Classics Illustrated were comic book adaptations from classic literature, a series that Russian-born Albert Lewis Kanter (1897-1973) began in 1941 under the name Classic Comics for Elliot Publishing Company. (The series name changed in March 1947, with issue No. 35, The Last Days of Pompeii, to Classics Illustrated.) With a move to different offices in 1942, the corporate identity was changed to the Gilberton Company, Inc., which remained the publisher of the series until 1967. In that year, Kanter sold the series to California businessman Patrick Frawley, whose Frawley Corporation continued issuing titles until 1971.
Over the years the titles have been published by various companies, including First Comics in the early nineties, Jack Lake Productions Inc. in 2003 and most recently Papercutz, starting in late 2007.
Introduced under the title Classic Comics, the series started in October 1941, with a 64-page adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, followed by Ivanhoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. With the fourth issue, The Last of the Mohicans, Kanter began his own Gilberton Publications.
The first 12 issues had 64 pages, but wartime paper shortages forced Kanter to reduce each issue to 56 pages. In 1947, after the first 34 issues, Kanter changed the title from Classic Comics to Classics Illustrated, a logo with a high visibility over the next 15 years because Kanter, unlike other comic book publishers, kept his titles in print, going back to press with occasional reprintings.
In 1948, rising paper costs resulted in a reduction from 56 pages to 48 pages. In addition to the illustrated adaptations, the books featured biographical profiles, educational fillers and house ads (but no outside advertising). This 48-page format continued throughout the run.
Between 1941 and 1962, sales totaled 200 million on Gilberton's Classics Illustrated adaptations of great works of literature, including Don Quixote, Frankenstein, Hamlet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jane Eyre, Lord Jim, Macbeth, Moby-Dick, Oliver Twist, The Red Badge of Courage, Silas Marner and A Tale of Two Cities. Kanter also began several spin-offs, including The World Around Us and the 77-issue Classics Illustrated Junior with fairy tales and folk tales for younger readers.
Lou Cameron was the illustrator of The War of the Worlds (#124, January 1955) and The Time Machine (#133, July 1956). Other artists who contributed to Classics Illustrated included Jack Abel, Stephen Addeo, Dik Browne. Sid Check, Leonard B. Cole, Reed Crandall, George Evans, Graham Ingels, Henry C. Kiefer, Alex Blum, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Jack Kirby, Roy Krenkel, Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando, Norman Nodel, Rudolph Palais, Norman Saunders, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Angelo Torres, Al Williamson and George Woodbridge.
Kanter's last new issue was Faust (#167, August 1962), and in 1967 he sold his company to Twin Circle publisher Patrick Frawley, who brought out two more issues but mainly concentrated on foreign sales and reprinting older titles. After four years, Twin Circle discontinued the line because of poor distribution. Classics Illustrated had many foreign editions. The American editions had 169 titles with many specials. By the early 1970s, Classics Illustrated and Junior had been discontinued, although the Classics Illustrated branding would be used on at least one made-for-TV film, an adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
In 1990, First Comics partnered with Berkeley Publishing to acquire the rights and Classics Illustrated returned with new adaptations and a line-up of artists that included Kyle Baker, Dean Motter, Mike Ploog, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz, Joe Staton and Gahan Wilson. However, First's line lasted a little over a year.
- The Raven & Other Stories
- Great Expectations
- Through The Looking Glass
- Moby Dick
- The Scarlet Letter
- The Count Of Monte Cristo
- Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
- Tom Sawyer
- The Call Of the Wild
- Rip Van Winkle
- The Island Of Dr. Moreau
- Wuthering Heights
- Fall Of the House of Usher
- The Gift Of the Magi
- A Christmas Carol
- Treasure Island
- The Devil's Dictionary
- The Secret Agent
- The Invisible Man
- Cyrano de Bergerac
- The Jungle Books
- Robinson Crusoe
- Rime of the Ancient Mariner
- Aesop's Fables
- The Jungle
In 1997-1998, Acclaim Books, the successor to Valiant Comics, published a series of recolored reprints in a digest-size format with accompanying study notes by literary scholars. The Acclaim line included Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with art by Frank Giacoia, and The Three Musketeers, illustrated by George Evans. The series favored Mark Twain with reprints of Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper and Tom Sawyer. Other reprints in this series were Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables.
In 2003, Toronto's Jack Lake Productions revived Classics Illustrated Junior, also reprinting from the original editions. In 2005, Jack Lake Productions published a 50th anniversary edition of Classics Illustrated's The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in both hard and softcover versions. In early 2006, Jack Lake Productions in collaboration with First Classics began worldwide licensing of artwork associated with Classics Illustrated, Classics Illustrated Junior, Classics Illustrated Special Issues and The World Around Us titles.
Of the 162 British titles, there were 13 that never appeared in America, plus some variations in cover art. UK issues never published in the United States include Aeneid, The Argonauts, The Gorilla Hunters and Sail with the Devil. The British Classics Illustrated adaptation of Dr No was never published under the U.S. Classics Illustrated line, but instead was sold to DC Comics which published it as part of their superhero anthology series, Showcase.
In 2007, it was announced that Papercutz has recently acquired the license and will begin publishing graphic novels starting with The Wind in the Willows. They will be combining reprints of some of the original titles with new modern adaptations, largely produced in France, the first of which will be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with art by Severine Lefebvre. In November 2007, Jack Lake Productions Inc., published for the first time in North America #170 The Aeneid (originally published in the UK) along with #1 The Three Musketeers, #4 The Last of the Mohicans and #5 Moby Dick. There will be many more original "Gilberton" titles released in 2008.
Other companies producing comic adaptations of literature:
- William B. Jones Jr., Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, with Illustrations (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002).