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A Brief History of the Atomic Knights, Part I

I mentioned the sheer radioactive madness of the Atomic Knights before, but I didn’t really have a chance to go into a lot of detail. At the time, I said that it was “one of my all-time favorite little corners of the DC Universe.“

But what I didn’t say was that it starts with a band of survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland discovering armor that protects them from radiation and attacking a warlord hoarding food, and goes downhill from there.

By “downhill,” obviously, I mean uphill. Except the hill is made out of crystallized lunacy, and every issue sends these guys hurtling a little higher.

Some Brief Background on the Atomic Knights

First, some background. The Atomic Knights were created by John Broome (creator of the modern Green Lantern Corps and the character of Hal Jordan) and prolific penciller and inker Murphy Anderson in 1960. It originally ran as a story in Strange Adventures, lasting 15 issues, during which they traveled all over a post-apocalyptic America (and Atlantis, but that comes later).

The Atomic Knights lay dormant for a few years until Cary Bates brought them back as guest stars in the pages of Hercules Unbound, which had the interesting side effect of cementing them firmly into the larger world the “Great Disaster” stories, which included Jack Kirby’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.

The Atomic Knights would go unused for another few years before showing up in a fairly definitive 1983 issue of DC Comics Presents, where it was revealed that…

Well. That will have to come later.

I’m breaking this down into several parts:

  1. Part One (that’s this one!) will deal with the first half of the original adventures of the Knights.
  2. Later, we’ll take a look at some of their more kooky encounters with mole men and talking plants,
  3. followed by a history of the Hercules Unbound series, with emphasis on the crossover.
  4. We’ll also deal with the 1983 appearance, and might touch briefly on their post-Crisis appearance on the crime-ridden streets of Bludhaven.

Anyway–on to the Knights!

A Brief History of the Atomic Knights, Part 1: Something More Than Average

One of the key precepts of storytelling is “start as close to the action as possible.” Atomic Knights takes that and runs with it, opening on a scene of five men in full-plate armor ramming a door while being shot with laser guns.

It’s not exactly Escape from New York, but as cold opens go, it’s pretty classy.

Talk about setting a mood. It took six issues for the New 52 Justice League to fight Darkseid. These guys are in a post-apocalytpic siege on page one.

Anyway, we cut to a scene of a man in green running from a mob. This gentleman is our hero, Gardner Grayle, a soldier who had a brief flirtation with fame once it was discovered he was “mentally and physically exactly average!”

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s not exactly “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men,” but you know. You’re in a nuclear-ravaged wasteland. You take what you can get.

Gardner is nice enough to tell us about “the Atomic War” of 1986 which “only lasted twenty days!” While I think twenty days is about nineteen days longer than a REAL nuclear war would last, I get the point: the world’s gone to hell.

After a quick flashback, we meet the next hero in this narrative: Douglas Herald, a schoolteacher. Gardner sees that Herald is being set upon by bandits, and while he knows nothing about Herald, he knows a LOT about punching:

It really is the universal language.

Things really star to pick up now, as the beaten gang throws a radiation grenade. We know Gardner and Herald are in trouble because Gardner tells us so, but the two men dive behind some medieval suits of armor (I’ve always assumed they were in the ruins of a museum, but maybe not. This IS the Midwest. I’ve spent a little time out there, and I didn’t happen to see a suit of armor on every street corner–but maybe they were behind the sagebrush and pronghorn).

Anyway, lo and behold, Gardner and Herald are unharmed, thanks to the first little bit of dubious science we’re going to encounter:

Seems legit.

That’s riight, I said FIRST. We’re not done, not by a long shot.

Anyway, Gardner and Herald decide that if they have nuke-proof armor, they might as well suit up and take on the Black Baron. You know. As one does.

The Black Baron is the local Immortan Joe in this particular version of Mad Max, and he’s been hoarding food and generally being a jerk, as post-apocalyptic warlords tend to be. He’s exactly the kind of guy who could use some steel-plated justice in the face, but the resistance currently consists of a teacher and the most average man alive. Not exactly the 2015 Golden State Warriors. Thus, a recruitment drive!

To make a long story short, the Atomic Knights get a few new warm bodies: twin brothers Wayne and Hollis Hobard and scientist Bryndon Smith (and eventually, in a twist that should surprise no one, Douglas’ sister, Marene).

I’ll skip ahead of the big battle–it goes about as well you you’d expect, and by the end, the Knights have set themselves up as representatives of law and order in their little town. This also establishes the status quo for the rest of the series; the Knights are the baddest (and, most of the time, only) gunslingers around, so they regularly get requests of aid from other establishments.

Everything’s pretty standard so far.

That is, until the mole men show up.

But I think that will have to wait until the next installment: Click here for Part 2.