The 1950s-60s Classics Illustrated logo.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Gilberton Publications
First Appeared: 1941
Creator: Albert Kantner (editor/publisher)
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At one time, comic books were believed to be the enemy of literacy. Until educators caught on to the obvious tautology that a child who reads comic books reads, the comics' lurid, improbable stories, plus …

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… pictures that obviously scorned the standards of fine art (and, if effective, obviated the need for reading at all) combined to make a package that stodgy old teachers loved to hate. The idea behind Classics Illustrated may have been to use the methods of the "enemy" against it, to expose young comic book readers to great literature, and thus awaken their intellectual appetites.

If that's the case, it didn't do a very good job. With large, complex stories being condensed into a single comic book, key plot elements often had to be glossed over or even omitted to save space; characters were sometimes left right out of the story just because they didn't fit; and you can pretty much forget about the subtle nuances. And since, especially at first, this tended to be done by people who didn't much care how well it worked, as long as they could get a salable product onto the stands, the result was often a confusing mess. Young readers who thought great literature might hold any interest for them, and checked Classics Illustrated to find out, were likely not to check back.

And yet, Classics survived decades, and became virtually an institution on the comic book rack. That may be because teachers and parents looked less askance toward it than toward its brethren, or it may be because kids found it a handy tool to avoid learning about great literature at all. In providing a sometimes barely adequate summary of a book's plot, it enabled millions to squeak through English classes without undergoing the tedium of doing their reading assignments. Which may not, depending on your point of view, be a bad thing — but for those seeking an enemy of literacy in comics, Classics Illustrated made a good example.

The Classics series (at first titled Classic Comics — "Illustrated" was substituted in March, 1947, possibly to keep anyone from suspecting it was nothing but a funnybook) was launched with an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, dated October, 1941. The man who packaged it was Albert L. Kantner, born in Russia, whose family reached New York when he was very young. At first, Kantner packaged the series for Elliot Publishing (which also did Bomber Comics, but its most significant impact on the field may have been as the defendant in an obscure copyright infringement suit brought against it by Fawcett Publications). By the fourth issue (The Last of the Mohicans,, August, 1942), Kantner put together a company just for this purpose, Gilberton Publications, which handled Classics and its offshoots for the next quarter-century.

Moby Dick followed, then A Tale of Two Cities, a new one every month or two, year after year. In May, 1943, Kantner decided that since these were indeed (it says right on the cover) classics, they were timeless, and therefore should be kept in print. Each issue was printed over and over, as often as necessary to make it continually available, sometimes 20 or more times over a period of years, sometimes with the same cover and/or interior art as the last printing, and sometimes with new ones. Devotees of the series have charted these printings with Talmudic exactitude, resulting in the largest single listing in Overstreet's Comic Book Price Guide (the most comprehensive comic book bibliography in America) — more than twice as long as the runner-up, Dell's Four Color Comics (which occupies the space it does because it ran more than a thousand issues, each of which, because of its nature, is dealt with separately).

Complicating the bibliographic situation was the fact that offshoot publications tended to be lumped into the same numbering system. Classics Illustrated Junior (which, from 1953-69, adapted traditional fairy tales and other stories for very young readers) took a block of issue numbers starting with #501, but was apparently still numbered as part of the same series. 77 issues of Junior were published. From 1955-62, Classics Illustrated Special Issues (which contained short pieces around a common theme, such as "The Atomic Age" and "Blazing the Trails West") took regular numbers, apparently derived from whatever was the newest issue on the stands, and added an "A" at the end. And the many, many foreign editions (in at least two dozen languages) are simply unfathomable.

Lacking, tho it did, positive literary merit, the Classics series did sometimes sport very nice artwork. Talented illustrators such as Rudy Palais (with credits at Quality Comics, the early EC and elsewhere) and Alex Blum (Fiction House, Fawcett and more) appeared there regularly. Lou Cameron, an excellent cartoonist, worked on DC's Picture Stories from the Bible as well as for quite a few minor publishers, but is known mostly for his stunning art on such Classics Illustrated issues as War of the Worlds (#124, January, 1955) and The Time Machine (#133, July, 1956).

It even had its share of big-name talent. Jack Kirby (among whose vast credits Devil Dinosaur and Fighting American are practically footnotes) drew a later edition of The Last Days of Pompeii (#35, March, 1947). George Evans, a mainstay of EC Comics who also served a long stint on Secret Agent X-9, drew several issues. Joe Orlando (later an executive at DC Comics), John Severin (with credits at EC, Marvel and, for many years, Cracked magazine), Kurt Schaffenberger (Captain Marvel, Lois Lane), Matt Baker (Phantom Lady, Sky Girl) and many others drew for Classics Illustrated. L.B. Cole, known for his outstanding covers throughout the comics industry of the 1940s and '50s, became art director in 1958, and drew several issues.

Kantner eventually grew tired of the business, apparently, as his last new issue (#167, Faust) appeared in August, 1962 — or maybe he just couldn't stand up to competition from Cliff Notes. He kept the old ones in print, however. Five years later, he retired, selling out to publisher Patrick Frawley. Frawley put out two more issues in 1969, but mostly concentrated on foreign sales. By the early 1970s, tho, even those were falling by the wayside, and Classics Illustrated was no more.

Until 1990, that is. It was then that First Comics (American Flagg, Warp), in partnership with Berkeley Publishing, acquired the rights, and began issuing completely new adaptations under the Classics Illustrated title. Contributors included Gahan Wilson (world-famous for his magazine cartoons), Mike Ploog (Werewolf by Night), Joe Staton (E-Man) and other top talents. These disappeared a little over a year later, in a flurry of mostly-unrelated lawsuits. In 1997, Acclaim Books, successor to Valiant Comics (Magnus, Solar, Turok) began a new series, in digest format.

The Acclaim series comes with study notes — which may not be of particular interest to comics readers, but apparently, the publisher knows where its market is.


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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Gilberton Publications.