Comics Go Psychedelic, Then Dark…

by J.C. Macek III

23 September 2014

The most tumultuous and varied era of comics is chronicled with balance and aplomb in American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69.
 
cover art

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69

John Wells

(TwoMorrows)
US: May 2014

One of the first things to note about John Wells’ latest documentary tome, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69, is that it’s a very handsome volume with a collage of the title era’s artwork gracing one side of the hardcover. Silver lettering on a white background fills out the rest of the front. While the adage of never judging a book by its cover should certainly always be noted and adhered to, this classy example of good graphic design work is befitting of the book’s subject matter, in any era, but certainly for the covered years of 1965 – 1969. The simplicity and elegance of the cover both celebrates the most psychedelic era of comics and juxtaposes it, keeping the (un-judged) cover itself from being too busy.

As TwoMorrows Publishing has promised to document “every decade of comic book history from the 1930s to today” and has already published four volumes covering the ‘80s, ‘50s, ‘70s and the first half of the ‘60s with much of the same cover design, one can easily see a true fan or historian filling out his or her bookshelf with the entire series for both entertainment and reference.

Luckily, Wells, who also brought us American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-64, goes far beyond the attractive cover to deliver a full 288 page glossy history of arguably the most subversive age of comics with well-chosen images and well-researched prose that covers the era in painstaking detail.

In that each previous volume in this series covered an entire decade, novice comic historians may question just why Wells required two volumes to document the ‘60s. This very question would take two volumes to answer. The ‘60s was the era in which comics as we truly know them came to be. The Silver Age was galvanized by the advent of the real Marvel Universe with 1961’s Fantastic Four #1. True diversity in comics was first seen in the ‘60s, both in the races of the characters who graced the gridded page and in the expanding number of companies, universes, genres, imprints and styles that filled up the newsstands.

This second volume is absolutely necessary, considering the fact that the ‘60s constituted arguably the most turbulent and world-changing decade in the history of comics with no single trend standing out above others. As the second half of the ‘60s dawned, Wells shows us, superheroes had already regained their popularity, bringing about renewed interest in Batman and Superman as well as allowing for the creation of new characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil. Wells details the fragmenting of the comic book “genre” as the resurgent popularity of superheroes led to the campy and colorful Batman TV show of 1966 which, in turn, re-lightened the Dark Knight into a more friendly and comical comic character.

Wells celebrates the irony of DC’s most brooding character becoming a smiling (for lack of a better term) “Joker”, and also details the flip side of the page by showing the way the oft-ironically named “comics” had become generally darker as a reflection of the tumultuous times the late ‘60s truly were. Gold Key published a Beatles Yellow Submarine comic with a cartoonish Fab Four at the same time that horror comics were making their disturbing comeback (after their banning in the ‘50s). Even Archie and his Riverdale pals donned superhero costumes, after the darker heroes were pasteurized and reprocessed, just as Batman was regaining his dark streak, allowing for realistic artists like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo to take center stage.

Just as Gold Key’s Walt Disney comics were hitting their zenith of sales (oft driven by the pencil of the great Carl Barks), underground comics weighed down the other end of the scale with the fascinating work of artists like Robert Crumb in “For Adult Intellectuals Only” publications such as Zap Comix. Mad magazine not only became a cultural mainstay, but spawned many imitators. All the while hippies, drugs and the sexual revolution invaded the gridded page (in both subtle and overt ways) while the civil unrest and opposition to the war in Vietnam both propelled the sales of war comics like Sargent Rock and Sargent Fury and his Howling Commandoes and changed their tone to a more critical stance that hardly celebrated war.

Clearly the comics of the ‘60s were as varied as the decade on the whole.

Wells and his editor Keith Dallas do a remarkable job of chronicling the incredibly diverse comics of this age with images gracing every single page, surrounded by copious prose. This is far from a “picture book” or a coffee table volume of comic art. This is a serious history of the art form viewed with a wide lens over a specific era with more prose than art on every page. Credit must be given to layout designer David Paul Greenawalt, who brings the pages together with words, pictures and timelines, all in an attractive and sensible way.

Special attention is given to the dates of each publication, and each year is supplemented by the aforementioned timeline that helps to capture the zeitgeist of each issue. For example, Fantastic Four Annual #3 featured the first major superhero wedding (outside of a dream sequence) five days before The Beatles’ album Help was released in August of 1965. The Batman TV show of 1966 hit TV screens less than one month before the first publication of Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls.

Marvel’s character “Captain Marvel” (created to copyright the name after the better known character’s copyright expired) debuted in the same month of 1967 that hippies first hit the stage in the epic musical, Hair. Martin Luther King was assassinated on in April 1968, three months before Charles Schulz debuted Peanuts’ first African American character. In 1969 the Archies (who originated in the Archie comics) released the hit song “Sugar Sugar” the same week that the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

Of course, to justify a price tag of $41.95 retail for this half-decade volume alone, there really should be a focus on the zeitgeist, much more than simply displaying comic covers and discussing the stories on the page. Some historians may take issue with the fact that international comics are not covered here, however, the title is, in fact, American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69 and Wells’ book truly lives up to that title.

Of course, with such a price tag for a single book in the series, this is almost certainly for the most serious fans and history buffs. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69 is a reference volume with a thorough index (though no fully reprinted stories), but it’s also chronologically ordered and makes for a good cover-to-cover read. However, such a read is not for those with short attention spans, used to the 20+ pages of a comic book. The casually curious might be better served with a visit to their local library to check this volume out.

However, those of us who are truly serious about comics and comic book history (and who have the money to buy the varied volumes in the series), might recall the words Mary Jane Watson said to Peter Parker in 1966’s The Amazing Spider-Man #42: “Face it, Tiger… you just hit the Jackpot!”

* * *

Above image: George Wilson’s painted cover to 1965’s Doctor Solar #15, illustrating both the psychedelia and the darkness of the era.

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-69

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