28 Mar 2011

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

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 and here for Part II.

By Rob N

So Atlas had launched in a blaze of glory and the fanfare of golden trumpets. But this was the mid-70s, and surely the writing was on the wall from day one, for if the mighty Marvel couldn’t keep new titles in print how could Johnny-come-lately Atlas expect to do any better? Yes, comics were cheap, and kids could easily buy seven comics with their weekly pocket money, but there were also space hoppers and chopper bikes to lust after, not to mention those all important Action Man accessories like the M*A*S*H style helicopter with the working rotor blades, or the Saracen armoured car. Savage Combat Tales featuring Sgt Stryker’s Death Squad might have had an eye-catching title, but once past the cover it really had to pull out all the stops to get between an eleven year old boy and a new Action Man with gripping hands. And between you and me, it didn’t.

Martin Goodman’s business plan was built around a single important principle: make the Atlas comics look like Marvel comics because Marvel comics sold well. Unfortunately, despite a few similarities in character concepts, the Atlas line didn’t look anything like Marvel. For starters there were relatively few superhero comics, and crucially perhaps, the spandex comics that did exist didn’t seem to sit in a shared ‘Atlas universe’. If you had to pinpoint one of the most important factors influencing Marvel’s success in the ‘60s, it was the idea to place all the books within the same continuity and occasionally have stories and characters cross over from one book to another. That such a basic factor could be overlooked by a company that wanted to imitate Marvel, and was after all run by the publisher who used to run Marvel, is bizarre.

Very soon Goodman began to criticise the scripts and art that landed on his desk because it wasn’t ‘Marvel’ enough for him. To add to this, Martin’s son, Chip, had been placed in a position of authority within Seaboard, and the general feeling amongst artists and writers was that Chip didn’t really understand the industry. Back in the days when Chip Goodman worked for Marvel, Roy Thomas remembered a typical scene with the man when he discussed a Wild West title:

"It was a Western cover and Chip sent back word that he wanted all the bad guys in the story inside and on the cover to be wearing animal masks. We asked why and he said, 'I don't know. Maybe it'll sell better.'"

Only a month or two after the initial launch of the colour books, where sales figures were reputedly as low as 13% of the print run (though interestingly, a figure as low as 25% to 30% sales was considered acceptable to break even in those days), Martin Goodman panicked and decided that on the whole his titles all looked wrong. Out of the blue he gave instructions to radically change many of the ongoing titles overnight. Some of the changes were as extreme as you could imagine. Chaykin’s atmospheric pulp ‘30s adventurer, the Scorpion, became a costumed superhero in the 1970s in issue #3, drawn in a simplified Jack Kirby style by a new art team (Chaykin was thrown off his own creation). I recall picking up the issue in a state of mild confusion, thinking, this is crap.

Morlock 2001, an SF comic set in the future, was radically overhauled when Goodman suddenly decided that SF comics wouldn’t sell. Frank Thorne’s Lawrence Of Arabia serial was axed because it had Arabs in it (presumably this blindingly obvious revelation wasn’t understood at the commissioning stage…), and Jeff Jones (arguably one of the finest painters of paperback covers during the period) was turned away from doing covers because Goodman didn’t like his style (for which, read, Jeff Jones didn’t draw the old fashioned Marvel way). Goodman had strong opinions on what made a good cover. He wanted the art plastered in word balloons and lots of text, whereas his creators fought a battle to let the art speak for itself. In desperation they would sneak art through the production process, keeping it away from Martin Goodman’s attention until it was too late to change it.

With sales figures bottoming out, the page rates, originally so very attractive to experienced talent, were mercilessly cut to reduce costs. Within just a few months of launching in a blaze of glory, Atlas came crashing to the ground before any title had chalked up a fifth issue. The mocking (and relieved) laughter from the boardrooms of Marvel and DC must have echoed through their buildings in reply.

For a long time Atlas has been consigned to the recycling bin of history, but recently the trend for revisiting every nostalgic property has come home to roost even here. A recent copy of the Previews catalogue announced that a select few Atlas creations are getting a second chance in print. For those who are curious, there will be a relaunch of two of the old titles: The Phoenix and The Grim Ghost. Jason Goodman (Grandson of Martin) is behind the retro move, but how these properties will perform in a very crowded marketplace is anyone’s guess.


Matt Clark said...

Good work, Rob. So have you checked out any of the new Atlas books? And how long do we think they'll last this time around?

Andy H said...

Not long. Sorry