Thursday, July 14, 2011

Classics Illustrated

When I decided at age 13 to start collecting comic books, the reaction from my family was, to say the least, not positive and supporting. My parents definitely shared the view that comics were throwaway trash entertainment for kids. And to be honest, that was not entirely an unfair characterization of the medium, although things were already changing on that front as both DC and Marvel started chasing the adolescents like me.

It's funny because I think of the comic collectors of my era that I've met over the years, and they're all pretty bright, but certainly the image of the time was a dummy who moved his lips as he read, slowly. I had always been a voracious reader; by third grade I was reading five-six books a week. True, it was mostly the Hardy Boys or the Bobbsey Twins, but it most definitely was not picture books for me. By sixth grade I was reading the "We Were There" series, novels of American history as (supposedly) told by the kids who lived at the time.

So comics definitely seemed like a regression to my parents. But I was an obstinate youngster and they gradually accepted my decision. Of course, it helped that I did not solely read comics; by that point I was also a sci-fi fan. I also picked up some "educational" comics, like the Classics Illustrated line, although they were mostly on the wane by then, and it was pretty obvious despite the new covers that the artwork was dated. But it did interest me in some of the stories, and so at 15 I borrowed a copy of The Three Musketeers from a friend.

Who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train a week later. Sorry to spring that on you, but it's a major part of the story. Needless to say, I was emotionally wrecked for the next month or so. But one of the ways I got through it was to dedicate myself. I set a goal for myself to read the classics--not the comics, but the original books on which they were based. I did use the list on the back cover as a starting guide:

How did I do? Pretty well I'd say. Now mind you, finding some of those books (other than the first 20 or so, which virtually any good library would have) was quite a chore. I read all but Adventures of Marco Polo and Michael Strogoff in the first 30. I read Moby Dick unabridged, and let me tell you that really required dedication. And although I'm a big Robert Louis Stevenson fan, I've never been able to finish The Black Arrow. Overall I've probably read about 90 or so of the 167 in the original series (not all of which are listed on that particular back cover.

But most of the books, once you got into them, were terrific. The Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables and Crime and Punishment are books that everybody should read once.

The comics themselves varied in quality, both in the written adaptations and in the artwork. Here's the highly stylized splash to Arabian Nights (better known as 1001 Nights):


When the comic was redone in the 1960s, that beautiful style disappeared:


I'll always remember the moment when the inspector confronted Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment. During the story, he's seemingly befriended the young student, and they are discussing the murder that is the focus of the story here:

Of course, collecting the Classics Illustrated has presented many headaches as the comics were often reissued with new covers, and later with new interiors. At one point collectors used the HRN (highest reorder number) on the back cover to differentiate between various versions, but even that is not foolproof.

9 comments:

CMN said...

For all Moby Dick readers everywhere, the Classics Illustrated version had to be more enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

That's pretty impressive. I consider myself fairly well-read, but I can only claim to have read 50 or so of the books listed on that back cover -- some of them (e.g. The Moonstone) so long ago that I can barely remember them now.

Two Years Before the Mast is a favorite of mine, but I've never met anyone else who's read it. On the other hand, I could never get more than a few chapters into any of Cooper's novels.

I've sometimes wondered if Porfiry Petrovich (the police detective in Crime and Punishment) was a source for the character of TV's Columbo.

-- Jim

Ray Lukard said...

I have the Edgar Allan Poe poetry collection and a abridged "Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Beirce both illustrated by Gahan wilson from the early 90's. While search for info on these I came across a site that listed the Classics Illustrated comics http://www.tkinter.smig.net/ClassicsIllustrated/list.htm and Classics Illustrated are still being produced by a different company.

Pat said...

Jim, I read Two Years Before the Mast. There's an apartment complex in downtown San Francisco called the Richard Henry Dana apartments; in the 1980s it was pretty swanky.

The Moonstone was terrific and the inspiration for countless comic stories about a stolen gem and the religious fanatics trying to get it back. The Prisoner of Zenda also inspired quite a few comic book plots.

Another favorite was Men Against the Sea, the second in the Mutiny on the Bounty books, and the story of how Captain Bligh and his men made it back to civilization in essentially a large rowboat from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Larry E said...

My 8th grade teacher kept Classics Illustrated in the class. thanks to her, I went on to read quite a few of the original books. As far as classics I can't fathom, even as a Dickens fan,I can't get through Pickwick. For anybody interested most of the original novels can probably be found at Project Gutenberg.

Ed said...

Pat: From an equally inveterate, though less disciplined reader: kudos!
I loved the "We Were There" series, too. Those and the Landamark books really made history come alive for me.

CMN: Sorry, but I loved reading Moby Dick a a kid, later as a teenager, and still today. Nothing like it anywhere. Loved the CI comic and the movie as a kid, too.)

Anon: I'm almost positive that I read the Columbo owed quite a bit to Porfiry, though of course I can't remember where or when I read this...

Ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Well, I Googled "columbo porfiry" and got page after page of hits. Apparently it's widely acknowledged that the character of Columbo was indeed based on Porfiry Petrovich -- and on G. K. Chesterton's detective-priest Father Brown. Gotta love the internets!

As long as we're talking about books -- everyone should read some Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday is a masterpiece. I've read it four or five times. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is highly entertaining, and the Father Brown stories (though uneven in quality) are definitely worth reading.

Jim

Anonymous said...

I have that CI of "Crime and Punishment" and it's by far my favorite. I also loved all the "Now Age Illustrated" adaptations. The NAI version of "Crime and Punishment" adapted the book very differently (more 3rd person and event-driven), while the CI version was more intense and emotionally focused.