Classics Illustrated

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But such justifications don’t address the central question: Can—and did—the comic format succeed in getting young readers to pick up the original works, or did the comics merely help students avoid tough reading assignments? As one former CI junkie who turned into an English professor, I can at least offer some literary evaluation and personal testimony. Occasionally some of the stuff is indeed silly and downright wrongheaded. But I would never have learned this without first becoming enamored of the only comics I have kept to this day. I find them as dear—and often as educational—for their nonsense as for their more respectable qualities.

 

At their best the comics are no replacement for the real thing—a fact many students found out to their chagrin when they relied exclusively on them to take a test or write a paper (my classmate got lucky with Lord Jim ; the teacher wanted only a brief oral report). The CI version of The Iliad , for instance, is practically a different work. There is no humanizing sequence of Hector at home; no terrible scene where he breaks down and flees from Achilles in full view of all Troy; no horrific moment where Andromache, not knowing her husband is dead, comes up onto the wall of Troy and sees his body dragged behind Achilles’ chariot; and no cathartic mourning scene where Achilles realizes his mortal limits and puts aside his anger. Readers who stop with the comic version will do more than flunk exams. They’ll miss half the story and most of the meaning.

When the comics include enough plot to be recognizable, they sometimes still give readers pop-culture distortions of the originals. They tend to stress the violence and sex—except, oddly enough, in Shakespeare. Macbeth’s head isn’t brought in on a pole; Romeo and Juliet are not even hinted to have slept together.

The adaptations also virtually omit crucial subtleties. Crime and Punishment drops the ax murderer Raskolnikov’s philosophical introspection and reduces the plot to an external conflict with the prosecutor Porfiry Petrovich. The effect is to make a great psychological and moral study resemble an episode of “Columbo.” Without the depiction of his inner struggles, Raskolnikov’s final confession to Porfiry, who can’t gather enough evidence to indict him, seems arbitrary and stupid. This alienation is increased by drawings that make Raskolnikov, whom Dostoyevsky describes as strikingly handsome, look like Peter Lorre in M .

In fact, quite a few of the plots read as though the text adapters had seen the movie but not read the book. So too with the illustrations: the comic of The Virginian has several frames lifted from the Gary Cooper film, Frankenstein’s creature is a dead ringer for Boris Karloff, and there are pages in Mutiny on the Bounty , including the cover illustration, where you’d swear you were looking at Charles Laughton.

 

More distracting to the adult reader are the unintentionally comic effects of errors in the illustrations. The two Brontës get the brunt of anachronism, possibly because the illustrators were more familiar with the film versions from the thirties than with the novels. In Wuthering Heights the frame narrative makes it clear that the story is set in the late eighteenth century (implying perukes, knee breeches, jabots, and three-cornered hats), but the characters are all high Victorian, dressed for a Dickens novel, complete with sausage curls on the women, permed bangs on the men, and trousers. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the artist has helpfully color-coded the otherwise indistinguishable lovers, so that those supposed to end up together have the same hair color.

 

In my old friend The Iliad the gods appear as giant, dot-outlined anthropomorphic figures—perhaps a forgivably literal interpretation of a text in which such actions as Athena’s speaking to mortals are metaphors for listening to wisdom within oneself. But there is a more embarrassing misinterpretation of the passage in which Hera and Athena shriek encouragment to the Greeks in voices like a bird’s. The artist has transformed Hera into a dove flapping over the Greeks’ heads, while a similarly metamorphosed Athena sits on Diomed’s shoulder, conversing with him like Long John Silver’s parrot. Diomed, meanwhile, first appears with only a mustache, then several frames later, has grown a beard. By that night both beard and mustache are gone (perhaps from a close shave on the battlefield), and they remain so for the rest of the story.