Classics Illustrated is one of the best and most entertaining collectible comic series out there. CI titles are still a fun read and often feature some seriously beautiful covers. Yes, there are some complaints about inconsistent adaptations or lets just say, less than professional cover art, but these occasional aspects of the title also contribute heavily to what makes the title so much fun.
There are several modern companies doing incredible work in the field of graphic novel adaptations of classic literature. Campfire, Papercutz and others are doing some very serious work keeping the original idea of bringing the classics into comic books alive. Look for links to these publishers and other reference materials at the end of today’s article.
When Superman hit newsstands in 1938, kids went wild. While comic books had been on newsstands for a few years, for the first time the newly emerging art form had a certifiable hit. And what a hit it was! Publishers everywhere scrambled to meet the demand for four color books. As popular as they were, there was an inevitable back lash against comic books.
Some educators deemed them “unacceptable!” Others declared comic books “Filth!” and still others believed that these costumed heroes and funny animals were “polluting the minds of the young.” Like anything new, comic books were deeply mistrusted by those in charge.
But boy did kids ignore those in charge. Comic books also proved to be a boon for service men and women as they could fold a comic in half and take it with them anywhere they were sent. Prior to the explosion of paperback books after the War, comic books one of the most easily transportable reading mediums available. And they could be passed on to a friend.
Harry Donnenfeld, the publisher at DC, loved to remind potential buyers that comic books never had just one reader. He knew full well the value of being “passed around” and often used that information to pad out his numbers. Opponents of comic books also knew how often comics were passed around, corrupting that many more minds in the process.
This backlash against comic books caused a light bulb to go off in the mind of a man named Albert Lewis Kanter. Kids had always been reluctant to read the classics. Part of being a kid is to pinch your nose and give a look of disgust at the mere mention of Shakespeare or Greek Mythology.
Kanter firmly believed that if these very same kids (and by extension G.I.s and others) who were devouring Superman, Captain Marvel and The Flash were exposed to the classics in a comic book format, he could both elevate the medium and make a few bucks in the process.
After all, the adventure inside The Three Musketeers was darn near the same as found in a good Batman story. And Batman was flying off the newsstands, so why shouldn’t The Three Musketeers or something equally exciting such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens do the same?
Working under the moniker of Elliot Publishing Company, Kanter convinced a few investors that he had the answer to those complaints about comic books. Forming Gilberton Publishing he went about assembling a team to bring his idea into reality.
Debuting under the title Classic Comics Presents in October 1941, the first issue featured an adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The cover is especially noteworthy for the sense of menace found in the swordplay that is clearly front and center.
Using an idea found on other comic books titles, the image holds four circles featuring the heroes individually in each corner. The title itself is written in an exciting font with a mixture of classic and cursive that would clearly stand out against other comic titles found on the newsstand.
In 1941 it took months for publishers to get sales results back to the office. But Kanter, who was experienced in the world of publishing, knew this. With confidence he moved forward with his initial concept before he was exactly sure of what the public response was.
Next up was Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. This went out in December 1941. The cover saw Kanter once again mimic the four circle format as characters were showcases in each corner. This time the center featured horses and bright costumes in an action packed lance tournament. Overall the cover is a little more cohesive, a bit easier on the eye that the Musketeers cover was.
In a promising message to readers, the back cover inside that second issue held a full page advertisement for an upcoming issue. It promised The Count of Monte Cristo as the next issue.
That title, issue #3 went out in March of 1942. By this time sales numbers were coming back and Kanter realized he was right. They loved the content, appreciated the fact that his books had no outside advertising and were a great bargain for the dime they cost. Fans and readers were enjoying what he was publishing. Production began to accelerate, but just a bit.
That next year, 1942, saw five titles go out. There was a bit of a delay between # and #4, but once they got started the second half of the year moved especially quickly.
August saw Last of the Mohicans and September was Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities went out in October and the year finished in December as Robin Hood was published.
The first few years saw the title change a few times. The first five issues were technically listed as Classic Comics Presents. The sixth and seventh issues were Classic Comics Library.
Issue #8, Arabian Knights, is the first one under the title Classic Comics. The title stays the same until #35 (The Last Days of Pompeii) when we see the familiar Classics Illustrated for the first time.
Almost everyone who loves the title considers all the early title variations in the series name to fall under that best known title, Classics Illustrated (The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide lists all 169 issues from #1 on up under that moniker).
Kanter established independence from Elliot Publishing in 1942. The new company would be called Gilberton. Classics Illustrated would continue to be published under that house name until 1969.
1943 was a banner year as nine different titles went out. It is also the year that reprints on individual issues began. This reprinting of titles is one of the features that set CI away from so many other comic book titles.
Kanter knew that his initial print runs had to be limited. War time paper shortages and a few other concerns were a problem for all publishers and his company was no different. Plus he also knew that the appeal what he was publishing wasn’t limited. The content of the classics transcended the time and the period in which they were appearing on newsstands. He knew that he had something other publishers didn’t.
He had content that didn’t constantly need updated or fresh stories. Once he paid to have someone adapt and draw a book, the content belonged to the company. He didn’t need a new Batman story every month. He had a library, the New York Public library, as his source.
While the various issues may be passed around like other comic books, Kanter felt, and judged correctly, that CI title had a much longer shelf life than traditional comic book titles.
He was right. His first title, The Three Musketeers, eventually went into 23 reprints, the last one being in September 1971. Ivanhoe went through 25 reprints, the final one being in the winter of 1971.
This reprint policy also meant that as time went on the company could change the cover art, change the page count and in some cases, change the internal content in order to adapt to a new market.
Some collectors find themselves challenged by these different alterations in individual issues. But these differences are nothing to fear. In fact, they are one of the main attractions of collecting the title.
In reference to the reprints, there is a very simple system that collectors have developed over the years. The absence of outside advertising inside Classic Illustrated issues allowed Kanter to devote more pages to content.
It also helped him to establish a fresh and familiar way to advertise his own product. The inside back cover of each issue would contain a reorder chart. The consistent appearance of this reorder chart has given collectors exactly what they needed to organize the variations on reprints over the title’s long run
1951 was a significant year in Gilberton’s publishing history. It was the year they introduced painted cover. The first one was on #81, The Odyssey. They also went with a bigger distributor, Curtis. This really increased the number of customers they could now reach.
Lastly the title saw cover price increase from a dime to 15¢. By now fans knew that, even though the title cost a bit more than a DC, Timely-Atlas or Fawcett title, a Classics Illustrated book had no advertising and was filled with nothing but art and adventure.
The Classics Illustrated name brand was now deeply established on the newsstand. Gilberton branched out and created Classics Illustrated Junior for younger readers. They also introduced a series of specials and the series World Around Us.
European sales for Classics Illustrated were strong. The company established a separate publishing house in Great Britain. The British Isles saw thirteen titles that were never published in America. A much sought after collectible was immediately created in 1962 when the British company published a version of the James Bond classic Dr. No. It was counted as #158A.
Since the American Classics Illustrated concentrated their marketing on libraries and educational institutions, it was felt that the content of Dr. No wasn’t appropriate for those customers. With the popularity of the film in mind, DC picked up the British and adapted it inside their anthology title Showcase running it #43.
There was also a Classics Illustrated title established in Greece in 1951. The Greek titles featured adaptations of classics entirely created by Greek artist and writers. Their first edition was an adaptation of Les Misérables.
In 1967 Gilberton sold the company. After the sale only two more new issues were published. Classics Illustrated continued to be published until 1971 when the distributor stopped carrying the title due to poor sales.
Over the following decades the title of Classics Illustrated along with its familiar black and yellow logo was licensed out to several new publishers.
In 1990 First Comics, working closely with Berkely Publishing, gained the rights to use the familiar black and yellow logo. With art by such modern luminaries as Gahan Wilson, John K. Snyder III, Rick Geary and Bill Sienkiewicz, the title went a respectable twenty seven issues. Presently the First-Berkely titles are being reprinted by Papercutz.
Today there are several publishers dedicated to bringing classics to the comic reader. There are new adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and many other as well as world class myths and children’s classics out there for anyone willing to look.
Jim Salicrup and the crew at Papercutz are keeping the original name of Classics Illustrated, that familiar and loved black and white logo, alive on bookshelves. In addition to faithfully reprinting the 1900 First-Berkely series, the company has created a line of Deluxe Editions that reprint stunning European adaptations of well known classics such as The Wind in the Willows and Around the World in Eighty Days.
In India, Campfire Graphic Novels has built an incredible line of titles devoted to biography, literature and myth. The company has a far ranging selection that covers Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Alice in Wonderland and The Hound of the Baskervilles.
There are books stories devoted to Indian myths and legends such as Krishna and the dramatic narrative of the Princess Draupadi. This latter title is a terrific way to introduce the stories of another culture to both adults and children. The parallels with our own western myths are revelatory while not a sentence ever betrays the Indian origin of the fable. Written by Saraswati Nagpal, it is just one of the many delights to be found among the company’s listings.
The company Graphic Classics is now on their twenty-fourth anthology of new adaptations of classics literature. Instead of doing individual books they often group stories by subjects such as Native American Classics or Halloween Stories. They also devote entire issues to individual authors, such as Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Bram Stoker and Edgar Alan Poe.
Taking a page from Gilberton’s publishing manifesto, when a book goes into reprint, they will change the cover and add or subtract stories. This allows for more stories to get out among fans and also creating a new collectible. The incredible number of creators they have attracted over the last few years is impressive. They include Timothy Truman, Rick Geary, Seth Frail (killer cover to the second printing of the H. G. Wells book) and many others.
For the past few years Jack Lake Productions has engaged in a series of reprints that take the original Gillberton run and makes them available in new and fresh editions. Their work on Classics Illustrated Juniors is one of the highlights. They are so devoted to the original run that they are also doing the World Around Us series as well. A few years ago they did a wonderful poster featuring the covers of all original Gilberton titles. It is available through eBay and other sources and is a must for any serious fan.
If you are new to CI, there are two excellent references. In 2011 McFarland published the updated second edition of Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History. Written by William B. Jones, it includes great text articles covering the title’s origin and key players. It also provides some very insightful info on many of the long forgotten artists and writers who worked on CI. The new edition has a section devoted to the modern publishers as well.
Classics Central.Com is the web companion edition to The Complete Guide to Classics Illustrated by Dan Malan. The site offers every cover and every version of the covers possible. They also detail the painted covers in new editions and detail other changes that took place over the years. The art they have showcased will entertain you for hours.
The legacy inspired by Mr. Kanter’s vision and hard work all those years ago continues to this day. He was right on the money on what the public would enjoy. But he still managed to upset critics with what he put out. Such covers as the original art for the CI adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were hard to deal with even when they originally came out. Today they look horrific.
Classic Illustrated titles, especially in the early days, were violent. But Kanter’s argument that the originals were even worse was sound and rooted in reality.
What a run, what a title. There is a treasure trove of comic history created under the Classics Illustrated banner. Every comic fan in the world owes it to themselves to spend a few minutes checking out this titles long and wildly entertaining history.