Charlton had been a player in the comic book marketplace going back to the days of the Golden Age of Comics. They were widely regarded as the shlockiest of publishers, whose paper and printing was markedly inferior to that of the competition. There was some very good work buried among the many Charlton publications, but they were scattered among a veritable mountain of average or so-so material. Charlton’s big advantage was that the company owned its printing presses, so they created the content, printed the books and distributed them across the country based from a central location in Connecticut. But by the 1980s, the marketplace was changing, the newsstand arena was shrinking, and the sort of undemanding disposable entertainment for kids that had been Charlton’s stock-in-trade for decades just wasn’t connecting with buyers as much as it once had. For a while, they shut down production completely, relying only on the occasional reprint title to keep them in the game.
So it was a bit of a surprise when the first issue of CHARLTON BULLSEYE turned up at the stationary store where I was buying my comics by 1981. Charlton had a long-held love/hate relationship with super heroes. Many times over the years, they’d dabbled in the field, typically during the largest boom periods for costumed crime-busters. But they seemed to lack the interest in staying in that line of work. They were much more comfortable producing war and western and romance comics (and by the 1970s, a number of comics based on licensed properties, filling the gap left by Gold Key’s withdrawal from the newsstand business.) So the fact that this new comic featured a revival of two of the super heroes created for their line in the 1960s by Steve Ditko was noteworthy–even if Ditko himself was nowhere in evidence. A few years earlier, a bunch of Charlton’s super hero-oriented issues had been reprinted in 3-Bags aimed at department and toy store shelves under the banner of Modern Comics. That’s where I had first encountered these characters, and why i was familiar with them already when this issue came out, and excited to see them back.
Depending on your perspective, CHARLTON BULLSEYE represented either a crazy new opportunity or a new low for Charlton. They had been well-known for paying the lousiest page rates in the business (though the upside was that, so long as you could color within the lines, there wasn’t a lot of editorial oversight, and they would give you as much work as you could handle.) Because the shtick with CHARLTON BULLSEYE was that the material was all submitted for publication by fans, up-and-comers and professionals needing some more exposure for free. The only payment was the publication itself. If you were a fan with aspirations of turning pro, then this was an enticing idea to you–and supposedly, Charlton was inundated with submissions for future issues.
And this first issue gives a sense of the overall quality of the series. It’s a fun production, but it’s a bit crude and unpolished. It feels like the sort of thing that might have seen the light of day in one of the more professional-looking fanzines. But here, it was given nationwide exposure (albeit Charlton nationwide exposure–their books also had the lousiest distribution as well.) It’s a pretty fannish production all around, the revival of two characters that super hero aficionados recalled well from the late 1960s, but played in such a way that all of the aspects that made them interesting and unique had been largely filed off. They were, to put it simply, reduced to relatively generic super hero figures.
The story here is credited to Benjamin Smith, though oddly both the plot and the dialogue are credited to pseudonyms–once you take away the plot and the dialogue, what is there left to be the “story”? According to the text page in this issue, there was a lot of back and forth on the particulars of this story even after it had been penciled–so much for Chalton being editorially hands off, at least in this instance. But given the level of craft involved, that was probably for the best. Anyway, the art credits are a bit more solid, with Dan Reed, a fan cartoonist who never quite completely made the transition into being a full time pro, contributing the pencils and some of the inking–the balance was handled by Albert Val with some uncredited assistance from Bill Black and Bob McLeod. It’s not quite on the level of professional standards, but it does come close in a number of places.
Future issues of the series would range all over the map in terms of subject matter. There’d be generic anthology mystery stories, barbarian tales, funny animals, and more super heroes both classic and new. The book ran for ten issues before silently folding, relegating Charlton’s future to reprints only until it finally closed its doors for good a couple of years later. Charlton did sell off the Bullseye inventory to Bill Black, who had begun to publish first fanzines then direct market titles under the AC/Americomics banner. His best-recalled and longest-running series was doubtless FemForce. This did result in the odd anomaly of the Charlton-owned super heroes appearing in a number of AC books, even right up to the point where DC bought the characters whole cloth and introduced them into the DC Universe.