Mentioning the link between Watchmen and Charlton Comics is almost taboo. Long before the much-awaited movie was underway, the 1986 comic book series had become the graphic novel for people who didn't read comics, the comic book for those who did to hold up as a validation of the medium as a real art form and even the text for pop scholars in particularly open-minded liberal arts programs to dig into for a thesis.
Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the 1986 "graphic novel" (originally printed in 12 comic books) has been lauded as a "deconstruction" of the superhero character and an examination of its long, uniquely American history — by the sort of people who laud these things. There's so much about Watchmen that is smart, original and well-constructed that it's difficult to mention it in the same breath as Charlton, a Derby-based publisher whose comics that were dumb, derivative and made quickly and cheaply throughout its awkward 50-year existence.
Yet what became Watchmen started as a proposal from Moore, the young British writer whose sense of sophistication revived the horror series Swamp Thing, on the desk of DC managing editor (and former Charlton editor) Dick Giordano that would bring back six of the Charlton "Action Heroes" in one epic story. DC, the comics conglomerate that owned Batman, Superman and others, denied Moore the right to use the Charlton characters, which they had recently purchased, but Giordano suggested Moore retool the story with six new characters. To fit into the established story, each was based on a Charlton hero and had some of their predecessor's attributes in their DNA.
The rest is history; Watchmen became a classic and Moore became the bearded godfather of smart comics.
Only some of it is overlooked history.
When Giordano took a labor-intensive and inglorious job as Charlton's editor in 1965, he organized a line of "Action Heroes." (It was ambiguous if "superhero" was a copyright and, if so, who owned it.)
"Growing up, my favorite superhero was Batman," he wrote in the preface of volume two of The Action Heroes Archives, a 2007 compilation of Charlton comics. "Not so much because he looked cool, but because he had no super-powers and was able to train and educate himself to be able accomplish almost super-heroic feats." Taking after the Dark Knight, Charlton's heroes "were mortal and could be hurt. It was not a given that at the end of a storyline they would be alive and well — something that gave their adventures more dramatic potential."
This was one difficult step in the evolution towards Watchmen, a story that maximized the "dramatic potential" Giordano sought 20 years earlier and which "treated these fairly ridiculous superhuman characters as more human than super," as Moore said in the 2003 documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore.
The two founders of Charlton Comics met in a New Haven County jail cell 1934.
John Santangelo was an Italian immigrant who started a successful construction company in Westchester County. In 1931, after moving to Derby, he got his start in the business that would become his meal ticket for the rest of his life and would also put him in a jail cell that fateful day: publishing.
Gramophones and "electrical recordings" were a new fad, and Santangelo found a way to profit from them, publishing booklets with the lyrics to popular songs. The Connecticut Historical Society, which compiled an exhibit on comic books in Connecticut in 2003, estimates that Santangelo sold around seven million of them.
But he didn't have any of the copyrights, and during a legal battle with the American Society of Composers and Publishers, he was arrested for copyright infringement. While in a holding cell, he met Ed Levy, an attorney who had been arrested as part of a Waterbury political scandal.
Eleven years later, the two founded Charlton Publications, which soon morphed into Charlton Comics after it found its market niche.
To understand why a brick-layer-turned-businessman and his attorney would start a comic book company in the mid-1940s, you have to understand something about the mid-1940s. It was a boom time for publishing, and comic books were a new product that could be published on the cheap, recycling material from newstrips and other publishers. Today, comic books can be neatly divided into the products of the large superhero publishers and indie books that are the labors of love of starving artists. But in 1946, publishers of all sizes were producing books of countless genres (superheroes, horror, war, funny animals, romance, western), and almost all of the players were businessmen in it for the money.
One thing different about Charlton was that Santangelo wanted his home base to be Derby — the publishing world in New York City be damned. He had a printing press built in a building at the foot of the Derby exit on Route 8.
At first, Charlton did things backwards when compared to the New York City top dogs. The offices of Marvel and DC Comics handled the writing, illustrating and editing of their comics and hired other companies to physically create the comics. Charlton's headquarters was where its artwork was engraved and where a printing press steam-rolled it onto paper. The creative work was outsourced.
Santangelo and Levy hired Long Island-based editor Al Fago to scoop up work from other publishers, as well as new material from freelancers.
Dick Giordano, e-mailing us from his Florida home, recalls how Fago "would drive his big Chrysler to all the freelancers in the N.Y. area, pick up the last week's assignment and give you the new one."
In 1955, Santangelo expanded Charlton's line and asked Fago to recruit a staff to work in Derby, Giordano recalls. He and four other New York-based illustrators carpooled each day on the Merritt Parkway.
"Our rates were low, but we were guaranteed all the work we could handle," Giordano says. "Most took advantage of this and the work showed it." It was like "we were producing 10 pounds of salami, not art work," he adds.
Charlton Comics spun out dozens of titles, and because the company handled every part of the process under one roof, none of them had to be particularly good or popular to warrant continuing them. Marvel and DC "had to sell 50 or so percent of the comics they published to continue them," says Frank McLaughlin, Charlton's art director in the early 1960s, who still lives in Stratford. "We had to sell about 30."
The house writer was Joe Gill, who had been bouncing around the New York publishers since the comic book had been invented. Gill was paid a flat rate per page and wrote with that in mind, McLaughlin recalls. "Joe could write a hundred script pages in a week," he says. "Of course, it wasn't Gone with the Wind."
Charlton became one of the bigger businesses in the Housatonic Valley. Its red trucks, adorned with its logo, came in and out of the area, delivering comics as far as the Mississippi and Santangelo became a prominent landlord in the Valley.
"The staff had a lot of fun working there," says Giordano. "There was almost no editorial oversight and we could pretty much come and go as we pleased and do what we wanted when we wanted. Our paychecks were based on page rates and if you didn't do enough work, it would be reflected in your take home ... Except for the low pay, it wasn't a bad time."
Of course, the comics were crap. They were done in a rushed style, printed on cheap paper and filled with hackneyed characters. "The ideas were extremely derivative," says McLaughlin. "You know Casper, the Friendly Ghost? We had Timmy, the Timid Ghost."
By the early '60s, after a decade in decline, superheroes regained their place as the top headliner for comic books. DC's perpetual sellers Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were joined by new versions of the old heroes Green Lantern, The Flash and Hawkman. Marvel took itself out of the gutter with their new superhero line, which included the newly-created Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Fantastic Four and, its flagship character, Spider-Man.
So Charlton, which had always copied and undercut other publishers, needed a line of superheroes. This brings us back to the newly promoted Dick Giordano sitting at his desk in 1965, looking for heroes with "more dramatic potential."
The "Action Heroes" are the only products of Charlton that had much of a legacy, although they made up a tiny fraction of the company's total output. Charlton published one to six comic books featuring costumed heroes, as part of their 30 or so bi-monthly titles, for a period of less than three of its 50 years.
The two architects of the line were Giordano and an illustrator named Steve Ditko. What had he done before? He co-created Spider-Man in 1962.
Ditko had cut his teeth at Charlton in the late '50s. His style lent itself well to horror titles, and he created the little-used hero Captain Atom (themed around the new concept of atomic power) for the publisher before moving on to Marvel Comics.
There, Ditko designed writer/editor Stan Lee's concept of Spider-Man in 1962 — the idea of a teen with Coke bottle glasses battling exotic (even by comic book standards) villains like Dr. Octopus and the Sandman perhaps only would have worked in a world drawn by Ditko, known for his sense of detail and touches of surrealism.
By the mid '60s, Ditko had fallen under the sway of writer Ayn Rand, who coldly disavowed the notions of groups and common good for the individual's right to succeed unhampered. His near-obsession with Rand's ideals, author Blake Bell chronicles in Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, meant he could no longer stomach Marvel, where Lee acted as editor, organizer and general ringmaster, while artists did the actual work of plotting the story lines and drawing the comics — or at least that's how Ditko remembers it.
Giordano offered Ditko creative freedom and the chance to write — credited. Plus, Giordano's ideal of mortal men as superheroes reflected the Randian view of the lone individual as a noble creature capable of great accomplishment.
McLaughlin recalls that Ditko stayed in a Derby motel. He was not the recluse of his later years. "We had girls who'd do the coloring of the pages and Steve would always bring them candy and flowers," McLaughlin recalls.
Ditko's first order of business was revamping Captain Atom, a former Air Force pilot who was "atomized" in an experimental aircraft leading not to instant death, but an array of superpowers. Ditko and Gill gave him a sidekick/love interest in Nightshade, a woman with the odd power to turn two-dimensional.
As a back-up feature for Captain Atom, Ditko created a new version of the Blue Beetle, a hero dating back to 1939 and bought from the extinct Fox Comics. The new Blue Beetle was a master inventor who patrolled Hub City in his beetle-shaped aircraft.
Ditko's third Charlton creation was truly his baby. The Question was, by day, a controversial television reporter/commentator who spouted Randian views and, by night, a fearless, two-fisted fighting man who used an "artificial skin" to appear faceless. Every racketeer or thief the Question took down was secretly assisted by a well-liked public figure, exemplifying Rand's (and Ditko's) belief that groups corrupt people.
But it wasn't just Ditko contributing to the line. Pete Morisi, a one-time illustrator who joined the NYPD after the comics slump of the late '40s, revisited his earlier career by contributing Thunderbolt, an American orphan raised in a Himalayan monastery where ancient scrolls taught him the secrets of mental and physical perfection. (Morisi's knowledge of Eastern mysticism was about as well-rounded as Ditko's concept of atomic power.)
Texas-born writer Pat Boyette took a break from horror series to contribute, with Gill's assistance, Peacemaker, "a man who loves peace so much he'll fight for it," and a diplomat who used a costumed identity to fire bullets and throw napalm on dictators and warlords and their armies.
"The sales of the Action Hero line were well below the sales figures of our romance line," says Giordano. "We did garner a lot of critical acclaim and we had more letters for those titles than for all the rest of the line combined. The company didn't know what 'Action Heroes' were and hadn't the fuzziest idea how to promote them, so they died a natural death, and caused me to leave Charlton."
With none of these characters able to meet Charlton's nominal sales requirements, the company cancelled the line in 1967. Until its final implosion, Charlton relied on tie-in comics, based on Hanna-Barbera's cartoons and TV shows like "The Six Million Dollar Man" and "Emergency!", to keep its presses rolling, with Santangelo's sons taking over.
Giordano left to take a position at DC and Ditko took off for a mix of paid gigs and independent work and eventually a J.D. Salinger-like life in his home town of Johnstown, Pa.
Alan Moore had read the "Action Heroes" line as a kid who devoured American comic books, as he made clear in a 2000 interview with Comic Book Artist. "It was kind of a pecking order situation, with the distribution of all American comics being very spotty in England. ... I'd buy my favorites early in the month, and then a little later, I'd probably buy my second favorites ... Charlton would be at some points low on the list."
DC Vice President Paul Levitz had bought Charlton characters in 1984 because they were cheap and gave them to Giordano "as a gift," Giordano recalls. "Paul knew how much effort I had invested in the line." Charlton was on the verge of collapse, and the management that remained sold its unused properties at auction. (Charlton Comics closed in 1986.)
Moore proposed a story about the Charlton characters because, like Swamp Thing, no one else was using them. "If he had insisted on using the Charlton characters, I probably would have let him," says Giordano, adding that he encouraged Moore to create his own characters so that he might be allowed ownership over them. (He wasn't — the Watchmen movie was made over his objections and Moore grew weary of superheroes soon after Watchmen, retreating to the indie presses).
In the completed story, the Question became the even more rigid and anti-social Rorschach; Blue Beetle become the retired gadget hero Nite Owl; Peacemaker became the Richard Nixon-employed commando the Comedian; Thunderbolt became the "world's smartest man" Ozymandias (trading Tibetan roots for inspiration from the ancient Greeks); Captain Atom became the god-like Dr. Manhattan (also the only superhuman in his world) and Nightshade — loosely — became his longtime love, the Silk Spectre.
It's easy to see how the story worked with the Charlton characters: A streetwise hero investigates the death of a paramilitary hero, awakening the curiosity of an inventor hero and an intellectual hero, as well as an atomic hero and his ex-hero girlfriend.
You could end the link between the Charlton heroes and the stars of Watchmen here — most accounts of the story behind the '86 series do.
Or maybe Charlton's "Action Heroes" allowed for a story about superheroes without noticeable stand-ins for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all the big ones (a story that would have seemed like it could have been more than it was with different characters), maybe a "deconstruction" of superheroes had to be done with ones propped up Ayn Rand theories and half-understood Eastern mysticism behind them, maybe only heroes made to be human could be dissected and even destroyed to such a degree.
Charlton published the first comic book title where the series' creator was credited in each issue (a right the creators of Superman and Batman fought for over decades) and flirted with painted covers (now a standard feature for the biggest superhero books). The company never did anything well but, due to its editorial idiosyncrasy, it did try out a few ideas first.
Heroes "with more dramatic potential" was one of them.