The Atomic Sleepwalker Presents: The Complete History of the Atomic Knights, Part V
Hello, Sleepwalkers ! This marks the fifth and final installment of my complete history of The Atomic Knights! Next Monday will bring a different feature, so be sure to check back! And go ahead and get caught up with the previous installments! There’s Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.
When we last left our heroes, we learned that the Atomic Knights, as we know them, were a figment of Gardner Grayle’s imagination. Trapped in a sensory-deprivation chamber and locked into a simulated post-nuclear holocaust, Gardner created the Knights as a way of coping with the horror of the radiation-soaked wasteland before him. And that was the way it stayed for a long time. The Atomic Knights were a memory, a curiosity of the Silver Age, mostly forgotten. Until Infinite Crisis, that is, they were resurrected by the team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti.
Perceptive Sleepwalkers might recall that I talked about Gray and Palmiotti recently, regarding the announcement that they’ll be teaming up to write a miniseries about the Phantom Lady. Now, before we get started, I want to direct your attention over to an article on Comics Alliance–in a pleasant bit of good fortune, J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote about Palmiotti and Gray’s history with the Freedom Fighters, a team that plays a pretty big role in BFB. It says a lot of the same things that I would, so instead of repeating anything, go ahead and read Mozzocco’s article to fill in any holes in the narrative.
On to the Knights!
After Infinite Crisis,the United States finally had its own radioactive playground in Blüdhaven, the former headquarters of Dick Grayson during his early Nightwing days. During the Infinite Crisis event, the Society dropped Chemo (a big, radioactive monster, not unlike the critters the original Knights fought on a daily basis) on the city, nuking it and irradiating the whole place. Battle for Blüdhaven kicks off immediately after that disaster , and things aren’t exactly sunny. Citizens have been displaced from their homes, the whole city is in shambles, and the Force of July (a patriotic, government-controlled super team that should be familiar to anyone who has read Suicide Squad) has declared themselves to be the only superhumans allowed inside the walls. It looks mighty bad–and that’s just what these guys have been waiting for:
Meet the current generation of Atomic Knights, and no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you–they’re pretty much the same as the former generation. You’ve got Gardner, Marene, Doug, Bryndon (who seems no worse for wear for someone who was murdered by an energy monster who may or may not have been Ares), and the twins, Wayne and Hollis.
Gray and Palmiotti return over and over again to the theme of atomic energy in the way they populate their little drama. There are the Knights of course, but also the Nuclear Legion:
And they’re joined by a group of androids designed to look like a 50′s family called the Nuclear Family (which is actually pretty clever):
The government-sponsored Freedom Force has the Human Bomb, whose power seems to be not looking at explosions:
He’s joined by perennial douchebag, Major Force:
Hell, even the Macguffin is famous nuclear man, inspiration for Doctor Manhattan, and star of DC’s lowest-selling title, Captain Atom:
It’s a pretty cool move; we can see that Gray and Palmiotti are doing their best to stay true to the original idea of the Knights, selfless heroes in a world gone mad with nuclear power. By returning to that well again and again, they reinforce the aspects of the Atomic Knights that made them relevant fifty years ago.
But the reimagining of the Knights doesn’t stop with carefully constructed themes. In a neat little moment, we get to see the Black Baron 2006:
So, yeah. He’s a pimp. I’m tempted to call his inclusion in the story nothing more than pointless, nostalgia-fueled fanboyism–BB doesn’t really do anything to advance the plot, and he’s killed literally one issue later–but I’ll cut Gray and Palmiotti some slack. Not only is it a nice nod to the original series, but, like everything else they’re doing with the Knights, it’s done in such a way that it fits with the world-building. We know Blüdhaven is a lawless wasteland, but it’s a clever way to show us that fact without just telling us.
The thing about Battle for Blüdhaven is that it isn’t really about the Knights–it’s about the roles and responsibilities the government has to its citizens, for the most part, and that plays out across a couple of different canvases. There are a lot of straw-man arguments that basically predict Tea Party rhetoric a few years early, and I’m not going to say that they’re poorly done–they’re not, not really–but they are dull. I get that Firebrand is meant to be, well, a Firebrand, but his anti-government polemics come off as more “entitled college student with a few too many Che t-shirts” than “untested revolutionary confronted with the realities of a war zone.” Gray and Palmiotti don’t help themselves when the representative of the US government actually is as twisted and self-serving as Firebrand says he is. It’s hard to get a balanced sense of argument when one party actively tortures people and the other does not.
But that’s neither here nor there. The important part is that Battle for Blüdhaven marks the introduction of the Atomic Knights into the modern, mainstream DC Universe. And Gray and Palmiotti carry on one last bit of tradition before they go. Remember the way the Atomic Knights were folded into the Kamandi and OMAC’s continuity back in the 70s? Well, Gray and Palmiotti do too.
That’s the Command D bunker, the place where Kamandi got his name, and the site of the Evil Factory in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis.Final Crisis, a story preoccupied with bringing Jack Kirby’s vast mythos into the mainstream DC universe, hinges on the Command D bunker, and by the time Morrison gets to his story, the Knights are still diligently patrolling the area:
So that’s that, Sleepwalkers. We’ve seen the Knights as goofy, lighthearted adventurers in the Silver Age; we’ve seen them brutally subverted in the 80s; and we’ve seen them resurrected as a super-powered police force in the 21st century. But throughout their long and storied career, one thing has been true: the Atomic Knights have been a quiet but vital part of DC’s past, present, and future, lending their names and histories to some of the most beloved comic stories of all time. They rarely get the attention they deserve, but for the past fifty years, the presence of the Atomic Knights has meant that even when the world is blasted and blighted, there will still be heroes. There will still be Knights.
And that brings this epic to a close, Sleepwalkers! I can’t believe it’s taken this long to finish it, but hopefully now I’ll know what I’m getting into when I promise a five-part feature! Thanks for reading, and if you have any suggestions about what I should write about next week, please let me know!