Classics Illustrated

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I just stumbled upon a book, as one does, that has yet again ignited vivid memories from my youth. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Second Edition) by William B. Jones, Jr. is a remarkable documentation of the 169 comic book adaptations of classic literature produced from 1941 to 1971. How many do you remember reading?

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The man who conceived of comics as a way to introduce young people (and unmotivated readers) to the classics was Albert Lewis Kanter. Born Jewish in Russia in 1897, he fled the pogroms by immigrating to the U.S. in 1904. Described as an eager learner who read voraciously, Kanter’s biography closely resembles that of my own grandfather. I don’t remember what my grandfather thought of my reading Classic Illustrated Comics, but I think he would have approved. After all he subscribed me to Children’s Book of the Month Club and Reader’s Digest, and did not disdain my parents’ shelves of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Anything to encourage my reading. And boy, did it work!

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I started with titles from the Classics Illustrated Junior series: Thumbelina, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Then I gradually graduated to the more mature titles.

The well-researched and well-written book profiles the editors, writers, and artists who created the popular books. Jones contextualizes the controversial role of comics including the cold war suspicion of their damage to children’s development. As a voracious reader, I was indiscriminate: Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the back of cereal boxes, anything to escape my boring existence.

Despite the creators’ and the author’s claims to the contrary, I don’t think I fully understood that Classics Illustrated comics were adaptations of books. They were just stories, wonderfully visual stories. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn were so vivid in my mind, I honestly didn’t know that I hadn’t read the real novels, until I reencountered them relatively recently.

I seem to have been fascinated by remote locations, isolating myself with Robinson Crusoe, Pitcairn’s Island and Treasure Island. France was another preferred locale: The Three Musketeers, The Corsican Brothers, and Les Miserables. But reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame got me into trouble. Talking to a friend years after reading the Classics Illustrated version I suddenly realize that the happy ending diverged from Hugo’s original. I was horrified. What other literary switcheroos had I been subjected to?

Among the many other memorable titles: Robin Hood, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Moonstone, King Solomon’s Mines, Black Beauty

This handsome volume is copiously illustrated with covers (many in color), portraits, and panels from the issues over the years, providing a veritable trip down memory lane. Was it my imagination or did Joan of Arc (1955) bear a striking resemblance to Natalie Wood? But The Prince and the Pauper didn’t much look like Sean Scully in the 1962 Disney adaptation. And the cover confusingly listed the author as Samuel L. Clemens.

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I was born in 1952, just two years after the author; we likely read the same titles. We are definitely kindred spirits: “As children, we create our own mythologies as we reinvent the world. […] the religion of my boyhood was Classics Illustrated; the creed of my young adulthood was the literature that the series had prepared me to embrace.”

Mad Magazine and Me

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The first issue of Mad magazine appeared in August 1952. Coincidentally I was born at the end of that very month. Who knew that we had so much in common?tumblr_lsi7czNNvP1qhk04bo1_r1_500

I don’t remember when I became aware of the magazine– but like many firsts in my life, it was likely later than many of my contemporaries. I don’t think it was my dad who showed it to me, probably one of the kids at school.

It may well have been too sophisticated for me; I certainly didn’t understand most of the social and political references, including the cold war context of “Spy vs. Spy”. I ignored the appropriated image of Alfred E. Neuman’s “What? Me worry!?!” and only sometimes “got” Don Martin’s comic strip. The first thing I did was carefully fold in the back cover to see how the captioned image magically morphed into something completely – caustically — different.

The second was to look for the movie and television spoofs. Like “The Sound of Money” with its caricature of Julie Andrews singing reworked lyrics to the ubiquitous song.

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And for years I sang the lyrics to “Chopped Liver” (*sung to the tune of “Moon River”): “Chopped Liver, onions on the side / my social life has died, from you / My friends shun me, they out-run me / the smell of my breath, is slow death, sad but true / My odors’ twice as bad as beer, and people who drink beer agree / I know that my breath will not end / always I’ll offend, my halitosis friends / Chopped liver, in me.

In retrospect however I think I absorbed the magazine’s subliminal message of being skeptical and critical of anything and everything I was being taught. Whatever was being presented –at home, at school, in the media — was subject to spoof, including how it was presented.

I think Mad showed me that I wasn’t crazy: it was the world that was ridiculous. There was another – funnier, darker — side to everything. Inadvertently perhaps, my sense of humor, my appreciation of wit and sarcasm, can be attributed to reading Mad magazine in my formative years. Though I haven’t looked at an issue of Mad in many years, I now realize its iconoclastic perspective helped make me the man I have become.

P.O.P.

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On my wall hangs a 16 x 20” pastel drawing. Framed in blonde wood, it depicts two little boys in profile staring to the right in perpetuity. The artist’s initials are indecipherable; the year, 1960, is plain.

I remember sitting for the portrait. It was an afternoon at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica. That evening I was to play my accordion, along with many other students from the Southern California area, with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra at the Aragon Ballroom, not to be confused with the Avalon Ballroom on nearby Santa Catalina Island.

I was eight years old and impatient. I was all dressed up: wearing a white shirt and a (clip-on) black bow tie. My brother, “Rocky,” 3½ years younger, was wearing a (striped?) T-shirt, but the artist gently suggested it might be better to show him similarly attired, so — through the magic of art — his outfit was changed. Our brown hair is cut short (we always asked for “regular boy’s” haircuts) so we look similar but not identical. There had been a rehearsal earlier and now we were free to explore the park.

Growing up in Buena Park, we had access to many theme parks: Disneyland, Marineland of the Pacific, Griffith Park Zoo, The Pike, Busch Gardens, and right down the road an Alligator Farm and Knott’s Berry Farm (which Merritt has also meticulously documented in Knott’s Preserved). We didn’t realize how lucky we were.

We likely only visited the park that one time since our family didn’t have a lot of money and P.O.P. was relatively short-lived, operating seasonally from 1958 until it unceremoniously closed in 1967.

A recent book rekindled my vague recollection of the short-lived amusement park. Pacific Ocean Park : The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles’ Space-Age Nautical Pleasure Pier by Christopher Merritt and Domenic Priore.

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Thumbing through the well-researched, well-illustrated, and well-written volume, my memories start to stir. I remember Neptune’s Courtyard and Kingdom with its “dry-for-wet” underwater domain. The skyway bubbles to the Mystery Island Banana Train ride, almost identical to those at Disneyland. And the midway lined with intriguing shops, restaurants, and attractions. It all looks rather cheesy now, and perhaps it was then as well.

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I don’t remember much about the concert itself, certainly not what songs we played, but I get a sense of what it must have been like from a DVD recording of a similar program the previous year. I imagine myself onstage, with my family proudly sitting in the audience.

P.O.P. is long-gone as is the accordion, and my hair, still cut short, is silver. The 55-year old drawing hung proudly for many years on our mother’s bedroom wall. Now on mine, it reminds me of that one magical day.photo-8