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Classics Illustrated. (Reprint series). By many different artists and authors. New York: Acclaim Books, 1996- . $4.99/vol. (Generally available in remainder stores for 4/$5.00).

Fiction; science fiction; drama; fantasy; horror

Adults, teens, kids; generally clean, but titles can vary a bit

These books are the latest reprints (I believe they're the latest) of the old Classics Illustrated comics from the 1940s. Though they were definitely comic books back then, they've been reprinted in such a way that I can consider them graphic novels; they're perfect-bound, large pocket-sized books.

Some of the books had long lists of titles with promises of new ones to come--I couldn't verify on the Internet that the promised titles actually did appear. But there are dozens of these little books available, as well as a quartet of collected editions (Horror, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Science Fiction) that I haven't seen.

Titles stretch as far back as The Iliad and The Odyssey and as far forward as All Quiet on the Western Front and Lord Jim. Most classics of the 17th through 19th centuries appears to have been adapted. Authors include Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, Dumas, Stevenson, Stowe, Melville, Verne, Swift, Scott, Kipling, Homer, Hawthorne, de Cervantes, Twain, Remarque, Douglass, and Bronte.

Every book contains a sequential-art condensation of the story plus considerable study material in the back of the book, written by serious scholars of that author and her/his book. The study material almost always includes a biography of the author, the forces that shaped the author's world, descriptions of the important characters in the story, a textual plot summary, study questions, and special boxes explaining signficiant elements or themes in or about the story (e.g., in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there are boxes about submarines and about "20,000 Leagues on Film"; in Tom Sawyer, the boxes deal with the author Bret Harte, "Love, Livy Langdon, and Becky Thatcher," "Context Race and in Mark Twain's World" [sic], "Themes: The Cave," and "Context: Tom Sawyer, after Tom Sawyer").

Adaptors are not often credited for the books; one assumes the artists did most of the adaptations themselves. Original artists whose names I recognize include Joe Orlando and George Woodbridge. All the books have had their interior art touched up by computer and have new covers by modern comics artists, such as Bo Hampton, Richard Case, George Pratt, and Clem Robins.

I'm not a comics historian, so I don't know how these books were received when they were first published. I know they have their fans, like any piece of nostalgia. Maybe back in the 1940s they were considered innovative and unusual examples of what comics were capable of. However, the changes to the comics industry since then--the increased sophistication of the art, the greater understanding of how to tell a story through sequential art, the broadening of subject matter--have rendered these books... well, quaint at best.

The problems are twofold. First, the adaptations are usually not very good. They're often confusing, and some are downright incomprehensible, because crucial scenes or character motivations haven't been included. For example, in Jane Eyre, the first 24 pages show Jane suffering unending abuse; how does she overcome this horrible beginning? Some adaptations are choppy and show scenes in a disconnected manner or introduce new characters abruptly with no explanation. And some actually changed the stories, for what purpose I can't fathom. For example, in the original Cyrano de Bergerac, the gallant old fellow is "attacked" by a falling log. In the adaptation, he's run down by a speeding coach. In Around the World in 80 Days, the original focused mostly on the character of Passepartout and his impressions of Phileas Fogg, but the adaptation makes Fogg the main character, which throws off certain parts of the story.

Second, the art is rarely better than workmanlike; it's usually uninspired hackwork, the kind of 1940s cartooning that hopelessly pegged the form as a kid-level one. (One notable exception is the adaptation of Henry IV, which is apparently a modern adaptation rather than a reprinted one. It's not great, but it's much better than the art in the other books.) It's rare to find a book where all the characters of a particular sex don't resemble one another under the different hair styles and colors. As is usual among comics artists, they apparently took few pains to create visually accurate settings; The Prince and the Pauper's castle is so pedestrian that it looks like a house rather than a castle. Actually, few of the books have much in the way of background art, focusing more on talking heads. (Books like these really make you appreciate the masters of the form from that era, like Carl Barks and Will Eisner.) The contrast between the interior art and the far superior cover art is striking and serves as yet another reminder of how dated the material between the covers is.

I suspect that the twin factors of fixed story length and deadlines contributed to some of these problems, but the sad fact is that the adaptors were rarely up to the task of adapting these often complicated books (some of which would challenge the best adaptors in the business, never mind these ham-handed individuals). To deal with the problem of numerous characters, many of the books begin their stories with an "introducing the characters and the basic story" page, which is always a sign of an author or artist's inability to clearly delinate the characters within the story.

What saves these books is the excellent study material, which is usually well-written and almost always far more interesting than the adaptations themselves--which sort of defeats the purpose of the adaptations, of course. Interestingly, the writers of the study material occasionally comment on the lapses in the comics adaptations. (One caution: the study material for Journey to the Center of the Earth makes a Freudian interpretation of the material. Only English professors still view Freud as being valid--most psychologists reject his theories these days.)

From The Odyssey, art by Harley Griffiths: Cloning had its origins in the ancient world. And notice Ulysses' hair is red in the first panel and black in the second.
From A Christmas Carol, art by Henry Kiefer: Jacob Marley the aviator!

Copyright 1997, Twin Circle Publishing/Acclaim Books

Although I think these are weak adaptations of the classics, the Classics Illustrated books might be of some interest to kids, teens, and ambitious reluctant/low literacy readers, though with the caveat that these are just introductions, not versions to rely upon. However, the study material in the individual books would definitely be of use to students studying those books, even at the college level. If you're interested in these titles, don't buy them at full price--look for them at your nearest remainder bookstore or in a factory outlet bookstore.

Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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