Charlton Comics, the little company that almost could, has a strange history that’s been researched and bandied about the comic book community for decades. Numerous people have dug into the oftentimes bizarre setup that kept Charlton printing their extremely low-budget titles that occasionally struck gold. For fans of the company, historians of comics or of Connecticut-based businesses or even just curiosity seekers, a number of websites, publications and even Kickstarter projects are available to peruse, enjoy and fund.
Charlton Spotlight is a magazine published by Michael Ambrose, a very smart man with extremely good taste in comics. It’s definitely aimed at the true Charlton aficionado, with a limited palette and stripped-down look that in no way detracts from the content. In the Spotlight you can get in touch with your inner comic self, diving into the reasons why the company spent so little on the comics and still attracted well-known, top creative talent. Everything the Charlton fan wants is here, from interviews past and present, documents and photos that will make you pine for the days when comics and magazines dominated their medium. Charlton Spotlight has also begun publishing comics!
Charlton lasted a good long time, from the 1940’s until the wild and woolly 1980’s, sadly never getting to take part in the black and white boom and barely getting a foothold in the Direct Distribution model when it became the norm before collapsing. Most comic fans know that the Charlton Action Heroes line from the mid-60’s was purchased by DC Comics prior to their industry-changing event, the Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC has had a penchant for absorbing other companies from time to time, or just their characters. Long ago, they had purchased Quality Comics, which included such powerhouses of the time as the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are unfortunately an overlooked creation by anyone under the age of 30. DC now also owns the characters of Fawcett Publications’ Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family after a lengthy licensing deal and legal battle that could cover a month’s work on this page. By the time the Charlton heroes were absorbed into the shared DC Universe, it was done with barely a thought and came with some later questions as to public domain and ownership. Regardless, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, the Question and a small handful of others made the transition to DC, with some successes. At one point, a writer named Alan Moore wanted to use the characters in a new series he’d proposed to DC, but was asked not to, as they were being developed in other ways. He chose to use the Charlton heroes as templates and wrote one of the biggest blockbuster comics of the ’80’s, The Watchmen. Fans still discuss the who-is-who of the series and the long-reaching effects of the story, particularly on other writers. The lasting effects of Charlton continued to be felt when the film adaptation was finally produced after a lengthy gestation period.
Fan websites to Charlton are ever present. Some just focus on the artists while others are deep historical dives into the creation and continuation of the company. Others, like Charlton Neo, are driven by the desire to see diverse product like that of Charlton back on comic shelves, though with better production values. Creators professional and yet-to-be take part in the multiple titles from the group, most of which seem to have a ‘for creators, by creators’ approach, which is by no means exclusionary. In fact it exudes the opposite, offering exceptionally written and drawn stories that cover the gamut of genres published by Charlton at any given moment. In just one issue of the Charlton Arrow, you’ll see Western and horror and romance and ‘funny animal’ tales. They’ve branched out further, releasing single themed titles and even web-first stories. And for the true fan of all things Charlton, you can get reprints of their old Hot Rod series at publisher Mort Todd’s website. From there, you can also link up to the active Facebook pages and writer blogs.
The site where Charlton Publications was is largely a parking lot, now. The acres-sized building was torn down in 1999 after whatever was left got auctioned off. The facility was way ahead of its time, being all in-house. Every publication was printed and distributed from there, with their own drivers and trucks. It’s been said that the comics were mostly an afterthought, to keep the presses running. An idle press makes no money, so the comics, done on the cheap, kept income flowing. Considering the sheer amount of products published by Charlton, it doesn’t seem improbable. The company was founded on the printing of sheet music and songbooks, which set the tone for what was to come. If it would sell, it got published. Western magazines, teen magazines, romance books, even the odd ‘men’s magazine’ went out the doors in Derby, CT. It’s likely that this company draws so much attention in some part to nostalgia, but also from the constant thoughts of “what if”. For all the comments on paper quality, printing errors and low pay, they seemed to have garnered true loyalty from their employees, no matter where they were in the company. They had innovative solutions to save money in printing, some being jury-rigged devices that were to become industry standards many years later. They suffered through all sorts of setbacks, from river floods to newsstand oversaturation and having to handle shady distribution methods from competitors. It’s a shame the company didn’t survive further.
For more reading on Charlton:
From my own mind, A Leaf on the Wind