Monday, June 22, 2015

The Sword of Charlton, Part 2: Anthologia [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Charlton beat Marvel and DC to the sword-and-sorcery punch when they released Adventures of the Man-God Hercules and his back-up sidekick, "Thane of Bagarth" in 1967-68. But this wasn't the last of the sword-and-sorcery tales at Charlton. Like the Warren titles Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, and DC's House of Mystery and Witching Hour, Charlton's "mystery" lines would irregularly feature a sword-and-sorcery tale starting with "The Promise" in Ghostly Tales #101 (January 1973), written and drawn by San Ho Kim. A Korean soldier fleeing the Japanese takes shelter in a house with twin sisters, agreeing to marry one of them. The ten Japanese soldiers die by the sisters' swords, the first sister disappearing to return to her grave. It is only then that the soldier sees who he has married. The second sister is terribly scarred. The soldier kills his new wife and flees through a graveyard. A cold, dead hand grabs him from a grave, allowing Japanese soldiers to find and kill him. Some claim "The Bushi" by Sitoshi Hirota and Masaichi Mukaide in Star*Reach #7 (January 1977) was the first manga to be published in America , but "The Promise" predates it by four years, making it a significant contribution by Charlton.

With Conan in full swing, the heroic fantasy content at Charlton becomes more definite with Midnight Tales #4 (July 1973) and "The Tower Maiden," written by Nick Cuti and drawn by Tom Sutton. A hero named Harvard battles his way through demons and ogres to get to a maiden in a tower, only to find she is made of wax. He takes her anyway, figuring he can use her as a candle. The best thing about this flippant tale is Tom Sutton's artwork, perhaps the best sword-and-sorcery drawing in Charlton's run.

In the same issue was "The Wizard's Wife" written by George Wildman and drawn by Wayne Howard in his usual mock-Wally Wood style. Alekhine, a wizard-prince, goes in search of a worthy wife and falls for the un-magical Melanie, the daughter of a baker. His family protests but the problem is solved when Alek realizes that Melanie doesn't bake bread but magical babies. Howard deserves a note here in terms of creator's rights. His name was featured on every cover of Midnight Tales. The idea of a hat trick of stories based on a theme as well as the characters in the frame of the comic were all his idea, and he was credited for it, a first in the comics industry. Howard inked Val Mayerik's Thongor in Marvel's Creatures on the Loose #26 that same year.

"Who?" in Midnight Tales #5 (September 1973) was written by Nick Cuti and drawn by Joe Staton. Keen the Barbarian is challenged to figure out which of three women is the real Sylvia. The other two are demonesses who plot his death. The story feels like a sword-and-sorcery parody with the barbarian crying over his broken sword and the man riding with three versions of the same woman on his horse. Joe Staton uses a swipe from "The Spell of the Dragon" from Marvel's Chamber of Chills #2 (October 1972), a story featuring John Jakes' Brak the Barbarian, the probable victim of the satire. Nick Cuti would write the lion's share of sword-and-sorcery strips up to 1976.

"Sludge" in Midnight Tales #7 (June 1974) was again written by Nick Cuti and drawn by Joe Staton. An incompetent wizard named Sorbius discovers a protoplasmic creature named Goo. The wizard promises to defend the city from invading barbarians with the blob-like creature. The battle is lost because Sorbius manages to make a successful love potion, and Goo and Sorbius' daughter, Regina, fall in love, missing the battle.

Midnight Tales #11 (February 1975) was the most sword-and-sorcery-filled issue of all, having only heroic fantasy tales in it. These three started with "Orion," written by Nick Cuti and drawn by Don Newton, in which Zeus' gamekeeper destroys a rival for the hand of Clora by giving false witness. Clora gets her revenge by spurring Orion to shoot one of Zeus' deer for her. The deer turns out to be Clora, a were-deer, and Orion faces execution for his underhandedness.

"Jason" also written by Nick Cuti and drawn by Joe Staton, rewrites the tale of Jason and his Argonauts. They land on an island inhabited not by a one-eyed cyclops, but Argus, a giant with a thousand eyes. To rescue a captive woman and her baby, Jason challenges the ogre to a duel on a sunny day. The Argonauts blind the creature with their shiny shields. It is only after they have killed the giant that they find out the woman is the giant's wife and the baby, like his father, is many-eyed. Nick Cuti got his start in sword-and-sorcery with "The Caliega" (January 1970) in Vampirella #3 and would go back to Warren in 1976, penning one last sword-and-sorcery tinted tale, "E Train to Flushing" (Creepy #94, January 78) with old-time Charlton artist, Dick Giordano, before moving onto editing at DC and then cartoons in Hollywood.

"The Oracle", written and drawn by Wayne Howard, is a tale of Leah, a girl who can forecast the future. As a child she sees Socrates' death by hemlock. She learns she can not change the future, only see it. Because of this she spurns friendships, but falls for the handsome athlete, Menelaos. She sends him away, refusing to accept his marriage proposal. When she thinks she sees him falling to his death, she is wrong. He is only diving off some rocks. Declaring her love, they wed, Leah fortelling their happy family.

"The Malediction" from Ghostly Tales #114 (April 1975) was written and drawn by Pat Boyette. This clever tale has a ruthless warlord and his advisor trapped in a tower because a guardian monster lurks outside. Boyette keeps you guessing whether the creature is real or only a figment of the imagination, created by a spell.

"The Fly" in Midnight Tales #13 (June 1975) was written and drawn by Wayne Howard. Lord Simon lures away Sarena, the beautiful daughter of the wizard Aldon. When she refuses to marry him, he kills her. Ever since Simon's visit to Aldon's swamp he has been plagued with flies. He has his servants kill all the bugs in the castle. Aldon appears for his revenge, turning Simon into a fly. When a servant sees him, he is quickly squashed.

"Distress" from Scary Tales #3 (December 1975) was written by Paul Kupperberg with art by Mike Zeck. Typical to Charlton formula, a warrior climbs a tower in pursuit of a damsel and gets bitten for his trouble. In this case, the damsel is a vampire. Kupperberg would later create Arion, Lord of Atlantis for DC in 1982 and write the adaptation of Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away in 1985.

Midnight Tales #16 (January 1976) features "Ambia," written and drawn by Wayne Howard, an interesting anomaly, a sword-and-sorcery tale without a horror-style surprise ending. The tale chronicles Ambia's war against the evil Vandalkragg, a domain of ogres and monsters. She defeats them by running a guerrilla war against the fiends and finally killing Zagga, their king, herself. This tale was most likely inspired by Wally Wood's The King of the World that was published in parts as early as 1968. Wood was inspired by The Lord of the Rings and Howard's tale also has a Tolkien feel.

"Oberyll," also written and drawn by Wayne Howard, appeared in the same issue. In Atlantis, the harpies of the Fire-Lord steal victims for sacrifice. The king will do nothing to protect his people, but a hero steps forward: Oberyll. The shipwright, armed only with a dagger, goes to the volcano mountain to see what becomes of the taken. Finding only death, he escapes, but damages the fire fortress, setting off a terrible chain reaction. He flees back to the city to warn the people to build ships and flee, but the king has him stoned, and all the Atlanteans die.

"Thief's Gold" in Monster Hunters #5 (April 1976) was written by Joe Gill and drawn by Carlos Vila. A wizard desiring gold has to sacrifice the local villagers to feed a dragon conjured by an ancient god. After the sacrifice, the god sets the dragon on the wizard. It is a slight and frankly disappointing story.

"A Fitting Wife" from Monster Hunters #7 (September 1976) was written by Joe Molloy and drawn by Enrique Nieto. A cruel general tries to take a witch for his harem and gets turned into a dog. After getting changed back, the general takes the witch to his caliph for punishment. The witch beguiles the caliph and the general goes to the torture chamber. The next morning the caliph is found turned into a pig.

The straight sword-and-sorcery stories were done by 1976. It strikes me as odd that one artist who was so important in the early Warren magazines never did any sword-and-sorcery for Charlton. This was Steve Ditko. Unlike Tom Sutton, who did one strip, Ditko gravitated towards modern horror. Perhaps he felt he was done with sword-and-sorcery, having drawn and written Stalker for four issues at DC in 1975 with pal Wally Wood.

By the 1980s, Charlton was on shaky ground financially. To generate some cash they reprinted most of the Hercules issues in Charlton Classics #1-9 (April 1980-August 1981) along with select tales from the anthologies, including "Orion." "Jason," "Oberyll," "The Fly," "Sludge," and "Sir Lancelot and the Haunted Tower." Thane of Bagarth also received two reprint issues in 1985. But before the company folded, it did produce one last set of sword-and-sorcery inspired stories, each containing a fair amount of science fiction elements. These included "Prophecy of Doom" in Charlton Bullseye #3 (September 1981), written and drawn by Ian Carr. In this tale, Janus and Grundar go up against the sorceress Queen Shalastra, with the magic-user losing. The rest of the issue contained science fiction stories.

Charlton Bullseye #5 (January 1982) featured only one story, "Warhund," written by Brad Mielke and drawn by Charles Truog. Warhund races home because his father is dying, but along the way he discovers the truth about his lineage (being descended from space visitors) and his mission to protect the entire planet. The lettering in this issue was poorly done, a sign of Charlton's decline.

Charlton Bullseye #9 (September 1982) gave us "Bludd," written by James Waley and Gene Day and drawn by Gene Day, Vince Marchesano, Peter Hsu and Viktor Laszlo. Bludd, a Viking mercenary trades places with a man from the 31st Century to become a champion against the tyrant Armageddon. The story was begun in 1976 by Gene Day, but as the writer/editor explains the story it was originally planned for Orb, an independent comic that published mostly horror and SF. The editor compares it to Thundarr the Barbarian (which was created after the comic), a sad similarity that is all too true. When the magazine folded, most of the leftovers went to Mike Friedrich's Star*Reach and Ron Van Leeuwen's Andromeda, but "Bludd" lingered on unfinished. It was finally completed in 1982 by the gang. The story was published the month Gene Day passed away. Gene was important to sword-and-sorcery comics largely as a mentor to sword-and-sorcery parodist, Dave Sim, with his Swords of Cerebus.

And so sword-and-sorcery was done at Charlton. But there were plenty of other companies doing short sword-and-sorcery tales including Heavy Metal and Epic Magazine, "Slaine" in 2000 AD along with foreign language comics like Cimoc and Skorpio. Sword-and-sorcery comics continued merrily along in the Marvel mainstream as well as in independents like Warp's Elfquest and First's Michael Moorcock's Elric and Hawkmoon, but they all owed a debt to that poor cousin, Charlton, who lead the way.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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