In 1931, Italian immigrant John Santangelo, Sr., a bricklayer who had started a construction business in White Plains, New York, five years earlier, began what became a highly successfully business publishing song-lyric magazines out of nearby Yonkers, New York. Operating in violation of copyright laws, however, he was sentenced in 1934 to a year and a day at New Haven County Jail in New Haven, Connecticut, near Derby, Connecticut where he and his wife by then lived. In jail, he met Waterbury, Connecticut, attorney Ed Levy, with whom he began legitimate publishing in 1935, acquiring permissions to reproduce lyrics in such magazines as Hit Parade and Song Hits. Santangelo and Levy opened a printing plant in Waterbury the following year, and in 1940 founded the T.W.O. Charles Company, named after each of the co-founders’ sons, both named Charles, eventually moving its headquarters to Derby.
The company’s first comic book was Yellowjacket, an anthology of superhero and horror stories launched September 1944 under the imprint Frank Comunale Publications, with Ed Levy listed as publisher. Zoo Funnies was published under the imprint Children Comics Publishing; Jack in the Box, under Frank Comunale; and TNT Comics, under Charles Publishing Co.. Another imprint was Frank Publications.
In 1951, when Al Fago began as an in-house editor, Charlton hired a staff of artists that included its future managing editor, Dick Giordano. Others, either on staff or freelance, eventually included Vince Alascia, Jon D’Agostino, Sam Glanzman, Rocco “Rocke” Mastroserio, Bill Molno, Charles Nicholas and Sal Trapani. The primary writer was the remarkably prolific Joe Gill.
The company began a wide expansion of its comics line, which would include notoriously gory horror comics (the principal title being Steve Ditko’s The Thing!). In 1954–55, it acquired a stable of comic book properties from the defunct Superior Comics, Mainline Publications, St. John Publications, and most significantly, Fawcett Publications, which was shutting down its Fawcett Comics division. Charlton continued publishing two of Fawcett’s horror books — This Magazine Is Haunted and Strange Suspense Stories — initially using unpublished material from Fawcett’s inventory. Artistic chores were then handed to Ditko, whose moody, individualistic touch came to dominate Charlton’s supernatural line. Beset by the circulation slump that swept the industry towards the end of the 1950s, Haunted struggled for another two years, published bi-monthly until May 1958. Strange Suspense Stories ran longer, lasting well into the 1960s before giving up the ghost in 1965.
Charlton published a wide line of romance titles, particularly after it acquired the Fawcett line, which included the romance comics Sweethearts, Romantic Secrets, and Romantic Story. Sweethearts was the comics world’s first monthly romance title (debuting in 1948), and Charlton continued publishing it until 1973. Charlton had launched its first original romance title in 1951, True Life Secrets, but that series only lasted until 1956. Charlton also picked up a number of Western titles from the defunct Fawcett Comics line, including Gabby Hayes Western, Lash LaRue Western, Monte Hale Western, Rocky Lane Western. Six-Gun Heroes, Tex Ritter Western, Tom Mix Western, and Western Hero.
Al Fago left in the mid-1950s, and was succeeded by his assistant, Pat Masulli, who remained in the position for ten years. Masulli oversaw a plethora of new romance titles, including the long-running I Love You, Sweetheart Diary, Brides in Love, My Secret Life, and Just Married; and the teen-oriented romance comics Teen-Age Love, Teen Confessions, and Teen-Age Confidential Confessions.
Superheroes were a minor part of the company. At the beginning, Charlton’s main characters were Yellowjacket, not to be confused with the later Marvel character, and Diana the Huntress. In the mid-1950s, Charlton briefly published a Blue Beetle title with new and reprinted stories, and in 1956, several short-lived titles written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, such as Mr. Muscles and Nature Boy (the latter with artist Mastroserio), and the Joe Gill-created Zaza the Mystic.
The company’s most noteworthy period was during the Silver Age of comic books, which had begun with DC Comics’ successful revival of superheroes in 1956. In March 1960, Charlton’s science fiction anthology title Space Adventures introduced Captain Atom, by Gill and the future co-creator of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man, Steve Ditko. (After the mid-1980s demise of Charlton, Captain Atom would go on to become a stalwart of the DC stable, as would Blue Beetle, the old Fox Comics superhero revived by Gill and artists Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallarico as a campy, comedic character in Blue Beetle #1 [June 1964].)
Charlton also had middling success with Son of Vulcan, its answer to Marvel’s Thor, in Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #46 (May 1965).
During the Silver Age, Charlton, like Marvel and DC, published war comics. Notable titles included the “Fightin'” line of Fightin’ Air Force, Fightin’ Army, Fightin’ Marines, and Fightin’ Navy; the “Attack” line of Army Attack and Submarine Attack; Battlefield Action; D-Day, U.S. Air Force Comics, and War Heroes. Though primarily anthologies of stories about 20th-century warfare, they included a small number of recurring characters and features, including “The American Eagle.””Shotgun Harker and the Chicken”, “The Devil’s Brigade”, “The Iron Corporal” and “The Lonely War of Capt. Willy Schultz”. Army War Heroes and Marine War Heroes depicted stories based on actual Medal of Honor recipients.
Charlton threw itself into the resurgent horror comics genre during this period with such titles as Ghostly Tales, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, and Ghost Manor. It also created a pair of identical horror-movie magazines: Horror Monsters (1961-1964) and Mad Monsters (1961-1965). Additionally, Charlton produced comics based on monsters featured in motion pictures such as Konga, Gorgo and Reptilicus.
Charlton continued its commitment to romance comics with such new titles as Career Girl Romances, Hollywood Romances (later to change its name to For Lovers Only), and Time for Love.
In 1965, Charlton revived the Captain Atom character in Strange Suspense Stories numbers 75, 76 and 77, reprinting the Steve Ditko illustrated stories which had originally appeared in Space Adventures in the early 1960s. Retitling the comic, Captain Atom Volume 2 #78 (cover dated Dec. 1965), Charlton began publishing newly created stories by Diko of the superhero. In 1967, Ditko stopped working at Marvel and returned to Charlton full-time. After his celebrated stint at Marvel, he had grown disenchanted with that company and his Spider-Man collaborator, writer-editor Stan Lee. Having the hugely popular Ditko back helped prompt Charlton editor Giordano to introduce the company’s “Action Hero” superhero line, with characters including Captain Atom; Ditko’s the Question; Gill and artist Pat Boyette’s The Peacemaker; Gill and company art director Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; Pete Morisi’s Peter Cannon… Thunderbolt; and Ditko’s new “Ted Kord” version of the Blue Beetle. The company also developed a reputation as a place for new talent to break into comics; examples include Jim Aparo, Dennis O’Neil and Sam Grainger. As well, Charlton in the late 1960s published some of the first manga in America, in Ghost Manor and other titles (thanks to artist Sanho Kim), and artist Wayne Howard became the industry’s first known cover-credited series creator, with the horror-anthology Midnight Tales blurbing “Created by Wayne Howard” on each issue — “a declaration perhaps unique in the industry at the time”.
Yet by the end of 1967, Charlton’s superhero titles had been cancelled, and licensed properties had become the company’s staples, particularly cartoon characters from Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Top Cat, others). Charlton took over publication of a number of King Features Syndicate characters from that company’s short-lived King Comics, including Beetle Bailey, Blondie Comics, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, The Phantom, and Popeye. Charlton also published Bullwinkle and Rocky, and Hoppity Hooper, based on Jay Ward Productions’ Hoppity Hooper, and Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show.
Nicola Cuti made creative improvements to Charlton’s line in the early 1970s Bronze Age of comic books as assistant editor under George Wildman, who was occupied primarily with administrative duties. Cuti brought Mike Zeck, among others, into Charlton’s roster of artists, and his writing enlivened the Ghostly titles, now including Ghostly Haunts. Other Bronze Age Charlton horror titles included Haunted, Midnight Tales, and Scary Tales.
In 1973, Charlton debuted the Gothic romance title Haunted Love, but this same period saw the mass cancellation of almost all of Charlton’s vast stable of traditional romance titles, including such long-running series as Sweethearts, Romantic Secrets, Romantic Story, I Love You, Teen-Age Love, Just Married, and Teen Confessions, all of which dated from the 1950s.
In the mid-1970s, there was a brief resurgence of talent, energized by Cuti, artist Joe Staton and the “CPL Gang” — a group of writer/artist comics fans including John Byrne, Roger Stern, Bob Layton, and Roger Slifer, who had all worked on the fanzine CPL (Contemporary Pictorial Literature). Charlton began publishing such new titles as E-Man, Midnight Tales and Doomsday + 1. The CPL Gang also produced an in-house fanzine called Charlton Bullseye, which published, among other things, such commissioned but previously unpublished material as the company’s last Captain Atom story. Also during this period, most of Charlton’s titles began sporting painted covers.
Early in 1975, Cuti, already writing freelance for the company in addition to his staff duties, quit to write freelance exclusively for Charlton when its line expanded to include black-and-white magazines in addition to the King Features and Hanna-Barbera franchised titles. He was replaced by Bill Pearson, who became assistant editor after promoting Don Newton as the new Phantom artist and writing scripts for that title.
Charlton’s black-and-white comics magazines were based upon current television series and aimed at older readers. One of these was The Six Million Dollar Man #1-7 (July 1976 – Aug. 1977). Retailing for $1, it featured art by Neal Adams’ studio, Continuity Associates, as well as some stories by veteran illustrators Jack Sparling and Win Mortimer. Also published in magazine form were adaptations of The Six Million Dollar Man spinoff The Bionic Woman, Space: 1999, and Emergency!, as well as a comic based on teen heartthrob David Cassidy, then starring in the musical sitcom The Partridge Family.
By 1976, however, most of these titles had been canceled, and most of the company’s remaining titles went on hiatus during the period January to August 1977. Much of the new talent took the opportunity to move on to Marvel and DC.
By the 1980s, Charlton was in decline. The comic book industry was in a sales slump, struggling to reinvent a profitable distribution and retail system. Charlton’s licensed titles lapsed, its aging presses were deteriorating towards uselessness, and the company did not have the resources to replace them. In 1981, there was yet another attempt at new material, with a comic book version of Charlton Bullseye serving as a new-talent showcase that actively solicited submissions by comic book fans,and an attempt at new Ditko-produced titles. A number of 1970s-era titles were also reprinted under the Modern Comics imprint and sold in bagged sets in department stores (in much the same way Gold Key Comics were published under the Whitman Comics branding around the same time). None of these measures worked, however, and in 1984 Charlton Comics suspended publication.
In 1985, a final attempt at a revival was spearheaded by new editor T. C. Ford with a direct-market Charlton Bullseye Special. But later that same year, Charlton Comics went out of business; Charlton Publications followed suit in 1991, and its building and press were demolished in 1999.
Editor Robin Snyder oversaw the sale of some properties to their creators, though the bulk of the rights was purchased by Canadian entrepreneur Roger Broughton. He would produce several reprint titles under the company name of Avalon Communications and its imprint America’s Comics Group (ACG for short, Broughton having also purchased the rights to the defunct American Comics Group properties), and announced plans to restart Charlton Comics. This did not occur beyond its publishing a number of reprints and changing his company name to Charlton Media Group.
Most of Charlton’s superhero characters were acquired in 1983 by DC Comics, where former Charlton editor Dick Giordano was then managing editor. These “Action Hero” characters were originally to be used in the landmark Watchmen miniseries written by Alan Moore, but DC then chose to save the characters for other uses. Moore instead developed new characters loosely based on them. The Charlton characters were incorporated into DC’s main superhero line, starting in the epic Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries of 1985. In the years to follow, some of them enjoyed renewed popularity at DC, most notably Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, as well as the Question which languished in obscurity for years before reintroduction. In 1987, Blue Beetle and Captain Atom joined a version of the Justice League of America. The team of Charlton characters first planned for Moore’s Watchmen became reality in 1999 with the DC miniseries L.A.W.
In Grant Morrison’s Multiversity series, set in a New 52 DC Multiverse, updated iterations of the Question, Blue Beetle and Nightshade now exist as government operatives for an anti-terrorist “Pax Americana” on the alternate Earth known as “Earth-4,” in which the events of 9/11 took place much as they did on “our” alternate Earth. However, Captain Atom has been radically modified to become Captain Allan Adam, an analogue to the Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan rather than his traditional orthodox metahuman portrayal in Charlton and DC Continuity.
In 2000, Charlton Spotlight, a fanzine devoted to Charlton, began publication.
The Charlton Arrow launched in 2014. Published by Mort Todd’s Comicfix, the comic includes stories featuring Charlton characters and titles not owned by DC.