Tom Peyer Builds "Atlas Unified"

Phoenix, Wulf and Grim Ghost. Atlas Comics revived these heroes and modernized them for a whole new generation to enjoy. Up to this point each hero's adventures have been limited to their own worlds, come October, those worlds will collide for Atlas Comics' first ever crossover event, "Atlas Unified." Written by "Hourman" scribe Tom Peyer with art by up-and-coming artist Jimbo Salgado, "Atlas Unified" brings the three headlining characters together alongside many other original Atlas creations for an adventure through time 85 years in the making.

CBR News spoke with Peyer about the upcoming event, convincingly uniting characters from across space and time, the legacy of Atlas Comics and how the event will link back to Atlas' core books.

CBR News: Tom, what's the general story behind "Atlas Unified" and how are you taking all the threads in "Phoenix," "Grim Ghost" and "Wulf" and putting them all together into one story?

Tom Peyer: We're putting the big three heroes together with a half dozen other characters for an adventure through time. It's striking how many original Atlas comics took place in the past and future; we're going to mush all of those eras and genres together. As Wulf, Grim Ghost and Phoenix forge a necessary alliance, cowboys will fight alongside barbarians, WWII GIs will team up with future astronauts, dogs will lie with cats -- it's an abomination.

Beyond the three core titles in the current Atlas library, "Atlas Unified" boasts a number of other surprise stars. While I know you can't spoil the surprises in store, what was your biggest hurdle in cohesively and convincingly uniting both the three core characters and a medley of others from the old Atlas roster?

Convincingly uniting all of these characters from their respective centuries and genres doesn't feel like a hurdle. Getting their voices right and keeping them distinct while blending them together is the thing that makes me enjoy the job so much. Once you've read it, you'll have to let me know if I should have worried more.

That said, how much of the old Atlas material did you have to go back and read? What did you find during your research that influenced the plot of the event?

The original run of Atlas is a huge inspiration.  They put together some great talent: Archie Goodwin, Steve Ditko, Wallace Wood, Howard Chaykin, Mike Ploog, Walt Simonson and John Albano, who created Jonah Hex. And there were some surprises from unexpected quarters, like this wild life-or-death caveman survival series, Kromag The Killer, drawn by Jack Sparling.

What I noticed was that Atlas had a very high ratio of non-superhero to superhero titles. If you assembled the barbarian, war, Western, supernatural and detective characters, they in fact outnumbered the superheroes, which was as unusual in 1975 as it is now. To me, that gave Atlas the distinct identity of a cross-genre imprint. I think that still holds; of the initial trio of modern startups, only Phoenix is set more-or-less squarely in the superhero genre, and even that one reads like science fiction.

That told me everything about the best way to approach "Atlas Unified" and make it stand out from the crossovers and team books we've seen over the last 25 years. The Atlas distinction is that, while superheroes are present, they're not everything.

Phoenix, Grim Ghost and Wulf are classic characters that Atlas creative teams have done an excellent job so far bringing to the modern age. How does your work on "Atlas Unified" continue to develop these heroes for 2011?

I agree they've all done an excellent job of updating these characters while retaining their distinct features. That second part is key; you can change everything about a character and suddenly they're not themselves anymore. It's the details we preserve as much as the ones we modernize that distinguish revived characters and make them work. I love it that Grim Ghost still seems like Grim Ghost in a comic that couldn't possibly have been written and drawn in 1975.

My job is to understand what the other writers are doing and try not to step on it. I want to get Wulf, Phoenix and Grim Ghost right and introduce them to each other, but it's up to their own writers to reveal important new things about them.

That said, the other characters I'm bringing into the story are mine to develop, at least for the run of this series.

For those that might have missed the boat on the core Atlas titles, will "Atlas Unified" be a good place for them to start reading?

That's how I see the job. I want you to understand this world and who these characters are, and I want to give you an appetite for reading their further adventures in their own titles. I'll be pretty full of myself if it works out that way.

How closely did you collaborate with the current creative teams, if at all? What was the creative process like in coordinating everything for the lead up to the event?

I ran some ideas by everyone early on. While I did get some specific and helpful feedback, the main message they gave me was, "You're the writer, we don't want to step on your toes." Which is very rare these days. That's the attitude I get from the whole company, and I'm very happy about it.

You have a wealth of experience writing comics, including "Hourman" and "Legion of Super Heroes." After working with superheroes for over two decades, how do you approach writing a book like "Atlas Unified?"

The first thing is to get to know the characters and understand the effect each book is trying to create. That goes for the '70s material, too. Mark Waid, who's written a lot of pre-existing characters, shared with me his motto, and I've taken it to heart: "Do no harm."

We're very lucky to have Jimbo Salgado drawing the book. His stuff is really dynamic, dramatic and beautifully detailed. Before I got too deep into planning the story I absorbed some of his art. I want a script that pushes his strengths instead of clashing with them.

From there the job is to think of a threat big enough to draw all of these heroes together -- and to make it not so science-fictional that the supernatural characters are out of place, and not so supernatural that the science fiction characters are out of place. The Western gunfighter and the WWII soldier can be out of place; that's kind of the point.

Crossovers and event books have been around for decades and are still going pretty strong today. With that in mind, what sets "Atlas Unified" apart from the pack and how do you plan to appeal to readers that might be overwhelmed with events?

While "Atlas Unified" is running, the mainline books will be telling their own stories. We'll try to make you want to read those books, but we won't make you.  It's not one single super-complicated crossover with 6 writers. It's just me in the team book having one of my episodes, and the other writers in their books happily telling their own stories.

That said, there are also a number of fans of the old Atlas comics out there -- what's in there for them?

To them I say: does the name Vicki ring a bell?

Creatively, what has been your biggest challenge in unifying the Atlas universe?

I don't know yet. I'm still waiting to see if certain things work, but it's been pretty smooth so far. The worst thing now is making myself write during the baseball pennant races. The Internet keeps wanting to tell me all of these minute details about them, and that's hard to resist.

As a creator, why do you think these characters continue to be relevant today?

Good action-adventure characters -- genre characters -- have a shelf life that amounts roughly to immortality. Batman was first published in 1939 and Doctor Who is from 1963, but they both remain as fresh as ever. It's the humor characters that go out of style; I don't see a market for a 21st century Mutt and Jeff or Bringing Up Father. I don't think our great-grandchildren will be reading new Doonesbury strips. Characters like that tend to be deeply connected to the ways people lived at the time of their creation. But saving the world in a spooky cloak or a flying cape? No one's ever lived that way, and we'll never stop wishing for it.

If you could narrow it down to just one thing, what do you want readers to watch out for during "Atlas Unified?"

The genre mashup. The fun for me has been to make wartime soldiers, Western gunfighters, astronauts, super-heroes, barbarians and cavemen convincingly interact with each other, and with the larger story, while preserving their voices and moods.

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