In the 1960s, one of the factors that enabled DC/National Comics to become the best-selling comic book publisher of the era was the shattering of Dell Comics. Dell had been a powerhouse in the field for more than a decade, far and away the best-selling comics company–a company whose wares were so known and trusted by consumers that they never even bothered with joining the Comics Code–the Dell logo was just as reassuring to parents. Dell was actually made up of two component parts; Dell itself and Western Publishing. Dell was the pocketbook and the publisher of record, Western was the packager that produced the material. Western also had the licenses to the popular Wat Disney characters, the Warner Brothers characters, and the Hanna-Barbera line of characters. And they sold a lot of them under the Dell imprint. Then, two things happened: the first was that, when a cover price increase became inevitable, Dell decided to jump their product up from 10 cents to 15 cents, which wound up being disastrous for their sell-through, especially as other publishers, notably DC, chose a cheaper 12 cent price point for their books, making them more affordable to comic book readers, Dell’s in particular.
The second was a financial dispute that cropped up between Dell and Western which caused the alliance to fracture. Neither party would quite recover to the point it had been at in the aftermath–Dell hired other writers and artists to produce comics starring the properties they still controlled, while Western launched a new publishing like, Gold Key, and put their established stable of talent to work on releases under its umbrella, both new and licensed. One of the new titles Gold Key launched was DOCTOR SOLAR, MAN OF THE ATOM. It was a quasi-super hero, quasi-science fiction series, one that would morph more definitively into the super hero idiom with this, its fifth issue, when the lead character took on a costumed identity.
DOCTOR SOLAR was the creation of writer Paul S. Newman and artist Bob Fujitani, with input from editor Matt Murphy. He was one of three nuclear-powered heroes of the era all of whom shared a similar origin; Doctor Solar’s atomic brethren were Captain Atom and Nukla, both of whom we’ve covered in the past. In the case of Doctor Solar, while he wasn’t specifically blown up or discorporated in the manner of Atom or Nukla, he was thoroughly irradiated when he and a fellow scientist attempted to bring an out of control nuclear reactor back from the danger level. In the aftermath, Solar (he was alternately named Phillip and Raymond in different issues) discovered that he could manipulate energy and matter on a fundamental level, and he turned his powers towards thwarting the evil ambitions of the secretive mastermind Nuro, the man who had caused the reactor to run wild in the first place. It was an adventure series at first, like the original FANTASTIC FOUR, a series in which its lead character possessed fabulous superhuman powers but wore no costume.
And it was popular, at least decently so. But the one thing that readers in the early 1960s demanded of their super hero characters was a costumed identity. Gold Key held out for a year before succumbing to this necessity in issue #5. Despite the fact that DOCTOR SOLAR was the name of the book, the character in his costumed identity was known as Man of the Atom, which is a bit awkward as appellations go. His skin would also turn a green color when he suited up, presumably for added visual appeal, although this had an opposite effect on me.
While Alan Moore has spoken about the fact that the Charlton super heroes were the progenitors for the Watchmen, it’s clear that Doctor Solar was a more direct influence on Moore and Gibbons’ Doctor Manhattan. In his costumed attire, Solar wore an atomic symbol on his forehead, and his chest was emblazoned by the well-known icon denoting radiation.
Like all of the Gold Key adventure titles, DOCTOR SOLAR, MAN OF THE ATOM boasted some attractive painted covers, produced in this case by George Wilson. The Gold Key books of this period also carried no advertising at all, which led to the practice of running the cover illustration on the back cover of the book as well, there sans logos and masthead. This all made for an attractive package. The Gold Key action-adventure books tended to feature a bit less copy than most other comics, relying more on visual presentation. Though even there, they kept things largely to a very regimented grid structure when it came to page layout. The Gold Key books were far from the most visceral comics on he stands visually, but they carried a certain elegance to their presentation.
DOCTOR SOLAR MAN OF THE ATOM ran for 27 largely quarterly, ending in 1969, before coming back for an additional four issues, 28-31, in the early 1980s as Western moved its publishing line entirely off the newsstands. Instead, it attempted to sell its comic book wares entirely in the 3-Bags that were being distributed to department stores and toy outlets, where they had found strong success. But this was pretty much the end for Western as a publisher of comic books, and for the Gold Key imprint that they abandoned right towards the end of their run.
Still, the character was well-remembered, and when former Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter began to ramp up his plans for a new line of super hero titles published under the Valiant name, he licensed the various Gold Key properties and made them the backbone of the line. These days, Doctor Solar is probably better remembered as simply Solar from his Valiant days.