American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69 by John Wells (book review).

The 1960s was an expansive time for comics, so it’s hardly surprising that these ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’ would need more than one volume to cover this decade and this is the second of these 1960s volumes covering 1965-1969. If anything, this was the period where Marvel Comics was rapidly becoming the teenagers favourite company both in artistic freedom, mostly because Stan Lee found it quicker to script from the art than dictate what he wanted in each panel. It might have given more work to the artist and perhaps more credit but when you compare to how stolid the work from DC Comics was at the time and how reluctant they were to give credits, it definitely led the way into the future.


It’s interesting seeing things that I’ve either read or actually got. On page 12, there is the cover of Jules Feiffer’s book ‘The Great Comic Book Heroes’ which I read from the local library when I was very young and had my grounding in the 1940s National Periodicals/DC Comics heroes and other early stories. I’m probably one up on many of you as I still have an original Spider-Man tee-shirt that I won for getting a letter in a UK comic in the late 60s.

It’s interesting seeing DC Comics weren’t beyond using ideas sent in by their fans and it’s where Dave Cockrum got his first break as witnessed on page 16. Comicbooks were also becoming collectables although I have to confess that when American comics cost nearly four times as much as UK comics, most of us over here became collectors by default because they were too expensive to buy and give away, although many did appear on school shelves to while away a break when it was raining outside.

It’s rare that I spot mistakes in books such as these but considering that Mastermind had been turned into stone by the Stranger, I doubt if he’d have been marooned with Magneto and the Toad on the exhibits planet.

I should point out that I’m more familiar with the big two companies of the time simply because they were the ones with the better distribution in the UK. Oddly, this book doesn’t mention the rivalry that existed where if you read one company you didn’t pick up the competition, which many of us took to heart. Well, until there was a DC drought one summer and I switched. The wealth of information given for the other companies puts a lot of things in perspective, especially as they saw Marvel Comics as the ones to emulate in 1965 with their own versions of super-heroes. You also aren’t likely to read that the reason we had any American comics over here in the first place was because they were used for freight weight and people at the docks realised money could be made from them.

Of course, things changed drastically, at least in the public eye, with 1966 and the rise of the ‘Batman’ TV series. I have to confess when I first watched the show, I tended to take it pretty seriously rather than totally tongue-in-cheek. It was only in later years that I picked up on the comedy and a more recent showing how much was based off 1950s material, having been reading archive material. Whatever your thoughts, seeing things in perspective and the effect on the industry, mostly at DC Comics, is still illuminating. It brought sales but too much of a need to have similarities to the TV series which it couldn’t sustain. I suspect these days, they would have had two comicbook versions available as recently witnessed.

This book is invariably full of surprises and seeing the original pages from some of the comicbooks is always a delight. One that did tickle me was seeing Mary Jane Watson’s introduction and even more amusing John Romita saying that if he could do it again he’d have made her even more of a knock-out.

Seeing the rise of black characters at Marvel is interesting. Outside of Dell’s ‘Lobo’ in 1965, no other company had taken this on in 1966. To some extent, this was understandable because of the southern states prejudice and potential loss of sales. Nonetheless, give Stan Lee his due in wanting to increase colour diversity which also brought out the Falcon a couple years later. When we saw the comics over here, there was nary a thought on that problem other than thinking about time. It would be another decade before DC Comics would follow suit. Author John Wells doesn’t do such predictions here, mostly because it’s important to stay within the constraints of what each year was dishing out and 1966 was a busy year. Oh, I remember hearing hints back in the 70s that SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell was based off writer Roy Thomas but always wondered if the surname had any similarities to DC writer E. Nelson Bridwell.

As owner of some original art pages by Werner Roth from the 1960s and Cockrum and Byrne from the 1970s, I was always interested when the transition on the size of the Bristol board happened. Here, in 1966, it is revealed to be instigated by Murphy Anderson. The reason it spread throughout the comicbook companies so quickly was economics at the printers and cheaper postage. Anything else was a matter of scale but I can understand why some artists and the letterers took their time changing over.

It was interesting seeing Jim Warren’s solution for deterring cigarette companies from targeting his 14-18 year-old readers by having Frank Frazetta draw and Archie Goodwin writing a couple public service adverts against smoking. Seeing the sample here certainly looks effective even today. Anyone interesting in finding a copy of Eerie # 1 is going to be looking for something rarer than a Faberge egg as only 200 copies were printed.

Seeing the odd recognition of UK material in the USA is interesting although from the sample cover here, it looks like it was inspired by the two films than the TV series, so the Peter Cushing version isn’t a Time Lord as noted. Attempts at circulating the ‘Modesty Blaise’ newspaper strip was stopped, no doubt because of the film out at the time, because of the odd bits of nudity it contained. A good thing they never looked at ‘Garth’.

Speaking of reprints, we saw ‘Space Family Robinson’ reprinted in the UK back in the 60s and reading how they merged it into ‘Lost In Space’ when the latter became prominent is interesting, specially as the former came first.

Adjectives run out when I came across Al Williamson’s art for King Features’ ‘Flash Gordon’ comic which is truly beautiful art regardless of the subject matter.

It’s hardly surprising that after the quick rise of the ‘Batman’ series and so many other companies following Marvel’s more, shall we say hip relevant super-heroes, that 1967 had something of an implosion which took out several of the minor companies. Comicbook companies invariably follow trends than make their own stands. You have to admire those that do, but this book reveals their struggles or when distributors didn’t distribute. There is also a little more emphasis on the rise of certain creators here, obviously with Neal Adams and Jim Steranko, but it’s also nice to see all the others getting a regular mention as well. Seeing where many made their bones in the smaller companies has made this book a useful information resource.

Some of it was sheer reminders, like seeing a picture of Mary Jane Watson with a perm to make her look less like Gwen Stacy, although I do think that was largely a result of the black and white ‘Spectacular Spider-Man’ magazine’s first issue.

Seeing editor Dick Giordano making changes at DC Comics to attract a younger hip audience is fun and I defy anyone not to chuckle at the suits from upstairs who wondered why delivery boys were loitering around the office and who were in fact the writers. Oh, one of these by the name of Marv Wolfman managed to salvage 500 pages of comicbook art that would have been otherwise destroyed. For those who don’t know writer Len Wein was the model for Cain, the ‘House Of Mystery’ host and writer Mark Hanerfeld for Abel, the ‘House Of Secrets’ host. It’s also interesting to discover Jim Shooter wasn’t the only writer to start young as Gerry Conway was 16 when he first sold to DC Comics in 1968. It does make me wonder what would have happened had that been public knowledge at the time and how many other adolescences would have been sending in samples.

I did wonder if only the mainstream comicbook companies would be covered and glad to see the Undergrounds were included which should make for some interesting reading further down the line.

Seeing the evolution of the Justice League and Green Arrow’s dissatisfaction and growing a goatee amongst other things signalling the changes in the DC characters far more than depowering Wonder Woman. Shall I go on? I’m only tipping the iceberg of what this book contains.

As you can tell from the length of this review, I found this book riveting and stirred a lot of old memories. Even seeing familiar pieces of comic art again illustrated what good choices they were. It would have been far more disappointing had they chosen things that were obscure. Showing what we loved above the comics has been the forte of these ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’ and there are clearly more to come and enjoy.

GF Willmetts

June 2014

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing. 287 page illustrated indexed hardcover. Price: $41.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-60549-055-7)

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