Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

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