Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Few Charlton Memories

By Lou Mougin
Honest and truth…when I was a kid, I didn’t read much of Charlton. 

Even in my funny-comics days from 1959-63, I was a connoisseur. Occasionally I’d check out a Li’l Genius or Atomic Mouse, but they weren’t competition for the Dells, or Dennis the Menace, or Sugar and Spike. There wasn’t a lot to interest me there.

Later on, in ’65, at a second-hand shop where I bought comics for a nickel apiece, my snobbery continued. Charlton’s had intriguing covers sometimes—a guy as a pin in a giant bowling alley, or two beauties in bathing suits seducing a diver underwater—but the interiors were too bland to bother with. ‘Druther spend my nickel on Marvel, DC, or whatever else looked state-of-the-art. 


…In 1965, at the same store, I saw a copy of Strange Suspense Stories #75 with the big “featuring CAPTAIN ATOM” on the logo, and a yellow-and-orange-suited guy rocketing away from Earth into space, the power of an A-bomb in his hand. The art looked familiar. Could it be…? 

Yup. I looked inside and it was drawn by Steve Ditko. The same guy who was pounding out the incredibly great adventures of Spider-Man every month. Ditko was the one guy at Marvel it was impossible to mistake for Kirby. His stuff was eerie, moody, emotional, and tough. In a room full of slick DC characters, only those drawn by Kubert wouldn’t step away from his guys.

The stories inside were somewhat neat, too. Captain Adam, a USAF guy, gets trapped in an experimental missile, shot into space, and blown up. He reintegrates on Earth with atomic powers a la Dr. Solar (only I didn’t know he came along a year or so before Dr. Solar, and about 15 years after Atoman), gets the Air Force to design him a special suit, and goes off to beat the hell out of Commies. I liked him from the start. 

There was another Charlton title I somewhat enjoyed: Sarge Steel. A tough private eye whose hand had been blown off in Vietnam and replaced  by a steel one. He was drawn by Dick Giordano, Charlton’s other mainstay man, and written then by Joe Gill (who was also writing Cap Atom), and his tough-guy stories pitting him against the Smiling Skull and Ivan Chung got me hooked a bit. I didn’t collect him, but I enjoyed reading his books.

As for the Blue Beetle and Son of Vulcan, forget it. Compared to the likes of the Avengers or the Justice League, they were definitely low-rent.

But we were on the cusp of two events: Ditko getting ready to leave Marvel, and the Batman TV show in 1966 getting all comics publishers interested in super-heroes. Sturdy Steve started drawing new Captain Atom stories even before he left Stan Lee. Before long, Charlton was bustin’ out all over with what they called “action-heroes”: Thunderbolt, Judomaster, Peacemaker, and a new guy they called Blue Beetle. It took me a while to succumb, though.  I had to buy all of Marvel and Tower every month, and that left very little for DC and the others.  


…I got my hands on Blue Beetle #3 and found it had nothing in common with the 1965 model Beetle. Ditko was at work on this one, too, and his funky foemen, the Madmen, made me think of Spider-Man adventures of a year or so past. The writing was better than what I expected of Charlton, too. And the backup strip, featuring a faceless guy called the Question, won me over. 

Before long, I was hooked on all the action-hero books. Since they turned up a lot at the second-hand store, I managed to accumulate most of the five titles, Peacemaker, Judomaster, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and Thunderbolt, without too much trouble. The art might not be up to the slicker standards of Marvel and DC, but the writing…well, that was second only to Marvel’s.  These books were getting high B’s in my rating.

I gravitated around the same time to the horror comics, or “ghost comics” as we tended to call ‘em back then. Dr. Graves and Ghostly Tales had a shopworn integrity all their own. Boyette, Ditko, Aparo, and Tallarico all shone on these stories, and their intelligence and creep-factor outdid the competition. I didn’t like DC mystery books and Marvel couldn’t do a horror anthology to save their lives back then. Charlton worked.

 Just as good were some of the science fiction titles. They’d left the cheesy Space War stuff behind and went for intelligent, sometimes humorous, fare in the renewed Space Adventures and Strange Suspense Stories. Denny O’Neil and Steve Skeates refined their craft in these books, and the likes of “Children of Doom” and the Paul Mann stories proved it.

About that time, almost the whole thing fell apart. 

No more action-heroes. A migration of most of the staff to DC (where they still produced excellent stuff). Charlton produced the enjoyable short-run Hercules and extruded single issues of Blue Beetle and Mysterious Suspense with the Question in 1968. That was about it. My love affair with Charlton pretty much ended.

I wasn’t there for E-Man or Doomsday +1 when they came out. But later, for a series of articles on mid-60s second-string superheroes for The Comic Reader, I wrote up the long-gone action-stars of Charlton. And almost before the ink was dry, some of those characters I wrote of started coming back. The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the Mighty Crusaders, even the likes of Herbie and Magicman. The Charlton heroes couldn’t stay away for much longer. 

In 1985, during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Blue Beetle showed up in the cast. Before long, all of them returned…Thunderbolt, Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Judomaster, Nightshade, the Question. Old home week. They had a new chance to shine. Actually, before long, they were revised. But at least the old gang was there for awhile.

I’ve lost a lot of my snobbery in that time and gone back to investigate the good stuff from Charlton, of which there was no lack (though there was, of course, a lot of dross as well). Not long ago, I got patched into the Charlton Arrow effort through Roger McKenzie. It led to my first published comic story in years, and to further writing work from them and others. 

Charlton Neo can’t use the Action-Heroes. So what? There’s a ton and a half of other stuff to explore out there, and I’m exploring it. Having a heck of a time, too.

I hope it shows.
© Lou Mougin

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