17 Mar 2011

Four-Colour Yesteryears: Atlas Shrugged (Briefly…), Part II

In Four-Colour Yesteryears we delve back into the past to look at the periods, events and creators that helped shape the medium.

Click here for Part I.

By Rob N

The Atlas war machine had a sizeable pay chest to draw on, and Martin Goodman understood that he needed recognizable creator names to sign up if he was going to batter Marvel into submission.

Approaches were made to notable freelancers in an attempt to poach talent from Marvel and DC. This had been a period in which some big names had walked out on their regular jobs, when artist/writer grievances against the ‘work for hire’ system were beginning to bite, and Goodman perhaps thought he might get them onboard. As an incentive he offered higher page rates, the return of artwork and (allegedly) some rights to newly created characters, all of which was pretty much unheard of in the offices of Marvel and DC. He even made an approach to ‘Rascally’ Roy Thomas, recently an ex-Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, but Roy wisely felt that Atlas had bitten off more than it could chew and politely declined. These tempting contracts weren’t a sign of benevolent altruism on the part of Martin Goodman, but rather born out of necessity, because if you were an established writer or artist, jumping ship from Marvel or DC to an untried - and therefore risky - new venture wasn’t something you did lightly. Especially as there was always the risk that signing on to do any work at all for Atlas might result in burning your bridges with the editorial staff at Marvel and DC. Yes, you were technically a freelancer on a work for hire contract, but DC in particular didn’t take kindly to you working in tandem with Atlas.

The signing on package was good enough to tempt many famous names, including Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Frank Thorne, Ernie Colon, Michael Fleisher, Mike Kaluta, Al Milgrom, Neil Adams, Pat Broderick, Marshall Rogers, Pablo Marcos, John Severin, Russ Heath, and Archie Goodwin, but crucially many of those names contributed relatively little material. Neil Adams for example was arguably the biggest name in the industry at that time, but Atlas squeezed little more than some covers out of him. One of the problems Atlas faced was that Marvel and DC quickly moved to protect their key creators, and in some cases writers and artists made hardly secret enquiries to Atlas to prompt their existing employers to offer them a raise. If you were looking to get a better deal from Stan Lee, then making some loud overtures to Atlas might prompt an improved page rate at Marvel.

A kid perusing the stack of #1s that had filtered through to Britain in early 1975 (in those days we were always a good three to four months behind US distribution) might be forgiven for thinking someone had drawn up a list entitled ‘genre stereotypes – pick one and draw a comic based on it’ for there was more than just a whiff of familiarity about some of them. This was closer to the truth than we imagined, as apparently Atlas had originally intended to purchase the rights to instantly recognisable properties such as the Spider, the Avenger, Godzilla, Kolchak the Night Stalker and the Omega Man, but when Goodman realised how much that was likely to cost, he opted instead for a time honoured ‘plan b’: plagiarise and get something similar for free.

Planet Of Vampires was sort of Planet Of The Apes, but with vampires instead of monkeys. The Brute was a second rate Hulk. Iron Jaw was, well, Conan frankly, but with a metal jaw, bad attitude towards women and not very good artwork. Mind you, having said that this was the early ‘70s when nearly all swords and sorcery characters were essentially Conan in different loincloths. But still, a metal jaw? Not the best idea in the world. How was he going to kiss the half-naked and hysterical Vendhyan princess after he saved her from a slavering Lovecraft demon? He wasn’t.

Blazing Battle Tales featuring Sergeant Hawk and Savage Combat Tales featuring Sgt Stryker’s Death Squad almost sounded like a Sergeant Fury or Sergeant Rock pastiche. Of the other titles there were Dirty Harry style police stories (the imaginatively titled Police Action) and a Shang-Chi rip off called Hands Of The Dragon to cater to the already fading martial arts craze. The Grim Ghost was like the Ghost Rider only on a horse. And there were some slushy love stories for the girls. I obviously don’t know anything about slushy love story comics of the Sixties or Seventies because they were soppy, and anyway, I didn’t have a young sister who’d buy stuff like that.

In fact, the more we delved through this mountain of new material, the more familiar it all seemed. But of course when you’re eleven years old that’s not necessarily a problem, because if there’s something you enjoy, then what you’ll also enjoy is more of the same. Eleven year-old boys don’t really want innovation – they want fully grown men in colourful costumes punching one another in the face or shooting one another with big guns, forever and ever without end.

But in amongst the slush were a few eye-catching moments. Howard Chaykin was a name to watch and he drew an atmospheric adventure title called The Scorpion, set in the pulp era 1930s, full of period detail – something that would soon become his trademark in years to come. The legendary Steve Ditko (and all eleven year-old boys in 1975 knew who he was thanks to the recent Marvel UK reprints of early ‘60s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories) contributed a superhero title called The Destructor, that Marvel and DC would probably have wanted if only for the fact it was Steve (almost as important as Jack Kirby) Ditko. And there were also a couple of black and white magazine format comics that were designed to compete with the Warren titles (and indeed Marvel’s own answer to the Warren titles). Horror title Develina was so similar to Vampirella/Satana that it stretched even the acceptable bounds of plagiarism, but Thrilling Adventure Stories was sort of a mixed bag of anything violent that the writers and artists cared to produce and I have fond memories of the stories in issue #2

Next in Part III: The failure of Atlas.

No comments: