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Batavia man chronicles comic books

By ANDY HALLMAN | Nov 21, 2013
Courtesy of: JOHN WELLS This Superman comic from 1963 depicts the hero conversing with President John F. Kennedy. The comic was written shortly before Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22 that year and published after his death. Many periodicals of the time, including comic books, scrambled to remove references to Kennedy after the assassination to avoid offending his family.

BATAVIA – One would be hard pressed to find a person in Jefferson County who knows more about comic books than John Wells.

Wells, of Batavia, has been a comic book fanatic almost as long as he’s been able to read. He has become not just a comic book collector but also a comic book historian, able to recite when the characters debuted, the company that produced them, who wrote the stories and who drew the pictures.

Wells is now seeking to share his knowledge with the general public through books, although perhaps they are better described as encyclopedias. Publishing company TwoMorrows Publishing has commissioned a handful of writers to catalog the history of comic books from the 1930s to the 1990s in a series of hardbound books.

The company chose Wells to document the key players and publications of the 1960s. Comic books went through a dramatic change that decade, highlighted by the creation of so many Marvel comic book characters in the early part of the decade. Many of those characters have been depicted in major motion pictures in the past few years. The Marvel characters created between 1961 and 1964 include The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Spiderman, The Avengers, X-Men and Daredevil.

This period was considered so important in the history of comic books that TwoMorrows asked Wells to divide the decade into two volumes. Wells finished the first volume, which covers 1960-1964, in 2012. It was published earlier this year. He has written the manuscript and selected the artwork for the second volume, which he hopes will be published next spring.

The series is known as “American Comic Book Chronicles.” Originally, Wells wanted to write about the history of comic books in the 1970s, which is when he began reading them as a child. However, in retrospect, he is glad he was assigned to write about the 1960s.

“I was on the fence about doing the 1960s,” he said. “It was intimidating because so many things happened in the 1960s, and I wasn’t as personally invested in the 1960s as I was in the 1970s.”

A friend ultimately convinced Wells to accept the offer to write about the 1960s. He told Wells publishing in such a prestigious collection was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he could not afford to miss.

As it turned out, the assignment also provided Wells insight into how comic books reflected major political events of the era, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Kennedy was widely portrayed in comic books at the time, sometimes by name and at other times less directly by fictitious presidents who bore a striking resemblance to him.

In one comic strip, Clark Kent is supposed to meet his alter ego, Superman, at a public gathering. Fortunately, someone disguises himself as Clark Kent to maintain Superman’s secret identity. The man is later revealed to be none other than John F. Kennedy. In one of the panels, Superman says he always trusted Kennedy and added, “If I can’t trust the president of the United States, who can I trust?”

The strip was written before Kennedy’s assassination and published about a month after his murder. DC Comics, the publishing company, was sweating bullets about how the public would react to a depiction of Kennedy so soon after his death. The reaction was mixed. Wells noted some fans found the strip in poor taste while others found it a fitting tribute to the late president. He learned through his research that other magazines and comic books altered their planned Kennedy-themed covers to avoid offending the family in the aftermath of the assassination.

Just as with the Kennedy assassination, American attitudes to the Vietnam War could be seen in how comic books treated the conflict. Before 1964, comic book companies published strips about soldiers and war that were light-hearted and funny. When America was at war, sales of war comics rose. However, the Vietnam War bucked that trend.

DC Comics began running a strip about soldiers in Vietnam but scrapped it in favor of a story set in World War II. A comic strip known as “Steve Canyon” featured the title character stationed in Vietnam. By 1968, newspapers throughout the country refused to run Steve Canyon because they believed the comic was pro-war. Wells said nearly every comic strip that had a character in Vietnam had to pull their characters out of Southeast Asia because it was such an unpopular topic.

Another turning point for comics was the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Wells discovered there was tremendous pressure on comic books to tone down depictions of violence. In one controversial Dick Tracy strip, when the hero is about to vanquish his enemy, the panel reads, “Violence is golden when it’s used to put down evil.” The strip appeared one day after RFK’s assassination and created an uproar.

Wells said people protested that and other violent strips of the time. He said Sears even dropped war toys from its Christmas catalog. However, the campaign against violent cartoons was short-lived. By the 1970s, Wells found that comics were even more violent than they were a decade earlier.

The 1960s were also noteworthy because of the national media’s discovery of who was reading comic books. Prior to that decade, it was widely believed that only children read comic books. It took publishers awhile to realize adults enjoyed reading them, too.

“Kids didn’t outgrow comics – they kept reading them as adults,” Wells said. “In the 1970s, those same people began writing comics themselves, and they wrote comics more for their age group. Now, most people don’t start reading comics until they’re teenagers or adults.”

However, Wells believes kids still have a fondness for comics, too.

“I hand out comic books at my door for Halloween and the kids love them,” he said.

It may seem hard to believe now, but in 1960 comic books sold for as little as 10 cents, a price they had sold at for many years. In 1960, the No. 1 publisher in the comic book industry was Dell Comics. The company was losing money and in 1961 decided the solution was to raise the price of comic books from 10 cents to 15 cents. Instead of increasing profit the move proved disastrous, destroying the company’s sales.

One of the most successful comics of the decade was “Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories,” at one time published by Dell Comics. It sold 1 million copies per issue in 1960, but by 1969 its sales had fallen to 250,000 per issue. Dell ultimately folded in 1973.

Dell Comics was pioneering in one respect and that was the introduction of a leading black comic book character. The character was a cowboy named “Lobo,” who debuted in 1964. Other comic book companies had run black characters in other roles before, with some unusual results. In one case from 1963, Marvel had a strip containing a black character, which the printer assumed was a mistake and colored the character’s skin pink. Marvel had to call the printer to confirm the artist intended to publish a black character.

In 1964, the year Wells was born, the comic book “Treasure Chest” ran a series about a presidential primary set in the distant future of 1976. In the final chapter, the public learns the character who has won the primary is a black man. Wells said it was quite a shock to readers at the time.

At one point, Wells dreamt of creating comic book characters of his own. He submitted a few ideas to publishers in the 1980s, but he eventually realized that what he loved most was not writing comics but writing about them.

In the 1980s he began writing for a weekly magazine called Comic Buyer’s Guide. The advent of the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s allowed him to connect to comic book enthusiasts throughout the country and the world. He gained notoriety in comic book magazines as someone who could answer just about any question about the history of a character or publisher.

Soon, Wells had turned his hobby into cash as he began providing consulting services to major publishers and submitting essays on subjects such as the history of Batman. While writing the two volumes about the 1960s, Wells was thoroughly engrossed in his work.

“I start when I get up in the morning and I write until shortly before I go to bed,” he said. “Some days, I would start at 6 a.m. and I would still be writing at 10 p.m.”


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