Let's Talk Comics

Let's Talk Comics
With Rob Lamberti
Charlton Publications was, well, almost like the relative you didn't want to talk about.
And that’s too bad. There are a lot of great collectable gems under this comic publishing label.
It hosted some of the best artists, albeit some who either left or were dropped by the major companies, while helping launch the careers of others. Its comic title runs usually only lasted a couple of issues, but the art was generally good, while the stories ranged from excellent to passable.
And collectors largely ignore the books.
That’s good, suggesting that many key Charlton books remain affordable, at least compared to other publishers’ comics in the collectable market.
Collectors looking for books printed during the Golden, Silver and Bronze Ages could find some stars within its catalogue, especially if they are focused on artists rather than short-lived titles.
Its comics highlighted the work of many artists who made a mark in comics, including Jack Kirby (one of comicdom’s greatest), Joe Simon (whose resume is too long to list), Steve Ditko (of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange fame), Dick Giordano (who peaked at DC), John Buscema (a major Marvel artist), Jon D’Agostino (who became an Archie stalwart), Tom Sutton, Joe Staton, and Superman artist Joe Shuster.
The Derby, Conn., company, launched in 1940 as T.W.O. Charles Company as the founders, former bricklayer John Santangelo Sr. and disbarred attorney Ed Levy, both had sons named Charles. Unlike other comics companies, its offices, printing presses and distribution arm were housed in one building.
The founders met while both were serving jail sentences. They formed the company once they got out and it started with printing some of the most iconic music magazines of the 20th Century, such as Hit Parader and Song Hits, collectables in their own right, before adding comic books.
The name was changed to Charlton in 1946, publishing comics until 1985 before closing shop six years later.
Self-serving politicians along with misguided and even manipulative pop psychologists who shrieked that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency triggered the near-collapse of the industry in 1950s. But Charlton was among the handful that survived the storm and managed to buy titles from the publishing houses that pulled out of the shrinking comics market.
Charlton was to Marvel and DC like a junior hockey league is to the big pro league. They paid poorly. The quality of the physical product seemed inferior to that of Marvel or DC.
It had that reputation among creative talent as well. For example, the comic world’s dynamic duo of Simon and Kirby, creators of Captain America, were left on the streets after Mainline Comics shut down in 1955. They turned to Charlton for work, a place Simon described Charlton in a 1990 interview with Gary Groth of The Comics Journal as “the graveyard.”
“The last port of call,” Simon told Groth.
Simon and Kirby toiled there briefly before moving to other companies.
While the company may not have been among the top paying publishers or best employers for artists and writers, it's a potential goldmine for collectors.
Titles Charlton published in the Golden Age include Police Trap, Racket Squad in Action, Nature Boy, Atomic Rabbit, Black Fury, Space Adventures, Space Western, Brenda Starr (which reprinted the newspaper strips), the last four issues of Don Winslow of the Navy before changing the title to Fightin’ Navy, Dynamite/Johnny Dynamite, Flash Gordon, and one of it's longest running titles Fightin’ Air Force. Of course, Charlton also published Fightin’ Army and Fightin’ Marines, along with a long list of romance and western titles.
Charlton lingered into the Silver and Bronze Ages while Marvel and DC took off, focusing on movie and television (both action and cartoon) titles, space anthologies, and horror titles. Some of the more notable from this era include Emergency!, Space: 1999, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, the Phantom, Doomsday+1, Flash Gordon, The Six Million Dollar Man, and oddball titles like The Partridge Family, David Cassidy and The Mothers of Invention. Whoa.
Charlton also briefly issued a number of black-and-white magazines of TV shows, which are tough to find, some of it drawn by Neal Adams’ art studio Continuity Associates.
One of the better titles it published was the new talent showcase Charlton Bullseye. One can't have enough of that title.
Most Charlton titles had short lifespans although there were a few exceptions, including I Love You, formerly In Love, which ran between 1955 and 1980.
Charlton was also known famously, or infamously depending on tastes, for the adventures of Clint Curtis in a number of auto racing and hot-rod comics.
Almost all of the comic titles were idle by the late 1970s and Giordano at DC Comics pushed to acquire the rights to a number of Charlton action characters in 1983, including Blue Beetle and Captain Atom.
Also, the characters in the great 1986 DC series The Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is based on Charlton’s Sentinels of Justice. Those characters - The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Judomaster, Peacemaker, Nightshade and Sarge Steel - were incorporated in DC’s L.A.W. limited series issued in 1999, as well as being part of other titles in the DC universe.
Previous column: The value of original comic art
Let's Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti, who started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while, but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not-so-mild- mannered crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a little bit of history the past three decades.
You can reach Rob at lamberti@cogeco.ca
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