FACT 2: Nostalgia exercises in comics are usually dreadful, excruciating things. Roy Thomas, especially, is notorious for this kind of thing--in later years, his work was characterised by characters who were dragged into present day continuity for scarcely understood reasons, and all of these characters spoke in dialogue meant to constantly remind you that these characters were from the 1940s or 50s because that's all they would talk about. That I need glasses today probably owes to the fact that I've rolled my eyes over many a story such as these.
FACT 3: Owing to Marvel's 2000-era stance of pissing all over their past for short term gain or revamping them into God knows what, the idea of doing a six issue miniseries about characters from the late 1940s, early 1950s--before there was even a proto-Marvel Comics as we know them, seemed . . .very odd, indeed, for current-era Marvel. It's the kind of idea, as Paul O'Brien once said, that Bill Jemas would have shot out of a cannon.
With all these facts on the table then, let's have a look at Agents of Atlas, a book that I am surely the last person on Earth to both read and enjoy. Sorry y'all--takes me rather long to get on the bandwagon these days.
Agents of Atlas is, at its heart, and attempt to make What If #9 ("What If The Avengers Had Formed In The 1950s?") into a workable, long-term premise. The whole 1950's Avengers thing ended up having a long shelf-life, despite being negated in both the original What If issue and later on in Avengers Forever. On some level, fans (or fans who later became creators) just like to see disused 50's heroes that didn't catch on at the time gathered together as a team to fight evil.
Comics--the only place where anachronism can be an asset.
Agents takes the position that the 1950s Avengers existed and didn't get negated--they simply went underground and worked together for a few months, then disbanded, going their separate ways and ending up in the rather curious circumstances. Jimmy Woo is now a SHIELD agent and now very brain-dead after leading a disastrous raid into one of the bases of his old foe, the Yellow--excuse me, Golden Claw. It's his journey, which is back and also forwards, that is the spine of the miniseries and the heart of the writer's approach as well, and it's worth quoting writer Jeff Parker in full here:
"But one of the themes of this whole storyline is the Second Chance. Life passes by and windows of opportunity close. Maybe, just maybe, if you stick to your guns and never give up on your goal, even in the final inning a window will open up again. And though you've been tainted by a grey world, that doesn't outweigh your time as a young optimistic idealist who could inspire some of the strangest people on Earth to go charging into the demon pit with you."
The Second Chance is the common link that runs through each of our main characters. Gorilla Man gets a second chance at being where he belongs and feeling useful again. Venus learns about her past and even when confronted with a shocking truth, finds the will to go on. Marvel Boy--er, Bob--doubly alienated from Earth and his adopted home, finds a place to belong again. Namora gets a second chance at life, as does Jimmy Woo--in their case, literally. By the end of the book, everyone not only has had their second chances (in some cases, third or fourth) but the book ends with a new sense of purpose that not only sets up a new series (man, lucky how that worked out, eh?) but infuses the entire book with a real sense of promise and new potential.
In short, it makes the book less of a nostalgia exercise as it's less about establishing how The Past Was So Great and more about establishing these characters and their history in the present and providing them with an interesting future direction (and really, one that gives the team a tangible reason to continue to exist, which is more than you usually get from these kinds of stories) that I'm intrigued enough by to give the ongoing a chance.
Mind you, it's not perfect--the eye-rolling dated references have been replaced by eye-rolling woefully puerile stuff about Venus making everyone horny and Namora wanting to bang her cousin, which is all rather silly and doesn't add very much to the proceedings because we get it, already, thank you. But it's a minor blemish, and considering how badly things could have gone, it's a minor miracle that that's my sole complaint.
That's enough about the story, I think--I'd rather not spoil all of it as much as encourage you to read it. Marvel hardcover of Agents of Atlas is quite a treat--not only, do you get the complete miniseries, no only do you get all the promo stuff and design sketches that led up to the mini series, but you get the most copious and thorough amount of reprints I think I've ever seen, especially given the relative obscurity of these characters. In brief:
Marvel Mystery Comics #82--From 1947, the first appearance of Namora, during a time when distaff female characters were being tried out in features of their own. It's your standard Golden Age story, which means it's ropey and somewhat crazy, and Namora doesn't help her case as being an empowering role model for girls by getting captured very quickly, but Sub-Mariner gets knocked out by a mook with a slapjack, so really, no one comes off that well here.
Venus #1--From 1948, the first appearance of Venus and the beginning of a very odd (if not outright batshit crazy) comic. Venus is deeply bored with the whole goddess thing and decides to go stand in a busy New York Street. Wouldn't you know--a magazine mogul just happens along, decides she's nuts but gives her an editing job anyway, and the romance comic-esque engine of this comic starts, which later on in the run ends up as a horror comic. God knows why. Weird and all over the place as Golden Age stories tend to be, these post GA, pre-Silver Age stories tend to be even more nutty.
Marvel Boy #1--Marvel Boy comes to Earth from Uranus and flashes bright lights in people's eyes as they giggle relentlessly when he tells them where he's from. This is a pretty odd story, hinging on a very obscure point of law involving instant continents, that then turns into a battle with pirates and subterranean aliens who Marvel Boy inadvertently pisses off and has to fight. Marvel Boy doesn't really distinguish himself here--the whole story resolves itself while Marvel Boy acts fairly passively, to be honest. Also, I find his short pants disturbing.
Men's Adventures #26--Never let it be said that "comics aren't for kids" hasn't been a meme for, like, ever. This is the first appearance of Gorilla Man, which is not to be confused with the 18 other Gorilla Men they had around this time. Ken Hale goes into the jungle looking for the mythic Gorilla Man that continues to haunt his dreams, and in a shocking twist (and by "shocking" I mean "you could see it coming a mile away") learns that deep down in our hearts, we are all Gorilla Men. No, actually that's not what happens. It's a typical Atlas-era horror story, which depends on the twin tactics of a Twilight Zone ending and Stan Lee's overwrought purple prose (written in second person--the keystone of all quality prose) to work.
Menace #11--The Human Robot (not called that) makes his first appearance in another twist-ending extravaganza from the purple pen of Stan Lee (again doing the second-person narration thing) and some uncharacteristically moody artwork from John Romita. Basically, a robot takes his orders a bit too literally, and wacky hi-jinks ensue. There's not much to say about this one, except that Lee seems to have a nervous breakdown trying to sell the ending as something Very Frightening Indeed.
Yellow Claw #1--The first appearance of Jimmy Woo, the Yellow Claw (who is absolutely positively not Fu Manchu, because Atlas would have had to pay someone for that), and a whole mess of genteel racism from bygone days. Notable for its time because comics where the titular character was a villain were fairly rare and that our hero is Chinese himself, Yellow Claw is and otherwise forgettable attempt to blend the Yellow Peril stuff of the Fu Manchu stories with the equally didn't-this-turn-out-to-be-a-bugaboo spectre of Communism, and why in the name of GOD is every Chinese person coloured such a weird shade of canary yellow, but the artwork by Joe Maneely is quite amazing in terms of the level of detail, though his Black Knight run is a little more my speed.
Finally, the reprints end where it all began with What If #9, which started the whole ball rolling, as it were. It's not a story that's aged particularly well--Alan Kupperberg and Bill Black make every attempt at a likeness frightening and wrong and Don Glut's scripting is terrible in a late Roy Thomas kind of way--3D Man makes '50's references the whole time in case we forget when the story's supposed to take place and Gorilla Man is a stock Ben Grimm "bitching about what a monster I have become and fighting with everyone" type and no one else has a particularly engaging personality, and the whole thing gets retconned at the end. Nevertheless, I'm glad it's here, if only because a) I finally get to read it at last and b) it was the jump off point for Agents of Atlas and was so much what I feared it could be and was very thankful it wasn't.
(I should also add here--it has an appearance by 1950's Soviet super villain Electro, and holy cow . . .that the Soviets decided to create an agent who is:
2) Wears a big red pair of y-fronts
3) Has big red EVIL EYES
4) Wears a . . .fez?
. . .was a fearsome enough foe is pretty much everything that is goofily awesome about comics)
All in all, this was a surprise, and gets my highest recommendation. Hopefully when I check out the ongoing here soonish, it'll continue in a like vein.