When I was growing up, my parents’ bookshelves were filled with all kinds of novels, and none was off limits. So I was never short of reading material.
I also loved comic books, and would buy issues “hot off the press” as soon as they appeared at the candy store in town. Classic Illustrated were on the same racks as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Archie, but I never bought one, because I knew that each issue contained a condensed novel. I had been brought up to read a book from start-to-finish, so it never dawned on me to purchase an abbreviated edition of what I could easily find unabridged in our library at home.
It wasn’t that I snubbed my nose at the genre. Just that, until now, it never had dawned on me that I was missing anything.
How wrong I was!
Only recently, when I stumbled upon Classics Illustrated comics in the course of researching a previous article, did I become so enamored of them that I bought 24 issues – originally published in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s – all at the same time.
Among those I acquired (at $3.00 a piece.) were:
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim.
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield; A Tale of Two Cities.
Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment.
Alexander Dumas: The Three Musketeers; Twenty Years After.
Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Toilers of the Sea: The Man Who Laughs.
Edmund Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac.
Shakespeare: Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Let me tell you a little about this truly remarkable series.
It was created by Albert Kanter, whose family immigrated from Russia to the United Stated when he was seven years old. In time, Kanter moved to New York City, got involved in publishing, and in 1941, conceived the idea that he could induce young people to read great literature through the medium of comic books.
The first six books he adapted were: The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, and A Tale of Two Cities.
So, right from the start, he wasn’t pussyfooting around with mediocre potboilers. By “classics,” he meant the best of the best and the greatest of all great books (or plays) ever written.
Initially, the series was called Classic Comics, but by issue # 35 – March 1947, The Last Days of Pompeii – he had changed its name to Classics Illustrated.
And the books he chose to abridge and illustrate were all great. Even terrible adaptations, like the one of Crime and Punishment, were admirable in what they attempted to achieve.
Because, as Albert Kanter intended, they addressed young minds as if a child were capable of grasping and appreciating complex stories, intense emotions, terrible consequences, pride, guilt, great love, great loathing, sacrifice, manipulation, exaltation ... and every other ingredient authors have plucked from the Great Drama of Life to create truly magnificent books.
Lord Jim tells the devastating story of a man so consumed by guilt after abandoning his ship and its passengers to a storm that he loses his own sense of self-preservation.
Pudd’nhead Wilson not only introduces the disastrous consequences of switched look-alike babies, but also the scientific methodology of fingerprints.
Hamlet ... Oh, my! Everything from ghosts to scheming uncles to poison to madness to lust, avarice, betrayal, and dug up skeletons. Admittedly, until I read the Classics Illustrated version, I hadn’t known who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were (the conniving bastards!), that Yorick (“alas, poor ...”) had been the king’s jester, or that it was Polonius and not Hamlet who advised, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
The last page of the Classic Illustrated edition of Cyrano de Bergerac brought tears to my eyes: “I’ve never loved but one man in my life and I’ve lost him twice.” And Gilliatt’s nobility in Toilers of the Sea, as he surrenders the woman he loves to the man she loves and then drowns himself, because he has nothing left to live for ... is almost too sad to be endured.
I had high hopes that, unlike in the Hollywood versions, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man Who Laughs would end the way that Victor Hugo wrote them, but I was disappointed. However, in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton was permitted to eloquently exclaim, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, that I have ever done...” as he bravely mounts the steps to the guillotine and dies.
Whether the book endings were altered or faithful to the original, though, children were being introduced to great concepts, great characters, and great literature. And most importantly, at the END of each and every book adaptation was this boxed admonition: NOW THAT YOU HAVE READ THE CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED EDITION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY.
In all, the series consisted of 168 adaptations, ending in 1969 with Faust. Everything from Don Quixote to Robinson Cruso to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Frankenstein to Jane Eyre to Silas Marner and The Prisoner of Zenda.
No small feat.
Along with the classics, each issue contained author biographies, variations on a theme of Historic Events (The Story of Great Britain), Great Characters from History (Albert Schweitzer, Johannes Gutenberg); Stories from the World of Sports (1924 World Series); Stories of Early America (The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga); Heroic Dogs (Smarty The Canine Cop) ... and so much more.
All to the purpose of educating and opening young minds.
If I could sprinkle pixie dust over the world’s population of children and grant them a wish – my wish, not theirs – it would be that they read books that have stood the test of time; books that introduce them to the universality of humanity’s thoughts, emotions, wisdom, and experiences. Books that thrill, chill, break your heart, lift your spirits, and inspire.
Interestingly, even though Classics Illustrated stopped publishing in 1969, the rights to all of its publications, after several evolutions, now belong to First Classics, Inc. And ... believe it or not ... the series is not only still in print, it is available in all sorts of interesting and accessible formats.
For your children.
For your grandchildren, nephews, nieces, or the kids who live next door.
Even for yourself if, like me, you never have been able to read or comprehend Shakespeare on the printed page without a little help.
Classics Illustrated. Look it up on the Internet. Or go to your local comic store, and maybe, if you are very lucky, you will be able to grab a few dozen copies at $3.00 an issue,
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com