Destructor #1A column article, Cheap Thrills by: Jason Sacks
Random Pulls from the Bargain Bin
In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! This week Jason Sacks headed on out to Dreamstrands Comics in Seattle and grabbed a comic from the bargain bin (3 for a dollar) to see what kind of bang he can get for his third-of-a-buck. This is that tale.
May 5, 2012 -- paid 33 cents for:
Published by: Atlas Comics
Written by: Archie Goodwin
Pencils by: Steve Ditko
Inks by: Wallace Wood
Editor: Larry Leiber
February of 1975 was an odd time in American history. President Ford announced a Federal deficit of $52 billion, chump change now but at that time the largest deficit in American history. Soviet astronauts returned to Earth after a month spent on the Salyut 4 spacecraft; Margaret Thatcher was voted head of the Conservative Party in England; three Watergate conspirators were sent to prison; AC/DC released their first album; and the Atlas Comics Group was making its way onto newsstands all across North America.
Steve Ditko, Wally Wood and Archie Goodwin. Who can ask for a more intriguing creative team? Take two idiosyncratic artists at the top of their respective games, combine them with a writer who is well known for working to his artists' strengths, and you get … The Destructor.
The who? Yes, our hero this week, resurrected from the bargain bins, is a dude called the Destructor. Sit back and listen to the story of Jay Hunter, our eventual Destructor, happy reader and later on in this column I will come back to the story of Atlas Comics, the comics company created only for revenge. It was an ugly, MODOK type of comics company, and oh so fun to read about!
Destructor #1 opens with a classic Ditkoesque panel. Guns are blazing all around an athletically-built, oddly-costumed man, as the man runs directly at the reader, determined look on his face. The caption at the top of the page sets the mood beautifully: "He bursts from the city darkness, a figure grim and mysterious, moving with the speed, the instinct of a wild animal stalking its prey. The roar of gunfire, the shrill whine of bullets does not stop him … for he is a man on a mission. A vigilante, an avenger, vowed to turn all his strange powers to smashing, destroying the beats and predators of the human jungle that is organized crime. For he is … the Destructor."
Sure, the prose is a little purple, and the illustration a little garish and silly, but this was 1974, and heroes still mostly had square jaws and fought missions of vengeance against the beasts and predators of the human jungle. It's an effective intro for a comic of its era.
Flip the page and the origin begins- hey, this is a first issue and it's the mid-'70s, do you expect the creators to do something different in revealing a character's origin? We are taken to seedy Harbortown, New Jersey, a small town overrun by organized crime. Young Jay Hunter, who appears to be barely a day over 18, is working for the mob running numbers and making easy cash. Jay smokes and seems to be completely unrepentant about his life of crime. We see Jay collect his cash from the mobsters and take a short walk to the laboratory of his father Simon, who has developed a serum to give men great powers. "The preliminary tests are done … it only remains for a human subject to try the serum," dad says.
You can see where this is going, I'm sure. A mobster breaks into the lab, shooting first and asking questions later. "BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM" and down go Jay and Simon. Gasping with his last breath, father saves son as Simon pours the serum down Jay's throat. Jay suddenly recovers from the gunshots as tears and sweat run down his face. But Jay passes out before he can exact his revenge.
Waking hours later, Jay has his Batman moment. Visions of his betrayal of his late father rushing through his mind, Jay repents of his wasted life and commits himself to seeking revenge on those who killed his father. In a beautiful Ditko/Wood montage, we see Jay's head spinning with thoughts of all those whom he's wronged. It's a moment of truth and, wandering back to his father's lab, Jay finds a flashy red-and-blue suit that he dons. Before Jay puts the suit on, he declares, in a panel that fairly bursts with Wally Wood's intense inking, "I may not be the kind of world-saver you imagined. Bringin' down Raven will take somethin' more vicious. A smasher, a destroyer, a destructor!"
The story takes an odd turn as the villain Slaymaster is introduced. Slaymaster is a crack shot, but just as important as the villain is the setting of the battle between Slaymaster and Destructor: The Giant Novelty Company, where hero and villain battle amongst giant clown images and … well … actually, that's it. The Novelty Company warehouse is actually kind of bereft of interesting stuff, unfortunately. That doesn't mean there aren't a few lovely Ditko/Wood panels depicting the fight scenes, but in the end, the battle is somehow anticlimactic, full of nice moments but little more.
Which is, of course, a nice description of this comic as a whole, and perhaps of the entire Atlas Comics line: it's decent but could have been so very, very much better.
The Destructor was a less-than-legendary hero from a fourth-rate publisher called Atlas-Seaboard that existed mainly as an attempt to seek revenge against Marvel Comics due to an odd family dispute. The Destructor was a hero with a name that hardly skips merrily off the reader's tongue, with an ugly costume and an unmemorable origin.
Like nearly all the heroes who appeared under the Atlas Comics banner, the Destructor was an abject failure. And yet somehow, despite all the adversity, against all odds, this comic ended up being a modest success on its own terms. By the fourth and final issue of this series, with Gerry Conway replacing Goodwin, and Allen Milgrom replacing Wood, Destructor somehow became a modest and somehow charming comic series, the very apotheosis of the forgettable, small-time super-hero that many longtime comic fans treasure.
The early and mid-'70s were the era in which the dreamers could hope to go big-time. The World Football League could challenge the NFL, an obscure governor named Jimmy Carter could become president, and Atlas Comics could go into battle against Marvel and DC. Former Marvel publisher Martin Goodman had dreams of challenging his former employer in the marketplace. To achieve his dream, Goodman paid phenomenally high page rates to get the finest talent available.
The huge page rates brought Goodwin, Ditko and Wood together on The Destructor. All three men had long lasting careers in the comics that had spanned decades by that point, and the draw of an exceptionally large paycheck must have been irresistible. The comics industry at that time seldom paid well, so the promise of large amounts of extra cash obviously attracted some top-line professionals. But the great cash didn't make the comics any better. Despite his tremendous page rates, the vast majority of comics that Martin Goodwin published were – well, we'll let Mike Sekowsky give his assessment, from an Atlas comic called The Brute:
Destructor, like nearly all the comics in the Atlas/Seaboard line, was ill-fated, low-rent and a bit desultory. There are moments in the four issues of this series that show a potential that the series could have been at least decent and interesting. But like so many dreams of glory in the '70s, the dawn brought crushing reality. The WFL would never knock off the NFL, the Presidency of Jimmy Carter would flounder due to the Iran hostage crisis and stagflation and Martin Goodman's quixotic Atlas/Seaboard line would quickly lose its battle with Marvel and DC.