Sunday, 12 March 2017

Comic Review: Agents of Atlas


The best thing about being a comics reader with a penchant for the obscure is that there are comic writers out there with a penchant for the obscure too. A good example of this is the fantastically geeky Agents of Atlas. The story of this comic actually goes back some way to Atlas Comics, basically the company that would become Marvel after starting out as Timely. They published a few superhero comics including Marvel Boy and a few weird science anthologies, such as Marvel Mystery Comics, Men's Adventures and Menace, not to mention crime titles such as the Yellow Claw. These featured a slew of original characters and when Marvel began publishing and initiated the Silver Age Stan Lee's constant desire to reuse existing ideas saw most pulled into current titles as guest characters; Marvel Boy went insane and attacked the Fantastic Four as the Crusader before dying, eventually bequeathing his bands to Quasar; secret agent Jimmy Woo and arch-rival the Yellow Claw featured in several SHIELD stories; Gorilla-Man appeared in a few issues of Defenders while Namora appeared in cousin Namor's titles occasionally before being killed off.

The group really caught modern imagination when they were featured in What If...? #9 as an alternate version of the Avengers if the team had formed in the fifties, with Marvel Boy, Gorilla Man, M11 the Human Robot and Venus recruited by Woo to rescue President Eisenhower from the Yellow Claw. Also featured in the line-up was the 3D Man, a hero invented recently by Roy Thomas whose adventures were merely set in the fifties while the story featured cameos from Jann of the Jungle, Namora and a few villains of the Atlas era. Marvel did a lot of that sort of thing in the seventies, trying to patch their Golden Age and Silver Age material together; Thomas' own Invaders was joined by several stories sorting out who exactly had been Captain America if Steve Rogers had been frozen in ice since World War II, stuff like that. The fifties Avengers' sole appearance ended with the team disbanding as the world wasn't ready for them and the story was left hanging in terms of canonicity. They had made an impression on fans and when that most fannish of books, Kurt Busiek's shamelessly nerdy Avengers Forever, arrived it picked up on the team and firmly established the story as being from an alternate reality, Busiek's clear enjoyment not being enough to outweigh his masochistic need to bring neatness to the Avengers history.

Fast-forward eight years and Jeff Parker was having none of that, deciding to put the band back together. Jimmy Woo has been put in a coma after leading a rogue mission while working for SHIELD so Gorilla-Man, still working for SHIELD himself, rounds up Marvel Boy (now more often known as the Uranian or simply Bob, the version killed fighting the Fantastic Four being revealed to be someone else), M-11 and Venus. It's established that they did work together as a team in the fifties but not as the Avengers with the implication being a nearly-identical version of the events in the What If... did happen in the main Marvel Universe. Bob is able to revive Woo but only as his fifties self while Namora's death is also undone and she joins them as they try to foil the Yellow Claw plot Woo was investigating while being pursued by SHIELD.

The result is a joy; Parker never goes for the cheap shot of ridiculing the fifties origins of the group but doesn't simply clone the Watchmen approach either. Ken Hale, the Human Gorilla, is a grumpy sod much in the vein of the Thing, Bob has been physically altered by a Venusian hive organism, M-11 is passively inscrutable throughout, Venus finds out her true origin and Namora has to deal with no-one apparently bothering to check if she was alive for decades but it's all done in a warm, natural fashion. They all feel like characters rather than puppets in a retcon rampage while the actual main storyline is rather more rich and intelligent than the use of the Atlas Corporation as an enemy would suggest. The ending especially is fantastic.

Parker's clear passion is matched by Leonard Kirk's lush art which has the same respectful tone - characters are updated and integrated artistically but never overhauled needlessly or cut off from their fifties roots. While all of this is going on the series finds a good balance of telling an interesting story and filling new readers in as to who exactly these guys are with about as much finesse as is reasonable to ask, meaning an affinity for forgotten fifties superheroes is not necessary to enjoy. Overall an excellent little series.

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