American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964

This is the first entry in TwoMorrows's extremely ambitious attempt to provide a comprehensive history of the American comic book industry in America. Running from the 1940s to today, the series proposes to detail all the “pivotal moments” that occurred both behind the scenes and within the comics themselves, with different authors tackling different eras.

Just glancing at that timeline, though, gave me pause. Why start at the 1940s? Why not begin earlier? I understand that TwoMorrows wants to focus solely on comic books, but even so, to ignore the first forty years of the newspaper comic strip, which, to put it mildly, laid most of the groundwork and influenced many if not all of the cartoonists that worked in the first few decades of the industry (to say nothing of the high aesthetics of the work being done during that period) seems problematic at best. Turning the book over in my hands I wondered: Is this going to be a thoughtful, engaging look at how the industry has changed over time, or just a fannish reminiscence of bygone years?

The answer appears to be a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. The book is at its best when discussing comic book companies that are not named DC or Marvel. Whereas the Big Two’s histories are well known, even among casual comics fans, the backstories of companies like Dell, Harvey, and even Archie aren’t. For example: Forgive my ignorance, but I never knew, that licensor Whitman split from Dell and formed Gold Key, so I found John Wells’s chronicle of that debacle fascinating.

Wells attempts to be as thorough as possible in the book, so we also get tidbits on the rise of fanzines and fan culture, Bob Bolling’s influential “Little Archie” stories, Roy Lichtenstein, the rise of interest in teenage hot-rod comics, a unsuccessful lawsuit between a music publishers’ group and Mad Magazine, and the birth of Creepy. It’s clear Wells and company wanted to leave no stone unturned and it’s nice to be reminded that not every popular comic book character in the 1960s wore circus suits and beat people up.

Certain bits of historical detail are engrossing as well. Portrayals of, for example, John F. Kennedy before and after his assassination, or confusion over the rise of The Beatles provide a nice bit of context. The book is also enlivened by the occasionally oddity or obscurity. Things like “Treasure Chest,” which told a multi-part story about a presidential election where the candidate is revealed at the end to be African-American, or the fact that DC attempted a James Bond comic only a few months before Dr. No arrived in theaters (surprise: It flopped).

Unfortunately, far too much of the book is spent on DC and Marvel. It’s understandable to an extent. Even back in the ‘60s, DC was one of the 500-pound industry gorillas, with such stalwarts as Superman and Batman still selling well. And it’s perfectly natural that Marvel would get a good part of the spotlight here, as this period effectively marks the birth of the so-called “Marvel Revolution.”

Wells does do readers a favor by reminding readers how slow the revolution took to build and that other, non-superhero Marvel titles, like Two-Gun Kid and Patsy Walker, were just as important to the company’s bottom line – at times more so -- than the Fantastic Four.

But the basic problem here is that most fans, i.e. the kind that will search out and read this book, already know Marvel and DC’s histories inside and out. Minus a few minor exceptions, Wells doesn’t add enough nuance or new data to make these rehashed tales of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and company seem fresh. It especially pales in comparison Sean Howe’s excellent history of Marvel, which, since it’s only a few months old, lingers in the back of the brain as an unfair comparison.

Wells covers so many companies, artists, and stories that the book starts to take on a metronome-like rhythm. This character appeared in this issue. This other character appeared in this other comic. This publisher did this. And this publisher did that. And so on and so forth. In his attempt to be as thorough as possible, Wells can only help but keep things on a surface, superficial level. We learn a great deal about who drew or wrote which story, but not enough about the cartoonists themselves, or what it was like to work in the industry during this period (except for the fact that Mort Weisinger was a horrible boss—which, again, we already knew).

He’s too effusive in his praise as well. Is “Robin Dies at Dawn” (Batman #517 for those of you keeping score) really “harrowing and poignant”? Our Army at War #113 might be notable for its exploration of prejudice, but is it really “a remarkably understated example of racial harmony”? I’m not saying these stories aren’t any good, but when both major and seemingly minor story lines are given such laudatory descriptions, it arouses suspicion and makes one wish for a more nuanced, critical eye.

Certainly the book is nicely illustrated and colorful, featuring panels and covers from just about every comic mentioned. Occasionally it offers something striking, like a two pages of black-and-white original art by Russ Manning for Magnus Robot Hunter. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.

Little attention is paid to comic strips, gag or editorial cartoons, or anything else comic-related that might have been going on in the 1960s. One notable exception is Sy Barry’s run on The Phantom and how Barry’s work ramped up interest in a long-neglected strip. Mention is also made of Dick Tracy’s bizarre “Moon Maiden” run. But often these little tidbits are quickly dropped in order to move on to the next item of business.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the main goal of American Comic Book Chronicles – or this volume of it at any rate – is to offer little more than a nostalgia trip for baby boomer fans. There’s too much focus on the fictional characters, particularly the superheroes, and their various permutations, and not enough on the people that created these stories. I can’t say the book is a total failure for me. There was enough history and trivia contained in these pages to enlighten and entertain me at times, even if the “And then … and then” rhythm of the text made it difficult to get through at times. And certainly there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that even back in the 1960s, nobody liked Hawkman. Yet while I applaud the overall concept behind this project, I have some real problems with the initial execution. Here’s hoping the future volumes do better.