Charlton Comics: “You know their names. You know their work. What you don’t know is how they got their start…” Keith Larsen and Jackie Zbuska are set to change that. These two filmmakers are currently working on a documentary film that will explore the history and legacy of Charlton Comics. Recently, they sat down with Indyfest to discuss the project, how it’s grabbed them, and where it’s going.
IM: Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about yourselves? What are your general backgrounds?
JZ: I am awful at talking about myself! I’m a makeup artist and special effects artist for film. I’ve been doing that for over ten years, and what a crazy ride it’s been! You might have seen some of my movies at festivals, or on TV. I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, and other than that, I’m a lifelong geek. How much of a geek? I hitchhiked to meet Stan Lee at a public appearance, so I think that sums it up.
KL: Oh man. I’ll keep it as brief and semi-interesting as I can. I guess that the quickest answer is that I have been working as a producer/editor professionally since 1993 or so. I got to work on professional projects while still in college, and that led to my first job in 1995 as the staff technician, and also teaching production as an adjunct at Quinnipiac University (then College). From there, it was working in the same capacity at Middlesex Community College while freelancing, and then went into business for myself full-time in 2003. I now work at AJA Video Systems as the Senior Field Systems Engineer for the East Coast and I’m putting this movie together when I’m not at the day job. It’s been a journey. The irony of the Charlton Movie is that when I was a kid, and all through high school, all I wanted to do was draw comics. That’s all I did. But being young and impressionable, and having a rather conservative upbringing in a state like Connecticut in the 1980s (dating myself), combined with negative advice from a guidance counsellor, derailed that dream. Now, 30 years later or so, I am working with the guys I dreamed of working with back then, but they are working with me in MY medium, which is really kinda cool to think about.
IM: Jackie, how did you break into make-up design?
In junior high, my Dad was my art teacher and I’d have to wait after school for a ride home. While I waited, I would work on art projects. I found a box of watercolors, and one of the reds looked exactly like blood, so I started experimenting with simple cuts and scrapes. The next day I borrowed that red watercolor paint with the plan to fake a bloody nose to get out of a French class that I hated.
I went to class, put a tiny dot of red under my nose and two drops on a tissue, raised my hand and waited. The teacher turned from the blackboard lesson plan, and instead of excusing me from class, she started screaming… like horror movie style… then ran from the room to my Father’s classroom, while screaming in broken English “Monsieur! Monsieur! Your daughter is bleeeeding!!!”
Well! The halls quickly filled with teachers and students to see the spectacle, while I quietly escaped to the bathroom to give myself a real bloody nose, in whatever manner I could, because I knew I was in serious trouble.
Long story short, I couldn’t make my nose bleed for real, and my Dad fetched me from the bathroom and knew (without asking) what I was up to (because I am my Father’s daughter).
I had to make a public apology to the school, but since that day, I knew I wanted a career in special effects makeup.
My Dad and I still laugh about this.
IM: Your products are all cruelty-free; it’s even noted in the name of your business. What steps do you take to ensure that your products are not tested on animals? What challenges have you encountered in maintaining this standard?
JZ: I do a lot of research on products that I use on myself and at work. I chose to become cruelty-free for ethical reasons, but find that a lot of the products that maintain the cruelty-free status are tried and true with wonderful reputations. There are a lot of great websites that offer guides to buying cruelty-free, but most beauty products that are CF like to advertise the fact by labeling their packages with the Leaping Bunny logo. This bunny emblem certifies that the products and its ingredients have never been tested on animals.
What comes as a challenge is when a CF company decides to sell their products in countries that still test on animals, or a smaller company is bought out by a larger one that tests.
I don’t believe in waste, so while I do remove these products from my kit, I’ll donate them out to someone who could use them.
IM: How are you handling making the leap from cosmetics to film production?
JZ: Having been in the film industry for over a decade, I’ve spent a lot of time with producers, and have seen and heard what goes into making a film from start to finish. That said, actually doing it myself is COMPLETELY different.
It’s hard; I won’t lie, but extremely rewarding. A great friend told me, “No one will care as much about your project as you.” The project becomes your baby, and no matter the circumstances, you want, and will see it through until it’s ready to be released into the world.
It gives you a whole new sense of pride. It feels amazing!
IM: Keith, you got into film production while you were still in college. How did that happen?
KL: Well, after my high school guidance counsellor destroyed my dreams of working in comics, I was lost. I ended up working in a factory, wiring these giant test consoles for clients like NASA and Lockheed Martin. Many of the people there saw that I was a creative person toiling the line for a pay check and really encouraged me to get out before I became a “lifer” and wasted an opportunity to do something better. I heard a lot of ads on the radio for the Connecticut School of Broadcasting and thought that radio might be fun. Maybe be a sports talk show host or something, since I love sports as much as comics and movies. Then a friend intervened and told me to go to Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Connecticut. They had a renowned communications program and I could dabble in TV as well as radio, while getting an associate degree in the process. When I went to check it out, then-coordinator John Shafer told me that on first impression, he saw me more as a “behind the scenes” TV guy than a radio host. I bristled at the observation, but boy, he couldn’t have been more spot-on! I loved shooting and REALLY loved to edit video. I spent all of my waking time up there in that department over the next few years and John—and his successor, Rich Lenoce—really encouraged and bred a hands-on, “use it until it breaks” environment at that school. I also had a group of peers that were so talented and creative at the time. It was a perfect storm. With the creative freedom we were given, all kinds of disposable time, and the pool of energetic and talented students, we began to create some really good stuff.
As an added bonus, the poorly-funded state school needed to raise more money to purchase or repair all of this TV technology, so John developed a corporate video program, in which students would be hired by other state agencies or non-profit agencies to produce professional videos for money. We’d get paid a little something for our efforts like a part-time job, and the rest of the money went back into the department to keep it running. It was a win-win! I was also on the student work study program, so I would spend all kinds of time working with Dan Nocera, the tech guy there, re-wiring edit suites and learning all about the technical side of the industry. The experience I had wiring those test consoles for NASA and Lockheed came in handy as well. So, by the time I hit the street with my feeble associate degree, I had a complete understanding of how to put together a broadcast facility, as well as a pile of professional production work to use as a resume reel. Sure enough, Quinnipiac College thought enough of that to hire me over 90-plus other applicants with big, fancy degrees. Crazy story, but a testament to my classmates and Middlesex Community College for the absolutely amazing two-plus years of career change learning anybody could receive.
IM: How would you compare your experiences in creating corporate videos to that of making documentaries to working on original comedy?
KL: Well, let me kick this answer off by stating that I am a student of comedy. I think comedy is the absolute toughest thing to do and do well. It’s all rhythm and timing. A bad delivery of an absolutely hilarious line of dialog can destroy the impact, and it’s honing that craft that I really enjoy working at all the time. I went to school with some of the funniest dudes on the planet, and it’s a real shame that the interwebs and all these distribution outlets weren’t around when we had all kinds of disposable time and funny ideas enough to fill a warehouse (dating myself again). I think the basic muscle action of smiling is the greatest of feelings in the world, and this guy here likes to laugh. Why not? Life is a great comedy. As far as corporate videos and such, I’d like to take this opportunity to say this much: I’ve cut just about anything out there. Features, documentaries, ad spots, music video montages… the list goes on and on. The idea that corporate videos aren’t ‘real’ stories or somehow aren’t the same as broadcast pieces is ludicrous, in my opinion. For starters, I’ve personally never approached a corporate video on the basis that it has to be ‘moving PowerPoint’ and thrown my hands up and put together boring talking heads and b-roll. I always approach them with a TV sensibility. I look at stuff on TruTV or Discovery, and then take ideas to jobs or clients and make their videos look like something on those networks. They tend to love it and it inspires them to want to be creative with some rather bland subject matter. Citing one example that comes to mind immediately, I once did a video for a client that was documenting moving a giant piece of technology across the state overnight. I mean, this thing was bigger than a house and it was on this truck with over 100 wheels that rolled at five miles an hour. People would line the streets to watch it go by. Well, we could’ve gotten a smarmy narrator to tell the story over b-roll shots of this thing, but why do that when we could make a knockoff ‘episode’ of Modern Marvels? I used all kinds of editing techniques and tricks to spice it up and they loved it. It was interesting and told a compelling story. I think the point I’m trying to make via rambling is that storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s a three-minute direct to client/audience video, or a 30-minute episodic on television, or three-hour documentary/motion picture. If you can’t tell a compelling story with visuals and audio, you don’t belong working in this business in any form. That’s my opinion and many might disagree, but the idea that cutting something that isn’t broadcast or distributed theatrically somehow lessens your ability to tell a story is bunk and length is just that: storytelling for a longer duration.
IM: How did the two of you connect?
JZ: Yeah, our friend knew that Keith and I would definitely appreciate each other’s humor! The three of us ended up outside talking until well after the restaurant closed. Then, all of a sudden, this car comes screeching into the parking lot, heading right for the building, then pulls a sharp turn, hops the curb, and stalls out in a drainage ditch.
KL: It was a drunk woman who embedded her car in the side of a hillside and hilarity ensued. Jackie and I were friends immediately, when we both realized that we were on the same unspoken page when it came to dealing with that lady. Jack, what WAS that thing in the back seat? HAHA
JZ: It was some bottle stopper for her Wild Turkey, but it was definitely sketchy looking. We called the cops and it turns out this woman was a regular. They pulled up and were like, “Oh Sarah… not again… this is the third time this week!” Keith and I looked at each other and said, “Third time in a week???… but it’s only Tuesday!” Hahaha
IM: Tell us a bit about Charlton Comics. Who were/are they?
JZ: A simple Wikipedia search will tell you that Charlton was a company founded by two men who met in prison, and they printed comic books and music magazines. This is a very bland and hollow story of what Charlton was.
The real story to me is that this company, without knowing it, launched an incredible legacy. The legacy of comic book creators that went on to big careers, but also one of the few companies that survived the Comics Code Authority.
KL: As Bob Layton points out in our trailer, “They were the three-legged dog of comics.” Charlton is like an onion that you keep peeling away layers of, and when you get to the core, you realize that the overarching notion is that this is a company that basically had it all and didn’t know it. They had amazing talents in the comics division doing ground-breaking stuff, and didn’t seem to notice or care. They had a soup-to-nuts facility that was one-of-a-kind, and let it slip away. They were seemingly unable to change with the times or re-invent themselves, and it ultimately became their undoing. That’s across the board from their magazine lines to their comics. I personally find it all rather sad. Derby… Connecticut… The entire country… all lost out on a really special resource. It’s too bad.
IM: What can you tell us about the scope of their appeal and influence?
JZ: Charlton has a grassroots appeal to those who used to read their comics. It’s nostalgic for them, and great to see the name live on. On the flip side, Charlton is also a hidden gem in the pop culture sphere. Everyone has heard of Marvel and DC, but younger generations may have never heard of Charlton, and for that reason, we know that they’re hungry for the next big thing, even if it’s an underdog—or maybe especially because it’s an underdog!
KL: I’d tend to think that their scope was rather limited. They never got the widespread distribution that Marvel or DC got, but they did survive the 1950s near collapse of the comics industry, unlike most of the other ‘B-level’ comic book publishers. So with that in mind, their appeal was equally as stunted, but they provided readers with titles unlike just about anything in the industry. They embraced romance, westerns, horror, sci-fi, and even TV and movie properties, with more titles in those genres than anyone else, which gave readers looking for something other than superheroes somewhere to go. Marvel and DC did some of those kinds of titles too, but not to the level of Charlton. Their influence can be seen in the line of action heroes that were purchased by DC Comics in the 1980s. DC still uses characters such as The Question, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and others to this day. They are also the line of heroes that were altered to form The Watchmen which, to many comic book fans, is one of the definitive works of the last half-century.
IM: What is it about the Charlton story that you think audiences will relate to?
JZ: Charlton is a story of success, but not in the traditional sense. It comes with the mantra that good things come to those who wait. Except this time, it took over 30 years!
KL: There are so many threads to pull on with the Charlton story. One thread takes you down a rather unfavorable path involving potential unsavory people connected to underworld crime. I mean, look: the company was founded by two guys in prison! Aaaaaand cue intro titles… Another thread takes you on a journey of creative freedom and wonder. Another exposes the silly story behind why Charlton even bothered to print comics in the first place. There are more and more threads to pull or onion layers to peel. Either way, the story is incredibly enthralling and downright funny, while at the same time tragic. We were given a taste of it in a one-hour panel at a comic-con and thought it was enough to craft a movie around. Jackie has found some crazy, crazy material in her research at this point, and we’re starting to wonder how the heck to fit into 90–120 minutes of screen time! We may need to make two movies pretty soon. There’s already that much and it’s all compelling. We’re just getting started.
IM: Could you give us a bit of an elevator pitch on the documentary? What is the story that you’re hoping to convey through your film?
KL: Well, until we have all of the players interviewed on camera, we won’t have a complete idea of the final story that we want to tell. I have always thought that the crux of the piece is the notion that all of these “Mount Rushmore of comics” guys worked there and went on to great things, but there is so much more to it than that and more to be revealed to us, I’m sure. Whatever story or stories we decide to incorporate into the final show will dovetail into making sure that the audience realizes what an important footnote Charlton Comics is in comics history and that, though it’s been gone for three decades, we are all enjoying their properties to this day in other forms, and that’s pretty darn cool.
JZ: Charlton is a story of success, but not in the traditional sense. It comes with the mantra that good things come to those who wait. It’s been called the three-legged dog of comics, and the scrappy, street-fighting cousin of Marvel and DC, and even hailed as the comic book equivalent of Roger Corman and American International Pictures. Maybe you’ve heard of it? …Probably not. But, you do know the industry legends that called it home. This is Charlton Comics.
IM: Can you outline your process/plan to achieve this?
KL: The first step, and most difficult, is traversing the US and abroad, hunting down and interviewing surviving former Charlton artists and writers. We are also looking for former employees and management to interview. Once we collect all of those, we start picking through it all and craft the narrative from that. We’ll fill in holes with a narration and then build the visual fabric from there. Lots of work, but tons of fun. We’ve been excited about undertaking this ‘mission’ from the get-go, and the only thing slowing us down is funding.
IM: Tell us about some of the challenges that you’re encountering thus far.
JZ: Challenges… how about our day jobs! I love my job, and now I love Charlton, so it’s a fine balancing act to make sure both are nurtured to grow. When it comes to this documentary and doing the research, I’m finding that most of the facts you’ll dig up are either outright wrong… ooooor a bit skewed, or really skewed. We’re going to give the world the real story, the fact-checked story, by the eyes and ears that were there.
Our biggest challenge for me is getting the word out to the public. Our documentary is orbiting just outside the pop culture sphere, and with a little work, we’ll tap in, but how we’ll get in? Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens… but we’ve got ideas.
Oh wait, I think I want to change my mind on the biggest challenge. WOMEN! Yes, women are my biggest challenge! To quote my friend, “there were a LOT of old dudes in that trailer.” Charlton employed women, and we are (desperately) seeking them out!
KL: Besides trying to locate all of our potential interview candidates? It’s financing this sucker. We honestly drew this up to be a lot smaller in scope a year ago. We figured that we could talk to a handful of folks in the northeast and put something together, peddle it to CPTV (our local PBS affiliate in Connecticut), donate to the Hero Initiative charity, and call it a win. Then our producer friend in LA, Dennis Peters, looked at our pitch deck and rousingly informed us that we were thinking too small and that this was a national-level project. Once we spoke with Den and he put us on a different course, the whole scope of the project exploded. To do this right, and to tell the story as completely and accurately as possible, we will need some funding. We’re trying Indiegogo for now, but landing an investor or another source of revenue is essential for us to continue along in a timely fashion. We’ll finish the movie somehow, but self-financing it could take years, and nobody wants that.
IM: How about lucky breaks, encouragement, or other positive feedback?
KL: The feedback we’ve gotten is 99.99% positive. A few haters online are challenging our ability to tell a story as film makers, because we readily admit that we knew just about nothing about Charlton when we set out to make this movie. I kind of think that works in our favor, because we will research like crazy and work harder to find all of the facts that we can, rather than impose our comic nerd knowledge of Charlton on the project. But aside from a few posts, everyone is excited and seems to love our trailer. As for lucky breaks? I can think of but one: walking into a panel at CT ComiCONN 2014 because we had tired feet, and ending up with a cool movie project and new friends like Paul Kupperberg, Bob Layton, Denny O’Neil, Frank McLaughlin, Joe Staton, Joe Sinnott, Jose Garcia Lopez, and more, because of it. That is what you call serendipitous timing. THAT is one lucky-ass break.
JZ: Keith and I have been beyond fortunate that every interview leads to a new break, a new connection, and new friends. One newspaper story started a connection with factory workers who used to work at Charlton. Our social media pages have connected us to like-minded people who want to see this project succeed, or who want to help in whatever way they can. The interviews have created a bond with some of the greats in the comic book world that we grew up reading. I can’t even explain how wonderful it feels to have a small army building up behind you to push this project forward. Keith mentioned that we have a few haters, and I think that’s great! Having haters just means that this project matters enough for someone to notice… so take THAT, evil doers!!! Hahaha
I will say that I have received a tremendous amount of support from my brothers and sisters in the film community. They’re happy to see me switching gears and taking on broader (and niftier) aspects.
IM: As I write this, you’re in the middle of an Indiegogo fundraising campaign (which wrapped up before we went to press). How else are you getting the word out?
KL: Jackie and I are leaving no stone unturned. We’ve pillaged the social media outlets on the interwebs, for starters. We’ve been blowing up Facebook and Twitter in particular. We have a subscription newsletter feed on our site. We’re doing as many podcasts, radio spots, and print and online interviews as we can (thank you for this!). We’ve put postcards in every comic book store in Connecticut. We’re setting up at comic book shows both small and large starting this month, and applying for panels at as many of the cons that’ll have us. We even wear Charlton t-shirts when we visit a con or do panels. Whatever we can do to push the movie, we’re trying it.
JZ: Every day we’re working on getting in touch with the local press and TV networks, then branching out from there to anyone who wants to help us promote. This movie is a team movement. Charlton started with two founders and grew from there. This documentary is the same way, with Keith and me at the core, and then spreading out to anyone who lends a hand along the way, essentially joining our team as honorary members.
IM: Once the film is made, how are you planning to get it out to the fans?
JZ: Well I think that since we found the story at a comic-con, why not finish it the same way? I feel that after an initial screening at a con, we’ll explore what other markets might be interested.
KL: We’re not decided completely since it’s quite a bit away, but we are in total agreement on a few things. We’ll be hosting a screening with all of the comic book legends we can pull into the premiere, along with a cocktail party/meet-and-greet for fans. We’re also thinking a one-time screening at either San Diego Comic Con or NY Comic Con. Then take it on tour or something to raise money for the Hero Initiative. Whatever we decide to do as a distribution outlet, will be done with Hero Initiative at the core of the decision. From the very beginning, it was our wanting to make a substantial donation to that charity that sparked the idea to produce the show in the first place. It’s been very important to Jackie and me to make sure that we give back and help out the guys and gals who entertained and thrilled us over the years.
IM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about the film?
KL: Just that we are trying to reach a broader audience with this movie and crack into the pop culture sphere. Comics are hotter than they’ve ever been and retro stuff is even cooler. Don’t the young people out there want to be the first to say that they knew about Charlton Comics when…?
JZ: Yes! This pertains to our contributors and followers on social media. You’re family now. What that means is that, until Charlton has its world premiere, we will be in touch. We want your opinions! We want feedback… good or bad. This may be a comic book documentary, but we want to grab the attention of those who are too chic to geek, and maybe convert a few to the nerd herd! We can’t do that without YOU!
IM: Are there any other projects on your horizon?
KL: I’ve always got my brain in forward motion. I’d like to revisit a comedy series I was developing for NBC again, maybe. I’ve got a friend who’s written three or four amazing movie scripts. Maybe another documentary… either way, I’ve my feet firmly rooted in Charlton Comics: The Movie, and until we are all watching it in a darkened theater, my focus and energy is all on that.
JZ: For me, no. Working on film sets gives me the opportunity to explore my creativity on a daily basis. But don’t count me out! If another great story comes around, I’ll pounce. Until then, it’s nothing but makeup, monsters, and Charlton!
IM: Finally, how can our readers keep up with you and your projects?
KL: www.CharltonMovie.com, and from there, you can find us all over the information superhighway. Do they still call it that? God, I’m old… Up and Atom! Captain Atom that is…
JZ: This is the age of social media! Since everyone has their preferred platform we wanted to offer a number of ways to connect. As Keith said, the first stop would be our website: www.CharltonMovie.com
Keith is over on Twitter – www.Twitter.com/CharltonMovie. Stop by and give us a follow; we love new friends!
IM: Thanks so much!
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