Brand Echh #1: Megaton Man #1

As the Direct Market for comic books opened up in the early 1980s, all sorts of new players poured in, and all sorts of new comic book publishers, many of them short-lived, hawked their wares–including a couple that were a bit surprising. One of those was undoubtedly Kitchen Sink Press, who had made their bones as one of the last remaining publishers of Underground Comix actively still in the field. Kitchen Sink began dabbling with regulation-sized comic book material, albeit always focused on subject matter a bit apart from the mainstream, and typically produced by some wonderful cartoonists. Probably their most mainstream publication came in 1984 with Don Simpson’s MEGATON MAN.

An aspiring cartoonist, Simpson had been trying to break into the industry for a while at that point, and he had worked up his satirical pastiche of silver age comic books as a calling card. Upon reading the sample story, Kitchen Sink’s publisher Denis Kitchen offered to publish the series on an ongoing basis. Which was something of a trick, as Simpson had only crafted MEGATON MAN as a one-off, a goof. But undaunted, he delved into the character and the story more deeply, adding in an eclectic mix of influences from outside the field and broadening the focus and appeal of the strip as a result.

But what caught everybody’s attention early on was Simpson’s dead-on send-up of the exaggerated figure drawing in comics. His Megaton Man was wildly proportioned, containing mountains of muscles that simply didn’t exist in real life, and even standing at rest, his body looked as though it had been drawn in forced perspective. This initial MEGATON MAN story is a bit more lightweight and surface-looking than later installments would become. Simpson and Kitchen Sink also ran into some difficulties with Marvel once their second issue came out, as Simpson’s version of the Megatropolis Quartet was visually too similar to the Fantastic Four for Marvel’s comfort, necessitating a bit of an on-the-fly redesign for those characters.

Megaton Man was a character that Simpson would return to time and again over the years, in part because the mighty Man of Molecules became his signature creation and because it was also probably the most widely marketable series he worked on. But a few issues in, you could already see him growing a bit tired of Meg’s shtick, and driven to try to produce something more substantive, he began the serious science fiction serial Border Worlds as a back-up strip. BORDER WORLDS was eventually spun off into its own title (which sadly didn’t perform as well as MEGATON MAN did) but Simpson eventually wrapped up the storyline decades later in time to release the whole thing as a hardcover graphic novel.

And in all honesty, Simpson’s pastiches in MEGATON MAN are spot-on, from the art down to the pacing and the outlooks of the characters. It’s easy to tell that at least at one time, he subsisted on a steady diet of this stuff and still retained a fondness for the source material, even as he skewered it. Megaton Man was Trent Phlog, a hero cast broadly in the mold of the Silver Age Superman, but whose powers were the result of a government project to win the arms race and the Cold War. As such, geopolitics wound up playing a larger role in the storyline than one might expect from this earliest example. Simpson also gave a lot more agency to his female characters, in particular Pamela Jointly and Stella Starlight, as the series went on–they both got to grow beyond their roles as Lois Lane and Sue Storm analogues into more rounded portrayals.

Eventually, Simpson took all of the disparate concepts that he’d been playing with in one-shots and assorted series, including Megaton Man and his cast, and brought them all together in one ongoing title called BIZARRE HEROES. It was truly bizarre, in that attempting to strike a consistent tone wound up being something of a challenge given the mix of outright parody characters and more straight-minded material. BIZARRE HEROES ran its course in the 1990s–though Simpson has continued to do strips featuring Megaton man and his extended cast of characters online for several years now.

Thus ends Chapter Two, a good place for us to stop.

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