Bizarro Back Issues: The Saga Of Atlas And His Incredibly Realistic Super-Powers! (1964)
After roughly four million installments of this column, it's probably pretty clear that I have a deep and abiding love the stranger side of old comics. That's one of the reasons that we're living in the best possible time to read comics, in an era when there are folks out there with a focus on digital preservation and archiving, which has given rise to an entire cottage industry of books like I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets, The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and Boody that put the focus on to the forgotten heroes of eras past. The latest entry into that shelf full of bizarre anthologies is Super Weird Heroes, an anthology curated by Craig Yoe, and folks, it kicks off with a doozy.
See, the book opens up with one of many heroes who took the name "Atlas." What sets this guy apart, though, is that unlike all these other Silver Age long-underwear characters all of his super-powers are real! For... certain values of real.
Making his first (and only) appearance in IW Publishing's Daring Adventures #18 with some pretty solid art by George Tuska and a script from an unknown writer, Atlas is a hero who stands in contrast to the trends of the day. See, by the '60s, Superman's powers had grown to truly unstoppable levels, with the strength to move planets, X-Ray eyes that could melt concrete, super-breath that could send a sailing ship around the world, ventriloquism that could echo loud enough to shatter mountains, and a host of other super-powers that could function as Kryptonians ex machina whenever the story required it.
By the same token, Batman, the most human of DC's major heroes, also had a belt load of bat-shaped sci-fi gadgets to help him solve his increasingly ridiculous crimes, and would only get weirder before the end of the decade. Even Marvel's heroes, which were touted as being more realistic than the Distinguished Competition, still had radioactive spiders, cosmic rays, and Norse mythology backing them up.
Atlas, on the other hand, was a new kind of hero --- a realistic hero whose opening splash page assured readers that this was a story rooted in the truth.
It's a pretty familiar one, too, opening up on Jim Randall, a bespectacled milquetoast with blue-black hair, mild manners, and an all-too-human lack of strength.
Given that this story has promised realism, you probably think you know where this is going. Jim's gonna hit the gym, maybe learn a few of the secrets of Dynamic Tension that are promised on the back cover of this very comic book, and then go back and give those rotten gangsters what for.
That is not what happens.
What happens, in this realistic story that promises a human hero stranger than anything fiction ever dreamed of, is that he's visited in a dream by Atlas. You know, Atlas? The titan of myth who held up the sky? That guy.
Admittedly, this is framed as a dream, but it's a pretty effective one. Armed with the dreamy Secrets of Strength --- which, as an added bonus, the story promises that you too will learn in this and (nonexistent) future issues --- Jim heads out to his uncle's ranch in Arizona and pretty much just spends the next few weeks doing CrossFit. When he comes back, buff and bursting out of his polo shirt, even foxy stenographer Melinda Thompson barely recognizes him.
Unfortunately, the past few weeks haven't been all burpees and isometrics. Melinda's brother has fallen in with The Wrong Crowd, a gang led by Duke Cazzini. And while "Jim Randall" might not be able to do anything about it himself, he could make himself more than just one man. He could make himself a symbol. A silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Leopard-Print-Underwear-Clad Knight.
Fun fact: That costume is entirely why I had to triple-check the date on this story, because I was convinced it came out no later than 1951. And yet, here we are.
Needless to say, Atlas starts meting out two-fisted justice on the gangsters for their vague crimes, and true to the spirit of the book, he actually has a pretty realistic level of strength. He punches dudes out and throws a couple of them around, and there's one pretty dubious example of pole vaulting, but there's nothing that would break the story's central conceit of showing a hero with a realistic dedication to strength. For about two pages.
By the time the story hits its climax, it suddenly remembers that this is a superhero comic, and Atlas starts exercising the flashing power of his giant strength!
First he chucks a boulder like he's tossing dirty laundry into a hamper, and then he grabs a car and starts swinging it around like a battering ram --- which you may remember as the very feat of strength that proves Superman's power on the cover of Action Comics #1 and what Captain Marvel is doing with the Strength of Hercules on Whiz Comics #2.
And then my dude just straight up grabs an airplane and snaps it right the hell in half.
Swelling biceps indeed.
With that, the story comes to a crashing end, with Atlas inspiring the former gangsters to go straight and put their talents to use doing good for the world. But the story hasn't completely abandoned its own premise. In the last panel, Atlas assures his readers that he merely possesses the kind of airplane-shattering strength that "anyone can attain through clean living, proper training --- and use for right and justice!"
And to prove it, he offers up one of his very own Secrets of Strength for readers to try at home. And you, dear reader, can join in!
And honestly, that's not a bad exercise! Simple isometrics that you can use to build a little strength, even when you're sitting at home or at work or --- given this issue's intended audience for stories like Rush Ripley: Football Star and a four-page biography of Babe Ruth --- school.
I just have my doubts that it could help you literally catch a friggin' airplane.