Atari Force Fed

What Happens When You Cross a Comic Book with a Video Game?
Part I

by Bob Sodaro

From Amazing Heroes #22 (April 1983)

[Note: Mr. Sodaro was kind enough to both make me aware of this article and send me a copy. I thank him for letting me use it here.]

I suppose it had to happen. What with both Atari and DC Comics being owned by Warner Communications, and owing to the popularity of (and similarities between) comics and video games, someone had to get the idea to join the two media in a marriage, of formats. The only problem is that while it worked in one direction (Superman is a fast-paced game cartridge for the Atari 2600 VCS game system, and Spider-Man an interesting Atari-compatible Parker Brothers Game), it has not (as yet), worked out in the other. That is to say that the Atari Force comics that have been packaged with the Defender, Berzerk, and Star Raiders cartridges are, at best, mediocre.

Stunningly rendered in a reduced format (to fit in the game cartridge boxes), and printed on slick paper with full-color processing, they are indeed impressive. However, they tend to suffer from the same approach that marred Spider-Man's first novel Mayhem in Manhattan. The writers (Marv Wolfman and Len Wein in the case of the Spidey book, and Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas in the case of Atari Force) have failed to understand the differences between the two media in which they are working. Interestingly enough, while the video game books read like comics, the comic insert to Teen Titans #27 reads like a video game (which, needless to say, is how the video comics should have been produced-but more on this later).

For those of you who have not as yet bought the three video games mentioned (due to lack of interest, money, or an Atari), the books are about a group of individuals who live in the year 2005. The story opens shortly after the 5-Day War that devastated much of the globe. The U.S. took the brunt of the attack, and was bombed into near non-existence by the "Enemy". (This "Enemy" is never named, but is always referred to in the third person. Perhaps Atari did not want to offend anyone in the international community, for fear of loss of sales. Yet you would think that creative people like Conway and Thomas could have invented a name for this "Enemy"...something sly, but Mattel, or Coleco.) After the war, an organization arose from the ashes of what used to be the United States, and took over. This organization is comprised of a group of scientists that belonged to (surprise) the Atari Institute. Somehow the notion of a video-gaming company coming into world dominance sends shivers down my spine...but I digress.

Now, the Atari Institute wanted to send a team of explorers into the multiverse, in order to find an Earth-like world to colonize before the Earth itself dies of radiation poisoning. As SF goes, the concept is fairly old hat, but it's a workable plotline. Unfortunately, the concept falls flat on its videogame screen, because the comics have no direct involvement with the games in which they are packaged. The only relation between the games and the books is that each book has a chapter titled after the game in which it is enclosed. Also, the instruction book to Star Raiders makes an oblique, easily overlooked reference to its comic. Not that the comics had to relate to the games, but it would have been nice if they had. Actually it is my understanding that this concept was considered and dismissed as unworkable; more’s the pity, as the present concept is just as wrong.

Perhaps it was determined that if the comics offered a continuing storyline and a cast of characters, people would rush right out and purchase the next cartridge, so that they can find out what is happening. Too bad that it just does not work that way. The odds that everyone who owns an Atari is a comics fan (or even a DC Comics fan), are pretty slim. Generally speaking, while the idea of a team of special agents ala S.H.I.E.L.D., CONTROL, or T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is not bad--having a continued plotline is. DC and Atari would have been better off if they had used the comic as a way of explaining the game play, as was done with the comic that was packaged with Yars' Revenge (not an Atari Force/DC book, but very nicely produced in a Heavy Metal style--written by Hope Shafer and drawn by Frank Cirocco, Ray Garst, and Hiro Kimura). While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the Atari Force idea itself, the main action of each comic should, have been concluded at the end of each issue. Moreover, the books tend to become disjointed whenever a new character is introduced. The storyline stops dead while the reader is "treated" to a flashback of the character's identity, which explains why he or she is there. This makes the storyline difficult to follow.

Still, in spite of these objections, I have no real criticism of the art in the comics, as it has been handled quite nicely by Ross Andru (#1, 2, and the special insert), and Gil Kane (#3), with inks by Dick Giordano.

Yet even these are not the only problems with Atari Force; there are many technical errors as well. In Atari Force #1 we are introduced to one of the main characters: a woman who, clad in a dark colored jumpsuit, breaks into the Atari Institute. At first she appears to be a saboteur in service to the "Enemy," but later (in #2), she is revealed to be an Atari "plant" testing security. Throughout #1 and partly through #2 she is colored as a black, yet all this time she has been thinking to herself in an Irish Brogue (Black Irish, perhaps?). Then, for a couple of panels in #2, she is colored as a Caucasian, and finally winds up with a skin coloring similar to Shang-Chi's (turns out she is the offspring of an Irish man and a Chinese woman). To further add to the confusion of her ancestry, her Irish brogue tends to appear and disappear in her thought pattern, and then vanishes altogether when she speaks aloud.

Further (and I am not sure if this is an error), the main computer of Scanner One (the name of Atari Force’s inter-dimensional ship), is referred to as an Atari 8000 computer. (Personally, I think that they should have named it HAL 9000 (after the computer of Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey), but then again nobody asked me). Now the extra zero could have been added by mistake (as Atari manufactures an 800 computer line), or perhaps it was meant to be there. For the year of the comic is 2005, and Atari might in fact be up to an 8000 model number by then. Also, in the Star Raiders comic (and this one is a "typo"...or "printo", as the book was hand-lettered) the aliens are called Zylons, except for one page where they are referred to as Krylons...which is what they are called in the Star Raiders manual.

Issue #4 is to be included with the Phoenix game cartridge and whether there will be following issues, is anybody’s guess (as to an improvement in the technical quality, we can only hope). Still, not to fill all their baskets with one egg, Atari has begun issuing a new series of games, the first of which was released in November of '82. This series is a Dungeons-and-Dragons type series (based—no doubt—on the popularity of the role-playing games, and the arcade game Venture--now an Atari-compatible cartridge from Coleco). This series of four games, entitled Swordquest, includes comics illustrated by George Perez. Here Thomas and Conway score better with a tightly-plotted, nicely-written story that is beautifully rendered by the sure hand of Perez.

However, under close examination, one would find that all the prospects of this marriage of formats have, as yet, to be explored. Unfortunately, Parker Brothers was not quick enough to have Marvel (or someone else), produce an Empire Strikes Back for their eponymous game. They also should have had Marvel produce a Spider-Man comic for their new Spidey game, though perhaps they will have Hulk and Conan comics in their upcoming Hulk and Conan video games. Evidently, conflict of interest prevented Atari from asking Marvel to produce a Raiders comic for their new Raiders of the Lost Ark game. Then there is Coleco, who should have contacted Marie Severin to draw a series of Smurf comics for their line of Smurf games. Imagic missed the boat as well by failing to have a mini-comic starring Namor or Aquaman in their Atlantis game. And how about the other video game companies...will they also be producing comics for their games...and if they do, will they stop there?

As noted before, Atari Force has already invaded mainstream comics with their special insert entitled Liberator, and plans to issue a regular size, newsstand edition of Atari Force. Curiously enough, Liberator seems to read very much like the game play of Laserblast; ironically, Laserblast is an Activision game.

Will this trend of bringing video games to comics continue? Are we soon to be subjected to comic books with titles like Pac-Man Funnies (they do, after all, have their own Saturday-morning animated adventures), or even Donkey Kong Wars? Will Marvel begin publication of The Incredible Frogger (starring of course the Leap Frog's son, last seen in Marvel Team-Up)? Perhaps the Human Fly will return to Marvel to costar with the human-like flies of Yars' Revenge, in For Your Flies Only...or even a Circus Atari comic featuring the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime.

Somehow, I do not think that fandom is quite ready for any of this. However, being both a comics fan and the owner of an Atari 2600, I have enjoyed (to a degree), both the new games and the comics from Atari/DC. I also feel that, with a bit of fine tuning, "Video Comics" could become very beneficial to both industries.

Copyright 1999 by Freelance Ink and the author. Reprinted here with permission. Slight editing was performed on this version by the original writer.

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ATARI FORCE is an expired registered trademark of the original Atari, Inc. Copyright on ATARI FORCE material belongs to either Atari, Inc. (formerly known as Infogrames) or DC Comics, depending on which issue's indica you examine. This web site, its operators, and any content contained on this site relating to ATARI FORCE are not authorized by DC Comics or Atari.

Lee K. Seitz (
Created: 20 May 1999; Last Modified: 20 May 1999