The gap between comic books when I was a kid and comic books today is like the difference between Bruce Wayne and Batman. My obsession dates back to the Big Three: DC, Marvel and Dell and faves like The Justice League, The Avengers, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Green Lantern and Magnus: Robot Fighter. In those days, comics were 12 cents (a weirdly arbitrary amount) and displayed on spinner racks in pharmacies and party stores where the better part of an hour was spent deciding which two comics would be exchanged for the quarter in your dusty pocket.
These days, comics have their own stores and have become graphic novels (or just books) and will set you back several dollars more than a single quarter. They have their own day and conventions are organized for the express purpose of celebrating the books’ heroes and villains, the artists who have created them and the fans who drive the multi-billion dollar industry.
Chris Charlton is one such fan. He’ll be busy this weekend on Free Comic Book Day on May 4 and at the Cincinnati Public Library’s first Comic Con on May 5, but Charlton’s interest is not simply as a comics aficionado. The former lead singer of The Host has launched his own publishing company, Assailant Comics, and a line of self-written books (Binary Gray, Black of Heart and the anthologized Sleepless) and will be signing books at Rockin’ Rooster in Covedale on Saturday; he’ll take part in a panel discussion at the Library’s Comic Con on Sunday, along with local illustrators Tony Moore (The Walking Dead, Deadpool), David Michael Beck (Jonah Hex, Justice League) and Carol Tyler (Late Bloomer, You’ll Never Know: Soldier’s Heart), among many others.
Charlton was an avid collector for years before his love of music overshadowed his love of comics. After dissolving The Host in 2010, he took a year off from creative pursuits to recharge his batteries, but found the break somewhat disconcerting.
“I was going stir crazy, and I needed some kind of outlet,” Charlton says from his Springdale home. “I had some story ideas, and then all of a sudden, I had this story idea for Binary Gray. I was like, ‘That’s really cool and I bet that could be a comic book. Maybe I’ll just give it a shot.’ ”
The simple pitch for Binary Gray: An IT tech is electrocuted at work, empowering him to communicate with computers or any electronic device by merely touching it.
Charlton’s hero, Alex Gray, is not an outsized comic book good guy; he has a tragic backstory (a common comic device), doubts himself, makes poor life choices and tries to atone for them. It’s a terrific premise for a comic book, the only early stumbling block was actualizing his story.
“I wrote 12 issues over the summer and into the fall of 2011, and I didn’t know anything at all about comic book publishing,” Charlton says. “I went to the Cincinnati Comic Con that year, and met some people. I had scripts and some character designs that a guy in Germany had drawn for me, but I was flying by the seat of my pants. Everything I did was a learning process with a lot of trial and error.”
Charlton’s original plan was to find someone to buy his idea and step aside but he quickly discovered that his best course of action would be to produce the work himself.
“Like the music or movie industry, sometimes you have do things on your own to prove that you understand the process,” Charlton says. “I went to New York and talked to guys who made their own books and publishers who didn’t want anything to do with me because I didn’t have books, I had scripts.”
Within a month, Charlton found illustrator Rowel Roque, colorist Anthonie Wilson and letterer Brant Fowler via the Internet and the first issue of Binary Gray, published in March 2012, began to shimmer into view.
“Every step of the process has been problem solving and troubleshooting, and getting the process down,” Charlton says. “But as far as the creative side, it’s gone pretty well. With the band, I was trying to tell stories in songs. I’ve been writing for years and even though it was songs, I know how to get what I want out of my brain and onto the page.”
Charlton has clearly succeeded in getting his vision down on the page with Binary Gray, now on Issue No. 4, and his two subsequent titles, Sleepless and Black at Heart. Sleepless is a short story anthology comic that debuted last summer (“Artificial Unintelligence” is a personal favorite in Issue No. 1) which pairs Charlton’s scripts with a variety of different illustrators.
Black at Heart is a stylized photo-surrealistic noirish piece about a serial killer set in late ’40s Brooklyn, N.Y., the recent first issue of which has generated incredibly positive reviews for Charlton’s chilling pre-CSI story and David Hollenbach’s equally powerful imagery.
Charlton has worn nearly every hat in building Assailant Comics from the ground up; he’s designed and maintains the website (assailantcomics.com), mans the table at as many conventions as he can work into his day-job schedule and handles distributors, mailings and social media. He also manages to write some compelling tales and works via email and Internet with some of the most creative graphic talents in the industry to craft what are quickly being recognized as some of the freshest new comic books on the market.
It all comes back to the writing, though; the most viscerally jaw-dropping art on the planet won’t make a bad story better. Charlton has concocted two excellent long form storylines and has a flair for short story twists in the fashion of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew. And he admits that sometimes, the worlds he’s created in his mind have a tendency to control the process.
“As far as writing, my first step is to outline everything. For Binary Gray, I outlined the whole story, which is huge, and then broke it down into outlines for each issue,” Charlton says. “The other side of that is to do a character profile. What’s their history? Where did they come from? How did they get their power? What are their fears? When you do that, it’s sort of like typing someone else’s conversation that you’re listening to. I hope that means I’m doing my job properly.”
Chris Charlton will sign books at ROCKIN’ ROOSTER in Covedale on Saturday and will take part in a panel discussion at the downtown library’s COMIC CON on Sunday.