Skip to main content

Classics Illustrated

June 2024
11min read

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.

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.


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 .

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.


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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.