There are few ideas so central to the ethos of Marvel Comics as throwing a bunch of heroes together into a team book. And with that being the case, there’s a flavor for every type of reader. You want the team with the biggest heroes and the most epic storylines? That’d be the Avengers, of course. You like outcasts and don’t mind brain-meltingly complex continuity? Go for the X-Men. Cosmic chaos? Guardians of the Galaxy. Mystic and supernatural? The Defenders. Gritty street-level crime? The (Netflix) Defenders.
But there’s one team that probably doesn’t make it onto as many ‘favorites’ lists as they deserve. A team that represents the pure joy and lunacy of superhero comics better than almost any other in the Marvel stable. A de-aged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, a presumed-dead Atlantean princess, a Uranian telepath, a sentient killer robot, a mythological siren, and a man in the body of an immortal gorilla. And sometimes there’s an ancient dragon too. I give you…the Agents of Atlas.
A lot of the Agents of Atlas’ key stories are centered around the notion that the team was established in the 1950s. This is in fact just a cheeky retcon, as while all of the characters had been created by then, they were not actually a team in any comics published at the time. The team name is a nod to Atlas Comics, Marvel’s forerunner under which many of the characters first appeared. Let’s go through the team members, one by one.
This is not the MCU Jimmy Woo in anything but name, but you’ll come to love him nonetheless. One of the first Asian American heroes in comics, Jimmy first appeared in 1956, in the of-its-time-but-still-racist Yellow Claw, a short-lived book named for its Communist villain. Said villain plays a key role in modern Atlas stories.
Jimmy next popped up in the late ‘60s, becoming an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He becomes part of Nick Fury’s story in Strange Tales #160-163, and #166-168. When our favorite spymaster got his own title, Jimmy also appeared there – notably Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #7-12. Unfortunately only the Strange Tales issues are available on Marvel Unlimited at the moment.
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Jimmy largely stuck to once-a-decade appearances in Marvel Comics for the next several years, appearing in some Godzilla comics in the ‘70s, Marvel Fanfare #12-13 in the ‘80s, and a couple more Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. issues (#43-44) in the ‘90s. And then in the 2000s, he finally got his big break…
As her name suggests, Namora is an Atlantean like Namor the Sub-Mariner. She is not to be confused with her daughter/clone (comics!) Namorita, of New Warriors/Civil War infamy. Since her debut in 1947 (Marvel Mystery Comics #82), Namora has veered between being Namor’s cousin and his love interest. And yes, sometimes seemingly both.
There isn’t a whole lot of individual background reading on Namora, as most of her appearances are from the Golden Age. In the Silver Age, the only time she really pops up is for her apparent death in 1972. You can find that issue on Marvel Unlimited – Sub-Mariner #50. From that point on, she was all-but forgotten for 34 years…
Marvel Boy/The Uranian
Marvel Boy (alter ego Robert Grayson) is an early Stan Lee creation, first appearing in Atlas Comics’ Marvel Boy #1 in 1950. On Marvel Unlimited, you can find his pre-Atlas origin story in Fantastic Four #165.
Venus is a mythological sea siren, but based in appearance on the goddess Venus/Aphrodite. She first appeared in her own Timely Comics title, Venus, in 1948. Confusingly, she is a separate character to the Greek goddess Aphrodite in the Marvel universe, but Aphrodite went by the name Venus in some of her ‘70s Marvel appearances. This is what happens when you try to mix the worlds of ancient mythology and superhero comics, each of which is plenty confusing enough on its own.
Whilst Agents of Atlas is a team book and it’s therefore completely fine for everyone to have their own favorite character…the correct choice is obviously Ken Hale, the Gorilla-Man. He first appeared in Men’s Adventures #26, in 1954. He is also the only team member with an entire series of modern background reading, which comes in the form of Keith Giffen and Eduardo Francisco’s 2005 mini, Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos. Unfortunately, it is not all that good.
M-11 the Human Robot
M-11 debuted in Atlas Comics’ Menace #11 in 1954. This is its first and only appearance until Agents of Atlas Vol.1 #1.
You’re probably starting to get the picture; all the individual members of this motley crew had largely been consigned to the dustbin of Marvel history up until Jeff Parker’s first Agents of Atlas book. However, he was not the first writer to put them together as a team.
What If? Vol. 1 #9 – What If…The Avengers Had Been Formed During the 1950s?
This is the issue that started it all, back in 1978. In this enjoyable tale from Marvel’s hugely influential What If?, the team that would one day become the Agents of Atlas were shown as The Avengers of an alternate 1950s timeline. Namora is not part of the team here, but she does help bring them together (this is set before her 1972 ‘death’). Conversely, the original 3-D Man is part of the team in this issue, but not in Agents of Atlas. Marvel editor Mark Paniccia picked up a copy of What If? #9 nearly 30 years after its release, and asked Jeff Parker to revive the team.
Avengers Forever by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco
Not the most new reader friendly story, but an epic love letter to The Avengers, Avengers Forever is now widely recognized as a classic. It also features multiple timelines and universes, one of which includes the team from What If? #9.
Jeff Parker’s Agents of Atlas
This is where things really get started. And to be clear, you can absolutely start from this point without any background; readers were expected to be seeing these off-the-beaten-track characters for the first time. Jeff Parker’s Atlas saga has now, very deservedly, been mostly collected in a couple of omnibuses. The first omnibus also contains each character’s 1940s/50s first appearance (which you aren’t likely to find easily elsewhere), AND What If? #9.
Agents of Atlas: The Complete Collection Vol. 1
Agents of Atlas: The Complete Collection Vol. 2
However, the omnibuses frustratingly don’t include Atlas (2010) #1-5, perhaps to hide Marvel’s shame at cancelling it so prematurely. You’ll need to get hold of that separately in its own trade:
Atlas: Return of the Three-Dimensional Man
Reading the whole Jeff Parker Atlas saga on Marvel Unlimited is more complicated than it sounds, because a lot of his works were shorter stories published in various other titles. It can be a bit of a pain – but hey, that’s why you have us. Here’s the order:
Agents of Atlas (2006) #1-6
This first miniseries, Agents of Atlas Vol. 1, establishes the team, the premise, and the madcap tone that Parker will maintain for the next 5 years.
Spider-Man Family #4
Just a fun one-off team-up with the webslinger.
Secret Invasion: Who Do You Trust? #1
The last story in this Secret Invasion one-shot shows what the Agents of Atlas were doing to fight the Skrulls.
Dark Reign: New Nation #1
Similarly to the Secret Invasion one-shot, this one is from Dark Reign and includes a teaser for what was then the upcoming Agents of Atlas Vol. 2.
Wolverine: Agent of Atlas #1-3
A flashback mini that isn’t essential, but it is written by Parker and will help explain Logan’s attitude towards the team when he shows up in the next Atlas ongoing.
Agents of Atlas (2009) #1-11
This ongoing series, Agents of Atlas Vol. 2, is core reading, and arguably the peak of the Parker saga. It’s a funny, wild ride, with some fantastic art. Jeff Parker is just letting his imagination run amok, and these issues are overflowing with genre-straddling ideas that are the real essence of comic books. Don’t be put off by the Dark Reign imprint on the first few issues; a superficial understanding of what’s going on in the Marvel Universe is enough to get by. In fact, all you really need to know is ‘Norman Osborn = bad and in charge of stuff’.
Vol. 2 ends somewhat prematurely, after 11 issues. This begins a frustrating process of Marvel shunting Parker’s ongoing storyline into various other minis and even tacking it on to issues of The Incredible Hercules, like a TV network messing with the time slot of a great but underappreciated show.
X-Men Vs Agents of Atlas #1-2
This picks up immediately after Agents of Atlas Vol. 2 ends. So far, not too complex. However, #2 ends on a cliffhanger that is picked up in…
Assault on New Olympus Prologue One-Shot #1 (end of issue only)
This was, as the title suggests, a one-shot that set up the final arc of Grek Pak and Fred Van Lente’s run on The Incredible Hercules. After this, Parker’s Atlas story continues on the last few pages of each of the last 4 issues of said run:
The Incredible Hercules #138-141 (ends of issues only)
The only connection to Hercules is that this part of the Atlas story features Aphrodite (the actual Greek goddess, who shares a name and a likeness with Atlas’s Venus). You don’t need to be following what’s going on in the main storyline of The Incredible Hercules, and can just skip to the ends of the issues for the Atlas bits. Having said that, Herc is a very fun run that builds up to a hell of an ending.
Jeff Parker, one of the busiest people in Marvel around this time, was also writing Thunderbolts as the universe moved towards Siege and the end of Dark Reign. The Agents of Atlas appear for a couple of issues here, just before the Siege tie-in issues begin:
Thunderbolts (2006) #139-140
It’s a story that picks up from Atlas getting on Norman Osborn’s bad side a few months earlier. Moving on, we next pick up with the team in:
Avengers Vs Atlas #1-4
Notice that ‘Agents of Atlas’ has become shortened to just ‘Atlas’, ahead of the next ongoing of the same name.
Enter the Heroic Age #1
Another one-shot anthology of stories to usher in the post-Dark Reign branding and plug a bunch of new titles, including the upcoming Atlas. This brief tale is pretty inconsequential, although it does very tenuously introduce a link between the Agents of Atlas and a character who will be key in Atlas.
The Gorilla-Man solo adventure and origin story we all wanted. It would have been cool if Parker had got the chance to do this for some of the other agents, but at least we got one for old Ken Hale. This can be read at any point after Agents of Atlas Vol. 1 really, but it was published at around this time.
Atlas (2010) #1-5
This should have been just as great as Agents of Atlas Vols. 1 & 2, and was on track to be even greater. However it was cut even shorter. The last issue tries its best to cram in everything that was planned but it’s clearly rushed, even resorting to prose for a couple of pages to fit in more plot. It’s not the end that Jeff Parker deserved after 5 years of telling this story, but it’s hard not to be grateful that something so wonderfully weird even made it this far in the first place.
Note: For Atlas #1-5, some knowledge of the second 3-D Man (Delroy Garrett) and his actions during Secret Invasion (in Avengers: The Initiative) may be helpful, but it’s nothing that won’t be recapped during the story. And of course, there’s always Wikipedia. It’ll also help to know that the original 3-D Man was part of the pre-Atlas alternate universe team in What If? #9.
Fear Itself: The Home Front #1-4
This anthology series, part of the Fear Itself event as the title suggests, includes an Agents of Atlas story in the first 4 issues. I love Peter Milligan, but the tone shift from Parker’s opus is a bit jarring. Perhaps it’s inevitable when this was, after 5 years of Parker, nearly the only time anybody else had written the team. And it would be the only time for several more years to come.
The New Agents of Atlas
After lying dormant pretty much since Fear Itself, the Agents of Atlas were resurrected in 2019 by Greg Pak, during War of the Realms. It’s not Parker’s team, but rather Jimmy Woo founding a New Agents of Atlas composed of Asian superheroes:
War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas
Collects: War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas #1-4
Part of the War of the Realms event.
Collects: Agents of Atlas (2019) #1-5.
The New Agents of Atlas drop the ‘New’ and get another mini, also written by Pak. The first issue features a B story written by none other than Jeff Parker, giving us the original Atlas team in their first full appearance for 8 years!
King in Black: Atlantis Attacks
Collects: Atlantis Attacks #1-5.
Nominally part of the King in Black event, this mini has Greg Pak once again writing the (New) Agents of Atlas…and teaming them up with the Original Agents of Atlas! The ending seems to promise that the combined team will feature in King in Black: Namor, which upsettingly they do not. However, hopefully Pak is not done with them yet, so watch this space…
T T says
There was also an “Atlas: Marvel Boy – The Uranian (Marvel Boy: The Uranian)” mini that came out around the same time as vol 2 of Atlas.
It’s written by Parker and whilst less essential that the Agents of Atlas series still fleshes out Bob a little more.
There also is a Namora one-shot by Parker, which came out around the same time as the Marvel Boy and Gorilla Man minis.