Or, INTRODUCTORY TO DESTRUCTORY!
Funny thing: after Hands of the Dragon I'd planned Atlas Comics' Destructor to cover my next few entries of Unearthed, when earlier this week Calamity Jon tackled Destructor on his site, Gone & Forgotten. Go read his article if you'd prefer a few laughs over my ramblings.
From the cover of the Destructor#1, it seems at first glance to be another undistinguished comic book like so much of what was crowding the spinner racks of 1975. The art here is by Larry Lieber & Wally Wood, hence why there's an effort towards Kirby-ish dynamism (Lieber) and a large-busted woman (Wood). It's our first look at the Destructor himself and there's not much you can about a costume such as his; it's rather generic. Even the unique-looking pointed red tips travelling up his brow bring to mind DC's Hawk (he of and the Dove). I think the advantage of a simple super hero costume (such as Destructor's) is that when it's set against a detailed backdrop, it pops out. The disadvantage is that against a bland background, the figure is lost. Where does the Destructor fall? Read on...
The Destructor's debut story "The Birth of a Hero!" (cripes, even the title's generic) is written by Archie Goodwin, penciled by Steve Ditko and inked by Wally Wood - so right there, there's your reason for bothering with this comic. If neither Ditko nor Wood are to your tastes then I can only suggest - perhaps you aren't that interested in comics? Goodwin has not been praised to stratosphere as the two artists have and many of his plaudits are due to his work as an editor. However, he was a truly fine writer as well; I think most Iron Man fans would agree with me that he was that series' first truly fine author. Can these talented men sneak a quality hero past Atlas' publishers? Let us see...
Our setting is the exotic locale of Newark, New Jersey, where mobster Max Raven occupies his time with one hand in his pocket, watching his goons rough someone up. Hm. We meet Jay Hunter, a young delivery boy whose primary job in the Raven mob is to bring his boss the take from their numbers racket. Jay is interested to see them working over one of their own men and follows up this observation by suggesting he could be a bigger help to them. This inspires Raven to have Jay killed, rather than accept Jay into his ranks and get at least a few months of valuable service out of him before finalizing the matter. Raven's a little paranoid to think Jay should die for being ambitious, to put it neatly.
Jay goes to see his scientist father Simon, who disapproves of Jay's lifestyle. Simon believes the serum he's been working on will enhance the senses of whomever ingests it. Jay doesn't believe his father will ever obtain the funding he needs, but their conversation is interrupted by Raven's gunman Blitz, who shoots them both. Dying, Simon gives the serum to Jay, tells him to find something hidden in the lab closet, then perishes. The serum saves Jay's life, granting him a superhuman healing ability, but he's still sent to the hospital, suffering from nightmarish visions (excellently captured by Ditko). Hearing that Jay is alive, Raven has Blitz killed to prevent him from speaking. If this trend continues, Jay may not need to seek revenge on Raven, Raven might obligingly kill off his entire mob!
Jay sneaks out of the hospital and tries to lie low with some friends, but they want nothing to do with him (you can tell the gal above has more ink than pencil in her lines, eh?). Jay winds up hiding in his father's lab, where he accidentally discovers his enhanced abilities also include superhuman strength. In the hidden closet his father mentioned, Jay discovers a costume.
"Bringin' down Raven'll take somethin' more vicious... ...a Smasher, a Destroyer... a Destructor!"
Thus he decides upon is name and begins to strike back against Raven in his costumed identity, using his inside knowledge of the Raven mob to destroy their hideouts. Jay sends messages to Raven where he claims the Destructor is working with him to destroy Raven; the use of a double identity in this situation doesn't quite make sense to me as he's fighting Raven in both guises, but at least it rattles Raven so he wonders who Jay's new friend could be.
The Destructor's continued assaults upon Raven's mob coupled with Jay's constant taunts begins to wear upon Raven's reputation. He decides to call in the Slaymaster! We next witness Slaymaster as he goes into action against a gang in Ohio he'd been hired to kill. The Slaymaster wears normal-looking duds - a suit, sensible shoes, gloves and a quite Ditkoesque hat. He also has a large belt of gadgets (such as a rope), two guns and wears a net-like mask over his face (being Ditko, I'm not quite sure if the mask is supposed to be netting, cloth or perhaps nylon?). It's interesting to note that all of the people Slaymaster slays he shoots in the back; hardly a sporting one, he. Slaymaster accepts Raven's bid to have both the Destructor and Jay killed.
At this point we're halfway through the story and the Destructor thinks back upon his father's death. Perhaps the story was originally intended to be broken up within an anthology, such as Atlas' Thrilling Adventure Stories? The Destructor heads to another of Raven's front companies, the Giant Novelty Co. Wait, seriously? We went from Newark to Gotham City? Entering the factory, the Destructor walks right into the sights of Slaymaster, who successfully strikes our hero twice (the story would probably be over here but for Destructor's healing ability). The Slaymaster calls out to the Destructor, boasting of all the technology at his hands to help hunt the hero. The Destructor has nothing but his own hands and feet for weapons, but this new challenge encourages him to better understand how his powers work; through concentration, he learns how to better pinpoint his enemy's location and train his reflexes to dodge his attacks. It's in this sequence that Ditko finally gets to show off the kind of stylized acrobatics which are his forte. At one point Destructor leaps up and grabs a pipe in the rafters to avoid being seen by Slaymaster, but the noise of doing so gives him away. It's all one great cat-and-mouse contest unti Destructor leaps on him and a gun goes off.
The Slaymaster seemingly returns to Raven to report on the Destructor's death, but it turns out to be the Destructor wearing Slaymaster's clothes. Before Destructor can have his revenge on Raven, Raven's lieutenant Lash bursts in with two gunmen and shoot Raven to death, blaming him for the destruction of their mob. The Destructor roughs up Lash and the others, then reveals his identity to Raven before the mobster dies (his dying thought: cousin Chill said there'd be days like this). Visiting his father's grave, Jay declares it's not enough to simply obtain revenge; he resolves he'll carry on as a hero.
Gosh darn it, I like this comic. Yes, the costume, origin and set-up are very familiar, but it's told well. Goodwin, Ditko and Wood were (in Ditko's case is) masters of comic book storytelling and they make no real missteps in this tale. If Atlas had produced more comics like this - hired experienced talent then stepped out of their way - their reputation might have been a bit better.
Atlas didn't seem to understand what it had here - I mean, this is a class-a creative team, yet they spent their time thumping their chests to remind people Larry Lieber was Stan Lee's brother, or Martin & Chip Goodman claiming credit as "the men who created Marvel Comics." Sure, what history of Marvel Comics would dare omit mention of Chip Goodman? He certainly left an impression on all our minds, unlike that Ditko guy who, oh yeah, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange! Ah, phooey. Atlas deserved to fail.
I realize this will sound like damning with faint praise, but Atlas Comics have a very good selection of advertisements. When you look at a 70s publisher like Charlton, the second-rate ads tend to confirm their status as a second-rate publisher, but Atlas' ads were as good as anything running in Marvel or DC at the time - one of the benefits Martin Goodman enjoyed would have been that rolodex of all the people he worked with at Marvel. Heck, there's an ad for Jim Steranko's Mediascene and I don't recall them running in Marvel titles. That's a pretty good get!
In the next Unearthed: The Destructor#2!