Interview With John Wells, Comic Historian, Part 3

Interview by KC Carlson

In part two of this interview with John Wells, comics historian and author of the new book American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964, Wells discussed his growing interest in comics as a child, leading him to discover all that he could about the world of comics.

In this final part, Wells reveals his tentative steps into writing for some historical comic book zines, leading to much bigger things after an eventful, unexpected phone call from his first fan.

When I started reading comics, I made lists of everything. Members of the JLA. Their secret identities. Real names of the LSH and their home planets. Lists of Flash villains. All the comics DC published and their frequency. Did you do the same?

Yep! I started off trying to create my own indices to every DC title, initially in an effort to figure out where a bunch of the unsourced reprints I had originally appeared. I scoured letter columns, house ads, and anything available to find story titles from comics that I didn’t actually own. Who knew that the Grand Comics Database would eventually make this all so easy?

I ultimately created my own DC reprint guide, which I still maintain to this day. And even with the GCD, there are STILL reprints that I’ve been unable to source. Every now and then, Mark Waid will find a source for one of those mystery stories and shoot me an email.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to create a chronological list of all of Aquaman’s appearances, and that evolved into my compiling actual appearance lists of all the Justice Leaguers.

What made you want to “list/organize” the material in the comics, and how soon after you started reading did you start doing this?

I think this started in the early 1980s, initially as just a fun project. When Crisis on Infinite Earths came along, with all those cameos in every issue, I started to take my lists more seriously and began the process of creating checklists for every character that appeared in the series.

Did this become the beginnings of your DC database, which you ultimately shared with DC staff and writers?

That’s exactly what it was. The first time I ever did anything publicly with this was when I created a list of every character that had shown up in Crisis and what issues they appeared in. Not long after it ran in the Comics Buyer’s Guide, I got a phone call from a fan writer in Texas who’d tracked me down and wanted to compliment me on how well I’d done identifying everyone without access to George Pérez. His name was Mark Waid, and that call changed my life.

It was Mark who suggested I join Murray Ward’s group that was then publishing DC indices via Eclipse Comics. Since the indices tracked appearances of lots of DC characters, I started expanding on my DC hero lists as a personal resource, adding in villains and eventually supporting cast members. All of this was compiled in pencil on notebook paper, and I had several hundred pages of data by 1990.

Who's Who Role-Playing Supplement

Mark had prodded me a few times about transcribing my files to a word processor so that I could save them to disc. I finally took the plunge when I was hired by Mayfair Games to provide character lists for their companions to DC’s three-hole-punch version of Who’s Who. Anyway, Mark (as always) knew what he was talking about, because I was able to transfer my word processor disc data to my first computer in 2000.

Was this a hobby, or did you have bigger intentions for the material?

It was basically a hobby, but I did have aspirations of publishing the lists. CBG was going to serialize them at one point, but they never got past the first installment.

Can you share the secrets of your methodology about archiving data?

There really isn’t a lot to it. The major categories are separated into files by type (heroes, villains, etc.) and letter. The sub-categories, like alien races or news media, are single A-Z files.

In the old days, I just typed in character appearances each weekend after reading the latest comics. When my life got crazy with personal stuff in the past decade, I’d jot down the appearances on paper and transcribe it into my files every few months or when time allowed. At the moment, I’m back on a weekly schedule, adding new hero appearances first, then villains, and finally all my sub-categories.

Who did you share this material with? (If that’s not a secret…)

Mark, Kurt Busiek, Murray Ward, Mike Tiefenbacher, and Robert Greenberger have seen it in full. Mike, in fact, was instrumental in helping upgrade my lists, alerting me to several minor old series and characters that I’d missed, presciently lobbying to include every Quality Comics character that DC had not yet revived, and personally reviewing hundreds of issues in his own collection to give me data I lacked.

The Power Company #1

What happens more often, though, is that people contact me, and I use the lists myself to track down the info I need. Mark recommended me to Kurt Busiek prior to the launch of The Power Company a decade ago, and Kurt would often ask for character types or locales or whatnot. I’d then search my files for whatever might fit the bill. Questions like that directly inspired me to add several new sub-categories to my list, not to mention constructing a massive (and still far from complete) DC travelogue with details on every fictional locale in the DC universe.

I’ve continued to do something like this on a few occasions for Greg Weisman in relation to Young Justice. For instance, when he was looking for an established Chicagoan who could be John Jones’ neighbor, I tossed him several possibilities from books like Blue Beetle and Hawkworld. He ultimately chose Ida Berkowitz from Daring New Adventures of Supergirl.

When did you decide to write about comics? What is your earliest work (published or not)?

It was just a case of pure love of the characters and the form. In high school, I created my own fanzine for fun. I had a wonderful English teacher who actually encouraged me by printing a few copies on school equipment that I could pass out to friends. A couple years later, I wrote some long-winded articles on the history of comic books that ran in the school newspaper and actually appeared in the local paper.

Did you write “Hero Histories” for Amazing Heroes also?

Yep! A piece on Man-Bat comes to mind, and I also worked up a featurette on DC’s international heroes for AH #50. My big break, such as it was, came earlier, when Don and Maggie Thompson took the editorial reins of The Comics Buyer’s Guide and put out a call for material to fill the early issues. I submitted a piece called “The Super Friends Syndrome” that addressed comics stories that were later declared non-canonical. It was pretty amateurish, but Don sent me this wonderful, heartfelt letter suggesting changes and revisions that would bring it up to snuff, closing with the assertion that “I think you’re worth it.” With Don’s encouragement and editorial pencil, I wrote many pieces for CBG over the years, and I think I improved a lot in that time.

It's a Fanzine #51

Aside from CBG, I’ve contributed regularly to Gene Kehoe’s Iowa-based It’s a Fanzine from the mid-1980s right up to the present.

You eventually wound up doing some work directly for DC. How did that come about?

It was a long and winding road. After I got my computer in 2000, I logged onto the DC message boards and, because I thought there was some sort of rule against using your own name, called myself Mikishawm (after a locale in the Golden Age Mark Lansing series that I’d recently read). It worked out, because the name gave me a bit of mystique as I started earning a reputation as a DC expert. Eventually, someone launched a thread on the Batman boards called “Mikishawm, I Think I Know Who You Are” in which I answered questions about Batman and wrote detailed histories about all sorts of characters in the series. On top of that, I was working up articles about and timelines for various DC heroes that were posted in Michael Hutchinson’s Fanzing. I look back in amazement that I was so prolific.

Meantime, I was a regular visitor to Bob Rozakis’ digital “Answer Man” column at Silver Bullet Comics, often e-mailing him answers to reader questions that he hadn’t tackled himself. Eventually, he asked me to sub for him for a couple summers while he took part in an annual teaching gig. That was a lot of fun, and I tackled arcane subjects like the history of kryptonite, Dollar Comics, and the Golden Age Daredevil, among other things.

Ask the Answer Man

At one point, Bob was asked by DC to write a couple hundred 200-word descriptions of various properties, and he recruited me to help. We had a four-day deadline so that was a wee bit stressful. I adored working with Bob and being his “official unofficial researcher”. I was really flattered when he offered the feature to me when he retired. Time was at a premium for me, though, so I had to pass. And I think all of Bob’s fans will agree that there’s only one Answer Man.

Unbeknownst to me, Bob Greenberger had been following all of my online activities and sent me a fan letter of sorts in 2002, inviting me to collaborate on an in-house DC Universe timeline that he’d been developing. We spent years working on that, but it never really got the use it deserved. Kurt Busiek was the only person who regularly inquired about the placement of past events when he was working on plots.

Weird Secret Origins

In his capacity as head of DC’s Collected Editions, Bob also indulged my love of great reprint collections. He would hit up Mark Waid and/or me for nominations on a lot of the anthology collections like Superman in the Eighties, DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, Batman Cover to Cover, and the Weird Secret Origins facsimile giant. I even got to write some historical essays in a few books, ranging from a reissue of Batman: Tales of the Demon to the lavish Crisis on Infinite Earths Compendium. I’m proudest, though, of Batman in the Eighties, where I not only got to select what stories were reprinted — including the cover art — but got to write the extensive bridging material between the comics.

I remember one insane deadline where Bob and I had to write something like 450 questions for a licensed Batman trivia game literally overnight. And then I had to go to my day job a couple hours later. Man… Those years working with Bob were a joy, and I rarely had as much fun as when we were collaborating on the timeline or creating fun reprint collections for fans like us.

Your character database came in very handy for helping writers researching older character appearances. Aside from Mark, Kurt, and Greg, are there any others you remember?

Bob Greenberger, Roger Stern, Phil Jimenez, and Peter David come immediately to mind. When Bob was at DC, I did a lot by proxy. Editors like Joey Cavalieri and Dan Raspler would hit Bob up with a question, I’d give him the answer, and he’d relay it back to them. I remember answering questions for Brad Meltzer about Red Tornado and Ronnie Raymond’s family when Identity Crisis was coming out. Kurt remarked at one point that he was referencing my files for Geoff Johns, too.

In 2006, Mark, Bob, and Kurt rallied behind an effort to sell or barter the database to DC, but the guy who ultimately responded declared that it didn’t fit their needs.

Beyond my database, I’ve had a lot of people hit me up with pure DC and general comics historical questions. Denny O’Neil was one of the first, and more recently, Marc Tyler Nobleman and Larry Tye have been in touch when they were digging into the creation of DC’s most iconic heroes. There’s even a book about women’s footwear and pop culture by Rachelle Bergstein where I’m quoted on the history of Wonder Woman’s boots.

You also frequently worked with the DC Licensing department. What kind of work did that involve?

While I was reviewing Bob Greenberger’s entries for the licensed Superman Encyclopedia in 2009, Steve Korte and Chris Cerasi at DC approached me about co-writing the Wonder Woman Encyclopedia with Phil Jimenez. Glutton for punishment that I am, I agreed to this assignment, too, and spent several months whipping out entries. My character lists were extraordinarily handy on this one.

Chris and Steve both continued to hit me up with various requests after that, including suggestions and art scans for The DC Vault and The Batman Vault. The culmination was a glorious assignment that required me to identify writers, artists, and dates on a couple thousand pieces of artwork for Taschen’s 75 Years of DC Comics. (I’m actually working with Taschen again now, identifying more pieces and writing captions for the new art that appears in their five-volume reissue of the book.)

Once the east coast licensing division closed down and Steve and Chris were gone, I figured there’d be no more DC projects in my future. Instead, Ben Harper in the west coast department surprised me. I fact-checked DK Books’ Ultimate Batman Guide last year and its Superman companion in the past few months.

Did you ever get the chance to travel to NYC to see the legendary DC Library?

I did not, although when Steve Korte took charge of the library this past year, he extended a standing invitation to give me the full tour if I’m ever there. Admittedly, this offer was made to someone who doesn’t drive, hates crowds, has never attended a comic book convention, and values solitude over all, so I don’t expect (or have the desire) to ever set foot outside Iowa. But I was genuinely touched by the gesture.

Thank you, John Wells! American Comic Book Chronicles: 1960-1964 is in comic shops this week, as well as other fine booksellers, and both physically and digitally from the TwoMorrows website.

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