“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level. Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.
Writer: J. R. R. Tolkien, adapted by Charles “Chuck” Dixon with Sean Deming
Artist: David Wenzel
Letterer: Bill Pearson
Cover Illustration: Didier Graffert
Cover Design: Dreu Pennington-McNeil
Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 2012
No. of Issues: Comic adaption originally published by Eclipse Comics in three long-form issues dated 1989-1990; 2012 edition collected the issues into one volume and added additional illustrations
It seems fortuitous that this month’s Fundamental Comics would coincide with Tolkien Reading Day. Established in 2003 by the Tolkien Society, March 25 commemorates the fall of Sauron, as told by J. R. R. Tolkien in his epic tome, The Lord of the Rings, and is celebrated by fans as they read and share their favorite passages from Tolkien’s stories. While Fanbase Press Contributor Claire Thorne shared her favorite passages from Tolkien’s Appendices originally published with The Return of the King, my first excursion into Middle-earth was The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which I read when I was a pre-teen. Hence, today’s essay will feature the comic book version of the novel, adapted by Charles Dixon with the assistance of Sean Deming and illustrated by David Wenzel. Eclipse Comics published the adaptation in three long-form issues dating from 1989 – 1990. The version referenced in this essay is Del Rey/Ballantine Books’ 2012 edition that collected three issues into one volume and added additional artwork.
The Plot of The Hobbit
Originally published in the autumn of 1937, Tolkien penned the fantasy novel for children that was adapted by Dixon in 1989. Readers are introduced to a contented hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who was enjoying a very good morning until the wizard Gandalf appears at his doorstep. Remembering the stories of other hobbits going off on grand adventures, of which Bilbo wants none of, Bilbo bids the tall wizard a good day, but not before the befuddled hobbit invites Gandalf to tea. The next day, Gandalf arrives with several dwarves in tow. Talk of adventuring and the claiming of a great treasure are discussed, complete with a treasure map. The group needs a hobbit with the skills of burglar, and the confused Bilbo does not instill confidence amongst the group of dwarves until Gandalf states with authority that Bilbo is or will be a burglar when the time comes.
Adventuring the group and Bilbo go, running into many foul creatures along the way. At one point, Bilbo gets separated from the group, and the pivotal scene of Bilbo matching wits with Gollum transpires. The hobbit escapes with a magical ring that will become vital to Bilbo’s (and the dwarves) survival through the remaining story’s challenges, including facing off with Smaug the dragon and the climactic Battle of the Five Armies. In the closing pages of the story, the once reluctant hero returns to the Shire knowing more about himself through his experiences.
Reception Upon Release
The September 2012 edition was a reprint of a 2006 version. This new release came out ahead of Peter Jackson’s December Hobbit film. The Hobbit had been highly anticipated by Tolkien fans, as well as fans of Jackson’s early trilogy, The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003).
Tolkien’s The Hobbit was doubly honored as an exemplary example of classic children’s literature by one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, so Dixon’s adaptation was already set up for success; however, there were a couple of other reasons for the title’s success. First, there was only one other adaptation prior to Dixon’s and that was in 1964 – 1965 when UK publisher, Fleetway Publications, serialized an abridged version in Princess and Girl magazine. Second, the three-issue comic book was released during a decade in which fantasy stories were popular in cinema and television. This resulted in the adaptation being well received by U.S. audiences, as well as being translated into at least a dozen languages around the world over the intervening years prior to the issues being collected into one volume in 2006.
It is also worth noting that The Hobbit has never been out of print since its original release in 1937 and, therefore, is a testament to its longevity and mass appeal to readers from one decade to the next. In addition to being adapted to comic book form, The Hobbit has also been adapted across a myriad of popular culture mediums, including film, television, state, radio, and gaming (board and video).
If there is one important lesson to be taken from Psychology 101, then it is to look at adversity as an opportunity for personal growth and self-understanding. While it is always more pleasant to stay in one’s own comfort zone, one will miss building one’s confidence and self-esteem when facing and solving life’s challenges. In the opening pages of The Hobbit, readers are introduced to the complacent Bilbo Baggins. He is most satisfied with sitting on his stoop, smoking his pipe, and watching the world go by. He states to the visiting Gandalf, “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” (page 3, panels 2-3). At once, Bilbo appears both content with life and the most unlikely protagonist of such a grand story. A few pages further along as Bilbo hosts Gandalf and the dwarves, one of the dwarves’ voices what they are all thinking about Bilbo, “Humph! Will he do, do you think? As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer…” (page 9, panel 4). Bilbo’s aversion to adventuring effectively resulted in the hobbit earning little respect from the dwarves; however, it is the wise Gandalf, the father figure, who reassures the dwarves and Bilbo in the last panel of the same page:
“…if I say Mister Baggins is a burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
And, with that crucial dialogue statement, the reader must also have faith that the reluctant protagonist will mature into the hero that the story requires.
There was a certain amount of disdain by the dwarves towards Bilbo as the group set out on their quest, and while he was a necessary team member, it did not stop the dwarves from pushing Bilbo to the frontline with each new danger the group encountered. Dorothy Matthews argues that through the dwarves “arrested development” (in her essay, “The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins,” in A Tolkien Compass), Bilbo had to face adversity and learn to trust his quick problem-solving abilities. In each subsequent dangerous situation, Bilbo’s confidence grows, and he blossoms into the hero who must outwit Smaug, as well as make hard decisions that impact the climactic battle in the closing pages of the story. In his growth, Bilbo found the courage to what was right – for the greater good – even when that meant having to set aside hard-earned friendships. Bilbo’s journey has come full circle.
Tolkien’s understanding of the hero’s journey and archetypes results in an incredible story of high fantasy and an enduring character who was a very unlikely hero. The Hobbit imparted the lesson that if Bilbo could become a hero, then perhaps each reader could become one, too.
Relevancy Today/Why #StoriesMatter
Themes of war and personal growth in The Hobbit represented Tolkien’s own wartime experiences serving during World War I as a reluctant hero flung on a quest that took him far from home. The war was far outside Tolkien’s comfort zone, and the lessons that he learned transitioned well to Bilbo’s own story. Just as the writer and hobbit were confronted with overwhelming, dangerous life events requiring self-reflection while providing opportunities for personal growth, today’s readers will quickly relate to the story’s themes. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we are having to step outside of our respective comfort zones. Like Bilbo, we could metaphorically sit on our stoop or we could embrace the quest as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and grow as individuals. Before us, are opportunities to become heroes. This is what makes Bilbo’s story vitally important and why The Hobbit has resonated with readers all these years and will continue to do so for years to come.
Other Points of Interest
The 2006 version featured cover illustration by artist Donato Giancola.