I found the AV Club article about Marvel's New Universe
fascinating. I love failed superhero universes, likely because my formative comic book-reading years were filled with Impact, Milestone, Valiant, Comics Greatest World, the Ultraverse and more. But out of the 90's boom and bust the only "new universes" left standing were the microcosms of Image (Savage Dragon, Spawn, Top Cow etc). DC and Marvel remained "the Big Two", as they have for over half a millennium. What fascinates me are the other companies that had a go at the Big Two prior to the 90's, like the Red Circle/Archie Adventure heroes and Tower's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (as you may have noticed).
Atlas Comics were new to me this year. As I was bin diving at a local used book store I discovered about two dozen of this company's titles amidst their alphabetical assortment, and I was both puzzled them and also drawn to them. I knew nothing of Atlas Comics, I had no awareness of their existence, though the name sounded familiar as the rest stop on Timely's way to becoming Marvel Comics... but this was not the forebear to Marvel, given the very 1970's aesthetic. How could there be so many characters and books from a company I've really never heard of before?
I was tempted to buy all copies available -- about 30 or so issues -- but given how little I knew about Atlas, I didn't want to just dive in full boar. I needed to investigate first. Learning that no series made it to a fifth issue, I realized the investment into this dead universe wouldn't be too heavy, especially if most of the books were only $1. Alas, upon returning to the used book store, most of the Atlas books had be scooped up, that and I didn't have the time to dig through the bins like I had before, so I may have missed some still. What I did manage to find were five original Atlas books, starting with Pheonix: The Man of Tomorrow, which was the title that stuck out to me the most when I first spied the books. Something about the classic power pose of the hero with his arm around the frightened female, fending off the barrage of UFO laser fire as the city around him crumbles and civilians panic. It's a great cover. Even the logo is appealing in its retro design.
Inside the story begins on Threshold, a massive research satellite orbiting Earth, as disaster has struck and the station is doomed. Its three denizens flee in shuttle but its heat shield is damaged upon reentry. Only one manages to escape after splashdown before it explodes, but he is thrown unconscious onto an arctic mass, death looming. Smash cut to a group of alien beings monitoring the Astronaut's fate and debating about whether to interfere and save the human or let nature take its course.
It's an incredible three-page opening, with some thoroughly dynamic art from Sal Amedola. One of Atlas' two starting editors, Jeff Rovin provides a captivating narrative that really drew me in. If this was Atlas Comics, I was impressed. Why didn't this last?
I need only continue reading to answer that question. The contemplative Sci-Fi angle of the book was heavily intriguing early on, but Rovin quickly loses the handle on it once it comes time to make the Astronaut named Tyler our central focus. He fights with his saviors, argues with them about not being allowed to return home and is the consummate ugly American in his behavior. He's an unlikable character who quickly eats away at the goodwill of the opening. The aliens have outfits that grant their wearer abilities like enhanced strength, flight and laser beams, and naturally Tyler steals one and makes his way to Earth. Enraged the aliens start to firebomb Reykjavik forcing Tyler into the hero role, then destroying the aliens' Arctic outpost. So disappointed with the outcome of their interference in Tyler's fate, the aliens prepare to destroy the Earth.
It's actually a quite competent, fairly entertaining book, though with some of the usual trappings of comics from the era -- grandiose dialogue, poor character building, lack of story focus -- but at the same time, from my background reading I learned that many of the Atlas books were derivatives of not just other mainstream comics but mainstream cinema and television as well (since publisher Martin Goodman opted to not license existing properties). Pheonix, quite obviously, is a pull on the original Planet of the Apes storyline, complete with naming the surviving astronaut Taylor. It deviates nicely for me though, but Taylor's unwillingness to investigate the alien society and culture, and his stubborn desire to have things his own way all the time sets him on a course for getting Earth destroyed. Way to go, dick. I want to read more of this, though, the main reason being Sal Amedola.
I'm always surprised when I see a comic from before the 1980's that has really interesting and unique art. I'm so intimately familiar with the famous artists of the Silver Age like Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Steve Ditko, and the various "house styles" that the Big Two had, that it's always surprising to see something different. Amedola is like a precursor to Sienkiewicz, using lines more than solid ink for shading, but also toying with panel breakdown and how characters break the borders. He's a high caliber artist, surprising for the company I never heard of.
I learned that Atlas managed to draw a great many talented artists into their fold by offering unprecedented page rates and their artwork returned, which was unheard of at the big two. Though unintentional, Atlas' short-lived poaching of major talent actually affected a lot of change for artists rights and equity in the mid-70's. The Atlas story is a fascinating one, and I'm going to dive into it more over the next few posts.
Next up: Morlock 2001: The World's Strangest Super-Hero