Thursday, June 24, 2010

1986- the Year We all Died

Recently, DC Comics released a collection that I've literally waited 25 years to read. The Atomic Knights was a strip that ran in the DC Sci-fi anthology series Strange Adventures every few months, rotating with such strips as Star Hawkins and the Space Museum. Fondly received, the strip ran for several years before falling largely into obscurity.

My first exposure to the strip was in the 1985 book The Comic Book Heroes, by Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones. I received this as a gift that year, for Christmas or my birthday, and it's probably my favorite gift of my childhood. Yes, even better then my Coleco Vision or GI Joe headquarters (though if I'd ever gotten the aircraft carrier...). It's the one time I can really ever recall my parents encouraging my burgeoning love of comics. I can remember, a few years later, my father asking me what I wanted for my birthday; when I suggested there were a few comics that I would like, he frowned and replied "No, I want to get you something good."

Anyway. That book... well, I devoured it. I can't say how many times I read the thing, but my copy is now well worn, and I can still recognize many of the panels reprinted in the book when I come across them. Covering Marvel and DC titles from the Silver and Bronze Ages (with a little bit of what was then the modern stuff thrown in), the book exposed me to a history of comics at a young age. I fully credit it with encouraging an interest in the comics from these eras that I've since cultivated in my adult years. I learned about the work of guys like Jack Kirby, Gardner Fox, Neal Adams and Gil Kane long before I actually it in person.

Much as I loved learning about the origins of Spider-Man, or the transition of Batman from silly, outdated '50s relic to campy '60s icon to fearsome '70s creature of the night, what really captured my imagination were (to steal a college basketball term) the mid-majors. Jacobs and Jones raved about several series that I'd never even heard of, with names like the Doom Patrol, Master of Kung-Fu, Adam Warlock, or the Secret Six. For the young me, this was like learning about the secret history of comics, one which remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Two strips in particular stood out to me: Sergio Argones, Denny O'Neil, and Nick Cardy's short lived western anti-hero Bat Lash, and the Atomic Knights. When I began going to comic cons regularly, and with a bit of cash to spread around, one of the first things I did was put together a complete set of the Bat Lash series (that's not as impressive as it may sound: the series only lasted eight issues, including the character's debut in the pages of the DC tryout mag Showcase). The Atomic Knights proved more elusive; because the strip hadn't run in its' own title, but in the pages of an anthology magazine, determining which issues featured Atomic Knights tales was difficult. Covers were no help; as I was to later learn, the Knights had only been featured on one Strange Adventures cover.

Which brings us to today. Or, rather, a few weeks ago, when I was strolling through my local comics shop and was stunned to see the just-released Atomic Knights hardcover collection. I'd been hoping for one of these for years, ever since DC first began their archives books in the late 1980s. When that line petered out a few years ago, I figured that was it (not to mention that DC's only midway through reprinting Jack Cole's Plastic Man...). But DC started a new classic reprint program in the interim, beginning with Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga, though at the time those looked to be singular publications. Since then, DC has moved onto other Kirby works, like The Demon and Kamandi, and even his Golden Age work for the company, such as the Sandman and the Newsboy Legion, finally building a nice little Kirby library. I quite liked the production values on the Kirby books, and presumably DC did too, because they've begun to use the same basic format in reprinting other works. Unlike the Archives books, which are a bit dull design-wise, these books are bright and colorful-- just like the comics they celebrate.

The Atomic Knights came from the editorial office of Julius Schwartz, for my money the premiere editorial vision of the Silver Age. And, yes, I'm including Stan Lee in that equation. Schwartz is mostly known for super heroes- he essentially launched the Silver Age by reviving the Flash- but science fiction is where he heart lay. The strip was written by regular Schwartz writer John Broome, regular scripter of Green Lantern and the Flash, and illustrated by Murphy Anderson. Though a superb penciller in his own right, Anderson is best known as an inker, most notably lending his pristine pen to Carmine Infantino's pencils on the Flash. I'm a big fan of Anderson, and I consider him to be the finest inker the field has ever seen, the rare talent that made every artist he worked over look better.

The basic premise of the series finds the world in disarray, after a sudden, short planetwide nuclear war. Enter Gardner Grayle, an average former soldier, and I do mean average-- Grayle even has a pre-war newspaper article that declares him to have been found average in every conceivable way. What an odd distinction. I suppose, in a post-Armageddon enviornment in which the world's population has been devastated, the average soldier is pretty darn good, because Grayle quickly establishes himself as the leader of the community of Durvale. The Knights gain their name when they don suits of Medieval armor to protect themselves from the deadly rayguns of the Black Baron, who has used his possession of Durvale's remaining food stocks to extort to town's survivors. After making quick work of the Baron and his forces, Grayle and the other Knights- Bryndon, one of the world's last remaining scientists, brothers Wayne and Hollis Hobard, schoolteacher Douglas Herald, and his sister Marene- form a permanent band of adventurers, with their armor continuing to serve as historic protection against science fiction threats.

One of the more interesting plot devices of the early Knights stories is the fact that the atomic war has killed all animal and vegetable life, meaning that mankind's remains must subsist on food stocks left behind before the war. This element gives the strip a dramatic weight missing in other post-Apocalyptic fiction, because we know that the survivors are living on borrowed time. It might be generations, but eventually, mankind is going to run out of food.

However, despite this doomsday scenario, not to mention the strip's basic premise, the Atomic Knights is not gloomy by any means. If anything, Broome and Anderson invest a kind of breezy optimism to their work. When the Knights go to New Orleans, it becomes an opportunity for Broome to express his obvious love for jazz. It's like watching an episode of Treme.

Some might find this tone to trivialize the strip's serious undertones. Certainly, were this a Marvel publication, we'd be treated to issue after issue of doom and gloom. I find it refreshing; it's one of the reasons I prefer Silver Age DC comics. In a Schwartz comic, you can be sure that the pathos would never get in the way of the adventure. Hell, that could've been their slogan.

Still, it's not a perfect strip. For their part, Jacobs and Jones believe that the feature lost it's edge when (and I suppose this next bit qualifies as a spoiler) it's revealed that the real hand behind mankind's destruction wasn't the governments of the world, but a race of underground mole people. Personally, I think that story's fine, but I do think the strip looses something when the Knights are able to rescue various vegetation to reseed the planet from Atlantis, which... oh, never mind. It's too convoluted. But, needless to say, without the threat of eventually running out of food, the comic looses a good deal of momentum.

And then there's Marene. The girl. The token girl. Now, Silver Age comics were never exactly a bastion for strong female role models, but Marene is a particularly egregious example of '60s sexism. Marene actively takes part in exactly two of the Knights' fifteen adventures, the first and the last: in the former; she sneaks into the last remaining suit of armor, deemed too small for a full-grown man, thus earning the nickname "the littlest Knight"; In the latter, she cuts her hair, puts on some baggy clothes, and infiltrates a gang of orphaned teenage boys terrorizing the town. No, it's not good.

But the comic, overall, lives up to my expectations. Anderson's work is just a joy to behold. I love that each of the Knights' armor is subtly different, so that you can tell which is which when they are in action. While there are certainly goofy moments, they are endearingly goofy. And I love that the strip doesn't focus on events that lead to mankind's destruction, but rather on the survivors' efforts to rebuild. Whatever it's flaws, the Atomic Knights is a lot of fun, and an obvious labor of love from the creators. Sadly, though, there was never a proper ending given to the Knights' adventures, they just end. Perhaps Broome decided that, if he'd reached the point that he was putting Marene in the stories, he'd run out of ideas. We'll never know.

It's a shame that this volume doesn't provide any insight to the Knights' behind-the-scenes origins or endings. While the Kirby books are chock full of extras, including both forwards and afterwards, Who's Who pages, and Kirby's rare Hunger Dogs graphic novel, The Atomic Knights features only a short forward by Anderson. And it's great- he includes a neat story about former DC writer/editor Mike W. Barr calling him on the day in 1986 that the fictional atomic war occurred- it's barely half a page. Also missing is the Knights' final appearance, in the pages of the Superman team-up book DC Comics Presents. And that's not a happy comic, not for fans of the Atomic Knights, but it does provide some closure. And more Anderson, which is surely a good thing.

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