Of the three titles in the first wave of Atlas colour comics to be shipped, Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow #1 was the closest to a traditional superhero title. (*1) Then as now, that was the comics industry’s dominant genre, and Phoenix was going to have to compete in an intimidatingly crowded marketplace. First impressions, as always, would be of great importance. So what did Atlas think would make Phoenix a successful title? What would make it seem as if it were a more enticing prospect that Superman and Batman, Spider-Man and The Avengers?
The design of Phoenix left no doubt that its title character was indubitably a super-bloke. If there was no mask or secret identity to be seen, there most certainly was a code-name, a colourful skin-tight costume and a range of remarkable abilities on show. So too, the cover promised the requisite degree of hi-stakes conflict and jeopardy. (*2) So far, so apparently obvious. Yet of all Atlas’ debut titles, Phoenix remains, paradoxically, both the most puzzling and the least intriguing. For writer/editor Jeff Rovin and artist Sal Amendola’s storytelling displayed little familiarity, beyond the most obvious of conventions, with the then-dominant traditions of superhero comics. Nor did their work seem to deliberately hark back to redundant approaches to costumed crimefighter tales either. Neither rooted in the present or the past, Phoenix failed to offer any convincing measure of the superhero genre’s pleasures and satisfactions. Underneath its glossy surface, it appeared to be a comic that was approaching its subject matter in an almost entirely random manner. In that, it was as if Rovin and Amendola had been shown a few random covers featuring a sci-fi flavoured superbloke before being told to emulate whatever virtues they perceived there. Perhaps Phoenix was an attempt to produce something that broke, to one degree or another, with superhero tradition. But if so, it stumbled because it failed to reflect a grasp of whatever the conventions were that Rovin and Amendola wanted to challenge.
By contrast, the other titles in Atlas’ opening salvo of titles clearly stood, and with no little skill, in longstanding comicbook narrative traditions. The Grim Ghost was in essence, as we’ve recently discussed, a Golden Age horror title. If that was a choice that made little sense in 1974’s marketplace, its creators still displayed a command of a specific, recognisable narrative tradition. Similarly, Ironjaw was obviously a purposeful, if entirely distasteful, deconstruction of classic barbarian pulps, with anything that might obscure the genre’s most callously chauvinistic roots swept from sight. But the pages of Phoenix: Man Of Tomorrow #1, despite appearing at first sight to be a calculated hybridisation of the 1959‘s Green Lantern with 1963’s Iron Man, displayed little grasp of how superhero comics might be made to work.
*1:- There was originally only going to be 6 Atlas colour comics in the line, the above three plus Tiger-Man, Wulf The Barbarian & The Scorpion. That was before Goodman Snr pushed for a dramatically increased number of titles along with the full-on Marvelisation of the company’s content.
*2:- The cover was originally a somewhat less full-on action scene affair, but publisher Martin Goodman insisted that the then-vogue for disaster movies such as Earthquake was tapped into with a show of collapsing skyscrapers and burning blocks.
Take, for example, the relatively straight-forward task of introducing a lead character. In The Phoenix: “From The Ashes”, we aren’t even given Phoenix’s full civilian name until the story’s sixth page. The very first panel does contain a reference to a “Tyler”, but he’s merely one of three astronauts on view. There’s no sense that he’s our point-of-view character, and no way to tell him from his fellows in what follows. Indeed, given that another astronaut is twice referred to by the forename “Jim”, it might be thought that the figure who’s being spoken to in the more personal way would end up being the issue’s hero. But no, “Jim” is burned to death when escape capsule hits sea, while the identity of the single figure who is blown clear is never expressed. It might be “Jim”. It might be “Tyler”. It might be the mysteriously unnamed third astronaut. In these vital first moments of a new story and a new series, Phoenix’s script fails not only to clearly tell us who the figures before us are, but also sidesteps, for whatever reason, giving us any clear sense of character. As such, we watch spectacular events from, as it were, the outside, with no-one to identify with in anything but the most general sense. Things happen. More things happen. They happen to this person and to that. But as to why we should care, nothing is forthcoming.
By that time he actually is named, Astronaut Ed Tyler has already survived an exploding space station, a disastrous flight from orbit to “the freezing waters of an Arctic sea”, rescue by a species of alien observers, and trial and interrogation by the same as they debate what his fate might be. But if we eventually have a name, we’re not given anything of a character beyond a standard-issue hero. Tyler is evidently brave, stoic and intelligent, but all of those qualities are taken for granted. He lacks charisma, humour, flaws or, indeed, any individual qualities at all beyond a couple of charmless bouts of anger. Who he is and what he wants, beyond the most obvious and pressing matters of survival, remain a mystery.
He is, in truth, already a bore before he adopts his superhero persona on page 10, following his theft of the alien’s “atomic transformers” along with an extra-terrestrial jumpsuit in order to create a superpower-granting costume. It is an elevation to superherodom that comes with no conspicious effort at all. The aliens who’ve been imprisoning him strangely fail to lock Tyler in his “private cubicle”. Neither do they monitor their secret base’s corridors or storerooms. Nor do their secure their many scientific wonders, their technology being so simple to master that Tyler can slap examples of it together into a massively powerful uniform within the space of two tensionless panels. They make for a woeful foe, just as he makes for a blandly uninvolving antagonist.
It feels somewhat like a case of breaking a butterfly on a wheel to focus critically on these straight-forward plot flaws. And yes, it could be argued that Rovin’s script very much did reflect an existing comics tradition, in that its careless, absurd procession of one-damn-thing-after-another mirrors many of the least impressive tales of the Golden Age, and in particular, those of that era’s very earliest years. Yet where The Grim Ghost and Ironjaw display a self-conscious and expert knowledge of the forms they tap into, Phoenix seems entirely artless. Unless we grant that Rovin and Amendola’s storytelling, from one panel to the next, was by deliberate intent incompetent, which would surely be a ludicrous proposition, then Phoenix is in truth accidentally inept. Better that it had captured the chaotic dream logic of the most formlessly out-there of Golden Age tales. They at least could be surprising, beguiling, inventive, nonsensically compelling. But simply put, the makers of Phoenix didn’t know what they were doing. They appear to have believed that a successful genre story is one in which long-familiar plot-beats are placed in a relatively logical sequence and then released into the world. If only the telling of stories was that simple. For all that there appears to have been an attempt to make a more adult, TV-movie of the week comic, the result is flat and tedious.
In truth, it is the very absence of any apparent expertise when it comes to the genre conventions of the superhero comic that stands as the most fascinating aspect of Phoenix. It may be the only absorbing quality that the comicbook possesses for anyone who didn’t first encounter it during those impressionable days of childhood.
The mechanics of the storytelling used for the first appearances of the Silver-Age Green Lantern and Marvel’s Iron Man – both of which were regarded at the time as the most obvious forerunners of Phoenix – helps to illustrate how even the basics of Comics 101 are absent from the pages of the Phoenix. For example, above is the opening page of the first appearance of Hal ‘Green Lantern’ Jordan from 1959’s Showcase #22. (It was a tale that could have been easily and affordably picked up during the development of Phoenix, given that it had been reprinted in 1973’s Secret Origins #2. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been particularly expensive even as a second-hand purchase.) Like Phoenix #1, it’s a tale with a professional protagonist, an alien race, extra-terrestial technology, and crashed spacecraft. But unlike the later story, Green Lantern’s debut and origin is delivered with conspicious inventiveness and clarity.
This single introductory page, above, by John Broome, Gil Kane and Joe Giella, provides the reader, and with no little elegance and transparency and spectacle either, with the basic information that they’ll need to instantly grasp what’s going on. Hal Jordan is named. His job and reknown are stated. A page-turning enigma is delivered through a mixture of punchy text and spectacular visual storytelling. The only essential matters that the reader can be confused about are those which are purposeful, enticingly left unstated: who owns the spaceship, why did it crash, why is Jordan being dragged towards it, and so. This is precision work, displaying a considerable degree of forethought, expertise and skill. It achieves all in a single page that Phoenix failed to do in a dozen sides.
To argue the superiority of the storytelling in Green Lantern’s origin isn’t to suggest that the creators of Phoenix ought to have aped Silver-Age DC approaches. The above is just one of countless examples of good and relevant practise that could’ve been analysed and adapted. But to refer to it is to underscore that comics history can serve as the most fantastical storehouse of craft, as I hope to discuss in my next post in this 31 Days Of Atlas series of posts. If Phoenix had shown a command of past forms within a new, innovative approach, then all well and good. But in the obvious absence of anything so impressive and successful, the least that Atlas might have ensured of its first superhero comic was a dogged, informed competency. To be a touch old-fashioned would have at least been preferable to alienatingly baffling and, worst of all, dull.
to be continued;