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They cost five cents more than regular comic books, and the extra nickel was supposed to buy what we now call cultural literacy. But they were controversial from the very start.
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
Along with baseball cards and other ephemera, Classics Illustrated have become pricey nostalgia items for those who grew up in the supposedly halcyon years after World War II. But the comic-book series, whose mission was to promote the reading of “great literature,” has always been more controversial than other cultural icons of the time. I first encountered them at the age of seven, when, after each weekly trip to the library, I’d buy a fifteen-cent CI in the local drugstore. (My first purchase was The Iliad , which I chose out of fascination with the cover design: chariots and men wearing skirted armor.) The stories had the imaginative energy of fairy tales but seemed more satisfyingly real and serious than the Disney and DC comics available on the same rack. Every week I’d obey the exhortation at the end of each issue: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.” Years later, however. I sat in tenth-grade English, listening to a fellow student deliver a book report on Lord Jim based solely upon reading the comic version he had wheedled out of me. I felt moderately guilty but also rather smug that for once my bookwormy ways had proved a source of peer power and resistance to authority.
Classics Illustrated have stimulated mixed responses about their educational value since they first appeared. In his notorious 1954 jeremiad Seduction of the Innocent , Fredric Wertham did not confine his dictum that “comic books are death on reading” to the violent crime comics of the day. He claimed that the comic format itself caused reading disorders, that the “picture reading” they fostered was “an evasion of reading.” Classics in comic form were “mutilations” that would promote a “retooling for illiteracy.” He even described an “eleven-year-old boy of superior intellect, from a good social and economic background,” holding up a comic version of Robinson Crusoe and sneering, “Why should I read the real book if I have this? If I had to make a report I could use this. It would leave out all the boring details that would be in a book.”
But the creator of Classics Illustrated , Albert Kanter, believed he had a means for “wooing youngsters to great books.” An immigrant from Russia, at the age of seven, in 1904, Kanter never went to college. But he described himself as a “serious student of literature, biography, and history,” and he rose from sales representative for a textbook publisher to founder and president of the Gilberton Company, the publishers of CI . He launched his comic adaptations of great books in 1941 as Classic Comics , then changed the name to Classics Illustrated in 1947. He achieved his initial success by vigorously marketing his classics to GIs, who were famous consumers of comics. The series reached the zenith of its prestige in the early 1950s, when the press celebrated the adaptation of several Shakespearean tragedies. A total of 169 titles were marketed in the United States between 1940 and 1972, and they sold more than 200 million copies in all.
When the line faltered in the United States—the result of a dearth of new titles, a glut of paperbacks, and competition from television—Kanter exported it to London and then Stockholm. Gilberton stopped issuing new titles in 1962 and reprinting old ones in 1971, but in Europe and South America some 250 more eventually appeared, and several countries unofficially adopted the concept and published hundreds more. Publishers around the world have found the format culturally as well as financially rewarding.
But the status of Classics Illustrated in the United States has always been less clear-cut than that and is especially so now that so much about American education is so controversial. On the one hand, the reader has become such an endangered species that parents and teachers are grateful for anything that gets children to read rather than view. It is no coincidence that First Publishing of Chicago, previously best known for launching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is issuing a new version of CI . Like Albert Kanter, the new publishers foresee an enlightened mix of profits and public benefit. “We can make a contribution to literacy in a user-friendly format,” says Kurt Goldzung, former creative director of the project. The new comics differ from the originals mainly by putting emphasis on highquality artwork by popular contemporary artists (one potent combination is Gahan Wilson illustrating Poe). Many of the titles are the same, but the sophisticated new illustrations are a far cry from the style of the old classics, which at best was workmanlike, historically accurate realism. Initial sales have been good enough to encourage publication of twentyseven titles as of early 1993, and the new series has already received approval by such groups as the Literacy Volunteers of America.