Robert Fyne - Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History with Illustrations (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 81-82

William B. Jones, Jr. Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History with Illustrations. McFarland, 2002. 287 pages; $55.00.

Postwar Period

From approximately 1945 until 1955 another generation of American teenagers emerged onto the adolescent stage. Here, during these formative years, the youngsters played fast-moving neighborhood games such as Johnny-rides-a-pony, ringalevio, and spud, helped their mothers operate those ringer washing machines, while off to the side, eyed their fathers slap another patch on a tire's inner tube. In the schoolroom, they sang "The Arkansas Traveler," "Stout-Hearted Men," and "Tit Willow" while their teachers reminded them that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" or warned about the dangers of being "out of kilter."

Back in the house, these kids screwed flashbulbs into cameras, threw coal into the furnace (later, they would remove the ashes), and, when feeling mischievous, listened to some neighbor "chew the fat" on those party line telephone connections. Sometimes, they watched an older sister (or an unmarried aunt) get "dolled up" for a Saturday night dance or envied an older brother who strolled into a diner and ordered a blue plate special.

In their kitchens, these adolescents wolfed down bowls of Kellogg's Pep (Superman's official cereal), gulped glasses of Ovaltine (Captain Midnight's favorite drink), and watched their mothers toss a generous spoonful of Crisco into a frying pan, while in the background the radio adventures of Boston Blackie ("friend to those who had no friends"), The Fat Man ("Weight: 237 pounds; fortune: danger"), The Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"), We the People (Gabriel Heatter's reassuring "Ah, there's good news tonight"), and, of course, The Lone Ranger ("Who was that masked man?") emanated from the front room.

At the neighborhood shows, the youngsters cheered their favorite cowboy heroes—Johnny Mack Brown, Lash LaRue, Red Barry, Hopalong Cassidy—galloping across the plains blasting those unsavory, mustachioed villains trying to steal some widow's ranch while over in the combat zone John Wayne, Dennis Morgan, and John Garfield repeatedly routed America's Axis foes. Since the postwar period was in its incipient stages, many of the youngsters remembered those blackout shades their parents installed, the postage-stamp-sized points necessary to buy rationed food, the backyard victory gardens, those war bonds sold almost everywhere, and the Memorial Day parades, where polite spectators quietly demurred when the Gold Star mothers—sitting collectively in their convertible automobiles—passed in review.

For literary pursuits, every teenager stocked his own stash of comic books, those ten-cent purchases that provided untold enjoyment and faraway dreaming. Here in the fantasy world of Red Ryder, Little Lulu, Mandrake the Magician, Bucky Bug, L'il Abner, Smilin' Jack, Terry and the Pirates, The Little King, and Dick Tracy, these adolescents reveled in the fun and fancy these monthly publications provided. Blackhawk, Plastic Man, Batman, Archie, The Phantom, Wonder Woman, Superman—these comic book characters provided a visual education and, coupled with pride in ownership, formed the basis of a youngster's first library.

But what comic books stood out? Which titles provided the best venue for vicarious thrills? What publications combined exotic adventure pitched exclusively to young boys' yearnings while providing a backdrop for learning and serious literature? The answer—according to popular culture historian, William B. Jones, Jr.—was a collection of noteworthy titles, published monthly, using the simple inscription, Classic Comics, as a prominent logo. Here, according to the distributors, were stories by the world's greatest authors in a format that everyone could enjoy and understand.

According to Mr. Jones, Classic Comics (renamed Classics Illustrated in 1947) had become as much a part of growing-up in postwar America as baseball cards, hula-hoops, Barbie dolls, or rock'n'roll. From its modest beginnings in 1941—until the last press run in 1971—these comic books introduced GIs, bobby-soxers, and their baby-boom children to every genre of world literature encompassing such diverse works as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Frank Buck's Fang and Claw, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. By the time it was all over, 169 titles were printed (and, frequently, reissued), numerous spin-offs created, a rival copy-cat company emerged and departed, right-wing educators and reformers denounced its "immoral" format, and, as the pièce de résistance, translated editions appeared in twenty-six languages in thirty-six foreign countries.

To chronicle this elaborate history, Mr. Jones spent long hours locating every issue of Classic Comics and Classic Illustrated [End Page 81] —owned by libraries, institutions, private collectors, devotees, and simple enthusiasts—to compile an impressive twelve-part appendix that summarizes all 169 titles plus the many offshoots. Writers, artists, illustrators, designers, and painters, and, of course, the founder, Albert Kanter, are detailed and each person's contribution lauded. As Mr. Jones explains, what started as a 1941 shoestring operation eventually turned into an international publishing phenomenon. Why wouldn't it? As the noted journalist Pete Hamill remarked, these comic books provided a road map for real books.

Since all children, Mr. Jones asserts, create their own mythology as they reinvent the world, there are always tangible elements at work shaping these ideas. During this thirty-year period, thousands of youngsters fell under the spell of Classic Comics. Here, many American teenagers fantasized about War of the Worlds, Ivanhoe, or Toilers of the Sea as they evolved into adults. These narratives, of course, remained with them.

As an academic study, Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, with Illustrations mirrors this postwar generation and the influence it yielded on every reader. With dozens of original cover photos—including a wonderful center section of color reproductions—Mr. Jones' study represents the best memory book in a long time. Anyone who remembers horse drawn milk trucks, mail deliveries twice a day, faded red enema bags, pin boys at bowling alleys, the St. Louis Browns, and the "cat's meow" will love this book. It is a work of outstanding achievement.

Kean University

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