The third of our 1940’s spectral avengers comes to us (indirectly) from Charlton Comics, which was a major player in the 1950’s and 1960’s comic industry, an era which saw many rivals to the supremacy of the “big two” (namely DC and Marvel); publishers like Charlton, Gold Key, Harvey, and Archie Comics were major comic book publishers as late as the 1980’s.

Charlton had its roots as a magazine publisher in the mid-1930’s. Their flagship magazine was Hit Parader, which featured lyrics to current popular songs. In pre-Internet days, it was the most reliable way to learn the words to records you heard on the radio because the lyrics came straight from the songs’ publishers; it’s a shame the magazine isn’t still around (Hit Parader ended in 1991 when Charlton went out of business) because many of the song lyrics you’ll find online are dead wrong (Roseanne Cash’s Blue Moon with Heartache springs immediately to mind here). By the time I was in junior high school in the Seventies Hit Parader included photos and top musical performers featured in articles and interviews.

By the 1940’s Charlton had entered the comic book business under a variety of publisher names. The company would publish a few comics under the name of one publisher, then switch the name. It’s speculated today that this was a way to beat paper rationing during the war years (the U.S. government and military were using vast amounts of paper); some comics publishers used contraband paper smuggled across the Canadian border as an additional source. It’s no secret that comic publishers in the Golden Age often had underworld ties; some comic book publishing companies were primarily intended as “fronts” for publishers of pornography (which by and large was relatively “softcore” by today’s standards) in order to provide the publisher with a facade of legitimacy, or were used as money-laundering operations in which a comics publisher would exist just long enough to channel a great deal of money through the ledgers and, incidentally, publish a handful of comic books along the way. The link between comics and organized crime is explored in some detail in the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones (Basic Books, 2005).

The early Charlton years are littered with a tangled mess of interlinked small publishers. The late Jerry Bails offered some raw (and confusing) information on his Who’s Who of American Comic Books website. Bails provided a page regarding Rural Home Publishing (a name which connotes wholesome reading material based in America’s heartland), an outfit which Bails described as “a group of loosely tied fly-by-night comics publishers in 1940s”; he went on to further describe Rural Home as consisting of “Fluid partnerships using pre-packaged material, many using blackmarket supplies of paper at end of WW2”. The various Rural Home publishers’ names are also connected to the publishers of Hit Parader, e.g. Charlton Publishing. Among the publishers Bails listed as part of Rural Home is Gerona Publishing.

A small number of comics were produced under the name Gerona Publishing between 1944 and 1946, only one of which (Yellowjacket Comics) had a multi-issue run; its ten issues were published on a very irregular schedule starting in September 1944 and concluding in June 1946. The remaining six were all one-shot comic books, and all were published under the names of different companies; four were published in 1945, with the final pair hitting the stands in 1946. None of the six had specific months provided in the indicia, while Triple Threat Comics displayed neither a month nor a year in its indicia information (the Keltner Index gives the year as 1945). Consequently, it’s not possible to know their exact publication order, or whether the books were published simultaneously or sequentially. If the latter, it’s a matter of some curiosity as to why the books didn’t maintain a sequential numbering pattern through the name changes as was the case with most other Golden Age comic publishing houses (done as a means of avoiding the expense of obtaining a new postal permit for each separate book).

A handful of recurring characters appeared in several of Gerona’s one-shot comics. One of them was Gerona’s version of the “ghostly avenger” trope: The Duke of Darkness. We’ve met the Duke before; his origin story from K.O. Comics #1 (along with my snarky comments regarding it) can be found in a post from about a year and a half ago. That post also explores the connection between the Duke of Darkness and Detective Comics’ The Spectre, namely that the Duke is a complete knockoff of the better known (and better selling) Spectre, right down to his character design and origin story (a murdered cop who returns from the dead as an avenging crimefighter).

The Duke of Darkness’ second adventure is an odd little tale regarding a supernatural menace: a man who rises from the grave to deliver horrifying nightmares to the living. Mr. Slumber’s first target is a miser for whom it’s difficult for the reader to feel any sympathy, but when the antagonist begins tormenting the sleeping cop, our egalitarian sensibilities take over and we view Slumber as a menace which needs to be dealt with. The Duke evidently sees things the same way, and what started as something of a lark for the hero becomes a deadly earnest battle between The Duke and Mr. Slumber.

The portrayal of the antagonists’ astral struggle is of some interest. The website Comic Book Plus speculates that this story may have influenced Steve Ditko’s later rendering of mystical struggles in early appearances of Marvel’s Dr. Strange in the 1960’s. At first blush one might see that connection as a bit of a stretch, until one considers that Ditko also worked for Charlton Comics and, if he didn’t read Triple Threat Comics at the time of its release, it’s entirely possible that he may have been exposed to the book during his time at Charlton.

Like the writer of Mr. Justice’s adventures (discussed in the immediately previous post to this blog), The Duke’s writer finds a clever shortcut for launching a story: The Duke of Darkness “haunts” a jail cell (knowing full well that he can escape at any time by changing to his spirit form). What started as a goofy plot twist in his origin story is used to advantage in accelerating the plot of the current story.

Here’s the second (or is it the third? It’s tough to say, given Gerona’s sketchy indicia information, as noted above) of The Duke of Darkness’ trio of Golden Age appearances, courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. You can right-click an image and open it in a new tab for a larger view.

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Triple Threat Comics #1, 1945

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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