Albert Kanter was a traveling salesman, born in Russia, who emigrated to the United States in 1904. A lover of books, he had an interesting idea. He would abridge classic literature and print it in comic book form. His goal was to introduce great literature to young audiences. Classics Illustrated (originally called Classic Comics) was a huge success and a launching pad for artists like Jack Kirby.
The first story Kanter adapted was Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Each issue contained some biographical material on the author, educational extras, and a coming attractions tease. Kanter quickly added the works of Kipling, Melville, and Walter Scott.
Back issues became valuable collector’s items. Reprint requests—unheard of in the comic book industry—eventually led to back-cover catalog-style order forms.
I used the order form on the back of one comic to buy a fat packet of my favorite titles when I was young. Classics Illustrated was my introduction to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others. If the comic caught my attention, I asked for the source material. That’s how I began wading through classic novels at the age of eight.
Over a period of twenty years, the company sold more than 200 million comics. Shortly after Kanter sold his interest, changing economics and distribution problems led to the company’s demise. After the company suspended publication, various companies have reissued versions of the comics. (Most recently, Trajectory Inc. released digital versions.)
I’ve been thinking of the “gateway drugs” that led to my reading addiction. Golden Books and Classics Illustrated, along with parents who read to me daily, did the job. I will be forever grateful.