Sunday, November 24, 2013

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #19: The Mystery of Atomman! Part One

"The Start"
Side Effects: The Atomic Comics Story
A continuing series covering events inspired by, if not necessarily about, Marvel comics in the 1970s.
1976 was an eventful year in the comic book industry. At Marvel, Gerry Conway succeeded Marv Wolfman as Editor-in-Chief, only to be replaced by Archie Goodwin in little more than a month. DC also experienced a major staff change, as Jenette Kahn took over the Publisher and Editorial Director duties from Carmine Infantino. Despite all this upheaval, the two companies managed to co-publish their first major character crossover, the oversized Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century.
But the action wasn’t limited to Marvel and DC. A new breed of comic publishers emerged in 1976, as companies such as Fantagraphics and Flying Buttress threw their collective hats in the ring. Out of these bold upstarts, Atomic Comics remains the most obscure. Few reliable details are available about this mysterious publisher. Even the name is in debate, as “Atomic Comics” is only the generally accepted term for comic books released under the “Thomas Flynn Presents,” “Thomas Flynn Comics Group,” “Thomas Flynn Preasent,” “Star® Comics Group,” and, finally, “Atomic Comics” banners. Plus, original copies of the extremely sporadic releases are nearly impossible to find. While unproven, it is rumored that a complete run was included in the collection that actor Nicolas Cage auctioned for over 1.6 million dollars in 2002.
Legend goes that a single, poorly paid employee was responsible for the entire Atomic Comics output, publishing, writing, illustrating, lettering, and coloring every issue. This seems highly unlikely. Regardless, the results barely reached the level of an untalented Elementary school student across all phases of operation. Glaring grammatical mistakes were made in nearly every sentence and the basic facts of anatomy were completely ignored or misunderstood. Early issues were obviously created with no preparation whatsoever — everything seems to have been made up as it stumbled along.
At first, Atomic Comics were economically printed on the blank side of stationery procured from the Allstate Insurance Company and color was limited to character outlines. From time to time, there were attempted upgrades to the shoddy product, including such misguided promotions as colored construction paper. Crossovers were also abundant, as Spider-Man, The Hulk, Nova, and other Marvel characters frequently appeared. No one believes that these were legally approved.
Which brings us to now. Through a combination of dogged determination and dumb blind luck, this writer recently came into contact with extremely rare originals of every publication issued by Atomic Comics, all thought forever lost to time and interest. So finally, perhaps, the elusive true story of Atomic Comics can be told. Finally. Perhaps.
Note: all grammatical mistakes from the original comics remain intact when referenced.

Atomman #1 “The Start”
Pub Date: May 1976
Page Count: 7

Synopsis: Atomman battles Rocketman, killing the villain by pushing him into a lava pit. Afterwards, Atomman recounts his origin.

The structure of this origin issue is shaky at best. The caption at the top of the splash page explains Atomman’s background in detail: “John Westscott: 10 years ago John Westscott’s wife and children were murdered by the supervillan Rocketman. John swore revenge. Now it is in the ’70s. A strange robot from the planet Sirvo 3 landed in his backyard. Interested he investagated. While working on it, it exploded. He had gained the robot’s powers, able to turn into a atom and whiz anywhere, super strong, flies, and super hard skin. So now he looks for Rocketman in the name of Atomman.” Page one also includes a misfired joke, as Atomman comes across Rocketman robbing a bank and “no, he wasn’t deposating.” But, after the lackluster, cone-headed villain Rocketman is rather gruesomely dispatched, the rest of the issue recounts the hero’s origin all over again. This unimaginative padding is even more troubling considering the entire issue is an extremely brief seven pages. The characters are glorified stick figures with odd lumps on the arms apparently representing bicep muscles. Color is limited to what looks like red and blue colored pens. The origin issue also features the first of the many Marvel references to come, with the final page showing a full-page illustration of Atomman putting on his newly tailored and unimaginative costume. The character declares, “I felt a cool chill as I looked in the mirror. Like Spiderman says there’s a superhero born every minute.” It is highly doubtful that the Marvel character ever uttered such an idiotic statement.

Atomman #2 “Revenge”
Pub Date: June 1976Page Count: 7
Synopsis: Atomman is attacked by a flying saucer from Sirvo 3. After the hero causes the ship to crash into a mountain, a robot emerges from the wreckage. Atomman blasts the mechanical man to bits with his power rays.
Sad as it may be, at least the plot of issue two is a natural continuation from the first, as a robot from the planet Sirvo 3 arrives, searching for his missing compatriot. Again the comic is a surprisingly quick read, with only 19 panels included in the entire page count. Lazy padding is, thankfully, eliminated, as the story is completely linear. The robot’s design is markedly different than the one that appeared previously, but perhaps multiple models populated Sirvo 3. However, most agree that this is simply pure indifference on the part of the illustrator. The artwork, while still woefully inadequate, slightly improves, as the arms are drawn in a slightly more realistic manner, with forearms, biceps and shoulders showing more rounded forms. The final page is another full-page illustration, as Atomman flies off from the smoking pieces of the robot, wearily complaining that he needs a “Shliztc.” Scholars have come to suggest that this is a reference to Schlitz, “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”

Atomman #3 “Wind Blows Death Follows”
Pub Date: July 1976
Page Count: 7
Synopsis: Sporting a new costume, Atomman battles Wirllwind, the Human Tornado.
Please note that the page count is only an estimate: the story ends abruptly after page seven, indicating that the issue I acquired is incomplete. Or perhaps the comic was completely abandoned after inspiration ran dry. The cover claim of more color is actually true, as it appears that a green pen was added to the blue and red used previously. However, the boast of better art is a complete falsehood. Musculature is a bit more defined but the characters heads range from tiny to tremendous from panel to panel. The new uniform is a bit of an improvement however. But really, what good can be said of a comic that misspells the name of the villain? At one point, Atomman reveals that the “action” is taking place in New York City, the first time a setting for the series is revealed.

Atomman #4 “A Shark Called Mako” 
Pub Date: August 1976
Page Count: 7
Synopsis: Atomman is captured by Mako Shark who wants the hero to join his plan of world domination. Atomman refuses, destroying a ray gun that the villain claims can turn dry land to water.
The cover boasts that this is “The Best Atomman Saga Ever Told,” and while that might actually be true, it’s not saying much. Using his undersea minions — an octopus, squid, shark, electric eel and killer whale — Mako Shark captures the hero. While unconscious, the Tiger Shark rip-off gives Atomman the power to breath underwater, hoping that the hero will join his plan to conquer all land dwellers. Probably not the brightest idea, because when he awakes, the defiant Atomman is now more than his match. The colored pens are abandoned, replaced by markers, many of which appear to be running out of ink. The use of different hued construction paper backfires, as some of the pages now have a background of dark blue or red, making the shoddy art and lettering even harder to make out. Though that might be a positive development.

Atomman Annual #1 
“Atomman Meets the Man Called Nova”
Pub Date: September 1976
Page Count: 12
Synopsis: Atomman teams with Nova to explode a mechanical Tyrannosaurs Rex. The pair tracks the robot’s creator, Machine Master, to his lair, hidden in a volcano. After defeating a variety of robotic weapons, Atomman and Nova destroy Machine Man, who turns out to be another robot.
Sales must not have been meeting expectations, because Atomic Comics rushed a giant-sized annual into production after just four regular Atomman issues. While the price doubled, the page count did not, only adding five additional pages. Again, the comic is printed on heavy, colored construction paper, making it nearly impossible to read the scrawled lettering on the dark pages of purple and red. Debuting the same year as Atomman, Nova was a natural choice for guest star. However, it is nearly a certainty that the character’s use was not sanctioned by Marvel. It remains a mystery why Marvel never filed a cease and desist lawsuit. Perhaps sales were so meager that the company’s lawyer — and everyone else for that matter — never noticed. And since issue three revealed that “Atomman” takes place in New York City, it is odd to find a volcano situated so close to the metropolitan area.

Atomman #6 “Untitled” 
Pub Date: October 1976
Page Count: 8
Synopsis: Atomman and Spider-Man are transported to the “plantitot” of the robotic alien Xucle. Spider-Man escapes from the clear tubes that imprison the heroes and rushes to stop the alien before he can unmask Atomman.
Emboldened by the lack of a lawsuit, Atomic Comics again dips into Marvel’s character pool. The cover proclaims “A speical appearence by The Hulk,” but it’s the shortest in history since the green giant is only featured on the splash page. Spider-Man plays a much more prominent role. The issue is labeled as #6, which makes little sense. The first annual was released last month and #4 was published in August so, logically, this issue should have been #5. It is fast becoming apparent that few people were paying attention to the details in the hallways of Atomic Comics. Or perhaps it was more sinister: there are whispers that the employees were freely sampling the drug of the day, cocaine. On the bright side, it means that there is one less issue to endure. At one point, Xucle, a name that appears to be made up with random letters, says “Ive waited all your Atomman life to do this. I’m gonna take off your mask!” This is only either issue #5 or #6, so the wait could not have been very long. The first of a three-part arc. Get ready for a long and bumpy ride.

Atomman #7 “Breaking Point”
Pub Date: March 1977
Page Count: 9
Synopsis: Xucle imprisons Spider-Man once again, and using a machine, transforms himself into an exact clone of Atomman. Xucle flies off to Earth and begins a crime spree that is blamed on Atomman. As the heroes battle a succession of monsters, the “plantitot’s” self-destruct countdown begins.
In the first of many publication delays to come, there is a five-month separation from last issue. While the page count increases by one, Atomic Comics does manage to keep a lazy eye on the bottomline by printing on the front and back of each sheet for the first time, actually decreasing the amount of paper used for each issue. Only the cover logo features color, a sloppy purple with a dull green outline — not the most pleasant combination. The rest of the ill-conceived illustrations are unadulterated pencil. However, a curious decision was made to darken the eyes on Spider-Man’s mask with what looks like charcoal, as facing pages feature light smudge marks. The transformed Xucle wears a current Atomman outfit, but it appears that he had numerous versions prepared. Since his costume was damaged, Atomman changes into one of these, marking the third different outfit of the series. As Atomman feyly chooses a new design, an impatient Spider-Man complains “Comon this is no fasion show.” It also looks like an annoying sidekick is introduced as a friendly, monkey-like alien appears throughout, inanely repeating “Chee Chee.”

Atomman #8 “P.S. 115: Battleground” 

Pub Date: April 1977
Page Count: 12
Synopsis: Atomman and Spider-Man beam down from the “plantitot” before it self-destructs. As Spider-Man swings off, Atomman is attacked by his doppelganger and they battle inside a school that catches fire during the melee. Xucle reveals that the longer they fight, the weaker Atomman will become. But a crumbling wall collapses, killing the alien.
During their fisticuffs, Atomman and Xucle trade lame quips along with the awkward blows, resulting in such dreary dialogue as “Come back down here chicken,” “Why that weasel! He turned into a atom,” and “I, I mean him … well I mean … it hits hard.” The “Chee Chee” alien monkey returns but, thankfully, has negligible impact. Color was completely abandoned with this issue but the page count increased significantly. The main story is only seven pages but at the end an arrow directs readers to “Turn for special,” a bonus, five-page short featuring the Fantastic Four. Atomman saves Sue Storm when she is thrown from a Baxter Building window by a villain named Dragonfly. Together, Atomman and the unlicensed Marvel team battle Dragonfly, who eventually quits and flies away as the actual insect. The Fantastic Four are portrayed poorly, as before they realize that the Invisible Girls has been rescued, Reed Richards is sobbing and, while the inflamed Human Torch is easily capable of saving his sister, The Thing resignedly states “Don’t worry strech! We’ll get the bum that did it.” Even though sales must have been miniscule at this point, Atomic Comics includes another bonus as the inside back cover features a full-sized Atomman pinup. There is no recorded instance of this mini-poster being pinned anywhere.  

Next Sunday: The Atomic Comics Story Part 2
Why is Atomman wearing a Goliath costume? Who are Exo-Man and the Grim Jester? Will the “Chee Chee” alien monkey survive much longer? The story of Atomic Comics continues to the bitter end in our next installment.



"Wind Blows Death Follows"

"A Shark Called Mako"

"Atomman Meets the Man Called Nova"

"Breaking Point"
"P.S. 115: Battleground"


  1. I do believe I purchased a full set at the 1989 comic and sports card convention at the Bordentown, NJ firehouse for 50 cents. The funniest part of this (and there are many) is that the publisher put out an annual!!!

  2. Atomic Comics did achieve one artistic milestone that eluded even Marvel: the penciler and inker were always perfectly matched.

    The unsigned author of this highly informative article was presumably being rhetorical when he asked, "what good can be said of a comic that misspells the name of the villain?" Yet, as history tells us, Atomic's higher-profile competitor committed that exact sin in THOR #214, where "Mercurio" is consistently misspelled as "Mecurio."

    Legal technicalities aside, Atomic was also clearly running neck and neck with the majors by pioneering inter-company crossovers the same year as the more heavily touted Spider-Man/Superman encounter, thus making it inexplicable that the company was not afforded more respect.

    There is, of course, one possible solution to the numeration problem that is perfectly straightforward, and that is simply to consider the first annual as the de facto issue #5. I myself had long subscribed to the theory that it was a playful goof on the reader, prefiguring by many years the kind of "meta-comics" epitomized by Marvel's "Assistant Editors' Month" and other pretentious devices. But documents only recently uncovered hint at a more ambitious scheme: to build up a buying frenzy inspired by pent-up demand for the "missing" issue #5.

  3. Having read the original Cage collection, I can vouch firsthand for the magnificently incoherent and hilariously juvenile timelessness of the Atomman comics. Reliving the experience here is equal parts fantastic and futile.

  4. I have a comic book character called ATOMMAN,I find this very ....