DC Comics History: Atomic Knights
By Deejay Dayton
Jul 1, 2017 - 12:18
The Atomic Knights were the third of the three rotating series to appear in Strange Adventures during the period 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age, and a huge personal favourite of mine. Created by John Broome and Murphy Anderson, this was DC’s first post-apocalyptic series, and a relatively cheerful one at that. It had far more continuity than other strips from the era, and as the series progressed not only explored different locations in the war ravaged US, but brought in giant dogs, time displaced Atlanteans and deadly Triffids. I will be covering every single Atomic Knights story, because THIS SERIES IS AWESOME!
This debut tale, from Strange Adventures 117 is set in November of 1989, following a twenty day war that saw atomic warfare devastate the Earth - although not quite as badly as we might expect. Lots of buildings are still standing, and people have anti-radiation pills that work really well. But all the plants and animals have been killed, and food will no longer grow.
The main character is Gardner Grayle, a soldier who begins the story with amnesia, but then recalls his experience of the war, from an underground bunker. People are fighting in the streets, trying to retrieve the few can goods that are still available. In this story, a man named the Black Baron has had his men loot most of the supplies, and is keeping them for himself and his army, in a fortress on a hill. In order to get food, people have to work as the Baron's slave labour.
Grayle meets a former school teacher, Douglas Herald, and the pair survive an attack by the Baron's men, who are armed with radiation blasters. Suits of medieval armour wind up shielding them from the radiation, and we get the curious explanation that old metal, like that of the armour, gains an ability to repel radiation. It doesn't, really. But who cares? Together, Gardner and Douglas gather the people in the ruins, and explain their plan to use the suits of armour as protection, and assault the Black Baron and his fortress.
Twin brother Hollis and Wayne Hobard join up, as does a scientist, Bryndon Smith. We see that many people hold scientists responsible for the war, and Bryndon needs the protection of the others. Douglas's sister, Marene, is also introduced, but, as she is a woman, is not expected to be one of those to don the armour. She does anyway, though no one picks up on this until the end of the story.
The Atomic Knights lead their charge, ramming their way into the fortress. The armour works as expected, neutralizing the radiation blasts, and they overthrow the Black Baron. His food stores get distributed, partly, and Douglas is put in charge of the remaining food, to be doled out equally. Romance blooms between Gardner and Marene, who share a fairly chaste kiss in their armour. As the story ends, the group christens itself the Atomic Knights!
The Atomic Knight story in Strange Adventures 120 is not one of the better tales from this series. In fact, I would rank it the weakest of the run. It begins as the Knights spot a kite flying in the distance, and recover a note from it. Humans are trapped in a valley, dying because they are unable to reach the water, which is being consumed by a scary crystal headed monster made of salt. Exactly how this monster came into being is far from clear, and the Knights would usually deal with better thought out problems. I do like the fact that they do not all go off to fight it. It's too important to preserve their town, Durvale, so only Gardner, Brydon and Hollis head out, in an atomic powered car. The crystal monster is immune to their ray guns, but Bryndon suggests spiking its water with limestone. This reacts with the creature's salt body, turning it into stone. It becomes a big, scary statue. For some reason, the people of the valley like this, and leave the statue as a tribute to the Atomic Knights.
The Atomic Knights explore the ruins of New York City in Strange Adventures 123. Anderson does a very good job with New York in ruins. The Knights discover that the city is permeated with deadly radiation, although their armour protects them from it. Below the city, they find survivors regressed to cavemen. Radiation is blamed for their physical transformation, and they have forgotten their lives and previous identities. But Gardner Grayle determines that this can be restored, simply by talking to them and making them recall who they were.
So the Knights find a closed circuit television, and broadcast to the cavepeople until their rationality is restored. But their bodies remain mutated, and because of the radiation in the city, they have to continue to live underground. It makes me think of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, although that would not be made for many years to come.
The Atomic Knights continue to explore the changes in the US in issue 126, as they construct gliders to take them west, and reach the transformed city of Los Angeles. It takes the Knights most of the story to actually reach Los Angeles, as they plan the trip, construct the aircraft, and then, in a lovely page, discover the Rockies have become a range of volcanoes. The Atomic Knights do find some survivors in Los Angeles, being menaced by what appear to be giant electrical creatures. But the monsters are simply hallucinations, caused by the radiation permeating the ruins of the area.
Unlike the New York City story, we don't get to see anything of Los Angeles itself after the war. Presumably the entire place was wiped out, and the mountainous region we are shown in this tale is as close as one can get. At the end of the story, rather than showing the Atomic Knights back in Durvale, they set up a radio in what is now being called Los Angeles, and transmit a message to the team members back home.
The Atomic Knights have their first, but not last, conflict with displaced Atlanteans in Strange Adventures 129. Bryndon announces to the other Knights that he has rigged up a television that can receive signals from a satellite still orbiting the Earth, which allows them to monitor the destruction world-wide. But to their great surprise, they see a brand new island in the Atlantic, one where there is plant life.
We discover that these are Atlanteans, who were existing in a different dimension. They had plotted to conquer the world (like that would be difficult with it in ruins), but accidentally set off a cobalt bomb, which displaced them, presumably through time. Their island is safe from the radiation in the world around them, although this does form a barrier that they cannot get through.
The Atomic Knights are able to pass through the radiation barrier, thanks to their armour. The Atlanteans are none too happy to see them, and the two sides fight briefly, before an earthquake causes the island to sink. Before it goes down, Bryndon and Marene gather plants and seeds, with which they hope to be able to spur food production again.
The Atlanteans return in issue 132, which takes place a few months after the previous instalment, after the seeds that the Knights retrieved have had time to sprout new growth, new plants, and new food. The leaders of the Atlanteans have managed to survive the destruction of their island, and discovered that they have been thrust thousands of years from their own time. They catch up on events from the post-apocalyptic world, and learn of the Knights base in Durvale.
Wanting vengeance, the Atlanteans come to attack Durvale, and show up just as the Knights are hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner with their new food, having invited survivors from neighbouring towns as well. The Atlanteans have mirror weapons, and Douglas get wounded bby one of these, but the Knights, once they get into their armour, are immune to this weaponry again. The Atlantean brigade is defeated, and the Knights set up a prison in which to hold them.
Continuity plays a big part in the Atomic Knights story in Strange Adventures 135. Rarely did any series at this time make reference to earlier events. In this story, Douglas is still recovering from the injuries he received in the last tale, and the Atlanteans are still prisoners of the Knights. One of the Atlanteans, Dalas, makes friends with the Knights, which of course leads the other prisoners to view him as a traitor, and try to kill him. The Hobard brothers have gone missing, captured by the Atlanteans who did not take part in the attack in the last story.
Dalas leads the Knights to Washington DC, where the Atlanteans are working on constructing a super-weapon, using the remains of Washington Monument as the base of it. The Atlanteans have also raided the Smithsonian, finding old muskets that they convert into cosmic ray guns. The Knights' armour proves useful at withstanding the cosmic rays, though the armour turns red. This is a temporary condition, though. The Knights climb the outside of the shattered and cracked monument, reaching and destroying the Atlantean super-weapon.
Strange Adventures 138 introduces the unique and distinctive mounts of the Atomic Knights, giant Dalmatians. Gardner, Bryndon and Wayne discover a crashed rocket near Durvale. Bryndon recognizes the markings, and explains that the ship was sent with dogs aboard into a radiation belt, to see if living creatures could survive exposure to it. Apparently they can, because not only are the dogs alive, but now giant sized. They bring the dogs back to Durvale. In one panel, it sure looks like Gardner is about to propose to Marene. But then those pesky Atlanteans attack again.
The Knights wind up using the dogs like horses in their battle against the Atlanteans. This is the final appearance of those foes, so it seems that the Knights have done so much damage to them, and scared them so much with the giant dogs, that the Atlanteans decide to leave them alone after this. No word on what happened to the ones they took prisoner, or Dalas, the one who joined them. While the people of Durvale were scared of the dogs when they first saw them, by the end of the story, after the dogs proved themselves in battle, they are welcomed by the populace. A great addition to the series, making it even more visually intriguing.
There are aliens in the Atomic Knights story in issue 141. These one are scavengers, who come to the ravaged Earth to raid it for metal, figuring on little resistance from the traumatized survivors. Of course, they did not count on the Atomic Knights.
But there isn't much to this story, which seems largely an excuse for us to see the Dalmatians in action, being used like horses while the Knights joust against their foes, and drive them off.
The Atomic Knights get the cover of Strange Adventures 144, the first and only time this would happen. One permanent change does happen with the stories though. Starting with this one, they expand to twice the page count, taking up two thirds of each issue that they appear in. This story also delves into the question of who began the war that wiped out civilization. Bryndon returns to Durvale after encountering Mole Men.
These creatures are using a strange kind of flower, which gives off darkness, to shroud the Earth in blackness, which will enable them to live on the surface. The Knights manage to capture one of the Mole Men, and discover their weakness is light. That probably could have been guessed at, really. Some Gardner and Bryndon come up with the idea of catching fireflies, and filling jack o lanterns with them, effectively making them into weapons.
They defeat the Mole Men, driving them back underground, and destroy the dangerous flowers, getting rid of the darkness. But from their captive they also learn that it was the Mole Men who began the war, sending off an energy pulse that caused all nukes in various countries to activate.
The Atomic Knights take a raft to New Orleans in Strange Adventures 147. The story raises the issue of health and medicine, after an epidemic strikes the children of Durvale. Because New Orleans was not hit with nearly as much radiation as other locations, the Knights head down there to see if they can get medicine, or a doctor. In a nice touch, Marene gets a scene arguing with the other women of Durvale about the importance of the Knights trip, even though this leaves the town unprotected. The Knights reach New Orleans on a raft, but encounter some roughnecks along the way, and learn that New Orleans is being ruled by a tyrannical "king." Fortunately for the Knights, they find these guys easy to get past. The men also mention that jazz has been outlawed in the city. The residents of New Orleans do not seem terribly oppressed, but also seem oddly subdued. When Gardner Grayle finds a doctor, the man seems to be in some kind of trance.
While Gardner and the other are dealing with this, the Hobard brothers sneak into the jazz museum, and grab a clarinet. When they get back with the others, they play it, and the music revives the doctor, breaking the spell over him. The Knights figure out that the "king" is using some sort of sonic device to control the population, and that jazz music interferes with it, which is why it has been banned. So the triumphant resolution to the tale sees the Knights marching through the streets of New Orleans, playing "When the Saints Come Marching In." This frees the population, who are more than happy to help them overthrow the "king" and his men. Grateful, the doctor sends medicine back with the Knights, and begins a medical school, promising to send Durvale some of its first graduates.
Strange Adventures 150 introduces sentient, deadly moving plants. These plants are clearly based on those from John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids. In the Atomic Knights story, the plants are named trefoils, and that is one of the potential names bandied about in Wyndham's book, before they settle on calling them treffids. The plants are explained as mutations from the radiation after the war. The lack of other plant life means that they have begun to reproduce and spread out. The plants are even able to communicate telepathically with humans.
At first, the plants seem amicable towards the residents of Durvale, but then they begin to see the humans and their farming as a threat to their own water supply, and turn against them. The berries of the trefoils are explosive, and the plants are able to fire them like little grenades. Fortunately for the Knights, their armour is able to withstand the explosive berries. Bryndon notes that the trefoils only congregate on wet ground, near to the river. He theorizes that, being mobile, they require an almost constant source of water to keep going.
Sure enough, the trefoils need their water, and are even smart enough to know that the nearby dam is essential to their survival. The Knights mount their giant dogs and lead an assault on the dam, opening it to release the water. Without the wet ground, the trefoils quickly wither. This removes the problem in their area, but the Knights know there are many more trefoils still out there.
A new enemy and an old one return in the Atomic Knights story in Strange Adventures 153. The trefoils are back, but a new strain of them, ones that are content to function as servants/slaves. Marene does not completely trust the plants, and to be honest, I wouldn't either. Bryndon has also figured out how to make a sort of fuel out of their explosive berries. Henderson has gone to Detroit to make a car that can run on the berry fuel, and the other Atomic Knights head out to see how he is doing, arriving just in time to see the first new car come off the assembly line.
But they run afoul of Kadey and his Blue Belts. They have set up a militaristic control of the Detroit area, and want the new car. Kadey offers to "pay" for it with money that he has printed, which is how he and the Blue Belts basically steal everything they want from the people under his control. It's a bit like the Black Baron story from the beginning of the run, though the money element is a nice addition. As with the Black Baron, Kadey's men have weapons that are deadly, but the Knights' armour allows them to withstand it.
They besiege his fortress and overthrow the dictator. The Knights also free the trefoils under Kadey's command. These must be of the new strain, as they seemingly were not able to fight off Kadey and the Blue Belts themselves. For their efforts, the Knights are presented with the first new car, which they bring back to Durvale.
The Atomic Knights come to the aid of a woman branded as a witch in issue 156, which is set in Harrow, a town close to Durvale. The people of Harrow have turned against science, which hearkens back to the first Atomic Knights tale, and the attacks on Bryndon. There are weird energy creatures menacing Harrow, and they are in fact caused by the women the people view as a witch, but not intentionally. The creatures are a side effect of a radiation sickness she is suffering from, but the people of Harrow are totally ready to kill her. Exactly how is not clear, but I would guess some good old witch burning.
The Knights manage to hold off the energy creatures and rescue the woman, bringing her to the hospital in New Orleans to be cured. Then the people of Harrow all realize the error of their ways, and agree to accept science, which is sort of awkward and abrupt, but kind of needed for the happy ending.
Kadey and his Blue Belts return for the final Atomic Knights story, which appears in Strange Adventures 160. The Knights are aware that someone is spying on them, and Marene discovers that is a group of children, living out in the wilds, stealing food in order to survive. To learn more about the boys, Marene goes undercover to infiltrate and join them. chopping her hair off and dressing like a child. Through her, the reader sees that these children, although rowdy and tough, are doing what they need to in order to live.
Kadey is back as well. He finds a meteorite that allows him to control people, and uses it on the boys. Marene manages to get away, and alerts the Knights as to what Kadey is up to. The Knights return in force, and their armour allows them to withstand the meteor's effects. So Kadey gets defeated again, and the actions of the Knights earn the respect of the wild boys. They adopted by various people in Durvale.
The series ends on Marene hoping that she and Gardner Grayle will have children of their own one day. The Atomic Knights make a return in the 70s in the pages of Hercules Unbound. Kadey also makes a return, although not until the 80s, in the pages of the Outsiders.
Atomic Knights: Strange Adventures 117, 120, 123, 126, 129, 132, 135, 138, 141, 144, 147, 150, 153, 156, 160 (June 60, Sep 60, Dec 60, Mar 61, June 61, Sep 61, Dec 61, Mar 62, June 62, Sep 62, Dec 62, Mar 63, June 63, Sep 63, Jan 64)
Next up – Sea Devils!
DC Comics History: Atomic Knights