Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 2

Interview by KC Carlson

In part one of this three-part interview with John Wells, comics historian and author of American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964, he discussed the background and secrets of his new book. Today, we jump way back into his personal history to learn of his early interests in comics, strips, and collecting.

Everybody’s got a good story about why they started reading/buying comic books. What’s yours?

Batman #202

Batman #202

I actually don’t remember when I first started reading — well, looking at — comic books, but it must have been 1968, when I was four years old. In the mid-1970s, we discovered copies of Detective Comics #372, Batman #202, and Lois Lane #83 in our storeroom. I’ve assumed they were my first, even if I have no recollection of them. I do recall getting copies of the 1968 Gulf Oil Wonderful World of Disney comics/article ‘zine that was advertised on the TV show at the same time.

The turning point was in the wake of a family funeral in 1969. I was trailing after an older distant cousin and was awestruck by the number of books in his bedroom. One of them was a copy of Walt Disney Comics Digest (#11, I think), and I must have seemed so envious that he took pity on the little kid and gave it to me. It occurred to me that I had another book like this and, sure enough, I dug a battered copy of WDCD #4 out of our magazine rack at home.

Having grasped the concept that this was a regularly published series, I convinced my parents to buy each issue for me over the next several years (along with the odd copy of various traditional-sized Disney comics). Starting in 1972, I also regularly read a slim weekly Disneyland Magazine tabloid with two-page spreads featuring short stories and serials. They were Prince Valiant-style (i.e., captions beneath panels) but were still comics to me. Unbeknownst to me, my wonderful mother noticed an advertisement for back issues and bought the handful of early editions that I’d missed as a birthday surprise. She was the greatest!

In the summer of 1973, I was inspired to create my own newspaper on notebook paper and tore through recent editions of the Fairfield Ledger for raw material. This soon evolved into my creating comic books devoted to each of the four story strips that I was clipping from the Ledger: Buz Sawyer, Steve Canyon, Captain Easy, and Gasoline Alley. That last one, by Dick Moores, remains my all-time favorite comic strip, what with its small-town vibe and generally brilliant cartooning. As a humor-continuity feature, it was my bridge from the lighter-weight Disney stuff to more adult fare like Canyon and the superhero comics in my future.

Gasoline Alley by Dick Moores

Gasoline Alley by Dick Moores

By the spring of 1974, I’d starting watching reruns of the Adam West Batman show and — when I was stranded at home with chicken pox for a week — prevailed on my Dad to pick up a copy of Batman #256 that I’d seen at Batavia’s little grocery store a week before. That, along with rummage sale copies of Superboy #160 and Detective #413, was pretty much the extent of my superhero collection until an older kid on the schoolbus named Todd took me under his wing, showing me the issues in his collection and lighting the flame. I was particularly intrigued by his copy of Shazam #12, which I initially thought was a continuation of the late 1960s Shazzan cartoon. It was, in fact, so much better than that, and Shazam was indisputably my favorite title for the rest of the decade.

Todd and I eventually met for a swap meet and, like my older relative, he took pity on me and gave me a bunch of his beloved superhero issues in exchange for Disneys and Harveys that I’m sure didn’t appeal to him as much. Many of the comics I got in trade were practically new, and I was able to buy the next issues of several of them off the racks within a few weeks. (Eventually, to my enormous regret, I cashed in my unbroken runs of the Disney digest and tabloid at a rummage sale to finance my burgeoning superhero habit.)

What were your favorite books/characters when you started reading? Has that changed over the years?

Shazam! #13

Early on, I had a great fondness for the Barks Duck stories (though I wasn’t conscious of anyone creating them) and Al Hubbard’s Scamp. At DC, my big three were Shazam (a combination of the kids-turned-heroes concept and the outstanding 1940s reprints), Action Comics (with its appealing double-feature aspect of Superman and the alternating back-up strips with the Atom and Green Arrow & Black Canary) and The Flash (whose suburban backdrop and wife made him more recognizable and realistic to me than any other superhero).

Obviously, different things resonate at different ages, and a great creative team will always get my attention. If you’d talked to me in the fall of 1980, I’d have told you there were no comic books better than Claremont & Byrne’s X-Men and Stern & Byrne’s Captain America. Nowadays, Action Comics is once again one of my favorite superhero titles, thanks to Grant Morrison, and it even has great back-up stories courtesy of the underrated Sholly Fisch. Thom Zahler’s Love and Capes is the spiritual descendant of those mid-1970s Flash stories I cherished, though, with relatable human situations and charm. It’s easily the best and most realistic superhero comic published today.

You seem like a mostly DC guy. Is this an accurate assumption? What other publishers or characters do you read?

DC is my first love, and my specialty, but I read a little bit of everything. Back in 1974, I sampled some Marvels, but I got frustrated with never getting a complete story. Given the limits of a ten-year-old’s budget, it wasn’t hard to focus exclusively on DCs. I did get hooked on Spider-Man after the newspaper strip debuted in 1977, and I starting buying Amazing in 1978 when Marv Wolfman took over the book. As my funds increased, I kept adding Marvel titles to my regular purchases, and I was buying most of the major books by the end of 1980.

After that, I started sampling all the indy titles that exploded during the decade…lots of the early Pacific Comics. Fantagraphics. First. Eclipse. Renegade. And thanks to Gladstone, I resumed my love affair with Disney comics as an adult. These days, I don’t follow as many titles, but you’d never know it from the size of my to-be-read piles. The number of comic strip compilations these days has me in a state of bliss. There are too many greats to name ‘em all, but the collections of Mary Perkins: On Stage and Dick Moores’ Gasoline Alley are my favorites.

What was it in the comics that inspired you to discover the history behind the comics?

Before I could even read, I remember seeing this great image of the 1920s pie-eyed Mickey Mouse drawing a version of the next variation of himself who in turn drew his successor and so on up to 1968. Consequently, I understood the fact that comics characters change and evolve at a young age. After my parents bought a set of encyclopedias for us in 1973, I looked up “comics” and discovered the basic history of the medium, including short write-ups on both Steve Canyon and Gasoline Alley, strips that I was actually familiar with.

Mickey drawing Mickey

A similar Mickey Mouse drawing

My biggest thrill was finding a copy of Thomas Craven’s World War Two-era Cartoon Cavalcade at the Batavia (Iowa) Library. Basically, this was a history of the medium up to 1943, with hundreds of examples of most major comic strips and magazine cartoonists of the past fifty years. There were even samples of Gasoline Alley dailies that demonstrated how Skeezix had grown from infancy to adulthood over the span of twenty years. Before my tenth birthday, I had a basic familiarity with cartoonists as diverse as Frederick Opper and Charles Addams.

And I came into DC’s comics at the precise point that they were publishing their 100-Page Super-Spectaculars and Limited Collectors’ Editions, so I was automatically exposed to an incredibly diverse mix of characters and talent that enabled me to experience 35 years of comics history all at once.

Thanks to an exchange service with other facilities, Batavia’s library was able to get me all sorts of comics history books, whether Jules Feiffer’s Great Comic Book Heroes or Jerry Robinson’s The Comics, and that helped me get a better handle on comic BOOK history. And one of my Christmas gifts in 1975 was a pile of issues of The Amazing World of DC Comics, which was a big moment in my acquisition of info about DC’s own history. Once the comics pro-zines began to proliferate in the 1980s, I was in heaven. Zines like The Comic Reader, Amazing Heroes, and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library were a big part in expanding my knowledge of comics history.

When did you start recognizing the work of specific artists and writers, and who were some of the earliest you “discovered”?

That actually took place in Cartoon Cavalcade. I distinctly remember turning to the pages with samples of Terry and the Pirates and realizing that it was drawn by the same Milton Caniff who now did Steve Canyon. (The Ledger ran creator credits above each of its comic strips, which is when I first truly understood that people were writing and drawing them.) Once I moved onto my beloved DC titles with their detailed creator credits, I quickly developed an eye for recognizing favorites like Curt Swan or Irv Novick or Kurt Schaffenberger (to name three).

In Part 3 of this interview, Wells reveals details of his first tentative steps into organized fandom to his first published work — leading to the first of many behind-the-scenes assignments for major publishers. Look for it here tomorrow.

One Response to “Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 2”

  1. Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 3 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] part two of this interview with John Wells, comics historian and author of the new book American Comic Book […]




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