The Best Worst Comic Book Company Ever: Charlton Comics
Charlton Comics was long a favorite comic-book publisher of mine, even though they were already history by the time I discovered their comics as back issues in the early 1990s. I first discovered Charlton when I found out that it was the company that had originated some of my favorite DC Comics heroes of the time: the Silver Age Blue Beetle, The Question and Captain Atom. I was obsessed with these characters when I was 12-13 years old, and when I learned that this "Charlton" outfit had been responsible for them (until DC bought the rights to the characters in the early 1980s), I had to know more. I scoured comic shops across Puerto Rico for any Charlton back issues, but the results were initially disappointing. Most of what I could find were issues of the companies' western and horror titles from the late-70s/early-80s. But once I started reading my meager finds, I was almost immediately charmed by the unpretentiousness, oddity and simplicity of the stories, as well as the crudeness of the printing. Underdogs had always appealed to me, and here seemed to be the ultimate color-comics underdog of the Silver and Bronze Ages of comic books. I had to find more.
Fortunately, I soon discovered back issue companies, like Mile High Comics. I ordered often from their 25 cent and 50 cent specials, and among these I was able to find issues of Charlton titles of the 70s and 80s like Ghost Manor (my first Charlton horror book), Tales of the Mysterious Traveler (re-printing the same title from the late 50s, drawn by the great Steve Ditko), Ghostly Tales, Scary Tales, Gunfighters, The Iron Corporal and Charlton Bullseye. That most of these titles featured Silver Age and 1950s reprints only increased their desirability to me. I supplemented these with the occasional find from my local comic stores. Most of the back issues of the Charlton hero titles were too expensive for me, but by this time I didn't care that much; I was fascinated with Charlton in general. Eventually, I was able to obtain some low grade copies of Captain Atom and Blue Beetle issues. My interest in this admittedly second-rate comic publisher continues to this day.
Writer Denny O'Neill Talks About His Time At Charlton
Company History (1940s-1970s)
Charlton Comics was first founded in the New York City area as T.W.O. Charles Publishing in 1940 by John Santangelo and Ed Levy. Italian immigrant Santangelo had previously published magazines of song lyrics, not being aware that you have to pay royalties to the song publishers for doing so. His ignoring of copyright laws landed him in prison for a year, where he met disgraced lawyer Levy. When they got out, they decided to get into publishing together. By 1945, T.W.O. Charles had changed its name to Charlton Publications and began putting out comic books. Charlton's first comic was the anthology title Yellowjacket, released in 1944. For the next several years, Charlton published a bit of everything, spanning many genres such as westerns, horror, romance, funny animals and superheroes. In the mid-50s, the company was the main launching pad for legendary artist Steve Ditko, who would draw for Charlton until the company's bitter end decades later.
Charlton was unique among comics publishers in that it did everything in-house: art, editorial, printing, packaging and distribution. Their comics were produced on a printing press whose main function was to print cereal boxes. The comics were just a way to keep those presses humming and making money during down time, and little attention was paid to the quality of the comics themselves. Charlton paid its artists and writers rates that were well below industry standards, but in their indifference, allowed artists considerable room to do things more or less how they wanted with little editorial interference. This often led to stories and art that were sub par (to be charitable), but also produced some really quirky and unique work that stood out from the stuff Marvel and DC published.
One major pet peeve fans had with Charlton was the irregularity with which many of their titles came out. A series would sometimes see two or three issues published, only for that title to go into hiatus -- sometimes for years -- only to come back again out of the blue. They often took series and renamed them without warning or explanation, but keeping the same numbering sequence. You could often run into what seemed to be a brand new series, but it would have an issue number of, say, "23" on the cover, instead of a #1. The first issue of Judomaster's
comic, for example, was numbered #89, after having taken over the numbering of the western series Gunmaster. Such occurrences have caused much confusion and teeth-gnashing among collectors. Charlton probably did this as a cost-cutting move to avoid having to register a new comic book title with the U.S. Post Office.
Charlton was never a huge player in the super-hero game, with their peak in that genre being their "Action Heroes" period of the late 60s, helmed by editor Dick Giordano, who would go on to become a bigwig at DC. This period produced the Charlton characters most people know, if they know any at all: The Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle, Captain Atom (who had been created in 1959, but was revitalized in the late 60s), The Question, Nightshade, Thunderbolt, Judomaster and Peacemaker. By the end of the decade, Charlton's inertia caused the Action Heroes to lapse into limbo, and the company went back to its bread-and-butter: non-superhero genres. Throughout the 1970s, the company's books increasingly featured reprinted material, and readership steadily declined, with the exception of a few licensed titles like The Phantom, Popeye and the Six Million Dollar Man. There was still some quality original work coming out sporadically during this time, such as a young John Byrne's Doomsday +1, Joe Staton's E-Man, Ditko's Liberty Belle back-up stories and the martial arts hero Yang. During this decade, future star artists like Neal Adams produced some early work for Charlton. But overall, things were headed towards a bad place.
Decline and Demise
In the early 80s, Charlton sold the rights to most of their superhero characters to DC, which introduced them to their universe during the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries. With its licensed cartoon and TV titles gone as well, Charlton was down to a few reprint titles, although they made some efforts to produce new material. One of these was the Charlton Bullseye (the comic, not the magazine from the mid-70s), which featured work largely from amateurs. A lot of the stories were either laughable or terrible (or both), with the few bright spots being a new Blue Beetle/Question team-up and a new Captain Atom story, a few years before the sale to DC. In the mid-80s, as death knocked on Charlton's door, they revived some dormant reprint titles like Tales of the Mysterious Traveler and Iron Corporal, but these only lasted for a couple of issues or so. In 1985 Charlton also put out a couple of issues of the title Charlton Action, which featured Steve Ditko's creation Static, in stories which had already seen print through Eclipse Comics. A direct- market-only Charlton Bullseye special was also published that year. However, by that summer, the company's half-assed revival had failed and Charlton's comics division shut its doors for good. They continued publishing the heavy metal magazine Hit Parader (which I had been a fan of in the late 80s, before I got into comics or knew what Charlton was...small world!), but that too ceased publication in 1991. In 1999, Charlton's facilities in Derby, Connecticut were demolished, closing the final chapter in the publisher's 50+ year history.
Canadian businessman Roger Broughton bought the rights to some of Charlton's remaining characters, and published a few comics (largely reprints) under the name America's Comics Group. More recently, editor/artist Mort Todd revived some of the more obscure Charlton characters in the book The Charlton Arrow. The majority of the Action Heroes live on in the pages of DC Comics, although the rights to Thunderbolt eventually reverted to creator Pat Morisi's estate. Charlton itself may be dead and gone, but this offbeat, cut-rate publisher still
has many fans and followers who share my fascination with their cereal-box-press comics and unique characters.
Charlton Comics Links
- The CHARLTON ARROW
A Tribute to Charlton Comics with All-New Comics & Stories
- The Digital Comic Museum - Free and Public Domain Comics
Read some old Charltons online for free.
- THE CHARLTON COMICS READING LIBRARY
More Charltons available for online reading