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?
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!
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.
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.”