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Talking Comics with Tim | Wells & Dallas on ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’

by  in Comic News Comment
Talking Comics with Tim | Wells & Dallas on ‘American Comic Book Chronicles’

Whether or not you realize it, you’ve likely enjoyed the work of comics historian John Wells for several years, given his long-term relationship with DC Comics. More recently, his wealth of comics knowledge has come to the forefront through his involvement in TwoMorrows Publishing‘s American Comic Book Chronicles. The series tackles comic book history dating back to the 1940s, typically dedicating a decade to each full-color hardback installment. When it came to the 1960s, Wells and series editor Keith Dallas opted to split the decade into two volumes, given the amount of history that occurred in that era.

The first 1960s volume, which covers from 1960-1964, was released early last year. Wells’ second 1960s installment, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69, was released in late May. After discussing Wells latest foray in the latter part of the 1960s, the interview shifts to Dallas. In my conversation with Dallas, we focused on American Comic Book Chronicles: 1970s, which he edited with Jason Sacks; it’s scheduled for release in late August.

To get a taste of the books, be sure to check out ACBC’s Facebook page, where snippets of the series are previewed — and discussions of comic book history are a regular educational occurrence. Kudos to TwoMorrows and the ACBC Crew, whose 1950s volume of American Comic Book Chronicles (written by Bill Schelly) was recently nominated for a Harvey Award.

Tim O’Shea: Let’s start the discussion with ACBC 1965-1969 — I love to talk about book dedications. John, what prompted you to dedicate the book to your brother David, “the greatest superhero I know”?

John Wells: I couldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. David is, for starters, extraordinarily patient with a sibling who is clueless when it comes to repairing virtually anything and is always here when some crisis arises. I don’t drive so he’s also been there as an emergency chauffeur whenever I need him. And he does all this on top of a regular job and extensive work with the volunteer fire department. He’s amazing!

How early in the development of the book did you realize the importance of addressing the fuzziness of comic book sales and circulation data?

Wells: This came along fairly early, as Keith originally wrote the caveat for his 1980s volume, and we adapted it for the 1960s editions. We’ve since benefited from the input of sales/circulation expert John Jackson Miller, whose insights have been invaluable. I’ll let Keith expand on this further.

Keith Dallas: As the project got under way, and I began conducting interviews for the 1980s volume, several people kept telling me to view all circulation data with a skeptical eye. I mean, Paul Levitz said to my face that sales figures can only be trusted to a certain degree. Since ALL the ACBC volumes reference circulation data as a way to indicate which comic books were selling well and which ones weren’t, I felt obligated to write the caveat as a way of letting the readers know that the data at our disposal may not be entirely accurate but it’s the only data that we’ve got.

Given your wealth of knowledge, I am blown away by the amount of ground you cover in this book. For instance, before reading your book I had no idea there was a Bullwinkle newspaper strip. What was some of the most obscure or lesser-known history that you were pleased to be able to work into this volume?

Wells: I’m a huge newspaper strip fan, so — despite this series being about comic books — I really wanted to fit in as many references to comic strips as possible. The major news fanzines of the era like The Comic Reader and Newfangles matter-of-factly included newspaper strip news right along with comic book items with the awareness that readers were interested in both. I was amazed that the start dates of many newspaper strips launched in the 1960s — whether the obscure Bullwinkle or the widely syndicated Tumbleweeds — are unknown today so I made a point of researching those and recording my findings in the timeline spreads.

It was the more obscure stuff like this that made writing the book so much fun. The story of Bertram Fitzgerald’s black history series Golden Legacy is fascinating. The rise and fall of King Comics was something that I’ve never seen documented in detail before, so it was very satisfying to see how a comic book line that started off so strongly — headlined by Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon — could sink so quickly. I was also pleased to include a look at the 1969 anti-drug story in the Steve Canyon newspaper strip that was a virtual blueprint for the Harry Osborn and Roy Harper issues that Marvel and DC ran a few years later.

I want to give a special shout-out to Gary Brown, too, for loaning me his personal copies of The Comic Reader and Newfangles (circa 1965-1970), which were a treasure trove of obscure and arcane details — like the story behind Marvel’s version of Captain Marvel — that are copiously referenced throughout the book. Gary was a prominent fanzine writer and publisher in his own right — and still active in CAPA-Alpha today — and was a real hero in the development of ACBC: 1965-1969.

Any fan of comics history knows and respects the name Jerry Bails, but I never realized how much his efforts helped to form the belief (rightly so) that Bill Finger was critical in the creation of the Batman universe. How was it that Kane never could put aside his ego to concede he had help in creating Batman’s mythos?

Wells: Kane’s ego was the problem. He just loved the glory too much, and I’m sure he didn’t want to share the money he earned from his Batman contract. In a slight defense of Kane, I’ll note that he and others of his generation did come from an era when the comic strip and cartooning super-stars — whether Walt Disney or The Gumps’ Sidney Smith — did exactly what Kane did: They signed their name — and only their name — to the newspapers strips, hired assistants to do some or all of the work, and collected the profits. I can’t think of any cartoonist who was quite as fanatical about maintaining the fiction of being sole creator of a character, though. If Kane thought he was protecting his legacy, it backfired spectacularly.

How much does developing the timeline of each year help frame cultural perspective from outside comics? When did the two of you realize featuring those timelines were critical?

Wells: The timeline was already in place when I joined the project but it was love at first sight. Keith will confirm that I tried to cram as much into each year’s timeline spread as humanly possible and was quick to point out dead space in their 1970s timelines that could be filled with more entries.

My process on the 1960s volumes began by constructing a massive list of every conceivable comics-related event from each year. I also have a decades-long set of the World Book Encyclopedia Yearbooks, an annual volume that covered the events of the year just past. Reviewing those was a great tool to immerse me in whatever year I was writing about. From there, it was a matter of reviewing the items on my comics master list, looking for common themes and connections in which I could transition from one topic to another. This all sounds much easier than it was!

Everyone is familiar with DC’s Enemy Ace and the Snoopy Red Baron sequences in Peanuts, but it hadn’t occurred to me until looking at 1965 in context that they (and the more obscure Balloon Buster series) had all debuted about the same time because the news media had been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of World War I. The beauty of writing a history that covers the entirety of comics history is the appearance of patterns like these that wouldn’t be apparent in coverage of just one company.

Dallas: I need to remind John that he was instrumental in instituting these timelines. Once we had an author assigned to every ACBC volume, one of the first debates we had amongst ourselves was whether to organize the series via cover dates or via release dates. That might seem like an inconsequential distinction to some people, but you’d be surprised how many key comic books were released in, say, November or December of one year and have a cover date of February or March of the following year.  Dazzler #1 — the comic book that convinced Marvel Comics once and for all that the direct market was a viable sales venue that needed to be mined — is a perfect example. The issue was released in December 1980 but has a March 1981 cover date. So, does discussion of that issue belong in the 1980 chapter or in the 1981 chapter? John and I both felt ACBC needed to be organized via release dates so that readers could get an accurate sense of when certain comic books were first made available to the public.  Some of the other authors pointed out, however, that comic book history books have traditionally been organized via cover date, and the TwoMorrows publisher was ultimately swayed by that argument. I didn’t want readers to lose track of comic books’ release dates, so that’s when I decided that every chapter needed a timeline. I’m thrilled by the fact that the timelines have become one of ACBC’s most popular features.   One museum even contacted us to say it wanted to display all the timelines in its gallery once the ACBC series is finished.  I think the TwoMorrows publisher is even mulling over the idea of selling the timelines as a fold-out.

As a person who clearly loves the history of comics, how saddened are you about creators who end so disappointed by the industry they want no part of it to linger in their life (I am thinking of Carl Burgos when I ask this)?

Wells: Very. There are a lot of really heartbreaking stories in the latter half of the 1960s, exacerbated by the proliferation of mid-1960s news stories about all the success that the superhero industry was having. It was really bad for someone like Burgos, whose entire comics career was in the shadow of one big hit — the Human Torch — that he no longer saw a dime from. Even after he dumped his comic book legacy on his lawn, Burgos had to get up the next morning and go to work for Myron Fass on his schlocky horror comic books. He hated the industry but he felt like he had nowhere else to go. You can see why so many of these guys died so young.

In covering the era of the 1960s, Batman the TV show helped draw a great deal of focus on the Batman comics line (saving it, in fact). With all the focus on Batman, are there any great comics that you think got lost in the clamor for the Bat-craze?

Wells: Widening the net to cover 1966-1968, there are a lot of obvious candidates like Tower’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Charlton’s Action-Heroes. DC’s Bat Lash (which obviously didn’t benefit from the “bat” in the title) should’ve run for years with Nick Cardy at the drawing board, and it kills me that Jay Scott Pike’s Dolphin never got more than a single issue. I also love Howard Liss and Russ Heath’s unlikely but wonderful “My Brothers With Wings” (Tarzan-with-pterodactyls) in Star-Spangled War Stories #129 and #131. Otto Binder and C.C. Beck’s Fatman deserved better, too, if only as a showcase for Beck’s clean, effortless artwork. And I’d love to have seen what groundbreaking one-shot wonders like His Name Is Savage, Heroes Inc. and Wham-O Giant Comics could have become had they continued.

Will Franz and Sam Glanzman’s “Lonely War of Capt. Willy Schultz” — a Charlton series about an American soldier forced to pose as a German during World War II — had a healthier run but I’d point to it as one of the 1960s’ great uncompleted masterpieces. It was an anti-war strip that got into the head of the enemy and ultimately seems to have gotten itself cancelled for reasons related to that. Franz actually wrote a proper ending for the series in the 1990s but it remains unillustrated and unpublished to this day.

Many creators of the 1960s are no longer with us. In compiling the history, do you think your research has helped to potentially clear up some misconceptions about certain creators (who are no longer here to defend themselves)?

Wells: I’d like to think so. In some cases, like the polarizing subjects of Lee and Kirby, nothing here is going to change anyone’s mind. Still, there are a lot of stories throughout the book that hopefully clarify details that have been misreported elsewhere. The myth that Lee and Ditko argued over the true identity of the Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man has been personally debunked by Ditko — who is still with us — but it still crops up all over the place. The reason for Russ Manning’s succession of John Celardo on the Tarzan newspaper strip is perhaps more mundane than the commonly-told version.

I also find that the story of the purge of older DC creators in the late 1960s is routinely oversimplified, despite the comprehensive research that Mike W. Barr has done on the subject. One oft-reported detail has John Broome and others confronting DC management about better pay, an event that actually took place in the late 1950s rather than the 1960s. Although a number of creators were frozen out at DC in the late 1960s, the process was more gradual than some stories suggest and involved more—and different—individuals than those commonly reported.

The late 1960s were a socially challenging and boundary-pushing period of time — what is the most surreal comic you ran across in your research?

Wells: Mod Love! This came out of the 1967-1968 period when most publishers were dipping their toes in the magazine-format pool. In this case, Western Publishing — the same people who published kid-friendly Gold Key Comics — decided to try an entirely different romance comic that would theoretically be racked with magazines like Tiger Beat that were marketed to teenage girls. The entire issue was illustrated by French artist Michel Quarez in a psychedelic style with bright colors and is a complete and utter trip. The sales were apparently abysmal but it’s fascinating to look at.

Keith moving on to the 1970s book, how did you go about finding the writers that joined to contribute for this era?

Dallas: The 1970s volume was originally assigned to Jim Beard, but he became burdened with other projects so I turned to people who I worked with before: Jason Sacks and Dave Dykema.  Not only are Jason and Dave sharp writers, but they are very familiar with my demands for the project.  For me, there’s a comfort and trust factor with Jason and Dave that can’t be overstated.  Jason knows the most about 1970s comic books, so he became the volume’s lead writer.  John, though, essentially became one of the volume’s contributing writers as he added passages to just about every chapter. I can’t think of another person who knows more about comic books than John Wells. Without a doubt, he is ACBC’s keystone.

What were the deciding factors in which portions of the book you would edit versus what Jason Sacks would edit?

Dallas: Actually, I would say the 1970s volume had three editors: Keith Dallas, Jason Sacks and John Wells. All three of us edited the ENTIRE volume: every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence.  That might sound like too many chefs for one kitchen, but we were pretty much in sync throughout the project. We’re all capable copy editors, and we all had comparable visions of what the volume needed to be (even though each of us has biases towards specific material).

Of all the years in the 1970s, which ones were more pivotal than the others?

Dallas: Great question!  Let’s go with 1972 — the year Marvel overtook DC in market share and became the leader of the industry for the next two decades — and 1978 — the year that simultaneously produced one of the industry’s finest triumphs in the form of Superman: The Movie and one of its most infamous events in the form of the DC Implosion. It was in 1978 when things in the industry went from bad to DIRE as just about everyone put comic books on a death watch. I mean, there were people like Mike Gold who went on record to predict that by the early 1980s, there would be no new comic books, only reprints to keep licensing alive. It probably would have happened too if not for the ascension of the direct market.

In studying the 1970s for this book, were there any creators you found a new-found appreciation as a result of your research?

Dallas: I must confess that prior to researching 1970s comic books, I wasn’t a particular fan of them.  I much prefer reading comic books from the 1980s as by and large, comic books from the 1970s—besides being primarily geared toward adolescents — are by and large WAY over-written. (I pity the letterers for the amount of hard-written work they had to do! It’s too bad they were being paid by page rather than by word.) But the more I read, I more I began to recognize the work of the so-called “maverick writers” (Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber and Don McGregor) was far more sophisticated and ambitious than what was being produced by most of their contemporaries. This is not to say that everything they wrote turned into a classic, but they should all be commended for their efforts to advance the format. Remember, in the 1970s, publishers didn’t hand out royalty payments to writers and artists who worked on bestselling books. Everyone worked for the relatively same page rate, which wasn’t very lucrative to begin with. The system essentially encouraged creators to hack out as many pages as they could in a given month. If someone put more effort into his work than was absolutely necessary, he was actually DIMINISHING his potential income. That’s what made artists like Dave Cockrum extraordinary; they took the time to make their work as detailed and polished as possible even though they weren’t going to be monetarily compensated for it.

Given that Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil has been analyzed from every different angle, how hard was it to discover a new angle to broach his historical run?

Dallas: To be honest, we really didn’t seek out a “new angle” on Frank Miller (or any other subject matter). Our principal goal was always, first, to understand the facts as accurately as possible, and, second, to convey those facts in an entertaining manner. I instructed every ACBC author to approach the project NOT like it’s an encyclopedia but like it’s a historical novel. ACBC is a narrative. So whether we were talking about Frank Miller or Jack Kirby (another creator who has been analyzed from every different angle), our aim was to be accurate and to be entertaining. I’ve read too many comic book history books that are as dry as the Sahara desert.  They don’t need to be.  Admittedly, every ACBC volume has passages that are merely lists and regurgitations of data.  ACBC is at its finest, I think, when it’s “narrating” the goings-on of the comic book industry, like when John describes the impact of the Batman television show in the second 1960s volume or when Dave Dykema explains how Marvel happened upon the Star Wars gold mine in the 1977 chapter. Those are the passages I enjoyed as an editor, and I’m hoping those are the passages the readers will enjoy too.

With the 1970s, many of the creators and editors are still alive and sometimes active in the industry (or active on the Internet). Some take to social media or blogs to seemingly revise history. How frustrating is it to know the history and see some folks tell versions that deviate from documented facts?

Dallas: Not frustrating at all. In fact, I love it when creators bringing new testimonies to the table. Inevitably, one of two things happen: (1) their testimonies are so convincing that they alter my beliefs, or (2) I discover (or rediscover) the evidence that refutes their testimonies. In either case, I become more enlightened. A perfect example of this happened a couple of years ago when a former editor wrote a claim in his blog that rattled everyone’s understanding of comic book history.  He even provided scans of documents to support his claim. After I read the blog, I immediately emailed John and asked, “You see this?” He replied, “Yes!  I’ve never heard of this before!” And then John and I investigated the matter. We looked at the scans carefully. We contacted creators to get their perspective. We searched for previously published interviews that would support or refute what the editor was saying. After considerable work, we decided the editor’s claim wasn’t entirely convincing. To be clear, we did NOT conclude that the editor was “lying.” We concluded that specific aspects of his claim were “unconvincing.” There’s a big difference between the two. Regardless, the examination of the editor’s claim helped us gain a better understanding of that moment in time in the comic book industry.

John and I both know of people who believe they know EVERYTHING about comic book history and refuse to entertain any challenges to their beliefs. In their minds, their understanding of comic book history is the way it happened, and nothing is going to convince them otherwise.  To me, that’s the height of arrogance. A true historian should NEVER be so close-minded to not consider new evidence or testimony.

Wells: I agree with Keith 100 percent. If I have any frustrations, it would be over the persistence of accounts that historical evidence has refuted. The story of Robin’s 1-900 death in 1988 has been spin-doctored and mythologized almost since the day he died so I’m proud we were able to separate truth from fiction in the 1980s volume. It’s also worth noting that creators sometimes simply forget how a situation came about. For decades, Stan Lee has told the story that DC objected to Wonder Man in 1964 because his name was too similar to Wonder Woman. As it happened, Stan gave an interview in 1964 that explained what really happened and Wonder Woman had nothing to do with it.

So what’s next for American Comic Book Chronicles?

Dallas: Five volumes down. Four to go. Jason Sacks has begun work on the 1990s volume (insert your joke about polybagging here), and Roy Thomas should begin working on the two 1940s volumes next year. Wrapping up the series is Bob Hughes’ volume on pre-1940 comic books.

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