The Making of Atari Force

by Andrew Helfer

From Atari Age magazine, volume 1, number 4, pp. 8-9

[Note: This file was originally entered and HTMLized by Robert Jung for his Atari Archives. I thank him for letting me use it here.]

They burst onto the scene with Defender--came together as a team in Berzerk--and soared into the multi-dimensional cosmos in Star Raiders. They are the Atari Force, a daring team of adventurers traveling through time and space, carrying the excitement of Atari into the thrill-a-minute world of comic books.

Led by Commander Martin Champion, the heroic Atari Force team has already appeared in three free comic books packed with Atari cartridges--and the adventure is just beginning! Even now, Atari and DC Comics are working on more free comics, each taking the crew of Scanner One to a new world of alien wonder.

But while it takes Scanner One, the mind-boggling multi-dimensional warp cruiser, only seconds to slip into strange alternate realities, it took more than a year of intense effort to turn the Atari Force itself from an idea into a reality.

Most people don't realize the amount of work that goes into producing a single comic book. From start to finish, an issue of Superman, for example, can take six months to produce. And for Superman, all the characters and situations have been firmly established over more than 40 years of publication. With Atari Force, everything from the characters to the world around them to the sounds of their futuristic laserguns had to be designed from scratch--and fast!

In a flash, a DC creative team was organized. Writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway (creators of DC comics bestsellers including Captain Carrot and Firestorm) and well-known superhero artist Ross Andru were called in to design a group of space adventurers and a whole new universe for these characters to inhabit! Dick Giordano, Managing Editor at DC Comics, took charge of the project.

In the beginning there were a few false starts. The group was originally going to be called the "Atarians." They would be an independent group of adventurers who roamed through the galaxy, meeting a variety of interesting aliens. Each adventure would be linked with the type of game the comic would accompany. The comic packed with a strategy game like Concentration would feature the Atarians meeting a small, green, intellectually superior alien called "Braincase." A game of chance like Casino would contain a comic featuring a beautiful female alien superhero called "Ms. Fortune."

After a while, though, the concept began to sound a little weak. First the name "Atarians" was discarded. "It didn't have enough power associated with it," editor Giordano recalled.

Then the concept of the group itself changed. "It began to seem to gimmicky," Giordano said. "The ideas for the alien characters themselves were interesting enough, but they seemed too much like the usual superhero comic book alien types. With the Atarians we were aiming for a more believable science fiction version."

After lengthy brainstorming sessions, the name "Atari Force" became the group's permanent title. And when the name changed, the concept for the comic changed with it. Overnight the project was transformed. The Atari Force became a team of highly specialized astronauts who worked for Atari on Earth in the year 2005 AD. This earth is quite different from ours, though. Here, the worst has already happend. A five-day nuclear war has all but obliterated civilization. The region once known as the Grand Canyon has become a highly radioactive wasteland, where horribly mutated life forms battle for survival. Cities are in ruins. And the Earth itself is dying. After centuries of abuse, the planet's vast resources have finally run out, to the point where Earth can no longer sustain the human lives that inhabit it.

This is the world that the Atari Institute inherits. But rather than sit back and watch the planet slowly die, the institute makes use of its tremendous technological resources to build Scanner One--the first stage of Project Multiverse. This amazing starship is not only able to travel through space, but through time and into alternate dimensions as well. Somewhere in the infinite multiverse, the Atari scientists reason, there must be some planet capable of sustaining human life--and, as the crew of Scanner One, it is the mission of the Atari Force to find this new homeworld.

Now it was up to Conway and Thomas to write the first two Atari Force adventures. They didn't prepare a complete script, though. Instead, they gave artist Ross Andru "breakdowns," precise, panel-by-panel and page-by-page descriptions of the artwork required. Working from breakdowns gave Andru more freedom as he sketched his pages, and let Conway and Thomas match the dialogue precisely with the finished art.

In the comics trade, Andru is known as a penciler. He does all the initial drawings and visualizations for a project, but not the finished artwork--many peoples' efforts have to combine before the final art is completed.

When the penciler and the writers had complated their parts of the project, the artwork was sent to John Costanza for lettering. Costanza carefully gave each lettered word or sound effect the proper emphasis by thickening up the key words in each sentence. Look closely at Costanza's work on Atari Force and you will realize how important lettering is in communicating the excitement of the story.

With the lettering complete, the first two issues of Atari Force are returned to Dick Giordano who, in addition to being Managing Editor of DC Comics, is one of the top "inkers" in the comics industry. The inker goes over the pencil artist's drawing in India ink, making the final art photographable for engraving and printing. It's a difficult job, requiring a complete knowledge of character design and other nuances that the pencil artist might overlook. Giordano decided to tackle the inking for the Atari Force himself. "Why not?" he said. "I practically lived with these characters for a year--I know them better than anyone else."

When the black and white artwork was inked, all that remained was the coloring, a task handled by colorist Adrienne Roy. In comics, colorists paint on photostatic copies of the artwork to create a guide for the engraver, who must match each color on the color printing plates. Every area, no matter how small, must be indicated by the colorist, both with color dyes and a complex written color code system. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the color of a fingernail must be indicated with dye and code.

At this point, the first issues of Atari Force were ready for the printer. The completed comics were shipped to Atari packaging plants in El Paso and Puerto Rico, and within weeks, Atari Force #1 was available in Defender cartridge boxes.

But the story doesn't end there--not by a long shot. The saga of the Atari Force will continue--and expand with every issue. Atari Force #3, "Star Raiders," is an example of this growth. Here the Atari Force lands on a desolate planet, where they encounter a little alien character called a "hukka." "It was a throwaway character, actually," Giordano says, "but when the drawings came in, it looked so cute we had to keep it." The end of the story was adjusted to show the Atari Force taking the hukka back home with them, and now the little orange critter will be featured in all future Atari Force comics.

The Atari Force is scheduled to appear in at least four new books to be released with cartridges in 1983. And the space adventures will also appear in their very own comic magazine! Aptly titled Atari Force, this full-size color giant size magazine will herald the coming of Atari Comics, a complete line of bimonthly magazines available wherever Atari cartridges are sold. Atari Force Magazine #1 will feature a new Atari Force adventure that promises to be a knockout. So sit back and fasten your seatbelts, fans--the Atari Force is really taking off!

ANDREW HELFER is Special Projects Editor for DC Comics in New York.

Copyright 1982 by Atari Clubs, Inc.

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Created: 22 Nov 1998; Last Modified: 11 Dec 1998