Everything is Illuminated

Memory lane is often a dead-end street, all promise and no delivery. So when I received copies of newly published Classics Illustrated comics, I wasn't sure I wanted to open them, because I was afraid they wouldn't be nearly as good as I remembered. The predecessors of those books were the touchstones of my childhood, which I spent reading and rereading the comics versions of novels by Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper—the list was tilted overwhelmingly toward boys, it being an article of faith in the comic-book business that girls were not good customers. Between 1941 and 1971, the lifetime of the original company that produced those comics, millions of kids read them—and sometimes not just kids: between 5 million and 10 million copies were shipped to GIs overseas during World War II.

Along with Lincoln Logs and chemistry sets, Classics Illustrated was part of that goofy but well-intentioned trend in the mid-20th century that sought both to educate and entertain America's youth. Each issue contained a retelling of a well-known novel, supplied facts about the author and also included—I am not making this up—a biography of a scientist or inventor and the stirring tale of a brave dog. There were also issues on science and history and fairy tales. If that sounds dreadful—it wasn't. I should know. That was where I first discovered just how good stories could be.

Now bound in hardcovers, and selling for $15—a hundred times the original cover price—the new Classics Illustrated books don't closely resemble their predecessors, whose style was generally uniform, more or less like Prince Valiant in the funny papers. (Note to purists: if it's the old versions you hanker for, they're still being published by Jack Lake Productions.) The new series will use a different artist with every book, and the styles will vary radically. If the first two, "Great Expectations" and "The Wind in the Willows," are any indication, Papercutz, the company now licensing the brand, has set very high standards for its new series.

The first two books in the new line have been previously published. Rick Geary's "Great Expectations" first appeared in 1990 as part of a previous attempt to revive the Classics Illustrated imprint. Geary ambitiously tries to render Dickens's great novel down to 56 pages, and the result is a visually crowded work, with lots of practically postage-stamp-size panels necessary to squeeze in this hideously complicated story. The book reminded me of film director John Ford's observation that it's easier to make a movie out of a short story than a novel, because then the question becomes how to enrich the tale, not how to cut it. It's a measure of Geary's talent that the story of the orphan Pip and his search for his anonymous benefactor still manages to read easily and swiftly, but he is probably not the best choice to illustrate Dickens. Temperamentally, he's simply not dark enough. His version of "Great Expectations" misses most of the danger and all of the gloom. Still, you can't fault him for lack of ambition.

"The Wind in the Willows " is something else again. First published in four volumes in France in 1996, Michel Plessix's rendering of Kenneth Grahame's story is a visual masterpiece—Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger have met their Michelangelo. Every frame is drawn and colored with meticulous care. Every elegant page is composed with a dual purpose: to enchant the eye and to further the various narratives that make up the loose plot. Plessix knows how to advance and retard the story's pace. He knows just when to zoom in and when to pull back for a wide shot. The new illustrated version prompted a vivid memory of many long hours spent lying on my bed, spellbound by the adventures of D'Artagnan and Ahab and John Silver. Plessix's "The Wind in the Willows" is a book to get lost in—and "lost in" implies, if not a completely different world, then at least a place as alien as it is beguiling. Plessix reminded me that Classics Illustrated was the way I got in.

Plessix's version isn't better than Grahame's—it's just a different way of telling the story. They're not mutually exclusive. You can choose both—or either—and not go amiss. I sat down with Plessix's and Grahame's versions, read them side by side, both for the first time, and I can't say that one is better, other than the significant fact that Grahame dreamed it all up in the first place (although the fact that we wouldn't have Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" without Shakespeare's does nothing to diminish Mendelssohn). Their charms are different, but each man has created a wonderful world, one out of words and the other in images.

Papercutz has borrowed well to kick off its rejuvenated line, and a sneak peek at its forthcoming "Alice in Wonderland" proves that its freshly commissioned work is no less dazzling. It had better be. Half a century ago, Classics Illustrated competed only with superheroes in spandex, Archie and Jughead and Little Lulu. It ruled its particular niche in more or less lonely solitude. Since the original company shuttered in 1971, comics have become a recognized art form with a full complement of resident geniuses as various as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman and Mariane Satrapi. The ways to pursue what the late comics genius Will Eisner described as "sequential art" continue to prove limitless. Marvel recently introduced a sleek classics line. There's also a splendidly inventive series called Graphic Classics that devotes each issue to several stories by an individual author (Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson), with each story illustrated by a different artist—and in its adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," it cleverly employs two artists: one to illustrate the criminal career of Hyde, the other to illuminate the confession of Dr. Jekyll. There's even a set of Shakespeare's plays rendered in the style of Japanese manga comics —but hark!—with Shakespeare's dialogue intact.

You can't go wrong with any of these series. But the old question posed by strict teachers and worried parents still hangs in the air: shouldn't you be reading the originals and not wasting your time on what used to be called "funny books"? For anyone who grew up reading the illustrated Melville and Hugo—that would be me—the answer is, maybe not. After all, one of the hardest parts of growing up was discovering that great fiction did not necessarily come with illustrations.

For kids who came of age after World War II, Classics Illustrated was our first encounter with stolen—or, put more mildly, borrowed—goods. How many kids, from the '40s through the '60s, first encountered Captain Ahab or Jean Valjean or Madame Defarge in the pages of those comics with the unforgettable yellow logo in the top left corner of the cover? Did we know who Charles Dickens was, or Victor Hugo, or Herman Melville? Probably not. We just knew that these were good stories, to be read and reread and passed around. We did not care particularly where they came from, if we thought about that at all. Somebody named Hugo wrote "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but he didn't draw the pictures in our comics, any more than he had anything to do with the old black-and-white movie that we sat through every time it came on TV. Which suggests an intriguing esthetic principle: might we say that a truly great novel or movie or play is one that so thoroughly works its way into the culture that we forget who created it in the first place? Are these not ultimately the most potent stories, the ones that belong to everyone, and no one? It's about as close as we get to myth these days.

To their credit, the artists and writers who created the Classics Illustrated versions were—and still are—a lot more scrupulous than their audience when it came to source material. They took few liberties with their adaptations. What they did was an act of, if not love, then certainly respect for the original. My senior year in high school, I took a test on "A Tale of Two Cities," a book I had somehow failed to read. What I had read, years before, was the Classics Illustrated version—read it so often that I had the story pretty much by heart. I aced the test.

I felt genuinely guilty ever since about what I did, and I never did it again. (Although I still think force-feeding Dickens to high-school students is a dumb thing to do.) But if I hadn't devoured those comics as a child, would I have grown up to be a voracious reader? I certainly never took the advice at the end of every comic to visit my local library or bookstore and read the original work—at least not immediately. But Classics Illustrated taught me the value of good stories that I otherwise would not have read at all. As an adult, I am much more mindful of authorship and questions about the integrity of the text, issues that children don't care about. But then, children are more ruthless about what they consider entertaining. They don't love books because they think they should. They love stories that deliver, and Classics Illustrated always had the goods. Looks like it still does.