Vintage Comic Review: “ATARI Force” (DC Comics, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s AugustThe Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since the chicken laid the first egg… or, wait…

Today we’re going to take a look at ATARI Force issue one published by DC Comics in 1984.

Written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by José Luis Garcia Lopez, the DC ATARI Force series actually serves as a sequel to five mini comics that were originally packed in with Atari 2600 game cartridges. 

In the not too distant future, mankind is facing its “most pressing problem”: a massive famine caused by the lack of farmable land on Earth. To combat the crisis, humanity creates the Advanced Technology and Research Institute (A.T.A.R.I.) Force, whose mission is to locate inhabitable worlds to alleviate the crisis, whether they be in deep space, or even across dimensions in the multiverse. 

DC Comics Atari Force issue 1
Did Dart get shot in the butt?

Unfortunately, none of those details can be found in the 23-page story of ATARI Force issue 1. Instead, that explanation is relegated to a full page recap typed in the back of the book – not the beginning. This makes the jump into the DC Comics series far from seamless, but I suppose those who were read up on the video game mini comics could slide in without much ado.

As far as the actual plot of issue 1 is concerned, the story is set roughly twenty years after the events of the mini comics. A new group of heroes have joined up with the ATARI Force, including the assassin-like duo of Dart and Blackjack (who are also a romantic couple), and the superpowered Tempest (aka Christopher Champion) who can create and travel between portals through the multiverse. 

DC Comics Atari Force issue one

From my count, the book establishes four, maybe five separate plot lines. The only main character that gets much of an origin story is Tempest, who is the son of original ATARI Force member, Martin Champion. The father and son relationship is a strained one, as Martin apparently blames Christopher for the death of his wife, who died during childbirth. 

Meanwhile, Dart and Blackjack are led into a trap masterminded by the book’s main villain, Ki, and the couple have to mount a daring escape. There’s also a sequence where some aliens kidnap and enslave a massive alien baby, and another where a furry, mouse-like alien named Pakrat is nearly caught during a heist, and he also narrowly escapes. 

Ratpak from DC Comics Atari Force
It’s just Pakrat. Not Peter Pack Rat.

The cover art for the book indicates that most of these characters will eventually join together to form the expanded ATARI Force, but the number of side stories is at least one too many for the 23 pages. A primer on the events of the first five minicomics would have been pages better spent, if you ask me. Also, given that Blackjack doesn’t appear on the cover indicates to me that he probably dies in future issues. Way to telegraph your punches, guys. (Unless I’m wrong)

Even if you have never heard of him, you have almost undoubtedly seen José Luis Garcia Lopez’s artwork, as he drew the official reference artwork for the DC super heroes used on t-shirts, lunchboxes, Underoos, etc. His art in ATARI Force is strong, classic storytelling, with dynamic action scenes and compelling character expressions and gestures. Sure, the designs are very “80s” and reminiscent of its contemporaries Return of the Jedi and He-Man, but the incorporation of the Atari logo is obvious without being too garish. The bold colors Dart wears makes for my favorite outfit, but the main villain Ki is also a stand out.

Ki from DC Comics Atari Force
Ki. He’s over the top, but still pretty cool.

I’d say that ATARI Force would probably have been worth your 75 cents in 1984, but is it still tracking down and reading today? I managed to snag my copy for about a buck, but it looks like it goes for something closer to $5 – $8 on the secondary market, which may be a bit steep. However, if you are an old-school Atari gamer, a fan of Lopez’s artwork, or if you have a general nostalgia for the 80s, then it very well be worth checking out. Will I pick up the next issues in the series? Nah. At least not unless it’s on the cheap.

Thanks for reading!

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