush artwork pulled from such influences as Howard Pyle and Arthur Rackham, and who’d go on to illustrate greetings cards and childrens’ books based on the success of this project.
This was, oddly, the second time The Hobbit had been serialized in a comic, although the first wasn’t a comic strip; British publishers Fleetway ran an abridged version of the story, accompanied by spot illustrations by Ferguson Dewar, across 15 issues of the anthology series Princess and Girl in 1964. Tolkien had reservations about the project, complaining in a letter from August of that year that Dewar’s illustrations of Gandalf were “fussy and over-clad,” and lacking in dignity. “He should not be styled ‘magician’ but ‘wizard,’” he wrote.
Dixon and Wenzel’s comic strip version of The Hobbit lived on far beyond the initial run of the series; it was collected a year after its serialization by British publisher George Allen & Unwin, which had been Tolkien’s U.K. publisher for a number of years by that point. A U.S. collection was released in 2001 by Del Rey, with Harper Collins releasing an extended edition in both countries in 2006 that remains in print today.
Given the success of the comic strip The Hobbit, it would only seem to make sense that a comic adaptation of The Lord of The Rings would be a foregone conclusion, but none has been attempted, which returns us to the simple question: Why not?
The answer lies frustratingly out of reach. Is there a contractual restriction on the project? It might seem unlikely given both the existence of the Hobbit comic and the screen Lord of The Rings projects, but it’s not impossible; it’s fun to imagine that Tolkien was so distressed by the 1960s Hobbit serialization that he inserted some clause to save LoTR from a similar fate, if nothing else. Could it simply be because no one has tried to do it? That seems even less likely, given the success of Jackson’s Lord of The Rings movies, or the upcoming Amazon LoTR series.
The only bodies that know the answer definitively would be the Tolkien Estate and Harper Collins, which not only controls the comic Hobbit, according to Wenzel, but also controls the publishing rights to Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Unfortunately, neither are talking; requests for comment to both entities went unanswered by time of writing. Warner Bros. Pictures, which this summer will produce comic adaptations of the Conjuring franchise with subsidiary DC Comics, also declined to respond to inquiries about any potential comic adaptations that may have been proposed in the Jackson trilogy-era. For Amazon’s part, the company is not considering any publishing projects connected with its new Silmarillion-based series, a source told Polygon.
For now, a Lord of The Rings comic book remains a thing of fantasy — which perhaps might be fitting, given the shadow the property casts in the genre it helped create.