It was a big surprise and a huge deal to me the next time my family went to the Two Guys discount department store chain, as I discovered a new flight of Modern Comics 3-Bags had arrived. Modern Comics was an attempt to sell bagged product directly to department stores and other such chains on a non-returnable basis, similar to what the Direct Market would do. The material in the assorted Modern Comics books were all licenced from Charlton Comics and represented a flight of books that they had released up to a decade earlier. It leaned heavily on the fan-favorite though obscure Action Heroes line, and was most fans of the era’s first exposure to these characters. I had loved the first wave of books, and given that it had been months and months and no new ones had ever turned up, I assumed that was it. So the arrival of this new field of bags was akin to a godsend for me.

As I said previously, the books in question mainly stemmed from the mid-1960s at the height of the super hero fad, when Charlton was compelled by market conditions to take another stab at super heroes. Editor Dick Giordano put together a pretty wonderful line-up of books, but the softening of the fad combined with Charlton’s horrible distribution (and crummy paper and printing quality–their covers were run on a press designed to print cereal boxes) brought the line to a relatively quick end. The best entries in it were drawn and plotted by Marvel emigree Steve Ditko. Ditko had worked for Charlton for a long time, even during his Marvel heyday, and he did so despite the fact that they paid the lousiest rates in the industry because they also left him almost entirely alone to do whatever he wanted. This suited Ditko, in particular after the falling out with Marvel editor Stan Lee which led to him leaving Spider-Man and Doctor Strange behind.

The flagship series of the Charlton Action Hero line (so-named because editor Giordano didn’t really like quasi-omnipotent heroes, a fact that showed in the line) was CAPTAIN ATOM, a title and a character that Charlton had published on and off since 1960. He was the first super hero that Ditko had worked on, the creation of writer Joe Gill just as the Silver Age was beginning. When the fad heated up, Charlton brought the character back, first in reprints of those earlier stories and then finagling Ditko into doing new ones. In concert with Giordano, Ditko overhauled the character entirely, scaling down his previous omnipotent power set to bring him more in line with the Marvel characters he’d been working on. CAPTAIN ATOM was never quite as sharp and on-point as the 1960s Marvel strips, but it gave them a good run for the money.

This particular issue introduced a pair of new Ditko villains, Punch and Jewelee. This pair has taken on greater significance in recent years, as they were the inspiration for Geoff Johns’ DOOMSDAY CLOCK additions to the world of WATCHMEN, the Mime and the Marionette. They’re a pair of carny lowlifes who come across a cache of alien weapons and artifacts and use them to become super-powered menaces, stealing weapons from the government and even making off with scientist and friend of Captain Atom, Alec Rios. Unbeknownst to either friend or foe, Rios is actually the Ghost, a super-villain whom the Captain had crossed swords with in a previous issue but who escaped after being wounded. In this story, he takes advantage of his abduction to purloin a bunch of Punch and Jewelee’s stolen alien equipment for himself in anticipation of his next strike against Captain Atom and his sometimes-partner Nightshade. This business with Rios feels a lot like the development of Norman Osborn in Spider-Man, and shows how Ditko was bringing serialized storytelling to charlton, even if in minor ways.

By a stroke of luck, the next scientist that Punch and Jewelee go after is in the midst of conducting tests on Captain Atom to help define his new power level, but this process has sapped his powers by the time the villains show up. Unable to stop them, the Captain is taken along, with the carny villains intending to use their equipment to lean the secret of his powers and duplicate them. But before he’s completely clobbered, Captain Atom is able to send an SOS which is picked up by Nightshade, who comes running to the rescue. The whole thing evolves into an extended Ditko fight sequence the equal of anything he did on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, with Rios using his teleportation powers secretly to steal stuff while the other four are in combat. The script on this story was by Dave Kaler, who is best remembered as being the organizer of the world’s first comic book convention. He never really broke through in the field, and from this script, we can see why. It’s entirely serviceable at every point but lacks the energy or the personality that Stan Lee would bring to such situations.

Nightshade was interesting, despite a frankly unattractive Ditko design, because her past was shrouded in mystery. She seemed to possess the ability to become a living shadow at will, but where and how she got this power was teased as a mystery for several issues before her backstory was revealed. In the end, Jewelee is able to make her escape, but Punch is captured and the missing scientists are liberated. And the Ghost now has a power-up that he’ll use in the next issue. Also, Abby Ladd, whom the series had been setting up as a distaff J. Jonah Jameson constantly writing articles denigrating Captain Atom, was still out there making trouble. So there’s a lot to like here. In particular, Ditko is in strong form–it’s not unlikely that punch and Jewelee might have mixed it up with Spider-Man or Doctor Strange had events gone down differently.

The back-up of each issue of CAPTAIN ATOM during this period (and throughout the short Modern Comics run) was the Blue Beetle. This was the latest iteration of a character whose origins dated back to 1939. Overhauled entirely by Steve Ditko, this Beetle was Ted Kord, who used scientific weapons to make up for a lack of the super-powers that his predecessor Dan Garrett had availed himself of. Oh, he was also suspected of having done away with Garrett, an intriguing subplot that dogged this iteration of the character for several stories before he eventually revealed his identity and the true story to his assistant, Tracy. The script on this installment was provided by Gary Friedrich, a hometown friend of Roy Thomas who followed Roy to New York and into the comics business. He’s probably best remembered as the originator of the flame-headed biker version of Ghost Rider.

This particular adventure isn’t really among the more memorable. After clamming up before the barrage of Inspector Fisher’s questions about the death of Dan Garrett, Ted Kord becomes the Blue Beetle to take on a spy who has hijacked a passenger plane. There’s also a enemy sub in this story, to say nothing of a giant octopus. The Beetle and his flying bug-ship handle it all, but it’s somehow just a little bit lifeless as compared to earlier exploits. Still, this was a character to watch, and Charlton wasted no time in promoting him to his own series, issues of which were among those reprinted in the Modern Comics line. Of course, these days, these two heroes and more of the Charlton Action Heroes bunch are the property of DC Comics, having been purchased when Charlton decided to get out of the publishing game in the 1980s and folded into the DC Universe during CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. It was the inclusion of the Charlton heroes in that story that helped make it feel even more epic, as its effects were literally having a consequence to characters that up to that moment had lived at another publisher.

3 thoughts on “BHOC: CAPTAIN ATOM #85

  1. Don’t forget the Quality & Fawcett heroes were also in “CoIE”. Maybe it helped to feel more epic, but not as much as the actual writing & drawing did. 😉 The stakes were already as high as they could go. The omission of the Charlton characters wouldn’t have ruined or even lessened “CoIE” for me. Their roles were relatively minor. They were obviously much more integral to the conceptualization of “Watchmen”.

    The typed font of the lettering misses a lot of the energy of the usual hand-lettered dialog in DC & Marvel. Hand-lettering was more kinetic, & emotive.


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