Off Color

The first time I saw a Charlton it totally freaked me out.

I was in the stockroom of my grandparents’ main store, circa 1976. Devoted mostly to supplies and inventory, the stockroom also included a private office and a small lunch/break area with countertop, seats, and refrigerator. My sister and I spent many hours being kids in that stockroom — great for climbing and hiding — as well as reading or drawing in the office.

On this day, forever etched in my cortex, a comic book appeared on the break table. I’m pretty sure that I saw it upon entering through the back door, which opened from a parking lot and delivery area into the stockroom with the break area immediately to the right. Everything slowed down as my mind excitedly registered “Whoa!” and then sped up a heartbeat later as the next visceral thought formed was “Yikes!”

This is what confronted me:

Aliens looking at viewscreen with blurb reading 'No Escape from the Magnet of Magento!'
Cover to Space Adventures #5 © 1968 Charlton.

In my short life I had come to love comics and indeed did not remember a time
without them. The ones I knew featured either silly antics or superheroes, however, and their covers were nearly always bright. Here was a scaly beast (a Creature from the Black Lagoon type, with horns yet) staring out at the reader as sinister aliens faced a tilted viewscreen — images made all the more grave by the dull matte finish of the cover, whose logo read Space Adventures. Fascinated as much as repulsed by how such an item as this could exist, I screwed up the courage to stand in its presence long enough to confirm that the voodoo vibe given off by the picture was matched by the print. But I didn’t really need to read the copy because the artistic real estate between the story titles said it all: bad-guy colors.

Lex Luthor, Mxyzptlk, Parasite, Amalak, Brainiac, and other villains, most in shades of purple and green, surrounding empty but filled-out, muscular suit of Superman Riddler, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Lex Luthor, Catwoman, and Joker standing by monument of Batman all saying 'And to think -- I killed him!'
Covers to Superman #299 and Batman #291 © 1976, 1977 DC.

It’s no great insight to assert that most costumed crimefighters from Superman and Spider-Man on down the roster have come in primary hues. The Atom, Iron Man, Captain Marvel (both classic Fawcett/DC and Marvel versions, although the latter not originally), Flash, Thor, and of course those who wrap themselves in variations on the flag like Wonder Woman and Captain America — they all sport combinations of red with blue and/or gold. And while Batman has largely been appointed in black on film, the comics early on lightened his cowl, boots, and gloves to navy or royal blue, accented by a bright yellow belt from the start. Green might take the place of blue for a change of pace, as with Hawkman or the first Green Lantern, but apart from such notable anomalies as Sandman (in his original, pulp-influenced look) purple, orange, and green were nearly exclusively used for contrast. That meant sidekicks, secondary characters, and especially supervillains.

The Joker comes to mind readily, as do fellow Batman foils Catwoman, Riddler, and Two-Face. Spider-Man’s foes in opposite colors include The Vulture, Lizard, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, and of course The Green Goblin. And not only did Superman’s adversaries from Lex Luthor and Brainiac to the increasingly obscure Parasite, Blackrock, and Phantom Quarterback sport the sinister tones; green kryptonite can actually kill the guy. There certainly are superheroes with predominantly green motifs, as I pointed out in a post last St. Patrick’s Day, but they’re the exception that proves the rule likely by design — meant to stand out on the magazine racks either from their competition or amongst their compatriots in group appearances. For every Aquaman (whose younger partner wore the primary colors) or Hulk (not the most traditional protagonist), there are a dozen Mirror Masters.

That intriguing yet forbidding issue of Space Adventures turned out to belong to
Bobby, a stockboy who would give me rides on the dolly (hand truck). Bobby knew of my passion for comic books and had brought in the eerie item to share — although how incidental or precious it might have been to him escapes me. It was a gesture no less thoughtful for being so traumatizing, which, come to think of it, could also be said for the some of the faster dolly rides.

I became pretty savvy about the differences between the DC and Marvel superheroes early on in my comic-book collecting, and like other kids was aware that the Harvey, Gold Key, and Archie names were reliable indicators of content should the characters on a cover not be recognizable. Charlton was almost certainly new to me when that Space Adventures issue showed up, however, and the next time I saw Charltons I probably didn’t make the connection anyway. Bobby’s gift was older than I was and carried a brand logo that had by then been supplanted by what’s known as the Charlton Bullseye. The first new Charlton that I bought or had bought for me, sporting the Bullseye, was probably an issue of either The Six Million Dollar Man or a tie-in to Saturday-morning cartoons, maybe an E-Man (which I came to love).

Not long after the Space Adventures incident, as it turned out, I would discover that Charlton had in fact published a line of superheroes before my time. It was 1978 and my friend Jamie introduced me to another kid in our art class, boasting that I knew every superhero in existence. The other kid mentioned Peacemaker, a guy with guns, which troubled me — first, because real superheroes didn’t carry guns (or at least not the traditional bullet-shooting kind), and second, because I’d never heard of Peacemaker. While I don’t recall whether the other kid tipped me off on where to find them or fate lent a hand (in the form of me checking my numerous comic-book haunts as frequently as possible), I had within the week discovered a new crop of triple packs — three comic books in one clear, sealed plastic bag, two facing out with a mystery in the middle, sold for a dollar — at one of the local five-and-ten shops, either Murphy’s or Woolworth’s, offering material from a publisher called Modern. And in those triple packs were issues of not just Peacemaker but also Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Judomaster, Thunderbolt, and other titles unfamiliar to me.

I would soon learn that the Modern line reprinted Charlton material from the past couple of decades and later find out that Charlton owned the Modern imprint, using it for the triple packs — whose contents were apparently sold individually too — much as Western used the distasteful Whitman icon on issues of its own Gold Key titles as well as on DC issues for triple packs sold at toy and variety stores. The Charlton superheroes were different, some even unsettling me to nearly the same degree as that Space Adventures cover, but arguably the most traditional and thus the most appealing to me at the time was Captain Atom. Since only a few Modern issues existed, I was fortunate that shortly after the Modern experiment Charlton began reprinting Captain Atom stories from the beginning in the latest revival of one of its best-known titles — the series that had debuted Captain Atom in its March 1960 issue.

You’ll never guess what that series was...

Captain Atom flying into space from Earth as rocket ship beneath him appears to explode
Cover to Space Adventures #9 © 1978 Charlton.

Links in captions go to The Grand Comics Database as usual. GCD editor Ramon Schenk runs a Charlton reference site that includes a checklist of all Modern reprints. Captain Atom’s 50th anniversary is the subject of an upcoming installment of First Friday on this very blog. [Update: Those posts have moved to Adventures in Comicology, which is currently being overhauled.]

Related: Number Ones How Green Are My Graphics Shelf Obsession

1 comment:

  1. Modern Comics were indeed sold singly in some locations. I discovered them at the local Woolworths, an entire shopping cart full of them with price stickers "3 for a dollor" on them. I snatched all the E-Man and Doomsday + 1 ones I could find.

    For some reason Charltons were distributed heavily in SW Iowa where I grew up in the mid-late 70's.

    Mike Nielsen