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Friday in Atlantis (the OTHER one)

At the Seattle Comic-Card show last Sunday, we ran across a real blast from the past… and incidentally, acquired the entire run of a title I’ve wanted for years.

As some of you might recall, my personal Golden Age of Comics was from roughly the summer of 1971 or so on up through the fall of 1980. (Or, as I think of it, the interval between Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Half an Evil” and the conclusion to the original “Phoenix Saga.”)

Where I became a HARDCORE comics fan... After this was when I kind of lost interest in superheroes, opting instead for girls, drugs and alcohol.... usually combined.

There were better comics to come in the 1980′s, without question. But really, it was that earlier decade when I fell swooningly in love with comics for life. The books of that time shaped my tastes in superhero adventure, especially that gonzo era of 1970′s Marvel where it seemed like they’d try ANY-damn-thing for at least a couple of issues.

I want the whole run of this book, too, damn it. Some day.... Steve Gerber wrote this, you know, and it's actually pretty good.

One of those experiments came about because of a television show that, as it happened, I liked a lot — or, at least, I wanted to like it a lot.

Many of my favorite seventies superhero adventures were actually from TV, not comics. I’ve written in this space before of the various television shows that tried to surf the wave created by The Six Million Dollar Man back in the mid-seventies. Everyone wanted the next TV superhero hit (and, of course, the licensing bonanza that went with it.)

Steve gets a steel girder to twist into knots. Jaime gets a purse. Different time...

Most of them were riffs on the basic premise of The Six Million Dollar Man– a normal person is somehow gifted with extraordinary abilities, and becomes the reluctant recruit of a government agency (or sometimes a handy scientific foundation) for a career of cloak-and-dagger superheroics.

This was actually from Steve Austin's producer, Harve Bennett. It lasted one season. I liked this show too. Here it is reworked as GEMINI MAN with Ben Murphy. McCallum's version was smarter and better cast... but producers cited the advantage that Ben Murphy could take his shirt off in this one.

Sometimes these reluctant government super-types came from comics. Sort of. But even they got the Steve Austin/Jaime Sommers makeover.

This one made the Matt Salinger version look like genius. Seriously. It was painful. God help me, if this ever came out on DVD I would snap it up in a second. I can't help myself.

One of those second-string efforts, despite its basic lameness, has stuck with me for years.

Maybe it’s because I was an Aquaman guy. But I always found something really likable about The Man From Atlantis.

You know, this show was always tottering on the edge of being GOOD.

It began as a made-for-TV movie. Patrick Duffy (in his first major role) starred as an amnesiac man who washes up one night on a Los Angeles beach. He is comatose and his condition is deteriorating– despite everything emergency medical crews can do for him, he appears to be slowly suffocating. Dr. Elizabeth Merrill, upon examining his lung tissues, realizes he is adapted to breathe water, not air, and rushes him back to the ocean.

It turns out that in the water, the slight-looking specimen is something superhuman. The Navy is very interested in the young man and gives him the name Mark Harris, and embarks on an investigation into where he came from — but the baffled scientists’ new supercomputer can only suggest that “Mark” is a survivor of the lost civilization of Atlantis. Possessed of exceptional abilities, including super-strength (but only in the ocean; just like the Sub-Mariner, Mark gets weaker the longer he is out of the water) as well as the ability to breathe underwater and withstand extreme depth pressures, Mark was subsequently recruited by the Foundation For Oceanic Research, a governmental agency that explored the depths of the ocean in a sophisticated submarine called the Cetacean.

It was all straight out of the standard seventies TV superhero playbook. But the show had a few things going for it.

The underwater work that would make or break a show like this was extraordinarily skilled, and to this day holds up rather well. Patrick Duffy was amazing in his breath control, plausibly portraying a water-breathing man speaking underwater with hardly any giveaway bubbles — and remember, this was before they had CGI to edit with. Also, Duffy and his stunt coach worked out a dolphin-like swimming style that was really cool-looking and otherworldly. (You can see it demonstrated in this clip from the credits.) The miniature model work with the submarine Cetacean was done well too.

Far and away, though, the biggest asset the show had going for it was the casting.

These two were so likable that they sold a lot of essentially lame-ass TV that would otherwise have got hooted off the screen.

Patrick Duffy was terrific as amnesiac amphibian hero Mark Harris, projecting a kind of naive strength in much the same vein as Leonard Nimoy had a decade earlier as Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. And Belinda Montgomery hit just the right note of compassion and nobility as Dr. Elizabeth Merrill. The relationship the two of them built was comfortably familial, based on friendship rather than romance. Both of them worked really hard at selling what they were given without any smirky campiness or winking to the audience. That was left to Victor Buono as the villain of the piece, Mr. Schubert, who has decided to provoke a nuclear war between the world superpowers that will leave his new undersea civilization in control of the planet.

The pilot movie has some weak moments but overall it’s a fun ninety minutes, carried by the sheer charm of its stars and the remarkable underwater work. The setup, with its promise of adventure and the mystery of unraveling Mark’s origin, was intriguing as well. Overall it was a winning combo,

The pilot was a ratings success and was followed in quick succession by three more movies. The following season it became a weekly hourlong series.

We all really wanted this show to be good.

Sadly, none of the followup efforts had the charm or sense of fun of the pilot, and hardly any of the promising setup was ever followed up on. Instead, the three made-for-TV movies and the series that followed fell victim to a common failing of television SF at the time — there seemed to be the assumption that once you sold the audience on the idea of one impossible thing, that meant they’d believe any impossible thing. (Call it Irwin Allen syndrome; you used to see it all the time on Land of the Giants and Time Tunnel and Lost In Space, not to mention Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.)

So the episodes became progressively more implausible. In the beginning, I could sort of buy Victor Buono  as a cheerful megalomaniac with his headquarters inside an undersea mountain, but the telepathic radioactive spores and the alien water-breathing soldiers that followed were too much even for me. By the time the hourlong version gave us Mark’s otherdimensional Wild West evil twin (I’m not making this up– look here) and sent Mark back in time to help save Romeo and Juliet… well, even a card-carrying nerd like me was ready to give up. The show was canceled after thirteen episodes and it was a mercy killing by then. Patrick Duffy went on to fame and fortune on Dallas and Belinda Montgomery became Doogie Howser’s mom and that was that.

There was still a big licensing push for The Man From Atlantis, though, that staggered on for a little while even after the TV show itself was gone. There were several novels adapting the TV-movies.

I actually still have this. The actual show's underwater work was pretty cool, but they never had a scene this exciting.

A projected toy line died stillborn. Kenner quickly tried to retool it from the “Man From Atlantis” line to the generic “Scuba Squad” but it never actually got released, from what I can dig up. Though there were a couple of prototypes made.

I have to say, it looks kind of cool, though I think I'd still rather have the Seaview.

And — the major point of interest for us here — Marvel did a tie-in comic that ran seven issues.

This was a hell of a nice package for a first issue. Actually, same as the show, they'd never match this level again.

I’d skipped it when it came out — I couldn’t buy everything, not even back then, but I’d always been kind of curious about it. I remember flipping through the first issue and being impressed at its sheer size. Two full-length stories and a number of text pieces, interviews with the actors and a diary of a set visit by Jo Duffy.

The writer on the book was Marvel workhorse Bill Mantlo, and art on the first story in the book was by Tom Sutton and Sonny Trinidad. The second story, and all the issues to follow, had art by Frank Robbins.

Anyway, I finally had a chance to settle in with the run last weekend after scoring all seven issues from our favorite convention-floor dealer, Randy of “Randy’s Reader Comics,” for a buck each.

Oddly, the same things that were unbearably stupid on TV seem much more plausible in a comic book.

Were they worth the wait? Well, no, not really. Not if I’m honest about it. But I do like these a lot.

The covers were uniformly cool, with a wide variety of artists.

They’re better than the show. But that’s not setting the bar all that high. The most impressive thing about these books are the covers. John Buscema, Gil Kane, Ernie Chan… we’re getting a lot of the Bronze Age heavy hitters rotating through here.

Kind of like the show itself Almost good.

All the power and dynamism I kept wanting to see on the show was here. The interesting thing was that Mantlo did very loose adaptations of a couple of the TV-movies and an episode or two, but he made extensive changes, and often improved on the originals.

This made a lot more sense here than it did on TV.

It helps that things that were just ludicrously stupid when I saw them acted out live on TV somehow made a lot more sense in a comic book. You sort of expect dimensional rifts to be commonplace in a Bronze Age Marvel book, it’s not as big a leap.

This was just when the book was starting to get interesting.

Mantlo did do some original stories, both with Mark’s recurring TV nemesis Mr. Schubert and also his own original villains, notably the pirate Skorba.

Half-assed Namor was what it was turning into.

And of course there was no budgetary limit to the plot points the comic could use. In the comic Mark Harris could fight cyborgs, dinosaurs, killer robots, all sorts of stuff that was far beyond Hollywood’s capability of putting on the screen back then.

Despite an excitement level that was easily triple what we got from the TV version, though, the Man From Atlantis comic still fizzled after seven issues. It must have been canceled suddenly; there was no wrapup, and in fact the last issue ended on a rather odd cliffhanger, with Mark returning to the Cetacean to find the crew in thrall to a guy in some sort of jester outfit. Which makes me think that Mantlo was about to embark on another loose adaptation, this time of the television episode “Imp,” probably the worst of the lot. (Which is saying something, but this YouTube clip will show you I’m not kidding.)

“Imp” notwithstanding, though, Man From Atlantis nevertheless was one of the few licensed comics with the dubious distinction of being better than the show it was spun off from. But it gave me that same feeling the show itself did, that frustrating sense of ‘almost.’ There’s a palpable aura of bad decisions and missed chances that hangs over the whole thing.

What possessed editor Archie Goodwin to give the art assignment on the book to Frank Robbins? I like Robbins’ work, but his jagged, anatomically-improvisational style of rendering figures in action is utterly wrong for a book like this, as is made painfully clear in the first issue when it runs side-by-side with the story from Sutton and Trinidad, not to mention pin-ups from Gene Colan and Mike Zeck. I can think of half a dozen guys in the Bullpen back then who’d have done it better, starting with the aforementioned Zeck. Somebody like, oh, Nestor Redondo. Or Sal Buscema. Or… hell, pick your own.

Likewise, why did Bill Mantlo waste half his issues doing adaptations? There was already the show AND licensed prose novels doing the same stories. I think the plot changes he made worked, but the net effect was still lukewarm deja vu, as was pointed out in several vocal letter column complaints. (The changes Mantlo made were so extensive that readers accused Mantlo of stealing the plots, it had to be explained that he was adapting stories.) In the days before home video, you could make a sort of a case for doing a prose adaptation, but a comics adaptation, even back then, still felt like pretty weak tea. Especially side-by-side with original pieces like the “Land That Time Forgot” riff Mantlo did in the later issues.

Everyone who worked on these — Goodwin, Mantlo, Robbins — is gone now, so I guess we’ll never know why they did it the way they did. Without question, it was a second-tier assignment for all of them, and that might be the explanation right there. I can see why Marvel decided to cut their losses; certainly, from their point of view, it made more sense to invest talent in reviving their own Sub-Mariner than it would trying to keep The Man From Atlantis going, especially after the TV show was gone.

Where's my goddamn Essential Sub-Mariner anyway?

(Although after Sub-Mariner got canceled in 1974, they didn’t try to get a Namor book going again until a decade later, the 1984 miniseries, and they didn’t get any real traction on one till John Byrne’s revival in 1990.)

I dunno. Maybe it’s just the underwater curse again. Nobody ever seems to really make the underwater heroes work for any length of time. But rereading these comics (and watching the pilot movie again) has reminded me how much I wish someone would get a cool undersea adventure series of some kind going.

Sadly, Man From Atlantis wasn’t it, but it was an honorable effort on all fronts, at least at the beginning. I give them credit for trying… and for seven bucks, I’m happy to have these comics at least. Though I am a little amused that I’m having the same reaction to the Marvel book today that I had to the TV show thirty years ago — the uncontrollable urge to tell them how to do it right. I guess that’s the fandom curse.

See you next week.

29 Comments

That Ben Murphy show later showed up on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I only ever had MFA #2 (in fact I may still have it in my collection), and I don’t know… I guess I sort of agree that Frank Robbins may not have been the best choice for interior art – he didn’t capture the actors’ likenesses very well at all and that was something that even at the ripe old age of five or six years old I sort of blanched at, but back then I didn’t associate the creator’s work with their names. Maybe Robbins was chosen because he was the regular artist for Marvel’s INVADERS, which at the time was where Namor was regularly featured, and someone thought since Mark Harris was sort of Namor, that Robbins would be a sensible choice.

I know I watched the show as a kid but don’t remember a single episode. It’s always been one of those shows I thought the Sci-FI channel should run but never seemed to. Maybe someday I’ll see the series again.

As far as wishing someone would do it right – why not just do it yourself, Greg? It’s not like anyone else is going to, if history is any indicator. Just saying.

It’s my opinion that no one should be allowed to write Aquaman unless they have a season-pass to a salt-water aquarium. Who wouldn’t want to read a book where Aquaman was essentially an aquanaut, exploring new regions underneath the ocean?

People who crave the melodramatic soap-opera-y ness of current superhero comics, I guess.

Who wouldn’t want to read a book where Aquaman was essentially an aquanaut, exploring new regions underneath the ocean?

I mutter some variation on this every time DC premieres an Aquaman book and it’s not happening. It was one of the things I liked so much about the way Kurt Busiek did Sword of Atlantis…. so, of course, all that went away when he did, five or six issues into the run. I read stuff like the Waid/Wieringo Aquaman pitch and it just makes me sad that Didio, or whoever, passes on things like that and we get… well, what we keep getting instead.

Bill Mantlo isn’t gone, is he?

Bill Mantlo isn’t gone, is he?

Technically, no. But he was injured in an accident that left him little more than a vegetable. More info here.

Tom Fitzpatrick

June 20, 2009 at 6:13 am

Bill Mantlo isn’t gone, is he?

– I think he’s still in a coma.

I still miss those good ol’ days when comics costs 35 cents. sigh.

Skobra – What you’d get if Cobra Commander’s used car dealership only sold Skodas?

Ye gods, that’s an awful name. It’s like verbal molasses – those letter just don’t look right near each other.

Greg: I agree on all points. Man From Atlantis was not my favorite TV show, but it definitely had its charm, mostly thanks to its actors. And yeah, I figured realism was out the window the very moment the computer just spat out “last survivor of Atlantis”. Even for a kid such as I was at the time, that makes you think “wait, how does the computer guess that when they don’t even know if Atlantis existed?” But I could tell it was a gimmick to justify the show’s title, and rolled with it. The important thing is, it was a fun show.

I never got to see the MFA comics, though. Distribution seemed odd around here; for example, I discovered American comics here around the time of the Dark Phoenix Saga, but no X-Men comics showed up in my newsstands until AFTER it was over (however, other big events of the time, such as the Avengers’ Korvac Saga, did. Go figure.)

You know, I always suspected that MFA was actually a loosened-for-TV adaptation of The Submariner, or possibly a rip-off. I kept waiting for Mark to be revealed to be an amnesiac Namor. :P Did anybody else get that impression?

I never heard of the show until years later, but my wife loved it. It’s one of the many, many reasons I married her.

I remember loving the show as a little kid, but thinking it was god-awfully goofy later when I would chance upon a re-run of one of the movies on some UHF channel. Although I agree it could have been much more successful if they didn’t do all the outrageous stuff (one of the few episodes I actually remember involved some lady leading this batty cult who was planning to load them all onto a standard NASA-type rocket, i.e. no warp speed or anything, and lead to some paradise on “another star.” WTF in spades) and kept the stories more focused on exploring the unknown wonders, and dangers, of the sea. After all, as I recall, Jacques Cousteau and his documentaries (and the accompanying book series), were probably at the height of their popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s. It shouldn’t have been too hard to use that as a template for some really good undersea adventuring…

By the way, your point about some things seeming less ludicrous in comics than when acted out kind of apply to comics vs. the real world in general. Especially super-hero comics. I mean, come on, those outlandish costumes they wear look so utterly and completely silly in real life, but appear completely “natural” and awesome in comics.

Patrick Duffy is doing these wierd Youtube shorts called “Patrick Duffy And The Crab.” I wonder if this is some sort of homage to “Man From Atlantis?”

And I thought King Cobra was the best worst thing Pat Morita was ever in. And I still have nightmares about that motorcycle Captain America– I’ve probably got it on tape somewhere, taken from the early 90s when Sci-Fi regularly did Marvel marathons– and all I can remember is that scene with the poor, rapidly-aged sheep. Matt Salinger’s movie is way better. Hell, I still legitimately like it, and would say it’s better than his dad’s Catcher in the Rye. Mwahaha. Ahem.

I think I’ve got one issue of Man from Atlantis somewhere– a musty old beaten-up copy, missing half its cover. I had no clue what the hell it was at the time, but I love these tossed-off, batty Bill Mantlo comics now– the man was an adaptation machine, it appears, turning whatever you threw at him into mostly-awesome runs, like ROM and the Human Fly.

And they’ve just solicited Essential Sub-Mariner, so it should be out in a few months or so.

Who wouldn’t want to read a book where Aquaman was essentially an aquanaut, exploring new regions underneath the ocean?

I must finally be going insane, because I had a dream last night that featured, at one point, a new relaunched Aquaman series debuting with that Marvel-y combined numbering– but sadly, the creative team was mediocre, so I’m sure it was doomed to fail, whatever it was.

It’s Skorba, not Skobra. Sounds like a cross between Zorba and scuba.

Judging from the covers, this book could have been any generic Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, or Conan story. I think I have these, but don’t remember if I have ever read them. I certainly didn’t remember the webbed hands.

Tom Fitzpatrick

June 20, 2009 at 11:25 am

I never heard of the show until years later, but my wife loved it. It’s one of the many, many reasons I married her.

So, you don’t mind being a runner-up for Patrick Duffy, then? ;-)

good article and no doubt not enough fan support for a trade as for Bill Mantlo was about to say he is not gone he is in an assistant living center for unfixable brain injuries. for he is still alive just not able to function due to brain injuries.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

June 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Marvel in the 1970s was all about wacky adaptations — anyone remember Jack Kirby’s 2001 comics, which turned into Machine Man’s debut?

Matt Salinger’s movie is way better. Hell, I still legitimately like it, and would say it’s better than his dad’s Catcher in the Rye.

My hand to God, when I first saw it on VHS ten or twelve years ago, my first comment was, “Damned if I didn’t enjoy that more than Catcher in the Rye.” What’s wrong with us??

@ Greg Hatcher:

I mutter some variation on this every time DC premieres an Aquaman book and it’s not happening. It was one of the things I liked so much about the way Kurt Busiek did Sword of Atlantis…. so, of course, all that went away when he did, five or six issues into the run. I read stuff like the Waid/Wieringo Aquaman pitch and it just makes me sad that Didio, or whoever, passes on things like that and we get… well, what we keep getting instead.

Aquaman is on the verge of joining Hawkman in the “might be better off appearing mostly outside comics” club.

The Golden Age origin for Hawkman is nearly perfect for the first act of a movie, it is just that the story-telling engine is limited for an on-going comic book series. Conversely, Aquaman has enough material to tell a lot of stories to an audience that is coming to it fairly devoid of expectations. If you combine the basics of the Waid-Wieringo pitch with Peter David’s mythology, then you’ve got a great cable TV series. Introduce a team of explorers on a quixotic quest for Atlantis. Introduce the son of a lighthouse keeper who is very eager to help them. Set up a little sexual tension between Arthur and the leader of the group. Introduce a mysterious woman named only Dolphin, who appears to live in the ocean to form a love triangle. Set up a rival team led by Arthur’s half-brother, Orm. Show them to be more ruthless and more effective. Dole out the PAD mythology in tantalizing spoonfuls.

That could run 4-5 seasons. Wrap Season 1 with the discovery of an abandoned Atlantean temple. Drop the reveal that Arthur’s mother was the exiled Crown Princess in the finale of Season 2. Have them discover a small community of Atlanteans in Season 3, only to have Orm kill them off after being tipped off by a traitor in Arthur’s group (i.e. the loser in the love triangle). End Season 4 with Arthur arriving in Posidenous, only to make a SHOCKING DISCOVERY. It sounds a little like “Lost” crossed with “Smallville”. That means it would be on at my house.

Did anyone watch that Aquaman pilot that spun off of Smallville? How was that?

Did anyone watch that Aquaman pilot that spun off of Smallville? How was that?

Good. Not as good as the first three (or so) seasons of “Smallville”, but better than the average action/sci-fi pilot. Worth a couple buck on iTunes to watch. The stuff they got right was how they portrayed Arthur Curry and the setting in the Florida Keys. The stuff they got wrong were some dull B and C plots dealing with the military dealing with Bermuda Triangle. In other words, they got all the important stuff right and all the fixable stuff wrong.

It is a shame the show didn’t get picked up, because it could’ve gotten a lot better as it rolled along.

It sounds a little like “Lost” crossed with “Smallville”. That means it would be on at my house.

It also means I would steer clear. Not a fan of either of those, and that’s putting it lightly. And I love me some Aquaman. Of course, I also think Aquaman would pretty much write itself as the most awesome comic in the world, but no one seems to agree.

Anybody who watched Craig Ferguson gets an occasional glimpse of Aquaman.

-”My hand to God, when I first saw it on VHS ten or twelve years ago, my first comment was, “Damned if I didn’t enjoy that more than Catcher in the Rye.” What’s wrong with us??”

I’d rather watch a back-to-back Man From Atlantis marathon than *ever* watch Catcher in the Rye, Thank You Very Much.

I’d rather watch a back-to-back Man From Atlantis marathon than *ever* watch Catcher in the Rye, Thank You Very Much.

I am guessing so would JD Salinger, since he has never allowed his work to be adapted.

What about James Cameron’s “Aquaman” movie starring Vincent Chase? That was a big hit.

Did anyone watch that Aquaman pilot that spun off of Smallville? How was that?

About on a level with the first season of Smallville itself. Lots of potential, lots of good ideas — I especially liked the setup of starting with young Arthur Curry, discontented son of a Coast Guard father, and working backward from that to the mysteries of Atlantis.

However, also like Smallville, I got the impression that the show would have ended up being MUCH more about the soap opera and the romance between A.C. and the various hot girls who were cast in supporting roles. Kind of like how we were hoping Smallville would be a Superman’s-coming-of-age story, essentially Superboy without the suit — and what we got was Dawson’s Creek with superpowers. I imagine that the CW Aquaman would have been Dawson’s Creek with flippers.

Still, we enjoyed the pilot here and it’s worth a look if you run across it.

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