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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
But many still demur over the value of both new and old CI on the traditional grounds that the comics oversimplify content and discourage the development of real reading skills. A more recent and more fundamental (though no less predictable) challenge is the argument that CI ’s supposedly timeless titles actually reflect the values only of educated white males of European descent. A quick scan of the title list suggests that there is something to this; most of the works are indeed the product of this dominant group, and the lesser works are mostly “boys’ literature”—adventure novels by Ernest Thompson Seton, G. A. Henty, Howard Pyle, and Jules Verne. Comparable minor classics about girls, such as Anne of Green Gables and A Girl of the Limberlost , are absent, as are some unarguably major works by women, notably Jane Austen. So are non-European classics, and the “great man” biographies are just that.
Reminiscing in a 1988 Village Voice article about his childhood experiences with the original CI , Geoffrey O’Brien sees problems on a number of these fronts. He attributes the disturbing effects the comics had on him to their roots in “pure pulp.” Although by the sixties “the comics had succumbed to officially sanctioned blandness,” earlier editions had “tended toward the primitive,” with blood-spattered pages and dialogue from Marvel and DC rather than Melville and Dickens. More subtly, the works were “robbed” of any pretension to immortal, individual genius by a comic format that compressed all literary and historical differences into less than forty pages, in drawings that looked endlessly the same.
Needless to say, such views are not shared by those who preserve in plastic each yellowing copy they still possess. Jim McLoughlin, a communications technician from Long Island, recalls October 3, 1951, as a “miracle day” equally because the Giants won the pennant and because he found his first CI , The Iliad , lying on the pavement on Astoria Street in Queens. The “tantalizing checklist on the back” of each issue turned him into such an avid collector that he visited the Gilberton offices and the Brooklyn warehouses in pursuit of rare ones (“the legendary item for everyone who collected the comics in my neighborhood was No. 43, Great Expectations ”). Jonathan Tatomer, a Santa Barbara psychiatrist, offers a personal and professional evaluation of the series rather different from Wertham’s; he thinks the drawings powerfully motivated young readers like him to “stop and think” about the stories. He was indelibly impressed by the prisoners digging their way toward freedom in The Count of Monte Cristo and by “the idea of a man running through the sewers with rats floating by” in Les Misérables . After such initial immersion he found the originals easy and attractive.
Dr. Tatomer and his fellow devotees are represented by a magazine, The Classics Collector , that presents research into the genre while coordinating the vigorous trade in vintage issues. In defense of CI ’s educational benefits, Dan Malan, the editor, says that his thousand subscribers are primarily successful professionals, who have been known to pay up to thirty thousand dollars for a complete, mint set of first editions and three thousand dollars for a single first-edition copy of No. 1, The Three Musketeers .
Defending the series against the Geoffrey O’Briens of the world, Malan points out that its cultural and aesthetic limitations were dictated by economics. For one thing, finances often determined the quality of the art and prevented the acquisition of literature not in the public domain. Also, the readers of comic books were mostly adolescent males, and the books had to cater to them. Gilberton did publish some works thought to be more girl-oriented, including Alice in Wonderland and Black Beauty , but they did poorly in comic form. The most popular (hence lucrative) titles, such as Ivanhoe , The Count of Monte Cristo , Robin Hood , Treasure Island , and The Three Musketeers , tended to feature jousts, sea voyages, and sword fights. Given these realities, the old series did well by slipping in educational fillers and seducing young readers into familiarity with Crime and Punishment , Hamlet , Macbeth , and Lord Jim .