A “Classics Illustrated” Education

Okay, admit it. At some point during your school days, you were required by your teacher to choose a book from a list comprised of literary classics, read it, and follow the effort up with a comprehensive book report. But you never got around to reading the selection you picked, did you? Sure, you completed your assignment, but your so-called book report was based on information acquired by taking something on the order of a shortcut. Maybe you got lucky, and a movie based of your book happened to appear of television the week your report was due. Or, you got a hold of a CliffsNotes depiction of the novel, and read the condensed version. Some of you might have just given up, read the liner notes on the book’s cover, and just hoped your teacher never asked you any follow-up questions about whatever it was you were supposed to have read. Thankfully, there was another alternative…Classics Illustrated. Yes, for the price of a comic book, one could read an entertaining version of “Ivanhoe,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” Robinson Crusoe,” or “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Of course, the reason why it was the price of a comic book because that’s just what Classics Illustrated was…comic book adaptations of some of the greatest works in the history of literature.

Debuting in 1941, Classics Illustrated was the brainchild of Albert Lewis Canter, a Russian born publisher whose first effort was an adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” which was distributed by Elliot Publishing. Originally called “Classic Comics Presents,” it was Canter’s hunch that the medium of comic books could prove an excellent way to introduce young readers to many of literature’s great works. “The Three Musketeers” was soon followed by “Ivanhoe” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and by 1947, Classics Illustrated (name changed after 35 issues) began publishing monthly. The early titles, costing only a dime, were 64 full color pages, and although the artwork inside the comic was of varying quality, it was always the elaborately drawn covers that to this day are still fondly remembered by readers and widely celebrated by collectors. Naturally, the newsstand cost of Classics Illustrated increased over the years, eventually rising to 25 cents, while the number of pages decreased to 48 pages by the end of the comic’s run. Unlike other comic books, Classics Illustrated kept most of its issues in print, and would always be available either through newsstand reissues, or purchased by mail directly from the publisher.

I first became aware of Classics Illustrated at age nine, when one of my older sisters, assigned to read up on Shakespeare, obtained the Classics Illustrated issue of “Hamlet.” Knowing nothing about the Bard, or his works, I found the “Hamlet” comic very entertaining, especially the part about the ghost. It was only a few years later that I was required to read some of literature’s most treasured works, and naturally, Classics Illustrated became my go-to source. “The Red Badge of Courage,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and “Huckleberry Finn,” are among the great novels I avoided by relying on Classics Illustrated. CI’s “Moby- Dick” alone probably saved me a month’s worth of reading, as Herman Melville needed 635 pages to tell the same story that Classics Illustrated knocked off in 56 animated pages. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, but my interest has always been non-fiction, rather than anything found on my English teacher’s recommended list. Of course, I always assumed that somehow none of my teachers were aware of the existence of Classics Illustrated, despite the fact that it had been around since the 1940’s. But my reliance on CI came crashing down during my freshman year of high school. During the course of its 20 years of publishing, you’d think that Classics Illustrated would have done an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” but no, they somehow skipped that one. I’d rather not say how that situation turned out for me.

Classics Illustrated reached its peak of popularity during the 1950’s, as baby boomers drove monthly sales well past the one million mark. But with success came the inevitable criticism that CI’s comic books were driving children away from actually reading the works of Dickens, Stevenson, Verne and Twain. In the 1954 best-selling book “Seduction of the Innocent,” author Dr. Fredric Wertham complained that young readers of Classics Illustrated were not being exposed to the wonderful writing found in the original novels, and came away only with a vague notion of the plot. Wertham, whose book was a scathing attack on the entire comic book industry, also noted that CI’s adaptations emphasized whatever action was found in the stories, while ignoring nuances in the characters. “Seduction of the Innocent” also quoted several children, one in particular who felt that reading Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” was not necessary, as Classics Illustrated gave him the story, without “all of the boring details that would be in the book.” Other critics charged that CI, in look and content, seemed to be influenced by other comic books as much as by the novels they were based on. David Dempsey, writing for the New York Times book review noticed that the Classic Illustrated issue of “Julius Caesar” included “a Brutus that looks astonishingly like Superman.”

But it wasn’t its detractors that led to Classics Illustrated’s eventual demise. Competition from television, paperback books and CliffsNotes began to erode CI’s readership, so after 169 issues and total sales of over 200 million, Classics Illustrated ceased publication of any new issues in 1962, although a few titles remained in print for several years. Ownership of the Classic Illustrated catalog has changed hands many times over the years, and there have several attempts to revive the series, the most recent effort coming from an outfit called Classic Comic Store Ltd., which, in addition to releasing the original CI’s, also produced the first new Classic Illustrated title in almost 50 years with their July 2011 release of “Nicholas Nickleby.” If they plan to continue, might I suggest an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”… I hear it’s pretty good.