Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Comic books about auto racing shouldn’t work, but the geniuses at Charlton Comics made them work, and had multiple hot-rod comics running and selling for many years. This particular title ran for 120 issues, from 1951 through 1973. The first 88 issues, pre-1968, are public domain and available online at Comic Book Plus, so you can actually read the issue I’m discussing today without having to find an original.

I picked up this particular issue some time in the early 1970’s at a junk store on the north side of Golden, Colorado, a place that looked like it might have been a storehouse for agricultural supplies at one time, but had been turned into a repository for discarded and unwanted items of all kinds, for sale cheap. In these pre-Ebay, pre-internet days, junk stores priced things to sell. The formula for pricing probably went something like “what’s the highest price I can charge and still move this item in 6 weeks?” For a comic book like this, a dime was the cost. I probably went across the street to Dairy Queen after this comic purchase and bought a 25-cent cone (see pic), and then went to the city park, ate my cone and read my hot rod comic book twice. From my vantage point in the park, if I looked north, I saw route 93, the road to Boulder. Although there were a lot of good things about Boulder, I tended to identify it with Grateful Dead fans who hated The Standells (at that time, I dressed as if I was auditioning for the front cover of the DIRTY WATER album on Tower) or The Knickerbockers, hated drive-in horror films, looked down on meat-eaters, and needed to use deodorant more often and not wear the same T-shirt for four days….the kind of people I hoped someone would burn in a drug-deal….after all, they probably didn’t work themselves for the money anyway! Looking southeast, I’d see the massive Coors Brewery, the main employer in the town. A number of my friends’ parents worked there (mine did not), and a number of kids from Golden High School, my classmates, would wind up working there, back when one could get a full-time job with benefits and security right out of highschool if you were willing to work hard and become part of the company team. Golden always smelled like beer, though you didn’t notice it when you lived there. The town was in a valley between two mountain ranges, and the scent of hops and grain hung over everything like fog in some 1940’s movie version of Victorian London. When you left for the day to go down to Denver, and then came back to Golden in the evening, you’d smell it when you entered the valley, and if you can imagine a massive twenty-thousand-gallon vat of beer left open to waft across town, that’s what the town smelled like, although as I said, when you lived there, it was the norm and you didn’t notice it. Any readers who’ve ever lived near a slaughterhouse or a paper mill know what I’m talking about—like a lot of things in life, you get acclimated to it and don’t notice it the way an outsider would, though as a beer-drinker, I found the presence of a weighty beer-scent, so strong you could taste it, in the atmosphere at all times to be a good and positive thing. This was during the days when Coors beer was not distributed nationally, and I can remember out-of-state relatives or family friends, like my father’s old Navy shipmates, coming to visit us and filling their trunks with cases of Coors to take back home to whatever state they were from.

An ice-cream cone and a used hot-rod comic book was heaven in my 9th grade world. Charlton hot-rod comics always seemed rooted, no matter what date they were from, in some lost civilization where 1963-era Rick Nelson, in a cardigan sweater and with college pennants on the wood-paneled rec-room wall, was performing, where the malt-shop was serving up burgers and cherry colas and you’d expect the Bowery Boys to barge in at any moment, where the album to own was JERK & TWINE TIME by THE KNICKERBOCKERS, and where the drive-in was showing the 1966 spy-hotrod comedy OUT OF SIGHT, which incidentally featured The Knickerbockers (see movie poster). With heroes with generic names like Ken King and Clint Curtis, HOT RODS AND RACING CARS and its ilk existed at some racetrack right outside Archie and Jughead’s Riverdale (where Eisenhower is still President, not the new revisionist Riverdale), where people would go on Friday and Saturday night because it was there, it was inexpensive, and there was nothing better to do. And so much of what I’ve enjoyed throughout my life has been based on those standards: it’s there, it’s inexpensive, and there’s nothing better to do. Even today, with me reading this comic book I bought 45+ years ago and devoting an hour or two of my life in 2020 to something anyone else would have thrown away decades ago if they’d even bothered to ever pick it up in the first place, I’m still following that formula.

Most of this issue is written and drawn by Jack Keller, and he should get some kind of award for making car racing, and the world around hotrods, come alive on the comics page. The first story deals with a practical joker who baits Clint and his sidekick Alex a number of times with car-related practical jokes but then gets paid back at the end. The second story has Ken King in a mountain road-race in a place called TARGA FLORIO, with ten laps of 45 miles each with more than 700 curves. The third story BANZAI RUN (see pic) has Clint in the world of dragsters, and you can smell the smoke, the burning oil, and the burning rubber---all that’s needed is some stinging reverbed instrumental from The Astronauts (my fellow Colorado boys) as a soundtrack. Keller manages to take action drawings, with smoke and jagged angles and suggestions of speed and wind in our faces, mixed with drama and dialogue sequences that move the story and pull the reader along, and chop it together into 5-7 page chunks that have the feel of the racing world while keeping things rooted in a teenage environment (I’d say most of the characters are only a few years out of high school) that would resonate with the readership. The book concludes with a “Great Moments In Racing History” (not written or drawn by Keller, but still dripping with action and atmosphere) piece on SEBRING ’65, linking everything to the REAL world of auto racing.

All that for a dime (or 12 cents if you’d gotten it new in 1966), and it’s still working its magic in a new century. Yes, my friends, what they used to say at the top of the comicbook page is as true today as it was back in the 60’s and 70’s: CHARLTON COMICS GIVE YOU MORE!


Westbrook Pegleg XIV said...

Q: When was America great?

A: When did Charlton comics exist?

diskojoe said...

I think that I first started to learn how to read using comics like this, as well as my brother's HOT ROD, CAR CRAFT & other car magazines. There was also CAR-TOONS, a comic magazine published by Peterson Magazines, the publishers of HOT ROD. Also, I always watched ABC'S Wide World of Sports to eagerly await any auto racing action, from Le Mans to the demolition derbies from Islio, L.I.

Bill S. said...

Westbrook Pegleg XIV really hit the nail on the head with that comment! Thank you, sir.

Another answer to that question could be "it sure as hell isn't NOW!"


Marie Severin said...

Check out MortTodd.com for Charlton reprints!

Alvin Bishop said...

I'll confess to ignoring Charlton back in the 1960s. I was a Marvel man, and had time for selected DC, Tower, Warren and, of course, Mad. Charlton, like Cracked, was bush league. But now I can see their camp appeal. Keep 'em comin', Bill!


Bill S. said...

I've never considered it camp appeal.
Charltons have the same kind of
bread-and-butter appeal as a Monogram
film or a frat-rock 45.
Life is too short for me to waste any of it
on campy things...

Bill S.

Tom Geary said...

Speaking of camp and Charlton:

When I was in summer camp in the summer of 1965, there was a kid in our bunk, a fat kid (it's always a fat kid) who didn't fit in. He was too nervous. Anyhow, his parents sent him CARE packages of Charlton comics. He kept them in a shirt box in apple pie order, and he never let us read them because he didn't want anyone wrecking them or stealing them. The last day of camp, the bunk bully grabbed the box out of his hands and ran to the lake with it, and... Well, you know the rest. Ivory soap floats, but Charlton comics sink.

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

Hey, according to Discogs the Bill Shute of Kendra Steiner/BTC fame is also the Bill Shute who recorded for the folk label Green Linnet is 1980.

Is he? Inquiring minds need to know.

Bruce Wayne Bruce III said...

Charlton, Cracked, Harvey, Sick, Classics Illustrated, ACG...