But why rely on heresay evidence? Why not spend some of my hard-earned money and experience Atlas for myself? There are two possible scenarios:
- It transpires that I find Atlas Comics rather good and their negative qualities exaggerated.
- It transpires that I find Atlas Comics tremendously bad and perhaps entertainingly so.
Let's hope there's no third option: relentlessly tiresome. Let's turn back to June, 1975 and Hands of the Dragon!
Atlas' covers certainly look a lot like the contemporary covers issued by Marvel at the time, eh? In their ads, Atlas were all-too happy to invite comparisons to Marvel (such as calling themselves "the New House of Ideas") and perhaps they hoped readers might pick up an Atlas book by assuming it were one of Marvel's. They truly were the Asylum of comics, eh? They pinned their hopes on readers overlooking the publisher's name on the topper.
Between the young orange-skinned fellow with black hair, red slacks and bare feet appearing beneath a series titled "Hands," one can assume this series was intended to be the "mockbuster" of Marvel's Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu (who also appeared in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu). If the art seems particularly like something from MoKF, it's worth noting this book's artist, Canada's own Jim Craig, went on to draw MoKF after Paul Gulacy exited that series. To that extent, you could consider Hands of the Dragon the resume which won him his later job.
Of course, Craig wasn't a particularly well-liked MoKF artist and he would later be overshadowed by his fellow Canadian and former collaborator on Orb magazine, Gene Day. A tangled web, indeed. Still, this is like finding a lost issue of Master of Kung Fu.
The cover blurb declares, "From the holocaust of an atomic explosion comes the toughest kng fu fighter of them all!" Please remember those words.
We open on a splash page of the masked kung fu hero the Dragon battling a tattooed man with a machine gun. The story has no title, it's simply "The Hands of the Dragon." The writer is Ed Fedory, not someone I'm familiar with, although the Grand Comics Database identifies him as writing plenty of horror stories for Skywald.
The story flashes back to Japan, World War II. An old man is journeying home to China with twin infant boys strapped to his back - his grandsons. Just as the old man passes near Mount Fuji, a bomb dropped there long ago suddenly detonates and although the grandfather avoids death, he's flashed by the radiation and one of his grandsons receives facial burns.
Wow, how messed up is that previous paragraph?
First we've got an old man heading home to China by way of Mount Fuji. So, he began his journey to the west - by walking east? I mean, there totally is access to the sea nearby, as the story claims, but he'll have to sail halfway around Japan before he can continue to China. Next, although the bomb is not expressly dubbed an atomic bomb, what else could it be? It generates radiation, deliver burns - and, as I noted, is referred to as such on the cover - totally an atomic bomb. So, uh, I guess that clumsy US Air Force dropped a third atomic bomb we didn't hear about 'cause it went off late?
Anyway, the grandfather finds his strength has increased, something the narrator attributes to the radiation. So, okay, if we're obeying comic book science where radiation is magical (and makes you stronger rather than weaker) perhaps I should stop asking these questions? Yet the old man sails to China in a mere fishing boat. That's not an easy voyage at the best of times! Not only did he choose the long around to China, he had to travel through a sea notorious for smashing ships! Heck, the Japanese revered the stormy weather surrounding the Sea of Japan precisely because it discouraged more than one attempted invasion from China. Yet this old man improbably sails clear through!
Oh, but it gets better. Here's the kicker: not content to journey into China during a time of serious unrest, he then walks to the Himalayas. Well, why not? Also, he fights a polar bear barehanded. Sure, let's go with it. Perhaps this entire story up to now is just the greatest put-on since Baron Munchausen (more like Baron Mun-Chow-San, amiright? forgive me).
Grandpa Munchausen brings his grandsons to a monastery and reunites there with old friends. We finally learn grandpa's name is Teh Chang. He lost his family in the war as is determined to protect his remaining grandsons. He fears for the one deformed by the radiation burns, though a monk remarks "As long as his spirit is pure, it is of no importance." Yeah, I mean, c'mom, what do you think this is? Some simplistic story where people become evil just because they lack conventional good looks?
Years go by; the grandson with conventional good looks - Wu Teh - grows to become a strong, disciplined, pure-hearted fellow. However, the scarred grandson - Ling - has grown ruthless and Teh Chang is bothered that Ling often goes to meet with Dr. Nhu. There's no explanation as to what it is about Dr. Nhu which upsets grandpa so. Supposedly Ling's outer scars have led to an inner corruption but I'm hard-pressed to even identify Ling's physical scars - the art's not selling it here. As a demonstration of Ling's ruthlessness, we see him roughing up someone else in the monastery. When Wu Teh intervenes, Ling attacks him with a spear, vowing to disfigure his brother. They clash and when Ling throws the spear, Teh Chang shoves his grandson out of the way, resulting in a fatal wound to his chest. Ling flees the monastery. Wu Teh vows revenge but, dying, Teh Chang insists his grandson not seek revenge on Ling.
Several more years go by; using the gold of the Himalayas, Wu Teh evidently becomes the Count of Monte Cristo and funds his journalism studies in southern California, never ceasing to search for his brother. Yet more time passes and Wu Teh becomes a TV anchorman, hoping the news may lead him to Ling. Much like Clark Kent, our hero relies on the news media to find trouble - or, in this instance, his missing brother. Given that his brother is the focus of his life, maybe instead of spending years in school to become a journalist he might have spent his time more proftiably by pursuing a career as a private detective or government agent? It's a pretty big gamble to think Ling is going to turn up in the news reports of a southern California TV station, isn't it?
The narrator claims when Wu Teh finds Ling it will "launch him toward the fulfillment of the vow he made to his dying grandfather!" The vow his grandfather expressly pleaded he not pursue? Great job honouring your dying grandfather, hero.
One day, Wu Teh is interrupted from his daily chore of convincing spellcheck his surname isn't a typo when his beautiful co-worker Nicky happens to show him photographs of Japan's prime minister and he recognizes a tattooed hand which can only belong to Dr. Nhu, whom, despite being a major character, has thus far only appeared on the splash page. Still, we know he's associated with Ling, whom Wu Teh is suddenly calling "the Cobra" as though this had always been his alias. Leaving the newsroom, Wu Teh dons his masked costume and sets off as the Dragon, realizing Dr. Nhu must be scouting the prime minister's movements with an intent to strike at the minister's public address at the university, where he'll be speaking on the subject of an international police force, something Dr. Nhu would be against.
So the Dragon sneaks into the university theatre. Yup, a public address definitely requires the use of stealth. As the prime minister tries to begin his speech, he's interrupted by a hippie who complains about Japan's whaling industry, much to the annoyance of the crowd. However, the Dragon admits "The boy's got some good ideas" (said "boy" has silvery white hair). You see, counter-culture? Atlas is on your side!
Dr. Nhu emerges from the crowd, having disguised his features beneath a caucasian mask. He pulls out a machine gun as the Dragon attacks him, attempting to save the prime minister (at this point one notes Dr. Nhu's tattoos change shape and colours between panels). However, while the Dragon beats Dr. Nhu, the Cobra walks up and shoots the prime minister. Somehow, he does through the crosshairs of a scope on his pistol, even though there's no scope visible on the gun, which is, after all, a pistol, not a rifle. The Dragon tries to pursue Ling, but the minister's security guards attack him and one shoots him in the back. The Dragon crawls away.
The hippie proves to be a med student and intervenes in time to stabilize the prime minister. He goes to a hospital and survives surgery, but is weakened; to ensure his survival, the Dragon breaks into the minister's hospital room and opens the medallion from around his chest (he inherited it from his grandfather), which releases some kind of formula which saves the minister's life. The Dragon exits the hospital; Dr. Nhu and the Cobra are both on the loose and somehow he'll have to pick up their trails again.
Hands of the Dragon opens with an origin story which is, as covered above, ludicrous. From the lousy geography, comic book science and tired tropes about scars turning people evil, it's handled very amateurishly. Once the real story begins in contemporary times, it's an inoffensive, typical 70s adventure hero story. What's missing from this comic?
- Some sense of the bond between Wu Teh and Ling, who are only ever shown as rivals; unlike, say, the origin of Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe, which told a similar story about friends falling out over a relative's death, but first went to the trouble of establishing the relationship!
- Some idea of who Dr. Nhu is, what his philosophies are and why they win Ling over to his side.
- At least a glimmer of an idea as to why Wu Teh decides to dress up in a mask whlie chasing Ling.
There would have been more space to flesh out Wu Teh & Ling's relationship, sketch out who Dr. Nhu is and give Wu Teh a compelling reason to be a super hero if only the preposterous travels of Grandpa Munchausen had been omitted. Heck, the story could have begun with the setup to the attack on the prime minister and covered the backstory in a brief flashback if need be.
Look again to Master of Kung Fu - Steve Englehart & Jim Starlin's initial story established the character of Shang-Chi, his devotion to his father, the fracturing of that trust when he learns how cruel his father truly is, Shang turning against his father, fending off his father's men, then declaring from then on, they would be enemies. If you aspire to ape the success of Marvel, you might at least pay attention to how their stories are structured and characters developed.
However, not every comic started out fully-formed; Martin Goodman himself might recall how Marvel's Incredible Hulk failed to find an audience on the first attempt. Now that the Dragon has been embellished, his storytelling engine developed, we can simply move on to the next story in the series.
Next time: "Dragonkill!" in Hands of the Dragon#... wait a minute, that's it? They cancelled Hands of the Dragon after the first issue?
There you have a recurring problem with Atlas - the follow-up. So many titles ended after one issue, or changed into a radically different series by the 2nd issue. Hands of the Dragon falls into the former category. There is no more of it. So next time... next time I'll look at a different Atlas title and see if it isn't a little more palatable.