That’s Classic

A unique art exhibit aims to draw readers to great literature.

Dr. William Falvey

Amie Vanderford

Like many kids growing up in the 1950s, Dr. William Falvey could spend hours with his nose in comic books. But for him the typical “Archie and Veronica” stories paled in comparison to the adventures he found in the Classics Illustrated series. “With the standard comics, the endings were all predictable,” he says, “but that’s not true of the classics. Moby Dick is totally different from Ivanhoe. And A Tale of Two Cities is nothing like The Odyssey.” One feature about the Classics Illustrated especially intrigued Falvey: “The books were numbered, and I liked having a complete set. I was already a collector of stamps and things, so I was eager to get any missing numbers.”

Over the years, Falvey stashed away a complete set of series originals — 169 titles — in near-mint condition, along with thousands of reprints with new covers. But he also boasts a large collection of the original art from which the comics were printed.

You can see these works at an exhibit titled “The Falvey Collection, Classics Illustrated, Comic Book Art 1949-1968” at the Benjamin Hooks Library’s Goodwyn Gallery, April 9th through the 26th. This first-known exhibit of its kind, according to Falvey, will feature as keynote speaker Bill Jones, the definitive expert and author on the series, on April 9th at 3 p.m. In sharing his collection with the public, Falvey aims “to encourage people to discover or rediscover the classics of Western literature. This was the underlying purpose of Classics Illustrated from its inception.”

The books were the brainchild of Albert Kanter, a Russian Jewish immigrant who lived and worked in New York City. As Falvey explains: “He’d have one person read the book and adapt it to comic-book size. Each would start out at 65 pages and eventually be reduced to 48. An artist would then read the work and draw from that adaptation. The books were translated into 33 languages.” At the exhibit, 27 cover paintings — including The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Prince and the Pauper — and line-drawing covers will be displayed along with the comic books.

Falvey grew up in East Texas and came to Memphis to practice medicine in 1973. About a year later, he and his wife were browsing at The Big One  flea market, where they saw a man selling comic books. “I called my mom and said, ‘Don’t throw out the comic books!’ and on my next trip home I gathered up my Classics Illustrated collection. Soon I started acquiring the original [art].” His first piece, in 1976, was the title page of The Count of Monte Cristo, for which he paid $40.

While the artwork itself fetches whatever a person’s willing to pay, the comic books are listed in the Overstreet Price Guide, which appraises the value based on each book’s condition, rarity, and number in the series. “The new guide that just came out lists a near-mint #1 Three Musketeers at $8,000,” Falvey says.

Some interesting facts emerge about the series, as Falvey points to the framed works hanging or sitting around his home office. Among them: Three first covers for the books — including The Hunchback of Notre Dame — were considered too violent and had to be redrawn to meet industry codes. In an amusing twist, the hunchback and the heroine on the book’s cover bore strong likenesses to Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollabrigida, who starred in the 1956 movie.

In creating the abridged works, writers took some liberties, one that Falvey calls “egregious.” “The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo was extremely dark with a horrendous ending,” he says. “The comic-book writer just spruced that ending up and had the couple live happily ever after!” However, that version was corrected and the second work’s ending matched Hugo’s original. Through the years, many of the comic books had several versions that generally improved with time.

After the exhibit, Falvey will auction most of his collection through Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas. “I’ve had it for 30 years or more, and my kids have no interest in it,” says the retired physician and former medical director of Baptist Memorial Hospitals’ emergency departments. “I will keep some cover pieces I really treasure, such as The Odyssey and The Pathfinder.”

Realizing he’s among a small group of buyers interested in these comics “because most people collect superheroes,” he’s not sure what to expect at the auction, which will start at $1 per item. But he’s been told that “dealers will offer wholesale price just to spark the bidding.”
Regardless what the auction brings, Falvey hopes the exhibit will spark renewed interest in the real classics available right there in the library. Since 2001 he has read or re-read 129 books that inspired the abridged series and says, “[It’s] one of the best things I’ve ever done. They’re all so good and different. If folks read some of these titles as children, and think they don’t speak to them as adults, they’re sadly mistaken. I’m in a book club and I often suggest a classic when it’s my turn to choose.”

As for Falvey’s favorite, that may be too close to call: “It’s hard to rank them, but Don Quixote would have to be up there near The Odyssey.”

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