In the second week of November 1975, Atlas shipped its first three colour comics: The Phoenix, a science fiction/superhero title: Ironjaw, a future-era barbarian yarn: The Grim Ghost, a horror-flavoured adventurer. It was an opening salvo that, superficially at least, made a great deal of commercial sense. In the collapsing comicbook marketplace of the mid-70s, those were the three action/adventure genres that industry-leaders Marvel and DC were investing the majority of their hopes in. Yet the market was not only in a tailspin. It was saturated with product. That same month saw almost 40 comics published by the Big Two featuring new material that fell, to one degree or another, into those same three genres. If Atlas were going to compete, its choices were starkly straightforward: undercut prices: produce recognisable fare of clearly superior quality: offer new and immediately intriguing spins on familiar formulae: strike out in radically new and yet crowd-pleasing ways. Yet none of these strategies, in isolation or combination, were, with very few minor exceptions, pursued. Atlas’ comics were priced at the same 25 cents that Marvel and DC charged for their standard-sized titles. Atlas’ floppies themselves were typically, for all their curious eccentricities, neither of the quality of their competitors or of an innovative, compelling standard. The Phoenix was, inexplicably, a tedious crack at decades-worn SF-hero clichés. Ironjaw, with its utterly ludicrous storytelling matched to its profoundly misogynistic content, was similarly underwhelming. By contrast, The Grim Ghost was at least … mildly diverting.
As a result of the relaxation of the Comics Code Authority’s regulations in 1971, the industry’s standard formats could now feature the likes of “vampires, ghouls and werewolves when handled in the classic fashion … of high calibre literary works”. For the first time since the anti-comics moral panic of the late 40s and 50s, the comicbook publishers’ own voluntary self-censorship code was sanctioning the presence of the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein in their standard-format colour products. What began with a few tentative steps at Marvel soon became a flood of titles. In the same month as Atlas’ comics first appeared, Marvel published eight such four-colour titles, with Tomb of Dracula and Man-Thing being of particular quality, along with a further three chill-promising magazines.
In the months following the CCA’s relative liberalisation, DC Publisher Carmine Infantino had become convinced that what he and his editors referred to as “weird” comics might be a coming trend. And so, when Jack Kirby’s Fourth World titles were, with the exception of Mister Miracle, cancelled mid-stream, Infantino encouraged him to produced a darker-themed replacement title featuring a strange and menacing protagonist. The result was The Demon, which initially sold in publisher-pleasing numbers before stumbling to a barely-noticed end a year and half later. Indeed, the horror boom as a whole would be short-lived. Three years from the debut of The Grim Ghost, only Ghost Rider remained, on a bi-monthly schedule, in Marvel’s colour line. Similarly, DC Comics in late 1977 featured just a few sources of “weirdness” in the form of soon-to-disappear titles such as Shade The Changing Man and Challengers Of The Unknown.
In short, the craze that Atlas were seeking to exploit with The Grim Ghost had already peaked by the time of the book’s arrival. And it would be entirely dead in the water.
“Weirdness” was Grim Ghost writer and co-creator Michael Fleisher’s signature stroke. Just 22 when he began writing for Atlas, Fleisher had previously made a minor name for himself as an idiosyncratic controversialist on not-ever-likely-to-be-ready-for-primetime DC Comics properties such as Jonah Hex and The Spectre. In doing so, he produced, for a brief while, some of the most vital and entertaining work that the company was publishing. Of all the writers at DC, it was Fleisher who most fully embraced – some said abused – the liberalisation of the CCA and gleefully pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in an all-ages comicbook. Given The Spectre strip in Adventure Comics in 1973, he abandoned all hints of a superhero-crowded common continuity for the undead Spectre and instead pioneered a series of inventive and macabre revenge fantasies. Not for Fleisher’s Spectre the modern-era traditions of neurotic leads, liberal politics and superheroic world-building. His were not tales which were often marked by the slightest degree of empathy, nuance or suspense. Rather, the all-powerful Spectre, who’d been returned to life after being murdered by gangsters and given omnipotent powers to eradicate crime, simply slaughtered appalling, stereotypical criminal types in undeniably inventive ways. Villains were transmuted into wood and carved up by a chainsaw-wielding Spectre. Or carved into pieces by a Spectre-manipulated flying meat cleaver. Or turned into glass and allowed to fall and shatter. Or stabbed to death, two at the same time, by a giant compass.
And so on, and on.
There was nothing very subtle about the work of Fleisher and artist Jim Aparo on the strip, but it was gloriously good guilty fun. In an era in which the mainstream comic book was typically grounded in liberal humanism, Fleisher pursued a reactionary agenda with an obvious delight. (Even then, his apparent politics weren’t in any way mine, but the appalling and the manically inventive can have no problem co-existing in cartoon form.) Only the smugly Libertarian Steve Ditko, who’d also find himself at Atlas, showed such a cruelly reductive view of human nature and social responsibilities in the era’s tales. But by contrast, Fleisher rarely appeared self-righteous. He left the theory for others, if he ever believed it at all on an intelectual level. No, his was the politics of them and us, kill or be killed, as transmitted through wild, if repetitive, invention and expressed with a full-on measure of exhilaration.
Amusingly, for Fleisher was still working on the Adventure Comics strip while he was writing for Atlas, The Grim Ghost was in truth a straight-forward inversion of The Spectre’s basic set up. As created in 1940 by Jerry Seigel and Bernard Bailey, The Spectre is an undead avenger with the soul of a tragically murdered policeman, empowered by a beneficent force – implied to be God – and set the task of combating evil. The Grim Ghost was in essence the same situation, except that the dead soul is a lawfully executed highwayman, the empowering spirit is Satan and the murderous mission is to the interest of Hell rather than, supposedly, of humankind. Fleisher, who was reputed to have felt relatively free at times to avail himself of previously published plots, and who apparently lost any chance of writing Batman because of that careless propensity, was in effect reinventing The Spectre for Atlas as a player on the other side. It was an audacious example of conceptual recycling.
Yet, The Spectre had never been a big seller, whether in his brief Forties career, its brief Sixties run or its brief Seventies strip. To make one of Atlas’ first book a take on a little known DC Comics character was a brave, but perhaps inevitably doomed, endeavour.
Continued here …