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Classics Illustrated #124: The War of the Worlds (Gilberton, 1955)

Classics Illustrated - War of the Worlds. Click for larger image.

The Classics Illustrated series was created by one of those driven individuals with a real mission in life. Albert Lewis Kanter (1897-1973) had a vision that he could introduce some of the world's greatest literature to a generation of children reluctant to pick up the original books. In 1940, he was working for the Elliott Publishing Company, which was then repackaging unsold comics for resale. This gave him the germ of an idea to try something entirely different. The American Comic Book industry was then coming under sustained attack for what was seen as its negative influence on young readers. Sterling North, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News had led this attack, writing that comic books were "badly written and badly printed. A strain on young eyes and young nervous systems the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant [and] unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the comic magazine."

North's attack, while far from fair, was widely read and supported, so Kanter's idea was a timely one. In October of 1941, Kanter founded what would become known as The Gilberton Company, and the series was launched with a 64-page adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. Not only did it contain the reworked novel, but unusually for the time, there were no ads in the book other than for the Classic Comic range. Kanter did not want his comics sullied by any crass commercial aims. Further to this, supplemental material included biographical and historical texts.

The series would eventually run for 169 issues, with an additional spin off series called Classics Illustrated Juniors accounting for many more. Of course, one can't help suspect that many a child facing a deadline for a school book report made unfair use of the Classics Illustrated books. Though I can't imagine the thought bothered Kanter unduly. His comics got into the classroom officially, were endorsed by educators and for a time, the series ranked as the largest juvenile publication on the planet. The kids may have thought they were avoiding a chore, but in terms of titles consumed, many of them had probably inadvertently exposed themselves to a broader range of "literature" than anyone could reasonably hope for. If just a little of that rubbed off, then Kanter had surely achieved his aims.

The War of the Worlds edition of Classics Illustrated was number 124 in the series. Drawn by Lou Cameron (who went on to write westerns) and written by Harry Miller, this is one Classics Illustrated that has been particularly well remembered and acclaimed. When the series was briefly revived by First Comics in the early 1990's, artist Ken Steacy was asked to redraw the story, but declined, having apparently said Martian Tripod model inspired by Classics Illustrated."There is no way I could have done it any better." Certainly the art is striking. The cover is simply superb, and Cameron's Tripods are a masterpiece of design, and have even inspired a model kit.

The story is reasonably faithful to the novel and retains its period setting, though given that Kanter was doubtless keen to maintain his good relationship with educators, you wonder if there was some ulterior motivation for the dilution of the story that takes place, such as for instance the scenes between the narrator and the priest. In the original novel, this powerful chapter exposes a real raw nerve in Wells, who had little love for the church, and the dispatch of the priest is strong stuff for the time and likely to have still raised hackles in 1955 America. Classics Illustrated: War of the Worlds. Click for larger image.Equally, some material is added that is very welcome. The page illustrating the artillery mans speculation on the fate of humanity under the Martians is especially good, with a great panel depicting human collaborators hunting down their fellow men.

While the art has certainly dated, the strength of the Gilberton series has held firm. I would certainly recommend any parent hoping to inspire an interest in the "classics" of literature to consider exposing their children to this excellent version of the story.


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Marvel Classics: The War of the Worlds

Marvel Classic Comics: The War of the Worlds. The novel gets a more extreme and faithful comic book makeover from Marvel.

Best Sellers Illustrated: The War of the Worlds

Best Sellers Illustrated. The Martians invade in the early years of the 21st century in this post 9-11 re-imagining of The War of the Worlds.

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