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Atlas, The Second Time Around



Martin Goodman had sold Marvel Comics years before.
With the Atlas-Seaboard line, he tried the Marvel formula again.


by J.C. Vaughn


This article appeared, sometimes in slightly different form, in Comic Book Marketplace #77



It started, as these things do, with a lot of promise. It was 1974 and a brand new comic book publishing company offered creators high pay rates to write and illustrate an entire new universe full of characters. Atlas-Seaboard offered forms of creator ownership, a venue for trying new things, and a mix of established, seasoned professionals and hot newcomers.

The very existence of this firm challenged the big two in terms of retaining creators. If this new enterprise succeeded, Marvel and DC would have to either accept their losses or raise their own pay rates. Sure, going up against the big guys had been tried before, but this time it at least seemed different.

Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman, who had sold Marvel a few years before, and his son Charles, started Seaboard Periodicals with the hope of rivaling Goodman’s old company. To do this, they followed the Marvel formula of the day: superhero comics, barbarian comics, and black and white magazines. They even adopted the name Atlas, familiar to Silver Age fans as the name Marvel published under after Timely and before Marvel Comics.

As editor-in-chief, they signed up Jeff Rovin, known to many comic fans for his time editing at Warren (and who has written the Tom Clancy’s Op Center series, much of it for a token thank-you on the acknowledgement page). His Warren background would show clearly in the layout and design of the black and white magazines.

As editor, the Goodmans hired Larry Lieber, a Marvel veteran dating back to when Marvel itself was called Atlas. Lieber, of course, is Stan Lee’s brother.

The general look of the comic book covers, unlike the magazines, was also about as Marvel as one could get shy of using the Marvel logo.

Creators including Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Archie Goodwin, Howard Chaykin, Jack Sparling, Rich Buckler and others (see checklists) made the move to Atlas.The Scorpion #1

Original characters like Demon-Hunter (created and illustrated by Buckler) and The Scorpion (created, written and illustrated by Chaykin) were intermingled with a Hulk knock-off (The Brute), a Spider-Man knock-off (The Destructor), and a couple of Marvel-esque barbarians (Iron Jaw and Wulf the Barbarian).

Several of the titles, though trite in concept, had a smattering of freshness due to the talent involved. The Destructor, for instance, featured the team of Archie Goodwin (writer), Steve Ditko (pencils) and Wally Wood (inks). The concept, young man headed down the wrong path until death of a loved one forces him to confront responsibility. Throw in a grave-side vow of righting wrongs, and you get the idea. Still, in his pre-hero days The Destructor is actually an anti-Peter Parker of sorts. Not the most original of ideas, but with a team like this it’s hard to that far wrong.

Unfortunately, though, many of the titles read as if the publisher (Charles Goodman, at least in title) said, “We need a Hulk book” or “We need a horror book.”

The lack of originality didn’t help sales that were already hampered by limited newsstand space. Marvel and DC had increased their output and pushed Atlas off the shelves. There was no direct market for comic books yet, so the newsstand was life or death. In this case, it wasn’t life.

In his recent CBM profile, Lieber recounted how he was on jury duty while awaiting the verdict on whether Atlas lived or died. The word came down, and that was that. The short-lived experiment was less than two years in duration with less than one full year of published product.

The promise of Atlas at the beginning was probably gone well before the end. Creators had, in fact, been bailing for several months (see sidebar). Chaykin left over a dispute with Rovin which resulted in The Scorpion #3 having little, if anything, to do with The Scorpion #1-2. From one of their few sparkling gems of originality, the title became a bad Daredevil/Spider-Man sort of coagulation.

Larry Hama, writer-artist on Wulf the Barbarian, had also already quit. Pay rates were headed down and Rovin’s editorial decision making, described at the time as seemingly arbitrary, was rubbing people the wrong way.

The legacy of the Atlas line is small, but in a way it is not insignificant. They were the first to challenge Marvel and DC in the ‘70s. The idea of offering a degree of creator ownership or control was still entirely foreign to the big two then, truly existing only in the undergrounds of the day.

Would Eclipse Comics or Pacific Comics have popped up when they did, or later First Comics if Atlas hadn’t taken the plunge? The creator rights movement practically guaranteed something would have happened sooner or later, but without Atlas there’s got be at least a small question of whether it would have happened the way it did.

AFTERMATH

Martin and Charles Goodman got out of comics. Jeff Rovin has worked in the comics field and other media. Larry Lieber has illustrated a very long run on The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip scripted by his brother, Stan Lee.

The various creators employed by Atlas went many different directions. Some were never heard from in comics again. Some went on to become comics superstars.

Two of the characters also found employment with other publishers. Sure, it’s not the first time a character has been picked up. The modern era of DC, for example, encompasses characters created at Fawcett, Charlton, Quality and elsewhere. This, however, may have been the first time rights (or some of them) reverted to their creators.

The characters in question are Demon-Hunter and The Scorpion, and both of them landed at Marvel.

DEMON-HUNTER to DEVIL-SLAYER to BLOODWING

Actually, Demon-Hunter landed in two places.Demon-Hunter #1

In his Atlas origin story (and only issue), Gideon Cross had renounced the demon cult which had granted him incredible powers and now stood opposed to them. Their goal was “Xenogenisis,” the rebirth of a demon race on earth.

David Anthony Kraft (Comics Interview) wrote it and Rich Buckler plotted and illustrated it.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, Buckler’s “Deathlok The Demolisher” series in Astonishing Tales had been canceled mid-story. The story was to be more or less wrapped up in Marvel Spotlight #33 (1977), although it would also carry into Marvel Two-in-One #27 before fading into the great land of permanently dangling storylines.

Again with Kraft writing and Buckler illustrating, Deathlok returned ostensibly for the wrap-up story. Only it was easily as much the origin story for Devil-Slayer.

Devil-Slayer was Eric Simon Payne. He had renounced the demon cult which had granted him incredible powers and now stood opposed to them. Their goal, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, was “Xenogenisis,” the rebirth of a demon race on earth. His costume was blue with an orange cape where Demon-Hunter’s was red with a blue cape, but otherwise it’s the same guy.

Devil-Slayer went on to pop up in Kraft’s The Defenders #58-60 (1978) for a three-part story entitled, not surprisingly, “Xenogenisis.” He wasn’t done there.

Well, Devil-Slayer was, as was Eric Simon Payne, but Gideon Cross wasn’t.

Gideon Cross came back as Bloodwing, in the Buckler-published Galaxia Magazine (1981). This one didn’t get as far as mentioning Xenogenisis, but there was mention of a demonic “Crimson Brotherhood.” The character looked the same as his Marvel incarnation on the color cover (interiors were black and white), but the feel was a little more rough and tumble.

THE SCORPION to DOMINIC FORTUNE

Since the early 1970s, Howard Chaykin seems to have been turning out intense characters with heavy doses of adventure, politics, sex and a generally cynical, rogue-ish behavior. Cody Starbuck, The Scorpion, Dominic Fortune, his version of The Shadow, American Flagg, Power & Glory.

At Atlas, a falling-out over control of The Scorpion lead to Chaykin’s departure before the ship had sunk. He showed up at Marvel where he, with Len Wein providing a script, came up with Dominic Fortune. The color of the outfits may be slightly different, but the attitude and presence of the characters is unmistakably the same. The result was two stories, one written by Wein and one by Chaykin himself, that appeared in Marvel Preview #21 under the “Bizarre Adventures” banner.

The background stories were different enough. The Scorpion was set in New York and the character was somehow long-lived and of unspecified age. He was, though, a mercenary for hire with the same attitude and demeanor as Dominic Fortune, who instead lived just off the west coast, near Los Angeles, outside territorial waters, on a rather large gambling ship. Both were set in the late 1930s and had elements of the approaching World War II looming in the background.

Missing from Fortune was the undefined extended life scenario, but otherwise their similarities overwhelm the differences. Chaykin has explored the theme of extended life in other stories, too, most notably his four-issue DC Shadow mini-series (1980).


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Comments or Suggestions ? Let us know ! 29-Sep-2010 9:06