I must confess, it feels a bit odd to be doing another piece on DEMON HUNTER #1 after having featured it in a Brand Echh segment here: https://tombrevoort.com/2020/12/31/brand-echh-demon-hunter-1/ But it would have been the next comic book that I picked up, and so I’ll need to remain true to the self-imposed rules of this feature. Atlas Comics was a short-lived alternative to Marvel and DC, lasting only a year in 1975, but their books would often wind up as quarter box filler for at least a decade–and there were a lot of copies of them. I got this one out of the drug store’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics, where it was mixed in among the many Marvel titles. I seem to recall that other Atlas books could be found there over the months as well, but nothing overtly super-heroic that would have captured my attention: issues of IRON JAW and WULF THE BARBARIAN, an issue of POLICE ACTION FEATURING LOMAX, and PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. But DEMON HUNTER was clearly a super hero title and I was a sucker at this point for off-brand super hero books.
ATLAS COMICS was a short-lived company set up by former Marvel owner Martin Goodman after his son Chip was let go by the firm he started. He had been paid several million dollars for Marvel, and this act of disloyalty against his progeny enraged him (as did now-publisher Stan Lee’s claims that he alone was responsible for the success of Marvel.) So with a surfeit of cash and time on his hands, Martin set out to crush his old employee by out-Marveling Marvel with his own knock-off company–continuing his long-held practice of jumping on any prevailing trend, milking it for a fast profit, then getting out before it crashed. ATLAS hit the spinner racks in force, with a line of something like 25 books–all of which would be gone in a year’s time. Martin’s contacts in the distribution world could no longer guarantee him preferred placement with his new books, and the sort of shlock that made up much of the ATLAS line had a difficult time attracting repeat customers even when it did make it to market. After about a year and a staggering loss of money, Goodman threw in the towel and walked away.
ATLAS did help to move things along in the industry in a couple of lasting ways, though. Realizing that he was going to need some honey to get Marvel and DC’s most popular creators to work for his new company, Goodman plied them by allowing for the return of their original art, as well as an ownership stake in any characters they created. He also paid the best page rates in the industry at that time. I don’t know that there was every any paperwork on Goodman’s promises to respect the character-equity of the creators, but it was solid enough to allow a few to take their creations elsewhere following ATLAS’s demise. This is part of what confused me when I first came across DEMON HUNTER in that comics bin. I recognized the character as Devil-Slayer from some issues of DEFENDERS I had read. But here he was, with a different color scheme and name, appearing under a different company’s banner. More than anything, wanting to figure out this mystery is what led me to add this book to my buy stack.
DEMON HUNTER was conceived by Rich Buckler, a well-known mainstream artist who had also come up with DEATHLOK. Buckler eventually developed a bad reputation for swiping–Neal Adams and Jack Kirby were his two primary sources, and you could find whole issues that were made up of virtually nothing but their compositions and panels. But DEMON HUNTER was done early on in Buckler’s career, before he’d embraced such methods, and so it’s evidence of his own talents. And while raw, it is a good looking comic book. Buckler, like Paul Gulacy was doing simultaneously, adapted some of the storytelling tricks of Jim Steranko (who, in fairness, cribbed a bunch of them from Will Eisner) to create interesting pages and sequences. That page above is an 11-panel page, which is crazy–but Buckler makes it all work, packs it full of information and moments, and even uses color direction to help get aspects of the story across. I think if any single comic book showed the potential of what ATLAS COMICS could have been, it’s this one.
DEMON HUNTER was a strong synthesis of all of the disparate elements then popular in mainstream culture: occultism, gun-slinging men’s paperback characters, the Godfather and its sequel, and super heroics. its lead character was Gideon Cross, a Vietnam vet who came back from the war with blood on his hands and a need for direction in his life. He found that direction first working for the mob, where he was recruited by the Cult of Xenogenesis and trained to become one of their Harvester of Eyes. Cross was a bad guy who had experienced bad things, and so he was looking for both escape and guidance in his life, and going along with the cult’s directives gave him structure and purpose. As a harvester, Cross performed assassinations for hire for the underworld, his own skills enhanced by the opening of his third eye which allowed him to mask his presence from others, and the Shadow Cloak, a portal to other dimensions from which he could draw weapons of the past.
But Cross is strangely disquieted by what he is doing. As he begins to question, his superiors in the Cult become aware of his misgivings, and a minor demon is sent to dispatch him. This is the first demon that Cross has ever encountered, and so he assumes the thing is simply another Harvester like himself, and he dispatches it without much trouble. But the encounter causes him to question everything he had been told, and when he makes his way back to the sanctum of the Harvesters of Night where he was first recruited, he finds a human sacrifice in progress. Turns out, the Cult is using the souls of those victims dispatched by their Harvesters to bring other demons to Earth–all in the goal of achieving Xenogenesis, the day when the doors between the realms fly open and demons come to ascendency on Earth. Cross doesn’t like the sound of any of this, and he realizes the part he’s played in things getting to this point. And so, in typical super hero fashion, he dedicates his life and his skills to destroying the Cult and foiling their plans for Xenogenesis.
The whole thing is pretty great, and it’s a bit of a shame that the series never went anywhere (for all of Buckler’s later attempts to start it up again.) Once ATLAS was out of business, Buckler decided to try his luck and he introduced a thinly-disguised version of Gideon Cross in his Deathlok series under the name Devil-Slayer (which, frankly, was a better name, for all that Demon Hunter is more direct.) But the character never really caught on at Marvel as a headliner, despite a few tries over the years. Marc DeMatteis in particular did some nice work with him in the pages of DEFENDERS close to a decade down the line. It was a more grounded approach to a Doctor Strange-like character, and one that easily could have proven to be popular with the mainstream had he only had the chance.
In its attempts to make its books look and feel as much like Marvel titles as possible, ATLAS even introduced their own version of the Bullpen Bulletins page, where they attempted to set up Editor Larry Lieber as the ATLAS version of his brother, Stan Lee. Even the editorial voice of the page is an approximation of the Marvel house style of the 1970s. Larry was and is a quieter, less bombastic individual than his older brother was, and so it’s unlikely that this would have worked long-term. But it did give me a whole bunch of information on the other books that ATLAS had been publishing, and intrigued me about a few of them. So it did its job.