Tuesday, July 4, 2017

American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s: 1965 - 1969

American Comic Book Chronicles:
The 1960s: 1965 - 1969
by John Wells
TooMorrows Publishing, March 2014

'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s: 1965 - 1969' (287 pp) is one of a series of books released by TooMorrows Publishing that chronicle the history of American comic books. Other volumes in the series cover the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s.

Like the volume covering the 70s (reviewed here) and the 80s (reviewed here) this is a well-produced book. It adheres to the standardized format for the series, one marked by copious color illustrations and tiny, dense font.

Unlike the volumes for the 70s and 80s, Toomorrows elected to have its treatment of the 60s split into two separate books, with each book covering a five-year interval. 

While this strategy would seem to be worthwhile - it certainly allows for greater coverage of the topic - in the case of the 1965 - 1969 volume, it means that the page count has to be met...........and often, this is done by excessively detailed coverage of many marginal features of the 60s comics book scene.

While author John Wells does provide coverage of the rise of Marvel and the status of DC, equal space is apportioned to 'kiddie' titles and titles from minor publishers.

However talented Carl Barks and other artists were, their content for the Disney comics books of the 60s doesn't deserve the exposition Wells devotes to it in this volume. The same goes for other juvenilia, such as the Archie comics and the myriad imitations (Swing with Scooter, Binky's Buddies, Teen Titans).

I mean...really.......does space need to be given to the 'Herbie' comic issued by American Comics Group ? 

A half-century before DC unleashed a fat heroine in its 'Faith' comic books, 'Herbie' depicted the adventures of the introverted, overweight Jewish boy Herbie Popnecker.....who fights crime in the guise of 'The Fat Fury' ?!

In fairness to Wells, the text devoted to the heavyweight publishers Marvel and DC is well-written and informative. The role the 'Batman' TV show played in accelerating the growth of the superhero genre is ably outlined.

The advances in artistic design and presentation that were triggered by legends such as Kirby, Adams, Buscema, Steranko, and other artists also are recognized.

Wells does a good job in tracing the often precarious economics of publishing comics books in the 60s. The situation then was quite different, of course, from what it is today, a half-century later. It's worth remembering that in the 60s, kiddie comics like Dennis the Menace, Archie, and Walt Disney's Comics and Stories regularly outsold all but a handful of superhero titles. 

It's also true that many 60s comics were devoted to franchise properties, a trend that still is maintained today.....

The closing chapters of 'The 1960s: 1965 - 1969' cover the rise of Marvel and its superhero line. There is information here that is enlightening; for example, 1969 was a turning point for Marvel in large part because its contract with distributor with Independent News was over, and the company could take advantage of Curtis Circulation, a distributor co-owned by Marvel's corporate parent, Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation.

Freed from having to rely on Independent News's constraints on the number of titles Marvel could release, in 1969 Marvel dramatically increased its lineup, with many stars receiving their own dedicated books after having to share billing in titles like Tales to Astonish and Journey into Mystery.

Also of interest in the book's final chapter is a recounting of the influence of Jim Steranko. Although his output was comparatively small and issued over the course of just three years (i.e., 1966 - 1969), Steranko's work on 'Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD' in Strange Tales and later, Captain America, revolutionized comic book art. 

However, as Wells relates, Stan Lee's ill-advised editorial meddling eventually soured Steranko on working full-time in comic books, a development that can only lead one to wonder What Might Have Been....... had Lee been less inclined to interfere.

It's those sorts of insights that lead me to recommend 'American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s: 1965 - 1969'. Although in comparison to the 70s and 80s volumes it's a struggle to read cover-to-cover, it serves well as a reference book, and - despite the labored analysis of the kiddie publications - there are a good share of rewarding nuggets that can be found and perused with a bit of selective searching.

1 comment:

Alin Rautoiu said...

I want to jump in and mention that a book on the history of comics is probably the best place to mention less popular or less important stuff. It's important for the context. And where else would find information about things that didn't leave an impact?

That said, the Disney and Archie comics don't fit the bill. They are widely influential, appreciated worldwide (especially the Disney ones) and at that time they were the heavyweights, grossly out-selling Marvel's comics. By this metric alone they should be looked at.