My first introduction to Charlton Comics came as a Hanna-Barbera obsessed child. Nothing excited me more as a five year old than the prospect of watching some Pixie and Dixie, Top Cat, Dynomutt, or any piece of animation with a monotonous reoccurring background during a chase sequence. Charlton Comics eventually found itself with the contract to pump out comic books based on The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo to name a few, which had previously been the domain of Western Publishing (a group that put out comics under the Dell, Gold-Key and Whitman monikers) and I was of course instantly drawn to drawings of my cartoon heroes in print form.
You could be sure it was Charlton if Mr. Slate was only recognizable because someone referred to him as Mr. Slate. If Fred's coat was blue, if Wilma's hair was suddenly yellow, this must have been a Charlton comic. Accuracy and faithfulness to the original cartoon was definitely not high on Charlton's priority list, and this was enough to drive a young child (like me) plain mad. "WHY IS FRED FLINTSTONE'S JACKET BLUE!? IT'S NOT BLUE - IT'S RED! MOM! WHY IS FRED FLINTSTONE'S JACKET BLUE?!?" The artists and writers often took liberties with their interpretations of the licensed characters, sometimes going beyond just randomly changing the well-known color models that had been used for years. The Jetsons' robot maid, Rosie, was given white eyes and pupils instead of her standard robotic red buttons. In Charlton's version of Scooby-Doo the dog was constantly using thought bubbles to emulate his observations that his human counterparts could never decipher. It made little sense since in the Saturday morning cartoon he could speak.
Although there were plenty of comic book labels churning out poorly rendered crap while labels like Dell, EC, and National Periodical/DC received all the attention, no other peripheral comic group lasted as long as Charlton. The company was a cringe inducing comic book presence on newsstands for an incredible forty years, from nineteen forty-six to eighty-six. An impressive run for a company who's output was often unreadable.
1931 was the year that Charlton's future founder John Santangelo Sr. first entered the publishing world with a get-rich-quick scheme involving the reproduction of sheet music with the intent to sell. Unfortunately, it seemed that John was oblivious to copyright laws forbidding such reproduction. Over the next couple of years, Santangelo would find himself in the middle of an ongoing battle with ASCAP who was confronting him on his lack of business decorum. It seems to have had more to do with Santangelo's complete lack of legal savviness than a premeditated crime, but regardless he found himself serving all of 1934 in New Haven County Jail for copyright violation. After serving his time Santangelo got back into the industry, this time following the proper rules. He was joined by a defrocked lawyer named Edward Levy who had been serving time in the same prison as Santangelo due to some kind of political scandal and the two criminals went into business together. Perhaps, had the judiciary known what Santangelo was going to unleash on the publishing world legally for the next several decades... they may have preferred that he stick to copyright infringement. Even when Santangelo went legit, his product always looked bootleg.
During both the legal and illegal infancy of Charlton, Santangelo had been manufacturing his output with a second-hand printing press that had originally been used for printing cereal boxes. The company would pump out everything they did using this same creaky machine starting in 1931 right up until the end of their comic line in 1986 (an exception was when a hurricane almost destroyed it in 1955 and the printing duties had to be done elsewhere while things were repaired). The cereal press story is somewhat of a revelation for those who, as kids, could not understand why Charlton comics always looked so grainy and impoverished.
While still toiling in the profitable music publishing biz Charlton published its first official comic in 1946 (Santangelo had put out some funny animal comics the year before but under a different banner). Marvels of Science attempted to disguise education as entertainment - it did not succeed beyond four issues. It educated very few about anything other than that there was a new crummy "educational" comic in town. Charlton struggled for a couple years trying to find characters and themes that would sell. In the early fifties they started amassing a catalogue of previously established players from other comic manufacturers who went under. In 1954, big time publishing outfit, Fawcett, got out of comic books and sold off their slightly popular titles Six Gun Heroes and Fawcett's Funny Animals. Charlton absorbed other small time companies like Capitol Comics and Toby Press. A company called Fox Feature Syndicate collapsed in 1948 and Charlton wound up with one of their flagship superheroes, a stupid but endurable fellow named The Blue Beetle. Charlton had tried a couple of superhero characters on its own but they were superhero-Fawcett-animal hybrids like Atomic Mouse and the unappetizingly named Magic Bunny. Much like a small town video store that changes hands and names over the course of several years, Charlton ended up with a bizarre mish-mash of weird, inferior obscurities and started hatching them out from their headquarters in the publishing hub known as Derby, Connecticut. The early fifties also saw Charlton jump on the horror and gore bandwagon that William M. Gaines' EC Comics had started. They released a book called The Thing! that The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide notes "[contains] excessive violence, severed heads, injury to eyes common."
Starting a couple titles in 1950 and 1951 (Pictorial Love Stories, True Life Secrets), Charlton eventually smothered the market with romance themed comic books, trying to capitalize on the success other companies were already enjoying. Along with countless generic titles, they attempted to inject life into the genre with oddities like the suspiciously titled Cowboy Love and the very interesting Negro Romances, both in 1955. Interest in romance titles eventually waned two decades later in the mid-seventies. Unlike the other comic book executives who knew when to concede to the changing tides and slash the majority of their romance lines, Charlton assumed they could survive buyer apathy by creating strange new romance innovations such as Haunted Love in which pretty little things fell in love with skeletons (ooh, kinky). Majors like DC went from having a plethora of romance items to just one or two. Teenage girls who depended on the abstinence-preaching advice page were left in the cold to fend for themselves... unless they switched to Charlton, of course. They stuck with romance titles right into the eighties (but who knows what effect Charlton's smudged ink and decrepit pages could have on a girl's complexion!).
The one-page advice column was always randomly sandwiched somewhere within the hackneyed melodrama and dished out by any number of pseudonyms. DC's Young Romance had "Laura Penn... Your Romance Reporter" answering the pervy inquiries. DC's last surviving title of teen lust, Young Love, had a no-nonsense, particularly macho scribe shouting replies in a column titled "Marc - ON THE MAN'S SIDE!" The August 1972 edition of Charlton's Just Married has advice dispensed by "one of the leading authorities in the country," Dr. Harold Gluck (towards the end of the article his name becomes Dr. HHarold Gluck). Gluck's name popped up as a voice of authority in several low-budget crime, mystery, and romance pulps. Whatever the situation called for, Gluck suddenly had the qualifications - sometimes an expert on the criminal mind, sometimes on sex, sometimes on children. His name actually showed up most often in low-budget western magazines as a writer of dull script for fly-by-night publishers other than Charlton. It is likely his name became a running gag within the circles of underpaid, mostly anonymous writers of comics and pulp magazines.
Maybe the only thing that made Charlton stand out from the rest of the low-budget publishing world was an inexplicable knack for landing the licensing rights of popular television shows and other well known entities. This started in the mid-fifties when Charlton landed the contract to adapt, first, the primitive TV sitcom My Little Margie, followed shortly by the fine radio chiller The Mysterious Traveler. Other early licensed characters were B-movie favorite Charlie Chan (who Charlton would rename Louie Lue after losing the official Chan contract - and no I don't mean it fell behind a filing cabinet - although that wouldn't surprise me), and the daily newspaper strip Brenda Starr.
Charlton took a brief hiatus from various pop-culture adaptations to focus on the red hot superhero craze that Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee were responsible for resurrecting. Once the fad cooled off somewhat, Charlton returned to the licensed product, becoming the very unlikely go-to label for popular television shows needing the comic book treatment. The titles often included bizarre attempts at comic-izing familiar human faces with awkward results. Television adaptations included The Partridge Family, The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, Hee-Haw, and Emergency!. Cartoons, comic strips, and various other popular figures they covered were Hanna-Barbera's Abbott and Costello cartoon, Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Bullwinkle and Rocky (the billing liberally reversed from the show), The Phantom, Bobby Sherman, Ronald McDonald, Hong Kong Phooey, Huckleberry Hound, Magilla Gorilla, Top Cat, Speed Buggy, The Grape Ape, Quick Draw McDraw, Underdog, Valley of the Dinosaurs, Wheelie and The Chopper Bunch, Yogi Bear and a comic named The Best of Marmaduke which contrary to what you might guess, did not consist of thirty blank pages. Their prolific output would expand into spin-offs of existing titles. Their initial Flintstones comic became the springboard for the individual titles Dino, Barney and Betty Rubble, (Teenage) Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, and The Great Gazoo. Who knew there was such a huge market for the bastardization of beloved characters? Well, apparently I wasn't as isolated in my toddler outrage as I initially thought. Hanna-Barbera had deals with several comic book publishers in other countries who also used the popular HB characters in comic form. These foreign licensees were rather upset with the "quality" of the Charlton material they were sold to reprint. So much so that they started demanding that new stories with a bit more effort put into them be created to replace the Charlton dreck they were getting stuck with. It must have been hard for these companies, generally respected in their home countries, to justify peddling the off-model cartoon characters. Reader reaction likely had a great deal to do with this development and many new stories actually were crafted.
There is no question that Charlton often lucked out, what with being such a poverty case and all. Charlton made a killing with their line of Partridge Family comics that eventually branched off into a separate David Cassidy solo piece. Charlton knew a cash cow was to be made, and that the huge popularity of The Partridge Family wouldn't last forever. When flipping through a copy of the March 1973 issue of their comic, one is struck by the amount of advertisements for Partridge related junk. Every single ad in the comic is for some half-dash Partridge Family product slapped together by Charlton, ready to order from their Derby, Connecticut address. The inside front cover boasts an offer of five hundred(!) "David Cassidy Super Luv Stickers" for one dollar. Another ad uses drug terminology to shill a David Cassidy souvenir concert tour book. "Come One - Come All on the most exciting TRIP you've ever taken. Read a minute-by-minute account of what it's like to be David Cassidy on a fabulous tour." Two separate ads appear for "Susan Dey's Private Journal," which promises to include: "Susan's Success Formula: 10 Point Program For Popularity ... How To Make A Boy Like And Respect You ... Conversation Tips To Keep A Boy Interested ... The Do's And Dont's Of Wardrobe ... How To Look Your Best In Photographs ... Make Your Future Dreams Come True ... PLUS WHAT SUSAN'S LEARNED FROM DAVID CASSIDY!" I should note that any punctuation errors are exactly as they appear in the actual Charlton ads. The bottom of this ballyhoo screams, "HURRY! HURRY! This Book Will Change Your Life!"
Like so many comics of the golden, silver and bronze age, the advertisements that ran in Charlton have become as entertaining to read as the campy stories themselves. The July 1981 issue of Charlton Bullseye has an ad from New York's S/W Studios selling their "Masquerade Make-Up Kits" spelling out the different types of horrifying creatures you can easily turn yourself into including, "Clown, Monster, Disco, Indian, Chinese, and Black Face."
INNOVATION OR KNOCK-OFFS?
Throughout most of its run, Charlton rarely bothered with inconveniences like originality. Attempting to cash in on popular (and sometimes even completely unpopular) genres, Charlton churned out comic book equivalents of Sam Katzman drive-in pictures. After Casper the Friendly Ghost became a publishing hit for Harvey Comics (and a cartoon star for Paramount), Charlton put out a childish and utterly retarded series in 1956 titled Timmy the Timid Ghost (to be fair, Stan Lee's somewhat more respectable group also hashed out something called Homer the Happy Ghost - with art by the legendary Dan DeCarlo). Charlton's classic shoddy approach to everything was on display when Timmy made his debut in, who knows why, Timmy the Timid Ghost number three. Charlton didn't bother with logic.
Archie Comics is one the great success stories in the history of comics. The MLJ group's small ensemble of recurring characters have endured for over sixty years. In the fifties and sixties all comic labels tried to cash-in with their own variations of Riverdale. DC had comics called Binky, Swing with Scooter, Windy and Willie and another one called Debbi. Marvel had The New Millie the Model. Mad About Millie and Chili. The obscure Tower Comics outfit released faux-Archie characters Go-Go and Animal. In every instance, these phonies took careful steps to ensure the Archie style of artwork. In fact, both Stan Goldberg and Al Hartley were so good at it that they eventually left the world of Marvel's Archie rip-offs for full time staff jobs at the actual Archie Comics. Charlton of course did not let the bandwagon pass them by. Freddy was pressed by Charlton for close to ten years. The character looked exactly like Riverdale's Reggie Mantle but possessed the Archie Andrews personality. His best friend was Stuff, a misogynist who never showed his eyes - just like Jughead Jones. Although Charlton can not be singled out for shoddily stealing the Archie formula, it seems that their attempt was less popular with children than those of other companies. Freddy #41 from August 1963 featured a hostile letter from a child. Here it is, as it appeared in "Freddy's Mail Call."
I hate your comic to the core. I think it is a big bore and there never is a good joke in it. I've only read it once, but that taught me to never read it again.
Nicholas Munroe Day
256 Hollywood Ave
Son of Vulcan was Charlton's 1965 attempt to profit from the success of the Marvel character Thor that was recently created by Jack Kirby. Writer Joe Gill, widely regarded as one of the most prolific writers in comic's history, conceived the majority of the Vulcan stories. Gill was the perfect Charlton employee, able to produce at assembly-line speed. Like Thor, the Vulcan character was based in tones of mythology with varying degrees of accuracy (but sold nicely).
Charlton was definitely the bottom rung in the comic world but it still managed to attract many notable writers and artists. This had less to do with any prestige involved and more to do with comic artists who needed work. Several young bucks straight out of art school found their first gig at Charlton before moving on to something better. Artist pay rates were never very good no matter where one worked during the era, and they were certainly among the lowest at Charlton. Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel scripted a pair of obscurities for the company in the early fifties that had titles that sounded like clandestine 1950s beefcake mags with names like Nature Boy and Mr. Muscles. We needn't recount the sad story of why he was reduced to working on these, as it is just too damn depressing. Another notable who had punched in on the Charlton time clock was Steve Ditko, who would labor at Charlton before and after his pioneering Spiderman work (preferring the creative freedom at the budget outfit, instead of Stan Lee's stifling habit of taking credit for everything at Marvel) and even moved into a Derby rooming house for a spell. Former EC and Mad man Wally Wood plus future DC Comics and Marvel bigwigs like Denny O'Neil, Dick Giordano and John Byrne also paid their dues here by barely getting paid. Many other artists who would become well-known in the industry worked in the Charlton trench at various points. Several fan sites can be found online devoted to Charlton's beloved-by-nerds superhero line and you can follow the links at the bottom of the page rather than have me rehash that story.
EC Comics under the tutelage of Harvey Kurtzman certainly brought a fresh approach to war comics in the early fifties, offering stories far more complex than the usual 'good versus evil' story lines that permeated the genre. Kurtzman said he was tired of "glamorous war comics, the American soldier merrily killing buck-toothed yellow men with the butt of his rifle." The Kurtzman ideal, unfortunately, didn't seem to have much influence on the other comic book companies. Far into the nineteen seventies after an unprecedented period in which minorities were demanding equal rights and treatment, Charlton led the pack in glorifying jingoistic madness. Fightin' Marines had a September 1970 cover scream - "[In this issue] The Mightiest Jap of Them All!" which in the context of permissive WWII racism may have been somewhat more understandable, but appearing in the early seventies it's more shocking. The choice dialogue included in this issue includes, "If they don't git us more ammo, I'm gonna go over and kill me a few japs barefisted!" "Just because ya creamed that jap, skinny, don't go gittin any ideas about me!" "Come on, nip... I'm gonna make ya even uglier than ya were before!" It's unfair to state that Charlton was alone in pumping out these pieces of race-baiting trash. However, they were one of the few who continued with such overtly racist work during the last years of the Vietnam controversy. The incredible viciousness in the dialogue cited is the kind usually associated with comics thirty years earlier. Then again, Charlton's racist war comics were as much a result of overworked hacks needing to churn out uninspired material at an inhuman pace as much as anything else.
Occasionally Charlton was involved in promotional publishing ventures. Co-founder of the San Diego Comic Convention and one time Charlton illustrator, Scott Shaw!, profiled the bizarre public service comic Popeye and Communications and Media Careers on his website. So-called educational comics are almost always bizarre when looked at today and this particular example pictured on the right was just one of fifteen in a series. Other titles Charlton put together for this run include Popeye and Health Careers, Popeye and Consumer and Homemaking Careers, Popeye and Public Service Careers (something Popeye probably knew about after hosting these PSA comic books) and Popeye and Agri-Business and Natural Resources Careers. Charlton also put together a Beetle Bailey comic for The Cerebral Palsy Association of Oakland, California for reasons that are none-too-clear. While the comics were going full-force, Charlton also dabbled in generic magazines. Wrestling, astrology, Wild West stories (paging Dr. Gluck!) and crossword mags were all quickly produced Charlton staples. Their most successful magazine was the long-running pop music resource Hit Parader.
Like most of these second-grade comic and magazine publishers, Charlton had their own Mad Magazine rip-off. Cracked Magazine proved that you could do a crummy version of Mad and actually succeed with it. Charlton started coming out with Sick (it apparently had a good run under a different publisher previously) which even featured an Alfred E. Newman look-a-like, that even stole "What? Me Worry?" by changing it to "Why try harder?" The nature of their comedy included spoofing Barney Miller by calling it Blarney Miller - zing! Take that Hal Linden! Sick lasted a remarkable four years and, like Cracked, sometimes featured actual Mad artists.
Perhaps the weirdest footnote in Charlton's history was written about in the one hundred and twelfth issue of The Comics Journal. Speaking about the notorious company in 1986 when it finally stopped printing comics (its last two magazines, Hit Parader and Country Song Round-Up kept going until Charlton finally died in 1991), the article stated that many of Charlton's business practices were typical of mob-run companies because it was a mob-run company. If that's true, well, no disrespect godfather, but the mob made some truly shitty comics.
In the mid-seventies most Charlton comics started running an advertisement for The Charlton Bullseye - an Indianapolis based zine devoted to praising everything Charlton related and primarily the old superhero stuff. It was an interesting choice of name, having previously been the title of one of their funny animal books in the fifties (and revamped in the eighties). The advertisement stated, "What is BULLSEYE? It's a FANZINE dedicated ENTIRELY to CHARLTON COMICS! It's loaded with NEWS, INTERVIEWS with the people behind the comics, new ARTWORK and Charlton STORIES that have never been printed!" The magazine was put together by Charlton's fiercest (read: nerdiest) group of fans. They managed to get permission from Charlton to use all kinds of graphics owned by the company and to use several un-published superhero tales that were prepared for publication but never saw the light of day once the titles ceased. One of the stories was done by legendary illustrator Alex Toth.
Now years later, I never thought I'd see the day, but a group of extremely dedicated virgins are currently producing a fanzine dedicated to the cruddy world of Charlton with incredibly detailed minutiae. Charlton Spotlight is as pinpointed a piece of esoteria as you'll ever come across and is available in print format only.
CHARLTON LINKS OF NOTE
The Charlton Spotlight, an obsessive fanzine.
www.comics.org has an incredible database of Charlton Comics covers.
Scott Shaw!'s candidate for the most unusual Charlton comic.
The Charlton Empire - a swell history that elaborates on the early years in song publishing and the 1955 hurricane that destroyed much of Charlton's offices and artwork - article by Cooke and Irving.
A Charlton Comics fan page.
Modest overview of some Charlton romance titles.
The Connecticut Historical Society: Charlton Comics History
Some Charlton superhero info.
Stupid Comics offers its opinion of Charlton's most sexist comic!