If you’re here, you probably know plenty already about Marvel and DC, and not just because their characters are in every movie. But in the history of comics, many smaller independent publishers have come and gone, making big contributions to the form along the way. We look at the rise and fall of a few publishers with great stories.
Fawcett Comics (1919-1953)
History: Part of the publishing empire founded by Wilford Fawcett, whose life was almost like a comic. He ran away to join the army during WWI at the age of 16, rising to the rank of captain. After the war, he started on cartoons. His first was called Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, which was controversial for its racy humor. Fawcett’s sons founded Fawcett Comics in 1940 and introduced Captain Marvel—who transformed from a newsboy to a superhero by uttering the word ‘Shazam’—in the month Fawcett died.
Fawcett was very successful in the 1940s, but after years of litigation by DC Comics—who claimed Captain Marvel violated copyright in Superman—Fawcett agreed to stop publication and shut down its comic division altogether. (Later, DC had to change the character name to Shazam when Marvel Comics got hold of the Captain Marvel trademark for its own characters.) It had a brief 70s revival to publish Dennis the Menace.
Memorable characters: Captain Marvel, obviously, but let us never forget Zoro, the Mystery Man, with his sword cane and cheetah sidekick.
Charlton Comics (1946-1985)
History: Charlton Comics was founded—seriously—by a pair of criminals who met in jail. John Santangelo, Sr. was a former bricklayer with a business selling illegal sheet music. When he got put away for copyright infringement, he met a lawyer called Ed Levy, and the two went into business, expanding from music into comics in 1944 with the first issue of Yellowjacket Comics. They started Charlton the next year.
Charlton had a reputation for doing everything on the cheap—their rates were terrible, but for that reason they were a good place for writers and artists to start out. Their printing was awful, because their printing press had been once used to make cereal boxes.
Memorable characters: Charlton did a lot of licensing and buying of characters from other publishers. But when they bought the Blue Beetle name, they used it to create the character for the 60s superhero revival. Captain Atom was also originally a Charlton creation. Both were sold to DC in 1983. Charlton characters were going to be used in Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen, but DC execs got nervous when they realized so many of their characters would be left “dead or dysfunctional.”
Pacific Comics (1981-1984)
History: Although it survived only three years, Bill and Steve Schanes’s Pacific Comics changed the industry. Initially a comic book retail store, Pacific became a distributor, which led them into publishing. They innovated with better paper and ink for their comics, marketing direct to comic book stores, reviving 3-D comics, and especially with creator-owned properties: they began letting the creators of comics keep the rights to them.
They managed to convince legendary figures like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to work with them, although neither produced their best work for Pacific. Distribution problems and intense competition from other start-up publishers quickly drove them out of business, but the creator-owned content model lived on, used by Image Comics when it was founded in 1992.
Memorable characters: Probably the best-known character, The Rocketeer, first appeared with Pacific and later featured in a Disney movie. A remake is in development, of course. At the time Pacific went under, Alan Moore (that guy!) was considering working with them on V for Vendetta.
Of course, the advent of digital comics, such as Biowars, is changing the industry once again, so who knows what lies in store for comics next?