Monday, December 31, 2012

Charlton Press

Charlton's comics line was always on the fringes - never to be confused with any other company. They were low-key, low budget and had a look, feel and smell of their own. If DC, Dell, Harvey and Archie were the Saks or Macy's of their period, Charlton was akin to Woolworth's or John's Bargain Store (those of you of a more tender age won't get the reference, but it was a chain of variety stores that once prospered in 1960 era Pre-99 cent store days). Charlton's were not always easy to find, at least not for this kid from Brooklyn, even though there were candy stores on every other block in the mid-1960's. My brother John managed to wrangle a few, usually hero types like Thunderbolt, Capt. Atom or Blue Beetle. I'd always loved Steve Ditko's work and still have a strong memory or reading an issue of Ghostly Tales # 71, which featured two Ditko stories, "The Eternal Oak" and "Phantom Surfer" in a barbershop. I recognized his style and knew this was the same guy whose Spider-Man thrilled me.  By the early 1970's distribution improved in my neck of the woods, around the time Haunted # 1 (an all-Ditko issue) appeared, and soon my brother John  would be buying most of the mystery titles, especially those with Ditko covers.
 Charlton occasionally tried to jump on the superhero bandwagon, as it did in the mid-1960's, inspired by both Marvel Comics success and the popularity of the Batman TV show, but their Action-Hero line had its own personality. Charlton had a tangible charm, and the editors, including  Pat Masulli, Sal Gentile, Dick Giordano, George Wildman, Bill Pearson and Robin Snyder came off as unpretentious men who knew their business and didn't kid readers that they were a huge operation. Their letters pages were unique among Archie, ACG, Tower, DC and Marvel's. They often praised (and were not afraid to name) their competition and always made note of their artists accomplishments. They were often straightforward: not afraid to tell readers when a story did not come out as well as expected. 

As has often been noted, Charlton’s page rates were low, but editors gave artists the freedom to experiment and often fashion a script to suit their own preferences. Joe Gill was their primary writer, and while no one (including Gill) would categorize him as a great literary talent, he could at times turn in solid work that had charm and humor. The prolific Gill seemed to enjoy having many of the Charlton hosts directly addressing the readers. While there were a few notable writers at Charlton in the 1960's and 1970's, including Steve Skeates, Denny O’Neil and Nick Cuti, Gill remained a  Charlton perennial until its demise.
One of Charlton’s high points was its array of diverse artists, many of whom remained with them for decades. They were also versatile and able to draw in every genre, from romance to war. When one thinks of Charlton, Charles Nicholas and Vince Alascia (often credited as "Nicholas/Alascia") often come to mind. Their work was competent but rarely rose above that level.  Nicholas’ figures were stiff, but Alascia’s inking was acceptable, and they were a prolific team. Bill Molno was another Charlton workhorse and his quirky style has its charms. 

An attractive Nicholas-Alascia cover, Space Adventures # 24, July 1958.

One of the better drawn Nicholas-Alascia efforts, "Let The Buyer Beware!", Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 20, June 1970

Charles Nicholas was occasionally rendered by other inkers, one of the most distinctive being Wayne Howard, who added a Wally Wood inspired gloss. "Who'll Die Tomorrow?", Haunted # 12, May 1973.  

Maurice Whitman is often neglected in the pages of comics history, but he was a very talented artist who produced fine work beginning in the 1940's, notably for Fiction House. Whitman drew everything from Atomic Mouse to Fightin' Marines for Charlton in the 1950's and 1960's and was particularly impressive on covers. Whitman later went on to work for Warren and DC.

An inventive Maurice Whitman cover from Strange Suspense Stories # 36, March 1958.

Dick Giordano’s accomplishments have been well documented, but his importance as both an artist and editor at Charlton is worth noting. Giordano began drawing for Charlton in the 1950's on many genre stories. He also produced attractive covers throughout the line, both as penciller and inking over other artists such as Rocco Mastroserio and Pat Masulli. As editor he instituted the action hero line, inventing his own niche. On his tenure the practice of letters pages grew and he began to add credit lines (inspired by Marvel’s). Giordano’s personality was instrumental in creating a mood at Charlton and elevating it in the eyes of fandom.

Dick Giordano cover art, Konga # 12, May 1963.

Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio is another artist who deserves greater recognition. While indexing stories and covers for the GCD, I’ve observed how prolific and talented Mastroserio was, as both penciller and inker. Mastroserio had a strong line and solid detailed inking. His covers, stories and introductory pages were scattered throughout Charlton’s line for some 14 years. Mastroserio also produced excellent work for Warren in the late 1960's, and he could have possible gone on to work for Marvel, especially in the 1970's on their horror line. Unfortunately he died in 1968, at the age of 44.  

Rocco Mastroserio cover art to Ghostly Tales # 59, Jan 1967. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the lettering of Jon D'Agostino, who aside from providing solid calligraphy for Charlton, also drew and inked stories.  

Mastroserio cover to Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 4, Nov 1967, Giordano layout or inks? In an interview in Whizzard # 14, Winter 1981, Dick Giordano, in discussing Mastroserio, explained: "He was living and working in Derby at the time and if you look at those books you'll see that he used to do about 70 per cent of the covers, which were generally layed out by me but pencilled and inked by Rocke." 

Jim Aparo began his career at Charlton in the 1960's, and although he is better recognized for his long association with Batman at DC , his Charlton output was impressive. The quality of his art was high, and he always produced a complete job (pencils, inks and lettering). Perhaps the best and least recognized accomplishment is his excellent run on the Phantom.      

                        Jim Aparo cover art, The Phantom # 38, June 1970. 

                          Jim Aparo's effectively moody cover to Ghostly Tales # 79, April 1970.
Wayne Howard was a Wally Wood inspired artist (and one time assistant) who often wrote, drew and lettered his own stories. He began working for Charlton in the early 1970's, and was credited on covers as the creator of the mystery-anthology Midnight Tales, where he also created the hosts Arachne and Professor Coffin. Howard also inked other artists work to good effect. Although Howard occasionally worked for DC and Marvel, mostly as an inker, it was at Charlton that he had the freedom to eperiment.  Howard died in 2007.   

Wayne Howard's Wally Wood inspired page, likely written, drawn and lettered by Howard. "The Voyage", Ghost Manor # 8, Nov 1972.  

Wayne Howard cover (and lettering), Ghost Manor # 13, July 1973.

Pat Boyette came to Charlton in the 1960's and became another active artist who was well suited to the mystery line. His faces and figures might not be attractive, but he brought mood, experimentation and an expressive quality to his stories. Many of his painted covers were excellent.  Boyette was another artist on the fringes that fit like a glove at Charlton.

Pat Boyette excelled in portraying bizarre creatures, as seen on this painted cover. Ghostly Haunts # 52, Oct 1976.

Boyette's sense of mood and panel movement is showcased on this page, from "The Things Some Kids Dream Up!", page 6, Joe Gill script; pencils, inks and letters by Boyette, Haunted # 14, Sept 1973.   

Sanho Kim was a Korean artist who started in 1957 drawing fantasy and science fiction related comics. In the late 1960's Kim moved to the United States and began working for Charlton on many of the ghost titles, but also contributed to war, western and romance stories and covers. Kim had the unusual habit of including the day, month and year the work was completed in the final panel. Kim inked and lettered all his stories, occasionally writing them as well. Kim also produced some work for Warren and Marvel. In 1973 Kim produced an early Graphic Novel for Iron Horse Press, Sword's Edge, in collaboration with Michael Juliar. Kim returned to Korea in 1996, continuing to create comics, and In 2008 was honored with an Order of Cultural Merits award by the Korean Government. He continues to be involved in fine art centering on Korean culture. 

Sanho Kim wrote, drew and lettered, "The Promise", cover billed on Ghostly Tales # 101, Jan 1973, as "A Korean Folk Tale told in English and Korean". The rigid formats of DC or Marvel in that period would not have found room for a story like this, but Charlton allowed such experimentation. Kim also wrote an editorial message at the end of the story. 

Pete Morisi, better known as PAM, created Thunderbolt for Charlton. He worked on war, western, romance and mystery stories. A police officer by day, his style was Inspired by George Tuska, with a mixture of other artists like Jack Kirby. While his figures were often stiff and posed, Morisi had plenty of enthusiasm and his pacing and storytelling was strong.

An effective Morisi page from "Wrong Turn", Haunted # 13, July 1973. Nick Cuti script, PAM letters.  In this period Morisi used photo references (not for the aliens, I assume!) 

Thunderbolt was the creation of Pete Morisi. This page highlights a good sense of design. From issue # 51, April 1966.

Tom Sutton’s quirky, offbeat artwork was perfect for the weird stories that proliferated at Charlton. Another triple threat (writer, artist, letterer) Sutton loved the ability to experiment with styles and techniques and, like Boyette, painted many stunning covers in the 1970's. Although Sutton worked for other companies, including Marvel and DC, he felt most at home in the backwoods of Charlton. 

Tom Sutton's bizarre imagery was right at home at Charlton. Painted cover from Haunted # 17, July 1974. 

Don Perlin had been drawing comics since the 1950's, although he received greater recognition in the 1970's at Marvel on horror series such as Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider and as a prodigious inker. Perlin produced a good amount of stories for Charlton in the 1960's and 1970s, both in the mystery and war genre.   

A Don Perlin splash page showcases his skill at composition. Joe Gill script, likely lettered by Perlin. "The Night of the Poltergeists", Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 18, Feb 1970.

 Fred Himes became a Charlton mainstay in the 1970's. His style was clean and simple, with an emphasis on attractive women. He worked on war, western, romance, mystery and television related titles such as Valley of the Dinosaurs and the Six Million Dollar Man, with covers often inked by Pat Boyette.  

Fred Himes attractive page from "The Devil's Bride", Ghostly Tales # 96, July 1972. Possible Gill script, likely Himes lettering. 

Joe Staton was part of the “70’s wave” of young artists who started at Charlton. Staton had a charming, cartoony style (with a mix of inspirations, including Steve Ditko) and he produced a plethora of mystery, romance and adventure strips. Staton is most noted for his contribution to the humorous super hero strip E-Man, in collaboration with Nick Cuti. Staton went on to work for bigger companies, such as DC and Marvel, but his early days at Charlton are worth seeking out.

Staton's sense of pacing, design and Ditko influence is evident on this page. "No Way Out", from Ghostly Haunts # 28, Dec 1972. Nick Cuti script, Charlotte Jetter letters. Jetter lettered many Charlton stories, ranging from the 1950's to the early 1970's, and also worked for Marvel She, along with the "mystery letterer" who worked on many Charlton stories in the 1970's, did the bulk of Charlton's lettering. Charlton's colorists remain a mystery, although Jon D'Agostino may have colored as well as lettered for them in the 1950's and 1960's. Wendy Fiore was the only (occasionally) credited colorist.      

Staton art and storytelling enlivens this page from "Reunion", Haunted Love # 4, Oct 1973. Joe Gill script, Joe Staton letters. This was a extra-length 16 page story, and Staton created a moody and effective tale.

Mike Zeck's earliest work appeared at Charlton, where he often painted and colored his covers. Zeck had a dynamic style and would soon go on to fame at Marvel, where he worked on everything from Spider-Man to the Punisher.

Mike Zeck pencilled, inked and colored this dynamic cover for Ghostly Tales # 123, Oct 1976

John Byrne also began his career at Charlton. His enthusiasm and talent was apparent from the start, and he worked on such diverse strips as Speed Buggy and Doomsday + 1. Byrne soon found employment at Marvel, first penciling and later often writing strips such as Captain America, Fantastic Four and a little known comic called X-Men.

John Byrne's skill is apparent early on in this splash to Rog-2000, "Withering Heights". Nick Cuti script, Byrne art and lettering. From E-Man # 7, March 1975.

Don Newton had been known as a talented artist in fanzine circles for years, drawing impressive covers for RBCC and many other fanzines. Newton broke into the business in the 1970's at Charlton, working on mystery stories and creating new hosts such as Baron Weirwolf. His work on The Phantom is on a par with Jim Aparo's. Their paths crossed again when they both worked for DC and had long runs on another famous character: Batman. Newton died in 1984.    

Impressive Don Newton splash page to "Death in the Storm!", inked by Dan Adkins. Written by Joe Molloy, likely lettered by Newton. From Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 49, Jan 1975.

The Phantom visits Casablanca, with some familiar faces in the background. Don Newton pencils, inks and letters, Bill Pearson script, from The Phantom # 70, April 1976

And, of course, there was Steve Ditko.
Ditko worked for Charlton early in his career drawing horror, science fiction, crime and westerns. He never really left the company, as he explained in his essay, First Choice, published in the 160 Page Package, 1999: "..Charlton left us, and the comics field". Even when Ditko was busy working for Stan Lee on mystery and superhero stories in the late 1950's and early 1960's he continued to produce art for Charlton, notably Gorgo and Konga. There was only a short gap in the 1964/65 period, when he only had one story each year. Ditko returned in 1966, penciling a revived Capt. Atom the same month that Amazing Spider-Man # 31 appeared on the stands. After creating the Question and a revised Blue Beetle Ditko settled in for a long period in the mystery genre and continued working fairly steadily until Charlton closed shop. 

Ditko's page design and atmospheric inks were exceptional in the late 1960's-early 1970's period, one of the most expressive of his long career. "Return to Trilby Shoals" Ditko art, Possible Joe Gill script, "Mystery Letterer" from Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 16, Oct 1969.  

Ditko drew many finely detailed and experimental stories for Charlton in the 1970's, some of his finest work ever. While his art became less detailed by the mid 1970's he still produced for Charlton while working at DC and Atlas. In the mid-1970's Charlton went all reprint, but Ditko was again working at their last revival attempt in 1985. Along with drawing a few new Tales of the Mysterious Traveler and mystery stories, Ditko brought his creator owned Static to the company. Ditko and Charlton were a good fit and he remained loyal to them until the very end.

It doesn't get much better than this. Ditko's line absolutely flows on this page. His design, characterization, layout and backgrounds are expert. There are so many pages in this period that are superior that it's hard to pick out a few. "An Ancient Wrong". Ditko art, Joe Gill script, Charlotte Jetter letters, Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves # 20, June 1970  

Charlton’s  line of romance, war, western, mystery and humor had a place on the newsstands from the mid 1940's to the mid-1970's. Increasingly, with the loss of mom and pop stores and the proliferation of comics shops their product became marginalized. Fans in the 1970's almost exclusively sought out superheroes, or monsters with a continuing backstory, such as Tomb of Dracula or Swamp Thing. Charlton never found a way to adjust. Their line-up continued to cater to a younger crowd, but the audience for hot rods and westerns appeared to be diminishing. Although they tried to make another run in the mid 1980's, it was not to be.

For many years Charlton was a familiar product on the comics racks, alongside Archie, Harvey, Gold Key, DC, Marvel and others. Their line of animated, hot rod, ghost, war, romance and westerns sold well to a general audience.  Although often maligned, they had a solid group of dependable creators whose diversity was an asset. While Charlton never rose to the top ranks of comics publishers, perhaps that was a good thing. Nestled in their own little corner Charlton thrived for decades, an offbeat company that recieved little notice or acclaim, but chugged along in their own distinct manner. I'm glad they were around to entertain me when I was growing up and appreciate thm even more today.        

Charlton's horror hosts as envisioned by Tom Sutton, from The Charlton Bullseye # 1, 1975

With thanks to Robin Snyder for his knowledge, input and encouragement and Darci for her grammatical corrections.