The short mid-1970s history of Atlas Comics represents one of the great missed opportunities in the history of comics. For a brief, shining second, it seemed as though there would be another mainstream publisher in the field, one that would challenge Marvel and DC for supremacy in the marketplace and create greater competition, and by extension greater opportunities for the creative people working in the field. Atlas did do some of that, although it was somewhat incidental. And while it came on strong, launching a full line’s worth of titles to start with, all of them were gone within a year.
The real problem with Atlas, as we’ve talked about elsewhere, is that the entire endeavor was started for the wrong reasons and with the wrong goals. The gist of it is this: Martin Goodman, Marvel’s owner and founder, sold the company to Cadence Industries in the late 1960s for several million dollars. Martin had been positioning his son Charles “Chip” Goodman as his successor in the publisher’s chair. But when Stan Lee’s contract was coming up for negotiation, Cadence chose to offer the position to Lee in order to keep him, and so Chip was cast to the wayside. Angered by this betrayal by Lee, Martin decided to start up a new company with Chip, one that would crowd Marvel from the stands and prove that it was he, not Stan Lee, who was the real mastermind behind the success of Marvel Comics. Industry veterans of the period referred to the organization as “Vengeance, Inc.”
Goodman’s strategy with Atlas was the same is it had always been in the past: figure out what was working, produce as many knock-offs of that title as possible quickly, pocket the returns, and cancel things when the books started to lag. So he not only wanted a line of titles, he wanted one that looked as much like the Marvel books as was possible. And that’s where the troubles really started.
The initial output of Atlas was a mixed bag, representing just about every genre imaginable. Much of it was derivative, almost all of it was shlock. But there were a few gems that showed enormous potential. Probably the best comic Atlas ever produced was THE SCORPION by Howard Chaykin. It was a pulp adventure-themed series set in the 1930s with one of Chaykin’s trademark rogue bad boy protagonists, in this case Moro Frost, who operated under the code-name The Scorpion. It was a stylish series, and Chaykin’s art, for all that he was still relatively young and in his formative stages, was terrific. It was a book that got a little bit of notice as Atlas rolled out. But all good things must come to an end.
Martin Goodman, it turned out, was very unhappy with the initial flight of Atlas titles, and he let his editorial team of Jeff Rovin and Larry Lieber know it in no uncertain terms. He wasn’t looking for originality, he wasn’t trying to be experimental or ground-breaking. What he wanted were Marvel books, comics that looked and read as much like Marvel’s output as was possible. So immediately, efforts were undertaken to transform the whole of the line, on the fly, into something more closely resembling Marvel’s output. It was, to put it bluntly, a disaster.
So TARGITT, the Dirty Harry-esque cop/detective series, became JOHN TARGITT, MAN-STALKER, with Targitt adopting a bulletproof costume. PHOENIX became THE PROTECTOR, giving him its futuristic storyline to make its protagonist a standard super hero in the present, with a different (ugly) costume. THE COUGAR crippled its lead character with the intention of revamping him, an event that never made it to the printed page. THE DESTRUCTOR started encountering super-scientific civilizations deep in the earth rather than battling the criminal underworld, and gained the power to shoot zap-bolts from his hands. And so on and so on. Almost every book looked and read completely differently by its third or fourth issue.
And THE SCORPION was no exception. Chaykin was fired from the character he had originated, and the decision was made to turn the series into yet another Spider-Man/Daredevil-style modern day super hero book. To this end, Moro Frost was killed off in four panels on the first page (despite his supposed immortality) and replaced in the present day by publisher David Harper, who battled evil in the costumed identity of the Scorpion. If anybody realized that they were ripping off the Green Hornet, they didn’t let it bother them any. And was Harper supposed to be Frost, still alive? The question is completely dodged–nobody involved wants to tackle any of the heavy lifting here and risk Goodman’s wrath.
Ironically, the foe faced by the modern day Scorpion in this first and only outing is the Golden Fuhrer, a straight-up knock-off of the Red Skull in golden hues who is trying to bring about the return of Naziism–a theme right at home in Chaykin’s incarnation of the series. Again, whether this represents intent or happenstance is anybody’s guess.
The story was produced by Gabriel Levy and Jim Craig. Not a heck of a lot is known about Levy, and he seems to have worked exclusively for Atlas Comics–which makes me wonder if Gabriel Levy wasn’t perhaps a pseudonym used by some other creator who wanted to keep his involvement a secret from the other companies he worked for. Craig was a Canadian artist who would also do work for Marvel, including drawing the first issue of WHAT IF.
The work itself is, well, not great. The story is overly verbose, and Craig is still feeling his way as a super hero artist, for all that he’s clearly got a lot of enthusiasm for the opportunity. There are whole sequences that read as if they were xeroxed from the worst of the Marvel books of the time, including quirks of dialogue and scripting. In essence, everything that had made THE SCORPION unique and interesting was gone, replaced by a third-rate by-the-numbers faux DAREDEVIL that wasn’t even executed as well.
In the aftermath of Atlas Comics’ demise, Chaykin took the Scorpion and applied a quick coat of paint (but really, not much at all–Chaykin, I think, was cheekily obvious about what he was doing) and proceeded to introduce the character into the Marvel Universe as Dominic Fortune. While Fortune never ascended to being a heavy hitter, he’s been a recurring player ever since then, and the stories Chaykin did with him were sharp.