© 2006 Steven Grant. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
"Comics is an escapist medium, no matter what the psychologists say. If you entertain and make a valid social point, then all the better. But first and foremost, entertainment is our bag."
"And just as Atlas was a titan in Greek mythology, so plan we to be a titan of comic books. If there's any doubt in your mind as to whether or not we can do it, take a look at our line-up. 'cause this is what comics is all about!"
Like most people, I first heard of Seaboard at the New York Convention on July 4th. I was thrilled. Seaboard had special deals and was promising relative artistic freedom. Hoards of great talent were reported to have flocked to the company. Great things were in store.
I am not normally this naive. But it's hard not to be carried away with such obvious hopes.
Months later, Seaboard, who in the meantime had adopted the name Atlas, announced their lineup to The Comic Reader and Mediascene. Suddenly Atlas did not look so thrilling, but I decided to hold off making an opinion until I could see the actual books. And finally, the first three titles appeared.
Not precisely the first. Atlas had previously released two rather nondescript black and white titles: a Famous Monsters of Filmland parody called Movie Monsters, and an unmemorable horror book with the cumbersome title of Weird Tales of the Macabre The less said of these, the better.
A brief aside: Atlas covers are awful. As a friend of mine pointed out, they don't look like comic book covers; they look like someone's imitation of comic book covers. Unfortunately true. Despite the talents of such people as Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, the first three books have covers resembling nothing so much as Aurora Hobby Kits frontpieces. Uninteresting design, static poses, and gaudy coloring. Heightening the dull look are the rather blank looking logo design, almost certainly calculated to make sure that the title of the book doesn't catch your eye.
Phoenix appears to be Atlas's answer to Superman. Drawing on the now rampant Gods From Outer Space theme, editor writer Jeff Rovin with an uninteresting concept looking for a comprehensible plot. A hyper emotional astronaut is saved from certain death by aliens living at the north pole. The aliens were once responsible for the evolution of mankind, and their characterization begins with altruistic benevolence and quickly degenerates into paranoia. Astronaut Tyler is just brilliant enough to be able to understand the alien's weapons and turns his spacesuit into a super weapon which they are incapable of countering. The aliens destroy Reykjavik, Iceland, then Phoenix (Tyler) destroys their base, long distance yet, but enough aliens survive to, in a fit of muddled priorities, punish Tyler and then destroy the human race. To be continued. Possibly ad nauseam.
Rovin seems to believe that characterization entails being able to get angry at the proper times, and this is the sum of the character of Phoenix. Atlas seems to be puffing this book endlessly, referring to Phoenix as The Man of Tomorrow (for those who didn't take my word for the Superman comparison) and "the greatest story ever told!" Amendola's work is nice, but suffers from sloppy inking. This is all right for a backup feature, but one expects more polished work on a lead. The entire concept of the book, however, is stale. But nothing exceed like success, and an old story, I suppose, deserves retelling. Even old stories deserve better retellings than this, though.
Those of you who always wanted to see a cross between The Spectre, The Ghost Rider, and Dr. Syn of Romney Marsh, Mike Fleisher and Ernie Colon have created The Grim Ghost. I can't for the life of me figure out what they're going to do with this one, though it's the most interesting concept of the three. The story consists of a one-ended framing story and the origin of The Grim Ghost, with no attempt to connect the two. Grim Ghost is a spectral highwayman cast into the twentieth century; certainly not an overworked idea, and one that could yield many interesting possibilities.
It is a comment on the abilities of Mike Fleisher and Ernie Colon that they have found none of them. Colon's art, while interesting, is uneven, and Fleisher's story, while semi-coherent, lacks a most important element of comic book story-telling: tension. The fragmented story breaks from the frame piece to the origin with no method of return. We are, at the end, left with no interest in what has gone before, and even worse, no way of getting interested in what is yet to come.
Lastly, we are left with no interest in Matthew Dunsinane, The Grim Ghost, who is portrayed as a vain, pompous, womanizing scoundrel. Seeing the devil's Puckian attributes is faintly amusing, but the pact scene has no effect on the rest of the book. We can retain little interest in a character who can remove all opposition with a wave of the little finger, or who can shoot a man in cold blood, and then pat himself on the back for it. It is doubtful that such a character and such a book will be able to develop a steady audience capable of keeping it alive. It is doubtful that it will be missed.
I will refrain from discussing Mike Sekowsky's dull, disproportionate artwork on Ironjaw, the third Atlas title, and concentrate on Mike Fleisher's banal, unimaginative, hacking script work.
As if the creators responsible for Iron Jaw felt that the book needed some sort of justification, there is a section in the back of the book called "The World of Iron Jaw" (Iron Man, Iron Wolf, Iron Fist, Iron Jaw: does comics perhaps have too many irons in the fire?) Aside from comments about the perpetrators of Iron Jaw, there is this absolutely ludicrous statement: "Iron Jaw, unlike other comic book characters, is a real human being. What he thinks, what he says, how he reacts, are all gauged by what Mike feels a real man, placed in that same situation would do!" We shall return to this concept in a moment.
Iron Jaw #1 is sword and sorcery plot 8D: wanderer comes to a land, gets involved in fight with soldiers. Evil king finds out that wanderer is actually rightful ruler of that land. Wanderer thrown in dungeon and freed by princess. Fights in arena (this will be in #2) and slays evil king, regaining throne. Surprised? No? If you'd heard it, you should have stopped me.
But Iron Jaw has one fascinating side: it gives us real insight into the workings of Fleisher's mind. It is interesting that Fleisher's concept of a "real man" is one characterized by emotionless brutality and motivated entirely by horniness. For Fleisher, the difference between a good man and a bad man is simple: the bad man finds humor in brutality; the good man refuses to react to his own brutality at all. This is the pattern evident in Jonah Hex, The Spectre, and Grim Ghost, and it now becomes evident in IronJaw.
The statement about the realness of Iron Jaw is ludicrous because Iron Jaw bears not even the faintest resemblance to a real human being, but is, at best, a reactionless, empty construct. He deals with other people on a single level: men should be killed; women should be raped and degraded. He speaks only in conjunctionless truisms, as though he were trying to read them off of cue cards without his glasses.
Ludicrous because to place a "real man" in a sword and sorcery background, unless it is done with the finesse of such things as Pratt and deCamp's Harold Shea stories, is to ignore the mythic context of sword and sorcery. A hero of this genre must be larger than life, an archetype. To reduce him to merely human is to render him uninteresting. Fleisher has made Iron Jaw all the less interesting by reducing him to less than human, and then even mutilating him with a iron jaw, a blunder which will surely tell in the sales returns.
To explain away the dense macho attitudes in Iron Jaw by explaining it as being a fantasy world is begging the question. The fantasy, what parts of it he can lay claim to doing anything besides lifting verbatim, is Fleisher's. Iron Jaw's treatment of women, his terms of interpersonal relationships, his predilection toward gratuitous violence, are, in a word, sick. If Fleisher truly believes that a "real man" would act this way, perhaps it would be wisest if he sought professional help before venting his adolescent power fantasies in public print will no longer suffice. If not, then what possible reasons, outside of sheer laziness, could he have had for producing this in the first place?
Unfortunately, Atlas is what comics is all about: the same old endlessly reworked formulae, reappearing ad nauseam, with one eye on the sales charts. The Atlas product is so very obviously tied up with "sure money," that it very obviously lacks the enthusiasm which was, inherent in the great trend setters of the past, in Superman, EC, and Spiderman when they first appeared. (And the enthusiasm which exists in E-Man today.) If Atlas's goal is to create interesting new concepts, it is unlikely they will succeed. The first three outings have been a disappointment and a betrayal of the talents which they have at their command.
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