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Classics Illustrated

Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Comics, Publication.

US Comics publication. Published by The Gilberton Company Incorporated and later Frawley Corporation from 1967 (see below). 169 issues in total, from 1941 to 1971.

Founded in 1941 by Alfred Lewis Kanter (1897-1973) to introduce reluctant readers to classic literature, Classics Illustrated proved to be one of the few success stories in US comics publishing which did not focus on Superheroes. Originally entitled Classic Comics until #35, the enterprise published adaptations of a great many established works of literature, several of them fantasy or sf. Early titles of genre interest include "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" (#13), based on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, and "Frankenstein" (#26) based on Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Among the numerous adaptations of novels by Jules Verne were "Mysterious Island" (#34), based on L'île mystérieuse (1 December 1874-5 December 1875 Le Temps; 1874-1875 3vols; trans as The Mysterious Island 1875 3vols); "Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea" (#47), based on Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (20 March 1869-20 March 1870 Magasin d'Éducation et de Récréation; 1870 2vols; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872); and perhaps most importantly, "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" (#138), based on Voyage au centre de la terre (1864; exp 1867; trans as Journey to the Centre of the Earth 1872).

From H G Wells, The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) was adapted as #124, "The War of the Worlds", a celebrated issue which saw several printings; The Time Machine: An Invention (January-May 1895 The New Review; rev 1895) was adapted as #133, "The Time Machine"; and The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance (12 June-7 August 1897 Pearson's Weekly; 1897) was adapted as #153, "The Invisible Man".

Further authors of sf relevance whose works became Classics Illustrated comics include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard, Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe, among many others. The numerous artists who worked on the series included Jack Abel (1927-2009), Dik Browne (1917-1989), Lou Cameron, George Evans (1920-2001), Roy G Krenkel, Gray Morrow, Norman Nodel (1922-2000), Joe Orlando (1927-1998), Pulp artist Norman Saunders (1907-1989), Joe Sinnott (1926-2020) and George Woodbridge (1930-2004).

Classics Illustrated sold an estimated two hundred million copies in total between 1941 and 1962. Another mark of its popularity was that it commanded a cover price of 15¢ for most of its existence, as compared to other contemporary comics' 10¢, or 12¢. However, the publisher somehow lost its US Post Office second-class mailing permit in 1962, drastically increasing costs. Faced also with growing competition from Television and cheap paperbacks, Kanter ceased issuing new titles later in 1962, and sold out to Patrick Frawley's Frawley Corporation in 1967. The new owners produced only two further original adaptations before concentrating exclusively on reprints, a practice which continued until the company was dissolved in 1971.

A less successful companion title – 77 issues from 1953 to 1971 – was Classics Illustrated Junior Comics, based on various folk tales and legends plus children's fiction; associated authors included Hans Christian Andersen, L Frank Baum and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This secondary publication began its numbering with #501, apparently continuing from an unidentified previous title. There was also a UK edition of Classics Illustrated, which produced 162 issues by the time of the company's demise; most were reprints of US adaptations, sometimes with different cover art, but this UK run also included thirteen titles never published in the US.

The series has since been revived repeatedly by various companies including First Comics and Pendulum Publications. From 2011 onward, Trajectory Incorporated has issued digital editions of titles from both series. [GSt/DRL]

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