Attempts to tap into the Marvel style weren’t limited to only the 1960s. One of the most blatant attempts happened in the 1970s, and represented a tragedy of unfulfilled potential. In 1974, after he had sold Marvel and thereafter his son Chip had been pushed out of the company in favor of Stan Lee, Marvel founder Martin Goodman started up a rival publishing house with the specific intention of proving that he and his, rather than Stan, were responsible for the success of the Marvel line. The company was alternately known as Atlas Comics or Seaboard Publishing, but inside the industry it was typically referred to as “Vengenace, Inc.”
In order to attract talent and to compete not only with Marvel but also with DC, Goodman set his rates higher than those of the competition. In addition, he was offering the return of the original artwork (in a period when this had not yet become industry standard–in fact, it was Atlas making this offer that started those wheels turning at Marvel and DC) and promising some degree of ownership and participation. Many of those promises didn’t come to much, especially since Atlas only lasted a year before throwing in the towel, and at the end it was reportedly a bit of a chaotic mess.
But, buy, it was an exciting thing as a comic book reader. Suddenly, there was a new player on the field, one that was coming on strong–Atlas launched by releasing 21 titles so as to make an impact on the racks and establish a presence. These were the tactics that had brought Goodman to success when he was just starting out, and he followed them faithfully all his life.
Creatively, Atlas was a bit of mess. In that initial flight of titles, some were surprisingly good. Others seemed as though they’d been slapped together or hacked out without much thought. And most were simply just all right, no better or worse than the average release from the big two. But as subsequent issues came out, a change came over the line, as storylines, costumes and concepts were changed and revised on the fly in an attempt to make the books more like the Marvel titles then on the racks (or at least to seem like them while sitting in a wire rack.)
Jeff Rovin, who served as the editor of the Atlas color line wrote a scathing article recounting his history with the firm in the Comics Journal years later–it can be found at the TCJ web site at http://www.tcj.com/the-comics-journal-no-114-february-1987/ tough you’ll have to become a subscriber to read it there. Rovin’s account–and, granted, he’s going to have a bit of a bias–paints a picture of an organization that was almost rudderless from the get-go and whose lack of vision and leadership caused it to run aground quickly.
All of which brings us to THE DESTRUCTOR. As you’d expect, among Atlas’ initial offerings were a number of super hero titles. They were all pretty off-beat at the start, and you can see somebody scrambling as time goes on to try to pull them back and make them more conventional and mainstream–in all cases to their detriment. THE DESTRUCTOR didn’t suffer too badly during this process as it was one of the more conventional series that Atlas put out. But still, it did suffer.
THE DESTRUCTOR was pretty clearly supposed to be the Spider-Man of the line-so much so that Goodman and his editors were able to convince Spidey’s co-creator Steve Ditko to be a part of the launch. The other contributor was Archie Goodwin, rightly renowned as one of the finest writers and editors the field has ever seen. The inking/finishing was provided by Wally Wood, who was one of the great masters with a brush. It was a killer creative line-up, so it’s a bit disappointing that THE DESTRUCTOR never quite rises above being solid.
Atlas took its influences not only from what the competition was doing but also from what else was happening throughout pop culture. So THE DESTRUCTOR also owes a lot to the range of men’s adventure series paperbacks that were being churned out at the time and could be found in almost any of the places where you might find comics. The name THE DESTRUCTOR certainly feels like it’s right at home sitting next to THE EXECUTIONER and THE DESTROYER and THE DEATH MERCHANT and their ilk.
THE DESTRUCTOR took much of its flavor from the tone of those paperback series as well. The lead hero, Jay Hunter, starts out as a lowlife, a would-be hood hanging around gangsters and looking for his big underworld break. That all changes when he and his scientist father are gunned down by thugs looking to steal his Dad’s latest breakthrough–a serum which would give a man phenomenal healing abilities. *This was before the era of Wolverine, but a number of characters in this period were given fast-healing powers, so there must have been something in the zeitgeist.) Rather than saving himself, Dr. Simon Hunter uses the serum on his no-good son, saving him at the cost of his own life.
Filled with grief and remorse, Jay takes on the identity of The Destructor, wearing about as generic a super hero costume as it’s possible to imagine in order to pull down the operation of the criminal who killed his father–the very people he had wanted to join. But he’s still a bit of a lowlife and a creep, for all that he’s now fighting the bad guys.
And that’s really what makes the series interesting at the outset. the Destructor is sort of a cross between Spider-Man and the Punisher, and there’s every bit as much likelihood that he’s going to do something wrong or selfish as he will something that’s good or right. Given Steve Ditko’s strong feelings on the attributes of a hero (which would later keep him from working on certain titles and characters) it’s a bit odd to see him so comfortable doing The Destructor. It’s possible that he was galvanized by the opportunity to show up his old Spider-Man collaborator Stan Lee–he may have been more of a true believer in the goals of Vengeance Inc. than other contributors.
Regardless, while the series never quite lives up to its potential, it; s a pretty fun romp overall. The earlier issues that Goodwin wrote are the better ones–by the end of the four issues, a lot of the rough edges had been shaved off of the Destructor, he was fighting more typical villains rather than the types of underworld menaces he came up against initially, and in his final issue he was given the ability to shoot blasts from his hands, a change that was hardly an improvement.
Like so much else that Atlas put out, it’s a shame that they couldn’t quite get things together. They’re hidden pretty well, but you can see the seeds of things such as Frank Miller’s approach to DAREDEVIL in THE DESTRUCTOR, so there’s no telling what it may have been able to grow into had it run for a longer period of time. On the other hand, it was becoming crappier the longer it went on, so it could have it rock bottom as well. Who knows?