Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Sampling of Wild West Classics in Comics

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

I fully admit I am an adult that still gets excited to go into a comic book shop.  I am also a parent who has used children’s books, as well as comics to introduce reading to my girls. I have also used comics in my classroom to help get students more excited about a certain time period.  Classics Illustrated was a series of comics that ran for thirty years (1941-1971) and would adapt well known novels into comic book form.  Think of it as an earlier version of CliffNotes with pictures for students.  Many of the Classics Illustrated comics hold up well, they were beautifully adapted and illustrated.  For my girls, they enjoy the comics as much, and in some cases more than the original book. So, let us take a trip down memory lane with some classic western adapted novels from Samuel Clemens, James Fenimore Cooper, Francis Parkman, and Owen Wister.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (No. 50), by Samuel L. Clemens 
This Classics Illustrated Comic is about a young boy, Tom Sawyer, growing up along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the fictional town of St. Petersburg but was inspired by Hannibal, Missouri, where Clemens/Twain had lived. The story is about Tom, an orphan who lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid, and his adventures with his friends Becky Thatcher, Huckleberry Finn, and Joe Harper.  Also included in the comic is a biography on Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. As well as a story Bulldog Courage, a biography of George Westinghouse and an overview of the opera, Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. 

The Prairie (No. 58), by James Fenimore Cooper
Although The Last of the Mohicans is Cooper’s most famous novel, The Prairie is the third novel written by Cooper featuring Natty Bumppo. However, the fictitious frontier hero Bumppo is never called by his name, but instead referred to as "the trapper" or "the old man."  It depicts Bumppo in the final year of his life and he continues to be helpful to people in distress on the American frontier. Also included in the comic is a biography of James Fenimore Cooper, considered by many to be the first great American novelist.  There is also a biography of Hippocrates, the father of Medicine, and a dog hero story, Tunney, the Champ.

The Oregon Trail (No. 72), by Francis Parkman
The Oregon Trail is a first-person account of the two month summer tour in 1846 of the U.S. states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas.  The book covers the three weeks Parkman spent hunting buffalo with a band of Oglala Sioux. The book is dated in its portrayal of Native Americans and the title is misleading, the book only covers the first third of the trail.  Also included in the comic is a biography of Francis Parkman, who many consider to be an authoritative source of early American Western history. There is also a biography on Edward Livingstone Trudeau, the isolator of the tuberculosis germ, a story about the famous opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, and a dog hero story about Duke, the Seeing Eye Cop.

Buffalo Bill (No. 106), no author given
According to the comic tease, this is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time.  It is the story of the American West and the men who conquered it, including one of the most celebrated, William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.  Also included is the biography of William Quantrill, part of the Bad Men of the West series, a biography of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, and a story of Early America, Wreck Ashore!.

The Virginian (No. 150), by Owen Wister
The Virginian is a novel set in the Wild West and describes the life of a cowboy at the Sunk Creek Ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  The Virginian’s real name is never given.  The Virginian does have an ongoing romance with the newly appointed schoolmarm, Miss Molly Stark Wood.  Also included is a biography of Owen Wister. Also there is a story about the person Wister dedicated The Virginian to, Theodore Roosevelt, T.R. and the Thieves, and a story about the Capture of Geronimo.

One thing I really like about Classics Illustrated is that each contains a bio on the author.  It is really nice that the reader can read the novel in comic/graphic form and then learn all about the person who wrote it.  Another great thing is that each story also ends with the same challenge: “Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don’t miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library.”

These are just a few American West classics, what novel would you like to read as a comic book?

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