American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s: 1960-1964 by John Wells (book review).

Comicbooks were still in the doldrums as the 1960s dawned because of the restrictions laid upon them by the Comic Codes Authority and even those who worked in the industry thought its years were numbered. There wasn’t enough work to go around and they were seen as the poor relative to the newspaper cartoon strip.


‘American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s: 1960-1964’ as written by John Wells brings a directionless 1960 where Dell Comics sold the most titles and National Periodicals aka DC Comics began to have an upsurge by resurrecting and revising their old super-hero characters into new forms. Looking objectively now, if comicbooks were going down in America, then it was going down fighting. 1960 was also the start of DC’s letters pages and the next year start of comic fandom and the slow growth is recorded over the years and its influence on two companies in particular because they paid more attention to their audience than the other companies did.

Something I hadn’t realised before was that over at Atlas Comics that a certain Stan Lee had already started to employ what would later become the Marvel method of letting the artist run with the plot than follow the script as laid down by the writer before he got back into the super-heroes titles. When you compare the techniques between them and DC Comics, it might have looked like more work for the pay but the freedom for expression had to be better than tied down by a writer with no graphics sense.

As with all these ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’, for each year you get to look at all the companies that were going at the time and get an overall insight into the state of the industry and how the stars of certain creators began to shine. Anything I’m going to point out are essentially things that I either didn’t know or their significance. I didn’t even know that Neal Adams had been looking for work there as early as 1959 but was effectively locked out because it was seen as a dying industry and an old man’s club of creative staff. Personally, I would have called the situation stagnant although from a British reader’s point of view from around that time, to see American comics in full colour with longer stories was quite a novelty and one of its attractions to me where often two or three pages a story, even a continued one, was all we had in our own comics.

1961 was like the starting posts for so many things. The introduction of the Fantastic Four at Marvel to the start of comicbook fandom through the efforts of Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas and the co-operation of DC Comics’ editor Julius Schwartz. Something I didn’t know was that Schwartz also listed creator credits on the books he edited but it never looked that obvious to my young eyes at the time. Oh, and the price of comics going from 10 cents to 12 cents which was thought an outrage. Although they don’t look at the cost of American comics in the UK, they were about 10d (old pence money) which was about three times as much as the average comic over here, so it was hardly surprising many of us became collectors by default rather than reading and chucking or passing onto friends. Mind you, over here, the early American comics were in circulation for much longer and rather than being pulped were often re-circulated, often ending up at seaside resorts to be grabbed if you missed any. It’s interesting to note that the DC had their price tag open enough to be changed at the printers which no doubt contributed to us eventually getting a UK price actually on the comic than a sticky label. I did find it interesting seeing how much space was devoted to the Legion Of Super-Heroes and Bizarro but me bothered by that.

1962 had a lot going for it. Everything from Dell splitting into Gold Key to Marvel’s growth with a certain greyskin, webcrawler and a god of thunder. With the latter, it was Stan Lee’s brother, Larry Leiber, who coined most of the other terms like uru hammer for Thor. Interestingly, although it’s shown in the text that the inscription on his hammer spelt ‘Thor’ as ‘Thorr’, the illustration shows the latter corrected version. I never realised before that the symbol on Ant-Man’s chest was supposed to be the head of an ant. In the DC Universe canon, of the Silver Age characters, it is the Flash and Green Lantern who know each other’s identities first. Considering that Snapper Carr was allowed free access of the Justice League cave headquarters at the time, perhaps the others were being sensible in not revealing their own identities. Purely me thinking here, Superman’s x-ray vision could probably see all of their faces but seeing and knowing who they are are two different things.

1963 gave an interesting bit of knowledge about artist John Romita at DC when he got the ire of writer Robert Kanigher for tweaking his scripts to improve visual interest. Obviously, the biggest effect came from Kennedy’s assassination but with comicbooks prepared in advance, it created all kinds of complications when material showing him alive hit the stands after his death.

1964 accelerated the changes in the comicbook industry, reflecting the changes in racism in the USA and the arrival of The Beatles on the scene. Stan Lee was also working on ensuring that the big super-villains weren’t captured or apparently killed after every battle and in doing so dimensionalised Doctor Doom. Towards the end of the year, Warren Publications had their first ‘Creepy’ moment. Oh yes, 1964 was also the dawn of the first comicbook convention although, as pointed out, it was only one step up from a swap-meet. Of note, key guests were Steve Ditko and Gold Key artist Tom Gill. I wonder if anyone has noted that comic conventions have been going 50 years now?

Although I’ve centred mostly on DC and Marvel, there is a lot of information on the other comicbook companies and even the comic magazines like ‘Mad’, so nothing is left out.

These books give an incredible insight to the time and the events that were also happening and affecting them. Even if you were brought up in them, like I was, this becomes very much a refresher course. I did wonder at the time why publisher TwoMorrows hadn’t started earlier than the 1950s but these are going to be dealt with next year. With the volumes out now to whet your appetite, I can see people will want to track back even further.

Don’t be mistaken, with two columns a page and lots of sample art and a few original art pages included, these are very long reads and a superb reference volume that will last and should be the part of any comicbook fan’s collection.

GF Willmetts

October 2014

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 222 page illustrated large hardback. Price: $39.95 (US), £23.03 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-60549-045-8)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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