Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Atari Force: The Mother and Child Reunion Is Only a Multiverse Away

I don't usually do this. This blog is supposed to be about, first, the Legion, and second, superheroes in general. But now I'm going to discuss a comic book which doesn't have a single thing to do with superheroes. It is the late, lamented Atari Force, a science fiction comic DC put out in the early '80s. It's been one of my all-time favourites since it first came out, and I thought I'd reread it to see if I had anything to say about it that's not covered here. Turns out, I do! And I'm gonna go ahead and say it, because Atari Force is one of the great lost comic book classics, and somebody has to speak up for it.

(By the way, I'm going to spoil all kinds of things here about the story, so if you think you might want to read the comic for yourself, and you like surprises, well, I warned you.)

Some background on just what we're talking about here. Atari was the big home video game company of the early '80s. Atari and DC decided that they could conquer the world if they worked together, so they came up with some little giveaway science fiction comics to include in with Atari video games. (I haven't read any of them, but somewhere I absorbed the notion that they're not very good.) Among these comics were a few, four or five, about an intrepid group called the Atari Force. (In this context, ATARI was an acronym standing for 'Advanced Technology and Research Institute'.) This group consisted of Martin Champion (the commander), Lydia Perez (the pilot of their multiverse scout ship, Scanner One), Mohandas Singh (technology guy), Li San O'Rourke (security) and Dr. Lucas Orion. Their mission was to search the multiverse for a new home for humanity, since Earth had been ecologically ravaged and used up. Well, after some adventures that included fighting and defeating the terrifying Dark Destroyer and making a new friend in the little lizard-bird the Hukka, they found one, a sylvan paradise that became New Earth, where humanity could live in peace happily ever after. Those were the original mini-comics, and they aren't what I'm talking about. (There was also a preview of sorts included in an issue of New Teen Titans. I’ve read it, and: don’t bother.)

DC eventually decided to publish a new monthly series of Atari Force, with a story taking place a couple of decades after the mini-comics. It was an artistic success (Comic Buyer’s Guide named it one of the ten best comic books of 1984) and a modest commercial success. It was cancelled after 20 issues, not because people weren't buying it, but because the creators had come to the end of the story they wanted to tell. I agree with their assessment: the 20th issue ended in a way that was both satisfying and symbolically appropriate. DC put out an Atari Force Special a while later, with a few stories that were still lying around. All three stories in the Special were good, but didn't really add anything important to the 20-issue arc of the monthly series.

The first 13 issues of Atari Force were written by Gerry Conway, and Mike Baron finished up the last 7. Near as I can tell, Baron was either communicating with Conway or was of much the same mind as Conway about what the story was about, because the storyline and themes continue seamlessly from Conway's run through Baron's. Atari Force is famous for being one of José Luis García-López's early projects, and García-López did a great job over the first 12 issues, after which Eduardo Barreto did the last 8 with no perceptible drop in quality. But to me, one of the real stars of the creative team was letterer Bob Lappan, who outdid himself not just with the regular text but also supplied dozens of word balloons done in convincing alien alphabets. Seriously--if you have access to any of these comics, go back and look at what a fine job Lappan did.

Here's the plot, in extremely condensed form, of the 20-issue run of the Atari Force monthly series. A middle-aged Martin Champion, convinced that the Dark Destroyer is still out there causing trouble somewhere, assembles a bizarre team of aliens and descendants of the original Atari Force. They steal Scanner One out of a New Earth museum and hunt down the Dark Destroyer, having some adventures along the way. They defeat the Destroyer, but not before the Destroyer's dark-matter bomb destroys the universe next door. They have more adventures, but eventually make it home to New Earth, where they are put on trial for stealing Scanner One. They are found guilty, but escape, and set off to make their own futures far away from New Earth.

That's just the bare bones; I skipped over all the stuff that makes it cool. And until just recently, I thought that that was what Atari Force was about. Space adventure, Dark Destroyer, starships and rayguns and teleportation. But that's not what it's really about! You know what it's really about?


What we've got here is twenty issues of a sci-fi adventure comic book dedicated to the proposition that the mother-child relationship is an overwhelmingly important one, and one that can't be faked or substituted for. When it comes to mothers, it's the real thing or it's nothing. (And it's shocking how obvious it is, now that I see it! It's all over the place! I want to ask, "How could they be so blatant about their hidden levels of story and stuff?" but, let's face it, it took me over two decades to notice it, so I guess it's just like I figured here: comic book readers never get any of the hidden stuff. We're really bad at this.)

Now, many of the comic-book-related blogs I read regularly have a strong feminist point of view, and I've learned a thing or two from reading them. So when I realized that mothers were the main theme of Atari Force, the first thing I asked myself was, "And is there a cast of strong female characters to carry this theme?" I am happy to report that the answer is yes. I'll have more to say about them individually as this article goes on, but the list includes Dart, a psychic mercenary who's sexy when it's time to be sexy and who will shoot your ass dead when it's time to shoot your ass dead; Taz, a widowed alien freedom fighter; Morphea, the insectile Canopian psychiatrist who finds herself having to take on the unfamiliar-to-her-species role of 'individual'; Fera, the jewel thief; Professor Lucia Venture, who tries to do right by Martin Champion's son Chris when nobody else will; Justice Tovah, who has to oversee a case that presents complications she couldn't possibly be ready for; and Dart's mom Li San O'Rourke, who, although in retirement from the original Atari Force, hasn't forgotten a thing about breaking heads. Really, the only weak female character is Melissa, the spoiled rich chickiepoo who sells Chris Champion down the river. They don't dress scantily and they're of different physical types, not all meant to appeal to the adolescent male gaze: Dart is comic-book-pretty but no kind of pinup, Morphea is pleasant enough to look at in an elongated and buglike way, and Taz is squat and homely.

(Furthermore, none of these women are ever forced into damsel-in-distress roles. In fact, they're the ones who do the rescuing. If there is someone who always needs rescuing, it's Chris Champion, who could be mistaken for the hero of the book. The women are also not just appendages of male characters: Dart may be Blackjak's lover, but she's the stronger of the two. Blackjak is kind of an appendage to Dart.)

The comic book portrays quite a few mother-child relationships, healthy and not, and they come in all different shapes. The healthiest are probably these two:

Dart, whose real name is Erin Bia O'Rourke Singh, is the daughter of Mohandas Singh and Li San O'Rourke of the original Atari Force. She's still close to both of them. It's probably no coincidence that Dart is the most together person in the comic book. Sure, she has some problems in her relationship with Blackjak, who turned out to be a weaker person than she thought he was, but she doesn't have any issues.

Taz is the only survivor of a war on some random planet that Scanner One briefly stopped at while looking for the Dark Destroyer. Her mate was killed in this war, and she cast her lot with Atari Force. They didn't know that she was either female or pregnant until much later, though, and she eventually gave birth to an extensive litter of infant deus-ex-machina technical geniuses called the Tazlings.

The Taz-Tazlings relationship not only allowed us to see the warmer side of Taz, but it also gave us the first sign of humanity from Rident, the implacable Atari Security officer. The first thing he said in the whole run of the comic book that didn't relate to throwing somebody in the clink was his congratulations to Taz. Seeing Taz with the kids seemed to change Rident; he was a much nicer guy after that.

On the other hand, Morphea was raised in an impersonal creche environment in which she was just one of many children of the same mother. It wasn't much of a nurturing environment at all. When she was in combat with the Dark Destroyer's telepathic torturer Psyklops, she had to psychically confront her mother (in her memory) about her upbringing in order to access her own power and individuality and defeat Psyklops.

Because of this upbringing, Morphea really isn't that familiar with conventional motherhood. And yet that's the position she's forced into in Atari Force: she's been assigned as Martin Champion's psychiatrist, to make sure that the cheese hasn’t all fallen off his cracker. Obviously, this is a nurturing role. And then she also has to take a more directly maternal role with Babe, the young Eggite whom she rescued from slavery. She does her best, but it's not enough: Babe still wants to go home to his real mother.

Babe is from the planet Egg, where the dominant life forms are mountains. Literally. They're giant stone crouching figures who never move at all. The mountain people of Egg reproduce by landslides, again literally. This is established in a little backup solo story about Babe's early years, in which we see the very very young Babe lying on a ledge on the side of such a mountain, blissfully sleeping in what's essentially his mother's embrace. Then there's a rockslide, and Babe is on the ground. He wanders around and has an adventure, at the end of which he's sleeping on one of his mother's ledges again... until the next rockslide. The Eggite life-cycle seems to be a three-stage one: 1) a young Eggite forms as a boulder budded off from his mother, and eventually falls off to the ground. 2) the Eggite wanders around the planet for some years, growing gradually to mountain size. 3) the Eggite goes dormant and becomes a mountain, eventually producing young Eggites of its own.

(I've been calling Babe 'he' and 'him', but if I'm right about how Eggites work, Babe is probably actually asexual. The name 'Babe' is suggestive, what with all this discussion of motherhood, but there's a much more obvious reason for his name: he looks like a big blue ox.)

Both Babe's and Morphea's upbringings are normal for their species, but are nonetheless portrayed as unsatisfactory. Morphea has no warm feelings at all about her mother. Babe does, but still his mother was powerless to prevent his capture by slavers. This comic book is about human motherhood and its value. Therefore, alien maternal relationships are written so as to show the human model to best advantage. Taz is also an alien, but her portrayal as a mother is positive, I guess because the family structure of her species is pretty similar to that of humans.

There are two major Atari Force characters for whom there are no issues relating to motherhood: Pakrat and the Hukka. The Hukka is pretty much just a sidekick or mascot to the team, but he does appear in quite a few solo backup stories (which are among the best things about the comic book! They're funny! ("Mukka mossman.")) in which his preoccupation is not finding his mother but about finding a friend. Hukka's important relationships are all friendships or attempted friendships--with Chris Champion, with Babe, and with a variety of unsuitable alien critters.

Pakrat is a furry-maned cowardly sneak thief who becomes savage when cornered. He stowed away on Scanner One to try to get away from his brother, the Atari Security agent Rident. Rident is ashamed of Pakrat and wants nothing more than to lock him up in the crowbar saloon, and that's the important relationship for Pakrat: with his brother. However, there is one scene where Pakrat and Rident are arguing, and Pakrat breaks out the old Smothers Brothers punchline, "Mother always liked me best!"

All of this just clears the side issues and subplots out of the way, though. The main mother-child dynamic of the book tangles up the central characters of Martin Champion, his wife Lydia Perez, his son Chris, and the Dark Destroyer. And I may need some help getting through this part, because it brings in some Freudian stuff that I'm really not conversant with. And there's one part that I'm not sure what to make of at all.

Maybe the best way to do this is to start with a chronology of the relevant events.

1. The original Atari Force fights and defeats the Dark Destroyer, a horrible giant psychic tentacled space monster. The Destroyer ejects a pod of organic material containing its life-essence just before it gets blown to smithereens, so that it can live to fight another day.

2. The Destroyer decides to take revenge against the Atari Force in general and Martin Champion in specific.

3. Martin Champion and Lydia Perez marry and conceive a son. Due to Lydia's exposure to the multiverse, the son, Chris, will develop teleportation, or 'phasing' powers.

4. Chris is born. The Dark Destroyer secretly psychically drains Lydia's life-energy during the childbirth, killing her, while also taking genetic information from Martin Champion.

5. The Dark Destroyer uses Lydia's energy and Martin's genetic info (and biological matter hijacked from a swamp creature in the middle of giving birth) to fashion itself a new body. It then goes out and starts to recruit an army and stuff.

6. Martin locks himself into a research and observation post at the Atari Institute, suspecting that the Dark Destroyer is still out there. Chris is left in the care of the scientists who want to study his phasing power. The two never get along; Martin blames Chris for Lydia's death.

7. Martin forms a new Atari Force, including Chris, to go after the Dark Destroyer. When they find it, it's in humanoid form and is a perfect duplicate of a younger Martin Champion.

Okay, so, some points about that. First, the thing that keeps Martin and Chris apart is the lack of the all-important mother figure, Lydia, who was taken from them by the Destroyer. Professor Venture does her best to be a mother to Chris, but since she's not his real mother, it's not enough. But look: one of the things Chris inherited was his multiverse-spanning phasing power. He got that from the multiverse itself, and the Dark Destroyer is a creature of the multiverse. And a female creature at that, if only symbolically. Aren't all these giant tentacle-monsters supposed to be female symbols? (This is where I need help.) My idea here is that the Destroyer is trying to usurp Lydia's role, but can't, because, again, nobody can.

Actually, though, it'd make some sense if the Destroyer was symbolically male as a tentacle-monster, because that would mean that it's trying to usurp Martin's role, which is consistent with its taking Martin's appearance. (When you'd think that maybe the Destroyer could even be trying to usurp Chris, because after all it takes something from both Martin and Lydia, and is therefore their child. But never mind that.) It would also explain why the Destroyer was such a male symbol as a Martin Champion clone: bullet-shaped helmet, with horns; phallic henchmen like Kargg the bull-creature, and Blackjak, and Psyklops (the one-eyed monster, after all... hey, wait. Blackjak is one-eyed too. Is Blackjak a counterpart of Psyklops?)... if the Destroyer starts as female then I don't get that at all.

So I dunno about that part. I do know that Lydia's absence is the thing that messes up the Champions, and Prof. Venture can't help. The Destroyer was trying to shove its way in there somewhere, but its role is negative, whoever it was symbolically trying to replace.

(Another thought I just had. The Atari symbol is three lines, converging at the top, diverging at the bottom. Can we read this here as the father-mother-child trinity? Or is that too much?)

Now, the ending. When Atari Force returns to New Earth, they're attacked by a war robot that's obviously built on principles learned from Atari's study of Chris's phasing powers. Martin is shocked and appalled to find that Atari and New Earth are doing weapons research. See... this comic came out in the early '80s. It was created by Baby Boomers. And what that means is that New Earth was thought up as the ultimate hippie commune, based on what my history teacher summed up as 'peace, love and the farm'. So weapons research and arms dealing are very much a betrayal of the principles of the place. And that's mostly why our heroes leave New Earth forever at the end of the series, because they know now that it's not the right place for them.

And where do they go? They return to Old Earth. Because look: the Earth is the ultimate maternal symbol, and the message of this comic book is that when it comes to your mother, no substitutes will ever be adequate. Conway and/or Baron were sharp enough to spot the only appropriate ending: for the characters to stop trying to make things work with New Earth, the inadequate substitute, and to reunite with Old Earth, their real mother. Sure, it's been damaged ecologically, but it's still humanity's only true home, and it's only here that everybody's stories can end. (See also Heinlein's short story, "The Green Hills of Earth".) Even aliens like Babe and Hukka and Pakrat and Taz and Morphea: the Earth may not be part of their past, but we've already established that alien mothers are no substitute for human mothers, so alien planets aren't a substitute for the Earth either, and symbolically it's the true home they never knew they were missing.

(It’s tempting to say that maybe that’s what the whole book was about, that every time some maternal symbol or mother-related character point showed up, that it was just a stand-in for the human race’s in-comic literal alienation from Earth (and its real-life symbolic alienation from Earth, in the form of ecological damage). Tempting. But since New Earth actually seems like a really nice place right up until the war robot shows up, I’m going to have to conclude that that’s probably not what Conway and Baron had in mind.)

That's the sensible place to end Atari Force's story. And on the one hand I believe and accept that. On the other hand I miss these characters and want to read more about them. It's probably not going to happen, though; I heard Dan DiDio say at a con about Atari Force that it was a great comic book and DC would totally reprint it if they could get the rights. So if they can't reprint existing stories, new stories don't seem too likely. As long as there's a chance, though...

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Blogger Michael said...

Garcia-Lopez was actually working for Charlton in the late 60's and DC by the mid-70's, so this was not his early work. He remains, however, probably my second-favorite Superman artist behind Curt Swan.

Here's a checklist that I helped work on about a decade ago, and would you believe that I also helped out on that Atari Force page you linked to early in your post? Great minds think alike, apparently.

PS, somewhere in there is a timeline. Dart was born early last month, and we missed it.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks for telling me about Garcia-Lopez; I didn't know that. I was just going on the scanty information in his wikipedia entry.

I was just looking at that timeline yesterday (it's accessible from that link) and saw Dart's birth on it. I can't help thinking we should have sent a card or something.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Marc Burkhardt said...

Great post on Atari Force. Although I was disappointed to see the story end, like ROM I was glad that the story at least HAD an end instead of just lingering on and on forever until no one cares anymore.

Hope DC gets the rights to reprint the stories someday ...

1:07 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Well, that one site I linked to (and that Michael said he contributed to--small world) says that the characters are listed as copyright DC in some comics, and copyright Atari in other comics. And that Atari Force is a lapsed trademark of Atari. That, to me, sounds like a complicated situation, and I'm not sure either company would consider it worth their time to unravel it.

But the back issues are out there, kids! I went to a convention last year and saw the whole set, including the Special, all bagged up together for... about $20 Canadian? Something like that.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read this series when it was originally being published, but I do have fond memories of a hysterically funny story called "Hukka vs. the Bob," which was reprinted in one of the Best of the Year digests DC used to publish. Good stuff.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

That was the best one. It was in the back of #20. Keith Giffen.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matthew,
Bravo, Friend! Bravo! I never read Atari Force, and now, I'm rather sad I haven't. One of the things I work on, academically, is the concept of monstrous maternity (i.e. Bad Moms), so this was just great to read, from a million different standpoints :)

9:29 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Thanks. Like I said, if you're interested, the back issues are out there...

10:06 AM  
Blogger Chris Arndt said...

You are wrong.

The original Atari Force comics were quite good, looking through my nostalgia vision.
Beyond that, even if their story/plot/dialogue or SOMETHING sucked, the fact is that the art in the original Atari Force comics is amazing.

11:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atari Force is one of my favorite comic books and I really enjoyed reading your analysis.

You mentioned feminism influencing your understanding of comics--it is difficult to find comics that I can actually enjoy because so many embody the sexism and misogyny so enmeshed in our culture. Atari Force, surprisingly I think, is an exception and one that I really enjoy.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful insights on the comic.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey there

i so loved ATARI FORCE. I was interested to hear that DC doesn;t own the rights to it. Does anyone wknow who does? I only ask because as an artist and fledgling writer i would love to make a sequel to the Atari Force, in fact i have already scripted out the first issue and redesigned/updated the characters.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

matt: Thanks very much.

eddy: If you look at the comics themselves, I think what you'll find is that some of the content is owned by DC, or was, and some is owned by Atari, or was. I think I heard somewhere that a trademark has lapsed or something. Basically I think that if DC and Atari really wanted to make something happen, they could, but that there's not enough money in it for anyone to bother.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post on Atari Force. Besides the Legion it was the only comic I ever found worthy of collecting. It was great sci-fi at it's best for all the reasons you mentioned and then some. Wish Dart, Taz, Blackjack and the gang would come back for a new run, or at least get re-released for my iPhone app.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

My pleasure. Unfortunately I don't think there's enough money in it for DC to straighten out the convoluted licensing issues involved; we've probably seen all the Atari Force we're going to see.

2:55 PM  

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