The Charlton Arrow #1
Writers: Paul Kupperberg, Roger McKenzie, Michael Mitchell, Lou Mougin, Steven Thompson, Mort Todd & Larry Wilson
Artists: John Byrne, Sandy Carruthers, Javier Hernandez, Rick Stasi & Barbara Kaalberg, Michael Mitchell, Joe Staton & Mort Todd
Colors: Javier Hernandez, Michael Mitchell, Mort Todd & Matt Webb
Letters: Mort Todd & A. Machine Jr.
Editor: Fester Faceplant
Price: $6.99 US
Charlton Comics, for the most part, has been relegated to little more than a footnote in comics history, best known as the source of a number of super-hero characters (such as Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question) that DC acquired and that served as the inspiration for the characters in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. But there was a lot more to the publisher than that handful of heroes, as this tribute comic attests. I knew Charlton published a number of romance, horror and war comics as well, some of which are honored in this thick anthology. But the more important thing to remember about Charlton as a publisher was as a base for some of the top talent in the industry, from the 1960s into the 1980s. John Byrne, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano and others got their starts there, and it was also home to such established talents as Steve Ditko and Pay Boyette for a considerable period. I got the chance to pick this book up from one of the contributors at a small local comic expo earlier this year, as I was happy to support a friend and a celebration of a noteworthy corner of comics history. Like most anthologies, though, The Charlton Arrow is a mixed bag, with some solid, entertaining comics craft and some that miss the mark.
The first big strike against the comic is its somewhat misleading promise on the cover. The first creator listed on the cover (thanks to alphabetical order — fortuitous for the publisher) is John Byrne, but the “all-new” work we get from him is a simple pin-up page. It felt a bit like a bait-and-switch. I understand why Byrne was approached to participate, but the cover blurb really just sets fans up for a disappointment, albeit a minor and fleeting one. Also listed among the contributors is Joe Staton, so I thought for sure we’d get a taste of his E-Man character, as the title was originally published under the Charlton banner. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Instead, he provides a single illustration to accompany a prose story designed as a tribute to and sendup of romance comics.
The book opens with a story designed to serve as a tribute to all of those Charlton super-heroes I mentioned earlier. There’s just one problem: the creators can’t overtly refer to those characters without violating trademarks and such, so instead, the story and art beats around the bush, forever winking at the reader with the vague (and not-so-vague) references and imagery. The end result is the reader’s attention is drawn to the efforts to circumvent the legal blockades instead of to the story. There’s a psychedelic tone of Rick Stasi’s linework and Mort Todd’s colors that are definitely designed to put one in mind of Steve Ditko’s work, so I did appreciate that.
Michael Mitchell’s “Love Me Never…,” featuring Jonnie Love, was a rather effective mix of crime and romance comics. The art was a bit on the amateurish side, but it worked well as an approximation of some lesser Silver Age artwork. Perhaps the most nostalgic aspect of the book was its typeset lettering, which reminded me a great deal of the lettering one often found in Charlton comics back in the day. Lettering was never the publisher’s strongest suit in many instances. Mitchell’s story achieves a nice balance with its protagonist, depicting him dispatching a deceitful drug-dealing duo while still rebelling against authorities.
Easily the strongest piece in the book was the comical exploration of the publisher’s horror-comics hosts. It’s a thorough cataloguing of those characters, as one might expect from writer and comics historian Lou Mougin. The story makes a number of interesting points with its satire, among them how Charlton’s horror characters potentially inspired many others in comics and other pop-culture media. More importantly, Mougin offers up a humorous but entirely plausible theory as to why hosted horror entertainment has fallen out of vogue, arguing reality-TV trends of the 21st century are the new horror. Mort Todd’s cartooning fits the goofy tone of the storytelling and the ludicrous concept of a gathering of such characters perfectly.
The comic concludes with a genuine horror story, as writer Roger McKenzie and artist Sandy Carruthers revive Pay Boyette’s obscure Spookman character. Despite the super-hero tone of the property’s name, this is definitely a horror-genre piece in the tradition of the EC horror comics of yesteryear. Carruthers, whose greatest claim to fame is as the artist on the original Men in Black comic, offers appropriately moody, two-tone artwork, but rather than black-and-white visuals, there’s a sepia-tone quality that adds to the mood nicely.
Overall, The Charlton Arrow‘s affection for past material is easy to see and to which one can relate to some extent, and some of the contributions are noteworthy. But unless one has an appreciation for Charlton comics and the state of the medium from decades ago, this anthology likely won’t resonate much for you. 5/10
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