The case for and against Targitt: Man-Stalker
PROSECUTION: We have here before us today, m’lud, a strange tale of revenge and chicanery. I refer not merely to the comic presently on trial,
Targitt, but to the story behind the genesis of its publishing company. Atlas Comics is not to be confused with the 1950s imprint that evolved into Marvel. Rather, it’s the company set up by former Marvel bigwig Martin Goodman in 1974, which he intended not only to rival the hugely successful House of Ideas, but to surpass it in sales and renown. Having sold Marvel to Cadence Industries two years earlier, Goodman left his son Chip in charge as editorial director. Stan Lee, however, soon ousted Chip Goodman from that job, earning him the undying enmity of Goodman senior.
DEFENCE: In setting up Atlas, Goodman was not motivated solely by pique and greed. He offered comics freelancers higher rates of pay than they were receiving at either Marvel or DC, along with a share of character ownership and a guarantee to artists that their artwork would be returned to them. This was unheard of in those ruthless work-for-hire days. He felt that creators with a personal stake in the comics they produced would turn in quality work. These incentives lured some of the top talent of the day to Atlas, among them Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, John Severin, Wally Wood and Mike Sekowsky. It was a noble venture, and soon the Big Two felt compelled to follow suit, also agreeing to return artwork.
PROSECUTION: Jeff Rovin, formerly of Warren Comics, was appointed editor at Atlas, with a brief to establish a line of superhero comics with the edginess and unconventional pizzazz of Marvel. Rovin, however, seemed to have other ideas. “My own ambition from the start was to do characters that were a bit outré and experimental,” he has said, “somewhat more hard-bitten and schizophrenic than the average superhero.” His tactic was to take popular literary, TV and movie properties and carry out what one might euphemistically call “retasking”. In other words, swipe mercilessly. Thus Atlas put out not one but two of its own versions of Conan The
Barbarian – Wulf The Barbarian and Iron-Jaw – and borrowed the premise of the movie The Omega
Man for its Planet Of Vampires. Morlock 2001 is a bizarre fusion of Swamp Thing and 1984, while in characters such as the Brute, the Grim Ghost and the Tarantula we see darker, monstrous equivalents of the Hulk, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man.
DEFENCE: Which brings us to Targitt. No one can deny the influence of early-’70s cop and vigilante films on the title. John Targitt is an FBI agent whose wife and daughter are killed in a plane bombing and who consequently embarks on a one-man vendetta against criminals. As such he is reminiscent of Paul Kersey, the character played by Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series. Targitt carries a .44 Magnum handgun, like Dirty Harry in the Clint Eastwood movies. His surname echoes that of Frank Bullitt, protagonist of Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen. At the time, though, it was a radical move to publish a mainstream, Code-approved newsstand comic focusing on an embittered, gun-toting rogue law enforcer who is unafraid to shoot baddies in the face.
PROSECUTION: Ah, the infamous face-shooting in issue #1. As rendered by artist Howard Nostrand, the moment is farcical. In one panel, Targitt wedges his gun under the nose of mob hitman Alan Greenburg. In the next, the gun goes off with a BAM! and Greenburg’s head disappears in a puff of smoke, almost as though in a conjuring trick. Two pages later a grenade detonates with the sound effect BLOOEY! This and Nostrand’s penchant for exaggeratedly comedic facial expressions are at odds with the tough-guy dialogue provided by scripter Ric Meyers. If Rovin was after comics that were “schizophrenic”, he certainly got that with Targitt.
Targitt’s costume features a huge target emblem… it’s as if he’s inviting his enemies to take aim
DEFENCE: Issue #2 marks a bold new start as Targitt, now an FBI operative again, goes after Arab terrorists intent on disrupting America’s oil supply. Mid-mission he dons a skintight black suit with goggles and a full face mask; this has been supplied to him by his boss, Carl, in order that he can continue his work undercover, not drawing attention to himself. The comic is retitled John Targitt, Man
Stalker, to reflect its more superheroic flavour.
PROSECUTION: “Not drawing attention to himself.” Forgive, Your Honour, a little laughter in court. Targitt’s costume features a huge target emblem on the chest. It’s as if he’s inviting his enemies to take aim and score a bullseye. At any rate, his adventures are still crudely violent and cartoonishly rendered. “Name’s Targitt,” says Targitt as he punches out a thug then tosses him into a vat of boiling oil. “I live by the saying ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. And in case you didn’t get the point,” he adds, shooting the man several times as he burns, “here’s a neat little postscript.” Incredible as it may seem, things only get worse with the third and final issue.
DEFENCE: Worse? I beg to differ. In #3, Targitt goes up against a proper supervillain, Professor Death, who throws skull-shaped bombs containing a nerve gas called Death-13. Somehow exposure to the gas imbues Targitt with enhanced strength and endurance. His costume is also now bulletproof and fitted with power-armour-style “servomechanisms”. In short, Targitt is on his way to becoming a bona fide superhero. Had the comic continued, who knows what interesting further developments there might have been.
PROSECUTION: Targitt’s constant, disorientating shifts in tone and direction are symptomatic of the problems Atlas was experiencing at boardroom level. Goodman was unhappy with Rovin’s efforts and kept demanding that the Atlas line be “Marvelised”. This resulted in midstream changes exactly like those that afflicted Targitt, across the entire line. Readers could be forgiven for not knowing what was going on and abandoning the comics. A little over a year after its inception, Atlas closed down, having published just some 60-odd comics in total and never once troubled Marvel on the sales front; this particular David was roundly, effortlessly trounced by Goliath.
DEFENCE: Many comics aficionados remember Atlas fondly, and there is no denying the quality of some of its output, such as Howard Chaykin’s The
Scorpion, a character he later revisited as Dominic Fortune, and Wulf The Barbarian, with excellent art from Larry Hama and Klaus Janson. Issue #3 of Morlock 2001 has Ditko pencils inked by Berni Wrightson, a combination that works surprisingly well. The imprint tried, you have to give it that.
PROSECUTION: Tried everyone’s patience, you mean.