A 'classic' love of literature

My years as a very young reader fell squarely within the heyday of Classics Illustrated, a 160-plus-volume comic-book series that condensed and simplified great works of literature into 40 or 50 pages of cartoon frames. They might have horrified the original authors, but the little comics utterly absorbed me.

I was born at the height of the bookmobile era as well, and I copiously read the "real stuff" of children's literature, which was motored on a weekly basis to the curb in front of my grammar school. I loved the long vehicle, the broad carpeted step from the children's to the adult section, and the volumes I took home and savored.

But those comics beckoned, too. They were perfect fare for reading when I was stretched out and dripping on a beach towel in the backyard after a swim in the neighbors' pool – 25-cent investments whose damp pages dried overnight. They became crinkled over time with repeated thumbing, but I'd paid my quarter and there was no librarian to answer to.

Most of the comics were naturally child-centered – "The Swiss Family Robinson," "Tom Brown's School Days," "Kidnapped," "Huckleberry Finn," "Kim," and "Oliver Twist," among many others. They were, in fact, heavily boy-oriented but palatable to me – after all, when I read the book "The Secret Garden," I'd wanted to be Dicken, not marry him.

Packed with vivid bursts of dialogue and action, Classics Illustrated fed my occasional yearning for adventure without a lot of descriptive prose. "The Little Savage" transformed my backyard into a deserted isle in a matter of minutes.

Age brought patience, and real books finally and fully replaced the comics. I came to savor those long literary passages – Jody's reverie watching the whooping cranes dance in "The Yearling," Scout puzzling on the protocols of growing up as a girl in the South in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

By the time I took up "The Caine Mutiny" in seventh grade, shivering at Queeg's obsession with those little steel balls, I hadn't opened a Classics Illustrated in years.

I came across one of those early childhood staples the other day in a vintage comic shop. The cover of "The Prince and the Pauper" leapt out from the rack as though it were a long-lost friend.

I knew that boy in his ermine-lined royal robes, glancing over his shoulder as he hid the great seal in a suit of armor. I knew the bold and italicized typeface of Classics Illustrated, the words beneath reading, "Featuring Stories by the World's Greatest Authors." The back cover's modestly printed claim "Endorsed by Educators" had slipped by me as a child, but I smiled at it now.

I needed no such endorsement. I snapped that comic up and brought it home, paying a much higher price than I had spent for my first copy. There is no accounting for memories.

I was curious as to how true to the book the comic would be. Rereading it, I was impressed by the story's basic conformation to Twain's plot. But it had been too long since I'd read that book to remember just how closely the bubbles of speech carrying the tale along reflected the longer source dialogues. And I couldn't quickly check, since this is one of the few old volumes Charlie does not have in his ever-growing library of children's classics – a collection of real books, not comics, that took over the farmhouse years ago and now has its own separate timber-frame housing.

I could borrow "The Prince and the Pauper" from the county library, but a better idea occurred to me. Why not find the Classics Illustrated comic of a book I know intimately – know almost page by page from repeated, appreciative readings – and see how it sizes up?

I logged into eBay and, in due course, put in a bid on comic No. 39 ("Jane Eyre"), which I'd never come across as a child. It was good to know that one heroine, at least, rated a place in Classics Illustrated.

I imagine the comic handily captures the dark gothic glory of Thornfield Hall, the intrigue and mystery of its one occupied tower. But do those bubbles of dialogue even hint at the marvelous Eyre-Rochester repartee that draws me back to it again and again?

It's hard to imagine they could – but having won the bid, I'm about to find out.

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