If Atlas Comics ever had a clear sense of what we’d today label, with perhaps something of a shudder, a brand identity, then it struggled to transmit whatever that might have been. At first glance, Marvel was the company that Atlas appeared to be modelling itself upon. As I wrote about in yesterday’s post, part of that sense came from the relative dynamism of Atlas’ covers, the Stan Lee-emulating tone of its editorial material, and the presence on its pages of a few obvious examples of Marvel-baiting. There were other signs too, for those comics fans who knew enough to notice them. The particular spread of genre types in Atlas’ early promotional material – see Ernie Colon posters above and below – resembled Marvel’s then-current roster of properties far more than those of any other comics publisher. So too, the selection of formats that Atlas opted for – a mixture of standard floppies and magazine-sized exploitation titles – matched, with the exception of treasury-sized one-shots, Marvel’s typical output of the period. Given that few readers would be encountering Atlas without any kind of experience of comics, those first impressions, and the associations they inevitably triggered, were both unavoidable and of crucial importance.
But it was in the packaging and editorial content of Atlas’ comics and magazines that that similarity largely began and ended. Once past those aspects, Atlas’ comics hosted a confusing variety of storytelling traditions which, to those looking for Marvelesque tales, were often associated with less commercially successful and fan-credible publishers. In short, the very expectations that Atlas attempted to drum up were highly likely to trigger disappointment and even distaste. Few of Atlas’ creators were of, for all the talk of higher rates and reprint royalties, what was then considered to be the first-rank. Even Steve Ditko, whose star at Marvel had shone as bright as anyone else’s a decade before, was now associated with low-pay, low-quality assignments from Charlton Comics along with better paid if unavoidably peripheral roles at DC. (Other examples of long-experienced and highly able artists at Atlas then considered to be, with all the brutal dismissiveness of a mass medium read by a largely young audience, no-longer-ready-for-primetime included Wally Wood, on The Destructor, and Mike Sekowsky, on Lomax N.Y.P.D.) Where the most prominent and respected writers and artists of the period did appear in Atlas publications, it was either in brief and soon-concluded bursts, such as with Neal Adams’ few covers, or on individual titles which fell short of expressing the best of their talents, as with Archie Goodwin’s middling scripts for The Destructor. (Goodwin’s work on the two issues of the black and white Thrilling Adventures Stories magazine was, however, a rare exception to this rule, and it is one I’ll happily return to.) In short, what passed as both commercially beguiling and inspirationally top-notch in that period was, in Atlas’ books, thin on the ground. Similarly, work that might convincingly pass as akin to Marvel’s was, again, largely absent.
For the most part, Atlas’ pages tended to be filled by two strata of creators. Firstly, there were the younger and less experienced talents who were as yet still building a reputation in what passed as the mainstream of America’s action/adventure titles, with Mike Ploog, on Luke Malone, Manhunter, Howard Chaykin, on The Scorpion, and Mike Fleisher, on Morlock 2001, being perhaps the most prominent examples. Secondly, there were the ranks of seasoned professionals who were generally associated, no matter how unfairly, with what superhero fans often regarded as lower-status and moribund assignments and publishers. In addition to those mentioned in the first paragraph, their ranks also included industry veterans Stan Goldberg, with his comedy-romance covers for Vicki, and Larry Leiber, with his Western scripts for Kid Cody Gunfighter and the Comanche Kid.
That in itself didn’t mean that the pages of those creators were in any way lacking in quality. Indeed, artists such Ernie Colon, whose delightful work would sadly always lack a decisive measure of post-Kirby kineticism for the super-people marketplace, produced some absolutely charming stories. (It’s hard to imagine that The Grim Ghost could ever have been a commercial success, but Colon’s storytelling there is in places absolutely gorgeous.) Nor did it mean that a creator who wasn’t prominent at Marvel or DC would have been unhappy with their lot: Ditko, for one, is said to have always regarded the creative freedom at Charlton as being more-than-adequate compensation for the company’s parsimonious page-rates. But the disconnect between what Atlas repeatedly appeared to be promising, namely a Marvel-heavy approach, and the impressions left by its titles’ interiors, which often seemed to be far more suited to the pages of Charlton, Gold Key and Archie was inevitably the cause of disenchantment and disengagement.
And it wasn’t just the distinct absence of the yet-potent tradition of primetime Lee, Kirby and Ditko in most of Atlas’ output that made its comics feel somewhat old-fashioned and underpowered by comparison with Marvel. There was also the baffling absence of two of the absolutely key aspects of Marvel’s storytelling since the very first few appearances of the Fantastic Four in 1961, namely, the obvious presence of a shared universe characterised by a common continuity, and, all too frequently, the story-driving motor of neurotic leads tortured by soap operatic dilemmas. (Where the tone was pushed up into the purple, it was rarely done in a way that was convincing and compelling.) Without those qualities, Atlas Comics didn’t just appear to short-changing its readers on the promised Marvelesque adventures. It went further and suggested that its stories often – if not exclusively – belonged in the pre-Marvel Revolution era.
There is some irony to be found in the title the Goodmans opted for in 1974 for their new publishing company. For Atlas had been, across the 50s and early 60s, the publishing label that Lee, Kirby and Ditko et al transformed into Marvel Comics. It may have seemed clever and witty to reactivate the title, as I touched on yesterday, and yet, to pay so little attention to what had happened at Marvel since was, I’d argue, a fatal mistake. Atlas could have survived not being Marvel, I’m certain. But to not be of the Seventies, or even the Sixties, in much beyond certain broad surface strokes? No comics company producing a substantial number of action/adventure books in 1974 could possibly have survived that.
To be continued, tomorrow, in the fifth part of 31 Days Of Atlas.