by Derek Royal
For a little more than a year and a half, TwoMorrows Publishing has been engaged in an ambitious effort: to produce quality, hardback volumes that provide a chronological sweep of comics books in America, balancing insightful historical analysis with beautiful interior reproductions, cover art, and archival images. The latest volume, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969, is the second in a two-part coverage of the 1960s, both written by John Wells. In the previous work, Wells introduced us to the initial tumultuous years of the decade, which brought us the Justice League of America, the decline of westerns and romance comics, the breakup of Dell Comics and the rise of Gold Key, the solidification of Harvey Comics’ humor lineup, Creepy and the growth of Warren Publications, the cultural impact of JFK’s assassination and the arrival of The Beatles, and, of course, the appearances of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, heralding the dawn of the “Marvel era.” The subsequent, and most recent, book carries us through the rest of the 1960s, complementing as a crescendo its companion’s steady-paced build up. Indeed, the fact that comics history during the 1960s warrants two volumes — all other decades in the series (at least so far) have been contained in only one volume — suggests the undeniable significance of this period.
In this second 1960s volume, Wells begins when the United States is still in the throes of Beatlemania, Johnson’s Great Society is taking full form, and the country is just beginning to realize the ever-increasing impact of the Vietnam War. In fact, one of the great strengths of the American Comic Book Chronicles is its writers’ ability to anchor their historical narratives within the varied textures of American culture. Each of Wells’s five chapters, one for each of the years covered in this volume, begins with a visual timeline that situates key moments in mid- to late-1960s comics history within their larger socio-cultural contexts. For example, We see in 1966 how the January premiere of ABC’s Batman television series coincided with the arrival of Tabitha on Bewitched and the election of Indira Gandhi as India’s new prime minister, how the debut of the Black Panther (considered the first black superhero) in Fantastic Four #52 occurs in the same month as Parallax’s satiric The Great Society Comic Book, how the Beach Boys’ revolutionary Pet Sounds was released when John Romita began making his mark on The Amazing Spider-Man, how anti-war protests at Harvard University happen around the same time Batgirl makes her debut in Detective Comics, and how Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon and Steve Ditko’s Captain Atom stand alongside Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Monkees as defining pop cultural events of the year.
The chapters are structured in a fairly consistent manner, yet without becoming stale and repetitious. After Wells’s general overview of the year, along with the accompanying timeline, each chapter is roughly divided into DC Comics’ notable output for that year, that of Marvel Comics, releases from other significant publishers at the time (e.g., Archie Comics, Charlton, Gold Key, and Harvey), marks left by smaller and/or upstart presses (such as King Comics or Tower Comics), and the various other comics happenings, such as fanzines and underground comix, that make up each year. This ordering of information is never the same from one chapter to the next — sometimes Marvel is covered first, while at other times Gold Key and Archie are given the initial spotlight — and it gives the book a balanced or more democratic feel.
Among the many significant comic-book phenomena Wells covers in American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 include the publication of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, The Archies’ launch into bubble-gum stardom, Wally Wood’s unconventional witzend, the significance of Carl Barks’s retirement, Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the growing lineup of Charlton Comics, the debut of Vampirella, the psychedelic output from Jim Steranko and Neal Adams, and the unlikely mod overhaul of Wonder Woman. It is impressive how much information Wells is able to squeeze into his 287-pages, and without giving short shrift to or compromising its content. Here you will find the period’s hits (e.g., Joe Kubert’s Enemy Ace), its misses (such as Jerry Siegel’s The Owl), and it’s best-be-forgottens (Stan Lee’s short-lived attempt at “legitimization” with Marvel Pop Art Productions).
Perhaps most notable is Wells’s refusal to succumb to predictable or popular conceptions of American comics history. It would have been easy for him to privilege the growth of Marvel Comics throughout his narrative — many fans feel that the decade belongs to Stan Lee and company — or to paint DC as a fumbling behemoth. But Wells is balanced in his analysis, placing us within the context of the times and pointing out how tentative and unpredictable comics culture can be. Along with this, he uses a large canvas to present his inclusive history, bringing in multi-media, genre-based, and even regional or culturally localized events to tease out a more complete story. Finally, he refuses to ignore the impact of fandom during the 1960s. As he did in the previous 1960-1964 volume, Wells draws a clear line between the burgeoning fan culture — as represented through the work of Roy Thomas, Jerry Bails, and Dan and Maggie Thompson — and the newer generation of comics creators coming to the fore in the mid- to late 1960s.
And of course, TwoMorrows doesn’t skimp on the visuals. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 is almost as image-heavy as it is text-driven, including a wide variety of illustrations, photographs, interior art, advertisements, long-out-of-print covers, and rare original art. Flipping through the text, one would be forgiven for almost mistaking it for a coffee table book, with its beautiful reproductions and its 11 1/4 x 8 3/4 size. But this is truly a substantive volume that embodies the best of both visual histories (such as Paul Levitz’s Golden Age and Silver Age collections from Taschen) and more prosaic analyses (e.g., Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow or Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s Of Comics and Men).
The book is not without its limitations. Obviously, it’s not possible to encapsulate all of a particular era in under 300 pages (although the authors of each volume try their best to do so). And in the current example, the Index at the end could have been more complete and therefore more useful, including (along with titles and creator names names) genres, themes, and subject matters, since much of the book’s narrative is structured in this way. That being said, John Wells successfully delivers the second of his one-two punch at the 1960s, rivaling the contributions that Bill Schelly and Keith Dallas have already made with their volumes on the 1950s and 1980s, respectively, and that Jason Sacks is soon to make with his upcoming look at the 1970s. And with planned volumes for the remaining decades — including, as we have with the 1960s, two volumes slotted for the 1940s — the American Comic Book Chronicles promises to be the go-to series for an encyclopedic coverage of American comics history.
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