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American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964
John Wells
TwoMorrows Publishing, 222 pages

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964
John Wells
John Wells has been working behind the scene organizing and indexing the histories of comics's characters. You'l' find some of his work in The Comics Buyer's Guide, Amazing Heroes and Alter Ego. His name appears in the indicias in books about comics, mostly for DC Comics, including the Superman Encyclopedia and Wonder Woman Encyclopedia (he co-wrote the latter), the DC Vault and Batman Vault books, and recently 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking and its related title The Golden Age of DC Comics.

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A review by D. Douglas Fratz

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For most of us born in the 50s, the early 60s was our golden age of discovery, the birth of our sense of wonder. For many, that meant comic books and science fiction. For those of us now sixty-something, it was a magical and memorable time.

John Morrow's TwoMorrows Publishing (current publisher of the classic fanzine/magazine Alter Ego) has grown in recent years to rival Gary Groth's Fantagraphics (publisher of The Comics Journal) as the premier small publisher in the graphic story field. Their latest project is an ambitious one: a series of books covering the entire history of the American comic book, from the 1940s onward. There will be volumes covering each decade, with the 1960s divided into two volumes, and all will be expensive full color hardcovers. The first volume is now available, covering those historic years of 1960-1964.

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964 by John Wells represents a very promising start to the series. Wells presents a comprehensive year by year overview of all of the comics published in the 10/12/15/25-cent format. He provides minimal critique regarding the relative quality of these hundreds of titles from more than a dozen publishers, but does provide information on relative popularity (e.g., sales) and information that allows the astute reader some feel for the relative importance in terms of quality of art and story.

It can be argued that these volumes should have been published in chronological order, starting with the comics of the 40s (which I think of as the First Heroic Age) and the 1950s (which I think of as the EC Age), thereby establishing the history of what is now called the Golden Age before starting on the 1960s (now called The Silver Age, but which I think of as the Second Heroic Age). (I have yet to become comfortable, by the way, with the classification of the very different eras of the super-hero-dominated 1940s and the crime/horror -- dominated 1950s -- with just enough science fiction to help young intellects survive the era -- as part of the same Golden Age.) I think readers of the early 60s chronicled by Wells would have benefitted from a better understanding of how these earlier eras provided the foundation for the comic book renaissance that occurred in the decade of the 1960s.

Almost every aspect of this volume can be cited by different readers to be both its strength and its weakness. Wells covers titles and publishers in a very comprehensive and egalitarian fashion, thereby bringing out little known (and sometimes very interesting) information on minor works of the period, but largely failing to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. He expresses some opinions of others through footnoted references and quotes, but his reference sources are strongly weighted toward opinions expressed in Alter Ego and other TwoMorrows publications. Wells was not reading comics in the early 60s, which allows him to be more objective in his comprehensive coverage, but this attenuates his ability to convey any real feel for the impact these comic books had on those who discovered them in their real-time youth. It is to Wells' credit (or maybe just my failing memory) that in reading this book I found no obvious errors of fact.

But I enjoyed this mostly-just-the-facts history nevertheless for its providing of the full context of that era. I began reading Mad Magazine around 1960 (although as an eight-year-old in rural Appalachia I will not claim to have fully understood it for some years hence). I discovered superhero comics in 1962 through Adventure Comics with Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes. And in 1963 I discovered Marvel Comics, starting with the Fantastic Four, followed by Spider-Man, Daredevil, Avengers and X-Men. Another formative event for me in this era was the September 1964 premiere of the TV series Jonny Quest, the first animated science fiction adventure, which Wells mentions only in a timeline without further comment. (I credit the show with my career choice to become a scientist, which at age 11 I assumed entailed world-traveling adventures solving mysteries.) By the end of 1964, I had read less than 100 comic books, but they were already profoundly changing me and my perception of the world. It was a few years later that my knowledge of the era was greatly supplemented by my discovery of fandom, which allowed me to complete my collection and learn through fanzines what others thought.

Since I (to a large extent) stopped reading comics around 1970, there have been many histories and retrospectives written about comic books, including this era that was so formative for many young minds such as mine. Many have been more insightful into what made some comics great and others forgettable, but none have provided a more comprehensive overview. I can therefore recommend this first American Comic Book Chronicles to anyone who wants to know more about this important and colorful era of graphic story history. I look forward to future volumes, especially Wells's coverage of the second half of the marvelous 60s.

Copyright © 2013 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


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