Monday, April 9, 2007

CHARLTON COMICS: The Little Company That Almost Could

Charlton Comics, a much maligned, but also much missed, comic book publisher, has been out of business for about 15-20 years.
When I was a boy, Charlton published a well-constructed "Action Hero" line of comic books, including BLUE BEETLE, CAPTAIN ATOM, JUDOMASTER, THE PEACEMAKER, and PETER CANNON:THUNDERBOLT.
In addition to these characters with eponymous titles, Charlton also ran stories featuring "The Question", a crimefighter whose adventures ran as a featurette in BLUE BEETLE, and "Sarge Steel", who had a similar spot in JUDOMASTER, if memory serves. "Nightshade, The Darling Of Darkness", was a female adventurer who held the second spot in CAPTAIN ATOM.
Just so you know, Steve Ditko, who co-created THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for Marvel Comics, one of the greatest living cartoonists, developed the plots, or helped develop the plots, for BLUE BEETLE, CAPTAIN ATOM and "The Question".
Dick Giordano, a brilliant cartoonist and comic book inker, was the Editor of these comic books, as well as the illustrator of "Sarge Steel".
Giordano left Charlton to work as an editor at National Periodical Publications, which is now DC COMICS, the publisher of SUPERMAN. BATMAN, and WONDER WOMAN, left Charlton when it was decided that the "Action Hero Line" of comic books was to be discontinued, and the offer came in for him to work at "DC". Charlton, a company that printed enormous quantities of crossword puzzle and pulp-ish romance magazines, used presses that it had right in it's Derby, CT warehouse (a rarity in the comic book publishing world) to print it's comic books. Reportedly, these presses were designed to print cardboard breakfast cereal boxes, and the cost of shutting them down and maintaining them during times when they would otherwise not be used was so great, the Charlton decision-makers developed their comic book line to keep the presses busy.
The late Joe Gill, who just passed away mere weeks ago, was one of the company's few writers, and was responsible for writing not only most of the comic book stories the company printed, but much non-comic book writing as well.
Gill wrote everything in the company's comic book line from the adventure character THE PHANTOM, licensed from King Features Syndicate by Charlton, to THE BIONIC WOMAN, licensed by Charlton from Universal Studios, to DOOMSDAY +1, a post-nuclear-Holocaust comic book drawn by now popular, but then, mostly unknown, cartoonist John Byrne.
Byrne, a Canadian fellow who has drawn everything in comic books from THE X-MEN, to THE FANTASTIC FOUR, to WONDER WOMAN, SUPERMAN, BATMAN, to his own creations, such as NEXT MEN, got one of his big, early breaks, drawing comic books for Charlton, with their publication of SPEED BUGGY, based on a Saturday morning television cartoon made by Hanna-Barbera Productions.
Over the years Charlton had some hugely talented people pass through it's doors, but, sadly, plagued by bad printing, poor distribution, reported Mafia ties, and other problems, Charlton never lived up to the great potential it had, except in brief and spasmodic bursts.
The company served for some time as a training ground for professionals who would later work for DC COMICS or MARVEL COMICS.
Some of their comic books were really enjoyable, others, not so enjoyable.
Charlton Comics really _was_ "the little company that almost could".

9 comments:

Michael said...

A good article, but a few errors.

Giordino did not leave because Charlton was going to stop doing comics. He just got a better job at DC and brought a lot of the better people along with him. It would be a few years before charlton stopped doing original comics, but they went back and forth between new and reprints for several years (decades?).

The story of the cereal-box printing press is false. And saying the press was setup in their 'warehouse' is inaccurate. Charlton was setup to be an all-in-one company with printing and production all in one company, along with their own distribution company, etc. Because of this they HAD to be running their presses all the time. But due to the stupid penny-pinching views of the owners, they eventually put themselves out of business.

--steve cohen said...

Thanks, Michael!!!
I did not mean that Charlton was to drop comic books altogether, I only meant the "Action Hero" line.
Thanks, though, for clarifying that.
Thanks also for the update on the "cereal box" story.
I had heard a few different stories about this over the years and put the information together as best as I knew it to have happened.
I know that Charlton gave up it's comic book business officially in 1990, or, at least I believe that this is so, and that the company sold off it's inventory of comic book materials at that time.

--steve cohen said...

Michael,
I changed the business about Giordano's departure from Charlton, but could you clarify the part about the presses for me some more?

Michael said...

There are a lot of stories floating around about Charlton (and its owners). I am surprised you didn't bring up the alleged mafia-connections (the owner WAS Italian, and not a very honest or fair businessman, IMO).

In recent years, thanks in no small part to TwoMorrows and others, a lot of straight info has come out about Charlton. 2 issues of their Comic Book Artist (#9 & 12) is devoted to Charlton. Here is an on-line part of this: http://www.scouter.com/forums/viewThread.asp?threadID=155593

In a recent issue of Alter Ego, they had an interview with Vince Fago's wife, mainly about Charlton.

Charlton Spotlight has also been doing a great job of bring up new info on the company: http://www.ramonschenk.nl/charltoncomics/charltonspotlight/

Ron Frantz (http://members.aol.com/magilla445/magillaindex.html), a comic & fanzine writer and publisher, had some dealing with Charlton and wrote them up in "Fandom Confidential". I seem to recall him speaking of visiting Charlton and asking to see the 'cereal box printer'. As I recall, he got a strange look and was lead to a now non-working press at the facility.

Also check out the Charlton Comics article at Wikipedia (I contributed to it). Its important to keep in mind that comics was but a small part of Charlton's overall business. Charlton consisted of Charlton Press (printing business), Charlton Publications (publisher of magazines), Capital Distribution (distributor of Charlton's and others stuff), a paper mill (forget the name), and briefly Monarch Books (cheap, paperback books). Because of the economics of keeping printing presses going, most publishers (books, magazines, etc) do NOT print their own materials, but go to printing companies. Charlton did, and did so successfully for awhile, cutting out the middle-men, but due to poor business practices of the owner(s), eventually went under.

--steve cohen said...

I did note the alleged Mafia connections in the ending of my entry, you'll see that if you look quickly there.
Not having a direct frame of reference for this I did not want to go into it deeply.

Michael said...

Mistake on the link. To see TwoMorrow's article on-line, go here: http://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/09empire.html

--steve cohen said...

Thanks Very Much, Michael!!!
:o)

Ramon said...

Just wanted to respond to the assertion made here and elsewhere that Charlton went out of business because they were going bankrupt or because the company was badly managed or similar comments.
Basically, the Charlton owners (sons of the original founder) decided that it was in their best interest to sell the real estate(it became a huge parking lot) than upgrade the now outdated presses. From what I hear, they made so much money on the deal that they never had to work again. Sounds like a sound business move to me!
Best,
Ramon

--steve cohen said...

I don't believe I ever said that Charlton Comics was badly managed, Ramon.
I am certain that the parent company of the comic book division knew what it was doing, but I sort of believe that the comic book division was also an unloved stepchild of the owners at that time.
Only my own speculation!!!
:o)