Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Let's All Do the Charlton!

The Blue Beetle was originally Dan Garret, first appearing in Mystery Men Comics #1 (August 1939), published by Fox Comics. Dan was a beat cop who, through the ingestion of Vitamin 2X, would gain super-energy. He would then put on a bullet-proof costume and fought crooks as the Blue Beetle.

He was a fairly successful character, getting a comic strip as well as a comic book and appearing in a radio serial in which he was played by Frank Lovejoy.

But superheroes were temporarily on their way out by the 1950s. Fox went out of business and sold its characters to Charlton. Dan's last appearance was as a back-up character in Nature Boy #1 (March 1956). I love Golden Age comic book silliness more than anyone else in the known universe, but a character ending his run in a comic book titled Nature Boy is just sad.

Charlton's best-selling comics during the 1950s and early 1960s contained ghost stories and romance stories, but they stuck their toe back into the superhero genre in March 1960, when Captain Atom appeared in Space Adventures #33: The good captain was an Air Force officer who was caught in an atomic explosion and thus gained incredible powers.

Most of the Captain Atom stories were only five pages long. This didn't allow much in the way of complex plot development or characterizations, but artist Steve Ditko made it look epic nonetheless.

Ditko, of course, left Charlton for Marvel during the early 1960s, where he made Spider Man and Doctor Strange look equally epic. He returned to Charlton in 1966, at which time editor Dick Giordano was looking to expand Charlton's superhero output.

Giordano came up with the term Action Heroes, defined as heroes who would might have gadgets and special skills, but would not have superpowers. As Giordano phrases it in the introduction to one of the Action Heroes Archives: "Although they often prevailed, they were mortal and could be hurt. It was not a given that at the end of a storyline they would be alive and well--something that gave their adventures more dramatic potential."

Well, Captain Atom had superpowers, but he was grandfathered in as an established Charlton hero. He was, though, given an updated costume after an encounter with an overloading reactor reduced his power levels.

Ditko created the Question as well. This is Vic Sage, an investigative reporter who had a mask that made his face appear to be blank. The Question's adventures were hard-boiled mystery-adventures in which the hero often dealt out harsh justice. To quote Giordano again: "[The Question's] actions in an early story allowed a bad guy to drown in a sewer--something that unleashed a flood of mail to Charlton. That just wasn't done in those days!"

Blue Beetle was yet another of the Action Heroes, but Ditko made some major changes to the original continuity. Dan Garrett was given an additional T at the end of his last name. Slightly more importantly, he was now an archaeologist rather than a cop, getting his powers (including super strength and flight) from a strange scarab he'd found during an Egyptian dig.

And even more important than that--Dan Garrett was now dead. His successor was Ted Kord, who didn't have the scarab, but depended instead on his fighting skill and inventive genius to catch crooks.

Ted's origins were handled quite cleverly. During his four appearances as a back-up feature in Captain Atom and for the first issue of his own book, we're only told that something mysterious happened on a place called Pago Island and that Dan Garrett was somehow involved. It wasn't until Blue Beetle #2 (August 1967) that we learn Dan died on the island fighting a mad scientist and an army of killer androids. Dan passed on the task of being Blue Beetle to Ted, but a cave-in prevented Ted from getting the scarab.

Instead, Ted builds the Bug (one of the coolest superhero vehicles ever) and dons a variant of Dan's costume. The costume is equipped with a remote control device so he can operate the Bug even when he's not aboard.

All three of these characters are pretty cool. Heck, the Justice League animated series from the early 2000s made the Question nothing short of awesome. But Ted is my personal favorite of the three, so we'll bring our look at Charlton to a close by highlighting one of his stories.

Captain Atom #85 (March 1967) includes Ted's third appearance. The story is only seven pages long, but it's packed with cool stuff.

Ted hears a radio report that an airliner has been hijacked by a spy and is being flown out to sea. Using the Bug, he intercepts the plane just as the panicky spy is about to make it crash into the sea.

Ted uses the Bug to save the plane, but the spy bails out and is picked up by a Soviet sub. So, once the airline pilots regain control of the plane, Ted takes the Bug underwater. Donning scuba tanks, he then uses a bazooka to damage the sub's screws.

But he'll still have to fight a couple of enemy frogmen and tangle with a giant squid before this particular adventure comes to an end.

It's a tight, fun story. The action progresses with a logic that's appropriate for a comic book universe and it's all designed to highlight Steve Ditko's impeccable talent for fight choreography. In the end, the Charlton Action Heroes never had the same level of character development that the Marvel heroes of the 1960s often had, but they still formed a viable and entertaining reality of their own.

Charlton Comics went out of business in 1985. Two years prior to that, DC Comics bought the Charlton heroes. Alan Moore was originally going to use them for his game-changing miniseries The Watchmen, but this was vetoed by Dick Giordino, who by then was also working for DC. Instead, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons used variations of the Action Heroes--Dr. Manhattan, Night Owl and Rorschach. The Charlton heroes lived on as part of the DC Universe.

In that capacity, they were used in some fun ways. Blue Beetle's partnership with Booster Gold was a stroke of genius. And, while I loath the idea of Ted Kord being killed off, what little exposure I've had to his successor Jaime Reyes has made me like the newest Blue Beetle quite a lot. (I don't always hate modern comics. I just usually hate them.)

But I've never been completely convinced DC was correct in combining heroes bought from other companies with the rest of DC's heroes. The Action Heroes, like the Marvel Family and Plastic Man and the Blackhawks, had their own unique flavor that was at least partially lost when they were all merged together.

Then again, the Question in the Justice League cartoon was indeed filled with awesome sauce, so some good came out of it all.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...