The Atomic Knights

Original created by John Broome and Murphy Anderson
Second version created by Dan Mishkin and Don Heck

Co-written by Aaron Severson

The six Atomic Knights. From Strange Adventures #160 (1964); art by Murphy Anderson.

NAME + ALIASES:
Gardner Grayle, Shining Knight II

KNOWN RELATIVES:
None

GROUP AFFILIATIONS:
Seven Soldiers of Victory, Outsiders

FIRST APPEARANCE:
Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960)
Earth-One: DC Comics Presents #57 (May 1983)
As the Atomic Knight: Wonder Woman v.1 #324 (Apr. 1985)
As Shining Knight II: Silver Age Showcase #1 (July 2000)

History

First introduced in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, Sgt. Gardner Grayle was a completely average American soldier who survived World War III — the devastating nuclear war of October 9, 1986 — and found himself in a post-apocalyptic world where most plant and animal life had been wiped out. Riding giant mutant Dalmatians as steeds and clad in ancient suits of plate armor that had somehow become immune to radiation, Grayle and a handful of other survivors became the Atomic Knights, fighting to rebuild civilization. The original tales of the Atomic Knights from Strange Adventures #117–160 (1960–1964) are no longer in continuity.

In 1983, DC reintroduced Gardner Grayle as a present-day armored hero, the singular Atomic Knight. His Silver Age post-holocaust adventures were revealed to have been a computer simulation and Grayle, now possessing precognitive abilities, dedicated himself to ensuring that those apocalyptic visions never came to pass. (The continuity status of the Atomic Knights' futuristic adventures is complicated; see the Continuity Notes below.)

World War III

Gardner Grayle recruits five volunteers to fight the evil Black Baron. From Strange Adventures #117 (1960); art by Murphy Anderson.
The Atomic Knights were soon summoned to help other people in bad straits. From Strange Adventures #120 (1960); art by Murphy Anderson.
The Knights fought foes such as the water-sucking crystalline monster of the Great Salt Lake. From Strange Adventures #120 (1960); art by Murphy Anderson.
The Knights employ mutant dalmatians like horses in their protracted conflict with the Khagan of Atlantis. From Strange Adventures #138 (1962); art by Murphy Anderson.

Gardner Grayle was an Army soldier who awoke to find himself alone in a post-holocaust world. He began to recall the war, and how they took "anti-H" pills to protect against radiation. He soon met school teacher Douglas Herald who explained that plants could no longer grow, and the area was ruled by the Black Baron — who hoarded the remaining food. To escape an attack, they retreated into a museum, where they survived the effects of an "R-grenade." Grayle deduced that some nearby metal suits of armor had neutralized its deadly rays.

Gardner and Douglas decided to fight the Baron and asked for volunteers to join them in filling the six suits of armor. The volunteers included brothers Wayne Hobard and Hollis Hobard, scientist Bryndon Smith, and Douglas' sister, Marene Herald. They succeeded in storming the Baron's "castle" and liberating his food stores. Afterwards they dubbed themselves the Atomic Knights: a peace-keeping force. (Strange Adventures #117)

With the added stability, the Knights helped oversee the rebuilding of the town of Durvale. When word spread of their bravery, they were called upon to defend against all manner of radiation-spawned monsters. They were usually defeated by scientific solutions offered by Bryndon Smith. He built vehicles that allowed the Knights to travel to Earth's greatest cities — even Atlantis, which was newly exposed. Atlantis became their enemy, but Marene managed to snag some fruits and seeds from their civilization and brought them back to Durvale. (#129, 132) Note: This Atlantis has no connection to that of the mainstream DCU Atlantis (Aquaman's). Its inhabitants were advanced, warlike humans whose island kingdom was catapulted thousands of years forward in time by the explosion of an experimental cobalt bomb.

Soon they discovered that dogs (the last remaining animals on Earth) were raiding their crops. These were mutated dalmatians as large as horses, and the Knights broke them in as mounts. The dalmatians gave the Knights an advantage against the Khagan, the Atlantean king. (#138)

Often, Marene was left behind from dangerous missions. When the men went on a trip to New Orleans, she struggled to maintain morale in Durvale. (#147) She still used her armor, especially when commanding the rear-guard forces at home. (#150)

The Atomic Knights were featured on the cover for the first time in Strange Adventures #144 (Sept. 1962) and it became a longer, front-of-book feature in some issues.

Years later, the Knights guest-starred in Hercules Unbound #10–11 (1977), also set shortly after World War III. That story indicated that the Knights and Hercules existed in the same alternate future timeline as OMAC — a pre-Crisis timeline that also included Kamandi and the Great Disaster.

Nuclear Visionary

Under the care of Marene at S.T.A.R. Labs, volunteer Gardner Grayle dreams of a post-apocalyptic future. From DC Comics Presents #57 (1983); art by Alex Saviuk and Frank McLaughlin.
Gardner Grayle uses a more contemporary suit of armor to help Wonder Woman, apparently sacrificing himself in the process. From Wonder Woman v.1 #57 (1985); art by Don Heck.

In mainstream DC continuity (Earth-One/pre-Crisis), U.S. Army Sgt. Gardner Grayle was selected to participate in an elaborate computer-generated simulation, run by S.T.A.R. Labs, to determine how a completely average American soldier would respond to the aftermath of a nuclear war. Grayle was connected to a computer system that projected a fantasy scenario of such a war into his unconscious mind. Grayle's subconscious soon transformed the post-atomic nightmare into adventures of heroic determination and ingenuity (these were events of the original Atomic Knights stories). Ultimately, Grayle's mind seized control of the computer system; it had been a failed effort to start World War III by making his fantasies a reality. He was stopped with the help of Superman and reawakened, horrified at what he had done. (DC Comics Presents #57)

After awakening from the simulation, Grayle became a S.T.A.R. Labs researcher, eventually becoming a director of that organization. However, he found that he now possessed precognitive abilities. (Wonder Woman v.1 #322–323)

Fearing that his visions would come true, he stole an updated version of the armored battle suit he'd worn in his fantasy, which had been developed by S.T.A.R. for a post-nuclear environment. At the end of his first outing (which included the help of Wonder Woman), Grayle, now calling himself the Atomic Knight, was seemingly killed in destroying an alien doomsday bomb that he feared would provoke a nuclear war on Earth. (#324–325)

Post-Crisis

Outsiders v.1

Gardner laments the comrades that felt as though they were real. From Outsiders v.1 #27 (1988); art by Erik Larsen.
The Atomic Knight in new armor. From Outsiders v.2 #4 (1994); art by Paul Pelletier and Robert Campanella.

After the Crisis, Grayle reappeared seeking the expertise of the Dr. Helga Jace, an associate of the Outsiders, hoping to be cured of his precognitive abilities. Before he could begin work with Jace, Major Disaster (a stowaway on Grayle's transport) attacked and destroyed the Outsider's headquarters. (Outsiders v.1 #25) Note: This story references his origins in DCCP #57, but his prior appearances in Wonder Woman were removed from continuity by Crisis.

To make matters worse, Dr. Jace chose that time to reveal that she was an operative of the evil Manhunter organization. Jace captured Grayle and the Outsiders and placed them in stasis. While he was captive, Grayle dreamt vividly about a band of Atomic Knights a time after World War III. Even though he was only in stasis a short time, Gardner remembered every detail of these dreams as if they had been real. Looker broke the trance and Jace was killed. (#27)

In his brief time with them, he bonded with the young heroine, Windfall, but their relationship was overshadowed by the fate of the Outsiders themselves. He accompanied the Outsiders on their last mission (to Abyssia) and afterwards, Geo-Force disbanded the team. Grayle returned to S.T.A.R. Labs. (#28)

Outsiders v.2

When the Outsiders reformed later, they were framed for the murder of the queen of Markovia. Gardner saw the news footage and readied a new suit of armor to aid in their defense. Once he arrived in Markovia, he concluded that the reports were correct and he engaged his former teammates in battle. Before he could learn the truth, the Outsiders slipped away. He continued to track them down and discovered their innocence. In fact, he was the one responsible for broadcasting this fact to the world. The team split in two following this mission; Grayle did not stay with either team. (Outsiders v.2 #2-5, 11)

Instead, he stepped in again during the team's last adventure, against Eclipso. Shortly afterwards, he and Windfall were present for Geo-Force's wedding. (#24)

Infinite Crisis

A team of soldiers is activated following the devastation in the city of Blüdhaven. From Crisis Aftermath: Battle for Blüdhaven #1 (2006); art by Dan Jurgens and Jimmy Palmiotti.

The Knights continue their mission underground —  at the bunker labeled Command D. From Crisis Aftermath: Battle for Blüdhaven #6 (2006); art by Dan Jurgens and Jimmy Palmiotti.

The Atomic Knights meet Wonder Woman. From Final Crisis #3 (2008); art by JG Jones.

A new version of Gardner Grayle and the Atomic Knights, more closely modeled on the original feature, were introduced in the Battle for Blüdhaven mini-series (2006). That version of the Knights played a part in the subsequent Countdown series and in Final Crisis.

It is unclear whether the post-Infinite Crisis Grayle and Knights (who work for Command D in the ruins of Blüdhaven) were meant to be completely new characters, or a continuation of Grayle's post-Crisis adventures. The Gardner Grayle in that series still had precognitive powers.

Gardner Grayle and others involved in a project that simulated an apocalypse went on to form the Atomic Knights. They used advanced armor (derived in part from alien technology) and reported to the U.S. government. After Blüdhaven was destroyed by Chemo, the Knights were deployed to protect the survivors, some of whom were placed in cryogenic suspension in the Command D facility three miles beneath the city. The Atomic Knights succeeded in recovering Captain Atom, but their attempt to contain his power by placing him in Monarch's armor backfired horribly: Atom effectively became Monarch, and destroyed most of the rest of the city. (Crisis Aftermath: Battle for Blüdhaven #1–6)

The Knights later clashed with Firestorm in the ruins of Blüdhaven and were briefly assimilated by Brother Eye. (Countdown #25, #15) They continued to defend the area during the "Final Crisis," riding mutant Dalmatian steeds (similar to those ridden in Gardner Grayle's fantasy) that were bred in Command D. Marene Herald was killed by Mary Marvel, who was possessed by the evil Desaad (Final Crisis #2–3), while the other Atomic Knights were crushed, along with the forces of Checkmate, when Darkseid's Justifiers stormed the ruins of Blüdhaven. (#4) The Knights' steeds were killed during the battle, but the fate of the Knights is unknown.

When Tom Tressor (aka Nemesis) was imprisoned in the Global Peace Agency's bizarre Electric City, he witnessed an Atomic Knight, but its identity — or whether it was even a real person rather than a hallucination — was unclear. (Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape #1–6)

Continuity Notes

In 1976, Paul Levitz wrote an essay for The Amazing World of DC Comics #12, entitled "Earth After Disaster!" (reprinted in Showcase Presents: The Great Disaster), in which he attempted to tie together the continuity of the New Gods, OMAC, Hercules Unbound (also set shortly after World War III), the Atomic Knights and Kamandi. Although the canonicity of that essay is shaky (some of its speculations were contracted by stories published not long afterward), the Atomic Knights subsequently guest-starred in Hercules Unbound #10–11 (1977), which revealed that the Knights and Hercules existed in the same timeline as OMAC. Around the same time, Kamandi #50 (also 1977) revealed that OMAC was Kamandi's grandfather and that the future of OMAC (and thus the Knights and Hercules) became Kamandi's Earth After Disaster.

Although DC Comics Presents #57 (1983) states unequivocally that all the Atomic Knights stories are fantasies, including their encounter with Hercules (who appears briefly in one of Grayle's fantasies), the OMAC/Kamandi timeline remained a "real" alternate future of Earth-One through the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Therefore, some version of the Silver Age Atomic Knights may indeed have existed in that timeline, perhaps indicating that (as Angel Santo suggested in the letters page of DC Comics Presents #61) the Earth-One Gardner's psi-powers "gained him a view of an alternate Earth (much like some of DC's writers are supposed to be able to do)."

Even after the Crisis, Hex and History of the DC Universe #2 (1986) revealed that a nuclear war did take place in DC's post-Crisis future, albeit in the mid-21st century, not in 1986. The latter indicates that the Atomic Knights existed in that era, although they're shown wearing variations of Gardner Grayle's 1983 battle suit rather than their original armor.

Another alternate version of the Atomic Knights existed on Earth-17, first glimpsed briefly in the final issue of 52. The Multiversity Guidebook (Mar. 2015) says instead that Earth-17 is home to the Atomic Knights of Justice, a unique JLA analogue.

Apocryphal

Gardner Grayle made an appearance in The Silver Age: Showcase  (July 2000) which is difficult to reconcile with any continuity. In that story, his armor is atomic-powered, not solar, and he took the name Shining Knight (II).

Very soon after, he fought alongside Adam Strange, Batgirl, Deadman, Metamorpho, Blackhawk and Mento as the unofficial second incarnation of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. The Soldiers battled Agamemno's Injustice League on Earth. This first armor was destroyed during their adventure, and the group shared no adventures beyond that.

+ Powers

For unknown reasons, Gardner Grayle's connection to the computer simulation left him with the metahuman ability to see the future. Originally, his visions focused only on scenarios likely to result in nuclear war and could encompass several possible futures at once. However, he found this power, which he could not consciously control, both disconcerting and upsetting, and he was eager to be rid of it.

As the Atomic Knight, he wore an advanced battle suit developed by S.T.A.R. Labs for use in the wake of a nuclear war. Powered by solar cells, the suit greatly enhanced the wearer's strength, absorbed radiation, and provided significant protection from other forms of attack. It incorporated a jet pack, allowing the wearer to fly, and was armed with a powerful laser weapon.

Later versions of the suit added the ability to fire bursts of intense heat or cold and trap opponents in a stasis field.

Appearances + References

» FEATURED APPEARANCES:

  • Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 –12
  • Countdown #25, 24, 21
  • DC Comics Presents #57
  • Final Crisis #3
  • Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape #2–4
  • Hercules Unbound #10–11 (1977)
  • Millennium #5
  • Outsiders v.2 #2-5, 11, 28
  • Silver Age: Showcase #1
  • Silver Age 80-Page Giant #1
  • Wonder Woman v.1 #322–325

» SERIES:

  • Strange Adventures #117, 120, 123, 126, 129, 132, 135, 138, 141, 144, 147, 150, 153, 156, 160 (June 1960–Jan. 1964)
  • Outsiders v.1 #25–28 (1987–88)
  • Crisis Aftermath: The Battle for Blüdhaven, 6-issue limited series (2006)