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“Classics Illustrated” Comics in Distinctive Collections

Last week, I posted an article on this blog in which I discussed the value of collecting comic books in special collections, while drawing on examples from Marvel Comics in Falvey Library’s holdings. This week, I have another comic-book collection to highlight: Falvey’s holdings in Classics Illustrated. This series, which was published by three separate publishers (Elliot Publishing Co., Gilberton Company, and Frawley Corporation) from 1941 to 1969, adapted literary classics to the comic-book medium. It has significant research value not only in comics studies, but also in adaptation studies, a field that is becoming increasingly central in the arts and humanities. With the tagline “Featuring stories by the world’s greatest authors,” the series sheds light on mid-twentieth-century cultural conceptions of texts that have traditionally been viewed as particularly significant in the United States and elsewhere, as well as how these texts were transmitted to new audiences.

The Tragedy of Macbeth and Paratext

These comics include not only abridged adaptations of their source material, but also paratextual material that assists readers to understand and appreciate the stories. For example, the adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth includes numerous explanatory footnotes, which make the early modern language of the text more accessible to twentieth-century readers.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Additional segments at the ends of issues often provide biographical and historical context for the preceding narrative, typically in the form of a text box. The following two examples, drawn from the Macbeth issue of Classics Illustrated, explain Shakespeare’s life and the relation between the play and King James I of England (you may click on all images in this blog article to enlarge them).

Other times, this type of supplementary content at the end of an issue takes the form of a comic book, like the following panels on British history, which are again drawn from the final pages in the Macbeth issue.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Another paratextual aspect worth noting is the banner that appears across the bottom of the final page in each adapted story, which urges readers to track down a copy of the original text in a school or public library. This inclusion demonstrates the comics’ goal of developing an appreciation of literature in younger readers. On the one hand, this is beneficial in that it encourages engagement with libraries and promotes further reading. On the other hand, it is potentially problematic in its suggestion that comics are valuable only if they serve as a stepping stone to a more highly respected (and supposedly more advanced) medium or mode of reading, namely prose and verse.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 128, Macbeth.

While seeking to cultivate a love of reading, Classics Illustrated promoted bibliophilia, especially as the notion relates to the material aspect of books. The following advertisement demonstrates this attitude, as it aims to sell a “handsome, durable, permanent” binder for storing Classics Illustrated issues, which is “made to last a lifetime of handling.” (However, the primary aim of any advertisement is, of course, to sell a product or service.)

Advertisement on back cover of Classics Illustrated, no. 64, Treasure Island.

Advertisement on back cover of Classics Illustrated, no. 64, Treasure Island.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Getting back to the adapted narratives themselves, it is important to note that Classics Illustrated sometimes altered or added to the source material. An illustrative case-in-point is the adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is collected alongside two other adaptations in issue #21 of Classics Illustrated. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841 in Graham’s Magazine, is widely considered the first modern detective story. It is a predecessor to popular detective fiction like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, as well as numerous dime novels and story papers available on the Villanova Digital Library, most notably Mystery Magazine (1917-1927). Poe’s full short story is available on Falvey’s website. A facsimile edition of the manuscript can also be consulted in-person at the library.

Famously, this short story ends (spoilers!) with the reveal that a runaway orangutan had committed the eponymous murders. In Poe’s story, the orangutan’s fate remains ambiguous. However, the comic book adds an extra page at the end of the story, where detective C. Auguste Dupin and his associate (the unnamed narrator of Poe’s story, who is named “Poe” in the comic-book adaptation) track down and fight the animal, which was changed to an ape for the comic book. These changes and additions to the source material may have happened for a variety of reasons. In this case, perhaps the creators wanted the story to fit more neatly into the conventions of the adventure comic-book genre, hence the action-packed ending. Alternatively, they may have felt uncomfortable depicting an ambiguous ending, where a dangerous animal is still on the loose, especially if their target audience was mainly composed of children. (I have no explanation, however, for why the animal was changed from an orangutan to an ape.)

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 21, 3 Famous Mysteries.

Detail from Classics Illustrated, no. 21, 3 Famous Mysteries.

Robin Hood

Besides detectives like Dupin and Holmes, another famous character portrayed in Classics Illustrated is Robin Hood. Two early issues of Classics Illustrated in Falvey’s collection feature the character. Robin Hood has had a long history of popular culture portrayals (having even become a fox in a Disney animated film), and comics are no exception. In addition to Classic Illustrated issues, the English folk hero also appears in Martin Powell and Stan Timmons’ Robin Hood, published by Eternity Comics in 1989. The series’ first issue, which was recently donated to Falvey, sports a cover illustration by painter N. C. Wyeth. (More information about the original painting is provided in the Brandywine River Museum of Art’s N. C. Wyeth Catalogue Raisonné.) Other popular culture materials at Falvey’s Distinctive Collections that depict Robin Hood’s adventures include dime novels like the Aldine Robin Hood Library and The Story of Robin Hood (1889), both of which are available to read on the Villanova Digital Library.

All the comics shown in this article, and several more issues of Classics Illustrated and other titles, are available to see in Falvey’s Rare Book Room during walk-in hours (Wednesdays 9:30-11:30 AM and Thursdays 2-4 PM) or by appointment. Make sure to check the library’s blog for more articles on our growing collections of comic books, dime novels, and other popular literature.


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A Modern Midsummer

I’m Daniella Snyder, a second-year graduate student at Villanova University, and your ‘Cat in Falvey Library’s Stacks. I’ll be posting about academics– from research to study habits and everything in between– and how the Falvey Library can play a large role in your success here on campus.

Villanova Theatre is proud to present A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Edward Sobel, on stage November 12-24.

Beware the forest outside Athens, where mischief reigns and faeries tease and torment. Shakespeare’s comedy of passion and power throws two mismatched couples into the fray of a lovers’ quarrel between the faerie king and queenand soon they’re all entangled in enchantments. Add to the mix the devious Puck and hapless troupe of amateur actors, and mayhem abounds. This magical tale, boldly reimagined for our time, reveals the dangers of unbridled desire and the healing potential of the imagination. 

Angela Rose Longo as Hermia and Sarah Stryker as Lysander. Photos by Kimberly Reilly.

Director Edward Sobel leads a cast of 16 Villanova graduate students, portraying the lovers, faeries, and novice actors drawn to the Athenian woods. Sobel’s contemporary staging zeroes in on issues of gender politics while showcasing the darker forces at play in Shakespeare’s well-loved comedy. According to Sobel, the Athens of this production is “a male-dominated world that thinks it’s a democracy – but it’s not.” This Athenian worldview impacts its characters both politically and romantically. “Love is a dangerous thing,” he adds, “and we want to reveal the way male characters manipulate passion in order to absorb rebellion and maintain their power.”

The production features female-identifying actors in various male roles while the most politically powerful male characters are played by male-identifying actors. Female-identifying actors will portray the young lovers Lysander and Demetrius and members of the relentless acting troupe The Rude Mechanicals. The cross gender casting allows actors to both hilariously embody and also critique gender stereotypes.

Angela Rose Longo as Hermia and Sarah Stryker as Lysander. Photos by Kimberly Reilly.

Dramaturg Travis Milliman has extensively researched gender roles in society, both in Elizabethan England and modern-day America, suggesting that the oppressive forces at play will resonate with our audiences in a way that will cause them to perk up and listen. Milliman’s research has also helped to illuminate the faerie world as it related to an Elizabethan audience. He says, “I want to prepare audiences for a Midsummer no one would have expected.”

An Elizabethan audience would have regarded the “Faerie World” as being a very real threat to sinners in their human society and believed that their wrongdoings could result in punishments or torture from vengeful faeries. While our understanding of “fairies” today has been infiltrated by the cute, Disney characters many of us know and love, this production plans to use the fearing subconscious to inspire the faerie world of Titania, Oberon, and Puck. Check out Milliman’s dramaturgical guide to learn more.

Angela Rose Longo as Hermia and Sarah Stryker as Lysander. Photos by Kimberly Reilly.

Costume designer and second-year graduate student Asaki Kuruma’s ambitious design conjures three distinct worlds: the regal Athenian court, ominous faeries, and lower-class actors. While audiences might not see wings on these faeries, they can expect to feel as though these haunting spirits are from a world mortals dare not enter. What’s more, she has created silhouettes that allow female bodied actors to inhabit male roles in a way that is realistic and affecting. Kuruma blends repurposed materials, classical silhouettes, and couture inspiration to wardrobe a large ensemble, each of whom play multiple roles.

Deepening the world of the play is set designer Stephanie Hansen. Hansen’s unified set marries the natural forest and classical architectural structures in order to suggest that these locations are far from separate and that the powers and mysteries of the woods are, in fact, an extension of the desires of the real world. Jerold Forsyth’s lighting design will illuminate the foliage of the woods and create the dark and starry skies required to evoke the shadowy nighttime. John Stovicek’s soundscape will emphasize the play’s bewitching themes, bringing encroaching winds and haunting lullabies into the mix of theatrical spectacle.

Sarah Stryker as Lysander. Photos by Kimberly Reilly.

For those of you who haven’t seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream before, you might want to check out a more traditional production of the play before you see Villanova Theatre’s modern re-imagining. Don’t worry, Falvey has you covered. We have two DVD versions of the play in our permanent collection, we have the 1994 issue of The Villanovan that reports a previous production of Midsummer, and you can stream at least 3 different productions of the play through our subscription to Digital Theatre +. We also have access to the BBC version of Midsummer with video and text transcripts. Finally, check out the Midsummer educational guide from Villanova Theatre.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage from November 12 to 24. Buy your tickets here.


Daniella Snyder HeadshotDaniella Snyder is so excited to see Villanova Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her favorite Shakespearean play is Othello. She also wants to thank Sarah Wingo, the Falvey Subject Librarian for English, Theatre, and Romance Languages, for her help and information about valuable Shakespearean resources.


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Villanova Now Has Access to the Full Drama Online Collection

Villanova now has access to the full Drama Online collection, and an access link can be found in Databases A-Z.  Once logged in, Drama Online includes full texts of plays from across the history of the theatre, ranging from Aeschylus to the present day. It also includes non-English-language works in translation, scholarly and critical editions, first night program texts, and critical analysis and contextual information. Critical interpretations, theatre history surveys and major reference works on authors, movements, practitioners, periods, and genres are included alongside performance and practitioner texts, acting, and backstage guides.

You can browse by plays, playwrights, genres, periods, context, and criticism, and by theatre craft. Advanced search options also allow you to search by type, playwrights, genre, period, theme, and setting.

Each play in the collection includes the either the full script or sound recording of the play and a production enquiry, which gives helpful information on who to contact to get performance rights for the play.

Many plays also include useful tools, like a Character Grid that can be used to see only the lines of a given character.

In addition to the Core Collection (www.dramaonlinelibrary.com) our subscription includes full access to the following individual collections housed within Drama Online.

All of the collections listed below can be accessed through Drama Online. They have been provided here with links to detailed descriptions of their contents if you wish to further explore:


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Last Modified: May 20, 2019

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