THE ATOMIC KNIGHTSMedium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1960
Creators: John Broome (writer) and Murphy Anderson (artist)
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pulp magazines in the 1930s and '40s, the dedicated sci-fi fan looked to only two DC titles — Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space, both edited by Julius Schwartz, who had himself been a dedicated sci-fi fan since the genre first became recognized as a separate category of literature.
In series as diverse as Knights of the Galaxy, Darwin Jones and Captain Comet, and in hundreds of non-series stories, those two titles led the pack in providing the sort of futuristic action and thrills (leavened by an occasional sugar-coated science lesson) that the best of the genre was known for. But it wasn't until 15 years after Hiroshima, when the theme had long been common in prose science fiction, that these titles fielded a series set in a post-holocaust future, in which survivors of a nuclear war dedicated their lives to picking up the pieces.
The series opened in Strange Adventures #117 (June, 1960). World War III had occurred in 1986, more than a quarter-century in the readers' future. A few years later, the area around Durvale, a Midwest American town, was ruled by The Black Baron, who hoarded the few remaining food stocks in his fortress, and enforced his will with ruthless strong-arms wielding high-tech energy weapons. Sgt. Gardner Grayle, formerly of the U.S. Army, discovered the key to the Baron's defeat — a half-dozen suits of medieval armor that stood in a local museum, and had, partly through the passage of time and partly because of wartime irradiation, become impervious to energy blasts from the Baron's weapons. He took one suit for himself, and recruited four local men — Douglas Herald, a scientist identified only as "Bryndon", and twin brothers Wayne and Hollis Hobard, to wear others. The final suit, too small for for a man, was worn by Herald's sister, Marene. Together, The Atomic Knights stormed the Baron's fortress and distributed food to the hungry populace.
The story, written by John Broome (Elongated Man, Rex the Wonder Dog) and drawn by Murphy Anderson (Buck Rogers, Hawkman) drew immediate favorable response. The second Atomic Knights story appeared in Strange Adventures #120, and the series continued in every third issue thereafter (alternating with Star Hawkins and Space Museum). A total of 15 episodes were published before Schwartz turned his sci-fi titles over to editor Jack Schiff and took over Schiff's Batman line instead. Broome wrote, and Anderson drew, every episode. The last one appeared in Strange Adventures #160 (January, 1964).
As the series progressed, readers could see the steady progress of Durvale toward the return of civilization. Crops were raised. Schools were established. Technology was re-introduced. And of course, threats were dealt with by the Knights, whose adventures ranged throughout the central portion of North America, but who always returned home. Some readers didn't care for certain fantastic elements, such as invasions from an Atlantean nation resuscitated by all the nuclear action, or the plots of underground mole men, but on the whole, it was faithful to the theme of post-holocaust recovery.
But once it ended, it was never revived. Later, some of the Knights guest-starred in Hercules Unbound, a 1970s series set in a post-holocaust future; and their world was tied in with that of Jack Kirby's Kamandi, and other DC comics whose back-stories included a "Great Disaster". But as 1986 approached, it became harder to gain reader acceptance of such a future. Eventually, the "Great Disaster" sub-universe faded away.
But the company still maintains a faint echo of The Atomic Knights. A very minor superhero called The Atomic Knight, whose secret identity is Gardner Grayle, has been making the occasional guest appearance in various DC comics for the past dozen or so years. It isn't much, but it's all that's left of one of DC's most fondly-remembered science fiction series.