Spider-Man! Kamandi! The X-Men! – 9 Fine Comics From Atlas’ Competitors During Its Underachieving Lifetime: 31 Days Of Atlas #30

An unexpected and unavoidable family responsibility has arrived on my doorstep this morning. Which is absolutely fine, because it’s a privilege to have a family that I’m glad to feel a responsibility towards. As a consequence, I’ll delay finishing my piece about Wulf The Barbarian until tomorrow, on what will also be the last of these 31 Days Of Atlas posts. But for today, here’s something that I’ve been preparing as a back-up should an emergency strike, namely, a small selection of comics that I think highly of from the months in which Atlas Comics remained in business. If the Atlas books I’ve been discussing over these past 30 days had serious problems, and I do believe that to be so, then here are my nominations for some of the age’s better comicbooks. As I feel sure I’ve said before, if I’m going to label certain comics as disappointing, then I ought to also sign up the titles from the period that I believe to be anything but.

So what follows is a personal sequence of choices, nothing more or less. As such, I haven’t simply picked examples from the bestselling titles of the period from October 1974 to June 1975 and then suggested that Atlas should have followed their lead, from Superman to Richie Rich, Spider-Man to Archie Andrews. (On one level, that was surely a given for a company attempting such a naked, all-or-nothing market-grab.) Nor am I trying to suggest that Atlas should have attempted as a rule to emulate the storytelling in many of the comics which follow. (After all, many of them were hardly bestsellers themselves.) All I’m doing here is signing up my own favourites for those 9 months in which Atlas was a going, if not a viable, concern. Whatever Atlas wasn’t, these were. Or, at least, they were for me.

Not having experienced much beyond the Marvel and DC comics of the period, I fear I haven’t been able to choose tales from the likes of Charlton, Gold Key, Harvey and Archie. Mea culpa.

The choices are in no particular order, with one exception. For if I was forced to choose just one of these books to be exiled on a desert island with, it would be the one that’s first in what follows, and that’s one that I’ve therefore written about in a little more detail …

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1. The Meadow Springs Crusade, from Weird Western Tales Presents Jonah Hex #27, by Mike Fleisher and Noly Panaligan.

Anyone who by some chance has stumbled upon what I’ve written recently about Michael Fleisher’s work for Atlas might be surprised to see his collaboration with artist Noly Panaligan heading this ‘best-of’ list. But where Iron Jaw #1 is a work of unforgiveable bigotry, The Meadow Springs Crusade is a charming and convincing salute to the dedication and sacrifice of America’s female campaigners for women’s suffrage in the 19th century. In it, bounty hunter and committed misogynist Jonah Hex is hired to defend Mary Ellen Todd from a gang of bigots and brutes who are attempting to frighten her out of politics. The results are as delightful as they’re inspiring. Resisting the easy outs of anachronisms, Hex is portrayed throughout as a brusquely chivalrous chauvinist. Yet to counter his caveman politics as expressed on the page, Fleisher makes sure that Todd is a fully-fleshed out character who not only holds her own with Hex, but also bravely represents the cause of progressive politics in a bleakly oppressive age. At no point in the tale is the reader in any doubt that Hex, for all his other virtues, is entirely on the wrong side of history when it comes to women’s rights.

Noly Panaligan illustrated very few Hex tales, which, as The Meadow Springs Crusade will testify, is a cause for considerable regret. The broad strokes of his action sequences and the more subtle choices he opts for in quieter moments are equally admirable. It’s hard to imagine a better combination of script and art.

Fleisher’s work appears little known these days, and where it is mentioned in dispatches, it’s often in association with his least appetising of stories. This is the kind of tale that often gets forgotten in such moments. Its existence and excellence certainly doesn’t excuse the macho-laced brutality of his least empathetic tales, but it does reveal that Fleisher’s career was a more complex and, at moments, more thoughtfully liberal one than it’s often credited as being.

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2. Second Genesis, in 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1, by Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont, Glynis Wein and John Costanza, with a cover by Gil Kane with Cockrum.

Not that it seemed so to many at the time, when Giant Size X-Men appeared to be no more than yet another Marvel team – along with the likes of The Invaders and The Champions and The Guardians Of The Galaxy– to be hurled onto the newsstands in the hope of sticking, but the new X-Men stood as a rebuke of sorts to Atlas’ various superhero knock-offs. Whatever the strengths of those titles, none carried a fraction of the conviction and innovation present in Second Genesis. In particular, Dave Cockrum’s artwork pointed forwards to a future that was part Silver Age DC in its classical precision – shades of Murphy Anderson in particular were put to fine use – and the post-Kirby comics-realism of Neal Adams. Both fresh and familiar, Cockrum’s artwork helped power the X-Men forward – as he had for the Legion of Super-Heroes in the previous few years – with eye-catching costumes and intensive-to-the-purple storytelling as the comic found its feet, defied the doubters and, with Chris Claremont ably building on Len Wein et al’s sturdy foundations, and established the new step in superheroic-melodrama.

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3. Death Ship, from Strange Tales #179, by Jim Starlin with Glynis Wein & Tom Orzechowski.

I discussed Starlin’s Warlock in a recent post about Phoenix The Man Of Tomorrow, so I won’t dawdle here except to say that Death Ship remains a wonderfully concentrated single issue tale built of SciFi-gothic and radical politics.

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4. War Toy, from 1975’s Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction #2, by Tony Isabella, George Perez, Rico Rival et al, with a Mike Kaluta cover.

I took a look at Atlas’ first two black and white magazines at the beginning of these 31 days, and – how can I put this kindly? – questioned whether their quality was appropriate for the mid-Seventies marketplace. During the period, Marvel, even more so than Warren, churned out its own inconsistently-assembled magazines, often complete, as with Atlas, with obvious old reprints and hastily written editorial features. The difference was that Marvel’s magazines were as a rule of a far higher quality, and the short-lived, little-celebrated Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction is a prime example of that. Amongst the range of features of varying quality, nothing in UWoSF#1 comes close to being as wretched as the contents of Weird Tales Of The Macabre #1. (*1) With Isabella, Perez and Rival et al’s War Toy, Unknown Worlds Of Science Fiction delivered a minor classic in the story of a robot that saved the world from alien invasion only to be discarded by a thoughtless, heedless society. It was a tale that chimed in its day with America’s various and often regretable responses to its veterans who’d served in Vietnam, and it chimes just as painfully now, with its insistence that we’re a species which pays little attention to either rewarding individual sacrifice or engaging with long-term problems.

*1 – Atlas’ Thrilling Adventure Stories was, I should note, in part an exception to the rule whereby quality storytelling in magazine form was absent from the company’s black and white titles.

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5. Mad Marine!, from 1975’s Kamandi The Last Boy On Earth #27, by Jack Kirby with Mike Royer.

From smack in the middle of a run of issues that wonderfully crossed Kirby’s Planet Of The Apes-homaging, dystopian adventure fantasy with aspects of The Crimean War’s Charge Of The Light Brigade, Mad Marine features beserkly out-there storytelling that succeeds where any summary of its contents would surely insist it couldn’t. Nobody has ever successfully emulated Kirby’s post-Fourth World work for DC, although many have tried to nail down his mixture of genius gung-ho storytelling with its thoughtful and touching underpinnings. It’s all just too idiosyncratic in concept and far too brilliant in execution to be easily appropriated. To read Kamandi now is to be constantly wondering (1) why did Kirby do that?, and (2) how did Kirby pull that off so well? I’m still asking myself those two questions all these decades later.

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6. A Candle For Sainte-Cloud, from Man-Thing #15, by Steve Gerber, Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, Rico Rival, Glynis Wein & Marcos Pelayo, with a cover by Gil Kane and Tom Palmer.

This is one of the comics that I’ve read so many times that I can quote snatches of its dialogue from memory. (“You see Ted. If you just trust your feelings.” from the comic’s denouement comes immediately to mind.) A psychedelic horror story that’s parts Ken Russell and Nic Roeg, it sees Gerber and his collaborators fleshing out the cypher that had been Ted Sallis, the weapons scientist who’d been horribly transformed into the barely-conscious Man-Thing. Few comics associated with the mainstream of America comics ever convinced when it came to representing the counter-culture, but this, from the period in which the Sixties was diminishing from ‘yesterday’ into ‘history’, created a convincing, touching picture of an already-lost era’s absurd idealism and everyday casualties.

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7. A Sense Of Obligation in 1975’s Star Spangled War Stories featuring the Unknown Soldier #184, by David Michelinie, Gerry Talaoc et al, with a cover by Joe Kubert.

Michelinie and Talaoc’s Unknown Soldier tales mixed 70s political cynicism with DC’s recent, and recently failed, flirtation with “weird” heroes. The result was a series of stories that were, for DC’s line of war comics, particularly bleak and thoughtful. Other creators might have focused on the Soldier’s physical disfigurement and the way in which it isolated him from everyday social interaction. It would have been a set-up that might have hybridised the Marvel tradition of the flawed, wounded and alienated hero with DC Comic’s long history of war comics. But Michelinie and Talaoc chose instead to focus on their protagonist’s struggles to retain his sense of his own humanity as he found himself forever caught between his own beliefs and his responsibilities to the Allied cause. The result was a portrait of an absolutely necessary war, but never a great or good one. As Micheline wrote in his and Talaoc’s first, and most probably finest, Unknown Soldier tale in SSWS#183, “history has a way of praising results … and forgetting the rest”. (*1)  That which gets forgotten is the likes of the life experience of the Unknown Soldier, whose tragically-acquired ability to impersonate enemy personel leads tragically, in the cause of virtue and its triumph, to all manner of deceits and betrayals.

*1 – That issue, however, falls just outside the lifespan of Atlas, so I’ve opted here for its not-unworthy successor.

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8. 1975’s Planet Of The Apes #4, by a host of creators, including Bob Larkin, Doug Moench, Mike Ploog, George Tuska et al.

If Atlas’ Movie Monsters was an example of how not to recycle material from SciFi/fantasy film, then Marvel’s Planet Of The Apes magazine was, for two and a half years, a shining example of how to produce terrific comics from licensed content. In the 21st century, it’s become far more common to see American comics producing laudable versions of film and TV properties. This was very much not the case in the mid-1970s, when such adaptations were chiefly considered to be by their very nature cheap and cheaper-still tie-ins. Not so with Marvel’s POTA magazines, where each issue offered readers a graphic adaption of an Apes movie along with a new, and often wildly imaginative, tale set in times and places that the films and TV shows never touched upon.

The adaptions were particularly welcome in an age in which it was almost impossible to enjoy even the most successful of the movies from just a few years before. Better yet, Marvel’s versions even occasionally featured scenes that had been cut from theatrical prints. If George Tuska’s art on the comic’s take of the franchise’s debut movie was, to be kind, perfunctory, the adaptions of Beneath and Escape would feature enthralling artwork by Alfredo Alcala and Rico Rival.

But best of all were the aforementioned new tales, as written by Moench and illustrated by Mike Ploog, at first, and then by, at his most psychedelic and gothic, Tom Sutton. Going where the movies could never afford to travel, their epics – for epic they were – showed how the Apes mythos could be opened up in radically imaginative and enthralling ways. By contrast, everything that has appeared on the screen from the franchise since has seemed unimaginative and repetitive. That isn’t to suggest that the Apes movies of the 21st century have been in any way poor. But they pale when compared to what the comics were doing almost 45 years ago.

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9. …And The Wind Cries: Cyclone!, from 1975’s Amazing Spider-Man #143, by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt, Janice Cohen & Artie Simek, with cover by Gil Kane & John Romita.

It’s hard to recall how controversial Gerry Conway’s first, and greatest, run on Spider-Man was, and not just because of Gwen Stacey’s death either. But in that debate, then as now, about whether Conway was developing or debasing the then-Marvel tradition, there are moments of remarkable intimacy and feeling in his work that can and do get overlooked. One such scene can be found here, in Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s farewell in JFK airport on a snow-flecked night. Ross Andru’s artwork takes what might have been a mechanical plot-beat in lesser hands and brilliantly helps deliver a scene in which, despite themselves, two old friends bound by tragedy as much as anything else begin to fall surprisingly in love. It’s a bravura example of witty, revealing storytelling in the midst of what must have been a grinding, inspiration-blunting schedule of issue-to-issue deadlines. Nothing that I can recall in the canon of Atlas colour comics comes close to matching it.

I could have added a considerable number of other books to the above list, but time and family insisted I pause there. To my embarrassment, there’s no mention of, say, Wolfman, Colan and Palmer’s Tomb Of Dracula, or Englehart’s collaborations on The Avengers, or Fleisher and Aparo’s Spectre chillers, or any number of other comics. But the low quality in general of Atlas’ titles meant that they couldn’t possibly survive in an age such as 1974/5, when, for all the economic uncertainty and printed wads of tat, there were so many other fine comics vying for reader’s dimes. 

 

to be continued tomorrow, with a last look at Wulf The Barbarian in the final installment of these 31 Days Of Atlas posts …

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