A mere year after the Lilliputian British fan press had picked up on the formation of Seaboard Publishing and its Atlas Comics imprint, the company was, in the worlds of UK fanzine The Panelologist, “stone dead”. In terms of shipping product to the marketplace, Seaboard/Atlas had been active for just 9 months, from October 1974 to the following June. In that brief time, it had produced 5 magazine and 23 comic book titles, with the former totalling just 7 issues and the latter 61. (At the time, it felt like a great deal more, due in part to Seaboard’s desperate-seeming habit of retitling series after just a few months on the stands: Morlock 2000 swiftly becoming Morlock 2000 & The Mystery Men, while Phoenix morphed into Phoenix … Protector for its fourth and final issue.) The last comic to limp away from the Seaboard offices was June 10’s Savage Combat Tales #3, whose cover promised a knockoff of Marvel’s Sgt Fury while its interiors could have appeared in any of DC’s many war titles. (What a perfect symbol of Atlas’ ineptitude when it came to winning over existing comics readers.) In the title’s letter page, someone from Seaboard’s ever-changing editorial staff wrote, with either preposterous optimism or downright mendaciousness, “We’re looking forward to bringing you Savage Combat Tales for years and years”. There was no sign at all of the end-of-the-line having arrived, beyond the somewhat disconcerting presence of a small company advert on the same page headed “Coming From Atlas” which oddly contained thumbnail covers of two titles published several months before.
It remains astonishing how quickly Seaboard/Atlas burned through the considerable goodwill amongst fans that it had at first generated. In September 1974’s Comic Media News, for example, the company’s formation had been written up by Richard Burton with a considerable measure of enthusiasm: “by all accounts it could be the company that will seriously challenge Marvel and DC’s domination of the industry …. This could be the biggest shake-up the industry has ever seen!”. The omens were indeed good. The company was “supposed to be paying exceptionally good rates … returning all original artwork to the artists (along with) the distinct possibility of royalties being paid on reprints”. As for the touted line-up of creators, it contained a number of well-established and highly regarded professionals, such as Neal Adams and Archie Goodwin, along with a bullpen of seriously talented young storytellers, from Howard Chaykin to Walt Simonson and Mike Kaluta. For the comics themselves, Atlas promised a mix of fresh new characters in a variety of genres along with the return of the fandom-favourite mid-60s superteam T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. There was even talk of a Lawrence Of Arabia book, which, if hardly the stuff of fannish day dreams, did at the very least promise a willingness to expand the ever-narrowing subject matter that afflicted America’s mid-70s comicbooks.
By the autumn of 1975, Seaboard Publishing and Atlas Comics were so obviously dead and dusted that their obituaries were appearing in the comics press. And so, in Bemusing #7, Hunter Tremayne wrote of the company’s end with a merciless, and quite justifiable, contempt for the distance between What Was Promised and What Had Occurred. In doing so, Tremayne gives a fascinating insight – for those of a mind to be fascinated by 1975’s fandom – of how a considerable number of creators were then thought of by Brit comics fans. Time has been far, far kinder on the likes of Ditko, Wood, and Colon et al than the fans of that period, who, it should be remembered, were beginning to regard even Jack Kirby as a burned-out, hackworking once-was. Yet, even given the then-fashionable distaste for the work of this creator or that, Tremayne’s description of a company “created to make a swift buck” still, in general, convinces. The truth, as far as we can know, is, yes, more complicated than that, and encompasses elements of hubris and even malice along with greed. Yet many of those involved in Atlas were undoubtedly idealistic and well-intentioned, and there were, amongst the mass of bottom-feeding titles, a few genuinely fine comics to stand as the better part of Seaboard’s legacy.
To read the above fanzine pieces is to notice, with some surprise, how fast news could be transmitted through a small, if dedicated, network of fans during those pre-Net days. Not only were the fanzines frequently as up to date with events as the technology they relied upon would allow, but they were also full of facts and opinions from professionals that we wouldn’t enjoy today to such a degree. (There were constant leaks from the Seaboard’s offices along with more than a few creators whom then or in the near future, would appear happy to share their unhappy experiences with fandom.) Luckily for those who like to know what’s going on behind the corporate curtain, there were no NDAs in 1975, and the pressure from Marvel and DC upon creators and editorial staff alike to make as few waves as possible was far less intense. Indeed, creators could express the most private and sweeping of opinions and still be sought after the Big Two. (Of course, with DC and Marvel disapproving highly of Seaboard and those who’d chosen to work there, it might have been commercially beneficial for a creator to express regret at having opted for the false promises of apparently greener pastures.) Still, there is a considerable irony to be found in the fact that we now have the technology that would allow readers to almost instantaneously understand what’s going on in the world of comics publishing, and yet, such is the state of the marketplace, from the power of employers to the ever-growing scarcity of paid and even relatively-secure opportunities, we know far less than we did some 45+ years ago.
The second post about Atlas Comics can be found here;