Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Classics Illustrated Comics, Remembering Science Fiction’s Printed Past

In the 20th century, science fiction became mainstreamed primarily through SF pulps periodicals in the beginning, outside of regular novel releases.  Monthly publications presented stories and art to readers often with outrageous covers and lurid images accompanying the story.  Comic books became another vector for SF most especially through Classics Illustrated in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Long before our modern “graphic novels” Classics Illustrated produced a series of 169 well-known titles from the mundane to the fantastic with a publication history that ran from 1941 to 1971 for the original series.  They were originally named Classic Comics Presents for the first five releases and then as Classic Comics Illustrated for the next two, after which they were dubbed Classics Illustrated.  When the earlier seven titles were reprinted, they were put under the Classics Illustrated banner thereafter.  They were printed in several countries over the years and in a number of different languages. Classics Illustrated was a stepping stone from the old-style pulps of the 20s and 30s and into a newer form at allowed slimmed down version of text stories with illustrations. 

I remember Classics Illustrated fondly, most especially as I bought them at flea markets when I was looking for more traditional text SF books in the 1960s.  In the days before computers, used book shops, flea markets, and garage sales were prime places to hunt books.  Few of the old Classics Illustrated comics I turned up were in mint condition and some clearly had been read hard and put away wet.  Many early printings in excellent condition can command high prices in the collector’s market.

Science fiction and horror/weird fiction were well represented in the repertoire of the Classics Illustrated series with several classic SF stories.  Interestingly, a good portion of them were stories that were Victorian in origin and more importantly (for the publisher) many were out of copyright. 
Some of the writers represented by Comics Illustrated were Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelly, and Mark Twain.  Alas, there was no Robert E. Howard and no H. P. Lovecraft, although (surprise surprise) Talbot Mundy’s, King of the Khyber Rifles #107 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s, A Study in Scarlet  #110, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes #33, and The White Company #102 are in the lineup.  Additionally, The Man Who Laughs #71 by Victor Hugo appears, which was made into an outstanding silent movie* and the basis of the character of The Joker, makes an appearance in the lineup. 

You’ll easily recognize these classic gems of SF, horror and weird fiction, many of which were made into film, some several times over the years:
  Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde #13
  Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court #24
  Frankenstein #26
  Mysterious Island #34
  Poe’s Mysteries #40
  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea #47
  Around the World in 80 Days #69
  The Gold Bug/The Tell Tale Heart/The Cask of Amontillado #84
  King Solomon’s Mines #97
  War of the Worlds  #124
  The Time Machine #133
  First Men in the Moon #144
  Invisible Man #153
  Food of the Gods #160
  Robur the Conqueror #164

In this day and age of reduced reading habits and reduced comprehension, comic books/graphic novels can be a way to hook kids into reading.  This isn’t to say comics and graphic novels are just for kids – by no means.  A love of reading is one of the most important tools you can have in life.  I had previously said before it was my father reading Tintin books (and others) to me, when I was still years away from attending school, and that got me hooked on the idea of reading even before I could read myself.  Parents, read to your kids if you love them and no age is too early to demonstrate reading to them even if they are too young to read them selves.


*The Man Who Laughs (1928) a silent firm starring ConradVeidt, is based on the Victor Hugo story from 1869.
Other Links of Interest
List of Classics Illustrated Comic Books  http://www.tkinter.smig.net/classicsillustrated/list.htm

For those of you interested in those earlier SF periodicals check out this Pulps Primer:  http://io9.com/5680191/where-did-science-fiction-come-from-a-primer-on-the-pulps   and one on the origin of SF pulps:  http://www.pulpdom.com/history.html

For those interested in pulps covers of all types, check out this blog on just this subject:  http://pulpcovers.com/

An archive of pulps, many of which are downloadable   https://archive.org/details/pulpmagazinearchive

Project Gutenberg has the full text versions, in several formats, of these same stories for download for free:  https://www.gutenberg.org/ 
No, sorry this is just a spoof cover CI never made one


  1. I always wanted to see these come back in the modern high-end format, but with different works. Neuromancer, Dandelion Wine, Stranger In A Strange Land, VALIS....

  2. I fully agree with you about a modern reissue in high definition. The easiest to tackle would be those works that are out of copyright. Some of those titles would be from H. P. Lovecraft, who is enjoying a resurge in interest. With the Steam Punk crowd, Jules Verne would be a hit as well. Graphic novels are a fantastic way to introduce classic SF to readers. There's a lot of new, young graphic artists out there who could produce these works. Let's get some young blood working on these stories in graphic format. I always thought that the Foundation Trilogy would make a great graphic novel.