When I was a kid, an older cousin gave me a bunch of “Classics Illustrated” comic books. This series, long since out of print (at least in comic book form) was designed to introduce young readers to classic literature by putting them in a short and entertaining format. My cousin (no fool she) had used them to do book reports.

I thought they were way cool, and started buying them myself, until eventually, with what she’d given me and what I bought, I must have had a hundred. Then my taste gave way, as I got a little older, to DC and especially Marvel comics. The Classics Illustrated books went into a box.

Years later, well after I finished college and even law school, my Mom called me and asked what she should do with that old box of comics. “I don’t have any place for them,” I said quickly. “Just throw ‘em out.”

That turns out to have been a foolish choice. As near as I can figure, my little collection (assuming they weren’t rotted away) would be worth several hundred dollars, maybe even as much as a thousand. Oh, well…

But I don’t regret my choices as a pre-teen and teen. The Classics Illustrated books have some great stories, like “King Solomon’s Mines”, “The Sea Wolf”, and “The War of the Worlds”. They were also an introduction to more weighty works like “Moby Dick” and “David Copperfield”.

Later, my fan passion was transferred to series about characters like Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Spidey, in particular, got my attention. He was a teen-ager (like me), he had growing up issues (like me), he had girl problems — I liked to think like me, but most of mine weren’t far enough advanced to rate as real problems. It would more accurate to say he had problems with chicks like Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson that I would have loved to have had.

I followed characters like Nick Fury and Peter Parker all through my teens, until I got to college and decided that comic books were no longer cool. But I never forgot them. I found out later on that I had classmates that were as hooked as I that I didn’t even know about. One classmate e-mailed me a few years ago that the best thing was the “heart-palpitating heroes.” She was referring to Captain America.

Back in the day, I paid 10 cents and 12 cents and 15 cents, on rare occasions a quarter or a half dollar, for comics. Those days are long gone. Comics these days come in graphic novels that seem to my time-warped sensibilities to be honking expensive. And comics have certainly entered popular culture as an art form that demands attention.

Comics have also gone to the movies. Actually, that’s been true a long time, going all the way back to the 1930s Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. It also worked in reverse. Those Classics Illustrated artists leaned heavily on the film versions of some of the stories. For example, Esmeralda in the comic book version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame looks a lot like Maureen O’Hara, and the comic hunchback himself clearly was modeled on Charles Laughton.

But for the last twenty years, the DC and Marvel comics have suffused motion pictures and television. I remember when I watched the first film Spiderman starring Tobey Maguire how thrilled I was to actually see Spidey swinging through New York City, just like in the mags I bought back in the 1960s. And the incomparable Gal Gadot became Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) in a way that Lynda Carter, however gorgeous, had not.

I viewed the contemporary passion for comic art first hand when I attended a local comic convention a few weeks ago. All kinds of old comic mags were for sale (none at the 15 cents I used to pay). Original art was for sale. One kiosk sold hand-crafted paraphernalia for Dungeons & Dragons. Another featured hand-carved wands for those into Harry Potter.

Many of the attendees were in costume. We saw Star Wars and Star Trek suits. Batman was popular. One pretty young woman came as a stage magician, in tights, tuxedo jacket, and top hat. Another was dressed as a bathtub. I’m sure a lot of their fun was in dressing up.

I took a trip down Memory Lane and bought an old Classics Illustrated copy of “War of the Worlds”. It cost six bucks. You just can’t get a good 15 cent mag anymore.


A longer version of this essay appeared earlier in the Kingsport (TN) Times-News.

Photo by cdrummbks

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