I was a 98-pound weakling — until I read this Big Idea by Justin Jordan about his comic book, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode! And just look at me now!
You can blame The Strange Talent of Luther Strode on Charles Atlas.
Despite what my joints tell me when I get up in the morning, I am not actually all that old. But I am just at the age where I can remember when comic books were a quarter and actually did have advertisements for X Ray specs, sea monkeys and UFO’s that you could build yourself. And, of course, the Charles Atlas ads.
There were a bunch of different ads that ran over the course of decades, but the one that’s really resonated is the Hero of the Beach ad. I’d be willing to bet that even if you’ve never actually seen an Atlas ad, you probably know this one: a skinny young nerd gets sand kicked in his face by a burly bully, does the Atlas workout, comes back, punches out the bully and gets the girl, who is apparently only attracted to violent thugs.
It’s an idea that has resonated in pop culture, I think, because it speaks to something a lot of people, including but not limited to teenage boys, feel; the feeling of powerless, of feeling like you are at the mercy of things you can’t fight. And the ad promises to give you enough strength and power to be able to fight back. To be the one in control.
Which I thought was an interesting thing. What if something like the Charles Atlas course worked? I mean, really worked, and made you so strong and so powerful that you could never get sand kicked in your face again. How would a person handle having that much power handed to them?
Power is a tricky business, especially when your power is basically the ability to beat the snot out of anyone you want to. Punching out the bully might be satisfying, but then what? Do you go on punching out bullies? And do you really want a girl who is only attracted to you because you can pummel people into submission? Do you start trying to fight criminals Batman style? Where do you find them?
That was the idea that was the genesis of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, where our hero orders an exercise course from the back of an old comic and finds that it gives him superpowers. And while Luther is a good kid, he’s still just a kid, and the story is about him trying to use those powers in a way that helps people rather than hurts them.
Of course, it’s also about ancient murder cults, hyperviolence, getting the girl of your dreams and the difficulty of being a costumed vigilante, but it all started with the ads in the back of comic books. So if you like the book or hate it, well, blame Charles Atlas.