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Book Review: American Comic Book Chronicles – The 1960s: 1960-1964

American Comic Book ChroniclesAmerican Comic Book Chronicles
The 1960s: 1960–1964
By John Wells
224 pages
TwoMorrows Publishing
Release Date: January 23, 2013
Cover Price: $39.95

To know the history of American comic books is to take a peek through a window into our national consciousness. Comics had existed long before the years of the Great Depression, but it was during that difficult period that they became a vital weapon in helping the people of this country combat the economic devastation that had brought on by the dissolute carelessness of the very individuals they had entrusted with their faith and their future. Comics helped guide American through World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the anti-Communist hysteria that came with it, the rise of the Baby Boomers, and up to the dawn of one of the most important and chaotic decades in the annals of U.S. history, when the greatest acts of heroism were happening outside of the realm of superpowered heroes and villains.

Which is where American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s – 1960-64 logically begins.

Author John Wells takes us on a informative and gorgeously illustrated odyssey through the first half of the decade that would not only forever shape the destiny of America, but also of its comic books. The post-war 1950s had seen a massive creative slump in the dazzling four-color adventures available at newsstands and revolving drugstore wireframe racks from coast to coast. D.C. Comics enjoyed steady success during that time with its flagship titles starring Superman and Batman and had revived many of their second-tier superheroes such as Green Lantern and The Flash as the Silver Age of Comics kicked into high gear. Rival companies like Fawcett, Charlton, and especially Marvel were working beyond their capacity just to stay above water. This was also a time when government committees were empowered to send innocent men and women to prison or exile with a single accusation of Communist sympathies and African-Americans in the South and abroad were beginning to realize that they were not living in a land of the free anymore and to take drastic steps to seize their liberty and rights from rampant racist oppression in the national government they had long believed in. Major changes were in store for the United States of America, whether their citizenry wanted it or not.

Year by year, Wells documents in great detail the major developments in comic books and how they dovetailed nicely with the current events of the time. The relieved optimism following the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency over Republican Richard Nixon in 1960, the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement to find supporters across the country and encountering violent resistance along the way, and the “space race” America found itself engaged in with the Soviet Union would influence the storytelling directions many comic titles took in the years that followed. With the publication of the first issue of The Fantastic Four in August 1961 Marvel Comics was finally rising to challenge D.C.’s supremacy in the marketplace. The popularity of the title would ultimately result in the creation of the entire Marvel Universe before the decade was out. Characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Mighty Thor, and the revival of the company’s WWII-era costumed staple Captain America in the pages of The Avengers not only raised the profile of Marvel in the comics industry but it also positioned them as a force to be reckoned with wherever their titles were sold.

Compared to the safe and staid approach taken by the staunch traditionalists at D.C., Marvel was more reflective of the rising tide of youth culture in the U.S. Their heroes were not billionaires and caped demigods but flawed and relatable individuals whose amazing superpowers were often more of a curse than a blessing. Marvel would prove to be the brash, impulsive, long-haired garage band rockers to D.C.’s Mad Men-style martinis and lounge music and casual sexual harassment in the workplace. The once prodigious home of the Last Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight Detective would now have to shake things up within their own ranks in order to compete with its more popular competitor.

However it wasn’t just superhero comics that rose in prominence during this epic age in the great American saga. Mad Magazine, which continues to this day, rose from the ashes of E.C. Comics, the company that experienced the greatest creative and financial strife after coming under fire from the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency in 1954 for the violent content in their well-liked horror and crime comic titles. Smaller companies like Dell, Archie, Harvey, the aforementioned Charlton (those four sound like members of a teenage barber shop quartet), and Gold Key found their own niches in the comics marketplace by publishing titles in the genres of humor, war, romance, science-fiction, and adventure. They demonstrated that there was a very profitable spot for non-superhero comics on store shelves, and many of these titles would be just as important and influential to a nation of young readers desiring to write and draw their own comics as the more popular Marvel and D.C. books. Dell and Gold Key also became quite successful at publishing comics based on beloved films and television series of the time, a tactic their richer rivals would take up in later years.

Each page of Wells’ addictive tome is illustrated with black and white and full color comic covers and pages from practically every title he writes about here, along with a few cool little odds and ends that comic buffs will love seeing. Each chapter devoted to documenting a single year in the period covered by the book is provided with a timeline of important events in both the histories of America and the comics industry during that year. The author peppers his exhaustive and enjoyable research with interviews with many of comicdom’s most integral figures, especially the ones even us die hard fans don’t often read or hear about. The book is a – pardon the pun – marvel of layout and design as the author’s writing is front and center on every page with the artwork acting as visual aids for Wells’ detailed and loving text rather than overpowering it.

So if you consider yourself a true fan of comics and not just the ones published after you were born then you will very likely find American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1960s – 1960-64 an exhilarating read and a lovingly-assembled time capsule from an era that brought great change to our nation and the escapist fantasies that helped us make sense of it all.

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