What follows here is the product of an extremely low-level case of buyer's remorse, about a half-century old. Sometime in the very early '70s, when I was eight or ten, I was poking around in an airport newsstand on a layover during a family trip. I don't remember which airport--somewhere in the south, most likely--or where we were going or headed back from, or why. I don't remember much about it at all, really, except for a comic book that I didn't buy: The Classics Illustrated version of Wild Animals I Have Known, by Ernest Thompson Seton.
Classics Illustrated was a long line of comic book adaptations of respectable literature put out by Gilberton and, later, Frawley Publishing from the early '40s until around the time of my airport layover. They were aimed, mostly, at boys, stuff like The Three Musketeers and The Last of the Mohicans, though they did do versions of Jane Eyre and Lorna Doone. The drawing was variable but often pretty bad; the colors were garish; the stories not only ridiculously abridged but also expurgated. The best thing about them, in many cases, was the dramatic painted covers (in this regard they were like Gold Key comics, which I also loved as a kid).
They were an influential part of my childhood: My stack included the line's numerous versions of the tales of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream, among many others. Well, there was a rack of them in the newsstand, and I was able to secure a quarter from my Mom to buy one for the flight. But which to buy? I was drawn to Wild Animals I Have Known, with its striking orange-tinged cover featuring the snarling face of a wolf. But there was another one that I also wanted.
I think there may have been an application to my Mom for a second quarter so I could get both; it was declined. In the end I chose the other comic, not Wild Animals, as my purchase. What the other title was I cannot remember at all, but through all these years the cover of Wild Animals I Have Known stuck in my memory, though I never came across the comic again, or knew anything more about the book upon which it was based.
Then a few weeks ago I was going through a stack of old comics in a junkshop, and there it was: That same looming wolf face, in a near-mint copy. Classics Illustrated used a heavy, durable "slick" paper for their covers, with the result that used editions are often in much better shape than other old comics. Needless to say, I bought it.
And I took it home and read it. Good Lord. I made the right choice back at the newsstand.
Or maybe not; it was, in any case, memorable, which the comic I bought apparently wasn't.
Wild Animals I Have Known, the book, was published in 1898. Seton, a Brit who came to the U.S. after many years in Canada, was a naturalist and folklorist, and a co-founder of the Boy Scouts of America. He was one of the nature writers targeted by the likes of John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt in the long-running "nature fakers controversy" of the early 1900s, on the charge that he sentimentalized and anthropomorphized his subjects, attributing to animals such human traits as love, loyalty and self-sacrifice, as well as vengeance and spite.
Classic Illustrated's version of his best-known book is not, however, the warm and fuzzy collection I was expecting. It begins with this declaration:
"These stories are about real animals. Almost all meet a tragic end, for this is nature's law concerning wild things. But in each is the stamp of greatness."
He isn't kidding. Spoiler and trigger alert: I'm going to give away the endings of several of his tales, and if you're one of the many people who can't abide depictions of animal suffering or death, this won't be your cup of tea.
Take, for instance, "Lobo," the story of the wolf on the cover. Seton recounts how he was hired to kill this cunning and ferocious leader of a wolf pack by ranchers in New Mexico around 1890. The creature outwits several of his efforts to trap him, but finally our narrator uses Lobo's great love for his mate Blanca against him; she's the only wolf Lobo will permit to run ahead of him, allowing Seton to trap her. He kills Blanca...
...then drags her body over more traps, and the grief-stricken Lobo is ensnared the next day. Lobo submits to be taken back to the ranch alive and chained up, but...
"When morning dawned he was still there, but his spirit had gone. The old king wolf was dead."
That's the characteristically blunt final line.
Another heart-warmer is "Wully," about a Scottish sheepdog of tireless devotion to his master Robin. When they take their flock to market, a stampede occurs and scatters them. Wully gathers them in. Robin counts the sheep and tells Wully one is missing; the dog, "stung with shame," hurries off into the city to find the missing sheep. While he's gone, a kid recounts the flock and informs Robin that he miscounted; all 734 are accounted for.
To which the old git replies: "Wully won't come back until he finds another sheep, even if he has to steal it. That could make me a lot of trouble. I might even lose my job."
So the bastard leaves without him. Wully spends years homeless, then miraculously finds a new gig herding sheep, but he's damaged goods; he becomes a secret killer of sheep on neighboring farms, and at the end he leaps at the throat of the new master's daughter, leaving the guy no alternative but to strike him down. The last line:
"A second blow stretched him lifeless on the hearthstone where so long he had been a faithful and honored retainer."
Then there's "Raggylug," about a rabbit that lives in a swamp with his mother, who defends him from predators. He eventually learns to lead vicious dogs and other hazards against other rabbits intruding on his turf. At the end he and his mother are fleeing a fox, and she tries to escape by swimming across an icy pond. She doesn't make it...
"She drifted backward, and now her strength was spent. In a little while the weak limbs ceased to move and the soft brown eyes closed...when he got back to the pond he could not find his mother, for she slept in the arms of her friend, the water that tells no tales."
On the other hand, the final panel, informing us of Rag's own fate, is as as close as these stories come to a happy ending...
"Rag lived on in the swamp. He found a wife and raised many children and grandchildren who, perhaps, live there to this day."
And finally, for you horse lovers, there's "The Pacing Mustang," set back in New Mexico in the 1890s. It's about the efforts of a cowboy named Jo Calone to capture a black wild mustang who "paces" instead of gallops. The creature eludes many attempts to catch him before ultimately going full Thelma & Louise...
"...with the last of his strength, he made for the top of a cliff. There he sprang into the vacant air to land upon the rocks below--lifeless, but free."
After all this, we get the standard outro: "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." Yeah, not so much.
Having said that, while I don't think I would have "liked" this comic had I read it back then, in the usual sense of the word, I don't think I would have would have been traumatized by it, either. I think I might have felt respected by its unflinching presentation of the tragic, and I think I might have agreed that Seton's animal characters had the "stamp of greatness."
One other observation, with regard to the "Nature Fakers Controversy": I suspect that, whatever specific exaggerations, projections or romanticizations Seton may have indulged in these stories, in general he and his fellow "sentimentalists" have been shown to be in the right over the last few decades. The factor that has shown them to be right, curiously enough, is the rise of home video.
Thousands and thousands of widely circulated amateur videos of pets and wild creatures alike have suggested, to a degree that precludes fakery and in ways that would previously have been dismissed, that animals share the same emotions, personalities and potentials as humans. Turns out that Seton and his ilk weren't "anthropomorphizing" at all; they weren't attributing human traits to animals, they were simply recognizing that such traits weren't exclusive to humans.