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The Alienated Critic
by D. Douglas Fratz

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other The Alienated Critic columns.

Wherein the columnist revisits his misspent youth in the 1960s while reviewing three recent histories of the comic books of that era

I. Those Were the Days My Friend

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 Last year I reviewed the first volume in a new series published by TwoMorrows Publishing, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964, by John Wells, noting that I looked forward to the volume chronicling the second half of the that seminal decade. That volume was finally released this year. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 by John Wells (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2014, $41.95US) was indeed worth the wait.

For me, this was the exact period that when comic books (along with science fiction) were my formative influence. From the age of 12 to 17, I read every comic book (mostly superheroes) and science fiction (both books and magazines) that I could obtain, and my discovery of comics (and science fiction) fandom during this period meant that I could obtain thousands. (Most of which, at least the comics, alas, I slowly sold throughout the 1970s. But I should not complain -- I received several thousand dollars for my several hundred dollar investment.)

My first impression in looking at the cover of this comprehensive history of the very period where comic books were the focus of my teenage life was disorientation: the comic book covers in the collage on the book's front cover stripe included not a single one of those that I remember as epitomizing the best of the era. Where were the Marvel and DC superheroes? Jack Kirby? Neal Adams? Jim Steranko? The Warren magazines? The underground comix? The classic fanzines? The only covers I recognized were No-Man and Web of Horror, with art by Wally Wood and Jeff Jones, respectively, although otherwise both magazines were eminently forgettable.

Fortunately, on reading Wells's book, I found all (or almost all) of the comics I remember were indeed chronicled inside. Just as with the first volume covering the first half of the 1960s, this volume reviews, with an even hand, all of the comics and related ephemera of the era, the good, the bad and the ugly, without any real critical distinction. Seeing this comprehensive history of the period, I am surprised at what a small part of the comics world of the time I was actually focused upon while immersing myself in comics fandom and amassing more than a thousand comics and hundreds of fanzines in just a half-decade. My current-comics-related time was spent focused primarily on all of the Marvel superheroes, some of the DC superheroes, underground comics, and (of course) fanzines. (I was also, of course, catching up on older comics, and reading science fiction books and magazines throughout this time as well.) I favored the Marvel comics because they seemed to portray adults more as I expected to be as an adult, while the DC comics seemed to portray adults as an old man might expect a ten-year-old to imagine them. (By 1970, as I entered young adulthood, even Marvel was no longer resonating, leaving me with only science fiction as an engaging literary pursuit.)

Wells does a reasonably comprehensive job on the comics of the period that I remember, the Marvel and DC superheroes, the excellent art by such artists as Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko, to name just a few. The coverage of the seminal underground comix was good, if not great, although the coverage of fanzines of the period was somewhat spotty. The only real miss I can see is the failure to even mention Doug Wildey's brilliant animated television series, The Adventures of Jonny Quest, whose sole 26-episode season ended in 1965, but was in reruns throughout the late 1960s. (It was by far Hanna-Barbara's best animated cartoon series (although The Flintstones and The Jetsons had their amusing moments, and were certainly more popular with the masses). I think Jonny Quest joins The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek as the best science fiction TV series of the 1960s.) Wells does, of course, give significant coverage to the eminently embarrassing Batman television series from 1966, which I and most other fans at the time believed did significant damage to the public perception of comic book superheroes.

There is no question that I learned a lot from Wells' well-illustrated full-color chronicle of this period. There are many hundreds of comics that I had never even seen, and numerous interesting stories of which I had never heard. I did not realize how traumatic 1967 was for the field -- I remember only that many of the lesser also -- ran companies seemed to be giving up as Marvel and DC dominated the stands. I had largely forgotten that by 1969, DC was undergoing a young-Turk renaissance, with comics such as Deadman with brilliant art by Neal Adams. I did not regret any of the time spent revisiting the late 1960s in this beautifully illustrated history.

II. The Past as Prelude

The second volume in TwoMorrows Publishing's American Comic Book Chronicles series actually appeared late last year, and covers the 1950s. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1950-1959 by Bill Schelly (TwoMorrows Publishing, 2013, $40.95US) is a joy to read, start to finish. Schelly is perhaps the best writer currently writing about comics and comics fandom (he starts the volume with a perfect quote from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities), and the 1950s were a dramatic and dynamic era in comic book history, equaled only by the 1960s. The 1950s began at the end of what I think of as the first heroic age, and saw the brilliant and beautiful EC Comics bloom and get cut down, leading (after a few years wandering in the desert) to the second heroic age (as chronicled by Wells).

When I entered comics fandom in 1966, and learned that there were thousands of comic books published before I had started reading them a few years earlier, the legendary EC comics from the 1950s seemed like ancient history. They were rare and relatively costly compared to the 12-cent comics on the newsstands, or the reasonably priced comics published earlier in the 1960s. By the time I had read a dozen or more articles in fanzines praising the EC Comics of 1950-1955, I knew I wanted to read them. By 1969, I had perhaps 25 original ECs, obtained mostly by breaking my rule never to pay more than a dollar for a comic (some of the science fiction ECs I craved were selling for $3-5!). But they were worth every penny. In the 1970s, I purchased the new reprints and read every last one, virtually the final comics I ever purchased and read. There is some personal irony here that my reading of comics started just after the end of the 1950s and ended with the comics published at the very beginning of the 1950s.

Schelly's rigorous and well documented history covers the entire run of EC comics quite well, but he also provides much more about the rich and varied up-and-down 1950s. I don't recall ever reading about the brief but fascinating history of 3-D comics. Although I have read a great deal about Frederick Wertham and the Senate hearings that led to the Comics Code that killed EC and some other fine comics, Schelly's balanced account provides new insights. The story of an issue of EC's Panic being banned in Massachusetts for defaming Santa Claus is a classic account of the period. The birth of the Silver Age in 1956 (with the revival of The Flash by DC) is another time I knew little about, including the origin of the Legion of Superheroes that a few years later would introduce me to the world of comic book superheroes. The well-chosen full color graphics are again a real joy to see.

Schelly ends the volume with a reprint of Larry Stark's heartfelt and poignant article "Elegy" on the death of EC Comics. A perfect ending to a perfect account of the comics of the 1950s.

In retrospect, the editors at TwoMorrows chose correctly in assigning authorship to fans who began their comics experience just after the period they were chronicling. Both Schelly and Wells are able to provide well researched accounts of the times without the fan-boy enthusiasm that can come from experiencing those times first hand as teens or pre-teens. Kudos all around on the first three volumes. I look forward to reading about the 1940s, 1970s, and more in future volumes.

III. Touring the Sausage Factory

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story I read Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe (HarperCollins, 2012, $26.99US) last year without any preconceptions. What I discovered was a comprehensive account of the entire history of Marvel Comics focused not on the comics and characters, but on the people and the business itself based on interviews with more than a hundred of the insiders who lived it. The picture painted by Howe's accounts, especially of the 1960s through the 1990s, is not a pretty one for those like me who were reading Marvel Comics in their formative years.

According to Howe's quite convincing portrayal, the Merry Marvel Bullpen of writers and artists in the 1960s was seldom very merry, but more a fictitious creation of Stan Lee, who garnered more credit than was his due during Marvel's glorious run in the 1960s. And things did not get more harmonious as the decades progressed.

This made the book distressing to read for me, as the inside accounts showed that the supposedly brilliant and idealistic writers and artists of my youth were actually scheming, less than virtuous adults. My idols not only had feet of clay, but may have been made almost wholly thereof. I suppose that I already might have suspected much of this from when I was reading the comics in the 1960s, as well as my later experiences with actual adults in actual workplaces. When Steve Ditko left Marvel and Spiderman around 1966, he went on to produce forgettable comics for Charlton and DC, and then went over the deep edge with right-wing polemics like Mr. A, while Spiderman continued apace with Romito and Lee, I assumed that it was an emergent personality defect. When Jack Kirby left Marvel and the Fantastic Four a few years later, and went on to produce the forgettable New Gods books for DC, while the Fantastic Four continued fine with Romita and Buscema, I assumed that my favorite artist had simply lost his mind as well. I took both cases to be evidence that Stan Lee was the sole genius behind the favorite comics of my youth.

The facts portrayed by Howe bring into question my view of Stan Lee as an unparalleled literary genius and leader of men (and impressionable young boys). At best, he was a creative but conflicted company man who did not successfully protect those with talent from businessmen with greed but no talent. The only person to come off worse in Howe's account might be Jim Shooter, who later ruled Marvel with a ham-handed iron fist. (Shooter was another hero of my youth, who unlike Lee was very close to my own age in the 1960s, when he was writing DC's Legion of Superheroes and I interviewed him by mail for my fanzine, Comicology.) Two icons of my youth destroyed in one book.

So while I appreciated and admired Howe's accomplishment in writing this book, I can't say that I enjoyed it. (It did have its moments -- who doesn't love laughing at mindless empty-suit businessmen who can't tell talent from shinola?) But it may be that I just can't handle the truth when it ruins the image of those I admired when young. I guess for me, this may have been a story best left untold.

Copyright © 2014 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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