Atari Force is a title I admired from afar. I always loved the Jose Garcia Lopez art, and the fact that it was Science Fiction (S-F). With Gerry Conway writing, it always looked like it’d be a solid title by two creators at the top of their game. I had a few random issues, but I never read any.
After acquiring issues 1-13 in a quarter bin not too long ago, I finally got around to reading them. It’s written by Gerry Conway (one of the great Bronze Age comics writers whose credits are too numerous to list), most of the art by José Luis Garcia-Lopez, with a few fill-in issues drawn by Ross Andru (and inked by Lopez), and Eduardo Barretto. The lettering was done by Bob Lappan—a delightful surprise—as he is one of my favorite letterers. Colors by Tom Ziuko.
I’m also currently re-reading and researching Crisis on Infinite Earths for another TCJ Event Horizon column (more on Even Horizon here). As I read through Atari Force, it became clear there were some interesting similarities to DC’s huge event series that came out only a few months later.
Art & Type
Lopez’s art is crisp and light. He makes that classic bronze-era comic-book realism look so easy. His choreography of fights is always complicated but clear. He’s able to take difficult movements and postures and render them with a grounded lightness. He never skimps on environments either.
Bob Lappan’s sound effects typography reaches sublime and absurd heights. Quirky, bizarre, odd, and awesome. Is there any other mainstream letterer that takes this much pleasure in rendering sound effects?
The narrative follows the Star Wars formula. A collection of ‘broken’ individuals has to come together as a team to defend the Multiverse against the Dark Destroyer, a Darth Vader-like menacing figure. A lot of Star Wars-like tropes abound. Alien planets, bounty hunters, an ‘force’ that seems to be undermining the lives of the heroes, etc.
Multiverse Is the Place
One interesting aside is the use of the Multiverse as one of the driving engines of the story. In Atari Force, Humans have gained the ability to travel between universes, and one of the characters inherits the ability when exposed in the womb. Conway uses the idea as part of the universe… the multiverse increasingly became an important concept at both Marvel & DC. At DC it was at the core of the mythos since “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123) established parallel Earth-2… and would become a key concept to revamp the DC line during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event.
There are other curious correspondences to Crisis on Infinite Earths. SPOILER WARNING: For example, it turns out that The Dark Destroyer is a double of the leader of Atari Force, Martin Champion. They are almost mirror images from disparate parts of the Multiverse. Destroyer’s goal is to annihilate Martin’s universe via an Anti-Matter bomb. These are obvious parallels to Monitor and Anti-Monitor and the matter vs. ant-matter struggle that propels the story of Crisis. Conway was one of the early architects of the multiverse concept that became increasingly deployed by both Marvel and DC throughout the 70’s and 80’s. As early as in 1972, Conway and writers Steve Englehart and Len Wein crafted an unofficial metafictional crossover spanning titles from both companies.
The 80’s were a good decade for ‘S-F hero team’ comics. They seemed to multiply everywhere. Besides Atari Force, there was also Omega Men and The Wanderers. I suppose the popularity of the S-F tinged Legion of Superheroes had something to do with it, as well as the popularity of Star Wars and S-F cinema. Marvel (via Epic) had Dreadstar and Alien Legion. Inside of the Marvel Universe were the Swashbucklers and Guardians of the Galaxy (though their heyday would come later). On the indie side there was Nexus and American Flagg! could be included, at least for its S-F nature, though it was much more ambitious thematically and artistically than most of the others. I’m sure I’m blanking on others.
Comics are for Kids
Atari is very much aimed at young readers, but in an interesting way. There are characters like Babe and Hukka which are very much aimed at very young readers. Babe is literally a big baby (albeit very powerful one) and speaks with a limited vocabulary. Babe’s spotlight issue (#?) takes full advantage of this by limiting the words and action. Babe and Hukka riff off each other as they bumble and help revenge against (and genocide!!!) an invading force. Future issues feature Hukka back-up stories that use limited vocabulary, pantomime, onomatopoeia, and Bob Lappan’s lettering mastery, to maximum effect.
All this is paired with a more traditional comic book fare: heroic characters, adult situations — but told from the POV of young adults, interesting S-F concepts like the Multiverse, villains with mysterious motivations, etc. The younger readers can come for the ‘baby’ characters, but grow with the rest of the book as they master new skills and language. This is pretty rare in comics and books these days. This kind of formula is more often deployed in blockbuster movies, which are designed to appeal to the ‘family’ audience. Comics have become a much more niche product catering to specific demographics. It’s rare these days that the family would read comics together.
Branded to Oblivion
The story is only loosely based on the Atari Force video game (and accompanying comics). It takes the concepts into uncharted new territory. Visually, it’s designed to capitalize on the Atari brand name. It’s jarring to see a comic book that was effectively a big Atari branding exercise. On every page some form of the Atari logo appears; as a patch, as a word, as a costume design flourish, etc.
Still, the creators don’t hold back. The characters are well rounded and interesting, the story is fun and propulsive, and the art is beautifully realized. It’s a pleasure to see top talent at the height of their powers. It’s a gorgeous comic book. It’s worth seeking this out in the original comic books… since it’ll probably never get reprinted due to licensing issues.