September 16, 2018

My Gateway Drugs


Iíve written often enough before about the deep and lasting influence The Early Show had on me. Every weekday from three-thirty to five-thirty in the early Seventies, Green Bayís WFRV would broadcast a sometimes shockingly uncut movie. They screened everything from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to Al Adamsonís Dracula vs. Frankenstein to Walking Tall. It was that after school ritual that laid the foundation of my cinematic education and sent me off in some delightfully bad directions.

††††††††††† It occurred to me a few nights back that my literary education, when you get right down to it, began at the Red Owl grocery store.

††††††††††† When I was six or seven, the Red Owl was the centerpiece of a little strip mall up the hill from Webster, an easy fifteen-minute walk from my house. It was flanked by the Snyder Drugstore, the Golden Curl beauty parlor and a branch of the Peopleís Marine bank. It was pretty grubby as far as grocery stores went, with cold gray cement floors and bent metal shelves. There were nicer supermarkets in town, but it was close. Whatís more, Iíd become even more obsessed with the stylized owl head of its logo than I was with Piggly Wigglyís yellow pig. But none of that matters.

††††††††††† My parents were not academics or intellectuals by any stretch, but they did firmly believe in the importance of reading, and so had me reading by the time I was three, shortly after my first pair of glasses made it feasible.

††††††††††† I quickly graduated from Dick and Jane to Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman to fairy tale collections and illustrated childrenís encyclopedias to young adult fiction. Those were all fine and good, necessary stepping stones, but I wanted to get past books that felt they needed bright and overwhelming pictures to hold my interest. Those were for stupid babies. I wanted to be reading the things I saw in the adult section of the library, and I wanted to do it now. I knew thatís where the real meat was to be found, but I admittedly still had a ways to go. I didnít yet have the capacity or the vocabulary to dive straight into Dostoevsky. But I soon enough found a back door path to that goal.

††††††††††† Okay, although I was plucking †the occasional Spiderman or Batman comic off the carousel at Snyder Drugs when I was six, I had to admit I was never any kind of superhero comics geek. I would march on to MAD fairly early, as all thinking people did, and thanks to Len the Barberís magazine table I eventually found my way to Creepy and Eerie, and a bit later (thanks to The Early Show) stumbled on to Famous Monsters of Filmland.

††††††††††† One day in that brief stretch between Batman and MAD, I left Snyderís and went next door to the Red Owl with my parents. As usual, while they went about the store picking up groceries, I hung out by the small magazine shelves near the checkout. It was an easy way to keep me out of trouble. With a selection consisting mostly of magazines aimed at hunters, campers, and ladies, the Red Owl usually didnít carry much of anything that interested me, but I liked reading the titles. That day for the first time I noticed a separate rack to the right of the usual shelves, and this one was devoted to something Iíd never seen before, a comic book series called Classics Illustrated. They were different from the comics they sold at Snyderís. The covers were in a heavier stock, and they werenít glossy. Whatís more, instead of colorful line drawings of superheroes doing dramatic and super things, these covers were realistic paintings, and in many cases nothing dramatic at all was happening. Sometimes it was just a characterís face. I by no means recognized all the titles, but those I did told me these were comic versions of grown-up books, those books I wanted to be reading, but which remained beyond my meager six-year-old abilities.

††††††††††† Being a young would-be lit geek without realizing it, these were just what I was looking for. Fuck Spidermanówhoís this Ivanhoe?

††††††††††† The cover art featured a close-up of a stalwart-looking fellow with a strong jaw and a blond pageboy haircut. Although you couldnít see the rest of him, I somehow got the sense he was wearing a suit of armor. I pulled it off the rack and flipped through it, and sure enough, it was a comic book about knights. Well, that settled it. I was in the midst of my Middle Ages phase, and so had to have it.

††††††††††† When my parents returned with the grocery cart, I made my plea and held it out to them. My dad, who was apparently quite familiar with Classics Illustrated, flipped through it quickly, then tossed it in the cart.

††††††††††† Classics Illustrated was launched in 1941 by Albert Kanter, one of those earnest, optimistic types who had a brilliant idea. Comic books as we know them were still fairly new at the time, but the youngsters sure seemed to be digging them. Why not con the little bastards into a subconscious love of serious classic lit by presenting some of the worldís greatest novels in comic book form? There was more crazy shit going on in Macbeth and Les Miserables than you could find in any ten issues of Detective comicsóyou just had to prove it to them. Each title even came complete with short biographies of the author in question, as well as bits of trivia and some explanatory notes. Turns out Ivanhoe was the second Classics Illustrated title released, following The Three Musketeers. Little did I know that 1971, the year I picked up my first Classics Illustrated comic, marked the end of the original seriesí three-decade run. At that point, roughly one hundred and seventy titles had been released. They would be reprinted by other companies over the years and new titles would be added, but that was the close of the golden era.

††††††††††† I consumed Ivanhoe again and again. I admit now I didnít fully comprehend the story. But I memorized each four-color panel. Unlike all those other books Iíd been reading where everyone was always nice and happy and pleasant and everything worked out, there was real violence in Ivanhoe. Thatís what I was looking for, something I wasnít likely to encounter in the dumb childrenís lit aimed at my age group.

††††††††††† After that, every time one or both of my parents was headed to the Red Owl, I insisted on tagging along to pore over the Classics Illustrated titles. There were plenty I knew I had no interest in, like Lorna Doone, Uncle Tomís Cabin, and The Count of Monte Cristo, but they were far outnumbered by the ones I knew I needed. I donít know how many I ended up collecting before that rack disappeared from the Red Owl, but Iíve come up with a brief list of those I remember most vividly:


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Last of the Mohicans

Moby Dick

War of the Worlds

Off on a Comet


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A Connecticut Yankee in king Arthurís Court

The Moonstone

Two Years Before the Mast

Gulliverís Travels

††††††††††† I know there must be more, but those are the ones I recall some four and a half decades later. God, for all Iíve forgotten, I can still see a few panels of each clearly. As with film adaptations, the stories needed to be condensed and simplified in order to fit into forty-six pages, and yes, you ended up losing the subtleties and the brilliance of the prose in order to concentrate on plot basics, but for the most part the involved writers and artists did a spectacular job.

††††††††††† A few editorial notes on those issues I remember:

         Unlike most of the rest of the titles on that list, I never went on to read the original Ivanhoe.

         The level of violence and bloodshed in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was actually shocking to me at the time. Iím thinking of the panels in which the members of the crew grab hatchets and begin hacking the tentacles off the giant squid attacking the Nautilus, blood spraying everywhere. In later years I would come to recognize Captain Nemo in the cover painting as Walter Pidgeon.

         I only liked The Moonstone because it featured an enormous statue of the Buddha, and at the time I was also obsessed with Buddha statues for some reason.

         I picked up The Last of the Mohicans because my dad had told me the film version was the scariest movie he had ever seen. The comic was pretty brutal too. And the Mohican on the cover was Joe Namath. I dare you to tell me Iím wrong.

         I always preferred that smart-ass con man Tom Sawyer to Huck Finn, but for my money A Connecticut Yankee trumped them both, only in part because it involved knights.

         Frankensteinís cover artóthe good doctor being pursued across a frozen landscape by the monster, confused the hell out of me. I didnít remember anything like that in the movie. And when I read it at the time I was pretty disappointed, as it had nothing to do with the movie. What the hell was this? I later came to my senses on that matter.

         If Iím not mistaken, the adaptation of War of the Worlds was based more directly on the Orson Wellesí 1938 Mercury Theater broadcast than the H. G. Wells novel. I could be wrong about that.

         Having seen it for the first time within the past ten years and remembering the Classics Illustrated version panel by panel, I am absolutely convinced John Hustonís 1956 film adaptation of Moby Dick used the 1947 comic as a storyboard. Watch the movie with the comic in hand, and youíll see what I mean. This is odd, because Hustonís literary adaptations tended to remain so damn faithful to the source material. But his Moby Dick is a hell of a lot closer to the comic book than to Melville. Then again, considering the Melville, what choice did he have?

††††††††††† I donít know, ultimately, how effective Kanterís underhanded ruse wasóthat is, how many kids became hardcore literary junkies after getting that first taste in comic formóbut it sure as hell worked on me. As my taste in comics moved more decidedly toward MAD, Eerie and Creepy, I began picking up copies of the novels Iíd first read in comic book form. I was hooked bad. And that, of course, led to more troubles of its own.

††††††††††† I donít know if my mom still has any of my original Classics Illustrated comics tucked away in the old house. Iím sometimes amazed by the things she still has. Iíll need to ask one of these days, because if she does, I could retire.


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