The Atomic Age

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Charlton published a vast array of titles from the 1940s to the 1980s, but the imprint is best remembered today for its short-lived “Action Hero” line that brought the world Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Nightshade and The Question as well as such stalwarts as Peacemaker, Sarge Steel, Judomaster and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt.

Although DC eventually purchased and published their own versions of the Action Heroes to varying degrees of success, the characters achieved their greatest fame serving as templates for the quasi-heroes that populated Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s recent The Multiversity: Pax Americana brought the Action Heroes and Watchmen back to the forefront in a masterfully complex, beautifully illustrated story that examined super-heroism in the 21st century, the intersection of fiction and reality and the United States’ role in a post-terrorism world, among other equally challenging topics too numerous  – and too far beyond my reach – to summarize in a single paragraph.

Heck, Morrison and Quitely even resurrected this guy from the first comic ever published by Charlton (or “E. Levy/Frank Comunale” as it was referred to in the indicia) back in 1944.

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For all the ways the Action Heroes have been deployed, however, I don’t know if many people have read the original stories published during the Silver Age. The Time Bullet has already posted classic adventures of the Blue Beetle and The Question, so it’s time for Captain Atom to get his due in a fun super-hero romp that also introduces the judo-flipping heroine Nightshade.

From Captain Atom #82 (Charlton, September 1966), here’s “How Do You Catch A Ghost?” by David Kaler (script), Steve Ditko (pencils) and Rocco Mastroserio (inks).

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Bad Medicine

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Dick Giordano is justly remembered as a comic-book legend for his accomplishments as a penciller, inker and editor who oversaw the creation of Charlton’s hallowed “Action Hero” line and brought his strong artistic sensibilities to DC comics as both an artist and an editor throughout the ’60s to the ’80s.

Everybody has to start somewhere, however, and Giordano earned his stripes as a freelance artist for Chalrton who unwittingly “inspired” world-famous plagiarist Roy Lichtenstein.

It’s too bad Lichtenstein never stumbled upon today’s story. A painting based on a panel or two from “Too Much To Swallow” would have definitely left an impression on the art gallery set.

All joking aside, however, it’s always interesting to see the early work of a great like Giordano and the uncredited writer of said story definitely knew how to bring the Pre-Code violence!

From Space Adventures #12 (Charlton, August 1954), here’s “Too Much To Swallow.” The art is by Giordano (pencils) and Vince Alascia (inks).

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As a bonus, here’s the striking original cover of Space Adventures #12 by Steve Ditko. I sure as heck would have picked up a comic with THIS cover back in the day, even if nothing inside the book remotely matched the scene depicted up front.

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Grave Tales

After Steve Ditko left Marvel in the mid-1960s, the gifted creator essentially washed his hands of his two most famous characters  – Spider-Man and Doctor Strange – and pursued characters and concepts that mirrored his interests at such publishers as Charlton and DC.

Ditko’s apparent resolve to not look back at what many considered his glory days was so strong that given an opportunity to design splash pages featuring the Marvel Universe circa 1985 (in the all-time classic ROM #65), he pointedly avoided any mention of a certain Webhead or Master of the Mystic Arts.

Still, to appropriate the title of a rather mediocre James Bond film, never say never again. While Ditko never lent his talents to Spider-Man again, he did illustrate a Doctor Strange story … more or less.

A few years after leaving Marvel, Ditko produced a story for the Charlton horror anthology – The Many Ghosts Of Dr. Graves – that served as a secret “Dr. Strange” adventure.

The story’s protagonist, Dr. Graves himself, bore a strong resemblance to Stephen Strange but rarely participated in the tales within his comic. He generally acted as a narrator, much like EC’s Crypt Keeper or DC’s Cain and Abel.

In the “Ultimate Enemy,” which appeared in the 12th issue of the anthology comic, Graves took the center stage and utilized his mystic powers against a “mystical being … bent on conquering Earth.”

The resulting battle – which took place on the astral plane, natch – would have fit in quite nicely with the surreal Dr. Strange adventures by Ditko that made Strange Tales a timeless cult classic of the original Marvel Age.

In celebration of Steve Ditko’s 85th birthday – not that he would want anyone to take notice – here’s a “lost” Dr. Strange classic from The Many Ghosts Of Dr. Graves #12 (Charlton, February 1969).

“The Ultimate Enemy” was scripted by Steve Skeates. The pencils and inks are by Ditko.

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Family Plot

An Internet friend who read “Family Mixup” once told me the tale was “like an O. Henry story, if O. Henry was a sociopath.”

I really can’t think of any better way to introduce today’s entry in the Time Bullet’s weeklong celebration of Steve Ditko and Charlton’s The Thing, other than to add that we’ve definitely saved the best for last!

From The Thing #15 (Charlton, July-August 1954), here’s “Family Mixup” as drawn by Steve Ditko.

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A Friend Indeed

Although the 1950s are remembered as a comparatively tranquil era, the Cold War and resulting suspicion of anyone and anything that seemed vaguely “Red” were indications of the fears and paranoia that Americans hid in their hearts as they settled into the suburbs and strived for normalcy.

Such anxieties often manifested themselves in the much vilified horror comics of the era. Were people really afraid titles like The Thing were causing juvenile delinquency, or was there a vague sense that those “trashy little magazines” were actually evoking deeper fears that struck just a little too close to home?

Today’s Pre-Code Steve Ditko classic reminds readers to not trust anyone … even yourself. The enemy, after all, may be hiding in the most unexpected place of all.

“Inheritance!” originally appeared in The Thing #14 (Charlton, June 1954). The art, once again, is by Steve Ditko.

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Scared Straight

Is there anything more evil than a college fraternity prank gone awry? Don’t be too quick to answer that question …

First read “Die Laughing,” today’s installment of our seven-day celebration of Steve Ditko’s masterful Pre-Code horror art for Charlton Comics’ The Thing.

The story originally appeared in The Thing #13 (Charlton, April 1954).

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Worm Food

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Well, to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Blazing Saddles, “Blow it out your @$$.” We all know the world ends after it’s devoured by a giant worm.

Want proof? Our latest example of Steve Ditko’s remarkable run on Charlton’s The Thing provides that and much, much more.

From The Thing #15 (Charlton, July-August 1954), here’s “The Worm Turns.” The art, once again, is by Steve Ditko.

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Another cloudy October day, another Steve Ditko Pre-Code horror classic from Charlton’s The Thing!

Our second story of the week is a very dark re-telling of “Cinderella.” Golden Age horror magazines generally enjoyed spoofing fairy tales, but this particular entry in a rather small comic-book sub-genre takes particular delight in transforming a much-loved story into a truly grim yarn.

From The Thing #12 (Charlton, February 1954), here’s “Cinderella” as drawn by Steve Ditko.

Better Dead Than Read

The next several days will highlight classic Pre-Code horror tales illustrated by Steve Ditko for Charlton’s The Thing, one of the better horror titles on the market at that period of comics’ history.

These tales show a young Ditko truly coming into his own and point the way toward his atmospheric, moody take on super-heroes that helped propel the likes of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange beyond DC Comics’ more staid, Silver Age approach to costumed adventurers.

Let’s start off with “Library Of Horror” from The Thing #13 (Charlton, April 1954). The story was drawn and inked by Ditko.

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If you’d like to own these stories in a more permanent fashion, I’d suggest picking up Fantagraphics’ excellent Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives #1. It’s apparently out of print, but can be found on Amazon and other outlets.