Saturday, February 19, 2011
The Atomic Knights!
October 29, 1986 is the date it all began. The world as we know it ended on that day when World War III erupted suddenly and for twenty days the Earth was wracked by nuclear war. When the war subsided a few human survivors found themselves on a world bereft of vegetable and animal life. Only a few humans remained, and they relied upon caches of preserved food to survive.
You don't remember all that?
Well then you didn't read the Atomic Knights from DC Comics. The world described above is the world of Gardner Grayle, the most average soldier in the U.S. military. Grayle wanders the wasteland of the former United States until chance causes him to meet Douglas Herald a schoolteacher. Soon other survivors were found including Herald's sister Marene. Add in a scientist named Bryndon and twin former soldiers Wayne and Hollis Hobard and you have the six people who would become the Atomic Knights.
By chance Grayle and Herald learn that six suits of medieval armor have been affected by the abundant radiation after the war and are largely impervious to harm. Using this armor the six become the Atomic Knights, and dedicate themselves to protecting the struggling humans who still live in the small town of Durvale.
It's a lush science fiction environment filled with vivid and memorable characters. It was the co-creation of John Broome and Murphy Anderson, both veterans of the DC staff. Buried in the back pages of the comic book Strange Adventures, these two talents created a most memorable series of adventures for the Knights as they explored the world which had changed so completely around them.
The Knights got little hooplah from DC, running just fifteen installments in Strange Adventures and rating only a single cover, they nonetheless are fondly remembered by the fans who discovered them. I personally came across the Kights when their adventures were reprinted in Strange Adventures in the last days of that venerable title's run. I only got hold of a few stories, but they left a mark on me, impressed by the relatively sophisticated story and the elegant and clean Murphy Anderson artwork, I always wanted to read more.
I hoped DC would reprint them in a trade collection. I'd have bought it in a heartbeat. But DC didn't do that. Instead the Atomic Knights were at long last reprinted in DC's slightly upscale hardback series for which they demanded double trade paper prices. I balked for some months, but at long last I yielded to temptation and bought the book.
I don't regret it in the least. The adventures were fun and while light-hearted in character thanks to Anderson's pristine vision of the future world, also offer a quasi-serious glimpse into the nature of society and how it might deal with such an all-consuming calamity.
The Atomic Knight adventures break up into four distinct groups as far as I can see. The story begins with establishing the Knights themselves and the bleak world they inhabit, leading them to explore as far as Los Angeles and New York City where they find men regressed to the state of Neanderthals.
Then the team locates a lush island in the Pacific which they speculate might be Atlantis and that begins four stories dealing with the inhabitants of this island, a group of hostiles displaced in time who want to take over the planet.
After that come a couple of tales featuring non-human antagonists. Aliens from space arrive to harvest special metals which are produced in atomic conflicts, and metal which as it turns out is what the Knights' armor is made of. Then they learn the secret of the war itself when subterranean invaders come to the surface and seek to make the Earth dark so they can overwhelm the human population.
After these more outlandish adventures, the Knights take on more local and exclusively human threats in the shape of a rogue para-military gang called the "Blue Belts" and other things like threat of a witch-craze and roving bands of wild teenagers. These final stories are the most mature and deal with rebuilding the world more than really fighting off exotic threats, though there are some of those too. The giant dalmatians give way to a mere car as far as transportation goes for instance.
Through all of these adventures the Knights have an unyielding loyalty to one another and to the most noble traits of mankind. The story of the Knights is attractive because rare for the era, the stories have memory. What happens in early installments of the series resonate in later chapters. This makes us care more about the Knights themselves, and it makes their struggle seem to occupy real time. Years do pass in the world other Knights as they struggle to rebuild society.
Though it lasted a mere fifteen episodes, after reading the whole series, I can truthfully say the wait was well worth it. The Atomic Knights is a beautiful comic series, filled with just the right blend of hope, wisdom, and entertainment. I highly recommend this volume, even if it does cost too much.
At this link you will find a wonderfully detailed index of the Atomic Knight appearances, including some in Bronze Age DC after their original run.
This link takes you to a message board thread that offers up a bunch of rich entries on the original run of the series, with lots of behind-the-scenes info with ads and letters pages. There are all the original covers too, which as already noted mostly don't feature the Knights.
Here's a gallery of the Atomic Knight splash pages along with their single cover appearance in their original run.
Here are three covers by Joe Kubert and Anderson for reprints of the Knights in later issues of Strange Adventures.
This gem is a splash page produced for the second part of the origin story which was broken up and ran in two issues. Though credited to Murphy Anderson, I'm certain this is the pencil work of Gil Kane.
Some beautiful art.