Side Effects: The Atomic Comics Story
A continuing series covering events inspired by, if not necessarily about, Marvel comics in the 1970s.
A continuing series covering events inspired by, if not necessarily about, Marvel comics in the 1970s.
In Part One, we analyzed the ultra-rare Atomman Issues #1-8. Now you lucky readers are witness to the awe-inspiring conclusion of the greatest comic magazine you never saw!
Synopsis: Atomman tracks a gang of bank robbers to their hideout only to encounter their boss, the Scorpion. The two engage in battle until Atomman finally defeats his foe.
After a yearlong production shutdown, Atomic Comics returns with the most controversial issue of the company’s entire run. Another brazen use of a Marvel character is just the tip of the iceberg, as numerous panels are completely copied from Ross Andru’s art for “Spider-Man” #146, which also featured the Scorpion. The artist simply changed the webcrawler’s costume to the one worn by Atomman. Even entire blocks of dialogue were stolen from Gerry Conway’s original script. It’s simply mindboggling that a lawsuit was not filed but, again, perhaps the dire distribution numbers of this comic worked to the company’s favor and it never crossed the desk of the Marvel lawyer. This is the first issue that shows John Westscott’s day job, as he is the manager of the bank. There is another new costume as well, the fourth so far. The battle takes place in the Palisadas Tower: considering the New York setting, it was probably intended to be Palisades. Plus, the bank robbers are a sorry lot, as they ask Westscott for “a small check for a million bucks.” That would have been hard to cash.
Synopsis: Atomman is captured by Tyrak and delivered to the underwater kingdom of Mako Shark. Namor the Sub-Mariner is also a captive and soon the two heroes slip their bonds. After Atomman tells Namor to escape, he uses his atomic heat to dehydrate the villains. Atomman swims to freedom but runs out of air and lapses into unconsciousness before reaching the surface.
The shameless thievery continues for the second straight month. When Atomman first encounters the Marvel character Tyrak, a caption references events that took place in “The Avengers” #156. The artwork references it as well since many panels are based on the work of Sal Buscema from that far superior Marvel release. Namor appears briefly, but long enough to mutter a confusing “Y… you pig!” Atomman displays a new power as he harnesses his atomic energy to pulsate waves of heat. However, there is an utter lack of continuity concerning another strength — all the more pathetic considering it actually involves Mako Shark. In issue #4, Mako Shark gave Atomman the ability to breathe underwater, but in this installment, he is left drowning in the final panel. Another new costume is introduced, the fifth, this one seemingly based on Marvel’s Captain Marvel. The “Chee Chee” alien monkey is back, flying along with Atomman at the beginning. Luckily, the insufferable sidekick is forgotten when Tyrak attacks. The cover exclaims “Now Inked!” but that sloppy promotion quickly peters out after the first panel of page two.
Synopsis: Namor saves Atomman from drowning, bringing the unconscious hero to the surface where the Avengers wait in their “guinjet.” The team takes the exhausted Atomman back to their “manion.” Suddenly the Hulk arrives and soon only Atomman and Captain America are left standing.
With guest stars the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, the Beast, Yellowjacket, the Wasp, Wonder Man, and the Sub-Mariner, this issues includes the largest number of illegally used Marvel characters to date. At this point, it is obvious that the publisher had nothing to lose, since it took a year to scrape together the meager funds just to continue the story started in issue #10. At least the sub-standard artwork seems to be original. And yes, another new outfit appears. Well, new for Atomman: Yellowjacket offers an old blue and yellow Goliath uniform to replace the one waterlogged last issue, making this the most appealing and professionally designed version introduced. In addition to “guinjet” and “manion,” the list of misspelled words is sad and lengthy: “spliting” (splitting), “agred” (agreed), “specim” (specimen, used three times), and “everone” (everyone). Strangely, pneumonia is used correctly. The inside back cover features an ad promising that “Big things are coming your way at Atomic Comics,” with a burst listing what must be new series misguidedly planned for the future: The Enforcers, Exo-Man, Powerhouse, and Chemo. The combination of “coming your way” and “at Atomic Comics” strikes many as logistically impossible.
Synopsis: Atomman and Captain America face off against the Hulk. During the battle, Atomman’s arm is broken and he is punched through a window — luckily, Spider-Man is swinging by and catches him in a web. Tired of fighting, the Hulk leaps off.
As if ten pilfered Marvel characters weren’t enough, Spider-Man returns, only four issues after his last appearance. The introduction of black ink for the panel outlines and lettering actually adds sharpness to the usually murky pages, marking Atomic Comics’ first successful production upgrade. The second is the “New Heavier Better Paper” advertised on the cover. It is white, compared to the dull tan used previously. This also increases the often-unwanted readability. The added expenses might explain the two-month delay from #11, as the company must have scrambled to cover the cost. For some unknown reason, the name of the comic was changed to “Amazing Tales Featuring: The Mighty Atomman.” Is this one of the big things promised last issue? Perhaps, as the broken English of the final caption reads “Next: Atomman visits the hospital, as the newest superhero Exo-Man revels his origin.” Such poorly constructed sentences have made some wonder if Atomic Comics were actually produced in China, a country, at the time, unconcerned with foreign language proofreading — and lawsuits for that matter.
Synopsis: Unemployed ex-jock Dave Johnston agrees to be a guinea pig for a dangerous matter transfer experiment. When it goes wrong, his body is transformed into pure and unstable energy. Encasing himself in armor stolen from Tony Stark, Johnston becomes Exo-Man.
The introduction of Atomic Comic’s second original hero gets off to an inauspicious start as simple words are mangled on the cover and in the title on the splash page. The end of the story is also a fiasco since it remains incomplete, abruptly ending with an unfinished panel. But at this point, Atomic Comics was suffering a subscription rate of nearly zero, so it is understandable that the staff simply gave up the ghost. Who would complain? The publication month indicated on the cover, January, is yet another in the long line of obvious blunders. Exo-Man was announced in the July 1979 issue of “Atomman” and, as we shall see, the next issue of that series was released in December 1979. With that in mind, the educated guess is that the actual pub date was either August or September of 1979. It is mentioned that the stolen Exo-Man suit was used by the Guardsman, but the design is significantly different. Tony Star and his alter ego Iron Man make an appearance, but the story grinds to a halt before he makes much of an impact. Exo-Man’s impact on readers was insignificant as well, as the armored copyright infringement is never to be seen again.
Synopsis: Atomman is captured by an aquatic alien looking for an ally to help defeat the Gammalons, the warrior race that destroyed his peaceful planet. Along for the ride is Black Byrd, another sole survivor of a Gammalon attack. When the trio reaches Gammalonia, Black Byrd is quickly killed and both Atomman and the alien are captured and tortured.
In the final issue of the series, the underwhelming saga of Atomman ends in a fitting manner: the well of inspiration and pay checks must have finally ran dry, as the second consecutive release ends with a half-finished panel. In a nod to a tired tradition, the Goliath costume from issue #11 is replaced by another new design, making it the seventh and final version of the series. Surprisingly, the swiftly eliminated Black Byrd actually had an interesting look: only one star-shaped eye is visible through the space buccaneer’s long hair. However, his obnoxious wisecracks are way too Earth bound. For the first time since issue #4, no Marvel character is used but the litigious wrath of George Lucas was sorely tested as “Let the Force be with you” stickers were affixed to the covers to desperately attract naive comic collectors. There is a noticeable use of whiteout, indicated a half-hearted but fruitless attempt to correct grammatical mistakes. The center spread is a full-color ad announcing “Two New Block Busters from Atomic Comic,” the still unexplained The Enforcers and Freedom Force, a superhero team featuring Marvel’s Doc Samson and the new characters White Wing, Black Tiger, Demon, and Quasar. Freedom Force is credited to someone named Mitch Horiwtz, who, like his creation, was never heard of again.
Synopsis: Crimelord Seymour Faust has the mother of jailed hitman Matt Siber murdered since the assassin once turned down a job to kill a 10-year-old boy. Escaping from prison and taking on the persona of the Grim Jester, Siber exacts his revenge and kidnaps Faust’s niece, turning her over to the Kingpin to use as blackmail.
In a totally unexpected and mostly unwelcomed development — at least for the two or three people that were still paying attention — Atomic Comics returned after a two-year blackout with a brand-new title, “The Grim Jester.” Outfitted with a revolver, a knife, and razor-sharp playing cards, the Jester was obviously inspired by the Punisher and other dark heroes that populated the mainstream comics of the day. However, none of those characters decided to don a mask that resembled a Ku Klux Klan hood. One theory posits that an entirely different company resurrected the brand, since the quality of the writing and artwork was a considerable improvement over what is found in the dreary Atomman. But that seems unlikely: the name Atomic Comics had a supremely negative connotation, so that would hardly be a wise marketing move. We must also consider the use of a Marvel creation, the Kingpin, a common and illegal practice that ran rampant through the history of Atomic Comics. The first issue is a rather bloody affair, with six characters killed, one shot in the head. But admittedly, it was the most professionally produced Atomic Comic to date — if the professionals were pimply junior high school students.
Synopsis: New York City is gripped by an insidious crime wave, as multiple handicapped children are murdered. Meanwhile, escaped convict Matt Siber is spotted by the police. He changes into his Grim Jester costume to escape, but an accidental rooftop fall results in his capture.
The death toll for Atomic Comics rings for the final time, as “The Grim Jester” #2 stands as the company’s last gasp. And true to form, it goes out not with a bang, but with a sigh of resignation: the issue ends unfinished after a rather lengthy 36 pages. It would appear that another 30 or so pages would have been needed to complete the tale, as the Grim Jester resides in jail at the false ending, never having even encountered the evil organization “cleansing the world of cripples.” A renegade cop, Captain Cranston, is introduced, and he is the one to first engage the murderers, shooting down one of their helicopters. It looks like the plot called for Cranston to spring the Grim Jester, and the two would take on the criminals. Another character, mayoral candidate Thomas Wu, is obviously the masked man who runs the racist organization, killing his own handicapped daughter in a perverted ploy to raise public sympathy. This issue appeared a year after the first Grim Jester release, and one could almost sense a growing confidence and ability — not enough, of course, to finish what was started.
In Conclusion: Over a fitful span of eight years and 16 publications, one thing can certainly be said of Atomic Comics: it managed to avoid both lawsuits and success. Plus, it is doubtful that we shall ever see a publisher of its ilk again. Of that, we should be eternally grateful.
Ultra-Rare Art from these seldom seen comics. You have no idea how lucky you people are!