Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock 'n' roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it's the subsequent visits--the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time--that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
Although DC and Marvel tend to dominate any discussion of mainstream comics today, there has never been a time when there were only two successful comics publishers. DC and Marvel (and Archie Comics, too) have been in this business since before World War II; most of their Golden Age competition--Quality Comics, Lev Gleason, Fiction House, Hillman, Fox, et al.--had deserted the funny-book racks by the time Bill Haley and his Comets began to rock around the clock. Fawcett Comics, publisher of the original Captain Marvel, also threw in the towel (or cape) in 1954, but returned in the '60s as the purveyor of Dennis the Menace comics. ACG stayed in the game until the mid-'60s. Dell Comics, which was likely the best-selling American comics publisher of all time (due to licensed properties ranging from Mickey Mouse to Tarzan), hung on until the early '70s, though it lost most of its licenses along the way. Many subsequent publishers have come and gone--Gold Key, Tower, Warren, Atlas, Eclipse, First, etc.--and still many more continue today. My weekly trips to Comix Zone in North Syracuse will often include new books from Dark Horse, Dynamite, AfterShock, and IDW, along with my steady supply of DCs, Marvels, and Archies.
As a kid in the '60s (and still today), I dug super-hero comics. I gravitated toward DC and Marvel, but I would also grab the occasional book from Mighty Comics (Archie's short-lived super-hero line, home of The Mighty Crusaders) and Gold Key (Magnus, Robot Fighter and Dr. Solar: Man Of The Atom). And, somewhere along the way, I stumbled across the Charlton Comics line.
Charlton had also started in the '40s, and Charlton stubbornly and tenaciously remained in the four-color field until the '80s. Based in Derby, Connecticut, Charlton Publishing's offerings were manufactured entirely in-house, and the Charlton Comics line was a low-rent line-up that existed for the sole purpose of keeping the printing press a-rollin'; churning out product was cheaper than shutting down the press and firing it back up.
"Low-rent" isn't meant as a criticism, really, though Charlton titles did indeed display ample evidence of being produced on a tight budget. But there was often something quirky and unique about some of Charlton's output, and I consider myself a Charlton fan.
I've had difficulty trying to reconstruct where I first encountered Charlton Comics. I have an imprecise recollection of seeing Charlton's Hercules book somewhere, but my specific interest was Charlton's Action-Heroes line, edited by Dick Giordano: I recall picking up an issue of Judo Master at Sweethearts Corner in North Syracuse; I remember Peter Cannon...Thunderbolt (and its back-up strip, the bickering superhero team The Sentinels); I don't think I caught any Captain Atom or The Peacemaker until years later, but I clearly remember a coverless copy of Blue Beetle # 5, an extravaganza by writer-artist Steve Ditko, with Blue Beetle joining forces with The Question in a tale seemingly (but not actually) written by Ayn Rand. If I were to ever write the Justice League of America/Justice Society of America/Charlton Action Heroes crossover of my dreams,"Our Man" from Blue Beetle # 5 would play a significant role.
While it's not terribly likely that I'll ever write such a thing, it would be perfectly plausible for someone else to do it; DC Comics purchased the rights to most of the Action-Heroes line in the '80s, as a gift to one Dick Giordano, who was running DC at the time. Giordano had left Charlton in the late '60s, initially to work as an editor at DC (including some really, really top-notch comics in Aquaman and The Teen Titans, and a terrific Western book called Bat Lash), later as an acclaimed freelance artist, and eventually as DC's capo di tutti capi. A few Charlton writers and artists followed Giordano to DC in 1968, including Jim Aparo, Steve Skeates, and Denny O'Neil. DC hired Giordano on the recommendation of another Charlton talent, the above-mentioned Steve Ditko. (Want more Ditko? See Quick Takes below!)
Dick Giordano's exodus from Charlton roughly coincided with the end of the Action-Heroes line. But my discovery of Charlton Comics was just beginning; Charlton picked up the rights to Lee Falk's newspaper hero The Phantom, which featured some stunning Jim Aparo artwork in the early '70s, and I bought that title as often as I could. Licensed properties became Charlton's primary stock in trade, though I generally didn't buy any of them other than The Phantom. I do remember a Charlton issue of The Partridge Family that reminisced about old radio shows like The Lone Ranger, I Love A Mystery, and Fibber McGee And Molly; it was, incongruously, the first time I ever saw a picture of The Shadow, a character that would become very important to me in the '70s.
|Scan of Don Sherwood's original art from The Partridge Family # 5. Thanks, o' mighty Internet!|
My appreciation of Charlton manifested in back issues, as I retroactively discovered the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair...er, of Blue Beetle, The Peacemaker, Nightshade, Judo Master, Captain Atom, The Prankster, The Sentinels, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. I'm still waiting to read Charlton's acclaimed science-fiction Western hero, Wander. Charlton published one more action hero in the '70s, the great E-Man by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton, but that's a discussion for another day. The spirit of Charlton lives on in Charlton Neo, current publisher of fine titles like The Charlton Arrow, and there's even a Charlton documentary film in the works. Not bad for a low-rent publisher that once soft-pedaled its heroes with the tag line, "Action-heroes? We Got 'Em!!!...And they're not half-bad!" No, not bad at all.
A tabloid called Phonograph Record Magazine was a starting-point for a lot of my rock 'n' roll revelations in the '70s, and it's where I first heard of Cheap Trick. Flo & Eddie (aka Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles) had a regular PRM column called "Blind Date," which featured our happy-together heroes reviewing new releases without being told upfront what the hell they were reviewing. For one 1977 "Blind Date," they were given the eponymous debut album from Cheap Trick, and offered the clue that the band's name was like an inexpensive subterfuge. That was my introduction to Cheap Trick.
It seems likely that I must have heard Cheap Trick on WOUR-FM a time or several in '77, but I have no recollection of that. As was the case with many other new rockin' pop discoveries for me in 1977, my first conscious memory of hearing Cheap Trick came in the fall of '77, when I was a freshman at the State University College at Brockport. Most of the new music I heard then was courtesy of the campus station WBSU--"The station where we BS you!"--but Cheap Trick first filled my ears on a commercial station in nearby Rochester, either WCMF-FM, or maybe even the usually-lame Magic 92.
The song was "So Good To See You," a track from the second Cheap Trick album, In Color. I think the cut got a little bit of subsequent radio play as well, though it wasn't really a hit. In my mind, I hear it alongside "See Forever Eyes," a then-contemporary prog-pop song by a group called Prism. I liked both "So Good To See You" and "See Forever Eyes," though neither was specifically at the toppermost of my poppermost.
So I can't claim to have been ahead of the curve in adoring Cheap Trick. I caught on to the irresistible appeal of Rockford's Phenomenal Pop Combo about the same time everyone else did: with the track "Surrender" on their third album, Heaven Tonight, in 1978, and full-tilt Cheap Trick mania with Cheap Trick At Budokan, released as an import in late '78 and--by overwhelming popular demand--domestically in 1979. There was a brief period there were everyone seemed to like Cheap Trick. For once, I was in the mainstream!
The "everyone" in this example included my lovely girlfriend (and now lovely wife) Brenda. We each bought our own copy of Cheap Trick At Budokan--me, to play with my Ramones and Jam records, and her to play with her Santana and Earth, Wind & Fire (plus the Buddy Holly, Rolling Stones, and Who LPs she'd "liberated" from my collection; she also bought a copy of The Kinks' Greatest Hits at the flea market, so her horizons were already expanding). Harmonic convergence!
I eventually acquired all of Cheap Trick's early catalog--Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight, Budokan, and Dream Police--and loved 'em all. When The Ramones' fab flick Rock 'n' Roll High School played on campus in 1980 (the second time I'd seen the film), it was accompanied by a cool video promo for Dream Police; fitting, since Cheap Trick had been an early choice to star in that film (some time after director Allan Arkush convinced producer Roger Corman that the film shouldn't be called Disco High, but before Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Marky were cast).
I have to confess I lost interest in Cheap Trick after Dream Police. I didn't care for the George Martin-produced All Shook Up in 1980, and it would be a while before I was interested in any new Cheap Trick albums. Turns out I missed some pretty cool stuff in that period. But I got back on board the Cheap Trick bandwagon with 1997's underrated Cheap Trick album on the Red Ant label. I had a chance to finally catch the Trick live on that club tour.
Earlier this summer, our daughter Meghan accompanied Brenda and me to see Cheap Trick at an outdoor concert in Syracuse, and that was an even rarer harmonic convergence right there. Mommy's all right, Daddy's all right, we just seem a little weird. An inexpensive subterfuge? Cheap f***ing Trick!
Quick Takes For C:
Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell): Yeah, the the original Captain Marvel was long gone by 1967, but continued pop culture references kept that fabled name in the public eye nonetheless. The good folks at Marvel Comics recognized the potential value of that name; realizing the name was not protected by any prevailing copyright, Marvel created its own Captain Marvel, an interstellar warrior named Mar-Vell. Mar-Vell's alien race the Kree planned to invade Earth, and Captain Mar-Vell was sent to our big blue marble to prepare the planet for Kree conquest. Mar-Vell ultimately rebelled against his own kind, and helped Earth to resist domination by the Kree. This Captain Marvel debuted in two issues of a comic book called Marvel Super-Heroes in '67 and '68; I first saw him in Captain Marvel # 1 (May 1968).
The Challengers Of The Unknown: I confess that my main attachment to the Challs is that I think they make a really cool name for a trivia team. I also think they would have been a natural for a radio drama series: Four adventurers who cheated death! Four men living on borrowed time! These are THE CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN!! In the early '70s, I picked up a coverless DC giant that reprinted some early Challs stories drawn by the King, Jack Kirby, and those were cool. But I first saw the Challs face arch-enemy Villo in "Two Are Dead--Two To Go!" in Challengers Of The Unknown # 52 (October-November 1966). (Pop music bonus reference: the Challs are name-checked in the song "Challengers" by The New Pornographers.)
The Dave Clark Five: One of my siblings owned a copy of the "Bits And Pieces" 45, so my Tottenham Sound adventure starts there. We also had some kind of DC5/VO5 tie-in, a cardboard Dave Clark Five record promoting VO5 shampoo, but I can't remember anything about it. (Well, other than the fact that li'l me, at four or five years old, would look at this record and point at the first three members of the DC5, reading left to right, and insist, "That's Dave, that's Clark, that's Five;" I think I was joking.)
|I remembered the product as VO5 rather than Pond's, but this looks about right.|
The Clash: A 1978 (?) issue of New York Rocker was probably my first exposure to The Clash. At a Flashcubes show that summer, I was chatting with Penny Poser (alias Diane Lesniewski), and she told me her favorite bands were The Who and The Clash. I bought The Clash's "Remote Control"/"London's Burning" import single...and, um, wasn't really all that impressed. The B-side grew on me, though, and I later picked up the "Tommy Gun"/"1-2 Crush On You" 45, and eventually got the domestic versions of The Clash's first three albums. I came to like The Clash quite a bit, but never quite felt the level of worship for them that I reserved for the likes of The Ramones and The Jam.
The Creation: This mid-'60s British Mod group was mentioned in Bomp! magazine's 1978 power pop issue, with The Creation's "Making Time,""Painter Man," and "Biff Bang Pow" cited as prime examples of power pop. So, y'know, I wanted to hear this stuff! But good luck with that effort. I started with a DJ at Tip-A-Few, an oldies bar in Syracuse's Eastwood section, but he'd never heard of Creation, and even if he had, he wasn't gonna play anything that was never a hit record in America. I finally found an import 7" reissue 45, combining "Making Time" and "Painter Man." It was at Desert Shore Records up on the Syracuse University hill; Arty Lenin, guitarist from The Flashcubes, was workin' the Desert Shore counter that day, so I bought my first Creation record from him.
The Creeper: Beware! THE CREEPER! Oooo--scary! The Creeper's debut appearance in Showcase # 73 was among a small stack of comics my parents bought for me to take along on my summer travels in 1968. I didn't know comics creators when I was eight years old, but I'm sure I'd seen DC's ads promoting this new work by Steve Ditko (along with Ditko's The Hawk And The Dove); I'm equally sure I didn't connect this Ditko guy to work I'd seen on Marvel's Dr. Strange in the pages of Strange Tales, nor Spider-Man reprints in Marvel Collectors' Item Classics, nor Charlton's Blue Beetle (the latter of which I didn't see until after The Creeper's debut anyway). Still found it all very, very cool.
WHEN THE EVERLASTING FIRST RETURNS: D IS FOR....