Joe Gill is one of those comic legends whose story is both unbelievable and true. Gill is quite possibly the most prolific writer of the 20th century, and not of just comics, though he wrote literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of comics during his forty-plus years in the industry. Gill was just a compulsive writer overall. He wrote full magazines on subjects as diverse as yachting, the Civil War, romances and detective procedurals. The latest issue of Charlton Spotlight presents a 24-page interview with the legendary Mr. Gill, and the interview is filled with Gill’s wonderful reminiscences of such diverse topics as his lifetime friendship with noted author Mickey Spillane, the bizarre scoundrels who ran Charlton, and the wacky folks who drew for Charlton, which was one of the real bargain basement publishers of its era.
For instance, I find fascinating the story about the response of John Santangelo, Charlton’s publisher, when the company’s factory was flooded during Hurricane Diane in 1955. Santangelo was insured, so he was easily able to make back the money he lost. Plus Santangelo received some Federal money, which put him ahead in the game. But even more impressively, Santangelo used the flood to go one step further, cutting all his creators’ page rates in half. Instead of making a mere four dollars per page, as he had been, Gill found his rates cut to two dollars per page. But that didn’t stop Joe Gill, most prolific writer of the 20th century; Gill simply wrote even more for Santangelo.
See, the one thing that Charlton had over almost any other publisher was freedom. Creators were pretty much left alone to create whatever they wanted. They might not have paid very well, but Charlton’s editors and publishers left their creators alone. This is one of the main reasons Steve Ditko loved working for the company, and Gill talked over and over again about how important that freedom was to him.
The other two-thirds of this eighty-page magazine contains mainly articles about Charlton characters, with a special focus on three of their main heroes: Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle and the Question. The article about Captain Atom, by comics historian Mark Burbey, is a solid look at the career of this very unique hero. My only real complaint about the article is that there’s a paucity of representative illustrations to illuminate the points Burbey makes. For instance, Burbey talks about the inferior inking of Rocke Mostroserio compared with Ditko’s wonderful inking of his own work, but readers are never really shown side-by-side shots of how the two men’s’ work was different. Another frustrating ommission is that there’s a great deal of talk about a new costume for Cap and what it represents, but we’re never shown the costume. However, the article makes up for that with other, wonderfully obscure pieces by Ditko, so I guess it balances out a little.
I was more frustrated with a short article by Burbey about perhaps Steve Ditko’s greatest creation: the intensely personal Question. Burbey talks a bit too much about Ditko’s underlying philosophy and too little about the character itself. More frustrating for me were the complaints about DC’s ’80s Question series, which Burbey obviously really despises. I wish Burbey hadn’t seen fit to go out of his way to complain that the ’80s book “abandon[ed] everything that gave him a reason in the first place.”
However, Gene Phillips’s issue-by-issue chronicle of Ditko’s Blue Beetle is just wonderful, giving readers a feel for the bizarre and intense world of Charlton’s action heroes, who had, by necessity, to cram as much story in as few pages as possible.
Another tough piece to get through is an article by Charlton writer Steve Skeates, who loves his long and winding sentences. Skeates was a wonderful writer in his day, but it takes intense concentration to be able to get through Skeates’s text. The nice thing is that the work is worth it, as Skeates delivers an interesting article.
I complain about this issue of Charlton Spotlight because I found it really interesting. I want very much to enjoy every word in every issue, so if I find something frustrating, I take it kind of personally. Despite my complaints, this is a terrific magazine and is worth checking out by any longtime comics fan.