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Classics for Kids: The Wonderful World of Classics Illustrated

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.


The Start of a Journey

When I was about eight, one rainy day, I darted into an old book shop for shelter. It wasn’t happenstance that my choice of shelter involved books. I loved reading and had already discovered the pleasures of the written word. I was voracious in my appetites (and still am) and didn’t discriminate in what I read. But there were still some books in my school library that were inaccessible to me as I was a junior. The stern librarian told me that she wasn’t expecting somebody my age to be borrowing dark, dusty, heavy tomes of classics that were for the older child. Instead I was told to pick my choices from abridged slim versions. I used to longingly look at those tall shelves and wonder what tales waited to be discovered among those leather bound wonders.

Our family couldn’t afford ‘new’ books and new book shops were off limits. My parents felt that I would be enamoured and entrapped in there. They were upset that they couldn’t afford to buy me the books I wanted new, but did encourage me to look for cheaper alternatives in thrift shops and old book vendors.


A wonderful find

As rain dripped from the eaves and drenched my shirt at the back I peered longingly at the dusty array of tattered books piled on a large wooden table. Among this pile something caught my eye. A vividly coloured painted cover proclaiming the ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas . The bright yellow logo boasted black cursive lettering which said’ Classics illustrated’.

It was cheap and within the purchasing ability of my meagre pocket money. I bought it and read the entire 64 pages of beautifully illustrated, action packed tale of Athos, Porthos and Aramis on the way home, as the rain stopped and the clouds cleared. I was lucky I didn’t get run over. I was totally immersed in17th century France. I was D’artagnan, flourishing my sword chivalrously as I trundled along the street. ‘tous pour un, un pour tous’ – all for one and one for all.

Thus began my love affair with the wonderful world of Classics Illustrated.

Classic Illustrated no: 1 - The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Classic Illustrated no: 1 - The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Classics Illustrated

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Classics illustrated introduced millions of children to the world of celebrated works of literature in an accessible and memorable format : In a comic book form. At the time when comics usually meant superheroes and masked vigilantes, it was a daring move to publish the classics of world literature.

It wasn't long before I discovered piece by piece the entire canon of Classics Illustrated line and devoured them. I had quickly and voraciously familiarised myself with a wealth of world literature.

And rather than dumb me down as my father feared reading 'comics' would, it gave me an appetite to read the 'real' thing. It wasn't long before I was back at the Library, facing the very same Librarian.

Moments later I walked away clutching the leatherbound versions of the original novel and its sequels, having dazzled the librarian with my summary of the story and the details I learnt from the comic. She was even impressed that I knew there were two Alexandre Dumas - ( father and son) and it was Dumas père who wrote the D'artagnan memoirs. So much for the cheap and humble illustrated comic.

The sequel to Three Musketeers

The sequel to Three Musketeers

Albert Lewis Kanter ( 1897 - 1973)

Albert Lewis Kanter ( 1897 - 1973)

The Genius of Albert Kanter

Classics Illustrated was the brainchild Albert Lewis Kanter, a visionary publisher and self taught connoisseur of world literature. A voracious reader himself, he managed to read many of the world classics, after leaving school without any further formal education. He was born in Baranovitch in Russia ( now in Belarus) in April 11, 1887 and emigrated with his family to United States in 1904.

He worked initially as a travelling salesman and then moved into real estate. He got married to Rose Ehrenrich in 1917 and the couple went on to have three children. During the Great Depression, Kanter lost his interest in real estate and moved his family to New York where he was employed by the Colonial Press and then by the popular Elliott Press. He designed a best selling Appointments diary for Doctors and Dentists and was also involved in designing a toy telegraph set.

This was the 1930s and 40s were the Comic books were very popular read among the American children. The colourful tales of superheroes and mutants were enthralling and expanding. Elliott press at this time was re-packaging and selling some remaindered comics. Kanter, with his enduring love of classics and world literature had an idea.

The Birth of 'Classics Comics'

Kanter wanted to introduce the marvelous works of literature to the superhero obsessed youngsters using the same comic book medium . With the backing of two business partners, Kanter created 'Classics Comics' in 1941 with the publication of issue no:1, The Three Musketeers.

The line varied greatly from the usual run of comics- it featured an adaptation of an original work of literature, it was double the size of normal comics at 64 pages and also featured biographical details of the author and popular educational fillers such as 'heroes of science'. It carried no intrusive advertisements and was printed with high quality art.

As it was also a complete and stand alone story, rather than run out, the line was reprinted while retaining the issue number to aid collectors. These were revolutionary ideas at this stage.

The first issue print sold out quickly prompting Kanter to being adaptation of Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Moby Dick, The Tale of Two cities, Robin Hood and Arabian Nights, all popular and revered classics in their own right.

What is exciting is the fact in that within a first 12 issue run, Kanter had taken the young reader from 17th century France, to the Scottish skulduggery, a prison adventure, the American Frontier, a whaling ship, the French Revolution, the outlaw thrills of Nottingham forest and the fantasy mystique of Arabia. No other line could lift you up to such highs in the first dozen run of a 10 cent comic book.

The Evolution of Classics Comics

The Classic Illustrated line ran from 1941 to 1962. The entire run consisted of 169 titles. By the fourth title, Kanter scented success and moved operations from the auspices of Elliot comics and created his own publishing line called Gilberton Inc.

Throughout the run, there were frequent reprints. The name changed from Classics Comics to the now well known Classics Illustrated in March 1947 ( issue 35).

The series was so popular it sold over 200 million copies during its 21 year original run. Wartime paper shortages and postage issues forced Kanter to change the page numbers from 64 to 56 initially and then to 48. But the popularity and the educational value never diminished.Kanter constantly strived to improve the quality by employing good artists.

He changed from line drawn to painted covers that made the comics stand apart from others as you can see from the following examples.

The series ended its glorious run in 1962 due to various reasons. The escalating cost of postage and paper made it difficult to maintain the 35 cent price tag during its last years. The sales perhaps dwindles due to the allure of the idiot box, the Television. Kanter sold the rights to publisher Patrick Krawley of Twin circle in 1962 after the publication of one of the last classic titles , Faust. (by curious coincidence, the story of a pact with the Devil by Goethe!)

Authors and Genres

Kanter was happily indiscriminate in his choice of classics. No genre was out of bounds, thank God. He picked freely and frequently from a wide canon of authors and genres, much to the delight of the young mind.

If you were a regular reader of the series, you never reallied that at one issue you will be reading a Greek fable and the next will be a Gothic romance. You may be marvelling at the wonder of the Journey to the center of the Earth with Jules Verne and equally at home in the american Wilderness reading the White Fang. By the time I was 10, I was familiar with Dostoyeksy and Stevenson, Washington Irving and Samuel Clemens, Hugo and Dumas, Bronte and Verne.

What was amazing is how much educational value the series had, introducing what could easily be a dusty old and 'uncool' ancient stories to young readers who became isntantly familiar with diverse forgotten classics. It made me then seek out the original volumes and read them with equal vigour, enhancing my language skills.

Learning without learning

I learnt world history, author biographies, snippets of science and information about great heroes and leaders. I think my classrooms paled into insignificance when you look at the wealth of information I learnt from this amazing series, like a best teacher - making every subject exciting, entertaining and informative.

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