- Historic Sites
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
Yet even the interpretive distortions convey an important message about literary quality: The comics more than the originals reflect the cultural limitations of their era. And their compressed plots reveal by ommission some of the qualities that distinguish enduring literature—the individual subtleties of form and style the comics often couldn’t include. Also, the same elements that made comics insufficient as a substitute for the real thing also made them helpful as invitations to approach it. The abridgments often cleared an initial path of plot through a dense overgrowth of style and subplot. The comics got me through many a Dumas and Hugo story that I would never have even begun in the two-thousand-page original. Indeed, the compression sometimes clarified style that was simply bad. No normal modern reader has the patience to get through the overwritten opening of The Last of the Mohicans in order to arrive at the great story buried under what Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s literary offences.” And no one should be expected to put up with Jane Porter’s florid prose in order to read Scottish Chiefs , the work to which Barbara Tuchman asserted she owed her initial interest in history.
Moreover, the sentimental oversimplifications actually gave me the motivation and confidence to wrestle with the more difficult plots and complex characterizations in the originals. Seeking to prolong the thrill of adventure and identification with (or attraction to) various heroes, I sailed blithely into Dostoyevsky’s philosophical novels, the less sentimental realities of the original Brontë romances, the unexpected complexities of Frankenstein , and the unabridged Moby Dick , ropetarring chapters and all. After the initial shock I’d keep going, often intrigued by the differences between the comic and the original. In the process I learned to deal with difficult prose and to accept understanding only part of a work—that is, when I didn’t skip to the good parts. But even then, of course, you had to read a lot of other stuff, and learn from it, in order to find the good parts.
The comics also provided an easy introduction to long narrative poems such as Hiawatha and the verse in Shakespeare. Major soliloquies were even printed in full; Hamlet contained, each wrapped in its own giant balloon, the full texts of “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt” and “To be or not to be.” Difficult words were starred with asterisks and helpfully glossed at the bottom of the page. As a result, I knew the plots of four Shakespearean tragedies by junior high school and could navigate the language with reasonable comprehension. My English teachers thought I was very bright and a model of industriousness. I did not disabuse them.
Perhaps the most enduring value of consuming lots of CI s is the sugarcoated-history syndrome. Without realizing it, adventure-seeking readers are absorbing a huge amount of information (most of it accurate) about costumes, mores, and geography. They know what a medieval Saxon fortress looks like (Ivanhoe’s father’s home), and Irkutsk, and Gaul, and the China of Kublai Khan. They also are exposed to an impressive array of historical contexts. How many schools teach about the revolt of the Ukraine against Poland ( With Fire and Sword ) or the Swiss struggle against Austria ( William Tell ) or “the ’45” in Scotland ( Kidnapped ) or the Sepoy Rebellion ( Tigers and Traitors )? The average ten-year-old steeped in the CI could tell you all about these people, places, and events. If such exposure does not represent sufficient cultural diversity, it certainly represents more than many Americans ever experience.
Which gets us to this reader’s conclusion about Classics Illustrated . In a world where information continues to increase, while video-addicted students read only when assigned to do so, all means are justified that make any remotely respectable texts appear exciting and accessible. For every student who will fake a book report and forget it, there are more who will be exposed to reading, literature, and history and who may catch a bit of the fever. I wish the best of luck to the new CI s, which face a problem the old ones never did. Ironically, because they are more faithful to the text and more visually sophisticated, they are something officially sanctioned as good for you rather than something slightly naughty (with predictable results: When an adult I know gave three nouveau CI s to his nephew for Christmas, they went unread). It would be nice if the new Classics Illustrated could somehow be condemned from the pulpit of authority, or sold in back alleys. Then they might be read as avidly as the old ones, and their value in thirty years would be much greater than their quadrupled price in some shop selling nostalgia of the nineties.