The Hydrogen War of 1986 almost completely destroyed life on the planet Earth.
But DC Comics wasn’t going to let a little thing like that spoil the fun.
Hence the Atomic Knights, a post-apocalyptic saga of adventure introduced in Strange Adventures 117 (June 1960).
I can remember, as a 6-year-old, being slightly unsettled by the idea of a nuclear war in the DC universe. That would mean that all the superheroes had finally failed, wouldn’t it? That was a notion that also occurred to Alan Moore in Watchmen.
In DC’s sunny science fiction titles, alien invasions were routinely thwarted by pet dogs and mail carriers, and plesiosaurs were tamed and put on display at SeaWorld. So the idea of worldwide nuclear disaster seemed jarringly out-of-place. But if anybody could make World War III seem like a walk in Central City Park, it was the gang at 575 Lexington Avenue, New York City.
Meanwhile, 1.3 miles away at 245 W. 44th St., a new musical called Camelot spotlighted the Knights of the Round Table’s defense of right against might. The optimistic Kennedy “Camelot era” had dawned, and that same theme — reason against barbarism, the rule of law over tyranny — would be reworked by writer John Broome into the Atomic Knights, a plucky band fighting to reestablish human civilization. Their ancient armor was practical as well as symbolically idealistic. They found it shielded them from radiation guns.
Editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz’s science fiction comics always emphasized a reliance on learning and reason. The Knights included a schoolteacher and a scientist — two professions frequently derided in 21st century America’s celebration of ignorance, but well respected during the Silver Age of Comics.
Murphy Anderson’s clean-lined, optimistic art also had a lot to do with the series’ reassuring nature. I suspect it was just the kind of Buck Rogers story Anderson had always wanted to do.
“Years later, as I sat at my drawing board, my phone rang and a familiar voice greeted me,” Anderson recalled in his introduction to a hardcover edition of The Atomic Knights. “It took only seconds for me to realize who the caller was (and the reason for his call). Mike Barr, well-known comics writer, did not waste time or money!!! I caught on immediately, and replied, ‘Of course, Mike! Today is October 29, 1986 … the day the terrible Atomic War of World War III began and lasted only twenty days!!’ Mike’s infectious laugh boomed in my ear and triggered my own laughter in return.”
Energy creatures, crystal monsters, yellow-skinned alien invaders, blue-shirted Nazis, knights in armor, ray guns, riding Dalmatians and giant ambulatory plants that serve you dinner in restaurants — this was the kind of Armageddon a kid could love!