Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Letterers of Charlton Press

Over the years Charlton has been typecast and even maligned for their use of typeset, as opposed to hand lettering, in a majority of their comics. This purview has been a mainstay for decades, prompted by a cadre of fans who have derided and marginalized the company. To sway minds at this point might be a tough hurdle to overcome, especially when pros, including Dick Giordano during his editorial tenure, often satirized the procedure (credits read: "Lettering: A. Machine"). My intent is to provide a more balanced account by revealing the actual efforts of Charlton's unsung letterers, and in doing so, give them the recognition they deserve.

The multi-talented Jon D'Agostino penciled, inked, lettered, and may have even colored the cover to Li'l Genius # 42, January 1963.     

One of Charlton's most prolific letterers, Jon D'Agostino, was also an accomplished artist, inker and colorist. This skilled craftsman often drew stories in Charlton's humor line and embellished the pencils of Charles Nicholas, Dick Giordano and Pat Masulli, to name a few. His handiwork also appeared on covers and he likely designed many of the logos for the company. In addition to his work for Charlton, D'Agostino's credits include art and lettering for Marvel from the 1950s to the 1980s (credited in early issues of Amazing Spider-Man as "Johnny Dee"), Story Comics, Western/Dell and nearly 30 years illustrating Archie's line of characters.

Jon D'Agostino drew himself, along with editor Pat Masulli in My Little Margie's Fashions # 1, February 1959, where the title character visits the Charlton offices. 

According to Todd Klein, a talented letterer in his own right, the above page is likely that of Editor Pat Masulli. Bill Molno pencils; Rocco Mastroserio inks; Joe Gill possible script, Battlefield Action # 17, December 1957. Todd has contributed greatly to identifying lettering styles and his blog is highly recommended:   https://kleinletters.com/ 

Early Charlton work by Charlotte Jetter, accompanying the Bob Powell-drawn story "Insincerely Yours," Sweethearts # 26, September 1954. 

Charlotte Jetter was another extremely talented letterer. Originally paired with her husband, art director and artist Al Jetter (who also lettered) at Fawcett in the 1950s, Jetter's credits outside of Charlton include working for DC and numerous assignments at Marvel in the 1970s. Jetter's polished, attractive style enhanced Charlton's stories and covers for over two decades. 

Charlotte Jetter's calligraphic skills graced hundreds of Charlton comics; her pairing with Steve Ditko was always aesthetically pleasing. "The Dog Howls for You!," Joe Gill script, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 26, June 1971. 

Herb Field's lettering was recognizable by the large capital letter he began captions with. Captain Atom # 84, January 1967. Dave Kaler script, Steve Ditko pencils, Rocco Mastroserio inks. 

 Field lettered the debut issue of Hercules (October 1967) scripted by Joe Gill and drawn by Sam Glanzman.

Herb Field's credits date back to 1946 at the Sangor studio. He went on to letter stories for Better Publications, Fawcett, Nesbit, Stanmor and DC. His Charlton efforts appeared in the mid-1960s, including work on Steve Ditko's revised "Blue Beetle", Captain Atom and  "The Question."
Bob Agnew's understated lettering complimented Steve Ditko's art on "The Question" back-up from Blue Beetle # 4, December 1967. Dialogue by Steve Skeates (as Warren Savin).   

Another example of Agnew's lettering, from World of Wheels # 17, October 1967. Writer/artist Jack Keller illustrated the adventures of Kid Colt Outlaw at Marvel for years but being a car enthusiast found Charlton more to his liking, since the company had that corner of the market covered.    

Bob Agnew's career in the comic book field appears to have been a brief one, baring any undiscovered information (and I'll be sure to report/update it here). His credits in Jerry Bail's Who's Who of American Comics extend from 1967-68, working for Marvel and Charlton.    

Ray Burzon lettering; Steve Skeates script; Henry Scarpelli art, Abbott and Costello # 5, November 1968.  

Ray Burzon was the least polished of Charlton's "regulars," but advantageous to the company as a dependable worker who could grind out pages. In Alter Ego # 107, Fall 2012, Artist Tony Tallarico recalled: 

"I had a friend of mine, Ray Burzon, who was an art director at J. Walter Thompson. He lettered a lot of my stuff." 

In addition to his many lettering jobs for Charlton in the 1960s and 1970s Burzon is also credited as working for Dell, Warren and Fitzgerald publications. 

Frank Bravo lettered for Charlton from 1972-75. He also provided spot illustrations in titles, including The Partridge Family. Bravo was credited on The Phantom #'s 60-63, which were reprints of foreign editions. While Bravo and editor George Wildman's names appeared on the splash page, Charton failed to provide the names of the writer and artist. Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database, though, I can reveal that they are Giovanni Fiorentini and  Mario Pedrazzi, respectively. The Phantom # 63, January 1975.   

Bravo's actual comic book credits are scarce, but his name was listed in The Comic Book Guide for the Artist-Writer-Letterer, a booklet sent as a bonus to subscribers in 1973. Bravo had a distinct style which I suspect will help to track down more of his published work. Image from the Charlton Library blogspot.      

One important aspect of Charlton that distinguished itself from other lines was the freedom they gave their artists, who often produced a near-complete job, at times writing, penciling, inking and lettering, leaving only the coloring to a staffer. This brought a cohesiveness to the finished product that came closer to what the artist envisioned. In the corporate structure of DC and Marvel this was usually not the case (the only Marvel example I can point to is Frank Thorne on the Red Sonja stories he illustrated for Roy Thomas in the mid-1970s). As you will see with the examples I've posted below, the artists who lettered their own work had better control over the composition of a page. They could set the placement of word balloons, captions and sound effects in a much more aesthetically pleasing way; in movie terms they were the equivalent of cinematographer, director and editor. This added an ambiance to the completed presentation.  

For Several years Jim Aparo was one of Charlton's top talents before he was lured away to DC where he spent the remainder of his career illustrating features including The Phantom Stranger, Aquaman and Batman (notably in the long-running series The Brave and the Bold).  Aparo was one of the rare artists who continued to letter the stories he drew at DC. "Wander," Denny O'Neil script, Cheyenne Kid # 67, July 1968.
The distinctive art of Pat Boyette enlivened many a Charlton comic. This illustration was written, drawn and lettered by the artist. War and Attack # 63, December 1967.  

Tom Sutton's macabre splash page art (and lettering). Nicola Cuti script, Wayne Howard colors, Midnight Tales # 2, February 1973.  

Thunderbolt was Pete Morisi's signature character, created during Charton's "action hero line" under editor Dick Giordano. Story, art and, of course, lettering, all rendered by Morisi. Thunderbolt # 52, June 1966. 

Sanho Kim's unique art was a standout at Charlton. Kim always penciled, inked and lettered the stories he wrote (as well as many he didn't). "The Bloody Mermaid," Ghostly Tales # 91, January 1972.    

Although Wayne Howard worked with other writers and inked an assortment of artists, he could compose a complete story for Charlton, as the above example - written, drawn, lettered and colored by him - attests. Midnight Tales # 4, July 1973.   

Joe Staton illustrated comics in every genre at Charlton, often working in-tandem with writer Nick Cuti. His lettering skills usually accompanied the stories he drew, including this cover to Haunted # 12, May 1973.  

Mike Zeck started out at Charlton, working mainly on monster-related titles such as this one-page vignette scripted by Joe Molloy. Creepy Things # 2, October 1975.   

In addition to the war, western and ghost stories he illustrated, Warren Sattler had runs on Billy the Kid and Yang. Attack # 8, November 1972.  

John Byrne was another newcomer who cut his creative teeth at Charlton. He soon moved over to Marvel where he became a fan favorite, illustrating the adventures of the X-Men with writer Chris Claremont. One of his early efforts was on Doomsday + 1.  Page from # 2, September 1975, Joe Gill script. 

Don Newton graduated from having his art showcased in numerous fanzines to securing a position in the comics field. His skill was evident early on, as seen on this page, where Newton and author Bill Pearson paid homage to the classic 1942 film Casablanca, with "appearances" by the cast, including Peter Lorre, Claude Raines and (pictured above) S. Z. Sakall and Humphrey Bogart! The Phantom # 70, April 1976.     

The plethora of lettering skills by artists and professionals in Charlton's comic book line accentuates the illegitimacy of the: "they were all poorly typed" narrative. There is no doubt that mechanical type was used to a large degree at certain points in their history; management clearly sought to cut costs - but the flip side is also worth exploring.  Editors or production heads at other companies decided who lettered a strip, with no input from an artist (lettering was added after pencils and before inking); accordingly the results - good, bad or indifferent - would be viewed when the comic was published. At Charlton the artist who lettered his stories had a degree of satisfaction over the finished product. It was not complete control (that would only occur with self-published or independent work) but closer to their vision than most corporate agencies allowed.   

Like any publisher Charlton had its positive and negative aspects, but a reliance on typeset lettering was hardly new in the business. Many employed the system before Charlton, including Western/Dell, Gilberton (Classics Illustrated) and the prestigious EC. So why is Charlton singled out?
The talented Jon D'Agostino lettered (and perhaps drew) this house ad for Charlton premiums that appeared throughout their line.

It's high time to celebrate the work of Charlton's veteran talents. Jon D'Agostino and Charlotte Jetter, in particular, deserve the accolades that  many of the more recognizable letterers in the field, including Ben Oda, Gaspar Saldino, Ira Schnapp, Sam Rosen, Artie Simek, John Costanza and Tom Orzechowski, have had bestowed upon them by comics scholars and aficionados. Hopefully this examination will lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the men and women who plied their craft at Charlton Press.         

I'll close with a page written, drawn and yes, lettered (and even colored) by Steve Ditko, from Tales of the Mysterious Traveler # 15, December 1985, the last issue to appear under the Charlton banner before they closed their comic book operation. This also gives me an opportunity to mention Robin Snyder's publications, quite a few of which have reprinted Charlton material, with contributions by Joe Gill, Steve Ditko, Jon D'Agostino, Charlotte Jetter and others. Robin's products are always worthwhile and come highly recommended:  http://ditko.blogspot.com/p/ditko-book-in-print.html



Tuesday, June 9, 2020

56 Summers Ago: Marvel Tales Annual # 1

Note: The following post was originally published on June 24th, 2014. It is not, however, "exactly as it appeared," since its been updated with revisions GALORE, and more fascinating content than you can possibly imagine!! (there's more than a little hyperbole in that statement, but if you read all the copy in the scans below you'll get the joke).       

Marvel Tales has had a long and somewhat convoluted history. It began in 1939 as Marvel Comics, Martin Goodman's first venture into a four-color enterprise, but even before sales figures could be ascertained, and for reasons lost to time, the publisher changed the name to Marvel Mystery Comics with its second outing. For the next decade the title followed a familiar pattern: the original Human Torch was the lead feature, followed by Sub-Mariner and a variety of rotating back-ups, including the Angel, Vision, Patriot, Terry Vance and Miss America, a formula that lasted until # 92, June 1949. With the next issue yet another title change was initiated and the newly-christened Marvel Tales dropped The Torch and all ongoing features. Content was overhauled to reflect horror and later fantasy/suspense themes, a format that was retained until the comic was cancelled in 1957.

 Fred Kida cover art to Marvel Tales # 159, August 1957. The final issue of its first iteration. Image from the Grand Comic Book Database. 

After a hiatus of six years the decision was made, either by Editor Stan Lee or (more likely) Publisher Martin Goodman to revive Marvel Tales, utilizing the same logo design and returning the title to its superhero roots. Just three years earlier Fantastic Four # 1 proved a resounding success, and costumed characters began replacing the monsters in their anthology titles (Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and Strange Tales. Its pretty obvious that Goodman believed the word "Tales" as part of a title led to greater sales!). By 1964 the new heroes were an essential part of Marvel's line, with only the western and teen-romance strips remaining. The Marvel Tales Annual was an easy way to introduce their top features to a growing audience. 

Marvel Tales Annual # 1 was the company's first compilation of super-hero reprints. 
Jack Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks, Sam Rosen letters and Stan Goldberg colors. Spider-Man figure by Steve Ditko, a stat taken from Amazing-Spider-Man Annual # 1, page 14; panel 2 (which was also on sale at the time). It's quite possible that Kirby originally rendered the drawing and it was replaced by the more familiar Ditko version. 

Marvel Tales Annual # 1 graced newsstands in early June, 1964. The title was a compilation of stories which were published just a few years earlier, but many fans had missed them the first time around and could only hope to purchase the originals in a used book store or second hand shop. In those long-ago days there was no Ebay or specialty outlets and the first official Convention, a small affair which took place in New York City, was still a few weeks away.  

A most unusual adventure series begins. Stan Lee co-plot and dialogue; Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors. 

One can only imagine the impression that a young person felt on a warm spring or summer day when they opened up Marvel Tales Annual # 1, particularly if this was the first time they encountered these characters. After admiring a cover filled with heroic and colorful figures they open the comic and observe the image of an isolated teenager standing on a street corner; his peers mocking him with derisive glee. 

Peter Parker gains extraordinary powers but is overwhelmed by tragedy and guilt. Each story concludes with an editorial note by Stan Lee that was not in the original story, commenting on the passage of time and any changes that may have occurred. Marvel Tales Annual # 1 was on-sale the same month as Amazing Spider-Man # 16 and (as stated earlier) the first Spider-Man Annual. In the space of just two years the oddly-garbed hero made a strong impression on its audience and became a top-selling title for Martin Goodman's comic book line. 

Lee and Kirby introduce the Hulk, clearly influenced by Boris Karloff's rendition of the Frankenstein Monster as seen in the 1931 Universal movie and its sequels. The Hulk's skin-tone in his first appearance was gray, chosen by Stan Lee, as colorist Stan Goldberg explained in Alter Ego # 18 (October 2002): 
"I certainly didn't plan to make him red, and we kicked around the idea of making him green, but Stan wanted to try gray. I fought him on that. I told him why it wouldn't work, and it didn't work, because we couldn't keep the color consistent throughout the book." 
The Hulk's green skin, coupled with his purple pants, became an identifiable  quasi-costume for most of the character's 50-plus year existence. Lee penned a new caption (as seen in the page above) that ignored the behind-the-scenes production minutiae; preferring instead to explain the alteration as part of the Hulk's fictional story. Paul Reinman inks, Artie Simek lettering and the aforementioned Stan G. on colors. 

Kirby's cinematic eye is evident in this three panel shot, as The Hulk fades into the night with his teenage companion Rick Jones in pursuit. The bottom blurb promotes the Hulk's revival as a co-feature in Tales to Astonish which debuted the following month.

Henry Pym's first actual appearance was in Tales to Astonish # 27, January 1962, but that story, while referenced on the splash page above, was not included in the Annual. A little background on Marvel's Pre-Hero line is needed for those not in the loop: the  monster/fantasy comics edited by Lee were complete unto themselves; there was no continuity and the protagonists were interchangeable (rare exceptions included the reappearance of a popular monster). As sales figures on new titles like The Fantastic Four were gauged, the potential for developing superheros escalated. In the original story Pym was intended as a one-shot character, but after an eight month period (and likely due to an increase in sales on that issue) the decision was made to exploit the idea of a man reduced to ant-size (inspired by the 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man), this time as a costumed hero. Stan Lee plot; Larry Lieber script; Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks; Joe Letterese lettering; Stan Goldberg colors.  

In his diminutive size Ant-Man creatively utilizes household items to get around. There was an inventive charm in many of the early stories which was never fully realized, perhaps because Kirby was soon pulled away to work on new titles.   

              The final Ant-Man panel segues into the introduction of Giant-Man.

Although Ant-Man's metamorphosis into Giant-Man occurred only eight months earlier, a two-page recap was deemed appropriate to keep new readers up to date. Lee and Kirby story/art, Don Heck inks, Sam Rosen letters and Stan Goldberg colors.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was Marvel's solo war title in 1964, but it followed the frenetic pacing and braggadocio of the superhero line; no surprise with Jack Kirby at the helm. Despite the blurb, the story was not "exactly as it appeared in Sgt. Fury # 1," since only six pages were included. It would take seventeen years before Marvel finally published a complete reprinting of the first issue, closing the circle by appearing in the last issue of Sgt. Fury, which ended its eighteen-year run with # 167, December 1981. Lee and Kirby story/art, Dick Ayers inks, Artie Simek lettering, Stan G. colors.    

The priceless image of Dum Dum Dugan calmly covering his ears while parachuting to the ground as a plane is blown to smithereens defines the often comical aspects of the war series. 

 Stan Lee was aware of a growing fan base from the many fanzines and letters he received in Marvel's early years. A credit box on the splash page listing the writer, artist, inker and letterer appeared in practically every Marvel comic and Lee often chatted up staffers, including colorist Stan Goldberg, secretary Flo Steinberg, production head Sol Brodsky and even publisher Martin Goodman in the letters pages. The two pages of photos presented most of Marvel's then current "bullpen," although the majority worked at home as freelancers. I wonder if Lee made a Freudian slip or deliberately wrote: "First, Let's polish off the Big Brass.."  

Once again, Lee decided to retain the original coloring of Iron-Man's armor. Don Heck introduces Iron-Man to the world (although Jack Kirby designed the initial costume), a character the talented artist would be closely associated with in its early years. Plot by Stan Lee; script by Larry Lieber, lettering by Artie Simek, coloring by Stan Goldberg. 

Tony Stark begins his career as the man of steel (or is that phrase already taken?) 

The four page sequence that introduced Iron-Man's sleek new costume, designed by Steve Ditko, is also reprinted. While it's noted that the armor continued to be modified, the basic design has remained consistent for decades, a testament to Ditko's inventiveness. Stan Lee script/co-plot, Dick Ayers inks, Sam Rosen letters, Stan Goldberg colors. 

An impressive introduction to Thor by co-creator-and artist Jack Kirby, with distinctive inking by Joe Sinnott. Although Kirby only worked on a few of the early stories, replaced by Joe Sinnott and Don Heck for a spell, when he returned full-time to Thor it soon became an epic of adventure and fantasy. Stan Lee plot, Larry Lieber script, Artie Simek letters and Stan Goldberg colors. If you look closely you'll notice that an error in the original publication date has the issue number reversed: Thor actually debuted in Journey into Mystery # 83! (I don't call this Marvel Mysteries and Comics Minutiae for nothing!)

Lee made it a point to note the "Thorr" typo in the last panel; acknowledging imperfections such as this often endeared Lee to the fans. What many might not be aware of is that a page of original art exists where the copy in the last panel is completely different. 

Apparently the idea to institute Thor as a continuing feature was decided at the last minute. Sales from other super hero features must have given Martin Goodman the intuition to make "Thor" the lead  feature in Journey into Mystery, and he was certainly proven to be correct.    

 The Annual concluded with a house ad promoting the heroes in their respective titles, reusing art from the cover. Marvel Tales returned in 1965 with a second Annual that continued the origin theme, reprinting the Avengers # 1; X-Men # 1 and Strange Tales # 115. (the more-recent Daredevil # 1 would be reprinted the following year in a one-shot title, Marvel Super-Heroes, which may be the subject of a future post). The issue was rounded out with another early Hulk story and a delightful Lee & Ditko thriller from Amazing Adult Fantasy

Cover to the 1965 Marvel Tales Annual # 2 utilizing panels from the interior stories. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko pencils; Dick Ayers, Paul Reinman and Ditko inks, Sam Rosen lettering, Stan Goldberg coloring.   

Contents page to Marvel Tales # 3, July 1966. Art by the usual suspects: Kirby and Ditko; inks by Ditko and Ayers and lettering by Sam Rosen. 

Sales for the two Annuals must have been strong since eight months later Marvel Tales became an ongoing, bi-monthly publication, retaining its 25 cent format and reprinting Spider-Man, "the Human Torch", "Ant-Man" and "Thor". The company had recently added two similar titles following the same format: Marvel Collectors' Item Classics (reprinting Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Hulk and Doctor Strange) and Fantasy Masterpieces (headlining Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's 1940s Captain America stories backed by pre-hero monster stories). While the inside front cover for standard-format 12 cent comics was reserved for paid advertisements, these triple-length comics differed by utilizing a table of contents, previewing the stories with panels from the interiors and grey-tones added by Marie Severin. Lee also used the space to credit editorial and production staff and promote the stories in his usual bombastic manner.     .    

    After several years Marvel Tales switched to a standard format, dropping its co-features but retaining Spider-Man, continuing to sequentially reprint the characters earlier adventures for decades. 

 Marvel Tales Annual # 1 represents an era that is almost inconceivable today, when access to old stories and comics in the form of expensive hardcover editions or trade paperbacks is the standard. To many kids the presence of an over-sized comic book on the racks in the spring and summer months represented an adventure of near-mythic proportions. Sitting under a shady tree with a coke in hand, a youngster was transported on a seemingly endless journey. Those 72 pages exemplified a period where the combination of raw talent and rambunctious, seat-of-the-pants attitude was idiomatic of the creative juices that flowed abundantly in the early 1960's. For a kid with a quarter in his pocket a trip to the corner candy store could be the investment of a lifetime.