Have you ever fibbed to your grandmother? I did. She was born in Edinburgh Scotland and brought up in a tradition of higher education. When I saw her in 1967 she couldn’t bear to think a lad of fifteen was still reading comic books, so I came up with the ‘title’ comment to wriggle out from under her disapproval.
It wasn’t a total lie. The Classics Illustrated series of Comics really was prestigious.
I mean, they charged 15 cents per issue, instead of the normal comic standard of 12 cents. If that isn’t proof of quality, I don’t know what is.
And they had some pretty darn good writers. The guys who wrote ‘Faust,’ ‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘Macbeth,’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ and stuff like that there.
On the other hand, apart from the covers, the quality of art was a tad spare, with relatively simple line, limited use of colour, and a surprising lack of detail (compared to, say, the work of Wally Wood in EC comics).
Then again, the composition of every frame was wonderfully cinematic, as if you were looking at storyboards for a film.
Somehow the combination of visual simplicity and effective story telling awakened my sense of wonder and exposed me to new ideas which widened my understanding of life and reality. Oh sure, Alexander the Great had Aristotle for a tutor when he was a kid (and probably set out to conquer the world to get away from his dreary, rule-laden influence), but I, Graeme the Not-So-Great, had Classics Illustrated to shape my philosophy! Of the two, I think I got the better deal.
Bear in mind I didn’t do any research on this series of comics. The article isn’t about them, but about their influence on me (with the excuse it reflects how SF fans of my generation were molded by the influences of the day).
I think I gained much of my love of history, especially ancient history, from CIs like ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ and ‘Caesar’s Conquests.’ In hindsight, the smooth skinned, frequently bare chested, heavily muscled, skimpy skirt-wearing warriors much given to Homeric poses in the CI version of ‘The Iliad’ could be construed as homoerotic. As a kid I just found the Iliad illos boring and repetitious.
But the story! It was mind blowing to learn that a true hero sacks cities and that the motivation for doing this was to be celebrated in song and legend long after you were dead. Cool! Figured I wouldn’t grow up to sack cities though. Perhaps my writing would give me ‘immortality’. (Hah!) At any rate, I learned there was more to life than just being a good boy. Made me question what I had been taught.
And then there were the CI comics based on the science fiction novels of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Two in particular stand out, ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘The Time Machine,’ both by Wells.
The cover of ‘The War of the Worlds’ is magnificent. For me, this version of the Martian Fighting Machines is the definitive concept, more impressive than anything which has appeared in the movies. Granted, it’s a little hard to envision how such a seemingly rigid-legged tripod would move, but they sure look good in profile. Or from any angle.
The opening page, depicting a Martian spaceship bearing down on the Earth, is equally magnificent. I was much taken by the ‘exotic’ alien slogan (translation: “Earth or bust”?) thinking it wonderfully imaginative. Only later did I realize it was probably inspired by the written languages of India. (Might even be actual words.)
But it’s the story which impacted me most. That Mankind could prove so helpless, that our strength and ability is relative, maybe even illusory, opened my eyes to the thought maybe our civilization isn’t so permanent after all.
And it was the CI version of Well’s ‘The Time Machine’ which confirmed it.
The frame featuring the time machine in motion with the traveler musing over the wonders of advancing civilization in contrast to the two foreground soldiers engaging in hand-to-hand combat quite startled me. (On close examination I realize now there’s not much futuristic about these two combatants except their helmets and their weapons, but as a kid I didn’t notice.) How fragile every ‘advance’ is, easily cast aside by war, our most popular sport.
The traveler discovering the derelict robot blew me away. My future could be somebody else’s past? Wowzers!
But it was the frame depicting the hall in a derelict museum 800,000 years from now that resonated with me most. A future so far off their past had shrunk and been telescoped into a single display. A dinosaur (with an inscription in Martian writing!), a suit of armour, a steam engine, a FW 190 fighter, a submarine, a VTOL Coleopter, a robot, and a couple of spacecraft (one clearly based on the ‘War of the Worlds’ Martian ship. Evidently we had learned from them). Fantastic!
Here was a future so far distant my present epoch (Canada in the early 1960s) was but a blink of an eye. Not only ephemeral, but maybe even insignificant in the scheme of things to come.
Most of all, I realized that present day reality is not static, but something fluid, ever-changing, open to myriad possibilities which, from a future perspective, will be events locked in stone, the ‘inevitable’ progression of the past. We experience this today. Of course the Allies were going to win WWII. Of course Napoleon would fall. Yeah, but nobody could be sure till it actually happened. What will be the difference between what we assume is going to happen and what actually happens? We don’t know yet.
The current generation (any current generation throughout time) tends to worship the presumed wisdom of them as lives in the future. However, this is not reciprocated. I guarantee the inhabitants of our distant future will view us as a bunch of idiots who obviously couldn’t figure out the likely consequences of our actions. Because of what we are doing today. No matter what we do. Hilarious.
The mutability of history is a source of amusement, and possibly of despair, but mostly, an evocative sense of wonder. This Comics illustrated taught me. Opened my eyes they did.
The idea behind Classics illustrated is that reading the comics would lead to reading the original books. Did this work?
Of the dozen CIs I managed to preserve, glancing around my den, I note that I have the books for ten of them.
Grandma would be proud.
P.S. During the same 1967 visit I made the mistake of saying I liked the James Bond novels. Grandma was horrified.
I recovered quickly. “But I prefer Sherlock Holmes.”
She grabbed the complete set from her bookshelf and gave them to me.
Still have them. Still read them. Thank you, Grandma.
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And now for something inviolably different:
YOUR WEEKLY CORUSCATING CONUNDRUM
Mrs. L.B. of Little Smoky, Alberta, asks:
WHO FIRST MEASURED THE SPEED OF LIGHT?
MR. GUESS-IT-ALL: The Danish Astronomer Ole Roemer in the year in 1676 A.D. His methodology had to do with calculating the difference in time between eclipses of Jovian moons when they actually occurred in comparison to when they were observed by astronomers on Earth, taking into account the varying distances between the Earth and Jupiter due to orbital mechanics and whether or not it was overcast in Paris that night. Or something. Anyway, he came within 25% of the correct figure, not a bad result for one of the earliest known government research grants.
What is not generally realized is that he was also the first to calculate the speed of dark. At first he utilized sunsets in his experimentation, but became frustrated over the variable nature of this phenomenon. He then hit upon the idea of descending into a deep cave with a lit candle and observing what happened when he snuffed out the flame. After one thousand tests whose results were identical, he published his famous Rules of Roemer which assured him instant and lasting fame. They are:
1) – Where there is light, there is no dark.
2) – If you remove the light, everything goes dark.
3) – The speed of dark, in the absence of light, is instantaneous.
4) – Dark is faster than light, therefore a superior phenomenon.
5) – It’s damn near fricking impossible to feel your way out of a cave in the absence of light.
For the above rules Ole Roemer continues to be honoured by astronomers and spelunkers everywhere.