By GW Thomas
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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 #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.