It’s hard to know where to even begin with this, the third comic released as part of Josh and Samuel Bayer’s All-Time Comics project, but if I had to describe All-Time Comics : Atlas #1 in just one word, that word would be — nuts.
Seriously, this is one of the most batshit-crazy comics I’ve read in a long time. On the one hand, it would be easy enough — and probably accurate — to view it as a particularly amoral and mean-spirited approximation of the “internal struggle” narratives churned out with regularity by “Bronze Age” scribes like Steve Gerber and Don McGregor, emptied of any degree of charm (however accidental, and perhaps visible only in retrospect) those authors imbued their work with. On the other, though, it’s not hard to see it as the kind of comic those guys would have loved to write. At this point, I’m sure an explanation is in order, so we’ll kill two birds with one stone by delving into that concurrently with a discussion of the “bare bones” elements of the plot —
The issue starts with our ostensible “hero,” Atlas — the closest thing ATC offers to a Superman analogue — decking a crooked congressman right in front of God, country, and a big crowd. A crowd that includes his fiancee’s kid, who turns on his “hero” instantly. Atlas is in the right, of course, but no one knows this, and he’s hauled off to prison — fortunately, his Jimmy Olsen-esque sidekick still believes in him, and he goes out and commits some petty crimes until he, too, is locked up, and can give his buddy a hand. Unfortunately, any help he might offer is bound to fall on deaf ears because Atlas himself is — a complete chickenshit?
Yup, our “hero” is actually anything but. In truth, he’s a yellow-bellied coward whose anti-matter-based powers make him extra-susceptible to fear over and above all other emotions, so he’s busy having an existential crisis (largely communicated by means of “purple” pose-laden thought bubbles where he just “talks” about how fucking sorry for himself he feels) while his buddy finds himself on the wrong side of the other inmates and his own personal Lois Lane reporter/fiancee places herself in mortal danger by getting too close to the congressman her man clocked. And what do the two people he’s closest to in the world get for their trouble? Would you believe — each burned to a crisp and left barely clinging to life after two separate, and highly flammable, attacks?
Their victimization is enough to snap Atlas out of his reverie and into action, but whether or not this is a case of “too little, too late” is left unresolved by issue’s end. All we know for sure is that this guy isn’t much of a super-hero and that getting close to him is going to get your body seared from head to toe with third-degree burns. In point of fact, between their brutalization and Atlas’s own pathetic cowardice, it sure seems like co-writers Bayer and Benjamin Marra (who also does both pencils and inks for this one, and shows a great deal more restraint than in his more overtly “spoofy” work) actively hate all of these characters.
Which probably isn’t too far removed from how a great number of “Bronze Age” writers felt about the properties placed under their charge after awhile. Cranking out story after story starring forgettable, even interchangeable, costumed do-gooders on a month-in, month-out basis for near-minimum-wage page rates has to fry your last nerve at some point, and for my part, I had absolutely no trouble envisioning a Steve Englehart or a David Anthony Kraft cranking out a script like this for their own personal edification just as a way of blowing off steam.
What we’ve got here, then, is the sort of ugly and overtly cynical comic that a number of 1970s “floppies” probably wanted to be, if only the authors could have expressed how they really felt about their jobs while still being able to, ya know, keep them.
Certainly Matt Rota’s Ben Day-dot colors, Rick Parker’s easy-on-the-eyes lettering, and Das Pastoras’ agreeably-cluttered cover all could/would have made it past editorial, and this deliberately toned-down iteration of Marra art wouldn’t have ruffled too many feathers, but the story? It’s way too spiteful — and way too honest — to have ever seen print back in the day.
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