Brand Echh: Americomics Special #1

AC/Americomics (occasionally known as Paragon Publications) is a long running independent comic book publisher, one that is still releasing new issues even today. Their main stock-in-trade has become reprints of Golden Age characters whose work had lapsed into the public domain, but they do occasionally release wholly original comic book properties. Probably the thing they are best remembered for is the long-running super hero cheesecake series FEMFORCE. But at the start, AC founder Bill Black published a number of fanzines and “prozines”, typically making use of characters from his childhood that he had liked, occasionally reinventing them to get around copyright and trademark concerns. So Simon & Kirby’s CAPTAIN 3-D became the similar-but-not-the-same COMMANDO D.

The initial AC releases had been produced in black and white, and initially at a magazine size. Black wanted to move into regulation-size color comics–he figured that was where the money was to be found in the growing Direct Market of Comic Book Specialty Stores. And he fell into a bit of serendipitous good luck that allowed him to make his initial color ventures with some proven characters and properties.

We’ve covered CHARLTON BULLSEYE here before (a link is below to one of those features), but just to briefly recap: this was an anthology series launched by publisher Charlton, one of their final stabs at printing new material before their line went all-reprint and then disappeared entirely. The idea behind CHARLTON BULLSEYE was to reduce costs even further by making it a showcase title that would print stories produced by would-be talents–anybody who would show up and whose work met a basic minimum standard, apparently. As you might expect, this was a golden opportunity for young creators looking to break into the field, a change to gain nationwide exposure for their work and to see it in print and on spinner racks. Consequently, once CHARLTON BULLSEYE launched, Charlton had no dearth of material to publish in its pages.

The problem came a few months in. Despite everybody’s best intentions, CHARLTON BULLSEYE simply didn’t sell well enough to make it an ongoing concern. This was still the days of the Newsstand Market being the predominant location where comic books were sold, and it was a tough business for everybody at that time. Even with no Art and Editorial costs to speak of, CHARLTON BULLSEYE couldn’t make a go of things, and was forced to cease publication with its tenth issue. The problem was that there was still a bunch of material left over.

And this is where Bill Black comes in. Black was aware of CHARLTON BULLSEYE from the start. He had given his friend Dan Reed some inking help on the story that appeared in its first issue, and was also semi-involved with later strips that Reed pitched to Charlton for it. And Black saw an opportunity. Aware that Reed and friends had done a bunch more strips starring Charlton’s homegrown super hero properties (The Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, Nightshade, and so son) Black struck a deal with Charlton for a limited license to those characters so that he could publish those stories in his own Direct-Only color series, AMERICOMCS.

Black saw AMERICOMICS as an anthology series, not truly that different from CHARLTON BULLSEYE itself, and so he began to fold the Charlton heroes into his line of releases. One of the first ideas that he pursued was teaming up the four most well-remembered Charlton heroes devised by Steve Ditko into a traditional super hero team. This group would be known as the Sentinels of Justice. Black had intended for Sentinels of Justice to become an ongoing series–but before he could truly get things going, he found himself stymied.

Because former Charlton editor Dick Giordano had returned to DC Comics as the firm’s Executive Editor. It had been on Giordano’s watch that any of the Charlton super heroes (known then as “Action Heroes” ) had been created, and Giordano still had a soft spot for them. DC Publisher Jeanette Kahn saw some potential in the characters as well, and she and Paul Levitz made an offer to the shuttering Charlton to buy them lock, stock and barrel–as a sort of gift for Giordano. The deal was done–and suddenly, Black was staring down the barrel of the expiration of his rights grant and unable to extend it any further.

Consequently, Black moved swiftly to clear out his backlog of Charlton material, releasing the one and only Sentinels of Justice story as an AMERICOMICS SPECIAL in order to ship it more rapidly. A hastily-added blurb after the story’s quasi-cliffhanger ending indicated that it would never be followed up upon, as the characters had been sold to another publisher. This meant the end of teh Charlton players at AC–but not for the Sentinels of Justice itself.

Black pivoted almost instantly, gathering together a bunch of his own characters for a back cover pin-up and christening them the Sentinels of Liberty. He even used the same logo for them, at least at the start. Meanwhile, the Charlton heroes were introduced into the DC Universe in the epic CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS series. Their appearance there was one of the things that made the series seem so epic–the Crisis was so vast that it was even affecting the worlds of characters that weren’t a part of DC’s publishing line until then. Once the Crisis had run its course, the Charlton heroes were firmly integrated into the new, unified DC Universe.

This single Sentinels of Justice story is credited to Dan St. John (who I would figure was a pseudonym for Dan Reed and others) with artwork by newcomer Greg Guler. Guler would become a pro a few years later, drawing the revived HAWK AND DOVE series, among other things. Background inks were provided by Matt Feazell, whose Cynicalman was a bit of an underground star in the small press/minicomic arena.

ADDITION: I’ve been made aware that Dan St. John isn’t a pseudonym at all but a real person. So my figuring was in error.

The work here isn’t bad, but neither is it great. The story is thin, the dialogue serviceable at best, and the artwork a bit choppy. Guler’s sense of storytelling was pretty on point, but he didn’t yet have enough finesse on his finished drawing and especially his inking. As a fan comic, it’s a solid read, but as a professional publication, its inexperience shows.

Still, somebody must have thought this was a good idea. For years, copies of AMERICOMICS SPECIAL #1 seemed to be ubiquitous in any comic book store you might visit on the East Coast in the early 1980s. It seemed as though there were hundreds of copies, all sitting on lower shelves, unsold. Even the DC revival didn’t appear to be enough to generate interest in the book.

But it is a fun time capsule, a reminder of a time when, for a brief few months, fans and would-be creators were given the wheel to do whatever they wanted, so long as they didn’t expect to get paid for it.

11 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Americomics Special #1

  1. I actually had this. The dialog’s worse than I remembered. Cap even says “chew on this” twice. Maybe he was secretly hungry, but then we’d have read it in one of his thought balloons… I knew the old characters from price guides. I don’t remember if I got this before or after “Crisis”. But it was obvious the characters had changed ownership. The replacements joining Commando D… Captain Paragon? Flare. Nightveil? And I think the Scarlet Scorpion?

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      1. Stardust! Thanks, Ben! I have seen her name as a masthead/logo before. Good name for her (great song, too). I remember reading Milestone’s Dwayne McDuffie say he wanted to use “Paragon” for the character we know as “Icon”, but AC’s having Captain Paragon prevented the character from being able to use the name on a cover as the title. I guess similar to the Captain Marvel/Shazam situation. Though “Wonder Woman” and “Wonder Man” have been published simultaneously…

        Then I think AC had the Champions role playing game, right? And that temporarily prevented Marvel from using the name on a cover. The went with “The Order” (2nd time for the kid’s team, 1st was the “bad” Defenders). I guess Disney later worked out a $$$ deal for the current Champions series t have the name on the cover.

        I remember seeing a black & white ad for Eclipse Comics’ “New Wave”, and thinking Tachyon was Paragon. Now I’m thinking that Samaritan from “Astro City'” has tachyon based powers, right? My memory’s failing me…

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  2. Nightshade uses some type of “shadow”/”darkforce” powers in this. And she would at DC in “Suicide Squad” (I preferred that purple & black suit Luke McDonnell drew her in). I don’t know if she had them @ Charleton. But her analog in Watchmen, Silk Spectre, didn’t. Maybe it was consistent with her Charltob version, or maybe Moore decided Dr. Manhattan would be the only character with super powers…

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    1. Moore’s pitch for Watchmen (when it still used the Charlton characters) indicated that Captain Atom would be the only person with superpowers. But he also admitted in the pitch that he didn’t know much about Nightshade yet and planned to research her before writing the story. When the pitch removed the Charlton heroes, Moore went in a different direction with Silk Spectre that wasn’t tied down to Nightshade. The pitch is in Absolute Watchmen if you need to see it.

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