Brainiac On Banjo #061: Charlton Comics Goes To War!!

The Unknown Anti-War Comics!, by Steve Ditko, Ross Andru, Joe Gill, Denny O’Neil, Pat Boyette and others, edited by Craig Yoe • Yoe Books!-IDW • $29.95, 226 pages

Back when the three of us were laboring over at the DC Comics factory, I was blessed with having my office between those of Denny O’Neil and Archie Goodwin, two of the finest comics practitioners in American history. If they were to be branded A-listers, we would need to invent a new first letter for our alphabet. I’m going to start with Archie, but don’t worry. Denny comes into this story later.

Back around 1992 and 1993, Archie and I started frequenting a swell midtown restaurant where New York Times executives often brought advertising clients. Remember, this was about 16 years before Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau put our beloved medium on the legit. Usually, our passionate conversations revolved around two subjects: frighteningly radical politics, and comic books; particularly EC Comics. To the chagrin of the over-wrought suits sitting within eavesdropping distance, we would conflate the two.

Of all of Archie’s massive achievements as a writer and an editor, my personal favorite is the four-issue run of Blazing Combat, the black-and-white war comic published by Jim Warren with the Frazetta covers and interiors drawn by Alex Toth, John Severin, Reed Crandall, Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Wally Wood… you get the point. The series was influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat for EC Comics, and all the above-mentioned artists had drawn stories for Kurtzman. Archie was too young to have written for them, but he was a member of the EC Fan-Addict Club (fan-addict > fanatic, get it?).

The overall sentiment of EC Comics fandom has been that Harvey’s stories were not pro-war. Those stories were decidedly anti-war, and Archie felt that any accurate reflection of war is inherently anti-war to reasonable people. It’s not that war always is unnecessary. We’re been debating that one since Vandal Savage found his rock. It’s that any accurate depiction shows war is unimaginably horrific, and therefore its use should be dissuasive.

Those comics came out at a time of massive anti-leftwing opposition in which America’s enemy, those of liberal, progressive or radical persuasion, were the nation’s villains and their leaders nothing more than Hitler with a bargain basement wardrobe. As such, those EC stories were running against the grain of public sentiment at that time. As we evolved and many of those anti-left leaders were disgraced, humiliated and/or rejected by the electorate, sentiment evolved. Archie and Jim launched Blazing Combat just as we started to question America’s instigation of the Vietnam War.

Overlooked in all this was the output of America’s weirdest comic book publisher, Charlton. Their war stories tended to be emotionally gut-wrenching, showing the dark and ugly consequences of armed conflict. Their printing technology was just one step above Silly Putty transfers; often, their books were so far off-register I think they should have included 3-D glasses. Their distribution, often to clothing stores and bike shops and other venues not known for selling comics, could politely be described as “this box fell off the back of a truck.” Their numbering system was divined from a Ouija board.

In other words, Charlton’s output, particularly those comics that came out before Dick Giordano’s “Action Heroes” started popping up, has been under-represented in our ongoing catalog of comics history.

Comics historian, archivist and bon vivant Craig Yoe fixed all that with his wonderful collection entitled The Unknown Anti-War Comics!. Reading this 226-page tome made me realize that Archie Goodwin and Harvey Kurtzman most certainly were not alone. This is really good stuff.

Like most of the writers of that era, Joe Gill – author of most of these scripts – truly overwrote. This is more impressive due to Charlton’s rudimentary approach to lettering: reading large, poorly lettered copy blocks can make your head hurt. Here, it is most certainly worth the effort.

Many of these stories also were of the science fiction genre. Go figure; one such title was “Space War.” But science fiction is a great agar dish in which to grow ideas, and it is the perfect vehicle for doing a horrors of war type of story. Science fiction is at its best when it serves as a warning.

About three dozen pages were drawn by Steve Ditko. This, alone, makes this volume a must-have for any discerning student of the comics medium. And I’ve got to hand it to Yoe – he seems to have tracked down the least off-register comics available.

But the real find in The Unknown Anti-War Comics! is the final story, a 20-pager called Children of Doom, published just as school was starting up in 1967. Written by Sergius O’Shaugnessy, drawn by Pat Boyette and edited by Dick Giordano, I bought this comic book shortly after my 17th birthday.

I read it, put it down, let out a sigh and thought that was one of the very best comic books I’d read in my life. That was 52 years ago. I’ve read a lot of comics since then – to say the least – but I still feel that way.

You can imagine how I felt when I learned “Sergius O’Shaugnessy” was the pseudonym for Dennis O’Neil.

Denny, my career as a political activist is all your fault.

Pat Boyette turned in one of the best art jobs in his life. He’s one of those love-him-or-hate-him stylized artists, not unlike Ditko or Joe Kubert in that sense. For effect, he employed occasional panels in black-and-white with wash tones which are difficult to print even on a real press. I’d like to give you a description of the story but, outside of using terms such as “invasion,” “science fiction,” and “warning to society,” I’d be taking away some of the pleasure you will receive from reading it. Children of Doom is one of the most fulfilling stories I’ve ever experienced, in any medium. Rod Serling should have written the introduction.

Craig Yoe’s The Unknown Anti-War Comics is worth the money. It is worth the time. And it is worth your energy. Buy it and read it before the November election.

One thought on “Brainiac On Banjo #061: Charlton Comics Goes To War!!

  1. An interesting thing never noted is that the Department of Defense testified in the Senate anti-comics hearings against EC comics and pushed to get them out of the PX supposedly due to their level of violence (weird given the fact that the military are people being trained to deal with and do violence) but mostly likely to remove Kurtzman’s war comics from bases. This is actually not an uncommon thing to occur until Playboy and others won the right to sell at PXs without censorship in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Craig also has done a really neat book of antiwar editorial cartoons.