Judge James

The case for and against Tar­gitt: Man-Stalker

Comic Heroes - - Contents -

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.

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