Purple and Green

Charlton's 1967-1973 and 1973-1985
logos ® the publisher, once upon a time.

The first time I saw a Charlton comic book it totally freaked me out.

I was in the stockroom of my grandparents' main store, c. 1976. Devoted mostly to merchandise and storage, the stockroom also included a private office and an open lunch/break area with countertop, chairs, and refrigerator. My sister and I were put to work out front young, but we also spent a lot of time being kids in the stockroom — great for climbing, hiding, and perhaps ironically playing store — as well as reading or drawing in the office.

One day, a comic book appeared on the break table. I'm pretty sure that I saw it upon entering the store through the back door, which opened from a parking lot and delivery area into the stockroom with the break table immediately to the right. I shifted into Matrix-style Bullet Time instantly; everything slowed down as my mind excitedly registered "Comic book!" and then sped up a heartbeat later as the next visceral thought formed was "Yikes!"

This is what confronted me:

Cover to Space Adventures [3rd series] #5 © 1968 Charlton Press Inc.

In my short life I had come to love comics and indeed did not remember a time without them. But the ones I knew featured either silly antics or superheroes, and their covers were always bright. Here was a horned lagoon creature staring out at the reader as aliens celebrated their "moment of triumph" over Earthlings on a tilted viewscreen — images made all the more grave by the dull matte finish of the cover, which read Space Adventures. Oh yes, I knew that the aliens were evil, as the fascination over how such a black-magic item as this could even exist was a powerful lure, and I eventually screwed up the courage to stand in its presence long enough to confirm that the voodoo vibe given off by the picture was matched by the print. I didn't really need to read the cover copy, however, because the 3/4 of real estate between the story titles said it all: bad-guy colors.

It will be no great insight when I say that most costumed crimefighters have traditionally come in primary hues. Not just the ones who wrap themselves in the flag, like
Captain America and Wonder Woman, but Superman, The Flash, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Spider-Man — combinations of blue, red, and gold are the name of the game. Even Wolverine's first outfit was blue and yellow, and while (like the X-Men) the movie Batman has mostly been draped in black the comics found the cowl, boots, and gloves worn with his grey bodysuit very quickly lightened to navy or royal blue, accented by a stunning yellow belt from the start, even before the vibrant Robin came along. Green might take the place of blue for a change of pace, as with Hawkman or the first Green Lantern, but except for such anomalies as The Sandman (in his original, pulp-influenced outfit), color schemes made up of purple, orange, and green were nearly exclusively used for contrast. That meant sidekicks, secondary characters, and most especially supervillains.

Covers to Superman #299 and Batman #291 © 1976, 1977 DC Comics.

The Joker comes to mind readily, as do fellow Batman foils Catwoman and Two-Face. Spider-Man's opposite numbers in opposite colors include The Vulture, The Lizard, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, and of course The Green Goblin. And not only did Superman's adversaries from Lex Luthor and Brainiac to the increasingly obscure Parasite, Blackrock, and Phantom Quarterback sport the sinister shades, green kryptonite could actually kill the guy. There certainly are superheroes with predominantly green motifs, as I pointed out in a post last St. Patrick's Day, but they're the exception that proves the rule likely by design — meant to stand out on the magazine racks either from their competition or amongst their compatriots in group appearances; for every Aquaman (whose sidekick wore the primary colors) or Hulk (not the most traditional protagonist), there are a dozen Mirror Masters.

The intriguing yet offputting issue of Space Adventures turned out to belong to Bobby, the stockboy, a high-schooler or thereabouts who would give me rides on the dolly (hand truck) and taught me a maneuver called, at least in those days, an Indian burn (about as painful as its politically incorrect name). He knew of my passion for comic books and had brought in the eerie item to share, although how incidental or precious it might have been to him escapes me. It was a gesture no less thoughtful for being so traumatizing, which, come to think of it, could also be said for the some of the faster dolly rides.

I became pretty savvy about the differences between the DC and Marvel superheroes early on in my comic-book collecting, and like other kids was aware that the Harvey, Gold Key, and Archie names were also valuable indicators of content on the off-chance that characters on a cover weren't recognizable. Charlton was almost certainly new to me, though, when that Space Adventures issue showed up, and the next time I saw Charltons I probably didn't make the connection anyway. Bobby's bestowal was easily a half-dozen years old by the time it showed up on the break table and carried a publishing logo that had by then been supplanted by the Charlton Bullseye. The first new Charlton comic book that I bought or had bought for me, sporting the Bullseye, was probably an issue of the television tie-in The Six Million Dollar Man.

Covers to the Modern Comics editions of, clockwise from top left,
Atom #83 © 1977, 1978 Tops Photo Engraving Corp. according to indicia.

Not too long after the Space Adventures incident, however, I would discover that Charlton had in fact published superheroes, just that they had been before my time. It was 1978 and my friend Jamie brought me face to face with another kid in our art class, boasting that I knew every superhero in existence. The other kid mentioned Peacemaker, a guy with guns, which troubled me — first, because superheroes didn't carry guns (at least not the traditional bullet-shooting kind), and second, because I'd never heard of Peacemaker. I don't recall whether the other kid tipped me off on where to find them or fate lent a hand (in the form of me checking my numerous comic-book haunts as frequently as possible), but within the week I had discovered a new crop of bagged triple packs — three comic books in one sealed plastic bag, two facing out with a mystery in the middle, sold for a dollar — at one of the local five-&-tens, with merchandise from a heretofore unknown publisher called Modern. And in those triple packs were issues of not only Peacemaker but Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Judomaster, Thunderbolt, and other titles utterly unfamiliar to me.

I would soon learn that the Modern line reprinted Charlton material from the past couple of decades — and later find out that Charlton, a printer and distributor as well as a publisher, actually owned the Modern imprint, using it for the triple packs (whose contents were apparently also sold individually) much as Western used the hated Whitman icon on issues of its own Gold Key titles as well as on DC issues for triple packs sold through five-&-tens, toy stores, and other non-newsstand outlets. The Charlton superheroes were different (some even unsettling me to the same degree as that Space Adventures cover), and I'll write more on all of them eventually, but arguably the most traditional and thus the most appealing to me at the time was Captain Atom. Only a few Modern issues existed, but luckily soon after the Modern experiment Charlton began reprinting Captain Atom stories from the beginning, in the latest revival of one of its best-known titles, the series that had introduced Captain Atom in its issue dated March 1960.

Three guesses as to what that series was...

Cover to Space Adventures [4th series] #9, reprinting Captain Atom's debut
from Space Adventures [2nd series] #33, © 1978 Charlton Publications Inc.

Scans are from and links are to The Grand Comics Database as usual. GCD editor Ramon Schenk runs a Charlton reference site and also hosts the online presence of the acclaimed fan magazine Charlton Spotlight. Captain Atom's 50th anniversary will be the subject of an imminent installment of First Friday on this very blog. [Update: Well, it was, but it's been taken down and will be posted elsewhere.]

1 comment:

Mike Nielsen said...

Modern Comics were indeed sold singly in some locations. I discovered them at the local Woolworths, an entire shopping cart full of them with price stickers "3 for a dollor" on them. I snatched all the E-Man and Doomsday + 1 ones I could find.

For some reason Charltons were distributed heavily in SW Iowa where I grew up in the mid-late 70's.

Mike Nielsen