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I WAS rereading Hamlet the other day. Not in The Annotated Shakespeare, but my Classics Illustrated comic book, a version that introduced a lot of us to “Stories by the World’s Greatest Authors.”
Russian-born Albert Lewis Kanter, 1897 – 1973, brought out the first Classic Comics in 1941. His initial choices were The Three Musketeers, Ivanoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. Initiating a pattern maintained for 169 titles and 30 years, each presented a fairly accurate graphic rendering of its classic original. These first comics cost 10¢ each in 1941, prices moving with inflation to 15¢ and then 25¢ (through the years around $1.60 in today’s dollar).
The series became Classics Illustrated in 1947. A fairytale spinoff, Classics Illustrated Junior, came along in 1953. Between 1941 and 1962, the last year of new titles, scads of these comics were printed. Estimates vary from 200 million to more than 2 billion.
In any case, by 1967 Kanter sold the business, then known as Gilberton Company. One motivation was his losing a squabble with the U.S. Post Office over whether the Classics Illustrated series were magazines (thus qualifying for 3rd Class postage) or books (which the U.S.P.S. charged more to mail).
A passle of other companies continued reissuing titles, including a British series, a Scandinavian one, another in Brazil and yet another in Greece. Others took to distribution in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Some of the rare Classics Illustrated are quite valuable. A mint 1941 Ivanoe is listed at $6290. Many others are valued at less than $5. There’s an interesting essay by king-collect at eBay titled “Classics Illustrated comic books Identifying Reprints.”
From the beginning, Kanter’s aim was to introduce young, likely reluctant, readers to great literature. With this in mind, there was little dumbing down of content.
My Classics Illustrated devotes a quarter-page to Hamlet’s complete “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Other passages will be familiar to those recalling high school English (alas, a dying breed, if the Internet is offered as evidence).
The concluding complications of Act V Scene 2 are all described: There’s the duel, with Laertes’ poison-tipped foil versus Hamlet’s blunted weapon. Evil uncle/stepfather/King Claudius offers Hamlet a refreshment of poisoned wine. Deadly chaos ensues when the duelers inadvertently switch weapons and Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude quaffs the wine. Hamlet stabs Claudius: “The point envenom’d too. Then, venom, to thy work.”
“Now cracks a noble heart,” says Hamlet’s pal Horatio, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
The words are the same, but in my Annotated Shakespeare they’re not in cartoon balloons. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015