A now-defunct American comic book company which, although low in budget and even lower in production quality, left a lasting mark on the face of comics.
The company was a division of Charlton Publications, an equally low-budget magazine company. Its main technique for success was keeping costs low; it used printing plates made of plastic (instead of the more reliable and accurate metal) running on presses that had originally been used to print cereal boxes, and kept the same ones from its opening in 1931 until closing its doors in 1986.
In The Golden Age of Comic Books, it was just one of many start-up comics companies jumping on a fad, but by The Silver Age of Comic Books, when it got into Superheroes, it had acquired a certain reputation; though its rates were among the lowest in the business, it gave writers and artists a high degree of creative freedom, which made it attractive to both newbie creators looking to break into the industry and old hands dissatisfied by the corporate policies at the Big Two. Steve Ditko was both of these at different times, and created some of the company's most iconic characters, such as The Question and the revamped Blue Beetle (who was originally yet another company's Golden Age character.)
While these days it's mostly remembered for the "Action Heroes" line, Charlton also published a slew of romance comics, horror comics (which featured numerous and unusual Horror Hosts), war comics and licensed film/television adaptations, all of highly variable quality. Given the fact that their page rates were usually among the lowest in the industry, it's surprising how much genuinely good material Charlton produced... but there was a lot of junk, too.
Over time, though, Charlton's fortunes faded, with the vagaries of the comic-book industry and the deterioration of their press into nigh-unusability. Its publishing slowed, then stopped, its Action Hero characters were sold to DC Comics, other properties were sold to other publishers, and it closed its doors for good.
Said characters were integrated into The DCU, with some faring better than others; the aforementioned Blue Beetle and Question have probably fared the best, though Captain Atom's been relatively high-profile as well. These characters attained reputation and prestige as one of the inspirations for Alan Moore's Watchmen. Moore originally planned to revive and update a pre-established stable of characters, initially considering the MLJ line only to learn that DC did not have rights to them as he had assumed. On learning of DC's acquisition of Charlton, Moore pitched the series with them, with the editor rejecting the idea since Moore's idea would make the characters unusable for future use, leading him instead to make original characters similar to Ditko's Charlton creations. The success and legacy of Watchmen via its Captain Ersatz characters ended up raising the Charlton inspirations' prestige (especially Captain Atom, The Question, and Blue Beetle).
(Peter Cannon, aka Thunderbolt, is a special case. The rights to that character reverted to his creator, and although DC licensed them and published a few stories with the character at one point, they subsequently again reverted and have since been licensed by other publishers.)
Currently, DC's multiverse has two worlds where the Charlton characters are the main heroes, if not the only heroes. One features the Charlton characters as they were prior to their integration into the DCU, while the other features them reinterpreted in the light of Watchmen; the second of these is elaborated on in The Multiversity, getting its own spotlight issue.
Among the characters originally owned by Charlton Comics are:
- Blue Beetle
- Captain Atom
- The Question
- Sarge Steel
- Son of Vulcan
- Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt (original creator reclaimed the rights; see above)
- Timmy the Timid Ghost: A knockoff comic of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
- Yellowjacket (not to be confused with the Marvel character)