Classics Illustrated #166: Tigers and Traitors adapts the Jules Verne story The Steam House. Verne’s loquacious style and many of his scenes are simplified and compressed in this 1962 adaptation for younger readers, but the main plot and adventure remain intact. A British group hell-bent on shooting many tigers travels India using a steam-powered mechanical elephant.
Verne uses a historical figure named Nana Sahib in this story. Nana Sahib took part in the Sepoy Revolt, which you can read about in the text pages following the main story. (Today, this event is often called The Indian Rebellion of 1857, and Verne’s original narrative refers specifically to events in Cawnpore and Lucknow.) Nana Sahib’s fate following the revolt remains a mystery, and Verne takes that mystery as the starting point for this fictional adventure.
As a tale of two cultures, The Steam House seems to favor the British imperialists as the heroes of the narrative. In the original text, Verne spends a bit more time exploring the culture and religious beliefs of India as encountered on the journey. Verne’s original description of the Sepoy Revolt also spends time describing the horrors committed by both sides. But his scenes which build sympathy for the Indian characters are largely eliminated in this adaptation. And, as a work of historical fiction, one can hardly fault The Steam House for portraying the British as the victors of the central conflict.
Nevertheless, a student of the culture and music of India will undoubtedly find this adaptation sadly one-sided. If the treatment of Indian characters and the wanton slaughter of animals for sport are offensive, then we should perhaps reserve our offense not for the book but for histories of exploitation and the attitudes of the ruling class which Verne portrays in this story. In the final panel, ending the life of an Indian man is counted towards a goal of murdering 50 tigers, a statement which says less about the ferocity of the killed man than it does a colonialist attitude that the men they ruled were no better than beasts.
The story also has little use for women other than as motivating factors for male revenge, with Colonel Munro and Nana Sahib each having sworn vengeance for killing the other’s wife. If you’re looking for a strong female lead, you won’t find her in this book. The steam house is a boys’ club on wheels, a glorified version of a fort or treehouse with a ‘no girls allowed’ sign hanging on the door. (Plus, the back-up story about a German king in this issue fails to include a single female anywhere in the story, not even in faces in the background.)
But, as lovers of the visual splendor of comic book art, our biggest criticism of the adaptation is the lack of huge, awesome panels dedicated to the majesty of the mechanical elephant. Surely the wonder of this steam-powered beast merits the reader’s and the artist’s attention, not to mention the savagely ironic imperial subversion of the form of the welcoming elephant-like Indian god Ganesha for use as a tool to trample and ravage the continent, its animals, and its people. (For a modern take on the mechanical elephant, visit the page of the French theme park full of mechanical animals, including a giant walking, rideable elephant that sprays water from its trunk: Les Machines de L’Île.)
Gilberton Company, the Classics Illustrated publisher, printed this book three times: in 1962 (identified as HRN 165), 1964 (HRN 167), and 1966 (also HRN 167). You can find them in MyComicShop, though they are rarely in stock. We ordered this copy from a Canadian seller on eBay at a steeply discounted price due to the torn cover. Depending on condition, this comic typically retails for $6 to $30 or more. (We also discovered some unrelated illustrated adaptations of the story, one in Spanish and one in Turkish, but we have yet to see those publications.)
In the gallery below, you will find a cover-to-cover scan of the complete issue, including a brief biography of Jules Verne, a text page about the Sepoy Revolt, a text page which concludes a short story by Guy de Maupassant, and a five-page illustrated history of the German king Frederick Barbarossa.