Charlton Comics was running on fumes by the mid-1980’s. They still had a distribution network, but their non-comic publications such as HIT PARADER were not what they once were (HIT PARADER in the mid-to-late 80’s was a metal-oriented magazine! More often than not, Ozzy was on the cover. I also remember they would champion the 1980’s Kinks, for which I thank them). I cannot quote chapter and verse on this, but from the Charltons I bought back in the 80’s and the ones from that era which I’ve found cheaply and purchased in the years since then, it seems they relied a lot on reprinting older material (they were so starved for cheap content, they even encouraged fans to submit comics for consideration). Many of Steve Ditko’s earlier Charlton comics were reissued in this period, although at the time, I did not know if they were new or old. Ditko liked the creative freedom he’d been given at Charlton (kind of like director Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC Pictures....if you would work cheap and were a professional who could deliver a product on time, you could do what you want creatively--the boss was concerned only about having product), so whenever I stumbled across a Ditko piece in HAUNTED or GHOST MANOR or some other Charlton title back then, I did not know if he was back at Charlton again or if it was older work being re-used (and with the exhaustive comic histories now available on the internet, I’ve learned that some of his work re-published by Charlton in the 80’s was more than 25 years old!!!). After all, there is a timeless quality to a horror comic.
The same was true for western comics. It’s not like those would date, and Charlton was never a publisher to go for contemporary or edgy/artsy comic art. It’s kind of surprising that there was still an audience for western comics in 1984. I would still buy them here and there, but based on my observations at the time, I’d say that they tended to be most popular in the small and moderate-sized towns of the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Charlton had had a number of successful western comic series over the years, some based on figures such as Billy The Kid, others based on western film stars such as Lash LaRue or Tex Ritter. When I was growing up in Colorado, there were still many “ghost towns” and also small towns that still looked like they belonged in some 1930’s independent western shot on real locations and not constructed sets. As a teenager I worked at the County Fairgrounds (right down the hill from where I lived), which featured rodeos, and there were always horses there (and shoveling horse manure and digging post-holes there was my first “real” job at age 14, not counting earlier lawn-mowing and the like), so when you add all that up, it’s no surprise that I chewed tobacco as a teenager and wore cowboy boots for a few years (I had to re-learn how to walk properly after I finally got rid of the boots) and read western comic books....and was still buying them in my 20’s (heck, I STILL buy them today, when I stumble across them at junk stores and antique malls and they are cheap).
GUNFIGHTERS is a series Charlton ran in the 60’s and then revived from 1979-1984 (this particular issue is the second-to-last). Of course, that’s such a broad concept that you can throw almost any western comic property into it. Western comics tended to have more gunfights and bank robberies than the cattle rustling or water-rights plots you’d see in B-western films. I suppose cattle rustling would not look too exciting on the comic page. This later run of GUNFIGHTERS consisted of a lot of old western material from the 50’s and 60’s, reused here in a new package. Much of the content in this 1984 comic is reprinted from a 1966 issue of OUTLAWS OF THE WEST. In fact, the cover of the 1984 GUNFIGHTERS comic is just a re-tooling of the old OUTLAWS cover (see pictures of both). (Ed. note---this is nothing new is comic book rehashing---DC and Marvel were also famous for re-using old covers, at times updating them with pictures of Nixon where Eisenhower once was!)
At the core of this issue we have three stories dealing with outlaw Cole Younger, of the Younger Brothers fame, and colleague of Frank and Jesse James. The stories depict various bank robberies, his time with Quantrill’s Raiders, and his time in the Confederate army....the “Blazing Fast, Six-Gun Action” ballyhooed on the cover is certainly delivered, but Younger is not really depicted in an interesting way. Even in a minor Billy The Kid product--movie or comic book or pulp story or whatever--Billy is usually either wacko or charming or misunderstood or whatever, but there’s some motivation for him to do what he does. The same is true for Jesse James. The stories here tell of how Younger worked his way up to his famous outlaw status....and we do get a story devoted to the legendary botched Northfield, Minnesota robbery that ended his criminal career, as well as explaining his final years in prison after that. The problem is that he’s basically a cipher, a place-holder. There’s nothing really distinctive about him in any of the three lengthy stories, no backstory that provides motivation (and that could have been provided in one or two panels, as most kids reading this might know his name but not his “legend,” whatever THAT was), not even any character quirks or distinctive habits.
However, I cannot imagine some 12 year old living on a ranch outside Goodland, Kansas, would be complaining much. There’s action, gunfights, scheming outlaws, colorful western settings, the expected clichéd western dialogue, etc., and Cole Younger is one of those famous “outlaw names,” so what else could the juvenile or adolescent reader want? Charlton, cynical though it may have been, certainly knew its audience.
And speaking of audience, it’s often said that if you want to know a publication’s audience, look at the advertisements. Clearly, most of the ads are aimed at adolescent and even adult (in their 20’s or 30’s, maybe) readers, NOT children. There are the expected Charles Atlas-style “be a he-man” ads, but there are THREE different FULL PAGE ads that deal with wanting to use mind-control over another person, and it’s strongly suggested that that’s a woman. One is selling a plastic “Venus Love Goddess” statue, which you are supposed to use “thought power” on and then MAKE SOMEONE LOVE YOU FOR ONLY $3! There’s another one promising AUTOMATIC MIND COMMAND and then another selling some booklet on HOW TO READ ANYONE’S MIND, with a picture of a woman in a bra having her mind read (presumably by the sweaty-palmed reader). It does not take Dr. Freud to figure out what audience these ads are aimed at and what deficiency (or perceived deficiency) in the readers’ lives is being manipulated here. The ads for weight-loss products (do 12 year olds need those?) and hair-loss products further confirm the older members of the audience for this mag.
For me, the glory days of lowest-common-denominator, mass-market comic books died out with Charlton’s going under in the late 1980’s. When you pick up a late-period Charlton comic such as this one, you are taking a walk into a pre-Internet world where comic books were not some specialized, fetishized cult product around which a nerd-underground would form. No, they were a taken-for-granted, low-end part of popular culture. They were considered throwaway, of no lasting value. And that, of course, is why they are of value, why they are a pure creation, why they are a window into a world that will never return, a world that is little understood by those who did not live through it in the belly of the whale, a world that revisionist historians and cultural critics don’t even bother to get wrong as they don’t care about it. We at BTC remember, however. And we’ll never forget, until we reach that Dodge City in the sky, where there’s no internet, where people are not chained to portable devices feeding them corporate content and manufactured info-tainment masquerading as news, where there are still UHF stations that fill their broadcast days with dubbed historical Italian adventure films starring Lex Barker and Guy Madison and public domain 1950s TV shows, where Charles Starrett and Tim Holt and Gene Autry come to mind when the word “hero” is spoken (and where we know the names of their horses), where Mickey Spillane is still writing new books and doing beer commercials, where Mamie van Doren is entertaining the troops overseas, and where Elvis is still around and appearing next week in Wichita or Tulsa. If you wanted to, you could drive for five hours and catch The King live....and if you are a lady, he might throw you a scarf. Unfortunately, the King is dead...and I’m not what I once was either....but I refuse to get a smart-phone and I don’t drink lite beer....I’m not interested in whatever “app” they want me to download, and I will not pay Starbucks $4 for a bitter yuppie cup of coffee.