Focus On: Jack Kirby’s Atlas (1st Issue Special #1)

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It may very well be that I chose to write about 1st Issue Special #1, featuring Atlas, purely for “alphabetical” reasons…it just sort of forced me to “pick” a topic, as it was at the beginning of my collection.

But it’s also a really great example of writer/artist Jack Kirby trying his hand at an “epic” old-time (almost Biblical) hero’s tale–the classical roots of the protagonist reminding us that the “modern” superhero is but the latest in a long and hallowed lineage of such champions!

Count the amount of times the number “1” is on this cover!

Before we look at the story, though: a few words on the anthology series itself, designed to theoretically “launch” its featured characters into their own solo books.

Unlike their successful original Showcase run, DC’s 1st Issue Special–running only one year from 1975-1976–was a bit of a flop. Supposedly, the idea for its name came about based on the premise that since first issues of comics were so popular…let’s have a whole series with just “first issues” (d’oh!).

Of course…it didn’t quite work that way, as each subsequent issue was numbered in the usual fashion…creating the awkward combo of the “1st Issue name with, say, “#8.” (Not to mention possibly adding the featured character/team’s name after that.)

In addition, the premise itself was kind of flawed…while theoretically a “try out” for possible new series, trying to encapsulate everything cool about a certain property in only one regular-sized issue was difficult. I mean, compare this to Marvel’s approach during the same era with books like Marvel Spotlight & Marvel Premiere. (Fer pete’s sake, even 3-D Man had three issues to “stake a claim.”)

What this 1-issue limit meant for 1st Issue Special was that a number of these stories feel rushed, are packed with too much exposition, and contain abrupt endings. While the reader was asked at the end to write in to DC for “more adventures” with this or that character…there was often not a lot to go on to make a proper decision.

Possibly the most successful of the series, in terms of “launching” a new book

Not surprisingly…out of the entire 1st Issue roster, only Warlord made it to full series–leaving such tantalizing concepts as Lady Cop, The Dingbats Of Danger Street, and the original Outsiders (woof…a post for another day!) out in the cold. (It should be mentioned, however, that #9, with a young Walt Simonson on fire illustrating a Dr. Fate story, was probably the best of the bunch!)

But back to Atlas.

You probably know Atlas best from the Greek myth in which he has to hold up the Earth (actually, it’s the “celestial spheres” but nevermind) as a punishment–it’s that classic image.

None of that is in this Atlas story.

Instead, we open on a nice Kirby splash page of our hero lifting some heavy columns, and are told that the story takes place back when “there were giants in those days!” Which…is a line paraphrased from Genesis 6:4. So while this is in theory a tale of the Greek Atlas…it really feels like it belongs in Old Testamentville. (More on this shortly)

Next: we get a fantastic double-page spread of Atlas doing more cool strong-guy stuff, while his older companion, Chagra, hustles for him in the busy marketplace. (Atlas looks *OK*…but Kirby draws Chagra amazing in terms of just detail and texture, like he’s a medieval woodcut “come to life.”

Atlas and Chagra get in trouble with the authorities for basically panhandling…but not before our hero breaks a lot of stuff in spectacular splinter-filled bursts.

Suddenly, Atlas gets a flashback to his childhood…when his village was taken over by the evil Hyssa and his hordes. And so here’s the Bible-type narrative, beautifully illustrated by Kirby…the angelic little Atlas loses his parents, demonstrates unusual strength, is persecuted through the bush by the bad guys and almost slaughtered, and finally finds a mentor (Chagra).

Bonus: since he possesses this special crystal (a storyline that would have benefitted from another issue of story/backstory), Atlas is essentially “The Chosen One.”

Atlas fights a mighty beast, breaks more stuff, and then heads out with Chagra to confront King Hyssa, and…

And…

And if you want to read more thrilling adventures starring Atlas (or at least finish up this damn story), write to DC Comics!

Needless to say…there was no more Jack Kirby’s Atlas. Until the “Coming Of Atlas” storyline in Superman #677-680, roughly 30 years later.

My verdict on this story? The highlight for me was clearly the origin flashback with “Baby Atlas”…it’s beautifully drawn, following those basic Hero’s Journey tropes…just something universal and timeless about it. It has many of those sane grand mythic elements that you’d find in everything from a Thor to New Gods tale from the man.

The rest isn’t terrible, but the story structure really hurts from only having this one issue, and the ending feels abrupt.

I’ve read a selection of other issues of 1st Issue Special, and got the impression that it was created in part to give these more legendary comic creators like Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Joe Simon more work. But the concept of the actual series, like I’ve said…didn’t seem to be thought through well enough, and couldn’t compete with a juggernaut like Marvel Premiere.

Lastly, as a bit of a footnote…Atlas the (theoretical) Greek hero made three appearances before 1st Issue SpecialAction Comics # 121 (spoilers: not the real Atlas!), Action Comics # 320 (spoilers: he was an evil Atlas from an alternate Earth), and Action Comics #363 (spoilers : featuring the mystifying Shazam clone “Zha-Vam”).

And Grant Morrison seemingly referenced the superobscure Action Comics #320 Atlas in AllStar Superman #3 because…of course he did!

Oh, hai!