Thursday, September 23, 2010


An AICN chat with Atlas Comics' Jason Goodman and Brendan Deneen

In 1974, Marvel and DC found themselves challenged directly in the newsstand market by upstart Atlas Comics founded by Martin Goodman (founder of Marvel Comics). Atlas Comics were marked by a trade-dress and style that was intentionally similar to the Marvel Comics of the time – a bold and direct assault on the House of Ideas.

The success of Atlas Comics was short-lived, less than 2 years, but during that brief period of time they churned out some surprisingly strong comics written and drawn by some of the best in the business (Archie Goodwin, Michael Fleischer, Larry Hama, Howard Chaykin, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky, Steve Ditko, and more). However, when Atlas ceased publication, their rather large stable of characters disappeared...seemingly forever.

To most comic fans, Atlas has survived in memory as little more than an interesting footnote lost to history. For the industry though, Atlas was a pioneer as the first comics publisher to increase pay rates and provide co-ownership/profit-sharing opportunities for their creative artists. And most historically, Atlas was the first to return all artwork to the artists who produced the works. And that's where Atlas began and ended in comics history over three decades ago.

Last week, the comics industry was uniformly surprised to see an announcement that, in partnership with Ardden Entertainment, Jason Goodman (grandson of Martin Goodman) is planning to re-launch Atlas Comics at the New York Comic-Con on October 8, 2010. Ardden’s Editor-in-Chief and legendary comic writer, J.M. DeMatteis, was quoted in the announcement on Ardden's website saying “"The Atlas universe is filled with characters of tremendous potential. I look forward to being a part of this re-launch as we re-imagine these wonderful characters and send them off on new adventures for the first time in thirty-five years."

I immediately contacted Brendan Deneen, Co-President of Ardden Entertainment to talk about this new project. The following column is the result of a virtual chat between Deneen, Goodman, and myself conducted over the course of about 4 or 5 days.

ME: I would like to begin this conversation with Brendan Deneen. Tell me a little about how you got from the position of Production Executive at Dimension/Miramax Films to Co-President of Ardden Entertainment?

BRENDAN DENEEN (BD): Okay. I befriended Rich Emms when I was working as a book- and comic-to-film scout for Dimension/Miramax Films. In that role, I had come across a series called DARKHAM VALE that Rich was publishing through his small UK company, AP Comics. He would later go on to become Editor-in-Chief of Markosia.
During a visit to the States, he invited me to join him on a trip to the Wizard Magazine offices in Congers New York. We had a really good time during the bus ride, bonding over comics we loved, such as the Byrne/Claremont run on X-MEN. At one point, I pitched him a comic idea I created when I was 19 years old (in 1991!) called SCATTERBRAIN.

He seemed interested but I thought he was just being polite.

ME: Ha!

BD: About a month later, he brought it up and said he wanted to publish it. During that time, I believe, is when he was hired by Markosia as their EiC, and he brought SCATTERBRAIN with him and published it in 2006. We got great quotes from Michael Avon Oeming, Brian K. Vaughan, Geoff Johns, Jim Krueger, and Robert Kirkman; and some great reviews, including you guys, who called it one of the best indie books of the year.

I had been trying for years before that to get noticed by Marvel or DC but no luck, despite knowing editors at both companies. I figured SCATTERBRAIN would be the beginning and end of my comic writing career.

ME: It’s not an easy business to break into professionally these days outside of self-publishing. There was a time when even a person with marginal talent could find himself writing or drawing comics simply because he just happened to be around at the moment that an editor needed to fill a slot.

BD: Totally true! day, out of the blue, Rich emailed me and said "Hey, do you want to put together a Flash Gordon pitch?"

And I was like.... "Uh... HELLS YES!"

So, I put together a 4 or 5 page pitch, which would eventually become THE MERCY WARS arc. I also had the bare bones for the second and third arcs at that point as well. After they had read my treatment (and liked it), they then said, "Actually, there's this new Flash Gordon show coming up, would you be willing to do a new treatment set in the world of the show?"

ME: Ugh.

BD: I read a few of the episode scripts and came up with what I thought was a really bad ass WRATH OF KHAN-esque arc that took place between, I think, episodes 2 and 3.

ME: What did they think of it?

BD: They loved it...but then the show came out and...well, everyone knows that happened there.

So, I re-approached them with my original concept and they approved it. However, when I shopped the project around to a number of big publishers...NO ONE WAS INTERESTED! Image wouldn't even return my emails. It was almost laughable.

ME: That seems odd for a property as much a part of the popular lexicon as FLASH GORDON. I's friggin' FLASH GORDON!

BD: Exactly. So, Rich said we should start our own company...and that's just what we did!

ME: So, you and Rich went into business initially to publish the FLASH GORDON comic. How did J.M. DeMatteis come into it?

BD: Well, by that point, I was a literary and film agent and I had just started representing him. He said, "Hey, if you ever want something more than a writer, let me know." And I said something like "How about Editor-in-Chief?" and he said, "Sure."

That's a bit truncated...but not much!

ME: You make it sound so simple...

BD: It was very smooth. He and I already had a great working relationship and I knew him from my time at Dimension/Miramax.

ME: And the comic was well-received?

BD: We released FLASH GORDON #0 at the 2008 NY Comic-Con and sold out of a couple thousand issues over the weekend. We were blown away by the reception.

The first six issues sold very well and the critical response was, I'd say, 75/25 positive. Some people had problems with my writing or Paul's art, but most people loved the fact that I hewed so closely to Alex Raymond's concepts and that I was having FUN with it!!
And JM's notes were HUGELY helpful.

ME: So, this is about 2 years ago. In those 2 years, you've published FLASH GORDON successfully and grabbed a license from Harvey Comics to modernize Casper, Wendy, and Hot Stuff. But're relaunching an entire line of comics that are mostly known as a historic footnote from the mid-70s. How does this happen?

BD: For CASPER, J.M. and I just put together a KILLER concept, and I think Classic Media recognized that immediately. The book was (obviously) plagued with delays but we're VERY proud of it.

We're in talks right now with Classic to do a sequel.

ME: Seriously, one of my favorite comics of the last year. There's actually a very solid bunch of comics being published right now for the younger market that are very good for all ages and CASPER & THE SPECTRALS is one of them.

BD: Thank you! We appreciate it so much. Anyway, my mind started thinking about other licenses to pursue and for some reason, i thought of Atlas.

I had bought all those comics from the back issue bin when i was younger.

ME: A perfect transition point to bring Jason Goodman into this conversation. Jason, I'm curious about you and the process that got you to this point where you are about to perform the rather daunting task of relaunching your grandfather's line of comics.

JASON GOODMAN (JG): For me, fortunately, this journey began at birth. The bounty of comics that arrived daily at home was more than any kid could ask for - Marvel & Atlas - all hot off the presses! In what could most generously be described as the folly of youth (and most harshly as an act of pure idiocy/lunacy, albeit by a 10 year old), I sold my childhood comic collection in the late 70’s at my lemonade stand on the corner 90th St. and West End Ave. (pre-Antiques Roadshow). Fast forward through college and a Wall Street career to the mid-90’s when I finally went into the family business after my dad (Chip Goodman) passed. For 15 years now, I have published consumer magazines in every field from Log Homes to Pilates. However, I have always treasured the Atlas titles and characters and was waiting for the right moment to re-introduce them to the world – a moment when I had enough time to seriously devote to the project, and the right people to work with.

BD: I reached out to Jason and it turned out he was talking to a number of places already. We started meeting in New York City and just really hit it off. He had a cool vision for what he wanted the books to be, and had this great core of advisors and the four us just started brainstorming ways to bring the brand back.

It took awhile, because there were a lot of pieces to put together, but apparently it was worth it!!

JG: Brendan and the Ardden Entertainment gang, and my own creative team – they all have great passion, talent and intensity – I’m having a blast!

ME: Can you share a little of the vision? I ask because you're talking about reintroducing these characters into a market that feels almost overrun by super-heroes. How do you take these characters, clearly modeled on the late silver age Marvel style, and make them relevant and stand out from the crowd? I carry deeply-rooted nostalgia for many of the characters, but we have 2 or 3 generations of readers with no foreknowledge of Atlas at all. What's the pitch?

JG: The goal, put most simply, is to tell great stories! In that regard, we have a world-class creative legacy to build on. I won’t presume to bore you with the multimedia, cross-platform, multi-channel licensing, etc...suffice it to say, it’s all true and this is a money-making (should I say "profit seeking"?) enterprise - just a ridiculously fun and cool one.

BD: The key is that these are MORE than just superheroes. We're going to approach each title with that attitude....a great story first and more than just a couple of guys in spandex beating the crap out of each other. PHOENIX is a science fiction story more than it is a superhero story. It's about a dude who is abducted by aliens, imbued with crazy powers, and then escapes!! And THE GRIM GHOST is this horror/thriller about a man trapped between life and death.

ME: I bought the original PHOENIX #1 in Puerto Rico....I guess I was 3rd or 4th grade!

BD: Nice!!!

ME: In fact, I bought a number of Atlas comics when they were first published -- PHOENIX, GRIM GHOST, SCORPION, LOMAX, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES...

BD: Over the last week or so, I've been blown away by how many people have fond memories of them...including me!

ME: One of my personal favorites was FRIGHT starring THE SON OF DRACULA by Gary Friedrich & Frank Thorne. I kept looking and looking for that second issue....that never arrived! Any chance of reprint collections?

BD: We're talking about reprints! But that's another story.

ME: Of the concepts you are working on right now, do you expect to pick up any of the series from the point where they originally stopped or reimagine each one for the modern audience?

JG: Modernization is a natural – comics have always changed with the times. But you’re correct, the opportunity exists for us to take some truly nascent original Atlas story lines and start straight from there. Stay tuned.

ME: Okay. The characters are more than just super-heroes. That jumps the hurdle of Dynamite's PROJECT SUPERPOWERS. Are you looking at creating a whole "shared universe" concept or are you dealing with them as stand-alone concepts or some sort of combination?

BD: Stand-alone concepts for now. I love shared universes but I think that can become very dense, very quickly. I would love to do a big shared universe some day but i don't think it makes sense for Atlas.

ME: Are you planning ongoing series or...rather...a series of mini-series for the different concepts. Similar to your successful approach to FLASH GORDON?

BD: Yes, exactly. The first arc of each will be the origin story.

ME: You realize, of course, that PLANET OF VAMPIRES needs to seriously be front-loaded.

BD: Ha, yes.

ME: Seriously. Before the big vampire glut implodes.

JG: I stand proudly on my sunlit altar, wreathed in garlic, and say, “I fear no glut.” Seriously, though, we are going to roll these books out slowly, taking our time to pick the perfect creative teams and modern storylines for each one. We have no plans to dump a bunch of mediocre titles into the marketplace and hope for the best. We're here for the long term and we want each book to be as good as it possibly can. We think people are going to love what we have up our collective sleeves!

BD: It's funny because everyone has their favorite! We have an AWESOME concept for WULF, a very cool BRUTE idea that moves him totally away from "Hulk" and a great way to do IRON JAW. I'm not sure which titles will be next but we are talking about ALL of them. We're very, very excited.

ME: Any chance you're talking to some of the original writers and artists about contributing to the new line? In particular, I will sleep much better after this interview if I know you have at least APPROACHED Howard Chaykin about creating new stories for THE SCORPION.

BD: We're already talking to some A-list writers about a number of the titles.

ME: That's not a "no".

JG: I wouldn’t want to diminish your journalistic vigilance by giving you answers that would help you sleep at night.

ME: *sigh* I got to talking last week with a grumpy old fan and he expressed a cynical reaction to your announcement because he said Atlas was just an old Marvel rip-off. That type is going to be your toughest sell I think. So, from a marketing standpoint give me your approach to drawing in the jaded fan who might love the new Atlas if he would just give it a chance.

BD: I don't necessarily agree with that assessment of those original titles. But even if I did, we're approaching these with a 21st century mentality. And honestly, I've been developing intellectual property professionally for over a decade. I know comic books, novels and movies inside and out. I'm an editor at a major publishing company. I know good stories and how to develop them. And Jason has a great perspective on these things, too, and has this amazing Goodman legacy. We are updating the original stories while staying true to the core concepts of what made them so cool in the first place.

ME: Hell...all characters are derivative of some other character in some way. Even Superman was derivative of Doc Savage who was derivative of Gladiator who was derivative of Hercules...

BD: ...and Flash Gordon was King Features' answer to Buck Rogers.

ME: It is what you do with the character and the concept that makes it or breaks it.

In recent years, Marvel/Disney bought out Malibu and CrossGen and is in the process of relaunching some CrossGen titles. DC has licensed the Red Circle characters and the THUNDER Agents, plus bought the Milestone line and appears to be rolling the WildStorm characters into the DC Universe. Dynamite and ABC both brought back a number of public domain characters. With such a crowded market, how does Atlas make themselves relevant to the market and translate that into sales?

JG: In today’s business world, it is very difficult to find a market that isn’t extremely competitive – sometimes you just need a reason, the right reason. In my case, a great family history; a solid foundation of titles; a loyal, pre-existing fan base; and some great people to work with. One of the many great blessings of Atlas is that we have a deep bench of titles and characters to draw from. The nature of each story we tell will influence frequency and format....

ME: Do you see yourself making inroads with Atlas Comics in other retail venues than just local comic book stores? If so, what type of approach?

JG: Local comic book stores are the industry’s life blood and will continue to be the centerpiece of our retail distribution strategy. We certainly hope to supplement that with expansion into other classes of trade, and my consumer magazine experience (tens of millions of copies sold) should help that effort.

ME: Any insight into what's officially on the schedule (and when) and what is planned in the long term including writers and artists lined up?

BD: We'll be releasing the #0's for PHOENIX and GRIM GHOST via Diamond in the coming months, and then the monthly issues will start early 2011. Oh, the #0's will first be available at New York Comic-Con, then via Diamond/comic stores.

ME: I'm digging that GRIM GHOST cover. Who's the cover artist?

BD: Qing Ping Mui.

ME: Gesundheit!

BD: Ha! Someone on our team found him. The art on PHOENIX is by Ian and Guy Dorian. That's really all I can reveal right now.

JG: Forgive us if we keep some secrets...for just a while longer.

ME: Who gets the credit for the fantastic design work on the logos, masthead and covers?

BD: Rich Emms has done all the design work, and he's incredible at it.

ME: Final question goes to Jason and refers to the Atlas "brand". When someone says "Atlas", what do you want them to think?

JG: What’s a nice boy like you doing in a business like this? or preferably AWESOME! Seriously though, I would like Atlas to stand for great stories that have been told and great stories still to come.

ME: Thank you, both of you, Brendan and Jason, for your time and cooperation. I hope your efforts are rewarded and that you'll keep AICN and our readers in the loop on future Atlas and Ardden projects. Check out Ardden’s website and the Atlas Archives for more info!

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