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Classics Illustrated History

In America in 1941, Albert E. Kanter, a self taught, Jewish immigrant from Russia, first published Classic Comics. He had thought up the idea of adapting famous tales and classic novels into comic book form and thereby interest youngsters in these great stories.

In October 1941 he published the first comic working of The Three Musketeers under the original heading, "Classic Comics". When the print run exceeded half a million copies he knew that he had a very successful format on his hands. Kanter began printing new titles every month or two and sales grew stronger and stronger. He began to receive letters asking for copies of earlier titles that were not to be found on the newsstands anymore. Kanter realised that people were not throwing their Classic Comics away, but were saving them and trying to get a copy of each title. Thus the collecting side of the series was born. Some of the early artwork was rather crude and some of the adaptations rather loose but the series gained considerable momentum.

In April 1943, Robinson Crusoe, number 10 in the series, was published, accompanied by reprints of numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5. Kanter was reprinting comics - unheard of in the industry until then. The comics now had lists of the available titles from number one to number ten and you could clip a coupon from the comic, send it to the publishers, Gilberton Company, and they would mail the ordered comics to you. As new titles were added to the series these lists grew longer and longer to include them. Kanter had inadvertently created a system to classify the edition of a title. When number twelve, Rip Van Winkle was published, in June 1943, the ordering list now had twelve titles and reprints of number four and seven also hit the newsstands with the number twelve original.

Almost all of the titles (169 of them) were reprinted, some up to 25 times. Originals of #1 through #34 were all produced as Classic Comics. With #35, The Last Days of Pompeii, the logo changed to Classics Illustrated in March 1947. In 1955 the Classics Illustrated Special Issues series began with #129, The Story of Jesus. The World Around Us series began in 1958. When #81 of the regular series appeared in 1951, two changes occurred. The new price of fifteen cents appeared printed on the cover of all the following originals and reprints. Number 81 also had the first painted cover, as opposed to the rather "cartoonish" Line Drawn Covers of the early editions. After this no further line drawn covers were issued. Throughout the 1950's the series flourished. Whilst parents were unhappy with their children reading the sensational Superhero comics, they encouraged them to read Classics Illustrated as an educational aid.

In 1953 the Classics Illustrated Junior series was introduced for younger readers. The first issue was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and eventually seventy seven titles were published. The series featured Fairy Tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk), folk tales (John Bunyan, The Pied Piper), myths (The Golden Fleece) and children's literature (The Wizard of Oz) in 32 page, full colour format. At its peak, in 1960, the average monthly circulation exceeded 250,000.

Gilberton added further series - Specials and The World Around Us in the US. The World Around Us was a specialised publication which dedicated each comic book to a particular reference subject - be it nature, history or science, for example. These were in full colour and were produced in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. They were published in the UK as World Illustrated (under license). Ten titles were only published in the US:

Indians Railroads The Army The Navy The Marines The Coastguard
The Air Force Festivals The American Presidents The Civil War

and there were eight titles only published in the World Illustrated series:

Life Beyond Earth The Sea Great Escapes The Golden Horde The Cossacks
Disasters The Day of Fury
(dedicated to the D-Day landings)
Northwest Passage

The Specials also provided great reference material in 96 pages of full colour including Biblical - The Story of Jesus, pioneering - Crossing the Rockies and historical - The Story of America.

Despite the series being extremely successful, Gilberton's distributor somehow convinced them to stop publishing new CI titles and publish a news magazine instead which folded within a couple of months. During most of the 1960s, only reprint editions of CI were published in the US. In 1967, Albert Kanter sold the entire business to Patrick Frawley, a Californian businessman, who attempted to revive the series.

In the late 1960's, however, the company foundered. Perhaps it was because of television, or perhaps children were drifting away from European writers who had dominated the series. A major setback occurred when the distributors who actually delivered Classics Illustrated to the various retail outlets decided that they couldn't make enough money with the cover price at fifteen cents. There are stories about the distributors returning unopened cases of new CI to Gilberton and this severely affected the viability of the series. Despite reprints and two new titles number 168 - Tigers and Traitors and number 169 - Negro Americans, Classics Illustrated stopped being printed in 1971.

In the UK, thirteen titles were produced that were never published in America including The Aeneid, The Argonauts, Sail with the Devil, The Gorilla Hunters and (perhaps the most valuable CI to be had today), Ian Fleming's Dr No. CI were produced in many different languages, including Greek, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and even Icelandic!

In 1990, Berkley First publishing published a wide range of titles using the Classics Illustrated name with new stylised logo and completely new artwork. Several new titles were published including Aesop's Fables, The Devil's Dictionary and The Island of Dr Moreau. Although these comic books were beautifully produced in perfect bound form with heavy laminate covers, they were not particularly popular and production ceased at number 27 The Jungle in 1991.

In 1996, Acclaim comics, out of New York, entered into an agreement with First Publishing to reproduce the original series in note book form and digest size. Known as Study Guides, with a section for student notes, they brought out 62 titles. The first four issues appeared in 1997 and between four and six study guides were produced monthly thereafter. Three completely new titles appeared Henry IV Part 1, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Once again, though, the initiative foundered. Stores found the series hard to categorise were they educational guides, comics or books retailers and buyers were confused and, in 1998, they ceased production.


But the story doesn't stop in 1998. In 2004, the Classics Illustrated Junior series was re-introduced by Jack Lake Productions of Toronto and began to develop a whole new generation of readers. The man behind this initiative, Jaak Jarve, was a collector of the original series and was determined that Albert Kanter's dream wouldn't die. In 2007 he began to re-print the regular series and printed The Aeneid for the first time in the US series as number 170. In early 2008, Jeff Brooks, another original collector, agreed a licensing deal with Jack Lake Productions and Classic Comic Store Ltd. began publishing the original series anew in September 2008 throughout the UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland.

For more information and reference material on this wonderful series click on the Reference Book link to the left.
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