Instant Classics: Gabriel talks "Marvel Illustrated"

In 1941, Elliot Publishing began publishing comic book adaptations of classic literature under the heading "Classic Comics." Six years later the series would be renamed "Classics Illustrated," a well known brand in collector circles. Through 1962, regular adaptations of classics like "The Three Musketeers," "The Last of the Mohicans," "Moby Dick" and others were published regularly under the "Classics Illustrated" title, earning a devoted following along the way. Attempts have been made to resurrect the "Classics Illustrated" line over the years, most notably by First Comics in 1990, but most attempts went unnoticed for a variety of reasons, mostly because the marketing wasn't there to support it.

Marvel Comics hopes to change that. Taking inspiration from the "Classics Illlustrated" formula, Marvel has begun publishing adaptations of classic literature under the "Marvel Illustrated" banner. The first release was the 64-page "Marvel Illustrated: Jungle Book" in April, which was actually a collection of a story that was originally published in "Marvel Fanfare" #8 – 11. New adaptations begin this month, with the release of " Last of the Mohicans" #1 (of 6), adapted by legendary creator Roy Thomas with art by Steven Kurth & Denis Medri. June adds "Treasure Island" #1 (of 6) to the mix, also adapted by Thomas with art by Mario Gully, followed by "The Man in the Iron Mask" #1 of 6 by Thomas and artist Hugo Petrus in July. Marvel's invested a considerable amount of resources launching this new line and CBR News caught up with Marvel's Senior Vice President of Sales & Circulation Publishing David Gabriel to learn more about this initiative and how it all came about.

"The passion [for this line] came from many of us here at Marvel. We've been toying with the idea of bringing classic literature to comic books, but we needed to figure a way that would make sense financially as well as stay true to the original work," Gabriel told CBR News. "[Marvel Publisher] Dan Buckley and I talked many times over the past year or so over ways to bring these stories to our medium and we think we've found an answer."

The "Classics Illustrated" line has been a consistent back issue seller for years, and retailers and readers alike have asked for the return of illustrated adaptations of classic literature. With that demand in mind, Marvel was happy to heed their call. "So many people have fond memories of those books from when they were children," said Gabriel. "They feel like these are great tools to not only introduce younger readers to the classics, but it's also a great way to get librarians, teachers and parents to see the value of comic books as reading tools."

Marvel's hope is to spur interest from teachers and parents who recognize that comics are a great medium to stimulate younger, more reluctant readers to read who don't necessarily want to use super hero stories to do it. Of course, the line is not limited to younger readers, having been designed to be enjoyed by all ages.

Each "Marvel Illustrated" series will be told over six to eight comics, for a total of at least 132 pages of content, which allows for a lot more story to be told than the "Classics Illustrated" format which ranged from 48-64 pages during its run. "We looked long and hard at the old 'Classics Illustrated' and aside from some of the obvious flaws (that we only notice in hindsight) we felt that it didn't do a classic novel justice to boil it all down to 48 pages. These books were set up with chapters, and cliffhangers by the original authors, all of which gets lost in one 48 page read. So we pushed to make these multiple chapters, allowing our writers to determine that page length they would need to properly convey the tale."

One of the big advantages "Classics Illustrated" had was the ability to keep those issues constantly in print. Marvel is testing the waters with the comics, sticking to their standard practices of overprinting key issues, looking at second printings if needed and working towards collections. On the collection point, Gabriel said, "These will all see hard cover treatments. Again, the publishing plan that works so well for our comics and collections now, will be mirrored with these editions."

Gabriel went on to describe what the selection process is to determine which books will receive the adaptation treatment. "First we discuss the titles to make sure that visually there's a good story to tell, since this is such a visual medium," said Gabriel. "Second, we look at sales history of some other classic novels in their prose form to get an idea of interest. Third, we make sure that there is some popularity to the title. (I know I was shot down when I suggested the 'Aeneid,' but that's just because Buckley had never heard of it. Now that '300' is such a hit, we may be changing our tune.). And, of course, we look to see what people like. It's no fun if we can't do our favorites, and it only serves to keep the creative teams happy when they are telling the stories that interest them."

Legendary comic creator Roy Thomas has been tasked with bringing these classics to comic form. "Ralph Machio suggested him right away as the perfect writer for these," explained Gabriel. "I believe he might have done some of the original classics illustrated. And for such an important initiative, we needed someone with a proven track record for excellence. From what I hear, Roy loves and is having a great time doing these."

Equally important are the artistic contributors to "Marvel Illustrated" and Gabriel said Marvel is looking for dynamic new talent to place on these books. "New artists that you might eventually see mature into Marvel Universe or even Ultimate Universe artists," said Gabriel. "The editorial team of Ralph Machio and Nicole Boose spend a great deal of time going throug various artists looking for just the right ones. They actually spend more time sorting through art for this line than any other editorial office. There's also a rigorous screening process after they've selected artists where a group of us gather to decide if the style matches the book, if the art is dynamic and exciting enough to capture and keep a young readers attention span. There's really been a lot of work and preparation going into this launch."

With "Marvel Illustrated" just getting off the ground, Gabriel said it's too early to tell exactly what the reaction to the line will be, but there have been some positive indicators. "Immediately upon seeing the first issue, one of our major library distributors requested all volumes of the comics series, across the entire line, including the special 'Jungle Book' reprint. So, that's a step in the right direction, as far as we see it.

"So far it's been pretty quiet. However that could all change now that we have our first issue out, and we'll be able to showcase it at the upcoming Book Expo America at the beginning of June," continued Gabriel. "We're, of course, hoping that teachers and librarians find these books useful for their young readers and that parents see their value for their children. There's a strong nostalgic feeling for these books and we're hoping to capture a bit of that as well. From what people have seen so far, the reaction has been pretty positive, even from the crankiest of retailers - and they know who they are!"

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