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Classic comics hit the bookshelves in high style

A few months ago, this newspaper reported that instead of reading the literary classics, Florida students were watching videos based on the books. One student said she was bored by reading, which gave her headaches, and another said he disliked reading because he had trouble imagining what was described on the printed page. The report caused consternation among parents fearful that their children would never learn to appreciate the joy of reading. I agree that there is cause for concern, but at the same time I don't think aversion to the chore of reading the classics is peculiar to the current young generation.

I have to confess that when I was that age, well before the era of videos, I and many other students had a way of evading the ponderous texts of the classics. We turned to what we called "classic comics."

I remember putting off Moby Dick until the day before my book report was due, then panicking when I realized that I couldn't skim through Melville and expect to get by. With a sense of guilt I turned to the Classics Illustrated version, which was faithful to the plot but about as close to reading the original as bicycling is to flying. It wasn't until years later that I tackled the real Moby Dick, and I'm glad I waited.

I'm not saying that youngsters should be exempt from reading the classics, only that shirking the task does not necessarily condemn one to lifelong literary retardation.

Comic books were the videos of my childhood days, the junk of which corrupted minds were made; and unfortunately the elite, 25-cent Classics Illustrated, which usually occupied their own exclusive rack at the drugstore, were often lumped in with the rest. They deserved better recognition. Sure, they were inadequate substitutes for literature, but judged on their own merits, they were works of art in themselves.

Their creator, Albert Louis Kantner, was a lover of the classics who deplored the popularity of the "ZIP, BLAM, ZOWIE" style of comic books and thought the public might go for something more tasteful. He was right.

Starting in January 1941 with The Three Musketeers, sales of Classics Illustrated took off and eventually reached a peak of 25-million copies a month. When Kantner sold out to Twin Circle Publishing in 1968, Classics Illustrated were being published in 29 languages. Four years later, rather than accept advertising, they were discontinued because of high production costs.

Now, 18 years later, they are back in a striking new format, printed on slick, heavy paper and priced at $3.75 a copy. The revival is a joint effort of the Berkeley Publishing Group, a mass-market book publisher; First Publishing, a major producer of comics, and the Classics Media Group, which will offer audio dramatizations and animated videos.

These new publications are too fine to be called comic books. The cartoon art varies widely in style. Moby Dick is illustrated by the dark, moody brush tones of Bill Sienkiewicz. Great Expectations features Rick Geary's folksy line art, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is done in bold, stark strokes by John K. Snyder III.

Gahan Wilson creates a bugeyed, demented-looking Edgar Allan Poe and a raven with eagle-like talons to illustrate The Raven and Other Poems. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is done in Norman Rockwell style by Michael Ploog.

The texts are about as close to the original works as cartoon captions can be. This is from the new Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick: "No fisherman about to sail the world's seas would fail to pay a call at the Whaleman's Chapel. .

.

. Father Mapple had taken that day's sermon from the story of Jonah _ I was not about to let the significance of that choice escape me. .

.

. If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists!"

That's a long way from "BIFF! POW!" For young students, the new Classics Illustrated series offers a third alternative beyond the original works and the videos, and it has a couple of advantages over TV dramatizations:

It is not designed for couch potatoes. Understanding these "comics" requires some thought and reading ability. Yet they are colorful enough to entertain readers who are easily bored.

Young readers who have difficulty imagining the scenes depicted in the original works will have no trouble grasping the images created by fine artists for Classics Illustrated.

There is also an advantage for parents: The new series is well designed to promote the joy of reading.

Daryl Frazell is book editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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