There was a time in the United States when schoolchildren were taught that, in the event of a nuclear war, they should do something called “duck and cover” as if crouching low and keeping their heads covered would somehow keep them alive in the event the bomb detonated somewhere in or near their school. It would appear that people had no idea what an actual nuclear war would do, or if they did, they didn’t want to spook kids about it too much.
That’s about the closest I can come to explain the Atomic Knights.
Nuclear ignorance has led to some fascinating sci-fi stories and concepts, but as most people should know, a full-scale nuclear war would probably wipe out pretty much all life on Earth. Alan Moore based the original V For Vendetta off what he later learned was an incorrect assumption that depending on where the wind blew, a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union could somehow leave Britain unharmed. That didn’t stop V from being a good story. It just is not a particularly scientifically accurate one. That is almost certainly why the movie version dropped the nuclear war angle.
Silver Age comics are actually a bit renowned for playing fast and loose with science. But when it comes to the Atomic Knights, there are all kinds of problems.
Anyway, first appearing in 1960, the Atomic Knights were led by Sgt Gardner Grayle, a survivor of the Hydrogen War of 1986. Coming to somewhere in the Midwest after sitting out the war in a bomb shelter, Grayle found the countryside being run by a tyrant called the Black Baron. Grayle found some sets of medieval armor that, due to the radiation of the atomic blasts, were actually resistant to energy blasts like those used by the Baron’s men, and they could wear them safely for at least a little while in the worst of the atomic wastelands.
So, besides the protection from radiation, what other fantastic powers did the armor have? Um, none actually.
But it was something. If the armor could keep the wearer from being killed by the Baron’s weapons. that was a start. So, Grayle gathered some helpers in the form of hotheaded twins Wayne and Hollis Hobard, last scientist on Earth Bryndon Smth, and brother and sister team Douglas and Marene Herald. With the armor, the Knights easily vanquished the Baron and reclaimed the area as a free place for survivors. Working out of the town of Durvale, the Knights would travel out to defeat threats and even through the use of gliders visit as far away as the remains of Los Angeles to protect the innocent. Usually that meant leaving Marene at home, as she was a woman and often referred to as the smallest Knight. Ostensibly, it was to protect Durvale, but we all know Silver Age sexism when we see it.
As it is, there were quite a few survivors of that Hydrogen War. Well, human survivors. All other life was said to be dead, which you’d think would be bad news for people who need food. But eventually, Bryndon as an all-purporse scientists figured out how to grow crops again, so the plants recovered. Then the Knights discovered a pair of giant dalmatians in a downed spaceship, mutated from their time in space to large size. The dogs served as mounts for the Knights when they didn’t feel like walking.
The Knights had 15 solo adventures before disappearing. Sometime in 1977, the characters returned as supporting characters for a DC series called Hercules Unbound, where the Greek demigod woke up in the same atomic wasteland as the Knights.
Added treat to the Hercules story: half the issues were drawn by future Thor writer/artist Walt Simonson.
But really, the big thing for DC was something that became collectively known as the “Great Disaster,” AKA the aforementioned Hydrogen War of 1986. DC’s Showcase Presents reprint line actually did one for the Great Disaster that, despite numerous creators involved over multiple decades, actually told a more or less complete story. The Knights, Kamandi, Atlas, OMAC, and Hercules all belonged in more or less the same time line. Other stories featuring a “day after doomsday” scenario all more or less showed survivors of an atomic war, many of whom didn’t survive very long due to ironic reasons. There was just one problem…in 1960, 1986 was over a quarter of a century away. As the year got closer and that nuclear disaster seemed less and less likely to be around the corner, what happened?
There actually was an attempt to clear that up in the pages of DC Comic Presents, a Superman team-up series. In an issue from 1983, and with the story title of “Days of Future Past!” (two years after the famous X-Men story was published), Superman discovered a modern day Sgt Grayle was hooked up to a VR machine. Grayle was against atomic weapons and had volunteered to test a machine that see how mankind might survive a nuclear war. The problem was Grayle was kind of stuck in there and Superman was needed to get him out before a real atomic war happened. The VR simulation showed Superman with Hercules and the Knights, and when Superman went on a rescue mission with them, he was pretty quick to point out there sure were a lot of survivors for a totally destructive war. That didn’t earn him any favors, but eventually Grayle woke up to the real world and discovered Marene was the scientist involved in the project.
Grayle would don a suit of Iron Man-type armor and become an actual Atomic Knight, but what about the Great Disaster?
Well, that stuff still happened, or would happen, but possibly on another Earth.
So, you know, when that happens…duck and cover.