I was trying to figure out what to do for the next Free Comic Inside. I know it’s been half a year since I’ve done one, but I’ve done so many Masters Of The Universe and Super Powers Collection minicomics that I wanted to try something different. Princess Of Power is one I should do again or Transformers Armada has two left before switching to Energon but I wanted to spotlight something I haven’t before. Basically my collection or what I’ve been able to find on the internet is way too limited because I don’t know what’s out there. Then for some reason it hit me: Atari Force!
Atari Force is a bit strange as it was a way to promote Atari video games. I never had the 2600 (I have the Atari 800 instead) but I had cousins who did and one of them let me have the first issue of the comic that he had, packaged with a 2600 game. (I don’t really know which one off-hand. I know Berzerk had the second issue and Star Raiders the third. I never owned these but thanks to the Atari Age website, named after Atari’s version of Nintendo Power, I can bring them all to you. My copy of the first issue is on the list of “read so often it’s falling part” comics in my collection. I want to get them all but right now this is the best I can do.
So how does Atari promote their video game library? By co-operating with DC Comics, who followed up these with an original series of full-size comics on store shelves. This is where it began, however, so how well did it come out? Let’s find out.
Atari Force #1
DC Comics (1982)“The Origin” part 1 WRITERS/CREATORS: Gerry Conway & Roy Thomas VISUAL CONCEPTS & ART: Ross Andru, Dick Giordano, & Mike DeCarlo DESIGN: Neil Pozner COLORIST: Adrienne Roy LETTERER: John Costanza SPECIAL PHOTOGRAPHIC EFFECTS: Jack Ryniec & George Kerrigan EDITOR: Dick Giordano
You know, I’ve never heard of “visual concepts” or “special photographic effects” as credits in a comic before. This should be different.
Chapter 1: Intruder Alert
Remember the big break-up in 2005, when California was no longer part of the US and Atari was more than just a computer and video game company? Yeah, me neither, but that’s the setting for our tale. An Irish lady (which even the captions notes is a heavy Gaelic accent, despite her dialog dripping with it) is determined to break into the Northcal headquarters of the Atari Technology And Research Institute (the acronym of which is A.T.A.R.I.–seems pointless), which she does thanks to a sonic force field disrupting tuning fork and some rather unobservant guards. She’s packing a lot of gadgets that would make Batman jealous, actually. She also mentions something called the “Five Day War”, which factors into the backstories of our heroes. She also mentions why she’s here; to check out a secret project called “Project: Multiverse”, which will also be explored in the next issue.
It’s actually a good start. It mentions an important event, a woman who becomes important in the next issue, and even the guards have one of those character-building guard moments that only means something if you want to stay invested because you’ll probably never see them again. She doesn’t kill them, they’re just here to complain about the sonic field and miss the guard dogs who couldn’t stand them because dogs have sensitive hearing.
Now it’s time to start meeting the characters that matter. Cut to outer space and our main character for the series, Martin Champion. Yes, that is his name. This is the 1980’s people. He’s the commander and chief trouble-shooter of Atari Institute’s “Station One”. We also learn one more thing about this new world, that whatever happened during this war required the Golden Gate Bridge to be rebuilt. It’s these little world-building moments that draw you in, although when overdone it becomes the writer or writers showing off. Thankfully, it doesn’t get that bad.
When one of the station repair team accidentally knocks a panel towards a personnel area, Martin goes after it, saving the section of the station but damaging his arm. This introduces us to the station doctor, Lucas Orion. He’s the black guy on the cover and Martin’s friend. As Lucas fixes up Martin’s shoulder, they get a call from someone from Martin’s past, Atari Institute Assistant Director Lydia Perez, who is all business despite Martin’s attempts to not realize this isn’t a social call but an important business one. Martin and Lucas are called Earthside for Project: Multiverse and that’s the extent of the communication. We also learn that Martin used to be a football player. Again, it’s the little moments that inform character and world that are woven naturally into the story. It’s not a huge exposition dump.
Chapter 2: Deadly Orbit
On the way to Earth, Martin tells Lucas how he knows Perez. It was back on October 18th, 1998. Remember when “our enemies” attacked the moon? I keep missing out on these events. I feel like Donna Noble from Doctor Who right about now. This was back when NASA still existed, and considering the current state of the space program in our reality I’m surprised it’s still around now. We never got a moon colony, but this universe did (although their space program went off-line for a few years), and now it was in trouble. The survivors found a safe place but they needed oxygen fast. Martin, a pilot who had been to the moon four times since the program restarted, was sent to deliver air to the remaining dome, and Lydia was his co-pilot, in charge of the supplies.
Using a makeshift rocket ship that can carry the oxygen to the colonists in a hurry, Martin and Perez ran into all sorts of trouble and bond over the experience once she realized that Martin’s “reckless” actions are actually thought out, taking calculated risks due to the time crunch they’re under. However, once NASA figured out which of our enemies attacked, the war broke out and they lost track of each other, ending up at the Atari Institute like so many others. For some reason he stopped telling Lucas this story when we come back to him as he’s lost in thought rather than speaking out loud, wondering why Lydia was so cold to him.
Chapter 3: Final Approach
The shuttle lands and Lydia is waiting for the men. She is still cold to Martin, as if they had never met. In the jeep ride to the Institute, Lydia mentions only that Project: Multiverse may be the solution to the world’s food supply problem. Considering “multiverse” usually involves other dimensions, I’m guessing they hope to go to other Earth’s and ask to borrow some food. Considering the worlds they will go into are based on games created for or licences to Atari for their 2600 (these comics to my knowledge never came with the 5200 or Atari computer versions of the games) they’re in for a disappointment.
Then it’s Lucas’s turn to reminisce. as a couple of joggers suddenly flashes him back to the days of this war that has been popping up all story. Apparently this new world also lost the United Nations. Pardon my politics but I’m rather jealous, or would be if the “break-up” that followed the Five Day War wasn’t responsible and devastating. Lucas was a medic assigned to a peace-keeping force squad in Africa. The jeep he was in that time hit a landmine and blew up, killing the driver and leaving shrapnel near his heart. No, wait, that last part was Iron Man’s origin. Sorry. Rescuing a little girl from the immediate battlefield, Lucas snapped at one of the guards at the UN base, not trusting anyone and just wanting out of the war. He got his wish as the Atari Institute wanted him to join their ranks. But is that really what he wanted? He still doesn’t have the answer to that. He’s a doctor. Doctors save lives, but he was sending the soldiers out to die. Was he helping the civilians? Who knows, the flashback ends.
And already you can tell that there is a lot more to talk about than your average Free Comic Inside article. This is closer to Scanning My Collection, but this is rather unusual. There’s so much back story here, tales of hope and hopelessness that you don’t expect in a free comic meant to promote video games at a time when “story” was just giving the players an excuse to chase a barrel-flinging monkey, while the yellow circle with a mouth never even got that.
The jeep arrives at the Institute and Martin gets Lydia to explain one thing about the project; that it involves other dimensions, which should have been obvious from the name. Lucas finds that hard to believe, that it’s science fiction. Lydia points out that to people in the early 1980s, like the time this comic came out, their world would be science fiction. Considering here in 2016 we live in a world where computers can be worn on our wrists and make phone calls she has a point. However, our “slip of a girl” manages to get in as the door closes. What does she have planned?
Well, we won’t find out this issue and unless you want to buy Berzerk (and my cousins didn’t–I don’t know why; I played it in the arcades and it was fun) you won’t either. Or go to the Atari Age comics page and read all the issues. In addition to the five issues of this comic there are other minicomics there and future installments of Free Comic Inside will go over them all in due time. As for this issue, while I would have liked to have seen more about this Project: Multiverse, maybe spread out all five character’s backstories over the five issues (this “mini” comics was around 40 pages long, not counting covers and credits) to give us a better teaser to buy the game or find a friend who had a copy that came with the comic to see what happens next. Beyond that, it’s surprisingly good writing for a promo comics. Imagine if Gary Cohn had this many pages and this size book (more than double the size of the MOTU comics) to work with, or the Super Powers Collections comics, which really suffer for their lack of space at times. I applaud what’s going on here, but hopefully when we return to this someday we’ll get a better view of the series beyond world-building.