In 1955, hurricanes caused severe flooding in Connecticut, leading to the destruction of small towns and $300 million worth of damage. The flooding forced Charlton Comics to shut down its production for a few months in 1955. After starting at Charlton, and taking a break due to a health crisis, Steve Ditko tried to return to Charlton in 1955, but because of the flood, he had to go work for Atlas Comics, instead, which later created a connection between Ditko and Stan Lee that would become a major part of Marvel Comics history in the 1960s, when Ditko and Lee co-created Spider-Man.

Welcome to the 912th installment of Comic Book Legends Revealed, a column where we examine three comic book myths, rumors and legends and confirm or debunk them. This time, in our second legend, discover how a hurricane that hit Connecticut in 1955 changed Marvel Comics forever.

The Summer of 1955 in Connecticut was generally a dry one, and the state was actually teetering close to being in a drought. That changed when Hurricane Connie technically missed the Northeast of the United States, but dropped a ton of rain on Connecticut on the week of August 12th, 1955. Just a week later, Hurricane Diane hit, and while again, it only barely crazed the Northeast of the United States, it brought torrential rain, and not only torrential rain, but torrential rain that paused for days in specific spots, tributaries and headwaters for Connecticut creeks and rivers, causing them to swell (nine inches of rain fell in just the FIRST DAY of the rain).

The result was a critical mass on August 19th, when Biblical-level flooding tore through Connecticut, throughout the state, very few areas were spared the flooding. It effectively destroyed a number of small towns. Here’s a little documentary on the flood…

Waterbury resident Barbara Genovese recalled that the after effects made the town look, “War torn. You couldn’t believe that little river, that was nothing, was a ripple, could do that. You saw debris and furniture and suitcases and just overwhelming. You just didn’t expect something like that in our little town,”

There was over $300 million in damage done, and 90 people were killed. Tragically, there was ANOTHER major flood just two months later, but luckily, that was a bit more localized. The federal government eventually developed a series of flood control measures through the uses of dams to avoid floods like this in the future, but obviously, the damage had already been done. One surprising effect of the flooding was that the career path of Steve Ditko, one of the greatest comic book artists of the 20th Century was waylaid, and so Marvel Comics saw ITS path altered by Ditko being forced to go work for Marvel in 1955.

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Why was Steve Ditko forced to work for Marvel in 1955?

Steve Ditko broke into professional comic books on a regular basis (as opposed to just getting one assignment here or there) by working for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s studio in 1953. He got to work closely with his idol, Mort Meskin, who was also working for Kirby and Simon. However, a downturn in the 3D comic book boom of 1953-54 (which I covered in an old Comic Book Legends Revealed) caused some cutbacks, so Ditko’s services were no longer needed at Kirby and Simon’s studio, so Ditko went to go work for Charlton Comics, a small publisher in Derby, CT that specialized in churning out constant cheap comic books. While that did not appeal to many comic book creators, as “cheap comics,” of course, meant low page rates, it DID appeal to Ditko, as “low page rates” also meant “little oversight,” and the young creator was bustling with creativity and wanting to try out new things in 1954. He especially excelled at horror work at Charlton.

In any event, Ditko began at Charlton right before the big Comics Code crackdown, with the cover of The Thing #12…

Plus a vampire story in the book…

However, two major things halted that pretty quickly – first, the Comics Code Authority debuted, crippling the horror comics industry, and second, Ditko came down with tuberculosis, and it was so bad that his co-workers were pretty sure he was going to die. His mother traveled to collect Ditko, and bring him back home to recuperate.

A year later, Ditko was prepared to return to Charlton Comics, but, well, guess who was heavily affected by the 1955 floods? Yep, Charlton Comics. As my buddy Christoper Irving observed in his look at Charlton Comics in Comic Book Artist #9 with Jon B. Cooke:

Eleven inches of rainfall caused massive flooding that claimed the lives of hundreds of victims in the Connecticut Valley area. All 129 acres of the Charlton grounds were submerged in 18 feet of water. $300, 000 worth of paper inventory, mats, comics art work, and plates, among other things, were destroyed by the flood in minutes.

“When the flood came through,” Burton N. Levey, cousin to co-owner Ed Levy and Charlton executive, said, “we had to get on top of the building because the water was rising, and a helicopter landed on the roof and took us off–that’s how I got out of there! I watched my car float down the river.”

“The press was entirely underwater, the building was underwater,” Joe Gill said. “[Artist] Maurice ‘Reese’ Whitman had to be taken off the roof by helicopter. Cars were washed away.”

The company was completely shut down for a few months, with Charlton having to outsource its comics to outside presses while getting everything sorted out, and as a result, when Ditko showed up looking to return to the company, they told him there was no work to be found. He was forced to go work for Atlas Comics, instead, the company now known as Marvel Comics.

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Ditko’s debut at Marvel was in late 1955’s Journey Into Mystery #33, where he drew “There’ll Be Some Change Made,” a twisted little tale about an inventor who is irritated that his ancestors wasted their fortune. So he invented a time machine that allowed him to actually KILL the ancestor who wasted the family’s fortune! The end result is not what he expected…

That’s a pretty dark ending, huh? Dude just killed his ancestor and his wife’s like, “Yeah, don’t do that again.”

Ditko was one of a large collection of freelancers at Atlas (now Marvel Comics. Even then, though, Atlas wasn’t an official name for the company) working in 1955-56, but then another disaster struck! This time, it wasn’t a natural disaster, but a financial one. Martin Goodman owned his own distribution company, but was convinced it wasn’t worth the money, so he cut a deal with the largest distributor in the country, and dismantled his own distribution company in 1957. A few months later, the new distributor went out of business, crippling Goodman’s comic book business. He was able to cut a deal with the distribution company owned by DC, so he could stay in business, but the end result was a massive reduction in the amount of comics Goodman could publish.

Basically everyone was fired except for Stan Lee, including Ditko, and Marvel just used its now extra inventory it had by virtue of having stories produced for X titles, and only printing less than half of that original total. By this point, Charlton Comics was back in business, but as Joe Gill noted to Christopher, “When the smoke cleared, Santangelo called a meeting of the artists and myself. He was an inspired speaker in his broken English, and said he was going to carry on (though, in the meanwhile, the guy had gotten umpteen dollars in flood relief from the government, for free; this was an enormous boost for him), but he couldn’t continue to pay us the same ‘high rates. ‘ He said that we could all continue working at half of what we had been working before. I was dropped to two dollars a page [a quarter of what the major companies were paying at the time].”

Ditko then had to work for those half-page rates, as well. His response was to just churn out MASSIVE AMOUNTS of pages, basically five times as much work as he had done for Marvel in the previous year.

In 1958, though, Marvel burned through its inventory, and had to start re-hiring freelancers (it still did occasional new stories in 1957, it wasn’t ALL inventory). With a reduced staff, Lee needed artists who could mostly work on their own, and Ditko was a major plus in that regard, so Lee specifically sought out Ditko to return, and since Charlton’s rates were still microscopic (they would eventually get back up to at least “just bad”), Ditko agreed, and it was during this stint that he and Lee created an arachnid superhero of some renown.

Imagine if Charlton never shut down, though, and Lee didn’t get to know how much he could rely on Ditko’s storytelling ability when Lee had to re-hire artists in 1958? Comic book history would have been VERY different.

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 In the latest Comic Book Legends Revealed, learn how a 1955 hurricane that ravaged Connecticut changed Marvel Comics forever  Read More