Sunday, August 16, 2015

Charlton Comics: The Tenuous Waterbury Connection

Most people are aware of Waterbury's claim to fame as home of Eastern Color Printing, the first printing company to make comic books. Lesser known is Waterbury's connection to Charlton Comics, a Derby-based company that helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in comic books. According to anecdotes, Charlton Comics used a Waterbury printer for their first however many years, and they were co-founded by one of the defendants in Waterbury's Hayes-Leary scandal. I had assumed that Charlton was printing in Waterbury because the company's co-founder was from Waterbury (but you know what they say about assumptions...).

Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion about Charlton Comics at the Connecticut ComiCONN. While I was already aware of much of what is generally known about the company's history, the discussion got me thinking about it in new ways, and inspired me to write what I thought would be a quick blog post highlighting the Waterbury side of the Charlton story. As it turns out, I've stumbled onto a piece of history that hasn't been fully documented and is mostly misunderstood.

Charlton Comics panel at CT ComiCONN, 15 Aug 2015
Left to right: Mort Todd, Roy Thomas, Paul Kupperberg, TC Ford

In my effort to trace Waterbury's ties to Charlton Comics, I have found more questions than answers. There is a documentary about Charlton currently being made, so perhaps the film makers will uncover some of the answers. Or, perhaps, someone reading this post will share a few clues in the comments section. In the meantime, however, here's what I know.

Charlton Comics was founded by John Santangelo (1899-1979) and Edward G. Levy (1898-1970), who met while they were both inmates at the New Haven County Jail.

Edward G. Levy was a New Haven attorney who played a key role in the 1940 conviction of Waterbury Mayor T. Frank Hayes on corruption charges. Levy had been hired by the City of Waterbury to conduct a municipal electric light survey, which apparently went on for years.  He was paid extremely well, on the condition that he give half his payment to Waterbury Alderman Thomas P. Kelly (who was also the Mayor's Executive Assistant). This was the basic scheme by which Mayor Hayes and his cronies embezzled more than a million dollars from the City: they hired contractors who were grossly overpaid and who kicked back a portion of the excessive payments. After initially pleading not guilty along with the other 26 defendants in the case, Levy worked out a deal with the State of Connecticut, pleaded guilty, and testified against Hayes, Leary, Kelly, and the rest. Levy was one of three conspirators to testify in the case. He was sentenced to one year in jail, which is where he met Santangelo.

Santangelo was serving time for copyright infringement: he had a thriving business publishing music lyrics without permission. He was occasionally fined for his infringements: in 1937, he was fined $600 for his part in a "music copyright evasion ring" in Pennsylvania. An article at the time noted that he had been involved in similar activity in 1935. Santangelo had various properties in Bridgeport, Stamford, and Greenwich. By 1939, Santangelo was living in Derby.

The Music Publishers Protective Association (MPPA) targeted Santangelo in 1939, declaring him the largest "song pirate" of the day. They sued him for $75,000 in damages, claiming that he was producing half a million sheets of music each month at his Connecticut printing press (I don't know where the press was located--Bridgeport? Greenwich?). Santangelo wound up serving a year or two at the New Haven County Jail. [Bigamy was later added to his list of crimes, when a judge ruled in 1950 that Santangelo had not actually divorced his first wife before marrying his second wife in 1936.]

When Levy and Santangelo got out of jail, they went into business together publishing sheet music. In theory, Levy brought his experience as an attorney to help keep Santangelo from yet again being fined or jailed for copyright infringement, but they were cited at least once for exactly that.

In 1944, Levy and Santangelo added comic books to their publishing empire. Their first comic book was Yellowjacket Comics. Here's where the history gets murky. According to various websites and books, Yellowjacket was published by E. Levy/Frank Comunale Publishing Company. According to anecdotal information, all of Levy and Santangelo's printing was done in Waterbury until the late 1940s. However, according to the actual indicia of Yellowjacket Comics, it was published solely by Frank Comunale Publishing at 49 Hawkins Street in Derby, the same location as the SC Printing Company, which was owned by John Santangelo, as well as several other corporations run by Santangelo and Levy. Eventually, the comic book publishing arm of the operations was dubbed Charlton Comics.

There was no Frank Comunale living in Derby, so I don't know where that name came from. I'm guessing that Yellowjacket was printed at 49 Hawkins Street in Derby, never in Waterbury. Did Levy and Santangelo use a printer in Waterbury during the early 1940s for their sheet music? Why not a Derby printer, since that's where Santangelo lived? Maybe it had to do with volume: mass production at low cost was Santangelo's strategy, which made him a very wealthy man. Perhaps Derby didn't have a printer that could handle the large volume at a low enough price.

I'd love to find out more about Santangelo using a Waterbury printer. For now, however, it remains only an anecdote.

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