Political Education, Illustrated

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March 8, 2010

Classics Illustrated: Les Miserables, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Julius Caesar, The Call of the Wild. Introduced by William B. Jones, Jr. Toronto: Jack Lake Productions, $9.99 each.

European comic publishers, lagging behind the booming American comic industry, had one advantage as war and the resulting catastrophes fell across the continent at the end of the 1930s: they had thought of adapting classic literature for popular readers and scored some successes in what would become a major outpost in the pulp press after the war.

Reportedly, the shrewdest of American comic entrepreneurs, Will Eisner, father of The Spirit strip (distributed along with others in a special insert into select American dailies from 1941 onward), first tried to bring the idea to the US, but perhaps he had too many irons in the fire, already. The opportunity fell to a most unusual figure within that field of newsstand appeal, low production costs and even lower wages for artists, scriptwriters and inkers. That is, to a salesman, small-time manufacturer and son of Russian immigrants: Albert Kanter.

Kanter had developed, in the midst of the Depression, the bright idea of producing appointment books for doctors and other professionals. It was a hit and he had working capital for something more ambitious. From a business point of view, some of the greatest literature in the world was out of reach of copyrights (in the near and far future, this fact alone would make the Torah and New Testament favorites for adaptation). If that were not enough, Kanter shrewdly reasoned that while all other comics were outdated by the next issue, Classics could be reprinted and resold, more or less like regular books.

He also had a problem that he needed to turn into a solution. By the early 1940s, as an infant industry (Superman had only been introduced in 1938!) grew suddenly into a powerhouse with sales of millions to overseas military and bored civilians on the home front, comics faced the wrath of the respectable classes. The campaign against comics took another decade, the Red and Juvenile Delinquency Scares, to grow into Congressional hearings and comic-book burnings. But some educators and specialists were already warning that young minds were being corrupted, perhaps beyond salvation.

Kanter had the answer: uplifting comics, comics that introduced young people to real literature and presumably took their attention away from escapism and sadism. There was no great rush of parents buying these comics for their kids, and no early turn of public schools toward mass orders. But they were popular, and soon they caught on.

Why were they popular? We understand that best by turning to the Classics comics themselves and looking at them now, generations later. Several efforts to revive the series folded quickly, although an alternative series of inventive new titles from Graphic Classics (published from a barn some miles from Madison, Wisconsin) continue to appear. Within the last year, a Canadian reprint house has begun to do the job old-style, reprinting the originals just as before, as far as possible.

They have enlisted the one, key scholar of the subject: William B. Jones, Jr., a teacher and the author of the authoritative Classics Illustrated: a Cultural History. Each of the newly reprinted volumes, thirty-three so far (also thirty-six Classics Illustrated “Junior Titles” for younger children) with many more to come, carry his introduction to the work at hand, examined from the standpoint of the actual classic, the script and artistic adaptors for comics and his own erudite commentary on the nature of the art.

Perhaps any scholar setting out to examine any comic art so closely—at least until Art Spiegelman’s Maus came along–would not have been taken very seriously. Jones, however, is deadly serious and convincing. He sees details, like the sewers in Les Miserables, as the art critic might, appreciating the fine and not-so-fine work, the use of older art forms in comics and the modernization that came during the 1940s or after, the faithfulness to the original (or not), and the meaning for a popular understanding of the original. The comic versions, after all, expanded readership hundreds of times over. Among the readers of Les Miserables comics, I count my boyhood self, circa 1955. I found it profoundly moving and it looks pretty good now, too.

Robin Hood naturally would be one of my favorites (the television series, the very first successful British import on American TV, appeared about the same time I bought the comic, and was written by blacklisted Jewish American writers, under pseudonyms), although the Classics version had serious competition from Disney comic versions among others. Julius Caesar, possibly scripted by a (blacklisted) former highschool principal, is more unique, an attempt to do justice to Shakespeare in comics, urging (on the last page) readers to go on to the original, “obtainable at your school or public library.” Treasure Island is a jolly adventure, intensely drawn. The Hunchback of Notre Dame captures the pathos of the misshapen but kindly Quasimodo, while Call of the Wild seeks to encompass visually the nature-drama of Jack London’s original.

The list is certain to grow, and each work will have it own charm (or not) to the new generation audience. Price apart, they are poorer visually than the comics of my childhood because the printing process now seems to demand slicker paper that allows less “depth” of the color. The covers are splendid, as of old.

One of the real charms of these versions, for anyone with an interest in comic history, has got to be the comparisons of different covers across thirty years of production, in the editors’ notes. Another is the forgotten role of Kanter’s successor in giving the books a personal touch: Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht, a distinguished progressive intellectual (and intimate friend of novelist I.B. Singer) who finished off her career with books warning against the downward drift of Jewish liberalism.

Imagine comics for half-literate kids with back pages devoted to Mozart’s Magic Flute, or Victor Hugo, or the overthrow and death of Mussolini, or the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and you can grasp what these uplifter-enterpreneurs had in mind. It’s amazing.

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