Overview

Action Heroes? We Got ?Em!!!

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The Silver Age of comics, 1955 to 1966 or thereabouts. Exactly when it started and precisely when it ended are a matter of endless debate, but one thing most people seem to agree on is what the Silver Age was all about.

It was about superheroes, whether Stan Lee and Marvel Comics or Gardner Fox reinvigorating DC’s moribund line. What most people probably don’t think it was about, though, is a Connecticut-based company called Charlton Comics. Which is a shame; because for awhile, the Charlton Action Heroes were very much in the thick of the ‘60s superhero revolution, and as the company’s own advertising stated, they weren’t “half bad”!

Charlton had been publishing comics since 1946, and while their Action Heroes line (Charlton had to be different-everyone else had ‘superheroes’) was basically started in 1965 to cash in on the success of Marvel, the two characters it was founded on both predated the newly renamed ‘House of Ideas’.

The Blue Beetle was one of the earliest established costumed crime fighters, originally published by Fox Publications from 1939-1950. Back then, the Beetle (who was actually pretty popular, starring in several titles, a newspaper strip and even his own radio serial) was Police officer Dan Garrett. In his off-duty hours, Garrett fought crime more proactively by donning a domino mask and chain mail suit and obtaining some rather vague powers from a drug, ‘Vitamin 2X’, which he was fortunately able to obtain from the corner pharmacy.

In those more innocent times, the idea of a drug-dependent superhero was just a little more acceptable than it would later become (DC’s pill-popping Hourman was another). As such, creator Charles Nicholas’s origin story was perfectly ok, if a little odd, but  still, it’s unsurprising that Charlton made a few changes when they revived the azure avenger in 1964. In the meantime, Space Adventures #33, dated March 1960, had introduced the character that would become the company’s other major star, Captain Atom.

The brainchild of writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko, Captain Atom was Charlton’s answer to the Green Lantern and the ever enduring Superman at DC. Sadly, the stories-five page shorts with little in the way of plot-were hardly the stuff of legend. What more than made up for that, though, was the art. Created two years  before he drew Peter Parker’s fateful encounter with an irradiated spider, Ditko’s Captain Atom was a minor masterpiece, powerful, expressive and completely unlike anything else on the stands.

To say these stories look dated now is an understatement. Some of the Captain’s actions, like dumping an alien siren in Russia to ‘work her mischief there as much as she wants’ so long as America is out of range, seem positively unhinged. But he struck a chord with some readers, even if his originals strip faded away fairly quickly.

As mentioned previously, in 1964 The Blue Beetle returned, with Dan Garrett now an archaeologist who received a vast array of special abilities from a magic scarab (his super pick-me-up having been quietly dropped) which at least finally provided a reason for his rather odd code name. All powerful as soon as he uttered the magic words ‘Khaji Da’, Dan battled his way through ten issues of mummies, aliens and assorted weirdoes courtesy of Joe Gill and, later, a kid named Roy Thomas before quietly disappearing again, his comeback a resounding failure.

The Beetle wasn’t finished, though, even if Dr Garrett had Khaji’d his last Da, because by 1965 one Dick Giordano had joined the staff at Charlton and was determined to create a whole line of ‘Action Heroes’ to rival Marvel’s. Post Office regulations meant it was more expensive to ship issue #1 of a new series, so, in keeping with company policy at the time, Strange Suspense Stories was renamed Captain Atom with issue #78. The revival was courtesy of the frighteningly prolific Gill and Ditko once again, with Charlton’s one and only solo super heroine, ‘that darling of darkness, Nightshade’, introduced as a backup strip in #88 after a tryout in the Captain’s own strip in #82.  The backup strip in #83-87 was… The Blue Beetle!

Now a wisecracking inventor named Ted Kord who soared above the city in a customised ‘Bug Ship’ and fought crime with a compressed air gun, the new Blue Beetle got his own title in June 1967, which was when we learned what had become of his predecessor. Poor Dan Garrett, never a crowd pleaser, had been murdered by deranged scientist Jarvis Kord, prompting his protégé- Kord’s nephew- to carry on in his name.

With Cap and the Beetle flying high, Charlton’s line was set to expand. The brief career of      Son of Vulcan, a mortal man given the power of a Roman god, had not taken off in 1965/66, as he managed only two issues. Rather more successful was Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, a quirky, enjoyable strip about a pacifistic martial arts master regularly forced to don a costume and fight for peace.

As depicted by the deliberately anonymous PAM (Pete Morisi), Thunderbolt was something of an overlooked gem, probably the best-written and most intelligently conceived of the Charlton line. It also had a couple of Charlton’s more fascinating backup strips, the now nearly totally forgotten superteam ‘The Sentinels’ (Brute, Mentalia and Helio) and, in the final issue, ‘The Prankster’, a peculiar strip by Jim Aparo about a practical-joking revolutionary in a nightmarish future Police state.

Judomaster, which began in June 1966, was Charlton’s attempt at a ‘period’ book, a martial arts series set in the Pacific theatre of war in the mid 1940s. The title character was American Rip Jagger, master of every known discipline, who with his oriental kid sidekick, Tiger, took on dastardly Japs, nasty Nazis and villains like the sinister Smiling Skull armed with nothing more than a quick quip, a pair of pyjamas and some backup from the US Navy.

Serviceable though Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster was , better in my opinion was the backup, ‘Sarge Steel’, about a hard boiled private detective with a sculpted steel fist in place of his left hand. Sarge went through a lot in his brief run, from taps on the noggin to cool dames, and ended up a top agent of the CIA. One imagines though that he was always happiest in a dingy LA office with an empty filing cabinet, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a ceiling fan revolving slowly in the sticky heat.

Another rather unusual strip was ‘The Question’, introduced as a backup in Blue Beetle in June 1967. The series starred a crusading journalist who moonlighted as a distinctly eerie crime fighter in a blue suit and hat and a totally featureless face mask. The Question is probably one of the oddest characters in comics, even now, and has something of a cult following, but his original run of stories (by the ever talented Ditko) was brief, and never led to a book of his own.

        

The Action Heroes line was rounded out by Peacemaker, a series launched in March 1967, the stirring tale of a man named Christopher Smith who ‘loved peace so much, he had to fight for it’. The mixed up Mr Smith was a diplomat with a strange and vaguely disturbing tendency to dress up as a kind of high-tech stormtrooper and go parachuting into international trouble spots to restore democracy. Peacemaker was introduced as a backup in Fightin’ 5 (a book about a group of self appointed trouble-shooters), but repaid their hospitality by taking over the book and relegating them to the back pages!

Sadly, Charlton’s innovative stars were never to be as successful as their bigger rivals. To use a musical comparison, they were less Abba, more Bjorn Again. But they did have one thing which set them apart-believability.

With the exception of Captain Atom, the Sentinels and Charlton Premiere’s short lived ‘Spookman’ and ‘The Shape’, none of them had super powers. Even the ever pontificating Thunderbolt’s curious, rarely mentioned mental powers, we were told, were not extra normal, just something we could all learn if we tried!

Unfortunately, in the Action Heroes’ case, not super powered meant not super enough, and by December 1967 four of the five books had bitten the dust. Blue Beetle hung on till October 1968, though he still only managed five sporadically published issues.

The Action Heroes line was, with hindsight, perhaps never going to be a success After all, the ‘big two’ publishers had basically cornered the market in superheroes by that time  and Charlton’s stars were neither big nor flashy enough to compete. But they were unusual, different, and memorable because of that, and they always seemed to have untapped potential, somehow. Certainly, other publishers have thought so since, most notably DC, who bought the rights to the characters in the early ‘80s.

Second-string superstars they may be, but the Action Heroes keep coming back.

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