Master Of The Obvious: Issue #41

Wed, May 10th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

[Strange Adventures #144]
Strange Adventures #144 featuring the Atomic Knights

It's unnerving to realize you can speak authoritatively about the Atomic Knights.

For those who never saw it, The Atomic Knights ran in the 60s in DC's STRANGE ADVENTURES, a sci-fi anthology book run for most of its existence by editor Julie Schwartz. It featured a number of running series over the years, like Captain Comet, Star Rovers, Star Hawkins and Animal Man (or A-Man, as they preferred to call him then). The Atomic Knights, written by John Broome and drawn by Murphy Anderson, was arguably the weirdest running strip they had: in a post-nuclear holocaust America, a hardy band of good men team don medieval suits of armor somehow transformed into a material radiation can't penetrate, and attempt to return decent American values to a strangely transformed and pretty much obliterated (at least in the political sense) America. Riding giant Dalmatians instead of horses.

No, I don't remember the names of the Atomic Knights (aside from leader Gardner Grayle, name cribbed by Broome from fellow Schwartz head scribe Gardner Fox and from the Holy Grail that King Arthur's knights quested after). I used to be able to name the seven Blackhawks, but it's been a long time. Writer Adi Tantimedh (if you haven't read his Anna Passenger stories on @VENTURE, you're missing some good stuff) mentioned the Atomic Knights in passing last week, and I found myself correcting some of his statements about the series. It's one of those moments where you suddenly listen to yourself and think, "oh my god, how do I know these things?"

And what bothers me most now isn't that I fondly remember the series but that when I was a kid reading it, the possibility of nuclear destruction of virtually everything recognizable about our world didn't bother me in the slightest. However silly the world the Knights lived in, it was cooler than the suburbs. While the world the Knights sought to rebuild was as much a sentimental view of the Eisenhower '50s as any I grew up in, most comics (along with most other media, particularly TV) regardless of the threat ended with a glorious (albeit bland) restoration of the status quo: evil never triumphs, crime does not pay, the policeman is always your friend, commies will suck your blood, drugs will kill you, duck and cover, etc. With the Atomic Knights, despite their efforts, there was never a question of a return to the status quo. It was gone for good.

Then, when the space program was still in its infancy and the country hadn't yet been overwhelmed by political upheaval and the overt futility of reckless military adventurism, the series seemed like high adventure. Now, with the devastating effects of nuclear war well known and the series' 1986 launch date of the missiles that changed everything well past, it comes across as just silly. (Underground mole people secretly took control of silos and launched the missiles to wipe out the surface world, it turned out. The Knights beat back the invaders with fireflies. Honest.)

[Prez #1]
Prez #1

60s comics were the heyday of silly. DC was king of the hill, with Zook, Snapper Carr, Robby Reed and his hero dial, Prez, the Blackhawks converting to "superheroes" like Mr. Machine, B'wana Beast, pretty much every Superman story, and much more. And most of this was before the Batcraze that drove the whole company into fits of camp that choked it for years afterward. But DC hardly cornered the market. Marvel had Ant-Man (who fought villains like the Porcupine; SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE years later correctly pegged him as someone who shrinks really small and has the proportionate strength of a human). There was the "other" Captain Marvel, who yelled "split" to vivisect himself into flying pieces. The Super Green Beret. B-Man. Archie Comics' Mighty Comics line in its entirety. Some characters were clearly played for laughs - DC's Star Hawkins (a futuristic transcription of Sam Spade into Ed "Kookie" Byrnes) and Inferior 5, ACG's Herbie The Fat Fury - but most we were supposed to, on some level, take seriously. Many, like the Atomic Knights, we did. On some level.

There's a concept in fiction called suspension of disbelief. By now, everyone knows what it means: the willingness of an audience to overlook outlandish propositions in a story in order to accept and enjoy it. Traditionally the writer is admonished to keep outlandish elements in a story to a necessary minimum, theoretically allowing the audience to maintain "suspension of disbelief" by not rubbing their faces in the proposition that what they're enjoying is, by nature, ridiculous. Verisimilitude (literally, the appearance of being true) is the tool writers use to lull the audience into suspension of disbelief, painting enough reality on the outlandish to make it palatable. Where physical reality is inappropriate, psychological realism is the key. (And not the "psychological realism" that was all the rage in stiff 50s plays, but the recognizable responses of characters to their situation than audiences can empathize with. Which isn't the same thing as liking the characters. To pull examples from recent movies, THE SIXTH SENSE depends on the somber physical reality of South Philadelphia to anchor its storyline and suck the reader in, whereas GALAXY QUEST, with its characters launched into the fantastic, would be destroyed by physical reality beyond the framing sequences. But even in the looniest circumstances the GQ characters act like themselves.)

"Suspension of disbelief" has come to mean something else in comics, sort of the Bizarro world version: comics readers will swallow anything.

This has been building since the dawn of comics. Certainly early publishers didn't have a lot of faith in the intelligence of their audience, but the product, coming off pulp magazines and Saturday matinee movie serials, were in the mainstream (the low end of the mainstream, but the mainstream) of the culture of their time. Superheroes, when they debuted, were both gaudily attractive and inherently dismissable: throwaway entertainment, except for a select obsessive few. In the uncertainty of the depression and WWII, the superhero filled a psychological niche, the suggestion of empowerment and the assurance of a return to normalcy. It's no surprise superheroes were popular in the war years.

""Suspension of disbelief" has come to mean something else in comics, sort of the Bizarro world version: comics readers will swallow anything."

But if there's any doubt superheroes are inherently silly, check out Adam West as Batman or George Reeves as Superman. (Or, better, Lucille Ball as Superman.) It's no wonder the BATMAN TV show, originally planned to be fairly serious, quickly switched to playing the concept as camp: a grown man in the Batman costume looks ridiculous, not scary. Not to mention The Joker, the Penguin et al. (Catwoman's another thing, but as a culture we're used to putting women in ridiculous clothing. It's not only acceptable, entire industries depend on it.) Physical verisimilitude works against everything that makes the superhero concept function.

By the late 60s, everything got serious; it didn't matter where you stood politically, having a sense of humor was considered treasonous. Curiously, Captain Marvel (the original one, not the "split" guy or Marvel's chalky alien) brought this about, through his #2 fan, author and psychedelic agitator Ken Kesey. The prototype for what would later be derogatorily known as the hippie (thank you, Time magazine), Kesey filtered the Beat movement through his own aw shucks country boy grassroots Americanism, fired up on hallucinogens, and opted to free the masses. From Captain Marvel he got the idea that if everyone was going to be their own hero, damn it, they ought to dress like heroes, in clothing colorful, gaudy and individualistic: an idea that played into the acid lightshow trippiness of the Kesey experience. Dr. Strange may have been the patron superhero of hippies, but Captain Marvel grandfathered them.

But that was serious silliness. Everything in those days were. The problem with comics wasn't silliness, it was that we were suddenly aware of it. By the late 60s, being Important was important. In everything. Though Marvel Comics were often weightily dramatic to the cusp of self-parody, Stan Lee earned a lasting name by rubbing the faces of the readers in the inherent silliness of the material. He did it with enough flair to make it an in-joke that we could all share, but Stan's method also highlighted the problem. Complaints were raised, mainly by new talent entering the field, the comics weren't relevant and didn't speak to a contemporary audience.

Which is true. They didn't. The Eisenhower '50s world of comics were built around editorially was already being dismantled piecemeal. By the mid-'70s, it only existed in legend and HAPPY DAYS. Relevancy was intended to be a bulwark against silliness, but much of that material now seems just as silly. (A junkie named Speedy? Uhhhhh-huh…) It was met by a purist backlash: superhero comics for the sake of superhero comics. (This could be viewed as a cultural war: the relevancy crew was largely residents of Manhattan where most of the comics community lived and a high premium was placed on being hip, while the purists tended to come from New York suburbs like New Jersey and Long Island.) But the threshold had already been crossed: following the pattern for generations to come, the purists were as aware of the inherent silliness of comics as the relevanchistes, but in choosing to reject that assessment, they produced some of the silliest comics ever done.

Since, we've largely seen a war of the serious vs. the silly in comics. I don't think a year goes by without some literalist loudly spouting "they're called COMIC books, man" like that line of reasoning's supposed to impress anyone. Part of the issue has been a misinterpretation of "serious" as solemn and humorless, rather than focused and sincere. It's not silly to want to do serious work in the comics medium. Film would never have been taken seriously as a medium had it only produced endless Keystone Cops comedies, remakes of REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, and Roger Corman trash. Or if that had been all it had ever aspired to produce.

But there's nothing inherently wrong with silliness either. Except when it's misused. For almost thirty years now, writers and artists have tried to show their disdain of and superiority over superhero comics by producing… parodies of superhero comics. Gee. That sure puts me in my place. Especially when all these people really have to do is produce better work than superhero comics. Because, let's face it, parodying superheroes is shooting fish in a barrel. It takes no wit, which probably explains the witlessness of most of them. Examples of genuinely inspired silliness in comics are much harder to come by, and the literalist mindset promoted by most publishers usually doesn't even recognize comedy when it materializes. (For instance, while Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL and RONIN were dramatic pieces, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and SIN CITY are both comedies at heart.)

"...let's face it, parodying superheroes is shooting fish in a barrel. It takes no wit, which probably explains the witlessness of most of them."

Grant Morrison (and now his confrere Mark Millar) has touted the silliness of comics for years, particularly the silliness of '60s comics, and he makes a decent argument for expanding on it. The British seem to embrace most of the flourishes (go-go checks, giant apes) that are guilty pleasures or points of embarrassment for most American comics readers. Partly it's the 2000 AD ethic: parody as pathos. But Morrison, it seems, uses a broader definition for "silly" than most of us, and he has updated the Fox/Broome style: serious silliness. Accepting that superhero comics in particular are inherently silly, and using that as an excuse to shotgun ideas, turning them into radical displays of associations and invention, without embarrassment. Morrison stares silliness in the eye and doesn't flinch; he masters and tames it. It's a tour-de-force concept that he has pulled off in ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL, THE INVISIBLES and JUSTICE LEAGUE, particularly in his 1,000,000 AD and Hypertime concepts: the comic book as mind-altering drug. Between Atomic Knights and THE INVISIBLES there seems an enormous chasm, but on closer inspection they're Siamese twins, both tossing out a chaotic wealth of invention. Both, in their time, make you feel good about reading comic books.

We need serious works that have the courage to have a sense of humor. We need more serious silliness shotgunning ideas, because ideas are something no medium today concerns itself with. Morrison has come up with an effective model for our time. It doesn't have to be a war. No style has to be dominant, to the exclusion of another, particularly if we want to expand our audience and our range. To quote Louis Pauwels, there's room enough in the universe for more than one star.

This last week has been one small disaster after another, with me having to switch to a different computer system, so I haven't put new material up at @VENTURE yet, but several new stories and more chapters of THE HODAG will be up by Friday. No word yet on the hit crusade, but we'll have a report within two weeks.

Finally, the question of the week: What genre would you like to see more widely explored in the comics medium, and why? I'll look forward to reading your answers at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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