Classics Illustrated comic books were first published in 1941 by Albert Louis Kantner, a former book publisher. Worried that the world's great works of fiction were going untouched on library and bookstore shelves while cheap, multicolored comic books were sweeping the country, Kantner decided to combine the forms, thus creating a lite immortal, the serious comic book.
Starting with The Three Musketeers and working his way through the big books in the public domain, Kantner's Classics were an instant hit, selling more than 25 million copies a month in their heyday. After almost 30 years in print, Classics Illustrated ceased publication in the early 1970s, the victim of inflation and flagging demand. In 1988, First Publishing, the Berkley Publishing Group, and Classics Media Group bought the rights to Classics Illustrated and began publishing new Classics.
First, the artists are chosen, First Publishing president Rick Obadiah says. Then ''we go to them and just ask which classic they would most like to illustrate, and usually they get to pick their favorite. All of them see it as their chance to demonstrate what can be done in the underappreciated area of comic illustration.''
The glossy, 44-page Classics take 46 weeks to produce, are bound rather than stapled, and are scheduled to appear at a rate of two titles per month, 250,000 copies per title, and will retail for $2.95 to $3.50 a copy. Coming in March, Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter, illustrated by Tom Mandrake and Jill Thompson, respectively.