The Atlas Age of Comics
Posted by Tony Ingram on Feb 7, 2008
In 1974, having sold Marvel Comics—the company he founded—to Cadence Industries, Martin Goodman tried to repeat his success with a new line, Atlas Comics. The results were not what he expected.
Martin Goodman had no particular love for comics, but he was good at spotting trends. That, and the talents of his nephew, writer/editor Stan Lee, made Goodman’s first comics company, originally called Timely, later Atlas and finally Marvel, a success. But in 1970, Goodman accepted an offer for the firm, and decided to take the money, subject to the new owners retaining his son Chip as editorial director.
When Marvel apparently reneged on the deal and let Chip go, an angry Martin decided to publish a new line to challenge them, and Atlas Comics (a revival of Marvel’s former name) was set up as a division of Seaboard Periodicals, Inc.
Goodman’s new venture generated a lot of interest, and hopes were high. A number of the industry’s most prominent names came on board, including Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother), placed in charge of Atlas’s black & white magazines, and Jeff Rovin, who headed up the color line.
Creators seduced by Goodman’s promises of profit sharing and the guarantee of artwork being returned to the artist, both more or less unheard of in the industry at that time, included Steve Ditko, Rich Buckler, Berni Wrightson, Gary Friedrich, Neal Adams, Larry Hama, Klaus Janson, Pat Broderick, Pablo Marcos, Frank Springer, Al Milgrom and Jack Abel. Most of them had worked for Marvel—a quite deliberate decision on Atlas’s part.
Goodman’s instructions were straightforward enough-get as many new books off the ground as possible, as quickly as possible, and make them look as much like Marvel comics as possible. But somehow, despite the talents involved, they never quite managed that last part!
Between December 1974 and October 1975, Atlas published 23 different color titles and five black & white magazines, and they were a pretty diverse mix. Superhero action with Steve Ditko and Gerry Conway’s Tiger-Man and The Destructor sat alongside science fiction like Planet of Vampires and Morlock 2001. Ironjaw and Wulf the Barbarian vied for shelf space with horror titles such as Weird Suspense (home of ‘The Tarantula’).
Howard Chaykin’s The Scorpion starred an Errol Flynn like adventurer in the 1930s, while The Bog Beast menaced humanity in Tales of Evil and Sgt Stryker’s Death Squad fought World War II in Savage Combat Tales. Phoenix, John Targitt: Man-stalker, Police Action, Demon Hunter, Hands of the Dragon, The Cougar and Blazing Battle Tales, The Brute, Grim Ghost, Western Action, Vicki (Atlas’s teen humor mag) and Fright rounded out the color line. The black & white magazines included Devilina, Gothic Romances, Thrilling Adventure, Weird Tales of the Macabre and the only non-comics mag in the bunch, Movie Monsters.
Every possible genre was represented, but the one thing all Atlas’s comics had in common (well, except maybe Vicki) was a very bleak and rather nihilistic feel. Possibly the most extreme example was Morlock 2001, the story of an artificial man created by a botanist in a future world ruled by a totalitarian regime. The book borrows heavily from 1984 and cult movie A Clockwork Orange, whose bowler hat wearing lead character appears in issue #2. But, disturbing as this vision of the future is, Morlock himself is more worrying still, tending to periodically transform into a mindless, murderous monster. In one scene, in a neat twist on the Frankenstein story, Morlock’s alter ego encounters a blind child who tries to help him. Unlike Mary Shelley’s monster, however, Michael Fleischer’s Morlock simply eats the kid!
The other books weren’t much more positive in their approach. The fourth issue of Phoenix (now renamed The Protector, having gone from Sci-Fi to super heroics in attempt to boost sales) opens with the title character trying to commit suicide. He was convinced that mankind is doomed by its own inherent evil, while cursed and frequently homicidal crime buster The Tarantula’s faithful old retainer was murdered in his second issue. Virtually the entire cast of Planet of Vampires was dead by the third issue, and the final issue of Ironjaw told how the lead character had been mutilated by his tribe for being too pretty and popular with the ladies. The Grim Ghost actually worked for Satan!
Whether because of the grim atmosphere or, more likely, the rather disjointed and erratic approach to storytelling apparent in most of them, however, Atlas’s books did not sell well, and everything they tried to turn things around just made them worse.
The Scorpion, like super spy Targitt three months earlier and Phoenix as many months later, went from ‘30s barroom brawler to (contemporary) superhero in his third issue, while Morlock 2001 got a title change and a new co-star, the Midnight Man, with his issue #3. Readers had no idea what was going on, or-thanks to an increasingly erratic publishing schedule-even when or if books would appear.
Predictably, they didn’t stick around to see if things would get any better.
Despite some genuinely interesting ideas, much of the new line was less than inspired, and Goodman had overextended himself by trying to flood the market. Rovin resigned due to continual conflicts with Chip Goodman (placed in charge by his father) and increasingly impossible demands from Martin to make the books more like Marvel. Creators quit, sales fell, and by October ’75, just ten months after the grand launch, Atlas folded without a single title having exceeded four issues, and several only managing one. Goodman never again returned to comics publishing.
Curiously, though, this was not quite the end for all of the stars of what Goodman had perhaps over optimistically called “the New House of Ideas”. Chaykin took The Scorpion (now mercifully divested of his unwelcome superhero trappings and 1970s setting) to Marvel, where he resurfaced as Dominic Fortune, Brigand for Hire. Demon Hunter writer David Anthony Kraft followed suit, his tortured hero getting a minor costume and name change and becoming Devil Slayer, a minor member of The Defenders.
Both still turn up occasionally as guest stars in other books, the sole survivors of a bold and ambitious but ultimately doomed last hurrah from the man who created Marvel Comics.
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