A Second Glance: ‘The Atomic Knights’ (1960)

Ryan Covey

Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing.  It’s impossible to see everything and as a result some things fall through the cracks.  Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time.  Whatever the case these bits of pop cultural refuse were forgotten and are well overdue for A Second Glance.

Last Time on A Second Glance: Wagner the Werewolf (1847)

Silver Age comics are an endless source of bizarre, hilarious books that ran for a few months or a few years before all-but disappearing from the world forever.  Among these oddities, few are as distinctly offbeat as John Broome’s Atomic Knights.

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Taking place shortly after the catastrophic nuclear war of 1986, Atomic Knights concerns the adventures of a sextet of heroes wearing knight’s armor found in a ruined museum.  Something about years of exposure to radiation has affected the molecular structure of the armor making it immune to radiation and various other energy beams.  The Knights protect their home city of Durvale as well as try to rebuild the post-nuclear world to something resembling the way it was.

The Atomic Knights are lead by Gardner Grayle, a former soldier whose main claim to fame pre-war was a newspaper article stating that he was “exactly average.”  There’s Douglas Herald, a former schoolteacher, and his sister Marene who dons the sixth suit of armor because it is too small for a grown man but spends almost every single story minding the homestead and wishing that Gardner would ask her to marry him.  Twin brothers Hollis and Wayne Hobard are former soldiers and have the peculiar ability to build rather sophisticated vehicles, such as gliders and a riverboat, out of whatever junk is lying around.  Scientist Bryndon rounds out the cast and makes up for his lack of a first name with the ability to come up with ridiculously far-fetched “scientific” explanations for all the odd things the Atomic Knights encounter.

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Atomic Knights may seem like a so-bad-it’s-good title but aside from the pandering speech patterns, contrived expository dialogue, and casual sexism which were hallmarks of the era of comics in which these were published, it’s really quite good.  The art (pencils by Murphy Anderson) is pretty good for the time and the stories may be unquestionably silly but there’s a distinct charm to the “anything can happen” kindergarten playground logic of the world.

Radiation causes a group of men to de-evolve into cavemen.  Birdsfoot Treefoil is mutated into human-sized plants that can walk and communicate with telepathy; they also throw exploding berries.  A race of mole people invade the surface using flowers that emit sun-blocking gas, and since they have infrared vision the Knights defeat them with jack o’ lanterns filled with fireflies (because they make light without heat.)  The King of New Orleans rules with an iron fist due to his crew of brainwashed doctors but is thwarted by Jazz music which breaks his spell over the physicians; he is tried for war crimes in a courtroom still wearing his furry Henry the VIII cape.  And of course partway through the series the Knights find a downed space craft containing two Dalmatians that were enlarged to the size of horses due to radiation exposure, the dogs become their mounts.

What works so well about Atomic Knights is that no matter how childishly absurd the stories get, they’re played absolutely straight.  Yet the book never takes itself too seriously, so it never crosses over into parody.  While masquerading as science-fiction, Atomic Knights is pure fantasy and it’s a lot more fun to laugh with it than at it.

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Atomic Knights clearly served as an inspiration for Jack Kirby’s Kamandi the Last Boy and Mark Schultz’s Xenozoic Tales (A.K.A. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs) and in fact the stories were reprinted in the 1970s as an attempt to put them in continuity with Kamandi and Hercules Unbound.  DC even brought Gardner Grayle into the modern DC universe later bringing in the rest of the Atomic Knights as guardians of BlÜdhaven but the newer incarnations lacked the goofy charm of the originals.

If you weren’t sold when I mentioned Dalmatian cavalry then this book probably isn’t for you, but Atomic Knights is a bizarre and delightfully childish series that is long overdue for a proper resurgence.  The complete classic Atomic Knights stories have been collected into a full-color hardback edition by DC comics.

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