Saturday, August 13, 2011

A-List Creators and B-List Publishers

Steve Ditko has always been enigmatic; in his prime, he was one of the most skilled illustrators and storytellers in comics, a star at Marvel Comics whose genius gave them their most famous hero, Spider-Man (certainly, Stan Lee was involved in the creation as well, but a look at Ditko's body of work makes it clear that a lot of what made Spidey a success came from Ditko); however, at almost the same time he was doing some of his best work at Marvel, he was also working for far less money at Charlton Comics, the industry equivalent of a movie B-studio.

This is the equivalent of a big box-office movie star leaving the major studios to work for a low-budget independent. While it's not unheard-of, it's certainly uncommon. But Ditko always valued respect, autonomy, and creative freedom--apparently more than money. While Charlton was always short on the latter, they apparently made up for it by letting Ditko do what he wanted with minimal editorial involvement.

After Ditko's stellar years at Marvel, he worked for Charlton for a while, creating his iconic objectivist hero The Question and rebooting Captain Atom, among other things. He left Charlton for a short while to work with DC, but the arrangement fell apart, and soon thereafter, Ditko was back at Charlton again.

Ditko's fans know his early work at Charlton, his Marvel years, his superhero time at Charlton, and his brief run at DC... but his 1970s work at Charlton is largely overlooked. Certainly, it's not as artistically appealing as his early 1960s work; by the 1970s, Ditko was generally inking with a pen, using brush very little if at all, and the result was a very even line that clarified the art, but rarely enhanced it. Even so, it's obvious from reading these stories that Ditko was doing something he enjoyed. These tales were often reminiscent of his pre-hero Marvel work (although writer Joe Gill and the other scripters of the stories--perhaps Ditko himself in some cases--lacked the Serling-esque storytelling skills of Stan Lee's collaborations with Ditko), and were always illustrated with great skill and finesse. Even later-period Ditko is better than a lot of the best work from other creators.

I've recently been reading through a heaping helping of Charlton 70s mystery-suspense-supernatural comics, and I've really come to appreciate what Charlton did. Working with a minimal budget, they managed to get great work from Ditko, Gill, Pete Morisi, Sanho Kim, Wayne Howard, Joe Staton, Pat Boyette, and many other talented creators. There must have been something to be said for Charlton as an employer--they managed to keep some top talent working for them for years when many of them could have sold their talents elsewhere.

That's what's missing from the comics field today--there are no mass-market mainstream B-level publishers producing quality material in a professional package targeted not to the collector, but to the mass market reader. While Marvel, DC, and a few key independent publishers get a lot of attention when talk turns to the later years of the Silver Age and the Bronze Age, I think that publishers like Charlton, with their full line of genre comics (war, romance, racing, martial arts, horror/mystery, and humor) are underappreciated. The fact that we see so many Charltons in late 60s and 1970s collections indicates that they had a strong market presence, even if all too few fans gave their work any respect.

1 comment:

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Couldn't agree more, Cliff. Charlton also acted as an important training ground for artists who would go on to work at the 'big two' Marvel and DC. Joe Staton, Jim Aparo, Bob Layton, and fan favorite John Byrne all got their starts at Charlton. And of course Dick Giordano did art and editing for Charlton before moving on to do the same at DC.