OK, you know what? I suck at this. This "historical comics" jazz. I don't know enough about it myself, really, to me making comments placing things in context. But more to the point, there isn't really a context for Atari Force. Not one worth speaking of. I mean…look at it.
Here's what I do know: the early 80s were the heyday of movie spinoffs in comics, so it was only natural that they would follow suit with video games; certain video games were sweetening the deal by giving away comic adaptations with purchase of the game; and some of these apparently became popular enough to warrant continuation outside of the game context. Also, Star Wars was still casting huge ripples in the pond of popular culture, leading to a huge influx of SF and Fantasy at the movies, and therefore everywhere else, too. Especially comics.
And-it was what comics collectors generally refer to as the "late bronze age". I've always found this to be an interesting time in comics. For one thing, superheroes-at least, the conventional type-weren't quite as all-pervasive as they had been at other times; Flash Gordon-type space heroes and sword and sorcery were pretty popular, too. I also think the art was at a pretty impressive level, representing a refinement of the classic Marvel bullpen style, before Frank Miller got everything all gritty and Spawn made everything overly-shiny. But it's the writing style that I find most interesting; the classic Marvel style of soap opera bombast is still hanging on, but we're seeing the beginning of the "angsty and gritty" style that characterizes the early 90s, too.
So, there you go. Context. Now let's talk about Atari Force.
I have no idea what the point of the original Atari Force game was, what it looked like, or what you could do. It was an Atari game, apparently set in outer space. And presumably involving a force of people. All of whom, in comics form, looked very 70s, as you can see from the covers. By the way, check out some of those other books. That Centipede cover kicks ass. And I love that, in typical Crap Fantasy videogame fashion, the "Swordquest" games (that's a pretty funny name in and of itself) have a naming scheme based on the four elements, leading invariably to the hilariously redundant "Earthworld".
But I'm here to talk about Atari Force. Just, y'know, not THAT version of Atari Force, which by the way was created by no lesser lights than Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. No, this is the second-generation Atari Force we're dealing with here. Why? Because that's the one I found in my local comics store dollar bin. Couldn't resist, could I? Especially when 5 issues all came packaged together like that. So, come with me now as we go spelunking into the obscure video comics realm of 20 years ago. If you don't like what you see, remember: you can always make fun of it.
In this issue (bearing the very Marvel-ish slogan "The STRANGEST S-F heroes of all!"-seems like there were a lot of "strangest heroes" out there, eh?) we're introduced to a series of characters scattered across a very Star Wars-ish universe. First we meet the exotic and sexy Dart and her boyfriend, the fairly useless Blakjak, as they flee from a mercenary employer who's turned on them. These first 9 pages are terrific stuff. The art, by Jose Garcia Lopez and Ricardo Villagran, is a great example of the bronze age style I was talking about, with nicely rendered humans (Dart in particular) and inventive designs. Most of it looks like it's happening in a star system that Luke Skywalker might have passed through once, but hey, already I'll take this over the prequels.
After another short interlude on a far-flung planet where slavers abduct a baby of a gigantic species of stone creatures, we meet our putative hero, Christopher Champion, aka "Tempest".
More alarmingly, with Mr. Fair-Haired Boy's appearance begins a trend that wouldn't make itself clear until a few more issues have gone by. Anyhoo, Chris (I refuse to call him "Tempest", and if he had any self-respect, he would too) does the traditional comic book "danger room" bit. That is, he shows off his powers-in this case, teleportation-by running a deadly maze for no readily apparent reason. We see he has a girlfriend, find out he's apparently the son of one of the original Atari Force members, meet an empathic alien scientist who's clearly going to be important later on (judging from the cover), and other such expository matters, before moving on to the final, goofiest member of the team, nicknamed "Pakrat". Because, see, he steals stuff, and looks like a rat, and…well, awful nice of alien evolution to conform to our human prejudices, wasn't it?
So, that's the first issue (though I neglected to mention the Shadowy Archvillain who pops up earlier on, apparently on Dart and Blakjaks' trail, and does the required villain thing by hurling a henchman into a river of acid.
The next issue features very little from any of the other four members of the, er, team. Morphea (the green alien chick) meets up with and attempts to psychoanalyze Chris's crotchety dad (and, in typical comic book fashion, she's able to do so in the space of two panels). Pakrat and the stone-creature from Egg (that's the name of the planet he's from, Egg…no, seriously) get transported. Chris has a run-in with his girlfriend's hostile senator father, who calls him a "freak". Please note, the senator is a tiny little penguin-like man, screaming at a six-foot-tall teenager with mystical powers. Always a smart move!
But this issue revolves mostly around Dart and Blakjak confronting--THE WARBEAST!
This is a monster who was apparently bred by an elder race to be "the ultimate warrior" and proceeded to, you guessed it, wipe out their creators. Then they turned on each other, until this guy was the only one left. So, in other words, he's the baddest of the baddestof the bad, right? An unstoppable killing machine?
Dart takes him out in two pages.
Heck, even Blakjak contributes, and he's definitely NOT the one who wears the pants in this relationship. Earlier he…did something…that helped the good guys win a battle, so I guess he's not a total wuss, but seriously, a guy with a wire jammed in his eye socket should NOT be able to take you down. Also, a note to any future gigantic monsters who may have opportunity to wrassle with SF heroes: it's probably not a good idea to SWALLOW THE GRENADES THEY THROW AT YOU.
By the way, there's a sequence in the senator's pleasure garden that features some priceless narration: "...a garden which, like others before it, harbours its own kind of serpent..." and then a girl gets attacked by a SCORPION. Genius!
The cover of issue 3 proclaims, "Pakrat GOES WILD!!!" (Sadly, he fails to take his top off.) So who do you think is the focus of this issue?
That's right-Dart and Blackjak!
Anyway, RIDENT manages to catch his thieving brother in this issue, but, as we've been repeatedly shown in each prior issue, Pakrat hates being cornered; this is where the "goes wild" part comes in.
In other news, Morphea frees the stone creature, whose name, it seems, is "Babe", meaning that TWO MMBERS OF ATARI FORCE ARE NOW IN THE SAME PLACE!!! WOW!!!. Also, Chris mopes. (And he refuses to be called "Tempest", so I guess that represents a step forward.)
But never mind all that, the important thing is that Dart's had a vision of Blackjak's death. Did I mention she's psychic? Well, actually, it's a pretty good psychic power. Very specific and helpful, not to mention full of details that actually lets her escape difficulty. Except in this case…
By the way, the opening sequence, in which Dart has her vision, looks suspiciously as if she was drawn naked and then re-inked with clothing after editorial objections. Just wanted to put that out there.
Anyway, the villain-who's name we don't know yet, by the way, though his henchman's name is "Kargg"-has slipped some cash to a shady used-spaceship salesman to guarantee that their ship-the most Star Wars-y one yet, by the way--will conk out at an opportune time. And conk out it does, leading to Blackjak's heroically sacrificing himself so that Dart can escape!
So, see, he's not useless after all.
Now, this may be a good time to break and take note of one of the series major weak points. Perhaps you've noticed it just from this little synopsis. Can you guess what I'm talking about?
That's right: there is no Atari Force. There's Atari Random Bunch of People Who are Very Rarely In The Same Solar System, Let Alone The Same Room. Or ARBOPWAVRITSSLATSR.
Worse, the putative hero-I assume he is the hero, since he's a teenaged kid, is the son of the previous team leader, and wears the freakin' logo on his chest even when off duty-does nothing except mope and pine. The rest of the team consists of an alien psychologist who talks about feelings all day, an overgrown baby who's spent the whole series so far being transported from point A to point B, and a dorky-looking rat-man who also spent most of his time getting from A to B, and then avoiding the cops, which I guess is something at least.
Meanwhile, Dart and Blackjak are off having actual adventures, tangling with an unseen villain, and just generally being more interesting than everyone else combined.
Something's screwy here.
And now it's time for issue 4: the first issue of Atari Force!
I kid only slightly. It's just that most of what happens in the previous three issues could have happened later, or have been left out entirely, and we could have gotten to the meat of the matter a LOT faster. Honestly, most of what we see here tells us everything we need to know about the characters, with the exception of Dart's recent bereavement, and that could have been done in flashback. I'm not kicking, but I'm guessing a lot of people gave up in frustration after reading the last issue (inasmuch as anyone was reading it in the first place, I guess…) Geez, and I thought comics today had "decompression" issues.
Anyway, once again we begin the story with Dart, and her first act is to kick Chris's ass when he tries to "playfully" sneak up on her. Dude, Dart is SO the main character of this book. Furthermore, she exhibits a rare amount of tact about his sullen, bitchy mood, tiptoeing delicately around the fact that he's had to break up with his girlfriend.
Excuse me, but the love of this woman's life just died in the last issue, and it's effing CHRIS whose feelings everyone has to consider? Granted, Dart was probably doing semi-illegal mercenary work and didn't share the details of her recent life with her family, but cheeeeeez. I mean, it never even comes up, even subtly. If the woman was raised in such a nurturing environment that she can tell Mr. Angst is going through a personal crisis, shouldn't her parents be sharp enough to spot the fact that she's traumatized? But hey, that's comics for you: only the main character gets to agonize over how rotten his life is; everyone else has to just shut up and go along with the plot.
But that's not all: a few pages in she's planting a possibly-not-so-fraternal kiss on Golden Boy's smackers, TO MAKE HIM FEEL BETTER. The woman has the patience of a saint, I tell you.
In this issue, we're also introduced to (and here I develop a sinking feeling in my stomach) a bizarrely cute little chicken-monkey thing called "Tukka". Oh yeah, that's always a good sign: when the hero gets a cute alien sidekick. And this thing goes out heedlessly pursuing giant cats three times its size. Oh well, I guess at least it doesn't have a very long life expectancy.
There's also some more interaction with Chris's dad Martin Champion, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a dickhead. First of all, we learn that since his wife died in childhood he's been obsessed with plumbing the "multiverse" which killed her and gave Chris his powers. So of course he's a complete monster to his son, to the point where Chris feels he was "raised" by Dart's family and spends all his time with them. Ahh, the indignities that befall former comic characters when they stop being the heroes of their own series.
We also get some backstory on the universe of Atari Force (it's the usual thing about humanity having to leave a ruined Earth and colonize new planets…I'm still not sure what Atari Force actually, y'know, DOES, but at least that's something). All of this merely serves to reinforce that the past 3 issues were basically just filler.
At the end of the issue, Martin finds that one of the multiple probes he's been sending out was absorbed by a huge ship, which we know from previous issues belongs to the mysterious baddie who was stalking Dart and now has it in for Atari Force. "If that was HIS ship-I've just told him how to find OUR multiverse!" soliliquizes Martin. Yeah, thanks, dumbass. Apparently you've neglected your son for 20 years in order to track down this guy, and you hadn't bothered to come up with Phase 2 of the plan? Dick. Head.
Also, "Our multiverse"? Isn't the whole point of the phrase "multiverse" to refer to an array of universes?
Never mind. The ish ends with Martin, having inadvertently kicked the plot into motion, swearing to rebuild Atari Force!
About freaking time.
So, there's been much kidding and kvetching from me, but there are a lot of things to like about this comic. For starters, the art is above normal, even for the period, and as I mentioned before I'm a fan of Bronze Age comics art. I remember reading some other DC offerings from the late 70s and early 80s and being distinctly unimpressed-they were clearly inferior to Marvel of a decade previously, let alone at the same time. But this comic has some terrific linework and expressive characters who don't go in for the ridiculous dramatic posing that became the hallmark of the medium post-Kirby. The design is also pretty sharp (with Dart especially looking great-again, WHY is she not the star of this comic?). Well, when it's not goofy, like with Chris's design. But even the goofy designs have a certain elegance to them. They're goofy in a good way (OK, Grandmaster Pineapple Warbeast is a bit much, but otherwise.) Even the colouring is very nice.
Furthermore, despite the jabs I've been sending its way, the writing is really pretty sharp. Sometimes the pacing stumbles (there's a TWO PANEL sex scene in issue 4-I kid you not) and the characters have a tendency to reiterate their simply-formed characteristics over and over again in true comics fashion, but there's actually some good dialogue, and a surprising subtlety that pops up from time to time (though really, any subtlety in an early-80s comic is pretty surprising.) It's not Shakespeare, or Alan Moore, but it's not actively painful to read, either.
All in all, this comic is kind of interesting in that it seems posed precisely on the point where comics were starting to get grittier and edgier, but were still having fun. Combine that with good draftsmanship and my inherent love for Space Opera, and you've got a terrific guilty pleasure. Yeah, I'd say that's worth five bucks.
Now I just have to wait for ATARI FORCE THIRD GENERATION, in which the children of Chris and Dart get it on with the gigantic, empathic green monster produced by Morphea and Babe getting married. By then, their parents should be JUST about finished getting ready to get organized and go save the universe. Next issue.
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