Charlton Comics was founded in 1946 and went out of business in 1985. The company published comic books in a wide range of genres, reflecting whatever were the variety of popular trends at a given time, much the same way Timely/Atlas did. Charlton published War Comics, Horror Comics, Cartoon Comics, Teen comics, Humor Comics, Superhero Comics, Kung Fu Comics, Action Adventure Comics, Romantic Comics and Science Fiction Comics. The wider publishing company published song-lyric magazines (popular in the 1940's), puzzle magazines (of the type often found at supermarket check out lines), Digest-sized story magazines, and paperbacks under the imprints Monarch and Gold Star.
Charlton began as a magazine printing concern, Charlton Publications, of which comic books were only one small facet. Begun in 1940 under founders John Santangelo, Sr. & Edward Levy, the company was originally called T.W.O. Charles Company, named for the two sons of the co-founders, both of whom were named Charles. The company renamed itself Charlton Publications in 1945. In its early years the company's lead editor was Al Fago, brother to Timely comics' lead funny animal artist, Vince Fago.
Charlton was a unique company in that unlike larger publishing concerns, Charlton's entire production process for its comic books (as well as its other published output) was entirely produced under its own auspices; every phase of production, from Editorial art creation to Printing to Distribution, came directly from the company's editorial headquarters/printing plant in Derby Connecticut. (in fact, that alone would make Charlton unique as a publisher. Photos exist of the offices of "Charlton Publications" which feature a massive building -- the printing plant--looking more like the factory it in fact was than a publishing concern)
While in one way this unique organizational structure gave the company singular control of its product, it also meant that if the company didn't particularly care about the quality of its output, it had to answer to no one (except of course it readers. More on that in a moment). Since the comic-book line was essentially created as a way to keep the company's massive printing facility up and running overnights, (since shutting down the gigantic industrial printers for the night and then starting them up again in the morning would be prohibitively expensive) they were decidedly less critical about the quality exhibited in their comics. Charlton was notorious for the low quality control they exerted over the comics they produced--the quality of their comic-book paper was often a much cheaper grade than higher-end publishers, there was less oversight of the registration of printing plates, so no matter the quality of the artwork, patches of color often floated far and wide from the lines that were meant to border them, and of course because they paid so little, their artists were often less careful about the quality of their artwork or so overworked (adding page count as a way to fill up a decent paycheck) that their books' artwork suffered in comparison to other publishers--- as well as for the extremely low page rates they paid to their artists and writers. At the same time, the company often exerted less stringent editorial control over their comics, which could meant that their artists could exhibit a distinctively expressive personal style even at a time when "house styles" were dominant in the comics industry.
The company's fortunes ebbed and grew across the decades, often dependent on how other larger comics concerns were doing. For example, as the comics boom ebbed after WWII, so did Charlton. As the boom in horror comics in the 50's grew the industry overall, so grew Charlton, if on a smaller scale. Its lead horror title, featured seminal early work by the young Steve Ditko in what was at the time one of the most garish and violent horror comics of the era. Charlton's knack for imitation is most evident in the wake of the 1960's Marvel Age of Comics," when Ditko left Marvel and lent his talents to Charlton -- precisely BECAUSE of Charlton's lesser editorial control over his work-- and the quality of Charlton's product went up commensurately. The same minor revival happened in the mid-70's, with an influx of fresh new talent to the industry, who could find a welcome work opportunity (and that lower paycheck) at Charlton, always hungry for new talent to exploit. Soon-to-be-stellar artists like Dick Giordano, who later became editor-in-chief at the company before moving to fame and fortune (and a renowned collaborative partnership with Neal Adams) at DC, Jim Aparo, Frank McLaughlin and others in the 60's, and John Byrne, Joe Staton, Wayne Howard, and others in the 1970's got their starts at the Derby, CT based funnybook company.
As editor, Giordano in the 1960's spearheaded the company's push into the Superhero genre (Giordano preferring to call them "Action Heroes") in the company's effort to follow the burgeoning trend in the market. They grew their line, and with the disaffected Ditko at the high end of their creative roster the company made their feeble push into market expansion. While fondly remembered by fans, it remained that the quality of Charlton's product really did pale in comparison to the larger concerns like Marvel & DC, and the sales numbers reflected the tastes of the buying public.
"Aw heck, sold out of Spider-Man?" some gum-chewing moppet would cuss at the newsstand spinner rack, "I'll have to settle for this lousy Blue Beetle..."
Notably, however, Charlton's loose editorial oversight permitted craftsmen like Ditko and his collaborator Joe Gill to give vent to some of the most extreme Ayn Randian libertarian politics ever exhibited in comics, in text heavy dialog balloons spouted by characters such as The Blue Beetle and especially The Question, a character created specifically to embody those political views, and a precursor to Ditko's own later character Mr. A. The Question spent most of his career as a backup feature to The Blue Beetle, but did warrant an over-long special issue devoted exclusively to the character, Mysterious Suspense #1, published in 1968 with a 25-page Question story made up of what appears to be shorter pieces intended for backups in the cancelled Blue Beetle title, collected into the longer story for this one-off issue.
Critical appraisal of most of Charlton's output would rate most of what they produced poorly versus the larger competition, though some genres were superior to others. The superhero books were a pale comparison to the likes of Marvel & DC, but their feeble horror and ghost titles managed to be moody and often downright weirder than their competitors comic-code neutered products. Charlton was a large licensor of characters from other media -- cartoon characters from television and motion pictures, (even oddballs like Hong Kong Phooey) and comic strip characters such as The Phantom-- and those titles were often a steady stream of income for the company when their attempts at superheroes bombed after a few issues. Some in fandom actually rate Charlton's Romance comics -- a genre objectively at best a feeble, pallid imitation of real-life at best from almost any company except the likes of St. John in the 50's-- on a par with any of its competitors, even with its rotten printing, off-register colors and coarse, cheap paper.
Romance comic books were one place where Charlton was able to exhibit some distinction, the comic-book slum of that genre which attracted primarily young female readers and which no boy would admit to reading (but given that the females were well-rendered, drawn primarily by men as unrealistically well-endowed, and often exhibited in passionate embrace with their paramours, almost all male readers did at one time or another, if only to later cast it off after getting the pages stuck together). Larger companies like Atlas and DC produced some distinctive and notable romance titles for some time in the 1950's, 60's and 70's. Some smaller companies like St. John produced romance books that were uniformly excellent (or at least of passable readability, given comics' inability to deal at the time with anything approaching an adult theme. St John at least tried) Charlton was in no place to compete on quality, given its low production values, so they competed by turning out a dizzying volume of romance titles from the late 50's through the early 80's. The company hit its peak from about 1958 to 1966, with just some titles during this period being: Brides in Love, Cowboy Love, First Kiss, I Love You, Intimate, Just Married, Love Diary, My Secret Life, Negro Romances, Pictorial Love Story, Romantic Secrets, Romantic Story, Secrets of Love & Marriage, Secrets of Young Brides, Sweethearts, Sweetheart Diary, Teen-Age Love, Teen Confessions, and Teen-Age Confidential Confessions. This incomplete list nevertheless is exemplary of a practice used on the company's entire line, and an approach to comic book making: most of these titles were purchased from bankrupt competitor companies, many rehashed the same stories again and again, and examples exist documenting Charlton's note-for-note plagiarizing stories and swiping poses for those stories form other companies. And while the comics code imposed a sterility on these comics that a superior producer like St. John did not have to deal with, these books' art almost makes up for the tired soap opera of the narratives.
(This practice, of building a stable of titles by purchasing properties from other companies on the verge of insolvency, included characters such as The Blue Beetle, purchased from Fox Publications, and several horror & crime titles from defunct publishers such as Fox Comics, Canadian publisher Superior Comics, Mainline, the previously mentioned St. John and the comic-book division of Fawcett Publications when that company lost a prolonged legal battle with DC over the alleged copyright infringement of Fawcett's Captain Marvel upon DCs Superman.)
While it is true that readers of romance comics claim that DC's art was superior to that of Charlton, such is a matter of personal opinion. The author of this paragraph and apparently an extreme fan of romance comic art in general is of the view that from the late 1950's to the mid 1960's, Charlton's romance titles were just as good as those from DC and probably a shade better. At the very least, the artwork, by the likes of Vince Colletta, Nicholas Alascia, Jon D'Agostino, Sal Trapani, Charles Nicholas and others, could stand against the rest of the romance books on the rack, even if Charlton's were more cheaply produced. Colletta in particular excelled at implying a subtle eroticism to his figurative posing in a manner that meant that Charlton could count on the appeal of some of these titles, as mentioned earlier, to easily excite adolescent boys as well as the books' intended audience of young girls (who were simultaneously being drilled on culturally acceptable gender roles at the same time).
These sorts of business practices were at work at all comic book companies, or at least at the companies that weren't DC or Dell, and Charlton engaged in the same behaviors across all their titles across all genres to a certain extent, at least until the company hit a new stride in the mid 1970's. Nevertheless, for all the originality of a title like E-Man, there were still the same lame rehashes in the romance, ghost, and war titles right up until the company's demise.
DC Comics bought the rights to several characters from Charlton Comics, and began exploiting them as their own. When writer Alan Moore proposed a limited series for DC to be entitled WATCHMEN, his original concept made use of these moribund Charlton characters. But because a comic book company will rarely kill a potentially moneymaking character property, DC management refused to permit the Charlton acquisitions to be used in Moore's magnum opus, so he adapted them. (e.g. Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, The Question became Rorschach, etc.) Several of the Charlton characters made significant appearances in DCs Crisis on Infinite Earths story arc, some might say to lesser dramatic effect. During the Crisis, DC editorially explained where the hell these superheroes had been for all of DCs history by saying that these heroes came from a reality known as Earth-4 and became merged with the New Earth after the Crisis and part of the eventual retcon of the DC Universe. The Charlton heroes from Earth-4 that appeared in the Crisis included Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Peacemaker, JudoMaster, Thunderbolt and the Question. Not every hero was bought by DC Comics. One such minor hero was Mercury Man. He was a hero from a post apocalyptic planet Mercury. Another was E-Man, who had been decidedly more popular.
In 1996 Roger Broughton, owner of Sword In Stone Productions, purchased the rights to the remaining Charlton Comics and characters (the Fightin’ 5, Gunmaster & Bullet Boy, and Atomic Rabbit, and after being bought from Fawcett, Don Winslow) that had not been bought by DC comics, who now own the rights to most of Charlton’s superheroes. Later he also bought the rights to the titles and characters of the old ACG comics group ( Magicman, John Force: Magic Agent, Nemesis, Herbie “the Fat Fury” Popnecker, the Hooded Horseman, Cowboy Sahib, and Commander Battle and his Atomic Sub.)
In 2002 he changed the name of his company to the "Charlton Media Group". Since then he has announced attempts to revive the various titles and characters that he owns, but so far nothing new has come of it other than a number of reprints of Charlton and ACG material in Europe, and the licensing of the rights to produce new Nemesis, Magicman and Herbie stories to Dark Horse as yet the other characters remain untouched. Thus far his attempts to make good on his questionable investment has been unsuccessful.
Charlton's Greatest Heroes
Nevertheless, it remains true that some of Charlton's biggest successes themselves did not originate at the company. Blue Beetle, for example changed hands 3 times before being acquired by Charlton and being given a successful makeover. It should also be noted that because of Charlton's wide range of genres covered that they did not have an extensive pantheon of heroes, at least compared to companies like DC Comics and Marvel Comics. They did have several heroes however that made up a cool list. Many of these heroes went on to have a big legacy in the DC Universe. Below is an alphabetized list of Charlton's more famous Characters:
There is probably no hero more loved in all of Charlton Comics than the Blue Beetle. Charlton bought the rights to the original Blue Beetle Dan Garret from Fox Comics. This eventually (in a way) kept him out of the Public Domain unlike his counterparts Samson and the Flame from the same publisher.
Despite the popularity of the original Blue Beetle, Charlton completely rebooted the character. He had different powers, origin, occupation, secondary characters and even his last name had a different spelling with an extra t. Unfortunately for the character he was not as popular after the reboot as he was before so to solve the problem they decided to reboot the character again. This time Dan was killed off and Ted Kord became the next Blue Beetle. Ted Kord was created by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko.
When DC bought the rights to the characters they bought both Dan Garrett (with two t's) and Ted Kord and continued on this the story instead of starting over with the original Dan Garret (with one t). This technically means that the Dan Garret (with one t) is suppose to be in public domain but it is difficult to clarify with name similarities and so not much has been done with it. Dynamite Entertainment revamp the character and called him Scarab. They also used his sidekick Sparky who is in Public Domain.
Captain Atom was another creation for Charlton by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko. Originally the character's name was Allen Adam (or "Captain Adam," in what passed for clever wordplay in Charlton books) when the property was bought out by DC comics his name was changed to Nathaniel Christopher Adam. His costume was also changed several times. There were two three main costumes however and one of them may have been a printing mistake.
In the first issue Captain Atom has a blue costume on the inside of the book but a gold one on the cover. He did then wear the gold costumes for quite a while with small variations until he went to the blue and red costume with the silver arms. It wasn't until he went to DC that his costume changed to the mostly silver costume he wears today
E-Man and Nova Kane
E-Man was a character introduced during the company's last major revival in the mid 1970's, and proved that the firm could produce entertaining, engaging comics even at its typical bottom-of-the-barrel rates. The character, and his girlfriend, exotic dancer turned superheroine Nova Kane, were not purchased by DC but attempts have been made to revive the characters by companies like First Comics and Comico. The characters were created by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton. E-Man was a being from outer space who existed as pure energy, and was discovered by Nova, an exotic dancer. E-Man modeled himself after the humans he saw and could blast energy, turn into pure energy and distort his form much as the classic character Plastic Man could. Cuti's well-executed scripts and Staton's strong, appealing art were decidedly more lighthearted than most superheroes of the time and that quality helped differentiate the book from others on the racks, and the book soon became the sales leader for the company (with the exception of its huge line of animated character licenses, which were being sold for very young children). It certainly helped to sell the book that Nova was designed as an attractive and well-proportioned redhead, and was often portrayed in various states of undress. Even so, the title has a cheery innocence about it that was never sullied by Nova's bustline or midriff on display. Cuti and Charlton eventually turned Nova into a superhero as well with the same powers as E-Man, which allowed Staton to draw her in a skimpy skintight one-piece costume. The title featured a variety of intriguing back-up features, several by Steve Ditko, including his decidedly oddball character Killjoy, and eventually settled on a backup featuring a charming robot called Rog-2000 which featured very appealing early professional work by a young John Byrne.
Judo Master and Tiger
Judo Master was created by Joe Gill and Frank McLaughlin. Judo master was a World War II vet that save a man's daughter while at was in the specific and is taught judo by the grateful father. Judo Master eventually gets a sidekick named Tiger. Judo Master was another of the characters bought by DC Comics and has subsequently gone through many changes. Lately the new Judo Master is a woman named Sonia Sato.
Mr. Muscles was created by Jerry Siegel and was the star of a two issue self titles series. He may not have been one of the greatest Charlton characters but he did have a fortunate chance to have his own book even if it only lasted two issues. He only appeared in one issue after that.
Nature Boy like Mr. Muscles was also created by Jerry Siegel. Actually Nature Boy shares a lot with Mr. Muscles. Not only do they share the same creator, they were both fortunate enough to have a very small run in their own self titled comic.
Nightshade was only in a handful of Charlton Comics but she did have a powerful legacy in DC Comics. She was created by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko. In DC Comics Nightshade appeared in many issues of the Suicide Squad and Shadowpack. She has also gone through many evolutions that has made her a very popular hero.
Peacemaker first appeared in Charlton Comics as part of a team known as the Fighting 5. He then had his own series that lasted five issues. Peacemaker was created by Joe Gill and Pat Boyette and was completely rebooted in the DC Universe.
The Phantom is one of the oldest superheros ever and is considered to be the first by some. The Phantom first appeared two years before Superman, Batman and the Blue Beetle. Charlton picked up the hero and he was their longest running superhero series. He was created by Lee Falk.
The Question first appeared in Blue Beetle #1 in June of 1967. Created by Steve Ditko, the character was intended to express the burgeoning philosophy of Objectivism which had grown fervently in Ditko's consciousness throughout his career at Marvel (and perhaps contributed to his decision to finally leave the company). The Question was quite distinctive and was considered one of Charlton's more successful heroes even though his own series was limited to backup features in other books and a single issue of his own (published under the title "Mysterious Suspense Featuring The Return of The Question" in 1968, a book made up of backup stories building a single story arc, collected from the backup stories intended for the cancelled Blue Beetle title). The same year Charlton released that book, Ditko distilled the Ayn Randian concepts in The Question even further into a character he called Mr. A which was introduced in the third issue of Wally Wood's independent underground magazine WITZEND.
After being acquired by DC Comics in their purchase of a large number of Charlton characters, the Question, thoroughly rinsed of Ditko's often impenetrable philosophy, became quite popular in his own title self titled comic and the Question Quarterly. The Question became popular again in the Justice League Unlimited cartoons and the 52 series where he died of cancer and passed the torch on to Renee Montoya.
Sarge Steel was created by Pat Masulli and made his first appearance in Sarge Steel #1. Sarge Steel was not an a typical hero and was private eye and Viet Nam veteran. His name and power came from his hand that was formed in a fist.
When Sarge Steel came to DC Comics his character became more entrenched as a government agent, an admittedly derivative variation designed to add depth to the character and provide better fodder for plotting stories. The character was frequently combined with with Project X and the Suicide Squad. This has put him in a situation of being pitted against and worked for the more costumed superheroes. It has not, however, put him in a situation of being more interesting as a character.
Son of Vulcan
Son of Vulcan was also created by Pat Musulli with the help of penciler Bill Fraccio. Son of Vulcan was really Johnny Mann who was several injured in war and cursed the gods who allowed him to end up this way. His prayer/plea does not go unanswered as Vulcan himself arrives and tells him his troubles or not of the gods by the failures of man. Not only that but Vulcan gives him the power to fight for justice.
Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt was created by Pete Morisi. Peter Cannon was an orphaned child who was raised by Tibetan monks. The monks were very grateful to Peter's parents
Yang was created by Joe Gill and Warren Sattler in the wake of the popularity of martial arts in American popular culture in the early 1970's. Marvel had sought to publish a comics version of the popular television show Kung Fu but were denied the rights so they created their own martial arts character in the same mold, Master of Kung Fu. As stated earlier, Charlton sought to follow the trends, and created Yang after seeing the success of the Marvel book. Yang was a Kung Fu fighter and sometimes didn't fit the superhero mold to some. Whatever fan disagreements there may be, he wore a costume and set out to fight crime, even wearing a costume that was the same issue to issue. The title Yang ran for 14 issues under Charlton's management. The Charlton title House of Yang, running only 6 issues, featured distinctive artwork by the sadly underutilized Sanho Kim in one of his too-rare appearances in American publications. Kim was one of the only artists working in America to make use of the Korean Manhwa style of comics.