Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Early 1986 brought the last few rounds of releases—all reprints—from Charlton Comics. By this point you couldn’t really say they were running on fumes…..the fumes were long gone, and they were coasting, winding down, slower and slower. The Charlton train would come to a complete stop with the final few comics dribbling out in February 1986.

Collectors and comic book guides usually refer to this last round of Charlton reprints as “short run”—I certainly don’t remember seeing them being sold in my area in central Virginia when new. I do remember seeing them surface in the secondary market six months to a year after their release, being sold for a quarter or fifty cents, and that’s where I got this copy. There was a comic store in Roanoke where I’d stop by maybe twice a month to get the latest copies of DICK TRACY WEEKLY and check out the used comic boxes. They had Marvel boxes, subdivided into many different sections; they had DC boxes, subdivided into many different sections; and they had some “Other” boxes, where Charlton and any other indies were kept. Charlton Comics were treated with the lack of respect you’d see given to a Larry The Cable Guy movie at Sundance. It was just accepted by the folks who hung out at the comic shop that Charlton Comics were second-rate and gave comics in general a bad name. Oh, they’d grant you that Steve Ditko had worked there, and they’d make some respectful reference to Blue Beetle, but like people who look down their nose at DIY punk rock or low-budget B movies or genre films as too crude and unsophisticated, they just didn’t “get” what Charlton had been doing. However, that’s THEIR loss…and also the reason why even today you can pick up Charlton comics cheaply, compared with the comics of other publishers, especially if you are (as I am) satisfied with “reading” copies.

The issue of ATOMIC MOUSE under review came out in January 1986, yet the comics inside (and the front cover) were OVER THIRTY (!!!) YEARS OLD at the time. I wonder if that sets some kind of record. These were NOT being presented as an archival release or even a “classic” edition, as Charlton did with their reprints of Hercules product. No, these were 30+ year old funny animal comics being presented to compete in the contemporary marketplace. With children and adolescents being the majority of the comic book buying audience, one wonders who this reprint was aimed at. The “comics history” folks were not as numerous then as they are today----kids are not into “nostalgia” as much as older people----I’m guessing that the only real market for this might be jaded, ironic stoners who were into Pee Wee Herman and the 1980’s Mighty Mouse re-tread. I was thinking that the “new” Mighty Mouse might have inspired this reprint, but a quick internet check shows me that the new MM show came one year AFTER this Atomic Mouse comic, so I guess there was just something in the air in terms of cartoon-mouse superhero parodies in the mid-1980’s.

The stories in this issue all date from 1954 and 1956. On one level, it took real chutzpah to issue 1950’s comics in the 1980’s marketplace (and you wonder why Charlton died)…or is it a “what the hell does it matter” approach. I see some parallels with the final days of Republic Pictures, in the 1957-1959 era, when they’d stopped making anything new and were existing on 1) foreign pick-ups, 2) independent films looking for a distributor (some of which were WAY below Republic’s standards of basic competence), and 3) reissues of the studio’s back catalog (sometimes re-titled) they already had the rights to in order to fill out their release schedule. To misquote Gertrude Stein, there was “no THERE there” anymore. It’s similar to what you feel when you enter a K-Mart store today----you know it’s over, it’s just a question of when they are going to turn the lights off and padlock the front door.

I was broke during this period, newly married and with a child on the way and existing on multiple low-paying jobs, none of which had any permanence or security. We’d moved across the country to Virginia (from Oklahoma) looking for new opportunities, and they’d yet to happen. I don’t think I ever paid full price for a comic book during this period, other than the DICK TRACY WEEKLY series of reprints, which were chock-full of quality material and well worth the money. I bought a lot of used Charlton Comics in this period because they were cheap, and thus an excellent entertainment value. I could read them while working the various security guard jobs; I could read them while on lunch break at Food Lion; I could read them while I was babysitting my infant son once he was born, etc. The proprietor at the comic shop which I frequented was a stocky man with a Van Dyke beard who wore oversized, worn-and-soiled turtle-neck sweaters and had a large Ankh hanging down from a leather cord necklace. He was a nice enough fellow but he projected a kind of disgust with humanity as if he had chronic indigestion, which he may well have had….because I bought the Dick Tracy reprints, he presumed I was a higher class of more-knowledgeable customer, and he did not hide from me his contempt for the comic-nerd types who were into superheroes but who basically kept the store afloat. When he got to know me and my tastes, he started to offer me “package deals” on used Charltons that no one else was really interested in, so I could get (literally) a stack of 70’s/80’s Charltons for maybe $2.50. Some of those I gave to friends over the years; some I sold or traded; some got damaged or water-stained. However, I still have some of them today, including ATOMIC MOUSE. I can’t believe that 30 years later I am still getting enjoyment out of a throwaway kiddie comic which was 30 years out of date when it was published 30 years ago, but you take your enjoyment where you find it, and if you’re adventurous at all, you find it in the most unexpected places.

ATOMIC MOUSE first appeared in 1953, the creation of AL FAGO, who was previously responsible for FRISKY FABLES (see pic). The “funny animals” genre of comic book is not that much discussed today—superheroes get all the historical attention—but I for one would rather read a funny animal comic than most of the adults-in-logoed-onesies superheroes. If you have a problem imagining why anyone over 8 would read such a thing, just think about how classic cartoons have animal protagonists—Bugs Bunny to Tom and Jerry to Porky Pig to Woody Woodpecker, etc. It’s just a comic book version of that, and as with cartoons, if it’s done well, then it’s really for all ages.

As explained by Don Markstein’s Toonopedia, “Atomic Mouse got his super powers by ingesting U-235 pills, provided by Professor Invento…. and they did enable him to protect the citizens of Mouseville from the evil Count Gatto and his inept sidekick, Shadow.” So, as with a Road Runner cartoon, where you have Wile E. Coyote as the nemesis, or when you have Tom constantly going after Jerry, here you have Count Gatto and Shadow trying to sabotage Atomic Mouse.

As this is a kiddie comic, the stories tend to run three or at most four pages, rather than the usual seven or eight, and the issue is padded with some one-page filler comics, one featuring “Professor Invento”, one featuring Count Gatto himself (although it’s basically another Atomic Mouse story), one featuring Atomic Rabbit (another Al Fago creation), and another featuring Happy The Magic Bunny. Count Gatto is a blowhard who always has a trick or a scam up his cat sleeve (he wears a top hat and a kind of purple cape/shawl, so he affects a kind of elegant conman persona), and his job is to thwart the do-gooding of Atomic Mouse. For instance, in the first story here, LOCUST POCUS (reprinted from a 1956 issue….see pic), Atomic Mouse is attempting to save Mouseville from a plague of locusts (!!!!), while Gatto and his flunky come up with various outrageous and over-the-top schemes to encourage the locusts and paralyze Atomic Mouse. Al Fago has a witty and attractive style of art, which has the zest and brightness of an MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon and also the quirkiness and absurd qualities of later Hanna-Barbera creations as Quick Draw McGraw or Huckleberry Hound.

When you think about how a Tom and Jerry cartoon is timeless, the same qualities exist here, so I guess it’s not too surprising that Charlton could reissue this in the mid-80’s….at least, that must have been what they were thinking when they rationalized putting this out.

On the downside, though, there are a number of elements in the issue that show evidence of a WTF attitude toward quality control: some of the pages are in the wrong order, and one of the ads is for “Marshall” (sic) Arts supplies. Also, I don’t count ad pages in a comic book, but whatever the standard count is, I’m sure this issue has more than the usual.

I can just picture myself, sitting out back on the loading dock behind Food Lion on my lunch break….drinking a can of V-8 vegetable juice and nibbling on some animal crackers for my meal, having a Camel cigarette and trying not to get tobacco ashes on my uniform shirt, wondering if I’ll get enough hours on my various jobs to pay the rent that month, wondering if the fuel leak from the engine block on my 15-year-old Ford Maverick will cause the car to blow up on the way to/from work some day and leave my wife a widow and my unborn son fatherless, watching the guys I work with bet two-to-three times their forty-hour salary each weekend on football and basketball pools and then being broke and in debt because of it. Somehow, an absurd kiddie comic book about a mouse super-hero thwarting a florid cat villain who wears a tophat and a purple cape, and then saving his mouse village from a plague of locusts, seemed to make perfect sense after four hours of bagging groceries (many of which I myself could never afford to buy) and making conversation with customers, and then another four hours of moving the older produce to the front of the displays, putting new produce in the back of the displays, making sure all the code numbers on the plastic cards in front of the produce matched what was in the bins, keeping the product moist and attractive, and putting back into their proper place any produce items which were moved by customers. And then repeat each day, every day.

I wish I could have flown away, soaring over the city like Atomic Mouse----but if I couldn’t, at least HE could, and that was good enough

No comments: