The Musty Figure Of The Highwayman: 31 Days Of Atlas #10


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There was some logic to Atlas hiring Michael Fleisher to co-create and script two out of its first three newsstand comicbooks. Fleisher was relatively young and, as a newcomer to scripting, had already made a small but distinctive splash with his work on Jonah Hex and The Spectre. In the latter especially, he’d shown himself to be a writer who was willing to step outside of current trends while attracting favourable reviews for doing so. What’s more, it’s impossible not to presume, Fleisher was quite simply available for work. Atlas, launched at some speed and with absolutely no track record in the industry, would secure no creators of the then-first rank beyond a few Neal Adams covers for Ironjaw, Wulf and Planet Of The Vampires. In a hugely uncertain marketplace, it made little sense for those with secure berths at Marvel and DC to switch publishers, while the grapevine strongly suggested that Marvel in particular would look, shall we say, very badly on anyone opting to take the Goodman’s shilling. Fleisher, as a somewhat new and minor freelancer at DC, was less hemmed in when new opportunities beckoned. That his work at DC was important to him is impossible to doubt. But he was hardly securing a great deal of work at the company, let alone rising up the ranks to the company’s more prestigious titles. (Fleisher may not have had much time at all for superheroes, but he appears to have always been up for writing them when the chance arose.) 1974 saw but 5 issues of Weird Western Tales published, each featuring 20 page tales of Jonah Hex, and just 6 of The Spectre in Adventure Comics, which each had just 13 pages of story. Less than 180 serial pages in a year along with infrequent, one-off short stories for DC’s mystery titles? Who could prosper financially on such slim pickings? It seems that Fleisher was in essence compelled to look for assignments elsewhere, some of which involved the afore-mentioned Encyclopaedia Of Superheroes. When Atlas came knocking, with what initially looked like an untypically generous package of promises, he can’t have hesitated for any considerable length of time. During his brief time working for them, he would take on a considerable workload, helping to create and launch 5 new properties. If Atlas had only been a success, Fleisher might have built on those foundations to establish a lucrative and satisfying career there.


Yet Fleisher’s strategy for The Grim Ghost, while purposeful and idiosyncratic, really did make little commercial sense. To go back, as we’ve discussed, to a model of storytelling that hadn’t been either typical or massively popular for decades was to deny the logic of mass market pop culture. It was as if a record label had decided to combat the popularity of The Beatles in 1964 with a return to the swing of the Thirties and Forties. Similarly, the choice of Ernie Colon as co-creator/artist for The Grim Ghost was equally ill-judged. Not because Colon was in any way a poor artist, for I ought to sign up my sincere and substantial regard for his work, on The Grim Ghost and beyond. But even as Fleisher’s work carried a sense, underneath its surface bustle, of being behind-the-times, so too did Colon’s. The combination of that writer and that artist on that project was never going to launch a lasting and successful action/adventure title. For by comparison with the house styles most closely with Marvel and DC’s superbooks, Colon’s artwork could seem – unfairly, I’d suggest – backward looking and stilted. (In this he had much in common with several other fine artists who didn’t conform to the narrowing market’s taste, such as the great Dan Spiegle.) Never having warmed to superheroes beyond The Spirit and Captain Marvel, Colon’s art eschewed both the smooth illustrative literalism of Curt Swan’s Superman family work at DC and the post-Kirby dynamism of Marvel’s superbooks. His influences and interests lay elsewhere. (Colon’s brief two issue tenure on Gold Key’s costumed superbloke Doctor Solar, Man Of The Atom in the late 60s resulted in some painfully awkward, inert storytelling.) In truth, Colon’s was a style that, in its broad good humour and still, staged quality, looked back, as he’d discuss, to the newspaper strips of Eisner and Caniff. Yet his work most often seemed to hark even further back, under all its detail and polish, to the tradition of simplicity and precise staging as established by Chester Gould with Dick Tracy. Colon was first and foremost a cartoonist, and at the heart of that, no matter how bleak the story he was telling, was a singular sense of curiosity, joy and optimism.


And then there is Colon’s design for The Grim Ghost himself. If the form of the comic could seem relatively archaic, then so too did the content. The figure of the highwayman had little purchase in Seventies’ culture. Lacking any meaningful context in that age beyond the mustiness of old movies and largely forgotten kid’s comics, its reappearance in The Grim Ghost couldn’t help but seem obsolescent. Where culturally-dormant historical types had successfully been adapted to 60s and 70s comics, it had largely been done with the help of a significant measure of updating. As such, Kirby’s reworking of the Asgaardian pantheon for Thor had succeeded in suggesting antiquity, the present day and even, on occasion, a far SF future. (Perhaps that’s one reason why both Marvel and DC’s separate reworking of Hercules during that period fell short of commercial success, given that neither tale on the character was lent a sufficiently modern appearance.) But The Grim Ghost was so of the mid-18th century, as recast in the popular fictions of the 19th and 20th centuries, that he looked entirely out-of-place in what looked very much like the New York of Mayor Beame, oil crises and urban collapse. To then give The Grim Ghost a flying black horse only added absurdity to inappropriateness. As delightful an idea as that was, Colon struggled not to, as most would have, make the spectacle of an aerial highwayman and horse look, at best, baffling, and, at worse, plain silly. Colon’s depiction of horse and rider was, as I’ll return to tomorrow, frequently delightful when allowed to be earthbound. But when man and steed were shown in the sky, verisimilitude simply … collapsed.

31 Days Of Atlas continues tomorrow, with a fan’s nod of recognition to the most delightful aspect of Ernie Colon’s art on The Grim Ghost…


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