My introduction to the
wonderful marginally adequate world of Charlton Comics came by way of a stray issue of Judomaster passed onto me by Uncle Steven. I can’t remember the issue number or cover date (though I suspect it was a mid-Seventies reprint timed to cash in on the Kung Fu craze) or really anything else except that it had a Sarge Steel back-up story and my seven year old self couldn’t make sense of it at all.
As pre-teen comics fans in the early Eighties, my friends and I had heard about Charlton’s bygone line of superhero comics but only in the vaguest sense. Whatever information we had came from third-hand accounts that originated in shop gossip or the fanzine realm. We knew the names of some of the principal players and — thanks to a tantalizing bit in a “Meanwhile..” editorial column — that DC had recent acquired the rights to the characters and had “big plans” in store for them. (It wasn’t until years after I read Watchmen that I put one and one together and realized it was the project they’d been hinting at a decade prior.)
The real buzz began for us during the lead-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC’s reality-reshaping, inventory-taking epic in which the Charlton characters were to be given a prominent role. Blue Beetle made his DC debut in the first issue of the maxi-series, followed a few issues later by the other core players in his defunct shared universe. Like many bit players in Crisis, the “Action Heroes” (more about that in the next installment) benefited from the “Perez Effect” — in which even the lousiest back-bencher looked compellingly cool when rendered by the legendary George Perez.
It was especially true when it came to the Charlton characters, as I had no previous benchmark by which to compare their Crisis appearances. The sheer novelty of a fresh-to-me gaggle of superheroes only added to the mystique, while I tried to puzzle out each one’s particular “deal” from the tantalizing (and in some cases erroneous) glimpses Crisis (and later Who’s Who) provided.
I have long been a sucker for also-rans and obscurities, whether they came from the Eighties punk scene or the Seventies prime-time TV schedule or the Sixties funnybook realm. There’s something fascinating at looking at Jack of Hearts appearances or listening to The Partisans discography and trying to work out the reasons — justified or otherwise — why they never achieved critical mass in the popcult sphere. There’s also a gnostic appeal to latching onto these undersung underdogs. If you’re a Superman or Clash fan, you’re just one of many who share the same affection. If you’re really into Black Condor or Bum Kon, though, there’s an intoxicating sense of self-imposed exile involved, a private relationship between you and some dusty relic dragged up from the memory hole. It’s the stuff of which anti-hipster jokes are (rightly) made, but there’s no denying that pretentiously contrarian appeal.
At the same time, I have a reflexive distaste for anything blatantly off-brand. My doctor’s warnings be damned, I would rather harden my arteries with a full stick of Grade A butter than suffer that foul paste called “margarine” to darken my taste buds. Ditto for diet soda, meat substitutes, and non-Hot Wheels diecast toy cars (which technically aren’t foodstuffs, but the sentiment remains).
That feeling held especially true when it came to superheroes published outside the Marvel/DC axis. To be fair, there is a “more sinned against than sinning” angle to this bias. The two publishers shared a dual monopoly on the post-1960 incarnation of the genre that extended even to a joint trademark on “superhero” itself. That level of dominance allowed them to set the tone and tenor of the genre around their specific house styles to the exclusion of all others, while their marketplace muscle meant its most talented practitioners inevitably gravitated to one of the two camps. Any upstart attempt to break into that business would have to labour under that industry-wide shadow while dealing with a diminished pool of available talent.
This is why stuff like the Mighty Comics misfire and Harvey’s depressing forays into superheroic fare feel so utterly anemic or the stuff of unintended parody. Either the execution was lacking or tangled up in a bizarre mis-read of overeager trend-hopping. Yet I didn’t get that vibe from Charlton’s Action Heroes. It might have been the Perez Effect talking, but I coudln’t help but think there was something more to that motley bunch of spandex-clad crusaders. The names, the powers, the concepts (or as much of them I could decipher) — were decidedly cooler and more intriguing than those of any other hothoused heroic line I’d experienced.
Those hooks dug deep enough to make the post-Crisis reboots and relaunches of the characters a priority on new release days. They became one of the main draws of my reinvigorated DC fandom, even if actual process of incorporation and quality of the comics were all over the map.
Wein and Cullins’ Blue Beetle was a fun bit of froth that probably should’ve leaned harder into its transparent mash-up of Bronze Age Spider-Man and Iron Man tropes, though the character went on to greater (comedic) prominence as member of the Justice League. Beetle’s ongoing also reintroduced a rather bland incarnation of the Question, who would be better served in his mature readers “zen noir” ongoing helmed by O’Neill and Cowan. Following a quickly forgotten try-out appearance in DC Comics Presents, Captain Atom was relaunched by Bates and Broderick with a slick new costume design and a very Eighties mix of Cold War skulduggery and slam-bang superheroics. (The first year and half of the series was pretty dang great and vastly underrated. It went downhill quickly after that, however.) Nightshade became a member of Ostrander and McDonnell’s outstanding Suicide Squad series, as well as serving as an occasional supporting player in Captain Atom.
As for Peacemaker…well, the less the said about that, the better.
The point is that I truly dug these characters, and their presence in a book could decide whether or not Blaine’s Comics scored another couple of bucks from me on a given Friday. Even after I drifted away from comics fandom as a bulk proposition, I still kept tabs on their various arcs…if only to shake my head and sigh at the directions they’d gone in since the last time I’d checked in on them. When I embarked on the Great Back Issue Buying Spree, their original Charlton appearances were at the top of my want list — and one of the few exceptions to the limit I’d set for spending on any single issue. (I don’t think any ended up setting me back more than seven bucks, though.)
Over the past two decades, I’ve acquired most of the comics from the line (some a couple times over, thanks to my failing memory and/or asking prices too low to pass up). Reading the source material after experiencing the various echoes it left behind has been something of a trip, which brings us to the purpose of this new ongoing feature. The object is to work my way through the entire “Action Heroes” line — from its furtive start to its abrupt finish — and spotlight each issue with the critical insight and poop jokes for which I’ve become marginally famous. Plus, it’s an opportunity to get back to writing about comics again, since I’ve lost the plot on the whole Nobody’s Favorites thing.
I still have to work out a chronology for the feature, because the timeline (like everything else about Charlton’s funnybooks) is muddy as hell. Something should fall into place by the time I get to work on the first featured comic. That should be two weeks from now, because next time around I’m going to lay a little historical background about Charlton’s funnybook operations on you poor pitiful souls.