The Return of Classics Illustrated

Gahan Wilson thought he understood Edgar Allan Poe perfectly, although he didn’t. “I’ve loved Poe forever,” says the cartoonist whose figures look like gargoyles, “and Lord knows he’s always been an influence on me.” When First Publishing of Chicago came to Wilson with the news that it was reviving the Classics Illustrated line of comic books and wanted him to illustrate the author of his choice, Wilson’s choice was easy.

“In a way,” Wilson reflects, “Poe’s great for a comic book because he’s always been disreputable. Like the comic book form.”

Wilson signed up to do “The Raven” and enough of Poe’s other poems to fill a 48-page comic book. And when he started breaking the poems down into panels, it hit him.

“In trying to visualize them, I suddenly understood I didn’t know the full imagery of them. In ‘Eldorado,’ would you believe it, I didn’t understand that in the last illustration of the thing, the knight and his horse will be moldering bones, and the sort of glowing ghost of the two of them will be going up and away. The quest for Eldorado continues on after death and anybody who wants to get there has to keep going. It’s a heck of an image and I never really got it before.”

We weren’t sure what Wilson was talking about.

“‘”Over the Mountains of the Moon, / Down the Valley of the Shadow,”‘” Wilson recited. “‘”Ride, boldly ride,” / The shade replied, / “If you seek Eldorado!”‘

“Sure enough, that’s what it means,” said Wilson, “but I didn’t get it until I tried to draw it up.” He’s drawing it up right now, and if the rest of the book is as strong as the cover, which he’s already turned in, it’ll be terrific. “I’ll never make a cartoon or joke of the stuff. I’ll never put a Band-Aid on the beak of the raven. But I might have a picture of the knight looking unhappily at a wino on the sidewalk. Little contemporary touches hither and yon.”

Which line is this? we wondered.

“‘And o’er his heart a shadow / Fell as he found / No spot of ground / That looked like Eldorado,'” said Wilson. “If you had some horrible corner of the city and some guy lying there and a garbage can, it’ll be a good image.”

The old Classics Illustrated, started up in 1946 by a fellow named Albert Lewis Kanter, whose first titles were The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Christo, and The Last of the Mohicans, gave a lot of kids we knew their first and last taste of the great books. The artwork was, by today’s standards, a static bore, and people at First Publishing tell us the abridgements often tidied up the originals.

Bowdlerization’s no longer an issue. The mean age of today’s comic book readers, says Wilson, is around 25 or 26 (our 7-year-old daughter has never heard of them). Wade Roberts, who’s editing the Classics line for First Publishing, is pitching the concept to some of the world’s best comics illustrators as “narrative art.”

“The dead bodies will be really dead,” said Gahan Wilson. “The monsters will be monstrous. But on the other hand, the wistfulness will be wistful. And the way I’m going to draw the thing will be very turn-of-the-century, belle epoque: the swirls, that kind of flowing effect–foliage, mist, and stuff. And I’ll have the words of the poems sort of appearing and disappearing throughout. I might even have the lettering a little bit of that era.”

You’re doing the lettering too? we asked. That’s usually some yeoman’s job.

“I’ll do the whole damn thing. Soup to nuts. It’ll be quite a piece of crafting. If it’s no good it’ll be entirely my fault.”

The old CIs cost 15 cents. The new CIs, which will start appearing next January with Wilson’s Poe leading the parade, will be priced at about $3.50. First Publishing is producing them and will distribute them to the comic outlets. Berkley Publishing Group of New York will handle promotion and place them in bookstores, which will be encouraged to display them with the same reverence as Penguin paperbacks.

The videocassettes and film strips–you didn’t expect that angle not to get played, did you?–will be brought out by Classics Media Group, a firm created for the occasion by Allan Shalleck Productions of New York, which makes videos like Curious George for the kids’ market. It was Allen Shalleck who came to First president Rick Obadiah two years ago with the idea of buying up worldwide rights to the Classics Illustrated name and bringing it back to life.

“I have a prepared history of the old line,” Wade Roberts told us. “Their bow-out in 1969 was called Negro Americans–The Early Years. I think that went out of print real quick.”

We’re happy to see Roberts at the center of something big. Three and a half years ago, you’ll recall, he wrote that lovely football story set in an outback Texas bar that his Sun-Times editors suspected was mythical. We’d assumed Roberts left town after that, but he tells us he’s been in Chicago writing all the while; he joined First around the beginning of the year.

The key document on Roberts’s cluttered wall is the production schedule with 11 working titles already on it. In addition to Gahan Wilson’s Poe, First’s new line debuts next January with Great Expectations by Rick Geary, Moby Dick by Bill Sienkewicz, and Through the Looking-Glass by Kyle Baker.

“The matching of artists and titles is as close to being made in heaven as you can imagine,” says Roberts. Delivering this heaven to the marketplace has him up to his ears in mundane details. Here’s one: The Count of Monte Christo is due out next April; the artist is lined up and raring to go. Dumas’ book, of course, is in the public domain. But Roberts is still looking for an English translation that isn’t copyrighted.

Lost Art

Whatever happened to human interest? The incineration of Gallery Place on April 15 has been covered as a fire story, a legal story, a real estate story, a financial story, and, in last Sunday’s Sun-Times, as a “detective thriller.”

But unless we missed it, nobody seriously played the fire as a cultural tragedy. Eight galleries were destroyed! We’re still waiting for a profile of an artist, most likely young, who’s just seen the last two or three years of work go up in smoke. An artist whose show in one of those galleries was his or her big break.

And what about the heart-warming slant? When the hot young Spanish artist Chema Cobo opened a show at the Zolla-Lieberman Gallery a few weeks ago, the Tribune critic spoke of “a sumptuous painter” who had deepened intellectually and was producing “some remarkable results.” The fire destroyed all 30 pieces in the show and as many others by Cobo, which the gallery had in storage.

It was a year’s work. Cobo heard and called Roberta Lieberman. “He said ‘Roberta, I love you. We will go forward. You don’t look back. I have a lot of ideas. I’m going back to my studio.'” He promised to have a new show ready for her by fall.

Aside from a handful of perfunctory quotes, we didn’t get to know the artists whose creations were destroyed. We saw no pictures of doomed art. On the other hand, a cat that escaped unscathed was documented in a splendid series of pictures in the Sun-Times.

Every Reporter’s Nightmare

The phone rang inside the Tribune newsroom a little before eight last Sunday morning, and Bill Recktenwald, the early desk man, took the call.

“This is Vito Marzullo’s daughter,” said the caller.

Funny, the vivid emotional juxtapositions of the newspaper game. An air of quiet celebration prevailed when Recktenwald walked in. The night Grew had done one hell of a job! After the tip came in late the night before that Vito Marzullo, 91 years old, had just died at home, they’d raced a deadline to pull together a full-blown obit, complete with testimonials from George Dunne and Eddie Burke, and shoehorned the story into half a million Sunday papers. To make it even sweeter, the Sun-Times missed the story completely!

On the other hand, it was too bad about Marzullo.

Recktenwald expressed his condolences.

“Who gave you that information that my father died?” said Vito Marzullo’s daughter. She sounded angry. Yet in the background, there was a high-pitched cackle. Recktenwald recognized the laugh of Vito Marzullo and he felt sick.

“He’s sitting across the table from me,” said Vito Marzullo’s daughter.

The Sun-Times didn’t get the same tip, so the night crew over there went home at the usual time and went to bed. The Tribune had worked furiously. A reporter called the Fire Department, which dispatches ambulances. A dispatcher checked and said the tip was true. The ambulance was still at the Marzullo home.

Vito Marzullo’s daughter explained that Marzullo’s 83-year-old brother-in-law, of the same address, had passed away the previous night.

Recktenwald told us how the mistake–the type that is every reporter’s nightmare–could have been averted. “Call the 89-year-old widow at 12 o’clock at night when the body hasn’t been removed and talk to the family.”

Could anything have made this fiasco even more embarrassing? What if every newspaper executive in the country was pouring into town the same day for the annual convention of the American Newspaper Publishers Association?

You guessed it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.