During the 1950s a comic book series retelling stories form classic literary sources was one of the most popular comics in the world. This series was known as ‘Classics Illustrated’. If you’ve ever bought comic book lots off of eBay or Craigslist you’ve probably gotten an old issue or two from this series in the mix. The thing is, some of these old comics can be very valuable, so if you’re curious about which ones, keep reading.
The origins of Classics Illustrated go back to Albert Lewis Kanter. Born in Russia in 1897, Kanter had the idea that he could exploit the popularity of the comic book genre to introduce young readers to the classics.
In 1941, Kanter created Classic Comics for the Elliot Publishing Company which later became the Gilberton Company. The comic ended its run under the imprint of Twin Circle (Frawley), but only as reprints. At first, the format Kanter wanted was that of a comic book that told a classic story (hence the ‘Classic Comics’ title banner) to inspire readers to seek out the original. These comics would at first appear irregularly with each giving interested readers a synoptic (if not always accurate) graphic retelling of a famous work of literature.
After the retelling of James Fenimore Cooper ‘s 1826 novel, Last of the Mohicans, which was the fourth issue printed in the original run with Elliot Publishers, the title of the series was changed to ‘Classic Comics Presents’ and then, quickly thereafter, ‘Classic Comics Library’ before settling on ‘Classics Illustrated’ in 1947, after which, in 1951, use was also made of painted as opposed to line-drawn covers.
Due to paper shortages during the war, the series went into reprints and reduced page numbers (from 64-59 pages, between 1941-1944). The quality and faithfulness of the adapted stories improved after the war (1945-1954), but the number of reprints of each volume was truly astounding and the series would also end up being distributed by different publishers worldwide.
The original issues were all produced between 1941 and 1962, after which the 167 available stories were reprinted until the early 1970s. The result: it’s hard to know today whether you have an original or a reprint.
The good news is there are various ways to distinguish different editions. One is by looking inside for a “coming next” advertisement at the end of the story. These were available only in first editions. Don’t rely on the date, since it is often either wrong or misleading on many reprints, i.e. the publisher’s would use the original date for a later reprint. The other way around the confusion is to look up the HRN which stands for “Highest Reorder Number” on the back cover. This was a number given to each title in the comic series for use with a coupon included with the issue with which you could order copies by mail. The higher the HRN, the later and more reprinted the issue. This is important, since with this series you can’t even trust just looking up the cover price as even this is unreliable. Originals were sold for 10 cents, but the series went up to 15 cents early on and some second or later reprint editions were still listed for a 10 cent price!
Classic Comics #1 [HRN = O]: The Three Musketeers (October 1941)
Alexandre Dumas’ novel about swashbucklers in the 17th and 18th centuries was the first classic story to be adapted. Overstreet 2019 (49th Edition) has first editions of this comic in 9.2 grade as valued at $9, 500.00. That sounds about right. In June of 2014 a 9.2 graded copy sold for $10, 400.00. Today that same graded copy could probably fetch over $14, 000.00.
In first edition, this is very hard to find. Three Musketeers would go up to 23 editions over the years, it’s one of the more popular Classic Comics. The 10 cent price and the Classic Comics logo was either removed or changed starting with the second printing, so it’s easy to tell if you have a first edition for this one. There are 92 first edition copies listed on CGC, the highest recorded grade is 9.4. If your copy isn’t a first edition however, you’ll need the HRN on the back or inside back cover to figure out which reprint you own.
Classic Comics #10 [HRN = O] (Violet Cover Version): Robinson Crusoe (April 1943)
This issue of Classic Comics was actually referenced in ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Frederic Wertham and was cited in the famous trial that led to the creation of the comics code authority. First editions of Robinson Crusoe can be discerned from the violet frame on the cover. In 9.2 this comic is listed on Overstreet for $1, 325.00 raw. The most recent sale of a graded 8.0 copy sold on Heritage Auction on 09/22/2019 for $456.00.
Classics Illustrated #81: The Odyssey (March 1951)
The March 1951 version of this issue is significant because it was the first painted cover, it was the first original 15 cent story released and it has no copies on the CGC census. The Overstreet price on 9.2 grades is $155.00. The three Heritage Auction sales of graded copies that are recorded on GoCollect.com show that a 6.0 went for $28.00 on 08/11/2013, the two 8.5 graded copies sold a year apart on 08/07/2007 and 08/08/2008 sold for $155.35 and $179.25.
There are tons of Classics Illustrated comics out there so happy hunting and enjoy the classics!