29 July 2000

CVG 101: The Comic Book Connection (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introduction. This article was originally published in CGM #4 (summer 2000). This is the article as I submitted it and may not exactly match what was published.]

In the early 1980s, video games were everywhere as everyone was trying to cash in on the booming video game business. This included the comic book companies. First of all, both DC and Marvel, two of the largest publishers at the time, were licensing their characters for use in video games, the primary examples being the Superman and Spider-Man Atari 2600 games. (For more examples, just flip through the previous issue.) When it came to linking video games and comics, DC may have had an edge because both it and Atari were, for a time, owned by Warner Communications. Atari included several small, DC-produced comic books, called "pack-ins" or "in-packs," with their Atari 2600 games. What I believe was the first one, however, was apparently produced without the help of DC.

Yars’ Revenge: The Qotile Ultimatum was a short, eight page comic that served as a prologue to Howard Scott Warshaw’s first Atari 2600 game. It explained the origin of the Yars, the reason (more or less) they were fighting the Qotile, and even how to play the game. If it had included the game version matrix, it could have almost been substituted for the instruction manual. The story by Hope Shafer was rather simplistic, but the art by Frank Cirocco, Ray Garst, and Hiro Kimura was well done. It was not a bad first effort, but apparently Atari’s new parent, Warner Communications, decided it would be more expedient to have another Warner company, DC, handle the pack-ins from then on. (This is conjecture on my part as Yars’ Revenge and Defender, the first game to include an Atari Force comic, were both released in 1982, so I’m not 100% certain which came first.)

DC pack-ins debuted with a series of comics about a science fiction team named Atari Force. The use of the name "Atari" was explained as standing for "Advanced Technology And Research Institute." The series opened in 2005 on an Earth recovering from the Five Day War. This war irreparably damaged the Earth’s ecosystem. As a result, ATARI sent a group of five international adventurers out in Scanner One , a starship that could travel to parallel universes. There they searched for a new planet to which Earth’s population would be moved. As you might guess, these comics were more involved than the one from Yars' Revenge. They featured the talents of known comic book creators. The writers were Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, while the art was handled by Ross Andru or Gil Kane, and Dick Giordano.

The first two issues, which introduced the team members, came with the Defender and Berzerk cartridges and had little to do with the games. The third pack-in came with Star Raiders and was more directly related tot he game. Issue number four, which came with Phoenix, was something of an oddity. Whereas the rest of the issues weighed in at 48 pages, this one was only 16 pages long. And Atari Force only played a minor role. This story also appeared as a bonus feature in New Teen Titans #27 and DC Comics Presents #53. There were several differences between the pack-in and the bonus feature. The biggest was that in the bonus feature, the featured ship was called the Liberator instead of the Phoenix. Atari actually went on to create a coin-op game called Liberator, which was based on the story and has been called a reverse Missile Command, that same year. It even featured the Atari Force logo on the marquee! Finally, the fifth pack-in came with Galaxian and featured the story of Atari Force finally finding a new planet to colonize. According to articles that appeared in Atari Age magazine, the magazine of the official Atari Club, there were actually more stories planned. It would appear that someone decided to cut the pack-ins short in order to prepare for the debut of the full-sized Atari Force comic.

This series debuted on newsstands and at comic book shops at the end of 1983. It featured two children of the original Atari Force, Martin Champion (leader of the original team), and an interesting cast of aliens. They fought against a reincarnated Dark Destroyer, who had also been the recurring enemy of the original Atari Force. The series lasted for 20 issues, was brought back for a Special the following year, and has not been heard of since. The primary creators for the first dozen or so issues were Gerry Conway, writer, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, penciller. Wrapping up the series were Mike Baron as writer and Eduardo Barreto as penciller. Ricardo Villagran inked the majority of the issues.

The reasons for the title's cancellation were unclear. In the final issue, editor Andy Helfer stated DC knew when they started that the story would have a definite ending. However, one can’t help but wonder if the break-up and sale of Atari by Warner and the video game crash of 1984 didn't also factor in. I don’t have sales figures, but Amazing Heroes, a magazine about comics, included Atari Force in its list of the ten best books of 1984. Regardless, because the series was short-lived and independent of any major superhero "universe," today you can find back issues in the bargain bins of comic book stores, if you can find them at all. You can find out more about Atari Force at my own Atari Force Headquarters web site.

Atari Force was not DC's only attempt to bring video games to comic books. They also produced two graphic novels based on Atari's games. The first was Star Raiders by Elliot S! Maggin, writer, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, artist. This was actually DC’s very first graphic novel and it predated the full-sized Atari Force series. It had a brief cameo appearance of the original Atari Force from their adventure in the third pack-in. From there it went on to tell the story of what happened after they left. It’s an entertaining read and worth searching out at comic book shops.

DC’s other video game-based graphic novel was Warlords . (Not to be confused with their unrelated comic book series called Warlord.) This fantasy story by Steve Skeates, writer, and David Wenzel, artist, told of a troll named Dwayne and his somewhat reluctant efforts to unify his world, which was divided into four kingdoms. The leaders of the four kingdoms were a set of brothers who were constantly at war. Beyond that, the story has little relation to the video game it was based on. Overall, it’s not bad, but I personally wouldn't spend a lot to get it. I was able to get my copy fairly cheap on eBay, although you may also find it at comic book stores.

Returning to the topic of DC’s pack-in comics, shortly after Atari Force debuted, Atari began their series of SwordQuest games. The idea behind these games was that players could win valuable prizes by buying and playing the games. During game play, players would get clues for where to look in the accompanying comic book for a piece of the puzzle, which was a word phrase. Sending in the complete puzzle to Atari got one considered for the contest. The creators behind the comic books (which were much better than the actual games) were largely the same as those handling the Atari Force pack-ins. Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas again wrote the series and Dick Giordano inked it. The penciller this time, however, was fan favorite George Perez. Together, these creators told the story of twin thieves, Torr and Tarra, and their quest through four worlds for the Sword of Ultimate Sorcery. Unfortunately, the sale of Atari Corp. to Jack Tramiel caused Atari to stop the contest. The third game and comic, WaterWorld, is very difficult to find while the fourth game, AirWorld, was never started. The AirWorld comic was started, at least as far as plotting goes, but it’s unknown whether any art was done or where any of this work is now. You can find scans of all the released comics on the Internet at http://www.tripoint.org/sq/sq.html.

The final pack-in DC did for Atari was Centipede. This comic was much more cartoonish than the previous ones. The story, by Howard Post and Andrew Gutelle with art by Howard Post and Robert Smith, was about a young elf named Oliver who lived in a forest and was friends with a centipede, spider, flea, and scorpion. An evil wizard turned the elf village’s mushroom supply into toadstools and Oliver’s arthropod friends against him. The most likely place to find this and the other pack-in comics is the same place you find cartridges and instruction manuals: thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales, and the Internet. Because of the full-sized Atari Force series, you can sometimes find the Atari Force pack-ins in comic book stores, but it's unlikely.

While DC Comics went the more traditional route of adapting another medium (in this case, video games) to comics, Marvel created a comic book-sized magazine called Blip . Blip was a mix of interviews, news, playing tips, cartoons, reviews, and more. In other words, a fairly typical (aside from the size) video game magazine from the early 1980s. It was apparently not a success, however, as it only lasted seven issues. Given lead times in the comic book industry, this means the series was probably canceled almost as soon as sales figures from the first couple of issues were obtained. Although when you look at the timing, this is not particularly surprising. Blip ran from February to August of 1983. Due to "The Crash," many video game magazines either ceased publication or reduced their frequency at the end of 1983. You can sometimes find back issues of Blip in comic book stores, but because it was a magazine not dedicated to comics, this is a rare occurrence.

As you can see, there is plenty of material for classic video game collectors who also happen to be comic book collectors to find. I've actually been surprised by the number of video game collectors who are current or former comic book collectors. No doubt, the marriage of these two mediums should make them happy. And for those that aren't comic book collectors, these comics still make a great addition to your own collection of video game memorabilia.

Postscript (12 June 2013)

I don't have much to say about this. Cav announced the theme of the issue would be video game cartoons, so I assumed comic books were fair game as well. I was a comic book collector before I became a video game collector, so this was right up my alley. I initially volunteered to write a special article strictly about Atari Force, but decided to just include them in my broader article for my regular column instead.

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