Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Archives volume 1


By Paul S. Newman, Matt Murphy, Bob Fujitani, Frank Bolle & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-285-8 (HB) 978-1-59582-586-5 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Atom Age Adventure… 9/10

The comics colossus identified by fans as Dell/Gold Key/Whitman had one of the most complicated publishing set-ups in history but that didn’t matter one iota to the kids of all ages who consumed their vastly varied product.

Based in Racine, Wisconsin, Whitman had been a crucial part of the monolithic Western Publishing and Lithography Company since 1915 and could draw on the commercial resources and industry connections that came with editorial offices on both coasts (and even a subsidiary printing plant in Poughkeepsie, New York).

Another connection was with fellow Western subsidiary K.K. Publications (named for licensing legend Kay Kamen who facilitated extremely lucrative “license to print money” merchandising deals for Walt Disney Studios between 1933 and 1949).

From 1938, Western’s comicbook output was released under a partnership deal with a “pulps” periodical publisher under the umbrella imprint Dell Comics – and again those creative staff and commercial contacts fed into the line-up of the Big Little, Little Golden and Golden Press books for children. This partnership ended in 1962 and Western had to swiftly reinvent its comics division as Gold Key.

As previously cited, Western Publishing had been a major player since comics’ earliest days, blending a huge tranche of licensed titles such as newspaper strip, TV and Disney titles, (such as Nancy and Sluggo, Tarzan, or the Lone Ranger) with home-grown hits like Turok, Son of Stone and Space Family Robinson.

In the 1960s, during the camp/superhero boom these original adventure titles expanded to include Brain Boy, M.A.R.S. Patrol, Total War (created by Wally Wood), Magnus, Robot Fighter (by the incredible Russ Manning) and – in deference to the atomic age of heroes – Nukla and another brilliantly cool and understated nuclear white knight…

Despite supremely high quality and passionate fan-bases, they never really captured the media spotlight of DC or Marvel’s costumed cut-ups. Western eventually shut up their comics division in 1984 having lost or ceded their licenses to DC Marvel and Charlton.

All this and much more can be found far more clearly explained by the wonderful Mark Evanier in this hardback or trade paperback collection’s Foreword – ‘The Golden Years’ – as well as a fond critical appraisal of the superb comics yarn-spinning that follows…

As a publisher, Gold Key never really “got” the melodramatic, breast-beating, often-mock-heroic Sturm und Drang of the 1960s superhero boom – although for many of us, the understated functionality of Silver Age classics like Magnus, Robot Fighter or the remarkably radical concepts of atomic crusader Nukla and crime-fighting iterations of classic movie monsters Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf were utterly irresistible. The sheer off-the-wall lunacy of features like Neutro or Dr. Spektor I will save for a future occasion…

The company’s most recognisable stab at a superhero was an understated nuclear era star with the rather unwieldy codename Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom who debuted in an eponymous title dated October 1962, sporting a captivating painted cover by Richard M. Powers that made the whole deal feel like a grown up book rather than a mere comic.

Crafted by writers Paul S. Newman & Matt Murphy with art by Bob Fujitani, the 2-part origin ‘Solar’s Secret’ and ‘An Atomic Inferno’ detailed how a campaign of sabotage at research base Atom Valley culminates in the death of Dr. Bentley and the accidental transmutation of his lab partner Doctor Solar into a (no longer) human atomic pile with incredible, impossible and apparently unlimited powers and abilities. Of course, his very presence is lethal to all around him…

The espionage and murder are at the instigation mysterious Bad Actor Nuro, who wants the monopoly on atomic science and when his operative targets Solar’s girlfriend Gail Sanders, the reluctant hero – still learning his potential and limitations – is forced to act fast…

Powers painted a second rousing cover (before handing the job over to Gold Key mainstay George Wilson for the rest of this collections inclusions) and #2 (December) opens with Nuro’s latest plot: using radio implants to turn Gail into ‘The Remote-Control Traitor’ before unwise atomic testing triggers tectonic terror for the entire region on ‘The Night of the Volcano’…

By the time of Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom #3 (March 1963), a solid pattern was in place. Solar continued his researches aided by his two confidantes, Gail and project leader Dr. Clarkson, facing a wide variety of nefarious challenges and unnatural disasters at a rate of two stories per issue.

In ‘The Hidden Hands’ the science hero becomes a clandestine globetrotter to foil a plundering terrorist with the power of invisibility, whilst Atom Valley’s own prototype weather satellite triggers atmospheric conditions which split the hero into polar opposites in ‘Solar’s Deadly Double’.

June 1963 brought #4 atomic contamination to the Atlantic as Solar scuppers a certain mystery mastermind’s gold extraction engine in ‘The Deadly Sea’ before ‘The Treacherous Trap’ finds the Atomic Man – who must regularly absorb lethal amounts of radiation to live – accidentally imperilled by fellow scientist Thor Neilsen’s radical rad poisoning cure. The good-looking swine has also turned poor Gail’s head with romantic notions…

A big change came with #5 in September as the until-now top-secret activities of Solar are first exposed to a ruthless thief trying to steal the Atomic Ace’s latest elemental discovery in ‘The Crystallized Killers’. This, and his advancing mutation, leads to ‘The New Man of the Atom’ as Solar adopts a public masked persona and finally dons a costume: all whilst stopping an incipient atom war…

With #6 (November 1963) illustrator Frank Bolle joins Newman & Murphy to detail Solar’s stories, beginning with ‘The Impostor’ wherein Nuro despatches a face-shifting automaton to infiltrate Atom Valley and discover the masked hero’s true identity: a saga which concludes in spectacular nuclear combat in ‘Android Against the Atom’…

This volume’s action concludes with #7 (March 1964), beginning with a drastic drop in sea levels. Upon investigation Solar discovers malevolent extraterrestrials are behind the ‘Vanishing Oceans’ but no sooner does he deal with them than ‘The Guided Comet’ covertly controlled by Nuro, simultaneously threatens human existence and acts as an almost-foolproof deathtrap for the Man of the Atom. Almost…

Augmented by fulsome ‘Biographies’ of the creative personnel, this charismatic collection offers potently underplayed and scientifically astute (as far as the facts of the day were generally known) adventures blending the best of contemporary movie tropes with the still fresh but burgeoning mythology of the Silver Age super hero boom. Enticingly restrained, these Atom Age action comics offered a compelling counterpoint to the eccentric hyperbole of DC and Marvel and remain some of the most readable thrillers of the era.

These tales are lost gems from a time when fun was paramount and entertainment a mandatory requirement. This is comics the way they were and really should be again…
DOCTOR SOLAR®, MAN OF THE ATOM ARCHIVES Volume 1 ™ and © 2010 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media, LLC. All rights reserved.