Manuscripts Illuminated

by Robert Pondiscio
March 27th, 2008

NewsweekBack in the age of Ike, Elvis, and tail fins millions of kids were introduced to great works of literature in a magazine called Classics Illustrated. A new generation of CI books is on the way, and Newsweek writer Malcolm Jones likes what he sees.

Jones waxes rhapsodic about a new version of The Wind in the Willows. In illustrator Michael Plessix, Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger “have met their Michelangelo,” he writes. “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.”

Teachers have a tortured relationship with “graphic novels,” often dismissing them as mere comic books. Some of us, present company included, reflexively bridle at what we perceive as the dumbing down of challenging classics, or shrug and mumble apologetically about the need to engage students “at their level.” Jones’ perspective is enlightening. Describing the original Classics Illustrated series he notes “that was where I first discovered just how good stories could be.”

“For kids who came of age after World War II, Classics Illustrated was our first encounter with stolen—or, put more mildly, borrowed—goods,” Jones writes. “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.”

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