Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 1

Interview by KC Carlson

John Wells has been a “mystery man” in comics for more than two decades, working behind the scenes organizing and indexing the histories of comics’ four-color mystery men (as well as their friends and foes). You may have seen some of his public work in the pages of The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Amazing Heroes, Back Issue, Alter Ego, and many other places. Those of you who read indicias have also seen his name in dozens of books about comics, mostly for DC Comics, including the Superman and Wonder Woman Encyclopedias (he co-wrote the latter), the DC Vault and Batman Vault books, and most recently 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking and its spin-off volume The Golden Age of DC Comics. He has contributed extensive research on identifying writers, artists, and dates for thousands of pieces of artwork. Plus, as you’ll learn later, he also provides research and background material for many comic creators! In many ways, John Wells is one of comics’ biggest secret weapons.

John Wells

This week, he steps firmly into the spotlight with the publication of his first solo-written history book, the simply amazing American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964, the first of a two-volume look at one of the most important decades in comic book history. It’s also the first volume of this new series from TwoMorrows Publishing, a series that over the next few years (and multiple volumes) will cover comics history from the 1940s through the 1980s, and maybe beyond.

I’ve reviewed the book itself, but now, here’s the first part of a far-ranging discussion with its author, John Wells, in what’s apparently his first major interview outside of his home state of Iowa!

You’ve been working with TwoMorrows for several years now. How and when did your association with Back Issue and TwoMorrows begin?

Ever since 1999, I’ve been a part of CAPA-Alpha, an amateur press association created by Jerry Bails whose members contribute ‘zines about comics. I’d been sending copies to both Roy Thomas (editor of Alter Ego) and Michael Eury (editor of Back Issue), and they each expressed interest in different articles I’d written. In Roy’s case, it was “Sort of the Atom,” a piece about tiny one-shot heroes that DC published in 1959 (reprinted in Alter Ego #40). For Michael, it was the story of DC Double Comics, recounting the fate of the lost 1984 Superboy-Supergirl comic (reprinted in Back Issue #17).

Since then, I’ve written a lot of stuff specifically for those ‘zines, although more regularly in BI than AE. In the midst of all this, Keith Dallas recruited Jim Beard and I as contributors to TwoMorrows’ Flash Companion, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

How did the idea for American Comic Book Chronicles come about?

The ACBC is all Keith Dallas. He envisioned a series of hardbacks that would serve as a resource on the entirety of American comic book history and convinced John Morrow what a great project it could be. The next step was to find a writer to cover each decade, and Keith approached me about doing the 1960s edition.

I’ll admit that I was wary. I’ve specialized in DC, and this was outside my comfort zone (which is not to say that I hadn’t done it before, as in my overview of pre-1970 sword and sorcery in comics for Roy in Alter Ego #80). The 1970s was MY personal Golden Age, not the 1960s. And I knew that the research process would be long and time-consuming. My friend Mike Tiefenbacher (The Comic Reader) listened to all my misgivings and was sympathetic, but he also insisted that I was the right person for the job and that I’d regret it if I passed up an offer like this. With his encouragement, I said yes.

The thing that most impresses me most about the series so far is the detailed inclusion of publishers other than DC and Marvel. Your idea?

As editor of the series, it’s Keith’s intention to cover as much as possible in each volume, but my particular book benefited from John Morrow’s declaration that the 1960s was too big for one edition. Instead, I’d cover 1960-1964 first and write a sequel on 1965-1969 later. That doubled the space I had for each chapter, and the book is far, far better because of it.

That said, a discussion of the publishers was something that I felt was critical in distinguishing this from the scores of 1960s history books that revolve around Julie Schwartz’s DC revivals and the rise of Marvel Comics. The genres available in the 1960s extended far beyond superheroes, and the stories of other publishers’ attempts to find the Next Big Thing or explore new formats was something that engaged and excited me while I was writing this. I loved digging into subjects like Jack Keller and the Charlton car comics, Bob Bolling’s version of Doctor Doom in Little Archie, the ascent of Sad Sack at Harvey, Roy Lichtenstein, MAD, Moon Maid, and dozens of other arcane topics.

What are your goals in writing/researching for the series?

I’d like this to be the definitive source on comics of the 1960s, the book that people turn to when they’ve got a question about the era. Thanks to ‘zines like Alter Ego, there’s been a wealth of new information about the creation of the comic books of the Silver Age, and I’ve tried to integrate that into my text. And, as noted above, I want to represent the entirety of the comic book output of the times, not just the men in tights.

What did you draw on for research?

The Comic Reader #29, August 1964

I have a pretty large personal library, not only of comic books but many of the major interview and article ‘zines of the past thirty-plus years, including a complete run of Krause Publications’ sadly departed Comics Buyer’s Guide. Alter Ego and Comic Book Marketplace were particularly useful, but also more obscure sources like Robin Snyder’s The Comics fanzine, William Gaines’ 1972 biography, and a few vintage fanzines such as Vanguard 1968.

I also turned up scans of a few pages from The Comic Reader circa 1963-1964, and those were golden! I’d kill to find more from the latter half of the 1960s for my second book. What I particularly loved finding here were comments by people like Russ Manning and Stan Lee when their memories of all this stuff was fresh. Too often, these stories get twisted and changed over time as details are forgotten. Most longtime fans are aware that DC wasn’t happy with Avengers #9’s Wonder Man story, but Stan’s original account in a 1964 interview is a bit different than the version that’s commonly reported today.

Beyond physical books and ‘zines, I also had a squad of expert beta-readers who were quick to point out stuff in each chapter that I’d missed or gotten wrong, as well as adding personal insight. Mike Tiefenbacher, Carl Gafford, Murray Ward, and Gene Kehoe, in particular, are all due a huge debt for keeping me from embarrassing myself with some silly errors, as is Keith Dallas for making sure my manuscript was as polished as possible.

Was there anything that you found particularly surprising?

That would probably be Mort Weisinger’s announcement that the Legion of Super-Heroes would have a three-issue tryout in Showcase during 1964. The implications could have been far-ranging, depending on how that played out.

I also took pleasure in finding a reasonable explanation for the simultaneous appearance of the Brotherhood of Evil in DC’s Doom Patrol and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in Marvel’s X-Men. I’m convinced the source for the name I discovered is the answer, but it’ll be up to individual readers to decide if they agree.

More generally, I was amazed at how aggressively publishers were exploring thicker formats in the early 1960s. Everyone fondly remembers DC’s 80-Page Giants and Marvel’s Annuals, but I hadn’t realized how heavily Harvey and Dell had embraced this alternative to the 32-page package. Whitman did some interesting stuff in the bookstore market at the time, too, but it failed to find an audience.

What are you looking for from readers?

American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964 is what I’ve been describing as a “word-of-mouth book”, something that people are going to fall in love with as they read it and want to share with their friends. If you buy the book and you enjoy it as much as I think you will, please spread the word.

As someone who owes a big chunk of his early comics knowledge to libraries, I’d be delighted to hear of any lobbying to get your local branch to carry this book and the entire ACBC series. In years to come, these volumes are, I think, going to be regarded as an essential resource that any library would be proud to have.

In the immediate future, as I feverishly get to work on the 1965-1969 edition, look for Keith Dallas’ ACBC volume on the 1980s within the next few months. You won’t regret it.

In Part Two of this John Wells interview, coming tomorrow, we’ll jump back to tales of how his early interest in comic books and strips lead to his wanting to organize it all, something that for many long-time comics fans may sound familiar. Find out how he specifically dealt with it.

3 Responses to “Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 1”

  1. Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 2 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] part one of this three-part interview with John Wells, comics historian and author of American Comic Book […]

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    […] § KC Carlson interviews comics historian John Wells […]

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    […] History | KC Carlson interviews comics historian John Wells, whose American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964 is out this week from TwoMorrows Publishing. [Comics Worth Reading] […]




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