Monday, July 20, 2015

Atlas' Barbarians of Vengeance [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Atlas Comics (also known as Seaboard) has a weird but brief history. The company was started in 1974 by Martin Goodman, the man who took Marvel to the top of the pile. Having sold Marvel for millions, he was ready to walk away, with his son Chip Goodman ensconced as editorial director at the "House of Ideas." When Stan Lee fired Chip, some believe, Martin took his money and began the rival company, giving it the nickname "Vengeance Inc."

Goodman's policy was simple: Copy everything Marvel. Steal their ideas, steal their people, with higher pay and creator's rights. This included their successful sword-and-sorcery title, Conan the Barbarian, which became two titles: Ironjaw by Michael Fleisher and Wulf the Barbarian by Larry Hama. Despite the fact that both Ironjaw and Wulf were wandering barbarian/princes, the two comics were as different as their underlying philosophies.

Ironjaw's creator, Mike Fleisher, had a bad boy reputation in comics. At DC he wrote such downer characters as the violent Spectre and the unattractive gunslinger, Jonah Hex. He left DC to join Atlas and create the barbarian Ironjaw, giving him the same name as the 1942 Lev Gleason Nazi villain from Boy Comics, even the same wide metallic mandible. Much has been made of the essay at the end of the first issue where the editor tells about Fleisher's method of writing Ironjaw, basing it on "what a real man, placed in that same situation, would do." Sadly, this drive for "realism" means Ironjaw is a robber, a rapist, and an idiot. He lacks Robert E Howard's brooding fatalism and comes off like an adolescent.

The first two issues of Ironjaw follow how he regains a throne he didn't even know he had lost. In a Hamlet-like scenario, the step-father had become king while the father was murdered. The baby heir Roland was supposed to be drowned, but instead was left among the rocks. He was found by the robber Tarlok, who raised the boy. Now a mighty fighter, Ironjaw seeks only gold, wine, and women. He ends up with the throne, but soon leaves it behind when he sees the job as monotonous and dull. In the third issue (May 1975), we see Ironjaw return home to his bandit brothers and rescue Tarlok from head-hunters.

Ironjaw #1 (January 1975) bore a Neal Adams cover. This is significant because Adams was the man who had produced the first covers for Marvel's Savage Tales and Savage Sword of Conan (strongly associating him with sword-and-sorcery) and because he was a relentless champion of creator's rights. Later he would be the point man on securing Jack Kirby his original art and getting the creators of Superman credit and money from DC. When the independents came along in the 1980s, he was active with companies like Pacific Comics. All that started here with Atlas, doing their best covers.

The interior art in the first issue was by Mike Sekowsky and Jack Abel. The look of the artwork was adequate, feeling a little like what Ditko had done for Warren back in 1965. Abel was one of the old crew of inkers from DC, having done Superman for years. Still, the look wasn't very Conan and Goodman wanted everything to scream Marvel. The second issue (March 1975) also had another Neal Adams cover, but the story art was done by Pablo Marcos. Marcos had been doing horror art for Skywald, Warren, and Marvel. This was his first chance to pencil and ink sword-and-sorcery and he made the most of it, producing very nice work that looked more like John Buscema's Conan than Sekowsky's did. Marcos would finish the run as artist. After Atlas folded he would become one of the regular inkers on Savage Sword of Conan.

Alternating with Ironjaw, Wulf the Barbarian #1 appeared in February 1975. Written by Larry Hama, it has a very different feel to Fleisher's downbeat work. Where Ironjaw is a Conan imitation, Wulf the Barbarian bears a stronger resemblance to JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with its Trolls of Drakenroost and the evil sorcerer Mordek, who rules them. Young Prince Wulf of Baernholm sees his father and mother slain and swears a blood oath for vengeance. He's raised by Stavro, the king's man, but when Stavro is murdered, Wulf arms himself and pursues the killer, the same troll who had slain his mother. Using one of Stavro's juggling tricks, Wulf gets back the sword of his father and takes his first revenge. He rides off, swearing to kill the sorcerer Mordek next.

The artwork was penciled by Larry Hama and inked by Klaus Jansen, who as a young fan had written letters to Charlton's Adventures of the Man-God Hercules, eight year earlier. Now he had a chance to do his own sword-and-sorcery comic. The Hama-Jansen art looks similar to DC's Sword of Sorcery or Claw the Unconquered. It didn't look much like Conan the Barbarian, but since Ironjaw did, perhaps there was less pressure. After leaving Atlas, Jansen became inker for Frank Miller on Daredevil, a move that would establish him in comics forever.

In the second issue (April 1975) Wulf takes up with a swordswoman, a rogue, and a magician to kill a wizard who has plagued the land with drought. Like the Conan story "Rogues in the House," they enter the wizard's domain and confront horrors, including a giant water demon named Bel-Shugthra. Sacrificing one of his comrades, Wulf summons a fire elemental to fight the water demon. They flee and the tower explodes House of Usher style. Of all of Wulf's adventures this one is closest to Robert E Howard. (Well, Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp anyway.)

By June 1975, Atlas was in trouble. The comics were not selling and Martin Goodman was losing writers and artists. The reason for leaving was not necessarily money, which Goodman had been generous with, but editorial tampering. All that promised freedom hadn't materialized when the owners looked at the sales figures. Goodman pushed for more Marvel-ness, and people left. This included both Michael Fleisher and Larry Hama. (Fleisher would write Conan the Barbarian from 1983 to 1985 before becoming a professional anthropologist. Hama would turn to acting, appearing in guest spots on MASH and Saturday Night Live, but would return to comics and create Bucky O'Hare.) In fact, all the titles were now written by Gary Friedrich. Friedrich had created Ghost Rider for Marvel and even the copy-cat "Hell Rider" for Skywald. He now had the big job of carrying on every title for the company.

June 1975 saw a strange experiment for Ironjaw. The Barbarians featuring Ironjaw #1 published a short 10-pager called "Mountain of Mutants," written by Gary Friedrich and drawn by Pablo Marcos. Ironjaw is set in a post-apocalyptic America and this story tells how mutants from the nuclear war were created. Ironjaw is captured by these twisted creatures, but his life is spared by their queen. He must fight a giant mutant in an arena to prove the worthiness of the human race. Along with this tale was a reprint of the first portion of "Andrax," a European comic written by Peter Wiechmann and drawn by superstar Jordi Bernet. It too supposes a world strangely changed by radiation with monstrous mutations. Sadly, since there were no future issues, the "Andrax" story line is left incomplete. The cover for this one-shot was drawn by Rich Buckler and Jack Abel. Buckler did not give up his gig on Batman at DC for this, but had been experimental in sword-and-sorcery comics with "The Bloodstaff"(Eerie #29, September 1970) and "The Shadow of the Sword" (Hot Stuf'#1, Summer 1974).

The changes at Atlas became apparent from the first cover. Wulf the Barbarian #s 3 and 4 had covers by Canadian newcomer, Jim Craig. Craig would pencil the last issue as well. His style is reminiscent of Joe Staton at Charlton. Even worse, the interiors art for Issue #3 was given to Leo Summers (who had drawn for Creepy) and inked by anonymous collectives like the "Atlas Bullpen." Issue #3 was written by Steven Skeates, who had created "Thane of Bagarth" at Charlton years before, then wrote for Warren and DC. Wulf and his new Moorcockian companion Rymstrydle rescue a lady from the Rat-Men and their kangaroo mounts only to find that she is destined to marry Modeo, the son of Mordek. They take her to her fiancé's tech-filled castle. Wulf almost kills Modeo until he finds out the machine master hates his father as much as Wulf does. Unfortunately, Modeo's been played for a fool and Mordek takes control of his giant robot. The good guys escape in a hot air balloon.

Issue #4 was written by Mike Friedrich (not Gary, no relation) who had only recently started publishing his independent comic anthology Star*Reach. After stealing a horse from a female brigand, Wulf falls in with Lord Makhel, an old friend of the family. The lord is afflicted with a curse, turning him into a blood-sucking fiend. The brigands attack again and Wulf is forced to kill his old friend when he transforms. The female brigand, Beatryce, escapes shouting behind her that she might one day be his queen. If more issues had been printed, we can assume Wulf eventually got his throne back and married Beatryce.

In the final issue of Ironjaw #4 (July 1975), Gary Friedrich begins the origin of Ironjaw's namesake. The adopted son of Tarlok grows up into a minstrel and his songs are turning all the bandit girls' heads. One of the bandits, Dektor, crucifies the minstrel (Conan style!), then mutilates his jaw with a hot sword. Carlotta, Dektor's betrothed, who has fallen for the minstrel, takes him to the witch Soran for medical help. The witch turns herself into a beautiful woman and falls for her patient. Not only does she save his life, but she augments his physique magically. She has a smith create his iron jaw to cover his disfigurement and allow him to speak. She also says she will take him to be trained in the martial arts so that he can exact his revenge on Dektor. The issue ends there, so we never get to see what comes about, but it's not hard to guess that Dektor will die and the witch will be spurned, Ironjaw riding away singing Lynyrd Skynrd's "Free Bird." Friedrich's approach to writing an Ironjaw story is not much different than Fleisher, except that he breaks up the flashbacks with some present day dragon-fighting.

But Atlas wasn't quite done with sword-and-sorcery yet. "Temple of the Spider" appeared in their black and white magazine, Thrilling Adventures Stories #2 (August 1975). This was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Walt Simonson, who both knew plenty about sword-and-sorcery comics. Goodwin wrote the first and most important sword-and-sorcery stories for Warren between 1965 and 1967. Walt Simonson worked on Sword of Sorcery at DC in 1973 and then wrote and drew a sword-and-sorcery parody, "A Tale of Sword & Sorcery" for Star*Reach #1 (April 1974). In later years, Simonson would bring a sword-and-sorcery feel to Thor at Marvel.

The plot for "Temple of the Spider" follows two ronin, the young and impulsive Harada and the older Ishiro. They seek a treasure in the Temple of the Spider, but find instead a cave behind the shrine, filled with giant spiders. "Temple of the Spider" is intriguing because it shows Simonson's interest in Japanese manga, a style he partially adopts for this piece. Manga had not really hit America yet, with the first piece to appear in Star*Reach #7 (January 1977) with Sitoshi Hirota and Masaichi Mukaide's "The Bushi."

Atlas/Seaboard closed its doors fall of 1975. "Temple of the Spider" was later reprinted in Swords of Valor #3 (A-Plus Comics, 1990), a hint of what was to come in March 2011, when At Last Entertainment (started by grandson Jason Goodman) revived Wulf in a four-part mini-series written by Steve Niles and drawn by Nat Jones. The comic is dedicated to "the hard work of Martin and Chip Goodman." The new comic takes Wulf out of his barbaric world and places him in ours, chasing a hideous necromancer through dimensions. Ironjaw comes in halfway through and the two Atlas characters finally get to rumble together against some rather Cthulhian bad asses. Of all the comics produced at Atlas/Seaboard, only their sword-and-sorcery characters are remembered well enough to warrant reprinting or reviving.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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