Four and a half decades ago, at the small Derby, Connecticut-based Charlton Comics, the company’s main writer teamed up with a young up-and-coming artist to create a striking post-apocalyptic sci-fi series that, though short-lived, is remembered to the present day. The writer was Joe Gill, the artist was future superstar creator John Byrne, and the series was Doomsday + 1.
About six months ago I located copies of the original six issue run of Doomsday + 1. They were fun, enjoyable comics. The first issue was released 45 years ago this month, on April 8, 1975, so I felt now was a good time to write a short retrospective on the series. That, and for obvious reasons of late I’ve sort of had the apocalypse on my mind.
In the opening issue of Doomsday + 1 the end of the world is touched off on April 7, 1996 by power-mad Latin American dictator General Rykos. On the verge of being overthrown, Rykos is determined to take everyone down with him. He launches a pair of nuclear missiles, one at New York City, the other at Moscow. The United States and Russia each believe they have been attacked by the other, and before anyone can figure out who is actually to blame, both nations have launched their atomic arsenals at each other, wiping out human civilization.
Hours before Rykos starts World War III, NASA launches a small spacecraft into Earth’s orbit on a scientific mission. The three –person crew of the capsule is U.S. Air Force Captain Boyd Ellis, his fiancée, radiation specialist Jill Malden, and Japanese physicist Ikei Yahsida. As a result this trio are saved from the apocalypse, but are nevertheless forced to watch helplessly from Earth’s orbit as the human race is destroyed.
The capsule remains in orbit for over a month, the three astronauts waiting for the radioactivity on Earth to drop. Finally running out of food, they bring the capsule in for a landing on the uninhabited Greenland, which has been mostly spared from fallout. However the heat of the nuclear weapons has melted the Greenland ice cap, releasing from suspended animation several prehistoric mammals. Also freed from an icy slumber is Kuno, a Goth warrior from the Third Century. Jill, a linguist, is able to communicate with the man out of time, and soon the hulking hairy figure has become a valuable ally.
Over the course of the six issue series, the quartet explores the devastated Earth, hoping to find other survivors. Along the way they have a series of strange adventures, encountering a mad Russian cyborg & his mechanical army, alien peacekeepers, an underwater civilization, human criminals, and visitors from a parallel universe.
There’s also a bit of what you might call a love triangle, or maybe a love quadrangle. Boyd and Jill start out as a couple, prompting some jealousy from Ikei, who is also attracted to Boyd. Kuno, upon meeting the group, is immediately attracted to Jill, and the two of them soon become involved, leaving Boyd and Ikei to then hook up, as well.
Joe Gill was an incredibly prolific writer who produced hundreds of stories for Charlton Comics. He and John Byrne seemed to have a good creative rapport on this series, with Gill allowing Byrne a free hand to make changes to the scripts.
Looking at the art on Doomsday + 1, it’s apparent that Byrne, in some of his first professional work, was already showing a great deal of potential. Obviously he would get much, much better over the next few years, but already you can see his aptitude for dramatic layouts & storytelling, his ability to render both action & characterization.
On the last three issues the artwork is credited to “Byrne Robotics.” Many years later Byrne would re-use the name for his official website & message board. I posted there to inquire about the “Byrne Robotics” credits on Doomsday + 1. Byrne explained:
“I used Byrne Robotics when a friend helped me ink backgrounds. (She’d lost her job so I gave her a temp job.)”
I also informed Byrne that I would be writing this blog post, and I asked if he had any thoughts about Doomsday + 1 that he would be willing to share. He kindly responded:
“Thems were some old time comic books! If they’d been published in the Fifties, they’d not have stood out much from the crowd.
“And they were fun. Joe Gill, the writer, gave me permission to change anything I wanted to, if I felt it improved the story. A real learning experience—like pretty much everything I did at Charlton.”
That is a common theme you hear from comic book artists who began their careers at Charlton Comics, that it was a really good training ground where they were given an opportunity to hone their skills, helping them gain the experience that later enabled them to obtain more high-profile, better paying work at other companies such as Marvel and DC Comics.
A few random observations about these six issues:
The scene on the cover to the first issue does not appear in the actual comic book. No doubt it was Byrne’s homage to both the ending of Planet of the Apes and Jack Kirby’s cover for the first issue of his own post-apocalyptic comic book series, Kamandi. Of course, there is a looooong tradition of artists utilizing the ruined Statue of Liberty as a landmark on disaster movie posters and on post-apocalyptic book covers.
Issue #4, the one with the underwater civilization, has some lovely artwork by Byrne & his assistants. The look of the beautiful, graceful Amphibian woman Meri almost seems like a composite of Snowbird and Marrina, two of the characters Byrne would introduce in Alpha Flight a decade later.
There is one aspect of issue #4 which I feel has perhaps not aged well. We are told that the Amphibians, due to their inability to live in the depths of the oceans, created a second race, the Gill-Men. Over centuries the Gill-Men became more vicious & belligerent, eventually turning on the Amphibians. Unlike the Amphibians, the Gill-Men are large, monstrous-looking beings. If you read between the lines, you might come away thinking the Gill-Men were created to be servants or slaves, and that they rebelled against their masters. If that is the case, having them as very clear-cut villains, and making them grotesque compared to the elegant, humanoid Amphibians, feels sort of, well, racist.
Then again, it could be I’m just reading too much into this! After all, in issue #6, our heroes meet the inhabitants of an alternate reality Earth, a civilization of “Beautiful People” who have created a highly advanced utopia. However we quickly learn that this apparent paradise only exists because these Beautiful People have raided other parallel Earths, abducting their inhabitants to serve as slaves. So in this case the supposedly more advanced, attractive culture is very much the villain.
Looking at issue #5, our heroes are captured by a group of military prisoners who have seized control of an abandoned Air Force base. Boyd and Kuno are tied up by the criminals, who intend to have their way with Jill and Ikei, the first women they’ve seen since the nuclear war. Hoping to catch their captors off-guard, Jill and Ikei pretend to be compliant, going so far as to get dolled up in a couple of sexy outfits. I noticed that the dress Byrne has Jill in resembles a couple of the outfits he would draw Colleen Wing wearing just a few years later in the pages of Iron Fist. (Yes, I do notice things like this!)
Doomsday + 1 was apparently cancelled on very short notice by Charlton, as there was a completed seventh issue ready to go when the ax fell in 1976. Fortunately the story “There Will Be Time” did see print soon after, in black & white, in the 4th and 5th issues of the semi-professional fanzine The Charlton Bullseye.
At this point it appears Byrne was intended to take over as the full writer of the feature. In “There Will Be Time” he lays the groundwork for a new direction, as the survivors encounter Stinson Tempest, a time traveler for the 40th Century who becomes stranded in the post-apocalyptic present. It feels like there was a lot of potential to where Byrne planned to take the series, so it’s a shame it was cut short so abruptly.
Plus, y’know, it had dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are always fun.
There is actually one other Doomsday + 1 story, although for many years it was believed lost. Charlton Comics revived Doomsday +1 in 1978 as a six issue reprint title, picking up from the original numbering. At first sales on the revival were good, and Charlton considered running new material. Regular Charlton contributor Tom Sutton was commissioned to write & draw a story to appear in issue #13. Unfortunately sales soon dropped, and the decision was made to once again cancel the book, with Sutton’s story never seeing print.
Years later the original unlettered artwork resurfaced, although Sutton’s script for it had gone missing. Sutton passed away in 2002. Eventually another Charlton veteran, the great Nicola “Nick” Cuti, working from Sutton’s art, wrote an entirely new script. It speaks to both the clarity of the storytelling in Sutton’s artwork and to the immense talent of Cuti’s writing that this new script meshes almost seamlessly with pages drawn over three decades earlier. “The Secret City” was then lettered by Bill Pearson and colored by Donnie Pitchford. At long last it saw print in 2013 in issue #8 of Michael Ambrose’s excellent magazine Charlton Spotlight, published by Argo Press.
Looking at the artwork for “The Secret City,” it appears that Sutton’s original intention was to pick up after the events of Doomsday + 1 #6. Cuti managed to work in references to the events of “There Will Be Time” in his script, definitely placing it after the survivors began working with Stinson Tempest.
As I’ve previously observed from my past looks at Cuti’s excellent writing on E-Man, he is really good at developing realistic characters & relationships. We have no way of knowing how Sutton would have dialogued the series’ quartet, but Cuti takes the opportunity to add some realistic tension to the relationship between Boyd and Ikei.
Reading the original stories, Boyd is definitely a belligerent, trigger-happy individual, ready to start a fight at the drop of a hat (in fact Kuno the supposed “barbarian” often comes across as more careful & strategic-minded than Boyd). In his script for “The Secret City,” Cuti has Ikei expressing disapproval for Boyd’s aggressive attitude, perceiving it as a perpetuation of the warlike mindset that recently led to humanity all but wiping itself out. It definitely gives a certain subtlety & nuance to Sutton’s story, a pulpy affair that sees the quartet fighting against an army of Roman Legionnaire lizard men zipping around in flying saucers!
So, for those of you who are interested in reading Doomsday + 1, where can you find these comic books? Since this was some of John Byrne’s earliest work, near-mint copies of the first six issues tend to be expensive. However, if you don’t mind your comics being a bit dog-eared, you can find less pristine copies for lower prices. Issues #7-12 are reprints, so they’re probably not as much in demand, meaning that may be another way to get these stories without forking over a lot of money.
There is also the seven issue miniseries The Doomsday Squad, published by Fantagraphics in 1986, which reprints the original six issues, as well as “There Will Be Time” in color for the first time. Several of the issues feature brand new cover artwork by legendary artist Gil Kane, who provides his own unique interpretation of the characters.
As for “The Secret City” by Sutton & Cuti, head over to the Argo Press website and order a copy of Charlton Spotlight #8. The issue also features a 2012 interview with Cuti about his Charlton work.
Also, since Doomsday +1 might be the public domain (no one seems to know for certain who, if anyone, currently owns the rights to it) sometimes you can find full issues of the original series posted on blogs & websites. The complete first issue can be read on The Bronze Age of Blogs, if you are so inclined.
One last item: Several years ago John Byrne decided to re-conceptualize Doomsday + 1 from the ground up. The result was the four issue miniseries Doomsday.1 published by IDW in 2013. As Byrne explained:
“I’ve been thinking for some time that I would like to revisit a post-apocalypse kind of scenario, such as was seen in my very first ‘dramatic’ work in comics, but this time without the more obvious fantasy elements of that original series (mermaids, alien robots, frozen mammoths, etc.),” said Byrne. “When bits and pieces of this new series first started to percolate around in my head, I knew almost at once the shape that ‘revisit’ would take; something in the ‘All-New, All-Different’ vein. And the first time I doodled some images of my ‘crew,’ I knew I was there!”
Doomsday.1 sees the Earth ravaged not by nuclear war but by a devastating solar flare. The crew of the International Space Station watches helplessly as nearly the entire surface of the planet is devastated, with billions dying. Following the disaster, the Space Station crew makes their way back to Earth, to the small area within the Western Hemisphere which was spared the worst of the solar storm. Their search for other survivors soon brings them into conflict with the worst of human predators.
This miniseries is extremely grim and downbeat. I also think it’s one of the best things that Byrne has done in a number of years. The somber subject matter very much suits the direction that Byrne’s artwork has developed in over the last couple of decades. It also is a good fit for the darker sensibilities that he has shown in his writing since the early 1990s. I’ve often felt that such material was not a good fit for mainstream super-hero series (I definitely was not fond of what he did to Donna Troy during his run on Wonder Woman) but it feels much more at home in his creator-owned projects such as this and Next Men.
I also appreciated the fact that Byrne writes the characters in Doomsday.1 as fairly intelligent & genre-savvy. In other words, he doesn’t have them acting like idiots solely in order to advance the plot.
So in spite of the similar premises, Doomsday.1 is a very different book from its predecessor. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it. It’s a genuinely riveting story. It’s also an excellent way in which to see how Byrne has grown & developed as a creator, to look at how he depicted the apocalypse in 1975, and how he approached a similar scenario 38 years later in 2013.