The Creators Of Marvel Comics?: 31 Days Of Atlas #2

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Atlas/Seaboard’s publishing schedule began with every appearance of caution. In October 1974, the company debuted two new magazine titles, Movie Monsters and Weird Tales Of The Macabre. Each trod exceptionally well-trodden paths, and, as a consequence, each could have passed, at first glance, as the products of several other companies. (It had always been the way of Atlas’ founder Martin Goodman, who had sold up his stake in Marvel in the early 70s, to jump on existing bandwagons rather than pioneer anything that was, he felt dangerously untried.) In a disastrously depressed marketplace, it made sense, of a sort, to begin by hitching Atlas’ wagons to other people’s established product. (Having said that, the commercial strategy for Atlas was so absurdly ambitious that it may well be that Goodman just didn’t grasp how poor a state the comics industry was in.) As such, Movie Monsters was an obvious knockoff of Forest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland, while Weird Tales Of The Macabre stood obviously in the tradition of horror mags from the likes of Warren, Skywald, and Marvel. (Given that the quality of each of the new Seaboard magazines was at the very best the equal of the worst of their immediate competitors, it would have made sense to try to undercut the opposition’s prices, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t the road chosen.) But in the following month, a reckless slate of seven new four-colour titles along with four new magazines appeared. By comparison with Marvel’s output for November 1974, which stood at 43 comics, 5 magazines, and 2 treasuries, or even with that of DC Comics,  with its 14 standard comics, 7 100-pagers, and 2 treasuries,  it was hardly a market-swamping strategy. And yet, it could feel as if it was exactly that. These were noticeably new characters from a largely unheralded new company, different enough to draw attention and yet oh-so strangely familiar too. In an age in which the audience for comics was already disserved by a pronounced degree of brand loyalty, Seaboard/Atlas was clearly gambling upon there being a hidden reserve of easily turned floating readers.

Yet if Seaboard/Atlas had hoped to serve as an enticing alternative to Marvel and DC, who, for all their financial woes, had the marketplace pretty much sown up between themselves, they paradoxically also chose to present themselves as akin to the output of Marvel Comics. Hence, it wasn’t just a matter of being a viable alternative to Marvel and DC. Atlas was, with askew logic, appearing to promise that it would provide a superior breed of Marvelesque storytelling. It would have one thing to carve out an economically viable share of comics sales. But to challenge Marvel on the grounds of being Even-More-Marvel-Than-Marvel was ludicrously ambitious. Quite obviously, it also ran the risk of immediately alienating anyone who preferred storytelling styles that Marvel had opted not to pursue. Yet the sense remained that this was indeed Atlas’ strategy, no matter how partial and ill-applied. Some of this came from the obvious similarities between the two companies’ lines. (For Conan, read Ironjaw. For Daredevil, read The Destructor, and so on.) Some came from Atlas’ hiring of artists who either helped spawn Marvel’s reign as a line-leading company, such as old masters Steve Ditko and Wally Wood. Some came from the clear expropriation of Marvel’s dynamic cover traditions, a fact that was especially obvious when the work of Kirby-acolyte Rich Buckler appeared. Similarly, the prose tone adopted by Atlas’ ever-changing stable of writers and editors sailed far closer to the purposeful hyperbole of Stan Lee’s house style than the considerably less chummy and avuncular tone adopted by DC and the smaller publishers. Even the stable of oddball, horror-tinged protagonists in many of Atlas’ books appeared to, rather ineptly, echo many of the more out-there mid-70s books that Marvel were then pioneering.

And then there was the choice of “Atlas” as the name for the Goodman’s new comics company, which couldn’t help but seem, to those who knew a little comics history, both a touch puzzling and, perhaps, even a touch belligerent. For the title of Goodman’s comicbook fiefdom had been, immediately prior to its renaming as Marvel Comics, Atlas Comics. In reclaiming that name, there was an unavoidable suggestion that the Goodmans were reclaiming a heritage that was older than Marvel’s and, in doing so, laying claim to the legitimacy of tradition. It was as if they were insisting that it was they who had always been in charge at Marvel, and that they’d been clearly seen to be so prior to Stan Lee’s rise through the 60s as company figurehead and ambassador. Whatver came after, and particularly after both had, in their different ways, left the company, was grounded in the Goodman’s stewardship. Given that Goodman Snr had, when he left the role of Marvel’s publisher in 1972, seemingly believed that his son would remain embedded in the company, and given that Chip Goodman had then in fact been swiftly pushed out, grounds for resentment and revenge are easy to imagine. Whatever the truth of the matter, such suspicions were hard to push away.

In essence, Atlas could appear to have chosen not just to fight for its nascent life in a severely declining market, but to do so in direct challenge to a well-established and relatively powerful opponent. One way of doing that was, as I’ll detail further in a moment, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Marvel’s achievements. Commercial sense would have insisted on a slower, more gradual, and less grandly ambitious plan of attack. Relatively untended-to niches might have been identified and then cautiously catered for. Commonalties between the fans of the Big Two might have been signed up and patiently targeted.

But no. Atlas Comics was, and remains, a prime example of how not to sell comic books. Presumably, it was also an example of  how to lose a considerable amount of money in a very short time.

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But if all the above jousting with Marvel wasn’t enough, then Atlas’ earliest issues also contained vainglorious attempts to establish the company as not just Marvel’s competitor, but as its inevitable and immediate successor. In essence, Atlas was, or so the company appeared to imply, a better kind of Marvel Comics. The advert at the top of this blog page, for example, appeared in that first wave of Atlas comics, and it featured the tag-line: “The NEW House Of Ideas“. It was an appropriation of Marvel’s house motto, as invented and pushed by Stan Lee, that couldn’t help but stand out as an expression of the purest hubris. In short, Atlas were being seen to declare, “We’re better than Marvel, which is now pathetically over-the-hill”. Perhaps those at Atlas who pushed and OKed this line thought they were merely tapping into Stan Lee’s long-established habit of referring to DC as “the Distinguished Competition”, a quietly sneering phrase that strongly implied a staid and reactionary pedlar of yesterday’s stale confections. (It is notable that Atlas didn’t, to my knowledge, insult DC in any similarly forthright manner. Perhaps that was an even more demeaning insult to the second-biggest publisher in the field, to simply be ignored.) Yet, evidently, Lee had far more claim to have the right to joust with his competitors than Atlas did. He had, in the early 60s, with the likes of storytelling geniuses such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, reworked the traditions of the super-book into something remarkably fresh and potent. By contrast, Atlas was the new kid on the block, and there was nothing fresh or particularly potent about its first wave of product.

If Lee had taken but six months and three issues of the Fantastic Four in 1962 to plaster “The Greatest Comic Magazine In The World” on the title’s cover, he was, in addition to expressing a smile-inducing degree of chutzpah, speaking something of the truth. The Fantastic Four was indeed new and surprising and, in places, even shocking. So were Spider-Man, and the Hulk, and the X-Men, and, to one degree or another, the whole line of Marvel books prior to 1968. By contrast, nothing that Atlas could offer off the bat could match what Marvel at its best had long ago achieved. Nor did there seem the slightest chance of it doing so. In short, Atlas was picking a fight before it could hope to throw a convincing punch. It came across badly, as contemptuous rather than ambitious, as vindictive rather than good-natured, as smug rather than confident. To those who knew anything of Goodman’s control of Atlas, with his son Chip, along with his previous history in the comicbook industry, it really did look very much as a fight were being picked. Whether that was in any way true, and the likes of Ghost Rider co-creator Gary Friedrich strongly doubt it was so, it was an unpleasant impression to, accidentally or not, transmit.

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Nor was that the limit of Atlas’ impetuous and arrogant attempts to claim Marvel’s crown during November 1974. In the hypeful editorial page to be found in each of that month’s Atlas comics, which quite obviously lifted the tone, if not the pizzazz, of Lee’s editorial pieces for Marvel, the following remarkable declaration could be found;

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This far exceeded even the loosest impression of ‘playful banter’. For whatever reason, the claim was being made that responsibility for Marvel Comics, its formation and its ‘impressive’ ‘performance’ was all down to Martin Goodman and his son Chip. To anyone who knew anything about Marvel and the industry, the idea that Chip Goodman had been responsible for any aspect and any degree of Marvel’s achievements would have seemed ludicrous. (It’s hard to watch Succession without, painfully, thinking that certain moments of public cruelty on the part of media patriarch Logan Roy towards his son Kendall express a Goodmanesque quality.) But far more than that, Goodman’s decades-long career as a bottom-feeding publisher could never be considered a creative triumph. Marvel was the creation of Lee and Kirby and Ditko, along with a bullpen of dedicated and able craftspeople. Goodman was the source of finance, but often too little of it, and his interference repeatedly cast a terrible shadow across Marvel’s development. His determined refusal to pay artists a fraction of their worth meant that Ditko, Wally Wood and Jack Kirby all walked away from the company. His insistence in 1968 that Lee haul back on ambitious, multi-part storytelling had the effect, as Alan Moore has argued, of stymieing Marvel’s forward momentum at exactly the point at which it needed to leaven its by-now formulaic approach with innovation and ambition. By comparison, the decisions that Goodman Snr made that worked to Marvel’s significant benefit are few and far between. (Perhaps the most obvious and most significant one was Goodman’s decision to back Lee in taking on the Comics Code Authority when the CCA refused to sanction an anti-drugs scene in 1971 issues of Spider-Man.) Goodman had owned Marvel, yes, and before that, he owned the same company when it was called, among other things, Atlas and Timely too. But were he and his son Marvel’s creators? Only by the most insanely conceited measures. Undoubtedly a canny, to be polite, businessman, Goodman had kept his comics company alive and profitable, particularly for himself, throughout several economically turbulent decade. But the idea that the quality of the comics his company produced was paramount in his motivations, and that he’d run the business in pursuit of excellence, was surely laughable.

Was all this something Goodman had asked to be written? Did he want Goodman father and son to be seen as “Marvel’s creators”.Was the material penned in a mischievous spirit, or a toadying one, or simply out of a measure of enthusiasm spiced by ignorance? Whatever the motivation, it was a singular way to open a comics marketing campaign. And whether it was pride or the appearance of it that had driven the editorial material for that first month in the marketplace, the consequent fall would not be long in coming.

 

31 Days Of Atlas Comics returns tomorrow, and will continue, for whatever it might possibly be worth, through December 2019. The first piece in the series can be found here;

4 thoughts on “The Creators Of Marvel Comics?: 31 Days Of Atlas #2

    1. I love how everyone brings their own experience to criticism 🙂 I never would’ve twigged that, but yes,you’re of course right: it’s the basic competencies, or the absence of the same, that often send the clearest messages.

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