The name Classics Illustrated is famous in comic book circles. The series, known for adapting works of classic literature, is remembered by comic book fans not only for producing an impressive run of comics but also for being one of the first attempts at classing up the medium and the first introduction many people had to stories from great literature.
Many people forget though that Classics Illustrated had a spin-off series focused on myths and fairy tales entitled Classics Illustrated Junior.
Now, comics of this vintage are not always easy to get a hold of, but I saw a box of them at my friendly neighborhood comic shop. I picked up four issues: Pinocchio, The Frog Prince, The Dancing Princesses and King Thrushbeard.
So, how do these comics stack up? Well, the thing to remember here is that these comics are all from the 1950s and were aimed at very young kids. I mean, Classics Illustrated was definitely aimed at kids, Classics Illustrated Junior must have been aimed at even younger ones. But let’s break it down.
Pinocchio- This adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s book is pretty faithful except that everything is very condensed. Certain events from the book are left out. For example, the parts with Mr. Cherry at the beginning of the story are taken out. There are also no run-ins with the Green Fisherman or Melampo the Mastiff. The violence is also greatly toned down. One of the most infamous scenes in the book is the one where the Fox and Cat hang Pinocchio from a tree by the neck. This version avoids the execution style hanging and has the Fox and Cat truss Pinocchio up around the middle so his hands are tied and hangs him from there. So, instead of looking like an executed man, the naughty puppet looks a bit more like some sort of awkwardly designed Christmas tree ornament. In addition, the Cricket gets chased off rather than squished and the giant dogfish that swallows Pinoccchio is just a generic (though gigantic) fish.
The Frog Prince- Of the four comics I picked up, this is probably the only one where the story is stretched out rather than condensed. The princess spends a lot more time offering the frog gold and jewels to retrieve her golden ball. The princess also receives a dream sequence in this version that shows her transformed into a frog and abused by a little boy. Now, you’re probably wondering about the ending. Does she kiss the frog? Does she chuck it at a wall like in the Grimms’ book? Neither. After she wakes up from her dream sequence, she feels bad about the frog having to sleep on the cold, hard floor. So, she picks it up and puts it on a pillow. When she wakes up the next morning there’s a prince lying there on her floor. This version seems to draw on two different variants of the tale that I know of, which is an interesting thing to see in a vintage comic book like this one.
The Dancing Princesses- This is another story that is mainly changed in the sense that elements are condensed. The soldier’s three nights to discover where the princesses are going is reduced to one. So, everything is happening much faster. There are also some elements that speak more to the era and the age group that this comic was made for. Instead of being executed, the princes who fail at finding where the princesses are going are banished. Also, all mentions of alcohol are changed. Instead of being brought a cup of wine with a sleeping drug in it, the soldier is brought a cup of milk with a sleeping drug in it. They also make a point to mention that it’s lemonade that everyone is drinking at the underground ball (making a secret magic, mysterious rendezvous seem more like a very unusual church social or high school dance). One thing that really stands out though, is that they go to the trouble of naming all of the mysterious princes (Stanley, Albert, Conrad, Armand, William, Rudolph, Alex, Aladar, Michael, Oscar and Robert), while only two of the princesses (Flora and Hilda) are named. I don’t want to say it’s a sexist move, but it certainly seems like one. The comic also makes another change that I’ve been known to make when telling the story. The soldier (named Felix here) ends up with not the oldest sister but the youngest. Probably because the youngest sister is the only one who seems particularly sympathetic.
King Thrushbeard- This one is more or less the same except the haughty princess is given some rhyming couplets to insult her rejected suitors with. I kind of wish I could say this comic is better than the traditional story because this story doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s sort of the “Taming of the Shrew” of fairy tales in the way it treats its main female character. I’ve got a soft spot for it because I like tales that feature some degree of trickery and deception, but yeah I can totally see the issue here. And an adaptation from the 1950s certainly isn’t going to fix that.
Each issue also includes an Aesop’s fable a page of animal facts and a couple of children’s poems and nursery rhymes. The art is about what you’d expect from fairy tale adaptations from the ‘50s. A lot of clean cut young men and women in fantasy garb.
This isn’t the first time I’ve covered fairy tale comics from this time period. Remember my piece on Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tales? So, we didn’t really encounter anything here we haven’t seen before. I think maybe the biggest revelation is just how young they were trying to skew the demographic for fairy tales. I mean, if Classics Illustrated was already meant for kids, who was Classics Illustrated Junior meant for? Pre-schoolers? It’s kind of a reminder in these days when everyone’s saying “Fairy tales aren’t really for kids” how much we bend the tales to make them fit the demographic we want them to fit. We may even be bending them a bit even now to make them the terribly “adult” tales we want them to be. It makes you think.