by Paul Buhle
William B. Jones, Jr.: Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, MacFarland & Company, Second edition, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0786438402, 409 pages, $55 (hardcover).
(Swans - October 10, 2011) The appearance (or rather, reappearance, as a second edition) of this volume is an occasion for celebration across the world of comic art scholarship. There are no more than a dozen scholarly works (my favorites include Masters of American Comics, Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art, Underground Classics, Jews and American Comics and perhaps, although I am prejudiced, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman) in the field, nearly all of them quite recent. None is as exhaustive for any genre as this.
The story goes back to the founder of "Classic Comics" (as we inaccurately called them, in childhood), Albert Kanter, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who dreamed, made a small fortunate publishing appointment books for doctors, and dreamed big. Comics were just coming into their own at the end of the 1930s, with the wartime boom of sales to GIs and kids just ahead. By 1940, an attack had already begun on comics from authorities who insisted (as their counterparts would with television, and again the Web) that young minds were being rotted, children prepared for lives of mental limitations and perhaps crime.
Kanter had the answer to these nagging complaints: 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 the few earlier efforts at visualizing classic literature in comics for kids, and no apparent enthusiasm in public schools. But he had a good idea, fortified with the absence of copyrights for classics. From the first appearance of Classics (The Three Musketeers, in October, 1941) they were popular in the place the counted: the newsstands where kids made their own choices. In those days, a smart businessman could have a quarter million comics printed for $8,000, and Kanter apparently sold another half-million of Three Musketeers. He was off and running. In the wartime paper restrictions, he even managed to buy excess from various dailies and keep reprints going. The kids ate up titles like The Count of Monte Cristo and Robin Hood, Frankenstein, and Tom Brown's School Days, while the comics mainstream furiously pushed war comics, superheroes, and superhero war comics.
A big part of the success was clearly the art. Critics hated it and never ceased to say so (among the harshest later critics: Robert Crumb). It was stiff, stylized by any standard, and with rare exceptions, humorless, at a time when "Funny Animal" comics were beginning to make a dent, and various bizarre comic styles ("Good Girl," with skimpy-dressed superwomen, noir comics with creepy villains, etc.) just around the corner. Still, compared to Superman and almost all the knockoffs (Captain Marvel would be better, Batman weirdly good despite the insipid story lines), the earnest lines of the Classics were readable, sometimes admirable.
Jones, an attorney who is also a teacher of literature and film, is thoroughgoing when it comes to the whole business and political side, how Classics were created and grown to magnum size, how they weathered the increasing attacks upon comics during the 1950s (every comic company but Classics and EC bent down to the demands of the censors; EC stopped producing comics as such, turning Mad Comics into slick, black-and-white Mad Magazine), how they soldiered on through various ownerships and declines, only to emerge again. But for my reading, his mastery is in the art, an understanding of how the art was created, how it evolved, and what it meant to ordinary Classics devotees like this reviewer. In the last several years, Jones had written scholarly introductions to more than a dozen reprints of the old Classics, with careful attention to artists whose names, let alone their work, has been in most cases long forgotten.
The current edition has more than 300 illustrations reprinted from the original (including some pages of color) and along with Jones's own keen perceptions about this American phenomenon, gives an inner sense and flow to his narrative. Leafing through the pages or studying the pictures against the words offers a return to the charm and significance of the original, as few studies of comics can do (or at least have done).
Every reader interested in comic art, not to mention those interested in children's books, will find this volume illuminating. Close readers will find it different, more thorough and more heavily illustrated, than the original. It's a book to enjoy and appreciate again and again.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book. (back)