Armagideon Time

The company that became Charlton was born between two fellows doing time in New Haven County Jail, an attorney and a bricklayer who’d been sent up for publishing song lyric collections without the permission of the copyright-holders. Together, they decided to put a legit spin on that hustle by founding a publishing concern to release that material on the up-and-up in the form of Hit Parader magazine. Within a few years, they’d managed to establish a top-to-bottom firm which handled every step of the process from content production to distribution, based out of Derby, Connecticut.

The company was a latecomer to the Golden Age comics scene — releasing its first funnybook offering in 1944 — but Charlton’s centralized operations and dismal pay-rates gave it a cost-cutting edge. (Being a regional distributor also helped when it came to getting their wares on the stands.) When other publishers began to fall by the wayside during the early Fifties, Charlton gobbled up their inventory, IPs, and most popular inventory for incorporation and repackaging on the cheap.

While the company did dabble in superheroic fare such as Nature Boy and the Blue Beetle (picked up from Fox after it folded), the bulk of its comics material consisted of genre material — westerns, war, horror, romance — repackaged reprints sharing space with original material cranked out by Charlton’s stable of artists and mostly written by the hyper-prolific Joe Gill.

The material was low-grade boilerplate of the sort that made “comic-booky” a pejorative term, issue after issue of identikit tales with rudimentary nods to a coherent narrative and marginally adequate art. Much of it has an unintentionally dadaist quality to it, bizarre sequences of wooden dialogue and confusing panel compositions abruptly capped off by “THE END.” It’s laughably easy stuff to mock, but that after-the-fact japery misses the entire point of these comics exististence.

They were never intended to be an enduring form of artistic expression. They were product commissioned to fill a requisite amount of page space for an ancillary part of a wider business model. The purpose of Charlton’s comics line was to serve as low-cost, high-frequency, marginally-profitable wheel greasers for its wider periodical business. Get them done and on the stands, and as long as enough sticky-fingered tykes dropped their dimes on them, their appointed task was fulfilled.

From the creators’ standpoint, there was no percentage in taking things to the next level. Every minute spent bringing value-added to some soon-to-be forgotten story was time lost on picking up another assignment. The “higher calling” fans have come to associate with comics creation wasn’t a concern in those days. For most of the jobbers in the trenches, it was a job where you honed your talents and learned to work efficiently in hopes of landing a better paying gig in commercial art or animation. (The “tragic fate” of Jack Kirby languishing in LA and doing design work for Saturday morning cartoons was actually a much coveted end goal — alongside landing a syndicated strip — for earlier generations of comics illustrators.)

So while I probably will indulge in some snark over the quality of the writing and art over the course of this feature, it’s not intended as a dig against the talents of the individual creators. Most of the time. Maybe.

The start of DC’s “Silver Age” phase began a slow-but-growing revival of interest in the superhero genre, which Charlton attempted to glom in furtive way through the 1960 debut of Captain Atom in Space Adventures #33. The character was a hyper-accomplished Air Force officer who dropped his screwdriver during a pre-launch check of the service’s latest ICBM, leading to a one-way trip to outer space and a multi-megaton exit. The detonation transformed him into a radioactive superbeing possessed of whatever power his current adventure required. His lethal emissions held in check by a suit of “dilustel,” the newly-dubbed “Captain Atom” landed himself a sweet new job as America’s secret weapon against godless commies, goofy aliens, and various combinations thereof.

Atom’s trio of original appearances in Space Adventures were pretty much knock-offs of the type of two-dimensional material previously seen in Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Adventures series, but with the whimsical qualities swapped out in favor of Cold War agitprop and a proto-Marvel vibe courtesy of Steve Ditko’s layouts and art.

When the good Captain failed to gain traction among readers, Charlton then launched the even shorter lived Mercury Man, a surly alien out to save humanity from its self-destructive impulses by being a massive prick to every person he encountered before vanishing after a couple of appearances.

After Marvel upped the stakes by launching its own paradigm-shifting take on superheroes, Charlton embarked on a (slightly) more dedicated push into that market. Facilitating that drive was Dick Giordano, a house illustrator who’d risen up to assistant editor before getting tapped to oversee Charlton’s entire comics division in 1965. As a savvy industry vet as well as someone who actually saw comics as a worthy pursuit in their own right, Giordano hoped to elevate the quality of the product while giving Charlton’s funnybooks a distinct identity vis a vis Marvel and DC. When it came to Charlton’s scattershot assortment of superhero books, that meant grouping the various properties under the “Action Heroes” brand.

While that term is typically associated with the Charlton’s wave of superhero offerings from 1966 through 1967, it was used in earlier house ads promoting the gaggle of dry-runs and soon-to-be discards from which preceded them — the reprinted/relaunched Captain Atom stories, Blue Beetle’s brief foray as a superpowered hero, and bargain basement Thor wannabe The Son of Vulcan.

It wasn’t the most promising makings for realizing Giordano’s vision for the line, but fate soon would send him a golden opportunity in the form of a pissed off Objectivist who valued creative freedom over higher page rates.

Actually, that’s still a little ways off in this chronology, but I wanted to set the scene and provide some context before I slog into the muck next week.

3 Responses to “Shake Some Action (Heroes): In the beginning…”

  1. Mike Podgor

    I felt compelled to look up Mercury Man based on that description. He looks a lot different than I envisioned (possibly as some sort of Silver Surfer-esque design instead of the blonde guy he is) and the Wikipedia article hasn’t been vandalized so much as someone kept bringing up that the rights to Mercury Man has been bought by some misguided soul who sought to make a movie based on this forgotten character.

  2. Turan, Emissary of the Fly World

    I suppose mention should be made of the fact that Charlton’s “Jungle Tales of Tarzan” comic was done without permission of the Burroughs estate. Someone at the company got the idea that the character had fallen into the public domain, and rather than verify this went ahead and commissioned both this comic and a series of novels (credited to “Barton Werper,” which I have always assumed is an in-joke that I am not getting). Four issues of the comic and five of the novels were published before the Burroughs lawyers finally squelched the business.

  3. DensityDuck

    I’m trying to figure out how to parse that sound effect on the Blue Beetle frame. Because obviously we’re supposed to read ZZZZZOOOOOOMMM, but that’s *backwards* from how he’s flying; if I follow the line of action it looks more like WWWOOOOOOOZZZZZZ…

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