The Origin of Atlas

By | Friday, September 25, 2020 1 comment
Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi title page
The name "Atlas" shows up fairly frequently throughout comics' history. There are number of characters that go by that name, multiple publishing companies, many specialty comic retail shops and countless references within the comic stories making sly background references to the name. My question is: how did it become so ingrained in comics' lore?

Well, the short answer is Martin Goodman and I expect many of you will have mentally gone there already. But let's explore this more deeply...

An "atlas" (lower case) is essentially a collection of maps. They're generally of very large regions, often the entire Earth, and often printed and bound. The earliest items we would consider atlases date to around 150 AD and were put together by Claudius Ptolemy. Though already outdated by the time they were released, they sold very well and he produced several revised editions.

It wasn't until 1595, however, that the actual term "atlas" was used in connection with these collections of maps. It was Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator who entitled his book Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi which translates to Atlas, or Description of the Universe. It was actually published after his death in December 1594 by his son Rumold.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the name was NOT chosen after the mythical Atlas who bore the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Rather, it was in reference to King Atlas of Mauretania (roughly corresponding with modern Algeria and Morroco) who was allegedly the wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who made the first celestial globe. An image of King Atlas is in fact on the title page of Mercator's book.

Royal Palace in AmsterdamA century later, Dutch merchants were using Atlas (the Greek) as a sort of patron saint. (A statue of Atlas adorns the top of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam to this day.) Thus regional map makers of the time began using images of the titan on their collections of maps, making a direct association between the two.

The symbolism does make sense. Although the original myths held that Atlas bore the weight of the heavens, which was generally depicted as a globe, it would be easy to mistake/substitute the Earth in its place without altering the meaning substantially. It's certainly a more compelling visual than a mere portrait, and it's little wonder that map-makers would use the titan's likeness to grace the covers of their collections. Indeed it was a likeness that was compelling enough to write comic stories about! Without doing exhaustive research on this point, I found comic book stories that feature the classical Atlas as early as 1948, pre-dating Goodman's use of the term for his company by 3 years. (Curiously, though, he remains relatively untapped as a source of comic stories compared to other Greek heroes.)

Atlas Comics "debuted" in 1951. It was really just the same company Goodman had been running for years under a few dozen different names. The question that strikes me, though, is: why "Atlas"? Why not "Zenith" or "Red Circle" or any of the other names he'd been using to publish comics?

The reason why Goodman used so many company names at first was a hold-over from the 1940s. It wasn't uncommon for one publisher to use multiple company names to skirt any number of laws, one of the most obvious being paper rationing. A publisher was only allotted a certain amount of paper they could use, but if one person ran two publishing interests, he could obtain twice the amount of paper. Thus, many publishers of the time would run one company under several names simultaneously to get the benefits of multiple corporations.

But that approach didn't make as much sense going into the 1950s, as World War II ended and things got back to "normal." Goodman also saw the benefit of having a single brand identity, one banner under which he could promote the likes of Patsy Walker, Captain America, and Kid Colt. There was no reason to hide behind multiple company names, and plenty of reasons to coalesce under one. But, again, why "Atlas"?

The reason is Goodman's other business as a periodical distributor. Goodman believed he could make even more money by distributing his comics and magazines; why pay a middleman to do that? So he ditched his current distributor, Kable News, and established the Atlas News Company. In this context, "Atlas" begins to make sense. Goodman didn't publish just comics; he also had several lines of general interest and adult (but not that adult!) magazines. He was in several fields and probably paid little attention to the comics end of things. The name "Atlas" for a distributor would imply that his reach covered the entire globe; all walks of life, all corners of the Earth. That wasn't necessarily accurate, of course, but it gave an immediate implication that his operation was bigger and more grand. Goodman then simply applied the "Atlas" name to everything, including his entire publishing arm. Thus "Atlas Comics" were born.

Atlas News Company lasted until 1957. Goodman basically took a look at the finances and decided that he really wasn't making all that much money on distribution, so he closed that business to focus exclusively on publishing. It was ultimately a huge mistake from his perspective, though, as the new distributor he partnered with -- American News Company -- folded only a few months after they began distributing Atlas-published books due to a Justice Department lawsuit. With his own distribution setup eliminated and the country's largest distributor (American News) gone, Goodman was left with few options but using Independent News, which was owned and operated by his business rival, DC Comics (then National).

The Atlas brand that Goodman had spent the better part of a decade establishing was almost wiped out overnight. Independent would only distribute eight of their comics (down from 30+) a month. But in those years that Atlas was producing comics, there was some great and innovative work from the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Maneely, John Severin and John Romita Sr. to name just a few. It's in honor of those great works that so many comics-related businesses are named.

Now, I could go on to explain where "Marvel Comics" came from, but that's another story that's probably longer than you'd expect!
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Matt K said...

"But that's another story. For another time." :-)