When Words Collide

Tue, June 1st, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND RIDE DALMATIANS IN AN APOCALYPTIC FUTURE

When DC announced an "Atomic Knights" Showcase volume -- all fifteen of the original John Broome/Murphy Anderson stories about Gardner Grayle and his crew of armored heroes -- I was vaguely excited. I know it's weird to be "vaguely" excited, but my potential enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the Showcase volume, like all the rest, would have been printed in black and white.

I know people love the Showcase books, and the Marvel Essentials, but I really don't like them at all. Sure, they're cheap ways to read the older stories, and I own a bunch of them for easy research access, but I literally cannot read more than a few stories reprinted in Showcase volumes at any one time. The colors in the original comics may have had flaws, and the reproduction may often have been terrible, but the white word balloons and white captions against the white panel backgrounds makes the Showcase volumes a series of uncomfortable eyestrains. (And I do think the Marvel Essentials are nearly as bad, but because the Silver Age Marvel comics had better spotting of blacks -- and the Bronze Age stuff like "Moon Knight" had phenomenal black and white art -- they don't suffer from the problems the same way the Showcase volumes do.)

"Legion of Super-Heroes" in Showcase volumes? No thanks. The colors matter.

Same goes for "Metamorpho." Or "Wonder Woman." Even the war comics, with their limited color schemes, lose their power in the Showcase volumes.

But then DC cancelled their "Atomic Knights" Showcase volume (along with a bunch of other volumes like "Suicide Squad" and "Captain Carrot," though that sort of stuff apparently involved rights issues that wouldn't have affected the early-1960s comics like "Atomic Knights.") And though we're still waiting for the masterworks of John Ostrander and Scott Shaw to hit the reprint stands, "The Atomic Knights" has finally been released. In color. In hardcover.

Someone at DC had been listening in on my thoughts, apparently.

The truth is that before I picked up this "Atomic Knights" hardcover, I'd never actually read a single story from the John Broome and Murphy Anderson run. But I'd always wanted to. Ever since I saw that Murphy Anderson illustration of Gardner Grayle in "Who's Who," and saw the spot illustration of a medieval knight holding a raygun and riding a giant Dalmatian, I knew that the Atomic Knights were a team of heroes I would love. Say what you will about Silver Age DC comics (though I can't imagine anyone saying anything other than, "yes," and "awesome"), but much of what I love about the genre of superhero comics comes out of that era, and the straight-up sci-fi stuff is amazingly imaginative and insane. In the way comics barely have a chance to be these days, as they strive for quasi-realism and soap opera dramatics.

Would Silver Age Green Arrow lurk in the forest and shoot a would-be rapist's nostril off? No. He would hop into his souped-up arrow car and punch him in the face with science, that's what he would do!

And unlike many of the DC Silver Age concepts, the Atomic Knights just do not lend themselves to any kind of modernist reinterpretation. You can rebirth your Flash and you can make your Justice League gritty and you can add absurdist subtext to your Doom Patrol, but the Atomic Knights are stuck in the 1960s vision of the 1980s, forever.

If you don't know much about the Atomic Knights, here's a quick summary of the premise of the series (the series originally printed in "Strange Adventures," sporadically from 1960 to 1964): On October 29th, 1986 -- or maybe October 9th, depending on the issue -- World War III began, an atomic war, lasting 20 days. Much of the civilization on Earth was destroyed, and the atomic energy literally reshaped the geography of the planet. The series begins when "average soldier" Gardner Grayle wakes up to find himself in this post-apocalyptic land, and he and a few quickly-met allies soon don suits of conveniently anti-radiation medieval armor found in a local museum to fight back against the warlord known as the Black Baron.

That's just the opening story. It gets weirder from there.

The hardcover reprint shows the group blasting a crystalline giant with a disco-ball head. That happens in the second story. And you know how they defeat the giant (which, by the way, is kind of an atomic mutation of Salt Lake, in humanoid form)? Limestone, of course! Science!

They later ride the giant Dalmatians that enticed me so much as a young "Who's Who" reader. And fight neo-nazis. And aliens. And Romans?!?! And walking plants. And use jazz music to stop a king from using mind control on a bunch of cowboys.

Sure, Cary Bates may have tried to resurrect Gardner Grayle in the 1970s -- and the story apparently resulted in the official DC continuity of: Grayle was a crazy person who imagined all that John Broome and Murphy Anderson awesomeness -- but that doesn't sound like the kind of ridiculously charming exploits of the original tales. And, more recently, the Atomic Knights appeared in Bludhaven, in that "Battle for Bludhaven" series that was probably better than most people realize. But their modern incarnation didn't have any of the madness of the 1960s serial. It was just a bunch of dudes, and a lady, who dressed kind of like knights for some reason, and worked for the government.

Grant Morrison tapped into the zany mythology of the Atomic Knights for a few pages in 
"Final Crisis," with the Dalmatian steeds making an appearance in some ominous anti-life scenes (most memorably with an evil Wonder Woman), but did anyone use bebop to shut down a tyrant king?

Well, Superman did sing to defeat Darkseid, so maybe Morrison did rip off the essence of the Atomic Knights after all.

But not really, because every single story in this "Atomic Knights" hardcover has something crazier than the last. And it's also crazy sexist. Almost every story ends with the single female member of the team, Marene, either pining for Gardner Grayle or thinking about him as some idealized man. "My man," she thought-balloons in the penultimate story, "will he always worry about others? And never think about himself? I guess I...wouldn't want him any other way." The Broome/Anderson run ends with a story in which Marene cuts off her hair and pretends to be a boy "ragamuffin" to infiltrate a gang of wild boys who live in the woods. Why? Because while the rest of the team fights the fascists Blue Belts (who look like Gestapo members), she knows these little rascals of the forest can be reformed and have good homes. She succeeds, putting them in homes where old ladies scold them to put on some shoes and act civilized. And in the final panel, when Grayle asks if she's happy, Marene says, "of course" and glances off to the side to think, "...but I'll be even happier...when Gardner and I have a boy -- a family -- of our own!"

But I still love these "Atomic Knights" stories for the time capsule they create, and for their fantastically imaginative stories of a post-apocalyptic world that bears none of the usual hallmarks of the genre. This is, above all, a ruthlessly optimistic vision of the future of 1986 and beyond. Even if much of the world is destroyed and the bombs have somehow turned New York city residents to cave men who live below the streets, it’s a world where a few dudes and a lady can make a difference in their medieval armor, on their mighty Dalmatians.

As bleak as things might look from a distance, by the end of Broome and Anderson's run, those evil walking plants that they once fought have been retrained to serve dinner in restaurants. And they brought jazz back to New Orleans. And founded "The Atomic Knights Medical School."


And taught children the importance of wearing shoes. Because that's what real heroes do, especially in the terrifying future of 1986. In glorious color.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, dc comics, atomic knights

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