Classics Illustrated is a name with a long and illustrious history that published comic retellings of classic tales from 1941-1971. In it’s time it was hugely successful, but that time was long, long ago and to be honest I’ve always seen it as something of a cultural dinosaur, that came across as rather boring and just seemed like the teacher approved texts of the comics world.
I most fondly remember the series when it was brought back by First Comics in 1990 with a host of big name alternative writers and artists handling the adaptation. I remember Bill Sienkienvicz, P. Craig Russell, Kyle Baker and Gahan Wilson being involved. However, despite the big names, the comics industry had changed so much that the educational content of Classics Illustrated just couldn’t generate enough sales in comic shops at the time and it didn’t last more than a year. Now, some 18 years later Classic Comic Store Ltd has brought the line back, but instead of giving us new material they’ve chosen to reprint the comics in the original series, that ran from the 40s to the 70s. They intention is to sell them cheaply; £2.99 for nearly 50 pages and aim for the schools and library market to reach a new audience of children.
(Classics Illustrated – interior art by Reed Crandall and George Evans from Oliver Twist)
So inside each issue you get a classic tale illustrated for a previous time. And to be honest it’s just a little too bland for my tastes, with a very dry retelling and a series of rather static pages, all very well done perhaps, all anatomically correct and with the occasional moment of antiquated charm, but still feeling like the sort of comics you’re told are educationally approved. So each title is as good or as bad as you’d think, it’s all going to depend on your age and your artistic sensibilities. They tell the classic stories simply and without fuss, but for me they also do it without much excitement either. Of course, there are exceptions; like Reed Crandall’s beautiful artwork in War Of The Worlds, but even then, the story just drags the artwork down and spoils it somewhat.
(Classics Illustrated War Of The Worlds, art by Lou Cameron.)
And that might have been the end of it. I’d have just finished there and had done with it, but Molly caught sight of them and wondered what they were. She stole them away and had a good look through some of the ones she thought looked interesting. An she liked them an awful lot more than I did. Thinking that this would be a good idea to take further, I donated the comics to Molly’s school, with the proviso that I wanted to hear what they thought of them. And by and large they all rather enjoyed them. Indeed, for many of them, these were some of the first comics they’d actually read. Which says a lot more about the sad state of comics than anything else.
So Classics Illustrated is a bit of a strange beast. I can’t see them making any impact at all in the comic shops and I can’t see many comic folks really liking them as the material they’re reprinting just isn’t the sort of thing that we remember fondly. Even an appreciation of some of the artists represented is better done with their other work. But there may well be a small but enthusiastic market for them within the education sector and in libraries looking to expand the graphic novel section with something a little more educational than the latest Spider-Man collection. And children will read them, and they will enjoy them, because comics in any form, even something a little bland for the eyes of this reader, still appeal greatly to children.
Classics Illustrated is published in the UK by Classic Comic Store Ltd : website.