Tuesday, July 15, 2014


When my son Ed saw Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights [DC; $19.99] on my desk waiting to be reviewed, he exclaimed: “The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights? That would be the best name for a band ever!”

The Great Disaster is a 576-page black-and-white softcover volume reprinting all 15 of the Atomic Knights stories from the 1960s by John Broome and Murphy Anderson. Those stories are the center of a sandwich made mostly from far inferior meats.

Before you get to the Atomic Knights material, there’s a three-part Weird War Tales serial written by Sheldon Mayer that suffers a bit from being split into three chapters. It’s readable, but just.  It is followed by a so-so Superman story that sort of ties into Jack Kirby’s Kamandi story with “the last boy on Earth” discovering the abandoned costume of the Man of Steel. It’s not really much of an appetizer to this meal.

The first course consists of 19 very short “The Day After Doomsday” stories from Weird War Tales, The House of Secrets, The Unexpected and House of Mystery. The stories are mostly two pages in length; a couple are longer. The writers include Len Wein, Paul Kupperberg, Steve Skeates and others. The artists are a mix of then-beginning artists, old pros and artists from the Philippines. Almost all of the stories are mean-spirited, which, while not inappropriate for horror comics, is a sad divergence from the heroism and optimism of the Atomic Knights stories.

The Atomic Knights adventures are comics classics. Broome, Anderson and editor Julius Schwartz created the near-future world of 1986. A nuclear war lasted twenty days and wiped out civilization as we know it. Pockets of humanity survived and were led by good people like average solider Gardner Grayle, school teacher Douglas Herald and his sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon and brothers Wayne and Hollis Hobard. Finding suits of ancient armor that allowed them to resist radiation, the six became the protectors of the small town of Durvale. They also reach out to assist other pockets of humanity, some as far away as New York and Los Angeles.

Despite the grim circumstances that define their lives, the Atomic Knights are beacons of hope. One small step at a time, they begin rebuilding civilization. They deal with alien and human villains. They invent the tools they need to survive. They connect with other humans across the country. They open their homes to homeless boys. They never stop looking towards the future.

Broome’s stories are inventive and written with a subtlety perhaps lost on the younger readers of the 1960s. Anderson’s art is among his best with sure storytelling and exciting visuals. I have read these stories three or four times apiece. They have never failed to entertain, impress and inspire me.

The Atomic Knights stories are followed by Atlas the Great, a one-shot by Jack Kirby that was one of the few “fails” of his career. It is a rambling thing with a protagonist who never comes across as someone you’d give a rat’s ass about. You can almost taste Kirby’s growing dissatisfaction with DC on every page.

Hercules Unbound #1-12 are next. In this series, Hercules has been imprisoned on a remote island for centuries, only to free himself four weeks after World War Three. Gerry Conway wrote and presumably created the series, which has terrific art by the team of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (pencils) and Wally Wood (inks). This inaugural team remains in place for the first six issues as Hercules makes a few friends, meets intelligent animals not unlike those in Jack Kirby’s Kamandi and battles various menaces as he seeks revenge on his old for Ares, the God of War. These stories aren’t great, but they are quite readable.

When Conway, Garcia-Lopez and Wood leave, Hercules Unbound rushes down the drain and fast. Despite the presence of talented writers and artists, the series becomes mean-spirited, killing off most of the supporting characters. Convoluted and unconvincing explanations are given for past events. Even worse, an attempt to shoehorn the Atomic Knights into the title is just plain awful. They even kill off one of the Knights in a freaking flashback. Sadly, this isn’t the worse thing done to the Knights in this collection. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Hercules is followed by a mediocre four-chapter serial that ran in the back of Kamandi and continues in the mean-spirited vein of “The Day After Doomsday” shorts. A final “Day After” story is included in this section.

Now we get to the worst. DC Comics Presents #57 teamed Superman and “The Atomic Knights” in a frankly dumb story that explains away the Broome/Anderson stories as the fantasies of a Gardner Grayle stuck in some sort of sleep deprivation pod for years. To make its point that nuclear war would be bad - Wow! That never occurred to me! - the story craps all over one of the best series DC ever published in the 1960s or any other decade.

The volume concludes with a tedious two-page text piece that tries to tie all of the above plus a few other titles like OMAC into some sort of logical continuity. It’s an embarrassing exercise in anal-retentiveness...and that assessment comes from yours truly, a damn Jedi of anal-retentiveness.

Even though 576 pages for twenty bucks is a good deal, I recommend you take a pass on Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights. You’d be better off looking for a copy of the hardcover published by DC in 2010.

Though The Atomic Knights carries a cover price of $39.99, you can generally find the book cheaper on the secondary market. It’s just the 15 Atomic Knights stories in full-color with an introduction by Anderson. I bought a copy of this hardcover after I’d finished the Showcase Presents volume because I didn’t want those great Broome and Anderson efforts to catch bad-comics-cooties from the rest of the stuff in the Showcase Presents volume.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a new installment of our award-deserving “Rawhide Kid Wednesday” series. See you then.

© 2014 Tony Isabella


  1. I'm probably still gonna get this book just because of the Atomic Knights. I'd heard too many good things about the series from you and others not to. :)

  2. I loved the Atomic Knights as a kid. Sure, you had to ignore some of the goofier bits (riding giant dalmations for instance) but the Knights were brave and the stories always fun. I remember that Superman story and wondered at the time why anyone felt it necessary to basically ruin a series that held fond memories for many older fans. Of course, nowadays, DC does that sort of thing in almost every issue of every title.

  3. I know that the nomenclature dates back to Kamandi (and was retroactively applied to the nuclear war of The Atomic Knights) but if you ask me DC has some nerve calling anything but its New 52 line "The Great Disaster").