TFMSR 004: Captain Atom #84 …

Captain Atom #84, January 1967. Cover by Steve Ditko. TM & © DC.

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“Way back when … in ’67 …” as Steely Dan once sang … if I had returned home from one of my twice-weekly trips to the newsstand in my small eastern Pennsylvania town with just one or two Charlton comics, I had failed in my mission. Charlton was the lowest of the low, with very little to recommend them, at that point in time in my young life. If there weren’t any new Marvels, I’d get DC; if both of those companies were no-shows, I’d much prefer Tower Comics (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents by the great Wally Wood, et al) over Charlton. But sometimes Charlton was my only choice. I had to spend that hard-earned dollar, you know?

Charlton had one thing going for it: Steve Ditko, and that’s something I wasn’t on board with as a kid. I was not a huge fan of Ditko’s art at Marvel (or Charlton) while I was buying and reading the books as they came out in the 1960s. I found his people to be ugly and his figure-work awkward, far removed from Jack Kirby’s heroic and action-packed art. But Ditko really grew on me over the years, and now I can appreciate him as the master of comic arts that he is. I just recently read the new reprinting of Marvel Masterworks Doctor Strange Vol. 2, in Marvel’s smaller format “Mighty Marvel Masterworks” line. This volume reprints the Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales #130-146, which is essentially one long story. In all 17 chapters, Ditko inks himself and his art is—I think—his best comic book art ever, even better than his work on Spder-Man. His imagination runs wild with these stories … but we’re talking about the artist’s work with Charlton Comics, aren’t we?

Charlton’s books looked cheap, with their (for the most part) machine-set type instead of the traditional comic book hand lettering (although some issues did have that, instead of the text typed out by “A. Machine”). The printing was inferior, with drop-outs and faded pages, and in the early 1960s, many of their covers had some kind of ad on them, like the trip to Disneyland advertised on the cover of Space Adventures #33 (below, cover-dated March 1960), which introduced the world to Captain Atom, co-created by Ditko (his first superhero work) and writer Joe Gill. And mistakes were par for the course with Charlton: that Space Adventures cover shows Captain Atom in his familiar gold and orange original costume, but inside it’s inexplicably colored in baby blue and purple.

Steve Ditko (center) flanked by the two “first” issues of Captain Atom, Space Adventures #33 (left), March 1960 and Strange Suspense Stories #75, June 1965, which relaunched the character after a short hiatus. Captain Atom TM & © DC.

Charlton limped along in the early 1960s and we (my brother and I) dutifully bought Space Adventures along with the occasional copies of Konga and Gorgo (both drawn by Ditko) or Reptilicus. All three were licensed comics from cheapo monster movies. (Gorgo had more legs than Reptilicus, which suddenly became Reptisaurus to avoid the licensing fees.) Ditko—the co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel—still managed to fit in work for Charlton, a Derby, Connecticut magazine and comics publisher who was known for two things: 1: Being an all-in-one publisher (they had their own printing presses and distribution system, including trucks), and 2: Paying the cheapest page rates in the comics industry. But for someone like Ditko, who prided himself in his work, they offered something that was priceless: Pretty much complete freedom to write and draw what he wanted. Because of that, Ditko returned to Charlton again and again.

During the Captain Atom years, Charlton also published a laughably-bad Blue Beetle comic that had some of the worst art in comics at the time, by Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallarico. For a short period of time (four issues) they published Jungle Tales of Tarzan, thinking that the jungle hero had passed into the public domain. They had military books like The Fightin’ 5 (an ersatz Blackhawks), which we occasionally bought even though it was really far down on the list of comics worthy of out 12 cents. But in the mid ‘60s, on the coattails of Marvel Comics’ success (and buttressed by the mania from the Batman TV series), they started to ramp up with more superheroes beyond Captain Atom and Blue Beetle. Son of Vulcan was a Thor-like book which was the first published work of fan-turned-pro Roy Thomas. Charlton had issued a challenge to fanzine writers and artists to submit their work; editor Pat Masulli would pick the first three “really good” writers, but eventually a numbers of fans did some of their first professional work at the company, including Thomas, Steve Skeates, Denny O’Neil, Dave Kaler, and Tom Fagan (more famous for his annual superhero-themed Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont than his comics writing), supplementing the one staff writer—Joe Gill—who was incredibly prolific and wrote just about EVERYTHING for Charlton, including superheroes, westerns, war stories, romance comics, and one of the company’s niches, hot-rod comics. Charlton’s most successful books over the years were their horror titles, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves and Ghostly Tales, which probably holds the record for the company’s longest-running book, from 1966 until 1984.

For a while in the early 1960s Ditko’s stock-in-trade at Charlton was giant monster books based on crappy (but AWESOME! and GIGANTIC!) low-budget movies, like Konga and Gorgo. Charlton brought back the Golden Age hero Blue Beetle (center) in 1964 with a new #1, with cover art by Frank McLaughlin and truly awful interior art by Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallarico.

It was around this time (the mid-1960s) that editor Masulli got kicked upstairs to Charlton’s magazine division (the company’s main claim to fame was its song lyric mags, such as Hit Parader), and artist Dick Giordano was appointed the editor of the comics line. Giordano was a canny editor; he saw what was going on at Marvel and emulated the company, starting what he called the “Action Heroes” line. New heroes were created and debuted in their own books (albeit sometimes taking over the numbering of other titles; Charlton pretty much had the most bewildering numbering system of any comics publisher), including Judomaster, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, and Peacemaker (surprisingly the one hero that has had the most staying power, with the James Gunn scripted and directed HBO Max series and his appearance in the last Suicide Squad movie). And then a bit of divine providence happened: Steve Ditko left Marvel and came back to Charlton.

Ditko had a knack for superhero costume design; the new Captain Atom, from issue #84. TM & © DC.

And that brings us to this week’s “Tales from My Spinner Rack” featured book: Captain Atom #84. Ditko jumped on the Action Heroes bandwagon with a revamp—including a redesigned costume—for his co-creation (with writer Gill). He also reimagined Blue Beetle as a back-up feature in the Captain Atom book and—to me, at least—that might be his best Charlton creation. He very cannily kept his new Beetle—Ted Kord—in continuity with the previous incarnation of the character (named Dan Garrett) and built a suspenseful storyline that revealed how Kord became the new hero, while telling the tale about what happened to the old Beetle. Ditko’s Blue Beetle became a more technology-based hero than the old Beetle’s magic-based scarab powers. The new Beetle was also very Spider-Man like, which certainly played into Ditko’s—and fans’—wheelhouse.

Even though editor Giordano later revealed he didn’t like the new Captain Atom costume, I certainly did, so that’s the reason this issue appears here. I really liked the streamlined costume and its color scheme; Ditko had a real knack for costume design and also drawing that dramatic money shot that introduced the new threads (see above!). This issue, written by Dave Kaler, is pretty forgettable and very much in the vein of “Marvel-lite.” Ditko tended to just pencil Captain Atom, with inks by Rocke Mastroserio (a bit overpowering at times) and Frank McLaughlin, but Ditko wrote (as “D.C. Glanzman”), pencilled and inked Blue Beetle, which was quickly awarded its own title. And that new book begat another Ditko creation, The Question, which was a modified version of Ditko’s much more Ayn Randian objectivist hero, Mr. A, which was published in fanzines such as The Collector and Witzend, and publications self-published for many years by Ditko himself.

Ditko’s Mr. A from the cover of The Collector, a fanzine published Bill G. Wilson in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1970s.

The Action Heroes line didn’t last very long. Giordano was lured away by DC Comics, where he became an editor for a time and eventually became a top executive in the 1980s. His moderate success with the Charlton Action Heroes line produced a small stack of late 1960s comics that resonated with readers and are fondly remembered by people like me. He was responsible for bringing artist Jim Aparo into comics around this time also, and promptly took him along to DC, where he worked on Aquaman with writer Steve Skeates and became a top Batman artist in the 1980s and ‘90s.

I haven’t really thought much about Charlton until recently when I got a copy of TwoMorrows Publishing’s The Charlton Companion, written and designed by Jon B. Cooke. This new history of the company is so much more than just a look at their comics line; it’s a complete and exhaustive overview of the company, including their somewhat sketchy start publishing bootleg song lyric magazines (not to mention its rumored mob connections throughout its existence). I can’t recommend it enough for anyone interested in comics history. Besides great coverage of the Giordano Action Heroes era, it also looks at the company’s licensed comics, like the Phantom (by Jim Aparo and Don Newton), Flash Gordon, numerous Hanna-Barbara cartoon titles, and other creations, such as Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton’s E-Man, plus their line of licensed TV show magazines (The Six-Million Dollar Man and Emergency, illustrated by Neal Adams and company). And The Charlton Companion is also the real reason for this post, because after reading it I became very nostalgic for those old Captain Atom and Blue Beetle stories and started haunting eBay to find some of them. This copy of Captain Atom #84 is a result of that quest, along with issues #85-89 and Blue Beetle #2. They’re as good—and bad—as I remember when I read them as a (just barely) teen, but their badness has a certain amount of charm, with a “Hey, kids … let’s make comics!” kind of attitude. The Action Heroes line only lasted for a couple of years, probably less than a few dozen issues spread out over a number of different titles, but it made an impact. Charlton moved from an also-ran to an almost number three in the hierarchy of ‘60s comic publishers.

A gallery of Captain Atom covers, including the last one to feature his old costume, which also introduced “The All-New Blue Beetle!” (#83, upper left). TM & © DC.

When Giordano returned to DC Comics as an executive editor in the 1980s, Paul Levitz bought the rights to the Action Heroes line. DC published new versions of Captain Atom, Blue Beetle (wisely keeping the Ted Kord identity), and a very noirish version of The Question. Alan Moore used the Charlton heroes in his original pitch for Watchmen, with DC nixing that and asking him to create his own facsimiles for his ground-breaking series. Thank god for that … whatever the Charlton heroes were, they didn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud to fulfill Moore’s deconstruction of superheroes. DC also published two Archives editions featuring the Charlton heroes. The first one includes all the Captain Atom stories up to #83; the second volume has #84-89, plus Blue Beetle #1-5, The Question stories and one-shot issue. and an unpublished story or two that languished in Charlton inventory until they went out of business in 1986.

DC’s excellent two-volume Action Heroes Archives set, reprinting all the Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and Question stories.

Books like The Charlton Companion prove there’s still life in these gone but not forgotten characters. In addition to Peacemaker, Blue Beetle has found a new incarnation which will spawn a theatrical movie this summer (providing the crazy head of Warner Discovery doesn’t shelve it as a tax write-off). It just all proves that you can’t keep a good (bad) comics company down. Somewhere, someone still loves these characters. I know I do.

Next time: It’s a book I had as a kid and bought again solely for the spectacular Curt Swan cover: Superman #146, featuring “The Complete Story of Superman’s Life!”

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