Once the Bane of English Teachers,Classics Illustrated Comics Are Back

By Mark Walsh — January 10, 1990 2 min read

Classics Illustrated, the comic-book abridgements of great literature that were once the bane of U.S. English teachers, will return to the stores next month to entice a new generation of readers.

And some are betting that this glossy, bound revival may appeal even to a few teachers.

Priced at $3.75, the books will carry the work of top illustrators and take as few liberties as possible with text, according to Wade Roberts, editorial director of First Publishing Company of Chicago, which is producing the comics and distributing them jointly with Berkley Publishing Group.

But it is the decline in reading among today’s television-bred generation, said Robert C. Harvey of the National Council of Teachers of English, that may gain the revised line a slightly warmer reception among educators.

“Our culture has become in4creasingly visual and less linear,” said the ncte’s convention director, who is himself a former teacher and an avid cartoonist. “My guess is that many English teachers would now say, ‘I’d rather they read Classics Illustrated than nothing at all.”’

Four titles will be released in February: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and other poems. They will be followed in March by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Two more titles will follow in April, after which one a month will be released.

Classics Illustrated editions were first published from 1941 through 1972, selling an estimated 1 billion copies of 169 titles. Founded by the late Albert L. Kanter, the company showed a8profit until the late 1960’s, when it began to run out of titles.

Published on newsprint, the original comics were criticized for their formulaic artwork, which often featured the same faces in different classics.

The comics gained popularity among schoolchildren, however, as an alternative to reading hundreds of pages of assigned prose. Educators complained that the greatly abridged versions robbed students of the pleasure inherent in reading great works of literature.

“Kids could do a book report from a Classics Comic, so English teachers didn’t like them,” said Mr. Harvey, who predicted there still would be pockets of resistance.

Mr. Roberts, whose company has produced comic books ranging from Beowulf to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pledged that the new batch of Classics Illustrated would seek “to incorporate as much of the original dialogue and language as possible.”

“We’re not rewriting these things,” he said.

First Publishing is working with the Chicago chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America to provide the books for adult-literacy programs.

“Right now, there is a real problem with literacy and motivation, and Classics Illustrated is a way to get young people to read,” said Stephan K. Lau, director of Classics Illustrated for First Publishing.

George Schneider, senior vice president of Berkley Publishing Group, said his company is not planning to sell the comics as texts for schools, although it expects to get some orders from educators and libraries.

The initial press run for each volume is about 150,000 copies.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Once the Bane of English Teachers,Classics Illustrated Comics Are Back