|Edited by Jon B. Cooke||Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.|
1958 aerial shot of The Charlton Building from the July, '58 issue of Newsdealer. The caption states, "This huge publishing-printing-distributing organization occupies a modern 71/2-acre plant in central Connecticut. Courtesy of Bob Beerbohm.
The Charlton Empire
A Brief History of The Derby, Connecticut Publisher
by & © Jon B. Cooke & Christopher Irving
From Comic Book Artist #9
The Charlton Publishing Empire's humble beginnings stretch back to the 1930s, when an Italian immigrant named John Santangelo began selling unauthorized printed song lyric sheets in Central Connecticut. Though clearly involved in copyright infringement as the sheets were sold without the consent of the music industry, Santangelo's business eventually became profitable enough for him to end his regular job as a New York City bricklayer. After a few years, the entrepreneur was pursued by organizations such as ASCAP for copyright infringement, the law eventually caught up, and he was sentenced to a year in the New Haven County Jail.
"My old man was an immigrant and he didn't know anything about copyright laws," Santangelo's eldest son, Charles, said. "It certainly wasn't terrible or intentional, but he did violate the law."
Former Charlton head staff writer Joe Gill presented a view of Santangelo that differed from a July, 1958 Newsdealer magazine article that likened the founder to be "latter-day Horatio Alger." Gill said, "He was wealthy, a very cunning man, and a friend of mine. But a lot of people didn't like him."
While serving out his sentence, Santangelo met fellow inmate Edward Levy, a disbarred attorney incarcerated because of his involvement in a Waterbury political scandal. The two became fast friends and, with a handshake deal, started a business partnership to establish a legitimate publishing concern after their release. Levy and Santangelo both had infant sons named Charles, inspiring them to name their newfound business Charlton Publishing.
Making up for lost time, the partners secured licensing rights, and launched their magazine line with the song lyric magazines, evolved versions of Santangelo's bootleg sheet called Hit Parader and Song Hits—the latter purchased from another company, according to Charlton Business Manager Ed Konick, who started working for the company in 1952. "When Charlton started," Konick explained, "the song lyric publications didn't include any features at all. Best Songs and Popular Songs followed, and they started adding features, fillers, and photographs to the magazines in 1945. By 1949, we came out with Country Song Round-Up. We also branched out later into the black entertainment field with Rock & Soul, and we also did a pop standard book, Songs That Will Live Forever."
After years of sending out the printing to New York shops, in the late '40s Charlton set up operations in a 150, 000 square-foot building in Derby. The partners' philosophy, unique in the publishing industry, was that the cheapest and most efficient way to produce periodicals would be to to establish an "all-in-one" operation; that is, have everything under one roof—editorial, printing, distribution—eliminating any middle-man expenses and maximizing profit. The Charlton Building housed three sister companies: Charlton Press, Charlton Publications, and Capitol Distribution, with an off-site auxiliary concern, The Colonial Paper Company.
Back cover detail of Judomaster by his creator, Frank McLaughlin. From Charlton Bullseye #3, the special Kung Fu special issue.
Courtesy of Bob Layton & CPL/Gang Publications. Judomaster ©2000 DC Comics.
Charlton first published their song lyric magazines starting in 1935, only adding comics to their line-up by the Autumn of 1945 with the release (under the Children Comics Publishing imprint) of the funny animal title Zoo Funnies #101 (the #101 giving an indication of the odd numbering systems Charlton would use up till the mid-'60s with annoying regularity). Between 1945-50, Charlton published few titles (Zoo, Tim McCoy, Merry Comics, Cowboy Western, Pictorial Love Stories), with the work out-sourced to freelance editor and packager Al Fago (brother of Timely/Marvel editor Vince Fago), who jobbed-out the assignments from his Long Island home.
Perhaps realizing the set-up of the comics division contradicted his all-in-one Charlton philosophy, Santangelo created an in-house comics department by early 1951, eliminating the line's reliance on freelancers, hiring staff artists (among them, future Managing Editor Dick Giordano), and bringing in Fago as on-site managing editor. The company also beefed-up the comics' output considerably, and (maybe envious of their rivals' successes) content delved into more earthy fare as Charlton debuted Crime & Justice, Racket Squad in Action, Sunset Carson, Space Western, and perhaps the most notorious Charlton comic ever published, The Thing!—all between '51-'52. The Thing!, a series reviled by Dr. Fredric Wertham for its gore and explicit mayhem (The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide notes issue #5 and up contain "excessive violence, severed heads, injury to eyes common," plus lingerie and extreme torture panels, wrapped in "headlight" covers) also is notable for the appearance of the company's most important (and longest-staying) artist, Steve Ditko. Though still riding the EC horror coattails with like titles, the publishing outfit also found rack space for Managing Editor Fago's forté, the funny animal genre, by releasing his Atomic Mouse in 1953, but the following year saw the elimination of the explicit horror books and the entire comics industry entered Bad Times. But due to its all-in-one set-up, Charlton apparently thrived regardless of the anti-comics atmosphere of the time. The house continued to churn out titles, and notably Charlton scooped up inventory and titles from a number of folding comics shops. Between 1954-55, the company acquired titles from Superior Comics, Simon & Kirby's Crestwood/Mainline, St. John, and most significantly, Fawcett Publications, as the house of Captain Marvel threw in the comics towel for good.
Al Fago, reportedly angry at the company, left Charlton in the mid-'50s to set up his own imprint, and the managing editor position was given to Fago's assistant Pat Masulli, who held the job for 10 years or so. The comics output settled down to pretty standard Comics Code-approved fare of genre material—romance, war, westerns, kiddie, science-fiction, "Unusual Tales," though super-heroes were represented by a lone entry, the four-issue revival of Blue Beetle in 1955. Churning out the work in often pedestrian fashion were the staff artists reporting to work in Derby on a daily basis, among them Dick Giordano, Steve Ditko, Rocco "Rocke" Mastroserio, Sal Trapani, John D'Agostino, Vincent Alascia, Charles Nicholas (possibly the creator of The Blue Beetle in 1939), and Bill Molno. The primary writer of virtually all the Charlton books was Joe Gill, ever-present at his desk with typewriter, who is arguably the most prolific writer in the history of comics, producing as much as 100 pages in scripts a week, stories often as pedestrian as the artwork.
Cover detail of Pete Morisi's delightful Peter Cannon–Thunderbolt. This is from #54.
©2000 Peter A. Morisi.
At approximately 10:00 a. m., Friday, August 18th, 1955, a natural disaster struck that changed everything for the staffers at Charlton, and even threatened to close the company's doors down permanently. The aftermath of Hurricane Diane cut a swath of destruction through the Carolinas, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and, of course, Connecticut. Eleven inches of rainfall caused massive flooding that claimed the lives of hundreds of victims in the Connecticut Valley area. All 129 acres of the Charlton grounds were submerged in 18 feet of water. $300, 000 worth of paper inventory, mats, comics art work, and plates, among other things, were destroyed by the flood in minutes.
"When the flood came through," Burton N. Levey, cousin to co-owner Ed Levy and Charlton executive, said, "we had to get on top of the building because the water was rising, and a helicopter landed on the roof and took us off—that's how I got out of there! I watched my car float down the river."
"The press was entirely underwater, the building was underwater," Joe Gill said. "[Artist] Maurice 'Reese' Whitman had to be taken off the roof by helicopter. Cars were washed away. When the smoke cleared, Santangelo called a meeting of the artists and myself. He was an inspired speaker in his broken English, and said he was going to carry on (though, in the meanwhile, the guy had gotten umpteen dollars in flood relief from the government, for free; this was an enormous boost for him), but he couldn't continue to pay us the same 'high rates. ' He said that we could all continue working at half of what we had been working before. I was dropped to two dollars a page [a quarter of what the major companies were paying at the time]."
Photo from a Charlton panel at a mid-'60s comic convention, featuring (left to right) Dennis O'Neil, Steve Skeates, and Dick Giordano.
According to the Oct. 1955 issue of Newsdealer, the springing-back of Charlton was "a story of employee personal contribution which defies the imagination." The article says how the employees and community dug Charlton out of the wreckage, ultimately running the presses again in ten days, though staffer Dick Giordano doesn't recall "it being that quick." Nor did Burt Levy: "It was a disaster and it took us a long time to get going again." "No," Ed Konick said, "it took several months to recover; we were operating but using outside printers. It took a long time to clean up that mess." Despite notice that the company maintained "a full payroll," there is no mention of either Santangelo's disaster relief money, or the pay-cut employees suffered.
"If I didn't write fast, I wouldn't be able to get along under that price structure," Gill said. "So, we were working for those rates, and the artists were only getting $13 a page. What could you expect from an artist with a wife and child, and how much time and care could you expect him to put into a page? There was the pride of doing good work, but it was impossible to do our best work consistently over a period of time. I did a lot of garbage, and some good work—not much, but some. Charlton got a helluva lot more than they paid for out of me. People who are critical of Charlton artists and writers have to remember that the price structure of the company was a big factor." Giordano said the regular rate for art—pencils and inks—was $13 a page. "After the flood, it was halved to $6. 50; later it went up to $10; later still back to $13."
In 1956, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel briefly packaged titles for Charlton, bearing the eclectic names Mr. Muscles, Zaza the Mystic, and Nature Boy. Ditko's impressive work appears in Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, based on a Shadow-like radio show.
Dick Giordano accepted a brief position as Masulli's assistant and, because of Atlas' collapse in 1957, he was able to give Charlton assignments to an impressive array of freelancers. "Atlas [later Marvel] made the grave mistake of closing up their distribution company, and going with American News which, at the time, was the best distributor in the country. For reasons unknown, American News went belly-up in a short period of time, and Atlas was without distribution. The word had gotten around that I was in the New York office [where Giordano visited once a week to deal with New York City area freelancers], and just about every Atlas artist came up to talk to us in that month, including Sol Brodsky, who acted as the agent for some artists. I even had Joe Maneely do a job for me before he unfortunately died falling off a subway train. A few other people came up, including Sam Glanzman. I was able to get many of the freelance artists that I worked with from the New York office." Such talents as John Severin and Al Williamson had brief stays freelancing for the Derby publisher, quickly abandoning the low-paying house when more profitable opportunities rose.
In the wake of Atlas' stumbling, Charlton rivaled DC in output (if not sales), but little effort was made to innovate the comics line, as emphasis was placed in other divisions. "The publishing of the song magazines was the biggest part of our business," Burt Levey, who served as Charlton Publishing Business Manager and Treasurer in the '50s to mid-'60s, said. Part of Levey's job was to secure permissions from the various song publishers. "50% of the company was devoted to the song magazines, 25% comics, and 25% for the rest of the magazines—confessions, detective, Real West, and the crossword puzzle books. Of course, this varied but it's an accurate ballpark figure of the business breakdown for Charlton."
Quality in the Charlton books was often lacking; it was quantity the house was after. "We had to keep the presses running around the clock," Konick explained, "because when you have everything under one roof, idle presses cost you a fortune. You have to keep putting product out, so it was to our benefit to keep operating as much as possible." And sometimes the company had an odd way of meeting the expenses: Giordano said, "They were indeed in the junk business, and I mean that literally. In my walking through the plant, I realized that I was having difficulty getting from one end of the plant to the other because there were skids of plates blocking the aisles. These were used plates. I went to the boss and said, 'We've got to get some of that stuff out of there. Nobody can get through the plant. Get it out of there. ' He said, 'We're waiting for the price of scrap metal to go up. ' That's when I realized what sort of company I was in; we would make the plant less efficient because the price of scrap metal wasn't high enough to make him move the plates out."
Charlton did use more conventional revenue-increasing methods: In a curious experiment in 1957, the publisher raised the cover price of books to 15¢ and doubling page-counts to 64 per issue, promising a "whopping big 60% increase" for the retailer, "the most important news in comic history," according to a Capital Distributing ad in the Nov. 1957 Newsdealer. A hyperbolic adjoining article optimistically speculates, "if the sale of Charlton comics at 15¢ holds, and if other publishers follow suit, then the roughly 600, 000, 000 comics sold annually will earn an additional $9, 000, 000 for retailers!" Needless to say, the 150% price increase was short-lived, with only one title, Secrets of Love & Marriage, going a three-issue distance before reverting to the 20-year-old 10¢ price industry ceiling (a price tag that would remain unchanged for another three years).
Overall, Burt Levy explained, "Charlton was a very well-run ship. They took care of their employees; they were very good employers." And, indeed, John Santangelo had a reputation for occasional bouts of generosity. "He had built this huge dance hall, with all-marble floors in the basement of the plant," Ansonia resident Mike Carpinello said, "and Charlton would have their Christmas parties there. And he threw fabulous parties for all of the workers—it was a grand ballroom with imported marble from Italy. Santangelo used to help everybody out." The ballroom was also made available to be the setting for employee wedding receptions. The boss was also known to, after his annual vacation to Italy, bring back immigrants to work in the pressroom, though as one never shy to exploit an opportunity, Santangelo also set the newcomers up in "company homes," taking the rent out of their salaries.
Former Charlton Art Director Frank McLaughlin described the sprawling 71/2-acre plant: "It was a two-minute walk from the front of the building, where our offices were, to the back of the plant, where the presses were located as well as the loading dock. As you passed the bindery where the books were stapled together, you would enter the composing room where the magazines were put together. Likeable Dan Conti was in charge there.
"Next in line was Tops Engraving—where the plates were made, first in metal, and later with magnesium, I think. Joe Andrews, good friend and avid fisherman, ran the engravers. Both Dan and Joe were among the best in their respective businesses, especially working well under the most adverse conditions at times. Charlton was a great place to learn about all the aspects of publishing, since everything was under one roof, including Capital Distributing next door."
While the song lyric magazines remained the most profitable of Charlton's line, "as time went on, the interest in them began to wane," Ed Konick said. "In the early days, people would gather around the piano and sing songs. But something came on the scene called television, and that was the beginning of the end for the song lyric magazines. So Charlton branched out into other subjects like astrology, wrestling, western Americana (Real West), crossword puzzles, and word searches. When Charlton was going full-force at its peak, the company had 80 publications—40 magazines and 40 comic titles—all of varying frequencies."
Two of the talents behind Charlton, usually equated with Charlton, are head writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko.
Joe Gill was actually introduced to the world of comics writing by his brother, Ray Gill, and his good friend, and one of the legendary crime novelists of the 20th century, Mickey Spillane.
"My brother was an editor at Funnies, Inc., an editorial service that packaged comics for publishers," Gill said. "They put Goodman—who became Marvel later—into comics, and did the first [comics] in my brother's office. [Owners] Lloyd and Grace Jacquet were pioneers in comics. Anyway, my brother was an editor there. I met Mickey working as temporary help in a department store and brought him home and he liked it and all of us got along well.
"After I went to service in the following September, Mickey went into Funnies, because that was a door. He would write a two-page filler for 50¢. It was $1 a page for writing, but 50¢ for a filler—You could get a small story in for 50¢ those days!"
After a short stint in the military during World War II as a radio operator, the writer returned to Brooklyn. "Mickey and my brother got together and opened a studio. It had to be painted and cleaned, so I helped them. I was going to go back to the Navy as a chief radio operator, but they said 'Don't do that; you're going to be a writer. ' I said 'No!' Anyway, when they got through putting the place together, there was a position for me—a table, a chair, and a typewriter—so that's how I got started."
Joe continued to work on books for a _variety of publishers in the late '40s, including DC and Timely/Marvel (for Stan Lee). When Charlton was expanding in the '50s, he became the head writer, working for $4 a page, initially. Gill felt that the low prices for a guaranteed amount of work a week beat freelancing for an undetermined amount of pages at a higher price. "The drawback was that I'd only get $4 a page, and in New York, DC and others were paying more, but I didn't like pounding the pavement going from publisher to publisher," Gill admitted. "I didn't like kissing ass to editors, and I didn't like the uncertainty of whether or not I'd have assignments."
Best known for his collaborations with Stan Lee on Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel, artist Steve Ditko returned to Charlton after a creative disagreement with Lee. Ditko's departure from the relatively high page rates of The House of Ideas for the bottom-of-the-barrel Charlton rates is representative of the artist's firm philosophical convictions, something that was in its relative infancy when working at Charlton.
"Ditko was all right; we were good friends," Gill said. "We're not the same kind of people, but he and I were both living in the same hotel in Derby. Steve has ethics and stern beliefs, and he kept them. He wouldn't do bad work just because he was getting bad pay. He tried to do just as well for Charlton as he was for Marvel. He is a fine guy, and a good artist. He did everything 'The Ditko Way,' but he did a good job, and he made Spider-Man what it was."
"During the Christmas season one year," Giordano said, "Steve would go back to New York for the weekend and draw this one page horror Santa Claus story. It was the funniest thing. By the fifth week of Christmas, everybody on Monday morning would be waiting to see it, flocking in. He would put one page up in the small hallway that led to the ladies room, by the time the fourth or fifth page came, we all knew it was coming and we'd be hanging out waiting for Steve to come in. I don't remember any of the details, but I remember that it was very funny, very well drawn, in color, and that he had the whole office anticipating those pages."
"Steve and I cemented our friendship," Giordano continued. "He was suffering from a lung ailment all his life from, I think, Tuberculosis when he was younger. He was younger then and needed to exercise, so Steve and I used to spend a lot of time playing ping-pong. They had a table in the cafeteria, and we'd work up a sweat—that's how I learned to play, with Steve—and I had to defend myself when we started. By the time we finished playing, we were fairly equal, I think, but he'd still beat me more often than not."
"Ditko lived in a local hotel in Derby for a while," McLaughlin said. "He was a very happy-go-lucky guy with a great sense of humor at that time, and always supplied the [female] color separators with candy and other little gifts."
In 1960, Pat Masulli and Ditko teamed to produce perhaps the first Charlton home-grown super-hero, Captain Atom, and the artist also joined Joe Gill to create a memorable run of Konga. The following year saw the Gill/Ditko team on Gorgo, a comic film adaptation.
Another fondly recalled Charlton staffer was Bill Molno, staff artist. Frank McLaughlin remembers a character in the truest vein: "Bill Molno was as fast an artist as I was a writer. If you wanted an army marching across the plain, he'd put them in tall grass so that just the rifle muzzles were showing," Gill said with a laugh. "If he was doing a Fightin' Navy and I had a destroyer in there, it would look as if he was doing a viking story; the ship would look like a destroyer... all of his ships looked identical. He was making more money than anybody because he was that much faster. He was a very talented watercolorist, but he was doing comics for a living."
McLaughlin recalls an occurrence with Molno that happened outside of the Charlton offices. "After a few cocktails, you could count on Bill to stagger to his feet and entertain everyone within earshot with his full rendition of German opera. He never knew one word of German, but not only did it sound authentic, it was hilarious.
Nice Dick Giordano cover image from Blue Beetle #3.
©2000 DC Comics.
"Bill taught an evening class of art students in one of the rich, shoreline towns. The class members were made up of rich, upper-class women, usually middle-aged wives of surgeons, psychiatrists, stock brokers, etc. I was an invited guest of Bill's to their first annual art show. It was to be the fanciest, most opulent social affair of the year. The exhibit took place at the home of a prominent psychiatrist and his art student wife. Part of their estate was a gorgeous indoor Olympic-sized pool, well heated because it was January. Most men appeared in formal attire, escorting their wives dressed in fine, and very expensive, gowns. The artwork was hung around the sides of the pool on walls set back about ten or fifteen feet. Special decorations were everywhere and the caterers were busy serving hors d'oeuvres and the like when Bill and I showed up decorated, as well as plastered. Five minutes later, I was engrossed in a conversation with the host who was telling me how much money he spent on his wife's new dress, purchased especially for this gala event. Just at that moment, I happened to glance over his shoulder, just in time to see the aforementioned wife (and dress) sailing airborne into the pool, drink still in hand. 'You mean that dress?,' I said.
"Of course, Molno couldn't pass up this opportunity to raise mayhem and had pushed in others, as well, before the rest of us decided to join in. Within moments, everyone (including the caterers) had either jumped, or been pushed into, the pool. With glass raised aloft, pinky finger extended, Bill very elegantly strode down the steps into the pool, tie afloat, and eyeglasses properly steamed. What a scene! The most elegant social event of the season had suddenly turned into a Marx Brothers movie! I don't think anybody there had a better time in their life. There were no more art shows or social invites for us, however."
With the likes of Bill Molno and Steve Ditko in their office ranks, Charlton has often been referred to as having been a fun place to work by many former staffers, perhaps as a result of placing so many creative people under one roof.
"The atmosphere at Charlton was unusual, to say the least," McLaughlin said. "Charlton Comics was one step removed from being a cottage industry, and was more like a clubhouse at times than a real business. Pat [Masulli] was constantly trying to reel in some of these characters, but usually to no avail.
"Lunchtime would often extend into mid-afternoon. There was a large, empty lot next to the office part of the building where we would play softball. Pat would be hanging out the window [yelling] at everyone to get back to work. Steve Ditko and Billy Anderson would duel each other with bent coat hangers—a la Zorro—while card games and ping-pong matches became marathon events in the cafeteria. Visitors were told that these 'creative people' needed this break from work to relax. The cards and ping-pong became quite out of hand, and many a deck of cards were torn to shreds and ping-pong paddles became lethal weapons. Joe Gill and John D'Agostino usually were the culprits."
Due to the variety of publications being put together at Charlton, aside from comic books, the offices presented a variety of guests. Dick Giordano spoke of meeting Fleetwood Mac at Charlton's New York office one evening, while McLaughlin and Gill seem to remember one more infamous guest.
"Charlton always put out Hit Parader," McLaughlin said. "Which was very popular, and they covered a lot of stuff like interviews and so forth, with a lot of big names in the entertainment business."
"Joe Gill and I worked at adjacent desks while at Charlton," he added. "We were being introduced to a man who bore a remarkable likeness to the cover of a magazine on Joe's desk. I mentioned it to Joe, after the guy left. It wasn't long after that we realized that it was the son of Adolph Eichmann we had been introduced to five minutes before. Eichmann had been captured in Argentina and brought to trial in Israel for crimes committed in World War II. His son had somehow gotten into the country and was trying to sell dear old Dad's diary. Sam Goldman was an editor at the time and, fortunately for Eichmann, Sam was not at his desk. Eichmann had left before Sam showed up, lucky for Eichmann.
According to Gill, Goldman was angry to the point of wanting to attack Eichmann: "I wrote something that told the story of Eichmann, and what a murderer he was, and it was on the front cover [of the magazine]," Gill said. "Eichmann's son was up there two weeks later, coincidentally. There was no confrontation, but I don't know if he knew about the article, or that I did it. I think the president of the distribution company, a guy named Adams, brought him up. It was a prestige thing. [John Santangelo] didn't necessarily hate Eichmann, but I don't know what his feelings were. Eichmann was up there as a guest, and one of the Jewish editors had to be restrained."
In the mid-'60s, General Manager Burt Levey resigned the company and went into real estate, with Pat Masulli being promoted to sharing general manager duties for the publishing operations with Ed Konick, and Dick Giordano finally got the managing editor position he had been praying for. The Action Hero Line was born. [As you've got an entire issue in your hands devoted to that previous sentence, we'll skip a description here and suggest you start reading the rest of the issue. ] After taking over, Giordano started frequenting a New York office in order to come into contact with freelancers and fresh talent.
Unfinished Peacemaker #1 cover re-creation painting by the late Pat Boyette. The actual piece is in color. Thanks very much to interviewer Don Mangus for his valiant efforts getting this image in time for publication.
Peacemaker © 2000 DC Comics.
"I only went down to the Charlton New York office one day a week," Giordano said. "The reason for it was that most of the freelancers I was working with lived in or around the New York area. Coming to Connecticut would have been too much for them, especially considering the amount of money they were making working for us. It was before the days of Fed Ex, and I would go down there with scripts, pick up artwork, and set up appointments.
"There was nothing particular about the New York office. I had a room in the offices of Joe Shore (who was an attorney who did some work for Charlton). I don't recall exactly what he did for the company but it was enough so that he kept two or three offices for visiting dignitaries from Charlton. It was on 529 Fifth Avenue, a pretty expensive and selective part of town, even in those days, but his offices weren't the most glamorous around."
Through the New York office and with the help of brief Charlton scribe Roy Thomas, Giordano met with young writers Steve Skeates and Denny O'Neil. "I was very new at the game and was freelancing, but not getting enough work from Marvel to keep me busy," O'Neil said. "I would imagine that it was Steve Skeates that told me about Dick and how he was in town once a week. I made an appointment and went up to see him, and came away with an assignment or two. He became part of my regular freelance writer market. One morning a week I went to see Dick and came away with a story or two."
"Since I got in touch with Dick by phone," writer Skeates said. "I more or less got hired while Dick was in Derby and I was in New York. Dick told me that Charlton had a New York office, and that I could deliver my work there. He was only in the New York office one day a week. Thus, on one specific day each week I'd show up and deliver my stuff. I never saw the place in Derby; my only experience was the New York office."
Giordano soon after took an editorial position at DC, as the Action Hero books were cancelled, something that has been attributed to everything from poor distribution to lack of advertising. Among the freelancers going with Giordano to DC were Denny O'Neil, Steve Skeates, Pat Boyette, Jim Aparo, and Steve Ditko (who had already started producing work for DC and actually first recommended Giordano for the job). Skeates noted the different editorial approaches: "There were times where Dick couldn't possible read everything at Charlton, but he had time to read everything at DC. At Charlton, he would more or less trust us to be on our own and do our own thing, which made Charlton a much better place to learn your craft, to learn how to write. For example, if you did something wrong there, wrote something amazingly stupid, it wasn't like at DC or Marvel where probably some editor would catch your faux pas and change it; instead it'd go right on through and end up out there on the stands where it'd embarrass the hell out of you—which is an excellent way to learn not to make that particular mistake again!"
Over 30 years after Giordano's leaving as comics editor, many Charlton staffers and freelancers still remember him fondly. "Dick was an excellent illustrator, and a very good artist," Gill said. "He lives for his art, and he couldn't live otherwise. He likes to work; all the time that he was the most powerful editor at DC, he would get up at 2:30 a. m. to work at home before going to the office, from his home in Bridgeport, working for three or four hours. That had to be for love."
"Working with Dick as an editor was a miraculous experience," O'Neil said. "I've only worked with two or three editors in my life who could do what he did. He never gave you very much direction, or told you what to do or what not to do. He just, by the force of personality, elicited good work, and you didn't want to displease him. We were working for pathetically bad money, even by the standards of the '60s: $4 a page! Yet, I don't think that any of us ever hacked. You just didn't think it would be the right thing to disappoint him and not deliver your best effort, and I don't remember him ever giving me anything resembling a direct order. He was just gently encouraging and elicited—rather than demanded—good work."
"One rather bizarre thing was that he encouraged me to overwrite," Skeates admitted. "Dick knew he was like Kirby and Ditko—that he didn't have an ear for dialogue—and therefore he hated to add dialogue to anybody's script. He liked the fact that I erred on the other side, and all he had to do was take things out. He never had to add to my scripts, because they were always too verbose."
According to Skeates, Giordano had a very pleasant way of pointing out his writer's strong points. "When he gave raises to both Denny and myself back when we were working for Charlton—Denny's raise was across the board, whereas mine was only for my humor stuff. We had been getting $4 a page; Denny got a raise to $5 a page. Obviously, Dick wanted me to do more humor; I think he thought my humor was superior to my adventure output. I'd like to disagree with him along those lines (mainly because in comics adventure writers seem to get a lot more respect than the humor guys) but actually, when I won my four big-deal Academy of Comic Book Arts writing awards in the early '70s, they were all for humor writing, not adventure!...In any event, Dick was definitely a pleasure to work with, both at Charlton and DC."
The brief reign of Dick Giordano produced memorable work from a number of talented creators: O'Neil, Skeates, Ditko, Pete Morisi, Pat Boyette, McLaughlin, Glanzman, Jim Aparo, Gill, and others, but with the freelancers raided, flying off to the enticing (and better-paying) New York comics industry, the company entered a creatively dry spell under new Managing Editor Sal Gentile, with perhaps only the mystery books with the ever-present Ditko's astute rendering showing any sparkle.
In the early 1970s, Charlton began a second memorable period of creativity with the ascendency of cartoonist George Wildman and, fortuitously, the hiring of comics fan and former Wally Wood assistant Nicola Cuti as Wildman's right hand man. Tom Sutton, Wayne Howard, John Byrne, Joe Staton, Neal Adams, Fred Himes, Warren Sattler, Don Newton, Mike Zeck, Gray Morrow, Sanho Kim, and Pete Morisi would all make fine contributions to the Wildman/Cuti era. Here we must beg the reader's forgiveness as we skip over a survey of this time period. We'll be devoting a sequel entitled "From Horror to Heroes: Charlton in the '70s" to it in the coming months.
In 1976, Cuti was dismissed by the company and replaced by noted comics historian Bill Pearson as assistant editor under Wildman. (During this period, a New York concern negotiated with Charlton for reprint rights to many Action Hero Line titles and, for a brief time, Giordano's line-up reappeared until the Modern Comics imprint, albeit as sets of bagged comics for a Florida department store chain. )
Comics historian Bhob Stewart went to visit his friend and Charlton assistant editor Bill Pearson in the late '70s and was surprised at what he saw: "They had a skeleton staff, and I went into the editorial production room and I was stunned. Here was this giant room with a sea of drawing boards, and there were only four people working there. There was Bill Pearson, assistant editor; George Wildman, managing editor, who sat at this round desk at the front of the room; a woman colorist, and staff writer Joe Gill. George's desk was fascinating because people from all sides could put stuff on it; it was obviously created with the idea that tremendous production would be going on, with things going in different directions. I talked with Joe and he said, 'It looks like things are slowing down here, Bhob, and I think I have to get out of here. I should get connected to do work for other companies. '"
After valiant efforts by Wildman, Cuti, Pearson and company to try to recapture a growing disinterested audience, management ordered the comics line in 1978 to stop accepting new material, and to use—with rare exceptions—only reprints from Charlton's huge inventory, a situation which lasted until the comic line's demise a few years later.
In 1983, DC Comics Executive Vice President Paul Levitz purchased the Action Hero characters from Charlton, reportedly as a gift for Dick Giordano, the line's original guiding light. In time, the characters were integrated into DC continuity, and almost served as the cast for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's opus, Watchmen.
Again, brave attempts were made, this time by new Managing Editor John Wren and packager/editor Robin Snyder, to breath life in the comics line, but abysmal sales closed the comic department's doors in 1985. T. C. Ford, former Frank McLaughlin apprentice, attempted a revival of the line in 1986, but the dog was dead and, by 1988, the bones were picked dry as Roger Broughton, a Canadian publisher, acquired nearly 5000 pages of original art from 40 different Charlton titles, some it eventually appearing under Broughton's imprint, ACG Comics.
Unpublished T-bolt splash page intended for the unpublished Blockbuster/Comics Cavalcade Weekly. There's also an entire 20-page unpubbed tale in existence, originally intended for Secret Origins.
©2000 Peter A. Morisi.
In 1986, author Ted White wrote a letter to The Comics Journal (#112), stating that "Charlton's business practices were typical of mob-run companies, and it was common knowledge in the publishing industry that Charlton, Capital, et al., were mob-owned businesses." White's comments were perhaps the first public admission of what many—fans, Charlton freelancers, and casual observers alike—privately whispered about for years: The Derby publisher's alleged Mafia ties. Perhaps we've spoken to the wrong people, but we've found no substantive evidence to support the hushed rumors. White cites ruthless tactics Charlton employed in the "killing" of the Monarch paperback book imprint in the early '60s, though putting on an economic "squeeze" is surely not for the exclusive purview of the Cosa Nostra, "Mafia-like" actions notwithstanding.
"The original strength of the company—being all-in-one—turned out to be the weakness that brought down Charlton," Ed Konick, Charlton General Manager from 1975-91, assessed. "We had everything—and I mean everything—under one roof; editorial, art, typesetting, photo-engraving, printing, railroad siding, fleet of trucks, our own circulation company (one in the U. S. and another in Canada). In the beginning, that was a great boon and we had great savings. We could operate quickly and efficiently, but printing equipment becomes outmoded after a while. As time went by, obsolete equipment became more and more the case because people kept coming up with new concepts for printing presses, improving the speed and quality, but we were there stuck with these old presses from Year One. Towards the end we just couldn't keep the quality or speed up to compete. For the first 35 years, we thrived but in the last 15 we went downhill. At our height, we had 80 publications and employed about 250 people; at the end, we were down to two magazines, Hit Parader and Country Song Round-Up, and eight people. We officially closed in March, 1991."
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