200 Comic Book Adaptations of Classic Novels Created (1941–1971): Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Hamlet & More

Thanks to “the rise of comics as a ‘respectable’ medi­um,” Ross John­son writes at Barnes and Noble, graph­ic nov­el adap­ta­tions now con­stant­ly reimag­ine lit­er­ary clas­sics for young read­ers. One Goodreads list col­lects over 200 recent graph­ic adap­ta­tions of clas­sics from Austen to Kaf­ka. These adap­ta­tions “aim to hon­or and embell­ish rather than replace the books on which they are based,” writes John­son, “because how could they?” They do, how­ev­er, allow us to “see, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, the sto­ries we love from new angles.” They also give kids and adults who may not fan­cy them­selves read­ers new ways to access and enjoy lit­er­ary clas­sics.

But are graph­ic adap­ta­tions real­ly a new phe­nom­e­non? They may be new­ly respectable, but they’ve been around since the very dawn of com­ic books as a medi­um. Super­man debuted in 1938, Bat­man in 1939, and in 1941, the first issue of Clas­sics Illus­trat­ed appeared — an adap­ta­tion of The Three Mus­ke­teers, fol­lowed by Ivan­hoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. The series was found­ed by Russ­ian-born pub­lish­er Albert Kan­ter, who imme­di­ate­ly seized on the poten­tial of com­ic books as edu­ca­tion­al tools dur­ing what is now known as the Gold­en Age of Comics.

Even as a pres­tige series sup­pos­ed­ly pro­mot­ing “great lit­er­a­ture,” Clas­sics Illus­trat­ed did not escape the notice of Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduc­tion of the Inno­cent began the moral pan­ic over com­ic books in the 1950s. Wertham found fault with the graph­ic adap­ta­tions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Uncle Tom’s Cab­in for reduc­ing the nov­els to their most stereo­typ­i­cal and sen­sa­tion­al­ist ele­ments. It’s the kind of crit­i­cism we might find levied against graph­ic adap­ta­tions of lit­er­a­ture today, and in many cas­es, it may be war­rant­ed.

Few accused these graph­ic lit­er­ary adap­ta­tions of being great art in their own right. But they accom­plished Kanter’s pur­pose of get­ting comics read­ers excit­ed about clas­sic nov­els. The series ran for 30 years, end­ing in 1971, and became an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non. In Brazil and Greece, it pub­lished adap­ta­tions of authors from those coun­tries.

A Clas­sics Illus­trat­ed Junior series appeared in 1953, bring­ing chil­dren comics ver­sions of folk­tales and myths. After the series first run, spe­cial issues, reprints, and revivals appeared in lat­er decades, as well a series of tele­vi­sion films in the 70s and 80s. You can peruse over 200 of these adap­ta­tions dig­i­tal­ly scanned at the Inter­net Archive, arti­facts of the Gold­en Age and ances­tors of our cur­rent explo­sion of graph­ic nov­el adap­ta­tions of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture. For a deep­er study of this pub­li­ca­tion, you can pur­chase the 2017 book, Clas­sics Illus­trat­ed: A Cul­tur­al His­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Free: Down­load 15,000+ Free Gold­en Age Comics from the Dig­i­tal Com­ic Muse­um

Free Com­ic Books Turns Kids Onto Physics: Start With the Adven­tures of Niko­la Tes­la

Take a Free Online Course on Mak­ing Com­ic Books, Com­pli­ments of the Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.