During the peak of the 2600 console’s popularity, life Atari and fellow Warner subsidiary DC Comics conducted a little intramural cross promotion in the form of digest-sized “Atari Force” comics bundled in with certain titles, online starting with 1982’s port of Star Raiders and continuing through the 1983 home version of Galaxian.
Written by Roy Thomas & Gerry Conway and illustrated by industry vets Ross Andru and Gil Kane, the comics presented a boilerplate space-opera epic set in the distant future of 2005 AD —
— a time when political upheaval and ecological collapse had reached a point that humanity was forced to entrust its destiny to the folks responsible for making the E.T. video game.
With Mother Earth despoiled past the point of reclaimation, the assorted geniuses at the Atari Institute turned to extradimensional exploration via the Space Needle-inspired starship “Scanner One” as a solution for mankind’s problems.
To this end, they gathered up a sufficiently polyglot crew of wounded souls (led by a big chinned blone dude named “Martin Champion,” of course), kitted them out with matching skintight jumpsuits, and set them loose to find new worlds for humanity to befoul.
In the course of their five-part travels, the Atari Force crossed paths with the insidious Dark Destroyer — a force of generic eeeeevil depicted as a cross between Sauron and a giant space squid — while managing to fulfill their cute mascot quota through the adoption of Hukka, a be-mohawked orange hybrid of lemur, parrot, and the raw stuff of nightmares.
In hindsight, the decision to use comics as an incentive to purchase videogames seems like a case of the tail wagging the dog, especially considering that DC was suffering from both a massive dip in market share and the lingering effects of the massive retrenchment (known as the “DC Implosion”) that rocked the publisher in the late 1970s. Atari, on the other hand, was sitting pretty in its precarious (and temporary) position of being the most profitable component of Warner’s media empire.
In contrast, the more logical notion of using Atari’s marketplace muscle to bolster the visibility and popularity of DC’s underperforming properties was essentially ignored apart from the release of the Superman 2600 game, which had more to do with the success of the movie franchise than a decision to goose comic book sales.
Yet as odd as the joint marketing strategy may have been, the “Atari Force” concept was successful enough (it did get convince my geeky younger self to spring for a couple games I would have otherwise passed on purchasing) for it to be spun off into a monthly ongoing series which launched at the end of 1983.
The storyline of the monthly Atari Force comic picked up a quarter century after the events of the pack-in stories, with a balding, pipe-smoking Martin Champion obsessing over the possible return of the Dark Destroyer (recast as a horn-helmeted Vader-style baddie) while the complacent residents of New Earth dismissed his warnings as the sad delusions of a embittered old man.
After his worst fears were confirmed, Champion took a page out of the Star Trek III playbook and swiped the mothballed Scanner One, setting out to put a end to Double-D’s vague brand of evil with the assistance of a couple of superpowered Atari Force offspring (Champion’s headband-rocking, teleporting estranged son Chris and the precognitive Irish-Chinese-Indian mercenary Dart) and a motley crew of familiar alien archetypes. (Hukka also returned, just in case anyone in the audience deluded themselves into thinking that he or she lived in a just and fair universe.)
Here’s the thing: As goofy as the above summary may have made the monthy Atari Force series sound, the comic was actually really good — not “good for what it is” or “good in a campy way,” just straight-up, no-qualifiers-necessary “good.”
Critics of those pre-comics internet times thought so, too. Atari Force made it onto the 1984 Eagle Awards (remember those?) list of “Ten Best Series of 1984” — a remarkable feat for a (technically) licensed property — and it was cited (along with New Teen Titans, Saga of the Swamp Thing, and, uh, Blue Devil) as a hopeful sign that DC was on the cusp of a creative resurgence.
As I mentioned in my Nobody’s Favorites post about Robotech: Defenders, most of DC’s many attempts at taking on sci-fi in the 1970s and 1980s tended to be two-dimensional riffs on the contemptibly familiar Seven Samurai/Dirty Dozen tropes. The creative teams of Gerry Conway/Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (who oversaw the initial epic plot arc) and Mike Baron/Eduardo Barretto (who guided the book from the main story’s aftermath to the conclusion of the series) took a fairly shopworn premise and made it shine with strong characterizations and razor-sharp visuals that transcended the typical generic comic-book “futurism” of the era.
The series ran for a total of twenty issues (plus a follow-up one-shot consisting of side stories and prequel material) and concluded with a clear and satisfying resolution for most of the major plot points. While DC editorial insisted this had been the plan for Atari Force from the start, more perceptive (and cynical) souls have wondered if the cancellation was tied into Warner’s efforts to divest themselves of the financial millstone Atari had become after the Great Crash. (The owner of my local comic shop at the time called it early on, stating that Atari Force was an exceptional comic doomed by a faddish license.)
As much as I’d love to have a full color reprint collection of the entire run, the Byzantine revenue maximizing associated with licensing these days puts the possibility of that ever happening in the slim to none range. (Then again, Marvel did manage to snag a single print run deal for an Essential collection of its ’70s Godzilla book, so who knows?) It’s a shame, because Atari Force was one of the few high points of DC’s early 1980s pre-Crisis period.
Even though Atari Force sprung from a marketing scheme for 2600 software, the only actual videogame reference to the franchise was in an arcade-only title, Liberator, a reverse version of Missile Command released in 1982 which featured appearances by an off-model Martin Champion and was promoted in DC Comics Presents #53 with an “exclusive” bonus story featuring the exploits of the stupidest space-artilleryman in the history of space-artillery.