Gene Kannenberg Jr. examines the origins and surprising evolutions of the iconic Charles Atlas ad campaign.
Every comic-book reader remembers “The Insult that Made a Man Out of Mac!” The seven-day path to perfect manhood promised to boys and men by Charles Atlas has attained nearly archetypal status in popular culture, due in no small part to the campaign’s longevity during five decades and beyond. From the album The Who Sell Out in 1967 to President George Bush’s rhetoric during the Persian Gulf War, to the perpetually screened Rocky Horror Picture Show, to The Onion’s recent bestseller Our Dumb Century, references to the Atlas ad appear in the most unexpected places. But perhaps nowhere has its legacy been better felt (besides in the muscles of the program’s subscribers, of course) than in its many ironic incarnations in the pages of comic books. What is it about “The Incident that Made a Man Out of Mac”—the sand-kicking, the humiliation and the emasculation—that has kept the ad at the tip of so many parodists’ tongues and pens?
The original Atlas ad holds a particularly strong fascination for some comics creators due to both its structure and its subject matter. The ad’s comic-strip narrative structure echoes that most primal of American comic-book stories, the superhero origin tale—always a target ripe for parody. The ad also plucks the emotional strings of adolescent males who are insecure in their masculinity and who see the Atlas method as a way to gain the confidence they lack—also, of course, a dominant theme of the superhero comics tradition.
Not by accident did “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” get that way. Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano in 1893, developed his body-building program through his own initiative. Harassed as a youth by bullies on the street and—yes, it’s true—at the beach, he was inspired by the stretching of lions and tigers at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo. Angelo began practicing a series of isometric exercises that eventually gave him a classically sculpted musculature; he became “a new man” without the aid of weights or drugs. Other people soon recognized the appeal of his physique; from about 1915 to 1920, Atlas (as he had been known since he was 19; he legally changed his name in 1912) was often asked to pose for New York-area artists. For example, he posed for the statue of George Washington on the Washington Square Arch in New York. Atlas was named “The World’s Most Beautiful Man” in 1921 and “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” in 1922 in contests sponsored by Bernarr “Body Love” Macfadden, publisher of Physical Culture magazine; after Atlas’ second win, Macfadden abolished the contest, convinced that no man could ever best Atlas.
Charles Atlas decided to sell his bodywork program to the public, but his early marketing efforts failed to produce satisfactory results. In 1928, Atlas brought on adman Charles Roman as a partner in his failing business. Roman soon righted the ship; he coined the term “Dynamic Tension” to describe Atlas’ equipment-free body-building program, and he also created several imaginative ad campaigns, usually using comics narratives, to demonstrate the benefits of Dynamic Tension. “Mac’s” story—based in part on Atlas’ own experiences—found a home in pulp magazines and eventually in comic books, where it struck a resonant chord and was used, with only slight variations, into the 1970s; Atlas himself died in 1972, just as the ads were enduring their last sustained period of popularity in comics. As mainstream comic books moved more firmly into niche markets, their reliance on older, traditionally pulp-style ads waned; by the end of the 1970s, Atlas ads mostly appeared (when they did at all) in tiny boxes on pages filled with dozens of ads, until they finally all but disappeared. Although the campaign is not as visible today as it once was, it hasn’t disappeared completely. For example, it was revived briefly in the pages of Marvel Comics in 1997. These slick re-packagings of three classic Atlas ads were rewritten and partially redrawn to remove the violence; in each instance, the renewed
The more contemporary, less forceful Atlas panel
Mac simply waved his fist, connected as it was to Mac’s newly sculpted body, and the bully backed off. (This unlikely feat was accomplished simply by redrawing Mac’s fist closer to his body, rendering the bully’s arched back and pained expression nearly incomprehensible if the reader was unfamiliar with the earlier version.) Today the campaign still flourishes on the world’s most perfectly developed web site, www.charlesatlas.com). Charles Roman’s comics-enhanced advertising strategy caused Atlas’ body-building program to become, periodic doldrums aside, one of the most successful long-term mail-order businesses in history.
Mac’s bodily transformation in the classic ads follows a pattern familiar to superhero-comic-book readers. The narrative in the ad’s comic strip is intuitive and straightforward; the 1972 version pictured here is probably familiar to most readers. Our attention is immediately drawn in the first panel to the bully’s muscular body, implying a threat to the reedy Mac. In a deft piece of exposition, Mac’s girlfriend, Grace, informs the reader of the bully’s reputation. In the second panel, the posturing bully humiliates Mac by commenting on the smaller man’s size; note how Mac’s stooped posture makes him appear not only skinnier than the bully but also shorter. Mac reaches his nadir in the third panel as Grace delivers the final humiliation, berating him as she preens and poses.
In the next panel, a thoroughly emasculated Mac angrily takes matters into his own hands when he decides, momentously, to “gamble a stamp.” His transformation from spindly ectomorph to beefy mesomorph (as in many superhero comic books, the change is instantaneously bestowed) occurs in the space of only two panels. The ad’s fifth panel presents the easy transition “LATER,” which, merciful in its ambiguous simplicity, spares the reader from having to witness all those nasty, sweaty exercises. Mac poses in a mirror for his own narcissistic benefit, his dialogue maintaining the illusion of immediacy from the previous panel. He then returns to the beach, the scene of his earlier humiliation. The umbrella and towel, not to mention Grace’s position, suggest a continuity of time from the first panel—it’s as if Mac merely has stepped into a phone booth to transform himself, instead of spending the many months actually necessary to effect his transformation. Mac knocks out the bully (who conveniently leads with his chin) in one punch while alluding to the previous insult, implying that a punch a year (or so) after the fact constitutes a proper ending to a fight.
Mac’s redemption closes the tale, with the oddly placed caption “Hero of the Beach” trumpeting Mac’s newfound status. Grace’s “real man” comment is telling; Mac clearly must not have been a man previously. To cement his new reputation, Mac poses to accentuate his build, while another couple reinforce Grace’s observations.
Other versions of the ad incorporate small changes. In one of them, the newly buff Mac approaches the beach and spots the bully “showing off in front of Grace and the crowd” before the fateful rematch. Another version, more condensed in its narrative, dispenses with the sand-kicking in favor of a physical attack followed in due course by Mac’s retaliation. After this, Grace adoringly labels Mac a “real he-man.” However, each version follows a similar pattern and produces identical results.
Two examples of Atlas parodies serve to illustrate the ad campaign’s fraternal relationship to superhero origin stories. “The Hold-Up that Made a Hero Out of Mac,” from Radioactive Man #1 (Bongo Comics, 1993), easily blends Mac’s story with Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s two-page Batman origin from Batman #1 (National, 1939). The parody’s first three panels carefully mimic the tone of the ad, down to Martha Wayne’s “This thief is the worst menace on the block!”, while the panels’ structure quite closely follows Kane’s panels; Mac’s resolve in the parody’s chair-kicking scene recalls Bruce Wayne’s famous soliloquy. The “LATER” transition is undermined by dialogue that establishes the necessary 15-year gap; visually, the panel combines two scenes of Bruce Wayne’s physical and intellectual development, which their simultaneous presentation here renders absurd. The comeuppance panel nudges Atlas’ “revenge” angle through the thief’s confusion. Atlasman’s posturing in the final panel further affirms the relationship between superhero and “real man.” The parody’s ad copy touts the technique of “DRAMATIC TENSION,” skillfully punning the original and, not coincidentally, establishing criteria for any good origin story.
Another example (abridged version pictured at right) is Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol character, Flex Mentallo (whose origin is recounted in DC’s Doom Patrol #42, 1991). With artists Mike Dringenberg and Doug Hazelwood, Morrison lifted the character directly from Atlas’ ads, employing panel swipes and placing ad copy in characters’ mouths, creating an “actual” superhero.
The bodily and personality changes that Mac undergoes are essential to our understanding of the ad’s larger impact, both on its intended audience—skinny young men—and on the audiences of future parodies. Joseph Gustaitis, writing in the September 1986 issue of American History Illustrated, remarked that the original ad campaign created by Charles Roman had resounding success because Atlas “did not pitch health or larger arms, he sold manhood. When you signed on with Atlas, you did not enlist for fitness alone, you bought courage, self-reliance, and sex-appeal–and you got the goods to deliver them.”
Many of the Charles Atlas parodies that I’ve been able to track down do in fact tend to focus on the idea of “manhood”—or, more accurately, masculinity: both how to define it and how to obtain it. The original ads define self-improvement not only as enhancing one’s musculature but also as embracing Atlas’ philosophy of life. The copy asks if men are “fed up with seeing the huskies walk off with the best of everything” and if they want a physique “which makes other fellows green with envy”; another Atlas ad, titled “Message to the Thin Young Men of Britain,” promises not only a “rugged, handsome body” but also “a rough-and-ready ambition surging out of you that the world can’t lick.” These appeals imply that by attaining physical perfection men also automatically and necessarily attain social position and prestige. Only “real men” enjoy these privileges; further, they deserve to.
Atlas’ ads promise a great deal, but they do so by causing the reader to fear that he is not a “real man” who is not “truly masculine,” a fear that might further be exacerbated by seeing the ad in conjunction with stories of fantastically powerful heroes. But what is “truly masculine”? In his 1995 book Masculinities, R.W. Connell postulates that masculinity (as opposed to simply being “male”) is a cultural construct based upon a principle of connection: how the individual male acts within an authorized social scheme. Connell categorizes Western masculinities in four ways: as principles of hegemony, subordination, complicity, and marginalization. Hegemonic masculinity depends on the current level of patriarchal authority or domination in society. Sublimated masculinity, such as gay masculinity, is always defined in terms of the hegemonic mainstream. Complicit masculinity refers to the state of men who reap the benefits of the dominant patriarchy even while they do not actively contribute to its maintenance. And marginalized masculinities, such as black or middle-class masculinities, are defined by the relationship between questions of gender and questions of other structures such as race and class.
In the original ads, Charles Atlas clearly invites his male readers to join him in the ranks of the cultural hegemony; both the ad copy (which implores men not to be left behind the leaders of society) and the comics narrative (where men are either skinny and ineffectual or muscle-bound and in control) create a simplistic have/have not scheme—for the men only, of course; women exist here solely to reinforce a man’s perception of himself. (I should add here that the real-life Charles Atlas was regarded as an individual of sterling character, beneficent to his family, friends and strangers, female and male alike; however, the gender-related subtext in Roman’s ads remains undeniable.) The superhero comic books that ran the Atlas ad campaign also featured characters that occupied the same hegemonic niche of masculinity, as they upheld society’s notions of law and order for the protection of the weaker among them.
As the accompanying examples demonstrate, cartoonists often embrace the Atlas ad as a vehicle to explore issues of masculinity and power—always with a wink and a laugh, but also with an eye toward discussing larger matters.
Of course, Atlas parodies haven’t always sought to address significant cultural issues; Marvel Comics’ humor series What Th’—?! used Atlas parodies regularly, but they were usually innocuous, like “The Insult that Made Mac a Blood-Sucking Freak!” (#23, November 1992). At the same time, other cartoonists often appropriate images from the ads piecemeal, like Matt Feazell’s use of the sand-kicking bully (below) to represent the Etruscan attack on Rome (Not Available Comics #25, 1993), or Chris Ware’s tiny appropriation of “chair-kicking resolve” in a Jimmy Corrigan story (Acme Novelty Library #1, Fantagraphics, Winter 1993). The images from the Atlas ads have been around for so long that they sometimes take on a life of their own; however, in the hands of skillful parodists, “The Insult that Made a Man Out of ÔMac’!” can effectively communicate—through the shorthand of a familiar narrative structure—sophisticated ideas.
Speaking to The New Yorker in 1993, Charles Roman—in a way, Mac’s father—said that President Bush’s comparison of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War to the sand-kicking bully of the Atlas ads made Roman feel “kind of proud” to have created the classic phrase. It’s pretty clear that neither Roman—who died July 16, 1999, at the age of 92—nor Bush was aware of, for example, National Lampoon Comics’ earlier connection of the phrase to foreign policy. It’s also clear, however, that buried within a not-so-humble advertisement was the potential for a classic comics narrative. When Mac used the insult to become a man, he also became, perhaps unwittingly, a cultural icon.
Gene Kannenberg Jr. would like to thank the many members of the commix discussion list and, in particular, Hogan’s Alley contributor Mike Rhode, for help in gathering these and many, many other Atlas parodies for the past few years—if only there were space here to run them all . . .
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #7.)